This Sunday, the 7th Sunday after Pentecost, I am presenting the message at Dover UMC again. The Scripture readings for this Sunday are Genesis 22: 1 – 14, Romans 6: 12 – 23 and Matthew 10: 40 – 42.
Just what is the right thing to do? This, of course, is a question that has been asked by each generation and will be asked by each generation to come. Now, there are some who would say that right and wrong are relative; others say that the ability to discern right from wrong is somehow encoded in our genes; and there are those who tell us that there is a physical law which governs the concept of right and wrong.
If right and wrong are relative to particular places and times, i.e., if something such as slavery can be right 100 years ago but wrong today, then we will have a very difficult time explaining our history and we will have a very hard time deciding what to do in the coming years.
If the ability to discern right and wrong is encoded in our genes, then we are looking at a Pandora’s Box which, if opened, will create more havoc and destruction than anything that was in the original box. The same could be said if the notion of right and wrong are somehow governed by the laws of nature.
The other possibility is that there are clear distinctions between right and wrong and these distinctions can be taught. The question arises as to when and where should they be taught and who should teach them? And what happens when what one person teaches or is taught comes into conflict with the teachings of another?
Now, I started writing this message before the release of the second portion of Pew Forum’s Religious Landscape Survey, which dealt with the extent of religious beliefs and practices as well as the impact of religion on society. The first part of this survey, released in February, showed that many Americans switched their religious affiliations at least once in their life (see “Questions from the Religious Landscape”). Two things that came out of that particular report is that many of the mainline churches, including the United Methodist Church, are losing members and that one out of every six individuals who responded indicated that they did not belong to an organized religion. In other words, people believe but they do not belong. And they are searching for the right place to belong, the place where what they believe fits in.
They are searching because they are confused about God and what they believe. They see churches of all religions whose words and pronouncements do not match what is in their hearts and minds and the Holy Scriptures of each religion. This is, in part, what the second part of the Pew Study tells me.
In the second report, the vast majority of Americans (92%) believe in God, 74% believe in life after death, and a majority says that their religion is not the only way to salvation. On the surface, this is good news. But when you look beneath the surface, things do not appear to be that good. 21% of self-identified atheists said that they believe in God or a universal spirit with 8% “absolutely certain”. If one person out of every five says that they believe in something which by definition they cannot believe in, what does that say about the other results of this study? Other results of this survey are, for me, equally disturbing and confusing.
Many say that the results of this study indicated that we are either becoming more religious tolerant or we don’t completely understand what it is that we believe. The results suggest that we do not know the fundamental teachings of our own particular faith. And this fundamental misunderstanding of our faith is clearly indicated in other studies.
In a recent report, sixty percent of Americans could not identify five of the Ten Commandments and 50% of high school seniors thought that Sodom and Gomorrah were married. Three-quarters of the American populace believe that “God helps those who help themselves” comes from the Bible. Though it is biblical sounding, it comes from Poor Richard’s Almanac, a book definitely not one of the four Gospels and it actually conflicts with the basic message of Scripture.
Don’t ask too many Americans to identify the four Gospels because only one-half can name more than one of those books. And only one-third of the populace can tell you who delivered the Sermon on the Mount. (See http://www.usatoday.com/news/opinion/2007-04-29-oplede_N.htm?csp=34)
Another survey (http://www.theologicalstudies.citymax.com/page/page/1573625.htm) showed that less than one out of every ten believers possess a biblical worldview as the basis for his or her decision-making or behavior. And when given thirteen basic teachings from the Bible, only 1% of adult believers firmly embraced all thirteen as being biblical perspectives.
In the June 17, 2008, issue of Christian Century, Barbara Brown Taylor wrote about the “Introduction to World Religions” course that she taught at Piedmont College (“Faith Matters”). The course spends five weeks studying each of the world’s major religions. At best, only the basic information can be covered but it is enough to often change the thinking of many of the students. Students who completed the course indicate that they feel more at home in the world, they are less frightened by religious differences, and they are more informed and perhaps better equipped to wage peace instead of war.
But, when it comes to section covering Christianity, there are some disturbing results. Until they took the course, students said that they never noticed that the nativity story in Matthew was different from the nativity story in Luke and that Mark and John have no such stories. They never imagined that the first Christians did not walk around with a copy of the New Testament in their pockets. In fact, they have no concept of how the books of the Bible were assembled. Most of the students assumed that Paul was one of the disciples and that was how he gathered the information that he used to write his letters. And no one told them about Constantine, Augustine, Benedict or Martin Luther. They have no idea that there are branches to the tree of Christianity. For most students, nothing happened during the centuries between Jesus’ resurrection and their own profession of faith.
Now, from my own understanding of the learning process, this is entirely understandable. When you are presented with information that conflicts with information that you already have, the new information is often not processed beyond the moment. When it comes time to recall the information, you fall back on the old stuff rather than the new material. This is true whether you are studying chemistry or religion. And for most people, their last true class in religion was their confirmation class; so they are essentially junior high students when it comes to religion.
When you compare Dr. Taylor’s results and those of other studies that showed a similar Biblical illiteracy, the results of the Pew Study take on a new meaning. In the end, it means that we often don’t know what it is that we say we know. And if we don’t know or understand, then our belief will be weak. As one commentator noted, religion in America is 3,000 miles wide and three inches deep (see the “Americans: My faith isn’t the only way”). The tolerance of other religions that everyone says this study indicates is based more on weak beliefs than on a true understanding of each other.
