June 27, 2010
The Fourth Sunday after Trinity
Intent: God as Love
St. Alban Sunday
Atheists are all the rage these days. Most of us have seen them displayed at Barnes and Noble or Borders, caught a morning-show interview with them or heard them referenced at Starbucks between friends grateful to have discovered champions for their skepticism.
Richard Dawson’s The God Delusion has sold 8.5 million copies, spending a year on the New York Times Best Seller List. Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great became a number-one New York Times Best Seller. Bill Maher’s film Religulous was the highest-grossing documentary of 2008. And a few more.
New Atheism is hot right now … and lucrative. It also has encouraged a common-ground ecumenical response. Muslims, Christians and Jews are standing together. Of course, to counter the atheist agenda, there have been almost equally as many books written to counter their claims. In the litany of interfaith responses, Rabbi David Wolpe’s stands out. He’s known as a beloved but controversial leader in the Jewish community. Named Newsweek’s “#1 Pulpit Rabbi in America,” he’s spiced up his temple by holding Friday night “rock ’n’ roll” services, inviting Will and Grace producer David Kohan to preach and questioning the historicity of the exodus … all at the Passover service! A service that is somewhat to the significance of Easter for us.
Rabbi David’s book Why Faith Matters is his response to the new atheism agenda. He feels their discussion of religion has completely missed the positive benefits of religion. He cites the apologetic power of religion’s gifts to society: interdependent community, a sense of social responsibility, a commitment to charity, believing in something larger than oneself, promoting healthy personal boundaries and submitting to a “higher power.”
We could call this the apologetic of virtue. In essence, these are God’s ways of demonstrating God’s self through the followers of God. We have the power to be a strong argument. The virtue apologetic crystallized for Rabbi David early in his ministry career. In a story of inadequacy relatable to many clergy, he tells of being called to the hospital bedside of an elderly woman to offer final prayers for the dying. He took her comatose hand but felt like a fraud. Who was he to shepherd a soul to the edge of the next world? Dutifully, he proceeded to pray familiar words anyway, letting their power carry him. I too have been there and understand quite well what he must have been feeling. Talking to his wife about it afterward, Rabbi David confessed his feelings of inadequacy. “You’re right,” she said. “You’re unworthy. Anyone would be unworthy doing such a thing. That’s okay, though. It’s not you doing it. It’s being done through you.” Rabbi David writes, “That was a pivotal moment for me. Suddenly it became clear to me that we bring light into this world not as a source but as a prism; it comes through us. As electricity requires a conduit, so spirit moves through human beings to touch others in crucial moments. As soon as I stepped out of my own way, the prayer felt real. I could believe in blessing when I felt that it did not depend on me.” Novelist Edith Wharton put the same idea this way: “There are two ways of spreading light, to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it”.
Galatians 5 raises the light or prism, candle or mirror question. The fruits of the flesh or the Spirit are set up in a larger context in which Paul is dealing with the influence of Jews in Galatia who insist on adding law to grace. Reminding the Galatians of their freedom from the law, he asks them to use the holiness encouraged by the law for each other. In living by the Spirit, they are to be slaves to one another, embodying the grand intent of the law, which is neighbor-loving.
The “fruit” or the result of living in the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness and so on, and these latter qualities are the very things that mirror the light of God into the lives of others. We could rename these qualities the flames of the Spirit, instead of the fruit of the Spirit. We can’t be the candle. Christ is the candle. We can be; we must be the mirrors.
Most light metaphors fall into two categories. One, from Isaiah and John, Christ is likened to light; “the people living in darkness have seen a great light”. And two, from Matthew, his followers are light — “You are the light of the world”. The metaphor of a candle and a mirror encompasses both. Christ has set us free, and ultimately he is the light of the world that we all reflect. But when God changes us; when we are led by the Spirit and produce fruit demonstrating that, then we reflect that light in the same way that a mirror does candlelight. That means the response of the Christian is to polish up the mirror. Clean up the smudges and the water spots. Make it a bright reflector of God. So what would be the best response to “new atheism” readers who will never read books such as Rabbi David’s? The most powerful apologetic for Christianity is the changed lives of its adherents and the way they love their neighbors through their transformation. We’re God’s first option on evangelism. It’s a consistent biblical theme: ~ Genesis 12: All nations will be blessed by Abraham’s family obeying God. ~ Matthew 5:16: Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and praise your God. ~ 1 Peter 2:12: Live lives that silence the false accusations of pagans. Plato was once told that a man in the city had been spreading slanderous charges against him. Plato’s answer: “I will live in such a way that no one will believe what he says.” What if we took his example, the scriptural example, and Rabbi David’s virtue apologetic seriously and committed ourselves to winning the hearts of God’s skeptics by living better lives right in front of them? Rabbi David tells of a season where he lost his faith, bolstered by the writings of an “old atheist,” Bertrand Russell. A graphic Holocaust documentary introduced him to “evil and a world without God’s protection.” Russell became a logical, witty guide to a world that was merely the product of blind forces. The Holocaust was enough to make anyone lose their faith. Rabbi David was enamored with the philosopher until he began reading biographical works that showed how depraved his life was: four broken marriages, alienated from his children, unabashed about his infidelity. Despite Russell’s brilliant mind, the fruit of his philosophy made a far more compelling argument. Claiming “it was better to be Russell’s reader than his wife or child,” Rabbi David stumbled back into faith through the apologetic of virtue. We all have experienced those periods in our live in which we fall away from our faith or beliefs. Life just doesn’t seem fair at times. Challenges in life tempt us to think God simply does not exist. However, haven’t we all met the Christian who’s so compelling to us that his or her presence inspires our faith? And haven’t we also met that sister or brother whose words, actions or attitudes cause us to literally doubt our faith? We all need a faith boost in our Jamba Juice of life. For me, it is sometimes as simple as stopping outside my front door, turning to the roses, taking a big sniff and realizing right then and there, that there is a God. Taking time to smell the roses as it were, reminds me that life is not so simple that it can be explained away scientifically or by some atheist agenda. There’s no problem with the Candle. It’s the mirror that needs polishing. We aren’t the source of light, but the prism. Not the candle, but the mirror. As long as there are neighbors and family members who don’t know Jesus, and as long as a new crop of atheists find God-bashing a fashionable and profitable thing to do, let’s just reflect Christ. Let us be the virtuous apologetic.
God Love You +
+The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, Ca.