Is There a God?

“Life’s Big Questions: Is There A God?” Bob Ryder

Proverbs 1:7 – The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.

Psalm 14:1 – “Fools say in their hearts, ‘There is no God.” They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds; there is no one who does good.

Thomas Jefferson – The Declaration of Independence – “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Jim Palmer “No matter how bad it gets, we have stories embedded in our psyche that tell us there is hope and love. If you go deep enough, you will find them.”

Is there a god?  It’s worth taking a moment as we begin to recall that people have been persecuted and even killed for professing “the wrong” answer, indeed for considering the question. There are still people and institutions in the world – probably in our very town – who would ostracize us for having unorthodox theological opinions.  So, here’s appreciating our humble little community.  Every congregation including this one has its flaws and shortcomings, but whatever ours may be, together we create a space to consider important questions honestly.  For anyone who wants to explore the meaning of life and try to live with purpose and authenticity, that’s a blessing.

So, is there a god?  The answer, I think, depends on at least two important factors: what we mean by the word “god,” and what we regard as evidence to persuade us one way or another.  The simple fact that the question is so intriguing and has inspired such a wide range of responses might suggest that the only thing we can know for sure is that we can’t know for sure, at least this side of an Armageddon.  That’s one meaning of faith.  The question has occurred to people in various forms since the beginning of human civilization.  Why are we here?  Where did we come from?  Who’s in charge?  All are variations on a theme.  Obviously, there’s much more history and philosophy around the question than we could even begin to summarize this morning, so I won’t try.  But if you’re interested in a thoughtful book that offers a lot in one manageable volume, consider reading Karen Armstrong’s “The Case for God.”  She’s a brilliant scholar and she makes a lot of detailed, complex material nicely accessible.  For our part, the M.O. for this “Big Questions” series is to be more conversational than lecture, so I’ll share a few aspects of my thinking and invite you to do likewise.  As you might expect, let us agree to share and listen respectfully without judgement or debate.  This isn’t an occasion to pontificate or persuade.  Please listen and speak as you would want to be heard and spoken to.  Okay?

My own thinking on whether or not there is a god has changed a lot over my life. I didn’t give it much thought until I began attending a Presbyterian church at the invitation of friends when I was about 14.  Unaware that my real motivation was a lot more about social acceptance than theology, I was a true believer for several years, still without giving much critical thought to my faith.  I suppose you could say I understood the basic internal logic of Christianity and allowed that insulated clarity to foster a sense of certainty that God (capital G”) was real.  “That’s what good people believe, and I’m a good person.” So…

Well years go by if you’re paying attention you see some really good people suffer awful misfortune, and you see some really awful people get away with murder and even prosper for it.  You get more education and start to see the world more and more scientifically and suddenly you have reasonable doubts about the very tidy theological explanations for how the world really works you once knew to be absolutely true.  Propositions that “cosmic scales of justice will balance at the end of history” and that “God has a plan that our limited minds can’t comprehend” start to seem… fantastic.

Human nature has a tendency to regard itself as exceptionally important, individually and collectively.  Hebrew and Christian theology often refer to humanity as the pinnacle of creation, made in the image of the divine and granted supremacy to use the world as a resource for our survival and comfort.  How convenient is that?  I get the temptation to think that way.  Humans certainly do dominate the planet.  If you’re going to perpetrate the kind of abuse on others such power facilitates, it’s easier on the conscience to suppose it was meant to be.  But scientifically, it’s clear that humans are at the top of the food chain because the Earth’s climate has been warm and stable enough for the last few hundred thousand years to let evolution select primate genetic mutations for three very specific kinds of intelligence.  We have fairly strong capacities for logic, for abstraction, and for inferring the thoughts and emotions of others – which is to say social intelligence.  Those three entirely biological factors have allowed homo sapiens to cooperate and innovate to the point where we can build vast cities, travel anywhere in the world in a day, invent medicine to cure or at least contain most of the illness that kill us before we reach old age, grow enough food to feed ourselves by the billions, split the atom, share almost all the information that has ever been recorded at the speed of light, and wage war at a scale that could destroy most life on the planet.

Evolution is a trial and error process – it has no foresight.  So human domination is not without its problems.  Moving out of the jungles to the savannahs, there were advantages in changing our bodies to walk upright, but that plays hell on the lower back.  And trying to deliver a baby through a pelvis designed for upright walking – you have to go into labor while its head is still really small and make a brain with a lot of surface area folded up in a little space.  And about all that logic and empathy – we have pattern seeking minds, which is good because there’s a ton of opportunity in finding patterns and then figuring out how to replicate them and manipulate them.  Every human activity from agriculture to economics to ecology, from medicine to music, psychology to physics, from architecture to zoology is about understanding and manipulating patterns.  The drawback is that we tend to find patterns even when there are none.  Likewise, with our social intelligence we tend to infer motives even when there are none. And patterns or no patterns, we tend to interpret our surroundings in ways that confirm our biases.  I’ve read a lot of books in my life, and I don’t know of any sentence that gave me greater pause than when I read that Jane Goodall observed chimpanzees gesturing aggressively at storm clouds.  Think about that for a moment.

Is there a god – an entity, a personality who is in charge, subtly influencing history and personally invested in our comings and goings.  I like the idea, it’s certainly comforting and even flattering. But so much of religion is obviously just a means of reading into the environment what we know how to look for and how we prefer to understand our behavior.  And of course, none of that disproves the existence of a god, but it sure casts doubt on some of our reasons for believing.

I suppose the notion that still keeps me interested and curious about spirituality are the experiences of justice and compassion.  It’s the example of people like Malala Yousafsai and Martin Luther King, Jesus of Nazareth and Mohandas Gandhi that invite me to think that we’re invited to something more than we’ve yet achieved.  It’s the generosity of neighbors who don’t have much but still share, it’s the inclination so many people exercise to set aside their own needs for the well-being of others.  Justice and charity and courage seem to me somehow – substantial.  Where do they come from?  I remember learning about the concept of intrinsic value, which regards other beings from the perspective of their own needs and experience.  An oak tree or a blue whale or a banana slug or a lilac plant isn’t to be evaluated for what it might be able to provide for me.  It has its own value to itself and to the whole of the ecosystem where it lives.  It’s sort of the antidote to the concept of stewardship in which the world is ours to manage for our own benefit.  It’s hard to dismiss the concepts of justice and community as just made up notions that have no ultimate meaning.  It’s hard to believe the world is just a zero-sum game where the most cunning and brutal survive at the expense of those with kinder inclinations.  I choose not to believe that.  I choose to admire and try to emulate the example of those who value the needs of others as highly as their own, who look out for those who are vulnerable and confront the abuses of the powerful.  And here’s the thing, I can’t articulate why I find those ideals so worthy, so substantial.  Where do they come from?  Is there a god?  Are those principles just woven into the fabric of reality like gravity and the speed of light?  I don’t know, but I have enough faith in them – whatever their source – that I try to shape my living to cooperate with them as best I can for the moment, and better with as much time as I’m allowed to practice.

So, my question to you is this…  What is an experience that made you change your thinking about religion? For better or worse, what has happened to you – what have you endured or discovered or experienced – that has caused a change in the way you think about the existence and/or nature of god?  Take a moment or so to consider what you might like to share, and we’ll pass the microphone.