As my colleague Henry Neufeld noted,
While I celebrate tolerance, I’m disturbed by the tendency to identify tolerance with weak beliefs. Unfortunately, that is what is happening. People become tolerant by becoming less committed. The article refers to this as “humility,” but it doesn’t seem so to me. Humility in one’s beliefs would require one to have some beliefs, but to admit that one might be mistaken and to be open to correction. The particular evidence for this is those who try to keep the label “evangelical” while altering the definition.
I would prefer a society made up of people with strong beliefs, who were willing to defend those beliefs, but were also determined to do so respectfully, and to respect–not agree with–the beliefs of others.
As one last note, let me add that I think this is the attitude that fosters hate speech codes. The tolerant in this sense are not really tolerant. Rather, they are tolerant of those who agree with them that their religious ideas don’t matter all that much. They are conformists, but they conform to a culture of apathy and indecision. Thus when they encounter someone who doesn’t fall within that culture, they feel justified in suppressing that person’s expression. (From “Good News and Bad News on Religious Tolerance”
The problem is that we have studied religion, and especially Christianity and Methodism, as if it were a disease for which we must be vaccinated. And once we are vaccinated, we are immune and we no longer have to worry about the material.
But, if we understand what it was that we say we are, perhaps we would be better off. When we study history, it is often with the idea of finding out who did what, when it was done and where it was done. We study the Bible as if it were a historically or scientifically based document because of that approach.
The ancients were not particularly concerned with same sort of facts. They were more concerned with the why. If we began reading the Bible like our ancestor’s ancestors did, then it would come to life and it would have more meaning for us. The Bible is an incredible description of other people’s relationships with God that was recorded so that we could understand our own relationship with God.
But changing the approach by which we learn often comes with a price; you begin to question things. And there are those who tell you that if you question even one fact in the Bible, you will begin questioning others parts of the Bible and suddenly the whole thing will become irrelevant. But there is another possibility; to question your faith is not to disown it but to claim it with a deeper passion, joy, and conviction (adapted from The Phoenix Affirmations – A New Vision for the Future of Christianity by Eric Elnes).
And I believe that God will allow us to question what He asks us to do or what He is doing. The Book of Job is about one’s man questioning of God. All Job wants is a fair hearing and, in the end, that is what he gets. We are reminded that many of the so-called righteous people associated with Job’s story want him to accept the notion that he, Job, did something wrong. And Job will not do that; he will not go quietly. As Henry Neufeld wrote, Job was willing to fight for what he believed and we should be willing to do so as well. It does not make us a lesser person and it does not confer some sort of apostate status on us; it makes us better believers.
The Old Testament Story for today (Genesis 22: 1 – 14) can be read one of two ways. Either Abraham followed God’s dictates blindly or he trusted in God because of what God had done in the past. As many translations tell us, God was testing Abraham. Had Abraham learned the lessons that had brought him to that time and place? Was he going to sacrifice his only son, the sign of the future that God had promised would be Abraham’s? God does not want us to blindly follow Him but to go where He directs us and to do what we are asked to do because we understand.
Glen Clark wrote, in I Will Lift Up My Eyes,
The first lesson God gives us in training our will is in making us go halfway with Him. He first puts us through a series of disciplines to see if we are worthy to make His team. After this lesson is learned we discover that there are many many times that God goes all the way with us. Over and over again He gives us far more than we have any right to ask. We call this “His Grace,” which goes so much farther than “His law” requires that He should go. God’s mercy goes so much farther than mere human justice goes.
And then there are many times when God give us the opportunity to go all the way with Him. He did that with Job. He did it with Abraham. He used it as a school for many of His greatest saints and leaders. One of the great privileges He may give to you – if He is preparing for you great leadership – is the opportunity sometime of going all the way with Him.
As Paul points out in his letter to the Romans, especially what we read today (Romans 6: 12 – 23), if we choose to stay where we are, if we choose not to learn, then we are condemned to a life of sin. If we, like Abraham, choose to follow God and walk the path that God wants us to walk, then we will have the life that we seek. But we cannot walk the path that God would have us walk unless we are willing to open our minds as well as our hearts.
So we are back to the original question, just what is the right thing to do? How will we every know or find out what it is that God wants us to and what the right thing to do is? The prophet Micah told us that God has shown us what to do.
But he’s already made it plain how to live, what to do, what God is looking for in men and women.
It’s quite simple: Do what is fair and just to your neighbor,
be compassionate and loyal in your love,
And don’t take yourself too seriously—
take God seriously. (Micah 6: 8 – The Message)
Second, we need to seriously reconsider how the early Christians, our spiritual ancestors, lead their lives and brought Christianity from a small group in the Holy Land to a world encompassing movement. When Christianity began, there was no New Testament. And even if it had existed at the beginning of the movement, most of the people would not have been able to read it. And if they could read, books were very expensive.
But they told others the stories they had been told and they lived their lives according to those stories. They lived a life in which they loved God with all their heart, their mind, their soul and strength and they loved their neighbor as they loved themselves. It became very easy to see that when a law, secular or sectarian, contradicted the teachings of Jesus, such laws were suspect.
And Jesus reminds that it can begin with the simplest of acts, to give a drink of water to a thirsty person. It is time that we remember what it is that we say we are, to go back to school (as it were) if need be, and then to go out into the world and do what is right and just to bring the Gospel message to the people.