At What Point?

These are my thoughts for the 2nd Sunday in Lent, 8 March 2009.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Genesis 17: 1- 7 , 15 – 16, Romans 4: 13 – 25, and Mark 8: 31 – 38.


Two questions have come up that lead me to see the Scriptures for this Sunday in perhaps a different light. First, as I watch my new grandchildren grow, I have to wonder at what point do we begin to develop a conscious and when do we begin to develop an explanation for what goes on in this world.

First, at what point do we begin thinking about God or some other superior being in our lives? Second, as I look at what is happening in this country right now and ask “at what point will we understand that what used to work probably doesn’t work anymore?” I think these questions are related simply because when we lock ourselves in a particular way of thinking, we find ourselves trapped by that thinking.

When Paul is writing to the Romans about the law, he is, I believe, speaking of that type of thinking. As Paul notes, if strict adherence to the law was the sole determinant in salvation, then there would have been no reason for Abraham to even think of the covenant that God made with him. But the law is, by nature, designed to restrict, not create. There have been attempts to create solutions through the law but, in the end, they often are more restrictive than creative.

If we are not willing to think beyond the limits of the law, if we are not willing to think, as it were, “outside the box”, we will never be able to find solutions to the problems that vex and perplex us. It is interesting to note that we are not always so willing to look beyond our normal boundaries for the solutions to our problems and we ridicule and criticize those who might offer solutions.

On October 13, 1920, in the “Topics of the Times”, the editorial board of The New York Times wrote,

…After the rocket quits our air and really starts on its longer journey [to the moon], its flight would be neither accelerated nor maintained by the [proposed by Goddard solid rocket based on] explosion of the charges …. To claim that it would be is to deny a fundamental law of dynamics, and only Dr. Einstein and his chosen dozen, so few and fit, are licensed to do that.

… That Professor Goddard with his “chair” in Clark College and the countenancing of the Smithsonian Institution does not know that relation of action and reaction, and of the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to reach — to say that would be absurd. Of course he only seems to lack the knowledge ladled out daily in high schools.

… As it happens, Jules Verne, who also knew a thing or two in assorted sciences … deliberately seemed to make the same mistake that Professor Goddard seems to make. For the Frenchman, having get his travelers to or toward the moon into the desperate fix of riding a tiny satellite of the satellite, saved them from circling it forever by means of explosion, rocket fashion, where an explosion would not have had in the slightest degree the effect of releasing them from their dreadful slavery. That was one of Verne’s few scientific slips, or else it was a deliberate step aside from scientific accuracy, pardonable enough in him as a romancer, but its like is not so easily explained when made by a savant who isn’t writing a novel of adventure. (Editorial comments, The New York Times, 13 January 1920)

It should be noted that the Times did print a retraction of their comments on 17 July 1969, two days before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin first walked on the moon,

A Correction

On Jan. 13, 1920, “Topics of the Times,” and editorial-page feature of The New York Times, dismissed the notion that a rocket could function in vacuum and commented on the ideas of Robert H. Goddard, the rocket pioneer, as follows: 

“That Professor Goddard, with his ‘chair’ in Clark College and the countenancing of the Smithsonian Institution, does not know the relation of action to reaction, and of the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react – to say that would be absurd. Of course he only seems to lack the knowledge ladled out daily in high schools.”

Further investigation and experimentation have confirmed the findings of Isaac Newton in the 17th Century and it is now definitely established that a rocket can function in a vacuum as well as in an atmosphere. The Times regrets the error.

It can be said that faith is the belief in what we cannot see and reason is the belief in what we can see. And it is necessary to have both if one is to have a complete and full life. I have written on this point several times in the past (see “Faith and Reason in the 21st Century”, “The Crisis between Faith and Reason”, and “Just a Thought”). In that last reference, I wrote

If you lead a life based solely on empiricism and have no faith, you will lead a life without vision. You may be successful in what you do but you will not know where you are going or if you are ever going to get there.

If you lead a life based solely on faith but ignore the world around you, you will have a vision of what you want to be and where you want to go but you will not have the means to fulfill your vision.

Life is both faith and reason – the day-to-day activities of life hand-in-hand with one’s vision of the future. 

