About nine months ago, Hurricane Maria descended upon Puerto Rico and devastated the Island. Over 4600 people died, and there are parts of the island still without electricity, good drinking water and adequate food. Why did this happen? Well, there are various scientific explanations for this type of weather, but for many good religious people, the following question remains. Why did God allow this to happen? The answer, for a good many Christians is, well, it’s difficult to understand, but everything that happens, fits into God’s universal plan. You just have to accept that “on faith.”
Less than a year ago, Devin Patrick Kelley entered the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas where a Bible study was taking place. He killed 26 church members and wounded 20 more. How can this happen? In a church, during Bible study? Again, there are many psychological and sociological reasons, but for many religious people, the question remains: Where is God in all of this? Some have said: “Well, everything happens for a reason. We just don’t understand it yet. We’ll understand it when we get to heaven.”
This week we read in the LA Times that 68.5 million people, worldwide, have been forced from their homes because of violence, persecution and poverty. That’s one person out of 110 of the world’s population that has been subjected to situations that have become so bad in their home countries that they seek to immigrate into a less dangerous country. When we look at the pictures and hear the agony of families being torn apart at our southern borders, we sometimes think: “Why doesn’t God do something about these people? God is all-powerful, and yet no relief from misery is forthcoming.”
These three clusters of events, and their inadequate explanations, form a short list of terrible occurrences that take place on a regular basis. Trying to understand them gives many good Christians an experience of “cognitive dissonance.” On the one hand, we have been told that God is omnipotent, all-powerful and that God is in control of the universe. On the other hand, we may have serious doubts that God is actually “in control” of the universe. How do we put those two ideas together? When we face such dilemmas, we often resort to well-worn clichés that give us some comfort, and superficial answers to our questions. For example – “God needs another angel” when a child dies. “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle,” in spite of the fact that our suicide rate is increasing. Or “There, but for the grace of God, go I,” implying God has favored me, instead of some other unlucky sap. “It’s in the Bible,” say many good Christians as they condemn our gay friends and families. “The Bible says that only Christians will go to heaven, sorry about, that Jews and Muslims.”
So what do we do about using or accepting these clichés as explanations, or as well-intentioned words of consolation that are empty and not satisfying? One possible answer is that we have to use our brains to think through the assumptions and implications of our religious beliefs. John B. Cobb, Jr., whom some of you know, and who was and is my mentor, wrote a book a few years back entitled “Becoming a Thinking Christian.” A Thinking Christian. His thesis is that if we have any hope of church renewal, we have to think about our beliefs rather than accept sloppy clichés. In a sense, he says, we all have to become “theologians.” A theologian is a person who reflects on his or her religious ideas. We all do that to some extent, now and then. Yes, we are all theologians.
Obviously, Cobb doesn’t think that we should all become professional theologians, thank goodness, but every one of us should use our minds to cogitate about our beliefs. It is not only that we become more aware of the sources and implications of our beliefs, but because our beliefs inform our actions. He certainly does not want us just to “naval-gaze theologically,” but to think through our beliefs so that we can act in ways that are consistent with the message of Jesus.
The scripture for the morning comes from Matthew, in which the story is told of Jesus being questioned by a group of Pharisees. They ask him: “Which is the greatest commandment?” Jesus’ answer is that we must love God with our hearts, our souls, and our minds. Our minds. Use your mind to love God’ he says. Of course, he goes on to point out that we also need to love our neighbor as ourselves. But our thinking informs the way we act – the way we love our neighbor.
If we love God with our minds, it is my belief that we would discover and articulate the convictions that shape our lives. We would become more conscious of what our beliefs are. It would involve an effort to define the assumptions that lie behind many of the clichés that we use to make ourselves or others feel good about really difficult situations. The main assumption that stands out to me is the following: God is in control of the universe, God is omnipotent – all powerful. God is in charge of everything. That is what we are supposed to believe, say most Christians. However, as we look at our present situation ecologically, politically, and economically, can we really believe that God is in control? Why would I believe in a god who allows or causes the destruction of people, animals, and lands through “so-called acts of God,” if God could do something about it? Why would I believe in a God who ignores the killing of 26 people during a Bible study? Why would I believe in a God who allows genocides to occur? Sorry…I can’t. Those who believe in the omnipotence of God have difficulty in explaining the fact that if God could stop evil, why doesn’t God do that? No wonder we have “cognitive dissonance.”
If I reject the idea that God controls everything, that places a larger responsibility on human beings for the fate of the earth and its inhabitants. Humans are largely responsible for what happens through our own decision-making and actions. At some level we all believe that we experience some freedom of choice. We make decisions that have implications. But freedom is a heavy burden. Advocating for the “common good” is not easy. We cannot control natural disasters, but we can increase our understanding of how we add to the severity of some of these events. We cannot prevent all angry and depressed people from attempting mass murders, but we can advocate for more gun control and better preventative mental health care. We cannot control the politics of dictators who attempt to wipe out a whole group of people, usually of a different religion, but we can put pressure on our politicians to influence those leaders, and to improve our own policies, as well.
It may seem to you that I am saying that God doesn’t have anything to do with what is going on in the world. It’s true that I don’t think God coercively breaks into the normal functioning of our lives with a miracle or two to impress or scare us with God’s power. On the contrary, I believe that God is constantly giving us hints about how we are to use our decision-making ability. I think that God is involved in every event and thought that we have. But God’s power is persuasive, not coercive. God lures us to increase harmony and to work for the common good through our minds, our dreams, our friends, our reading, our meditation, our prayers, our worship, our serious discussions, our service to our neighbor. If we are reflective and open, we can discern these God-given nudges.
A word of caution. This morning I’ve chosen to emphasize loving God with our minds. However, the scripture mentions that Jesus names two other ways of loving God, through our hearts and our souls. Our rational deliberations, important as they are, are not sufficient by themselves. My mind is but one of the three aspects of loving God. My understanding is that our hearts involve our emotions, and maybe a mystical experience, as well. For me, the music experience here on a normal Sunday morning fits into this category. What about the soul? I’m not so sure about explaining this one, but for me, loving God with my soul means loving God with my whole being, my identity, my true self. Perhaps you can help me understand that one.
If loving God with our minds involves becoming a “theologian,” that is, a person who tries to discover and articulate one’s beliefs, some cognitive effort is needed. Obviously, discussion with friends or even family in an atmosphere of sharing and mutual acceptance, is a place to start. I know, I know, we’re not supposed to discuss religion or politics in various contexts. But we might risk that, if we don’t assume that we have all the answers, but that we truly believe that we can learn from each other. Perhaps a CONNECT group might provide a context for discussion of our beliefs and our doubts. Reading books or periodicals that challenge us might also be a possibility. There are many ways to broaden and expand our thinking about our beliefs.
Love God with your mind. Become a more aware theologian. Become a Thinking Christian. Amen
Benediction -So, when you come to church, don’t forget to bring along your brain, but also your heart and your soul. Perhaps that will lead to loving your neighbor, as well.
John Gingrich, June 24, La Verne Church of the Brethren