On Believing Impossible Things
Lent 2: 1st March, 2015
Rev'd Dr Hugh Kempster, Vicar of St Peter's, Eastern Hill
Gen. 22:1-18; Ro. 8:31-37; Mark 9:2-10
'Let's consider your age to begin with,' [said the White Queen to Alice] 'How old are you?'
'I'm seven and a half exactly'.
'You needn't say "exactly"', the Queen remarked: 'I can believe it without that. Now I'll give you something to believe. I'm just one hundred and one, five months and a day.'
'I can't believe that!' said Alice.
'Can't you?' the Queen said in a pitying tone. 'Try again: draw a long breath and shut your eyes.'
Alice laughed. 'There's no use trying', she said: 'one can't believe impossible things'.
'I dare say you haven't had much practice', said the Queen. 'When I was your age, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast'.
- Lewis Caroll, Through the Looking Glass, ch. 5
One of the characteristics of religious belief is that it cannot be empirically proven. It is, by definition, a matter of faith. Soren Kierkegaard, the nineteenth-century Danish theologian and philosopher, goes one step further. Not only are our religious beliefs unable to be proven, they are absurd: "The Absurd" he writes, "or to act by virtue of the absurd, is to act upon faith ... I must act, but reflection has closed the road so I take one of the possibilities and say: This is what I do, I cannot do otherwise because I am brought to a standstill by my powers of reflection." Kierkegaard, Journals (1847). Take the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation, for example, belief in the eternal Word made flesh. Leaving aside the impossibility of proving God's existence; the Word, the one who is eternal, beyond time, surely cannot be at the same time limited by historical existence. Logically this is impossible, absurd even. And yet this impossibility lies at the heart of our faith as Christians.
And what's more, in addition to seemingly undermining the laws of logic, there are serious risks in believing six impossible things before breakfast. Most ISIS jihadists have a faith commitment too. What makes their absurdity any different from ours? How do we distinguish good faith from bad faith? The Bible doesn't always help. Indeed today's story of Abraham and Isaac is a veritable text of terror. What kind of God tests his faithful servant by saying to him: "Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you." The tale has a happy ending (except for the ram caught in the bush) but there are seriously mixed messages here, especially as we reflect on the prevalence of family violence in our world. It is a text that needs to be taken with caution.
One conclusion to the dilemma is that no-faith is the answer. Many today lament with the Roman philosopher, Lucretius: tantum religio potuit suadere malorum 'how great is the evil that religion has persuaded humanity to perpetrate'. Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion (2006) tells the horrific story of a six-year-old Jewish boy, Edgardo Mortara, who in 1858 was legally seized by the papal police and dragged off to a house in Rome for the conversion of Jews and Muslims, never to live with his parents again. We have our own stories of the stolen generation here in Australia, and the church's involvement in this terrible injustice, as well as a string of horrific tales of abuse that the Royal Commission into child abuse has brought to light.
But atheism is no ultimate solution to the evil and injustice in our world. Atheistic governments seem to be as tempted by corruption as religious ones. And logically, the assertion that there is no God is just as much a statement of faith as the assertion that there is. The philosopher William James in his 1895 lecture "The Will to Believe" famously argued that the decision to believe only what concrete evidence supports is itself a 'passional decision'. Such evidentialists place a high priority on attaining certainty and avoiding error, but miss the possibility of gaining truth that lies beyond the material and evidential.
Spiritual experience and divine revelation are not things that can be empirically measured. But they are as real as falling in love. We can only truly understand such things by experiencing them, they are a gift of grace, not something we can necessarily collect or measure. And the impact such experiences have on our life are as powerful as, dare I say more powerful than, the most robust logic. The mystery of this truth is poetically portrayed in the gospel story of the transfiguration. Peter, James and John accompany their Lord up a high mountain, and he is transfigured before them. Elijah and Moses appear in a vision, and then a voice from the heavens proclaims: "This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!" The experience transforms the faith of the disciples.
After such mystical experiences it becomes easier to believe in one or two, even six impossible things before breakfast. The spiritual takes on a palpable reality. We wake up to a new way of seeing life, of understanding our place in the world. In his Lenten study group yesterday, Fr Graeme shared a beautiful quote from the Lutheran pastor Aub Podlich: "When the unseen Word joins forces with the fickle flesh, then it comes to this: a God with aching feet! There is no miracle in such mergers when ordinary and special meet. Such meldings are the very ordinary-special world in which we live. Rather still, the miracle is the eye that sees God walking by in dusty shoes" Australian Images (1985).
This Lent, may you catch a glimpse of the transfiguration miracle; the miracle of seeing God; the simple, ordinary, extraordinary miracle of the Incarnate God, timeless and yet in our midst. And may this vision, this insight, inspire you into works of mercy and compassion and love.
The Lord be with you ...
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St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.