But we seem to live lives that are either solely faith-based or reason-based and I don’t believe that we can extend our reach if we limit our lives that way.

I know there are those out there who absolutely, positively refuse to acknowledge the existence of some sort of superior being but they have to believe in something. I recall reading a while back that many of those who proclaim themselves to be atheists are really not such because, to truly be an atheist, you cannot believe in anything and that is a very difficult task. And if you have no belief in abstract things, how do you explain good and evil? How do you explain the violence and greed in this world without evoking some esoteric, abstract thought?

Now, if good and evil are inherent in each one of us and are genetic markers in our DNA, then we are treading into some very difficult areas of discussion; areas that I am not prepared to delve into right now. So, for the sake of argument, let us suppose that good and evil are abstract concepts determined in part by some nebulous form that we shall call the soul. Now, if we have a soul, then there must be something that formed that soul and which provides the basis for deciding what is good and evil. For me, that is God; others may argue for some other supreme being but every time that I look at their explanations, I cannot help but think that I am seeing in God in some other form.

Now, it is clear that Abram had some knowledge of God; otherwise he would not have responded to the call to move from his homeland to another land far away. And it must also be realized that this move was based on the vague promise that Abram, soon to be called Abraham, would become the father of many nations. If Abram was any type of pragmatist, he would have calmly pointed out that he was too old and Sarai, his wife, was way beyond child-bearing years. But it was his faith in God that allowed him to make the move, a move from the comfort of his life and family.

We find ourselves too often trapped within that comfort zone, unwilling to try new things, unwilling to venture into new areas, unwilling to cast off our old view of life and try to see life in new ways. Peter, upon hearing Jesus describe his coming death on the cross, tells Jesus that it will not happen. But Jesus is quick to point out how Peter is trapped in the framework of present thinking and not able to move beyond the boundaries of such thinking. What Christ offers us is a change to see the world in a different way; to see people in a different light.

There are some who dismiss one’s belief in Christ as the Savior as hopeless superstition but I have yet to seem them offer an alternative that works. The problem is that the Christianity that everyone criticizes today is not the Christianity that changed the world 2000 years ago and the sooner we realize that, the sooner we will move beyond the law and its restrictions and into the creativity that is mankind.

It is a change that must begin now. It is not something that we can put off nor is it something that we should ridicule and criticize. It has been said that when Army engineers obtained the V-2 rockets that Germany was using to blast away at England, they were surprised to find out that the technology that developed the rockets came from America. We had ignored the very creation of the technology that now so dominates our lives. We closed our minds to the future and did not open them up until weapons of mass destruction came raining down from above.

When will we begin looking to the future for the answers instead of relying on what happened in the past? When will we begin using the skills and talents that we have to build instead of destroying? This country and this globe are in the midst of the worst economic troubles since the 1930’s; the old ways don’t work and new ways are needed. We cannot find the solution in the past nor can we say that new ideas don’t work.

We need a new starting point, a new common reference. No longer should we spend our time worrying about ourselves and trying to insure that we have everything we need. Let us begin by thinking about the other person, the person who does not anything and try to figure out how we can make sure that they have everything they need as well. Let us not try to put names on this; let us find the solution. When Jesus came to the Galilee and began his mission, he offered promise and hope, not to those who were in power and whose only interest was in staying in power, but to those who were forgotten and cast aside, those who society would just as soon live without.

We have turned our society into a virtual mirror image of that society of two thousand years ago. We only care for the rich and powerful and we seek ways to become rich and powerful. Those who are rich and powerful only seek more riches and more power. It has become a contest to see who has the most and it is a contest that no one can win. Our society is awash with individuals whose sole purpose in life seems to be to make sure that anyone who disagrees with their perverted and selfish ideas is criticized and ridiculed. These fools are more interested in the days long past instead of the days to come.

At what point shall we say that enough is enough? At what point shall we be like Jesus and say to Peter, “get thee behind me, Satan! Your days are over” At what point shall we look to the future and begin to dream again, dream of ways of moving beyond the present.

To move beyond the present is a very scary thing to even think about, let alone take the first steps that would make it possible. But Abram heard the promise and he took the steps that would lead to this day. As we walk this journey, let us look to the point ahead, not the points behind.

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