Sermon for Easter 5
Sunday 22 May 2011
I am the way, the truth and the life. Today I want to focus on the second of these three great attributes of Christ according to John 14. For me truth in religion is vital and central. Yet, I am sad to say, in much of modern religion, maybe in religion at all times there are many half truths. I have always been guided by these powerful words of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, known to us mainly as a great poet, but who was also a great religious thinker. This is what he said: “He who begins by loving Christianity better than the truth, will proceed by loving his own sect or church better than Christianity, and end in loving himself better than all.” I believe there is great profundity in these words and they have long influenced my approach to the faith. I will not simply accept the teaching of religious authority on trust; I will not simply swallow what tradition presents to me; I will not simply accept the truth of the Bible without question. I believe in the vital importance of asking questions, of probing, of enquiring. If Jesus is the truth then surely there can be no enmity or animosity between the honest pursuit of truth and the Christian faith. Yet there are many who resist that conclusion. They see Christianity and the Bible in particular as opposed to honest and open enquiry. They will even pose an alternative type of truth, biblical truth they call it, and place this above objective, rational truth. I cannot accept this is consistent with a religion rooted in the person I meet in the gospels, who seems to be to be a figure of absolute integrity who himself questioned and probed religious authority, tradition and even Old Testament teaching.
Of course we must acknowledge that it is very difficult to arrive at the truth. When under interrogation Jesus said to Pilate that he bore “witness to the truth.” To which Pilate famously and cynically replied, “What is truth?” There are some who say that the quest for objective truth is hopeless, that everyone has their own perspective, their own point of view. But the entire human intellectual and scientific endeavour rests upon the assumption that we can at least come near to discovering the truth. I firmly believe that religion and must not exclude itself from this endeavour. Otherwise we become bogged down in hopeless and helpless subjectivism where one person’s point of view is just as valid as anyone else’s no matter how barmy or cranky it is. When this happens the one whose opinion prevails is the most charismatic or apparently sincere. Such abandonment of the quest for objective truth led to the phenomenon of Adolf Hitler and Nazis in the 1930s. It leads to bizarre forms of fundamentalism in Christianity, Islam and other faiths today. Did you know, for example, that yesterday the world was suppose to end? An American evangelist, Howard Egbert Camping convinced tens of thousands of his followers that yesterday was judgement day. I don’t know how they’re feeling this morning! (I confidently wrote those words, of course, the day before yesterday!) Actually tens of millions of American Christians believe the world will end in the next fifty to one hundred years. Worrying ideas in the world’s only superpower. But we need not only consider the extremists. Many Christian preachers and teachers communicate half-truths at the best. They slant and bias their presentation of the gospel. Often they are well-intentioned. They are eager to put across their version of Christianity and are therefore unwilling to present the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. At best they adopt, to recall a nineteenth century expression, the principle of reserve in the communication of religious knowledge.
The only remedy for this is to use our minds. To seek the truth openly and honestly. To be willing to look at our faith critically. To use the same analytical tools when approaching religion as are used in investigating other fields of thought and human achievement. To accept that some things in the Bible and in the traditions of the church are not consistent with what a reasonably intelligent twenty first century person knows is true and right from other sources of truth apart from religion. For example that evolution does explain the origin and development of life on our planet; that some of the Bible’s moral teaching, on genocide or homosexuality or women’s rights for example, is not acceptable; that belief in a God of love is incompatible with the ideal of hell for millions; that the church – no church – has the right to prescribe how I should believe or behave, though church leaders have a duty to provide supportive advice. If Christ is the truth, then the human quest for truth in all its many forms is not only not inimical to Christianity, it is actually an opening up of the mind of Christ, the mind of God. In the past religion has tried to put a cap on this quest, to stop human beings seeking to know and to understand more. This was a disgrace, it is a matter of shame. Today and in the future I pray that Christianity may encourage the pursuit of truth in all its forms.
Easter 5 | Sunday 22 May 2011