Vancouver First United Methodist Church

If God Exists... (Part 1)

©2009 David Tinney
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Can we doubt?
First in sermon series: “If God exists…”
Preached on Sunday, January 11, 2009
By Rev. David Tinney
Text: Job 30:20-31
Theme: Doubt is not the opposite of faith but an element of faith. It is necessary for us to grow and determine what we really believe.
The story goes there were three people in a small plane: the pilot, a Boy Scout, and the world’s smartest man. Everything is going well until the plane’s engine fails and the plane starts spiraling slowly down to earth. If that were not bad enough the pilot shares even more terrible news – there are only two parachutes on board.
The world’s smartest man quickly grabs one and says as he is jumping out of the plane, “I am sorry about this, but I am the world’s smartest man and I have a responsibility to the planet.” The pilot then turns to the Boy Scout and in an act of unbelievable compassion and generosity speaks about how he has lived a long and wonderful life, that it was really his fault for not having the right number of parachutes on board, and that the Boy Scout is so young and has a whole lifetime in front of him. So he insists that the Boy Scout takes the last chute and live.
“Relax, Captain,” the Boy Scout replies. “The world’s smartest man just jumped out of the plane with my backpack.”
The world is full of extremely intelligent people making extremely stupid mistakes. We have seen that lately in politics and economics, in business and investment, in relationships and to bring it around to today’s sermon topic – we have seen really intelligent people make bad choices when it comes to their faith and their relationship with God. One of the strangest paradoxes about faith is that it is often those who are wise by worldly standards who often treat faith as folly and those who don’t have PhDs or long titles before or after their names who seem to grasp the truth of spiritual life.
One thing we all share in common is that we are in a journey and like the pilot, smart guy, and Boy Scout, that journey no matter how splendid and long it is will eventually to come to an end. Not only do we have to figure out how we are going to live together on the plane but also we have to figure out how we want the journey will end. Are we going to reach for a parachute? If so, do we know which parachute will save us? How are we going to be absolutely sure? Or are we going to forego the parachute and believe we can make it on our own?
I am beginning a new sermon series today that dares to examine that dangerous relationship between faith and doubt. I am going to begin each sermon with three words that should make all of us sitting in this room squirm a little – IF GOD EXISTS… I am going to take those three words and link them to questions that are rarely asked in a church and even more rarely spoken from a pulpit. If God exists then can I have doubts? If God exists then why is there so much suffering in the world? If God exists then why do good religious people do so many bad things? If God exists then why is there so much confusion in who God is?
This is going to be a very provocative series that should engage your brain and enlarge your heart. If you know someone who is wrestling with faith or with religion this would be a great time to invite him or her to church.
This is a series that is as relevant as it can get. I have created it from the headlines of the past few months, the books that are on the top of the New York Times bestsellers list, and from popular movies
©2009 David Tinney
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that all demand a Christian response. For instance, this summer comedian Bill Maher launched a documentary named “Religulous” which made Michael Moore look like Prince Charming. How many here have seen it? He begins with the premise that all religion is bad and then he burns two hours of video questioning, attacking, and ridiculing those who believe in the divine. I would have to say that some of the folks he chose to interview deserved some careful scrutiny but his attacks were over the top. He ends the movie with a series of violent images of destruction and then says, “Religion is the most dangerous threat facing mankind. Religion must die for mankind to live.”
Wow, those are hard words! But he is not the only one speaking them. If you were to look at the New York Times bestseller’s list over the past several months you will see names like Sam Harris, who writes in his book, “A Letter to a Christian Nation,” that religion is nothing more than a delusional salve that makes us all feel better and tricks us into offering prayers to a non-existent deity. He adds, “While religious people are not generally mad, their core beliefs absolutely are.”
Richard Dawkins echoes his thoughts in his top-of-the-charts book “The God Delusion” in which he writes, “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction. Jealous and proud of it, a petty, unjust, unforgiving control freak, a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser, a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal…” and the list of adjectives goes on and on. Not to be outdone Christopher Hitchens wrote a controversial bestseller entitled, “God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.” I think the title says it all. What we are seeing in our culture today is the rise of hard core professional doubters who will not be silent and are the radical evangelists for what is being called the New Atheism.
