“Questions and answer, doubt and faith:
church and university”
a sermon for the 2nd Sunday of the university term
A sermon preached
“Lord I believe, help thou my unbelief” (Mk 9:24)
So - do you have doubts and questions
about God, about faith and about life -
or have you got all the answers?
And if you have doubts and questions and uncertainties,
is that a good or a bad thing?
Are doubt and faith opposites, or do they go together?
Some Christians only feel comfortable
when they have definite answers to every question,
whether it is about euthanasia or sexuality, creation or trinity,
the end of the world or how many angels can dace on the head of a pin….
There is a natural attractiveness about certainty.
It makes life a lot simpler -
there is a given set of truths, to be found in the Church or the Bible,
they are all knowable - you read them out of the text, or ask your Church leader.
Everything then becomes clear-cut - everything is either
right or wrong, true or false, Christian or anti-Christian,
leading to salvation or damnation.
On this view, doubt is of the devil, the opposite of
and to question the received wisdom is dangerous, sinful and heretical -
know those web sites where people post questions
and anyone who knows the answer posts it to the message board.
The other day I came across this:
To the question “What is the difference between
Catholic and Protestant teaching on this issue?”
one respondent had posted the following frighteningly honest answer:
“I have no idea what the difference is,
but the Protestant version is bound to be correct”
rid of doubt and questioning tends to mean getting rid of thinking -
and any chance of growing into new insights
that is then only a short step away from bigotry
“If you don’t agree with me, you’re a sinner who must be put right”
being given instructions about ascending a climbing wall.
You have all these hand and foot holds.
The instructor said that to be safe, keep three of your four
foot/hand holds anchored to the wall at all times -
only move hand or foot at any given time.
I don’t have a good head for heights -
half way up the wall I decided on an even better safety strategy
If you keep
all four holds secure at all time -
both hands and both feet firmly attached to the wall face -
you are even safer.
trouble of course is (as I discovered) you never go anywhere -
you just stay in one place.
If we want to grow in the faith we have to let go
(or at least be willing to question) some truths and understandings
if we are deepen our understanding and move on.
say this is simply to say
what is taken for granted in the field of secular study.
remember my daughter aged 7 or 8 coming home
from Primary School in Liverpool telling me that
she had been learning about a very important man called Copper Knickers.
It took a while to figure out that the name on the board was Copernicus -
If Copernicus and his successors
had stuck to the accepted wisdom of his day
and never questioned the view that that the sun went round the earth,
there would be no modern astronomy.
Indeed without the constant questioning of our current understanding of things,
there would be no scientific research at all.
you want to learn and grow in wisdom and understanding,
you have to question received wisdom -
check it out in terms of its internal coherence,
how well it explains the world and is consistency with the evidence.
students here writing up essays or experiments know
that that is how you do University -
why on earth should you do Church any other way?
should we employ our God given critical powers
to question & challenge & doubt in order to grow in secular knowledge -
and then go to Church on a Sunday and - as it were -
deposit our brain at the door and just accept whatever the authority figure says.
Is that any way to grow in faith & understanding?
and questioning are not the enemies of faith -
they are part of what is necessarily involved in the journey of faith.
Particularly when we talk about God, there is no way we can know all the answers.
am reminded of the graffiti on a Belfast wall
at the height of the troubles
“If you think you’ve found the answer to the Irish problem,
then you haven’t understood the question”
definition God is greater than our most profound thoughts -
we cannot hope to do more than see in a mirror dimly -
to claim more would be both foolish and arrogant.
If we think we have captured the truth of God without remainder
in a creed or a formulation,
that is a sure and certain indication we have got it wrong.
might as well ask an ant running over a volume
of the collected works of Shakespeare
to explain the mind of Lear or Hamlet.
in the fullness of his glory is so far beyond our vocabulary,
our understanding, we can only share hints and images of the truth -
think of it as standing around a God-shaped blank.
