Do you really believe this?

This is what my friend asks me:

The majority of sermons you submit resonate with me.  But after reading this one, I can’t help but ask the question:  “Do you really believe what you wrote?”  I know that sounds terribly arrogant to ask, and I hope you know me well enough to know I mean it in no way as an affront.  But do you really believe this?  Janet

I think Janet knows me well enough to know I’m not having a go at her. Her question is important. Here is my reply, which you will notice, drifts back into the form of a sermon! I end up talking to a Janet who has asked much more than Janet did.

Do I believe this?

I guess it depends what you mean by believe? Do you mean belief as in I accept the results of a tested, replicated experiment run according to protocols of the scientific method? I don’t believe what I have written in that way. That would be a category mistake. Replication is not possible here. There are no controlled conditions to limit variation.

In the normal course of events, that would leave me with belief either as it is used casually in popular USA/Australian religious discourse, or belief as it seems to be used in the New Testament.

 Casual religious use implies that if I believe, I assent to the proposition that this stuff is factually correct.

The New Testament usage implies much more than this. I will not merely say that I believe. I will act on that belief, and put my money where my mouth is, as we say. It means I will live out the faith that I say I put in Jesus.

As a quick answer to your question, I would say that I believe in the New Testament way. I am living my life on the expectation that the words of the Jesus tradition are meaning-full and are moving us towards that which we call God.

But do I believe in the way of a kind of intellectual assent which some of our popular traditions seem to understand?  This is what your question implies in normal everyday usage of English.

It is here that what I called the “normal course of events “does not seem to apply to the reading set for this week. The edges of our cultural paradigms, what I am calling the normal course of events, are often not well served by our usual answers and ways of thinking.  So, normally, we do not steal. In extremity, to stay alive, stealing may well be justified, and even an ethically correct thing to do.

This week’s reading  talks of expectations about the finality of history; an endpoint, perhaps, or a time when justice (Salem-Pax-Shalom in the fullest sense) really is the norm, rather than a compromised second cousin, at even the best of times. This is something for which we long, but which is far outside our experience! Justice is always a poor relation, and our post-naive understandings and expectations of life are that this is inevitable.

Israel dared to hope for more than this pragmatism, which might even be better called fatalism. But, always, we struggle to describe what we long for. Israel’s radical hope is now seen as compromised by its tribal nature and prejudice against Gentiles, for example. Its ethnocentricity is a bit embarrassing!  Our own, hopefully less insular, hopes and insights will also be found wanting in future, or so I hope.

Therefore, how could one believe, in the popular sense that this hope will happen? It is barely able to be described, and any self aware person knows their hope  is inevitably limited, compromised, and probably even contradictory at points.

And how would one talk about such a hope when the audience will have varying degrees of biblical literacy and philosophical self awareness, let alone possible paradigmatic differences in world view?

This is not the place of belief. It is the place of poetry. You will notice that I wrote the text somewhat in the form of a poem, lining by phrase, instead of in the common prose layout and cadences we might use for a sermon. For the readers, I hope, this is a hint about the content.

What I have then tried to do is to place the poem near those aha! moments we have, where we understand at last! and then, later, realise we did not fully understand at all, for now, we know more.  And at those moments, if we are self aware, we realise that this sublime moment of understanding will also one day be superseded. So I have used the device

we knew this was the place; 
the place they had always been talking about.

I tried to imply of the circularity of understanding that is echoed in Little Gidding.

We shall not cease from exploration 
And the end of all our exploring 
Will be to arrive where we started 
And know the place for the first time.

Of course for some who listen, or read, the allusion to the Exodus will entail a literal historical understanding of that event. I’m not going to change that in a sermon!. So I won’t try. But for the reader/listener who is poetically attuned, there is a hint of more, and permission to let the mind fly.


Now I will turn the question back to you!

How can you not believe this:

And they were right.
Even the great Roman Empire fell.
The Plagues killed 75 million people at least;
in just five years, a third of the population of Europe died.8
In war and famine in the last century
as many, and more, have died again.
We have dodged the bullet of nuclear war, so far,
and anyone who is not deeply afraid of the consequences of global warming9
is in denial, 
or still asleep.

This is ‘kind of’ in the area of accepted fact!

What could you think the gospel is doing if we cannot lift up our heads?!

Until then
while all these things take place—
as the permafrost melts
and the storms rage
and the sirens wail
stand up and raise your heads
because your redemption is drawing near. 

Does Jesus’ life give  you no dignity?

And what kind of cynic would I be if I did not believe this?

We are on the great journey.
We are being healed.
We have seen already
in the Christ
that justice can flow down like rivers
that the rich Zacchaeus can be remade
and that even death 
cannot extinguish the vision
of a world turned on its edge.

Even those atheists who think we can lift ourselves up by our boot straps believe in the journey; they'd leave out the Jesus bit, of course. But some of them even think Jesus was a good man. Does our faith mean nothing?

And even the atheists accept that the world will need to  be turned on its edge.
Although if they have been watching the Aussie parliament in the last week
maybe they would begin to wonder about whether we can do all this on our own!
It’s been like we co opted your Limbaugh, O'Riley,  and a few of the less evolved Republicans,
and made them Honorary Members!

Even such an atheist who thinks we will do it all
must sometimes wonder if it is beyond us to fix the world.
It will need almost unimaginable change in our attitudes as people....
We will need a new heart and a new spirit;
something in us must be completed.
For this, the world will be turned on its edge.

It is all vision, of course.
It is hope in things not seen.
But surely you experience  God touching you
and in a small way,
already turning your world on its edge!

The hope is that one day we will arrive.

God knows where,
but we will know the place,
and we will say, “This is what they were always talking about!”

And later, like many in Israel, we will decide, actually,
that this is pretty shitty, and surely God can do better than this.
As Wiesel says, “He owes us.”

I don’t’ believe this;  I’m faithing it, hoping in something unseen. 
Because if we are all there is,
and Jesus is just an example
and there is no time when we will look at the world
and what has happened to us
and say,
“This is what they were always talking about!”
fully aware that it was not
but that it is,
then God help us...

except that God won’t because
that God is good for nothing.

Maybe what I really believe is
that we are a very clever
very scared
still very very tribal
barely human animal
way out of its depth
and in deep shit with the way we have mucked up the world
which looks very like the crashing ecosystems
I have seen in more local scenarios

and if we are all there is
if there is not some teleological agency somewhere
then God help us.

Maybe, as Ian Malcolm said,
we will go and
life will go on.
But if there is nothing but us
God help us.
Normal rules don’t seem to help much here
but if we can’t imagine an endpoint
to believe in
I think we might be stuffed.

Andrew Prior
And, naturally, Janet has the right of reply! 



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