And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at His teaching, for He was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes.
You might not find a more provocative headline than the one written for a column in The New York Times last month. William Irwin, Professor of Philosophy at King’s College (Wilkes Barre, PA) wrote an article entitled, “God Is a Question–Not an Answer.”
The title came from a recent work of fiction, which itself took its cue from an earlier work by Camus. But to Irwin it captured what it means to believe in God in a world where pluralism predominates, where the question of evil endures, and where the history of atrocities committed in the name of various deities is perhaps rivaled only by those committed in the name of none. For every reason to trust in a transcendent presence, Irwin observes, there are other putative reasons not to. Though in fairness, he concedes, the converse is also true. That anything exists and that intricate life persists in an undeniably forbidding cosmos are but two reasons bidding a second look beyond the material.
Given present conditions in which the question of God has become increasingly heated, Irwin argues that any credible belief–held by believer and non-believer alike–naturally and necessarily wrestles with doubt. Those who cannot fathom the slightest reason for entertaining an alternative view, or at least second-guessing their settled position, reflect a kind of certainty that says more about their determination to dis/believe than comprehensive analysis of their dis/belief. He does not reproach anyone for being properly zealous for their view–he even advocates for one’s advocacy. He only ascribes a certain “fraudulence” to anyone’s belief that never admits instances of weakness or contrary thoughts.
One might read Irwin’s musings as an encouragement to those on both sides of the God question to reconsider just how assured they have a right to be. One may never be fully settled on the question–there will always be arguments for and against any belief. But countenancing reasonable differences with one’s point of view can only sharpen one’s own thinking about why one believes.
The point of that personal dialectic is not to pursue a constant state of dis-equilibrium. Nor is it to live without any commitments that at some level require faith (an impossibility). Rather it is to authenticate one’s belief by letting it be tested against opposing ideas.
Faith, when conceived of abstractly, is certainly a category rich with philosophizing potential. Its dialogue with Reason has spilled no little ink over the centuries. But tying the credibility of faith in God to philosophical argumentation alone will always lack something essential to abiding in what that faith propounds. Quietly reciting Anselm’s ontological argument at the bedside of a dying wife offers the coldest comfort.
So what does serve to fortify one’s convictions in some meaningful and abiding way?
In the Gospel according to John, Jesus responds to the incredulity some had for His authority. While it’s somewhat anachronistic to say, Jesus was espousing a kind of empirical verification of His wisdom, saying in John 7:17, “If anyone’s will is to do God’s will, he will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority.” (I like Eugene Peterson’s rendering of the same text: “Anyone who wants to do His will can test this teaching and know whether it’s from God or whether I’m making it up.”) In so many words, Jesus is arguing that to walk in the way He outlines is a path to discovering whether there’s anything more to it than human wisdom. Could it be, then, that faith is fortified in the practice of what it propounds?
One might argue no other biblical text (save perhaps the 23rd Psalm) holds as much cultural currency as the Sermon on the Mount. What Jesus outlined therein has captivated theists and atheists of manifold stripes, mainly for the ethic to which it calls all who listen. The Sermon rises above both the teaching of Jesus’ day, and the wisdom of any day, to help us see what is an alternative Way that will ultimately endure. In often confounding and sometimes cryptic words, Jesus reimagines life for us.
But as you begin to hear in the literature commenting on the Sermon, its significance is borne out not just by its content, but more so by what it reveals about the One who delivers it. The question behind “what kind of teaching is this?” is the more important question “what kind of person is this who is saying what He’s saying?” Any other preacher who makes himself the center of attention in his preaching has failed in his task. But Jesus, in saying what He did, makes Himself out to be either deeply misunderstood, profoundly megalomaniacal--or evidently divine. And it will be in the practice of what He said that one may find a reason for belief more substantial than any arguments we hear or even the company we keep (as nurturing to our pilgrimage as those adjuncts are).
One caveat though: while practice fortifies faith, it may be that what we find from God in our failures of belief that does as much to confirm us in that belief. For the life He will outline in the Sermon means to do more than confer an ethical vision. It means to confirm, as the theologian Richard Hays argues, that no less than God is present to us—and especially when we have denied him (Jn. 21:9-19).
So to Irwin’s comment that God is at best a question without a settled answer, and therefore we are best to retain an open-mind, it was Chesterton who inimitably said, “Merely having an open mind is nothing. The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.” No preaching from the Sermon on the Mount can remove all doubt in God. But listening and wrestling with how it inevitably challenges us, as it reimagines life for us, may solidify our reasons for closing our grip upon Him more tightly–if only because in so doing we realize it is He who has tightened His loving grip on us.
Here at CtK we devoted a recent Sunday’s sermon to an interpretive recitation of the Sermon on the Mount in its entirety. You can hear that recitation here.