Friday, 20 April 2012

The world does not know us

By Peter Lockhart

“The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him.” (1 John 3:1)
On the Monday night following Easter I made a conscious decision to avoid watching Q & A which had invited Richard Dawkins and Cardinal Pell to be panel members. Both are dogmaticians and crusaders for their chosen beliefs, yet neither has much to say which appeals to my thinking or understanding about life, the universe and everything. I anticipated the show would produce the same tired diatribe between atheism and fundamentalism and contribute little to furthering humanity in our relationship with God or each other in any way.

Interestingly the ripples of the debate echoed through the Global Atheism conference held in Melbourne last week into this week’s episode of Q & A. A young woman from the audience asked the question, “Given that 76% of the participants from last week’s qanda-vote agreed that religious belief does not make the world a better place, does the panel believe that religion's blatant discrimination against members of the Australian community has finally become an unwelcome part of Australia's politics, policy & society?”

It would have been interesting to have the atheist author of “Religion for Atheists”, Alain de Botton, answer this question, but even if he or anyone else can prove that religion is good for the world it misses the point and reduces faith and belief to a function of our humanity.

Almost 2000 years ago the infant church was receiving a far more hostile response to its presence in the world. As the earliest witnesses sought to theologise the problem John wrote these insightful words, “The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him.”

It should be of little surprise to us 2000 years on “the world does not know us”. No logical argument can prove God, mind you neither, at least in my humble opinion, can any logical argument disprove God. The great theologian Karl Barth writing in the mid 20th century saw it was not simply a pointless exercise to engage in debate with atheists about the existence of God it was actually counter-productive inasmuch as it gave validity to their position.

No amount of logical and reasoned debate will lead people into a realised and enlightened relationship with God. This comes to us as a gift.

Again John writes, “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.”

We are children of God by virtue of a gift from God. I will not deny there is exclusivity to this gift, to do otherwise would be naive and the struggle about why some respond to the message of grace whilst others reject it remains a mystery to me.

Having said this I do not necessarily think there is a direct correlation between belief and salvation as if it was our belief in God that saved us. No the action of salvation comes from its author not its recipients, “See what love the Father has given us.”

Through the centuries this has been a real conundrum for Christians of all different allegiances because when any of us respond to God we are more likely to think it is the way that we do this that counts. We have a tendency to define our response and our understanding as the only right one. The result is of course the shattering of the church into the scattered fragments we see strewn across the world today.

It is a shattering and dissension that makes us an easy target for atheists and presents us with another paradox. A paradox that is found in John’s letter, “You know that he was revealed to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him.” Once I move beyond the personal confrontation with my own impiety and consider I am yet to meet someone who does not sin, even amongst my most pious of friends, I wonder what John was playing at. Is he simply setting the bar too high? Especially, that given elsewhere in his letter, he seems to be expecting the people within the church will sin.

Maybe Martin Luther’s explanation of Christians at one and the same time sinners and righteous may help us with this reality is that we can see sin and its consequences all around us. Yet despite this reality John’s words confront us with the paradox of what our lives maybe should be. There is no glib acceptance of sin as the way things should be.

Living within the conundrum and paradox of Christianity can make people of faith, no matter how pious and well meaning, appear as hypocrites and meddlers in the lives of others so what is it that we should be doing?

As sons and daughters of God, those who have been the gift of insight into God’s love for the world, we listen for Jesus and his instruction to the disciples.

In his appearance to this disciples following his death we are told by Luke Jesus, “opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.’”

The task of we who believe is to be witnesses to what God has already done in Jesus.

Repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations.

The messages of repentance and forgiveness of sins are not easy ones to share in a world that is hostile to even the notion of God’s existence, yet this is our twofold task.

Let me tackle each of these notions separately.

First, the idea of repentance. Repentance is one of our well worn pieces of Christian jargon that we can easily forget is a completely foreign concept to those who are outside the church community.

What does it mean? Well literally turning back to God, turning our faces and our life’s directions towards the one who made us.

As I have said this is a strange concept for anyone but a person who already believes that there is a God. No amount of logic or reason can help us argue this to a person who does not believe or see any necessity for belief in God.

This means that engaging in debate about God’s existence is pointless our task rather is to simply find ways of declaring the faith and hope we have, trusting that God may speak through us.

Let me give one example. The act of saying sorry to the indigenous people of Australia, in particular to the stolen generation, can be used as a parable for what it means for us to be people who turn back to God. We believe in a God who seeks renewal and reconciliation for all people on earth, for the healing of lives and of communities.

In the act of saying sorry to indigenous people the Australian government owned the wrong done and created new possibilities for community and a future together. As imperfect as this may have been and continues to be to me this is what living towards God is about: creating pathways to new possibilities in community via reconciliation.

So if turning back to God is one part of the story what does it mean to proclaim forgiveness of sin?

Well the first thing it means is to deal with the issue that many people do not particularly like the concept of sin nor do we understand it that well.

The word sin is another of those inaccessible jargon terms that can evoke all sorts of responses.

On the ABC Religion and Ethics website one person commented something along the lines that telling children that they were sinners was tantamount to child abuse.

Depending on how the child is told this, when and by whom the person who put the comment up may in fact be right but this does not mean that sin is not a pervasive and difficult issue that all of us, including children, face as human beings.

For me sin is about being in discord with how we are meant to live in God’s creation with one another. Often we reduce sin to the things we do wrong but this glosses over the depth of the problem. The things we do wrong are more like the symptom of the bigger problem.

Declaring forgiveness of sin then to people who do not understand the concept invites into the world of parables again.

Consider the story we are constantly sold in our Western culture that if we have more money and own more things we will be happier. In his book, The Great Disruption, Paul Gilding quotes a number of studies that indicate that this is not actually the case and says that once people have reached a certain level in which their needs are met having more money and more stuff does not actually make us any happier. Moreover, this continued delusion that having more will make us happier has negative consequences on the environment and the culture.

This is what sin is. It is about living in ways which deceive us to what our lives are about. It is always easier to talk about sin as those gross things that other people commit, like theft and murder, than deal with the complexity of our lives which are almost constantly out of kilter with God.

The hope of Christianity that we are called to declare is that in Jesus we are forgiven for our inability to live constructively and faithfully as God’s people in this world and that this forgiveness is to be is “to be proclaimed in his name to all nations”.

None can put parameters on the extent of God’s grace, all we can do is proclaim this good news as we have been called to proclaim it and place our trust in God.

The answer as to why some will respond to the proclamation of God’s love and others do not, does not seem to have any logic to it in my mind, it remains a mystery. A mystery that should be no surprise to any of us because for 2000 years there have been people who simply do not know us nor know or understand anything about the God we proclaim.

Yet this does not mean we simply take a back seat and leave our faith on idle for we are witnesses to this God who loved the world so much that in Jesus he became one of us and who has opened our minds so that we too might share the good news and mystery of our faith, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”

1 comment:

  1. Great, Peter.
    Very helpful.
    May draw on some of these ideas this weekend!