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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Trinity Sunday - 6/3/07

God is under attack these days.  I suppose though that this is nothing new.  It’s been a regular feature of modern culture since the Enlightenment which is the last couple of hundred years or so; before that God was pretty much accepted as a given, but not anymore.  I don’t really know if the attack on God is worse  now than it has been at other times in history, it might just be that more people are writing books, books with titles like The God Delusion, God is not Great, The Atheist Manifesto, things like that.  I confess that I haven’t read any of these books in their entirety but I have read bits and pieces and reviews and have seen interviews with their authors.

What seems to be common in this batch of books is the level of anger involved.  The authors blame God and religion (all religions, not just Christianity) for just about everything that has gone wrong throughout history including what’s wrong today.  They give God and religion almost no credit for having had any positive influence on life and history.  Apparently they even find fault with people like Mother Theresa, Gandhi and the Dalai Lama who I think are pretty hard to find fault with.  So it’s not necessarily fairness and objectivity that these authors are striving for.  Not surprisingly, it would seem that one of the goals is to get a rise out of people so they buy the book.    

But…a lot of what they say is true, you can’t argue with it.  For example, most of the wars throughout history have involved religion in some fashion.  A lot of killing has been done in the name of God; probably every political leader in every war has claimed that God is on their side; that’s all true.  It’s also true that God, as portrayed in the Bible is sometimes a pretty rough character, bloodthirsty and vindictive; we can wish those passages weren’t there; they’re embarrassing and hard to explain away, but there they are. They don’t represent the core testimony maybe, but still they can’t be ignored.  And it’s true that some Christian theology is problematical, theology that we often accept without much question, like atonement theory that says that God somehow required the death of Jesus, more blood, for our sins to be forgiven, leaving some to ask, “If God can do anything, wouldn’t a good God have done it another way?”  A lot of what they say is true.  There are problems with religion. 

What these authors are really after though, is religious absolutism, religious claims and religious ideology that says my understanding of God is right and yours is wrong and because of that I’m going to kill you, or short of that I just won’t talk to you except to tell you I’m right and you’re wrong and I don’t want to hear what you have to say.  Anytime we decide with certainty, that we know the mind of God, anytime we say that we know there is only one way you can know and worship God and we know with certainty what it is, then there are problems.  That is an attitude that has done and continues to do lots of damage in the world, and it’s an attitude quite worthy of attack.

But then you could ask, without certainty about our faith claims do we sink into relativism where anything goes and it doesn’t really matter what you believe?   That depends on how you define religion.  If you view religion as a closed ideology that on the one hand solves all of life’s problems and on the other hand allows no questions, if you understand faith to be absolute certainty, the enemy of which is doubt or questions, then yse, anything short of that absolute certainty is suspect.  That is how lots of people view religion and faith and it doesn’t leave much room for other points of view.

But…if religion is theology rather than ideology, it’s different.  Theology is words about God (theos-God; logy-words) and as soon as you introduce God into the equation in an honest way it means you can’t have all the answers, unless you are arrogant enough to think your intelligence is equal to God’s.  What you can have though, is a relationship, but it is a relationship with one who is a source of awe and wonder, but one who is also a source of questions, and one who resists efforts at any narrow, absolute definitions.  Understood that way, there is room for dialogue with and respect for people of other faiths without having your own faith threatened.

Today is Trinity Sunday.  When I was a kid, for our confession of faith on Trinity Sunday we used the Athanasian Creed.  I didn’t like it mostly because compared to the other two creeds it is very long but it is one of three ecumenical creeds of the church although the makers of the new hymnal chose not to include it at all.  The Athanasian Creed begins with these words:  “Whoever wants to be saved should above all cling to the catholic faith.  Whoever does not guard it whole and inviolable will doubtless perish eternally.”  I think earlier translations said will doubtless be damned.  It then goes on to describe Trinitarian faith in more detail than either the Apostle’s or the Nicene Creed.

When you start with an introduction like that, it sounds like a pretty narrow, absolute definition of God doesn’t it?  The last line of this creed is “One cannot be saved without believing this firmly and faithfully.”  That pretty much slams the door on any other understanding of God.  So does the doctrine of the Trinity make those attackers of God and religion right about us?  Are we guilty of adhering to absolutist claims about God that lead to evil and intolerance in the name of religion?  Again I would say the answer is yes if faith means absolute certainty with no room for ambiguity or questions.  But I would say the answer is no if we can hold to our faith claims and yet live with the tension of understanding that the faith claims of others might also have some legitimacy, that God might even be understood in non-Trinitarian ways.

I think that Luther, perhaps unintentionally, built this tension and ambiguity into our faith.  He affirmed the principle of sola scriptura, scripture alone, meaning that as Lutherans we understand the Bible to be authoritative, that the Bible is what we use to answer questions and formulate doctrine.  At the same time though, he also affirmed the traditional creeds and teachings of the church.  That creates some tension and ambiguity because the creeds of the church, including the doctrine of the Trinity, are not strictly biblical.  They have biblical basis, but they also have a lot to do with how Christians had worshiped and how they had understood Jesus from the time before the gospels and the rest of the New Testament were even written.  That doesn’t mean they were wrong about the Trinity, just that it is not based on sola scriptura.  Using just scripture alone, you still might come up with the idea of the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit to describe God, but you might not or you might understand it in ways different from the ways that were accepted as orthodox.

Trinity Sunday might be a good day to think about why you are a Lutheran.  (high school kids)  To be honest, most of us are Lutheran because that’s what our parents are or were so we just kind of fell into it, some people married into it.  But here’s a good reason to be a Lutheran (at least for me).  As a Lutheran I can read the Bible not as an answer book but as a book that tells about how people have experienced God, a book that raises questions for me, questions about God and faith and Jesus and how God acts in the world.  I can find those troubling passages that don’t portray God the way I like and struggle with them.  I can find passages that don’t seem to jive with the doctrine of the Trinity and say, “That’s interesting.”  I can read some of the Psalms where people are pretty darn mad at God and say, “I feel that way sometimes too.”  I can even look at books like The God Delusion and God is not Great and say, “You know, he makes some good points.”

And then, when Sunday rolls around, I can go to church and worship and praise God in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, with confidence I can confess my faith in the Trinitarian words of one of the historic creeds, I can receive the presence of Jesus in the bread and wine of Holy Communion and in that bread and wine I can know, with certainty, that I have received forgiveness because after all my questions and struggling, I need the anchor of the church and its tradition to hold on to, to orient me, to keep me going.  Without that, I’ve got nothing.  With that, I can then continue the struggle.

Is there tension and ambiguity in all that?  Absolutely.  But I think it’s healthy tension and ambiguity that makes life and faith interesting, tension and ambiguity that I think has to be a part of any honest relationship with a sovereign God.  Importantly, it’s tension and ambiguity that allows others to have their faith journey on their terms, even though it might be different from mine.

I think that’s a good reason to be a Lutheran.  It’s a good reason if you’re graduating from high school and at a point where you make some of these decisions on you own, it’s a good reason if you’ve just never thought too much about it.  It’s a good approach for people of any faith to take, because it keeps us from killing each other in the name of God, and it keeps us talking to each other, and to God, and that’s a good thing.

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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