If you were paying attention to the news rather than the snow this holiday season you might remember a little brouhaha in our state capitol building. This year standing beside the crèche and the baby Jesus was a placard designed by atheists that read: “There are not gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.” Just when we were getting used to saying happy holidays and not Merry Christmas this shot from the atheists comes and catches us by surprise.
There will be more and they will be more articulate, more reasoned, and more energized so we need to know how to respond.
This series has already been changed twice since I announced it just before Christmas. I am going to break it in half and preach five sermons before taking a break for Lent and a short presentation of our new vision statement. Then I am going to pick the series up again after Easter and add sermons that specifically address topics that you are wrestling with in your faith journey. Through the online survey that I sent out I have already recognized the need for sermons addressing topics about Jesus being the one and only way to salvation, or does Christianity have the power to change people or is humanism just as effective. We will be putting the link to the survey up on our website so if you still would like to add your input you are more than welcome to do so. It will help in the sermons to come.
Today I would like to deal with the question, “If God exists can we have doubts?” As I said before the title is dangerous for those who believe that good Christians should never experience doubt in their faith journeys. Quite honestly we were a little nervous in the office putting the words “If God exists…” on the sign out in front for fear that people might come banging on our doors thinking we are a bunch of heathens.
When I preached a similar sermon about doubt and faith a person came up to me and asked, “How can a pastor who has dedicated his life to the church and has gone through seminary have doubts about God?” My response is simple. How can I not? How can you not? When you look at the headlines telling of assassinations, wars, ethnic cleansing, disease, and corruption don’t you wonder where God is
©2009 David Tinney
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in the mix? Even the great spiritual leaders of the past acknowledged times they called the “dark night of the soul” where they questioned and doubted. In the Disciple Bible class this past week, we learned the psalms are as full of doubts as they are of praise and that it is okay to question and lift our doubts to God.
Today’s reading comes from one of the oldest stories in existence and in it the central character named Job is consumed by confusion and doubt. Here we are centuries upon centuries later and we are still consumed by the same questions.
In my online survey that I mentioned before I started with questions about faith and doubt. Eighty six of you completed the survey. That means a little more than a quarter of the regular attending congregation answered the questions, which is good for a survey. Before I tell you the results let me describe who it was who took the time to fill in the questionnaire. Every age group was represented but the 45-64 year olds were the most active. There was one person under 17 and I thank him or her for their bravery. Again we are going to reopen the survey in case more youth would like to participate.
More women than men filled out the form at a rate of two to one. 41% of the respondents were born and raised in the United Methodist church and 40% were born and raised in other mainline Protestant traditions. That left 19% who either came from a non-protestant faith community or were beginning their faith journey for the first time.
It was not shocking to discover that the survey revealed a huge range in theology as well as religious experience. There were some who have no questions about their faith and some who are struggling with who Jesus is and how he fits into the whole idea of spiritual journey. The umbrella of grace here at First Church is indeed wide and inclusive.
When I asked, “Do you ever have questions about your faith?” the respondents were nearly evenly divided in half with 51% responding “seldom or never” and 49% responding “frequently or all the time.” Those of you 30 years and older doubted less than those 30 and younger. I found it interesting that percentage-wise women doubted significantly more than men. I am not going to presume to know what that means or to take a chance at speculating.
Those who grew up in United Methodism or in mainline Protestant traditions doubted less than those who were new to the church. 80% of those who were just beginning their journey indicated that they questioned their faith all the time.
I found it interesting the single largest source of doubt for those who were born and raised in the United Methodist Church or another mainline Protestant tradition was whether or not Jesus was the only way to salvation, closely followed by questions about biblical accuracy and the divisions caused by religions. For those who were new to the church the question that generated the most doubt was “why do Christians do so many evil things?”