The blank represents God,
but he we cannot capture his essence in words.
all round this God-shaped blank,
we erect signposts pointing towards the unknowable,
unseen centre of things.
On one signpost we write the word Love, on another Justice,
on others Shepherd, Sacrifice, Father, Son, and so on.
Maybe we invite those of other Christian traditions
and perhaps other faiths traditions to erect their signposts.
Everyone uses human language
and describes God by analogy with human experience -
the images often conflict, may even refute each other.
yet if we want to understand the God shaped space in our lives,
we can do no better than look at all the signposts
and peer into the unseeable place
where all the signposts seem to converge.
man comes to the holy man or teacher
with a complaint against his neighbour.
The sage listens and finally says “You are right”
man goes off happy and vindicated,
but the neighbour then comes and puts his side of the story.
The sage listened carefully and finally says “You are right”.
wife of the sage has listened to all of this
and tackles her husband -
“I have heard what you have said to both men -
how can they both be in the right - it is not possible.”
The sage looks at here and says
“You are right”.
Its an old story told in all the major religions -
the truth is not that easy to pin down.
Theological debate should never descend
to the trading of glib megaphone certainties at an EDF/Anti Nazi league stand-off.
It’s worth remembering, in the words of Latin
Liberation Theologian Guitierez - that
“Those who change the course of history
are usually those who pose a new set of questions
rather than those who offer solutions”
(The Power of the Poor 1979, eng tr p35)
Williams at St Pauls Cathedral on Friday said
"In a world as complicated as ours has become,
it would be a very rash person
who would feel able to say without hesitation,
this was absolutely the right or the wrong thing to do,
the right or the wrong place to be,"
Which was his way into a critique
of the handling of the Iraq war.
“Lord I believe, help thou my unbelief”
I don’t read this as a plea to Christ
to get rid of our questioning our doubts or our uncertainty -
about God or the world -
rather its a plea to be with us in the walk of faith
& help us with the necessary and creative wrestling with doubt.
God does help our unbelief.
There’s much that a small child does not understand
about her or his parents -
but the child can know him or herself loved.
children of God we walk with the Lord - and - in Paul’s words -
“we know the love that surpasses knowledge” (Eph 3:19).
let us walk with the Lord on this earth,
let us seek to ask questions and ever seek
to deepen our knowledge of the Lord and his ways
finally we reach heaven’s gate -
a place of sight and light and understanding -
Cecily Taylor describes arriving in Heaven like this:
“I pulled my sack of
right up the stairs of heaven.
and shook them out, all clattering,
before the feet of God.
He smiled that I had carried them
for such a weary distance
and I could smile because it seemed
I would not need them now-
all my answers floated up
like rainbow bubbles laughing
and children ran to catch them
down the lanes of paradise”
Surely then, as at length we tread
the verge of Jordan
and reach the gates of Heaven,,
so shall we laugh at our stupidities and cry at our mistakes
as at last we recognize - not in a dim mirror but face to face -
the God who faithfully followed us through every doubting day
and at the last welcomes us
into his Kingdom of wisdom, truth & love
Order of Service
Hymn “Living God, your word has called us”
[Malcolm Archer © Kevin Mayhew NHWS 203 CCL Licence 58752]
All Age Ministry - Debbie Myhill
Hymn 138 “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God”
Minister; Let us share God’s blessing.
Adults; The peace of the Lord be with you
Young Church; And also with you.
Minister; Go in peace.
(Young people leave for their own sessions)
Readings Job 23:1-10 (p.527)
Mark 9:14-24 (p.1013)
Hymn 686 “When our confidence is shaken”
Sermon “Questions & Answers: Doing Church & University”
Hymn “God has called us to a journey”
[Nick Fawcett “Cantate Domino” 25 © Kevin Mayhew CCLI No 58752]
Prayers of Intercession
Leader: ….O Lord, hear our prayer
People (sing): O Lord hear our
prayer, O Lord hear my prayer
When I call, answer me
O Lord hear our prayer, O Lord hear my prayer
Come and listen to me.