With a church divided in half about whether it is right to have doubts in our faith I am going to disappoint half of you no matter where I take my stand. So let me say that there are some aspects of doubt that are extremely beneficial especially in spiritual growth.
There are times when I thank God for the wise words of theologian Paul Tillich who said, “Doubt is not the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith.”1
C.S. Lewis, one of the greatest Christian writers and theologians of modern times, believed that doubts were good in our faith development because the make us examine our faith. He writes, “If ours is an examined faith we should be unafraid to doubt. If doubt is eventually justified then we were Long before Tillich, Martin Luther once said, “Only God and certain madmen have no doubts.” I feel better already.
©2009 David Tinney
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believing that which was not worth believing, but if doubt is answered, our faith has grown stronger, it knows God more certainly, and can enjoy God more deeply.”2
I can speak from experience and say that when I was in those times of doubt, when I was journeying in those times of the dark night of the soul, when it seemed that God had moved or that my box that I was trying to trap God in was exploding that it was then I grew the most. It was when I sat in a living room with two of my favorite leaders of the church and heard them share the news that one of them was just diagnosed with breast cancer and the other with mad cow disease that I had to journey through my doubts and find God in a new place. This statement comes from a man who started his faith journey as an atheist and it was in the exploration of his doubts that he became a believer. Finally after years of searching and struggling he became one of the most powerful and insightful writers about Christianity and has helped many atheists and agnostics through to faith.
It was on a day where I was working in the hospital as a chaplain and had seven deaths back to back to back and discovered God in a place I had never found God before.
It was when I was working next to a Muslim and we start sharing our ideas about God, salvation, redemption, and obedience that I realize my box needs to be expanded and my God enlarged. In so many ways doubt is good for us.
I am reminded of the words of John Ortberg who wrote, “Sometimes doubt can do good in us. It can motivate us to study and learn. It can purify false beliefs that have crept into our faith. It can humble our arrogance. It can give us patience and compassion with other doubters. It can remind us of how much truth matters. Martin Luther, who was the champion of the importance of faith but wrestled with doubt himself, insisted that pride—not doubt—is the opposite of faith.”3
His book is simply entitled “Faith and Doubt” but he says that the most important word in the entire title is the word in the middle – “and.” He goes on to say that most people are a mix of both faith and doubt and that he is disturbed by people who claim to have all the absolute answers and no doubts to keep them truthful. He asks the question, “Can [we] be faithful and still follow truth wherever it leads? Is it possible that doubt might be one of those unwelcome guests of life that is sometimes, in the right circumstances, good for you?
I believe it is a good thing to listen to this new group of professional doubters emerging around us. They may be the unwelcomed guests in our faith journeys that actually help us find the truth that we need to grow closer to God. Let me end with the words of theologian Lesslie Newbigin.
“We live in an age that favors doubt over faith. We often speak of ‘blind faith’ and ‘honest doubt.’ Both faith and doubt can be honest or blind, but we rarely speak of ‘honest faith’ or ‘blind doubt.’ Both faith and doubt are needed, yet it is faith that is more fundamental. Even if I doubt something, I must believe there are criteria by which it can be judged. I must believe something before I can doubt anything. Doubt is to belief what darkness is to light, what sickness is to health. It is an absence. Sickness may be the absence of health, but health is more than the absence of sickness. So it is with doubt and faith. Doubt is a good servant but a poor master.”5
Doubt is a good servant and can often lead us away from false doctrines, ideas, and beliefs and bring us to the truth. Doubt is a good servant but our true master is our Lord Jesus Christ who truly revealed the truth in all the did.
1 Paul Tillich, “The Dynamics of Faith,” Harper and Row, New York, NY, 1957, p20.
2 From sermon by Adam Hamilton, “God? Conversations with an Atheist.”
3 John Ortberg, “Faith & Doubt” Kindle edition, highlight location 1830-33
©2009 David Tinney
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4 Ortberg, highlight location 99-104
5 Ortberg, highlight location 380-386

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