Stephen Asma’s recent opinion piece in the New York Times entitled, “What Religion Gives Us (That Science Can’t)”, caught my attention Monday. Asma is a professor of philosophy at Columbia College Chicago. Written from an atheist’s perspective, he started with an indictment of the “bad” religion which has done so much damage in the world (I strongly agree), then proceeded to be dismissive since faith is not evidence based. What he is willing to concede as his piece unfolds is that faith can have a calming effect, and might offer hope in terrible circumstances since there is the promise of life after death. A student had argued that his entire family, and especially his mom, had relied on their faith when his oldest brother was brutally stabbed and challenged his dismissal of religion. That conversation caused Asma to revise his previous assessment of faith to incorporate the kind of emotional support that science can’t provide, and in a very backwards manner praise the irrational aspect of religion that can provide what he concedes are real benefits.
Asma drew on our current understanding of the human brain to couch his piece: “The human brain is a kludge of different operating systems: the ancient reptilian brain (motor functions, fight-or-flight instincts), the limbic or mammalian brain (emotions) and the more recently evolved neocortex (rationality). Religion irritates the rational brain because it trades in magical thinking and no proof, but it nourishes the emotional brain because it calms fears, answers to yearnings and strengthens feelings of loyalty.”
OK. But for me there’s more to Jesus and good religion than that. I’m convinced that Jesus is all about living life at the highest human level. I agree with Asma that there is no proof for God or the faith that leads me to trust that my life story connects with your life story, and that all our stories are somehow connected through God’s living presence in all creation. Yet as science reveals more and more about how God wired up our brains, Jesus’ teaching makes more and more sense in terms of a challenge to live life at the highest level humanly possible, as our neocortex harnesses our instincts and even our emotions for the greater good of love. Radically forgiving as God has forgiven us…loving our enemies…seeking reconciliation rather than revenge…practicing gratitude rather than fear is to live to Jesus’ beat and not the world’s. This is the higher calling God built into us that seeks the common good and realizes that love is not merely a warm, fuzzy emotion. It is putting into action what is best for all, and that what is best for all in the end will be what is best for you and me.
I do believe that there is lots of stuff in the Old Testament that is rooted in our ancient reptilian brains which end up feeding our worst instincts. There’s a reason many have wondered over the years if there wasn’t an Old Testament God and a New Testament God. I’m not tearing pages out of my Old Testament, but I do understand that stories like the ones that depict God instructing the Israelites to wantonly plunder and kill all men, women, and children as reflective of somebody’s will, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t God’s will. I do believe God’s revelation was a work in progress in the Old Testament, and as a Christian I do believe and confess God was fully revealed in Jesus Christ. The phrase Jesus used over and over again in his defining “Sermon on the Mount,” was “you’ve heard it said…but I say unto you…” I’m realizing more and more that what Jesus challenges us to do is harness our lower instincts and emotions so that we can operate at the highest human level possible, which is rooted in the neocortex of our brains.
I read in the Confession of Belhar an accurate rendering of what Jesus teaches us to believe and do in the Gospels, and it is this message that is amplified in the Epistles of the New Testament. The higher calling of Ephesians 4:1-6 is a prime example:
As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit– just as you were called to one hope when you were called– one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
The Confession of Belhar declares that seeking reconciliation and unity with other Christians is both a gift and an obligation as a precursor of the greater goal of God’s reconciling and unifying work of the Spirit of the living Christ for all humanity.
…that unity is, therefore, both a gift and an obligation for the church of Jesus Christ; that through the working of God’s Spirit it is a binding force, yet simultaneously a reality which must be earnestly pursued and sought: one which the people of God must continually be built up to attain;
…that this unity must become visible so that the world may believe that separation, enmity and hatred between people and groups is sin which Christ has already conquered, and accordingly that anything which threatens this unity may have no place in the church and must be resisted;
Bad religion lures us to be elitist, tribal, fearful, exclusionary, reactionary…all that dehumanizes us. Good religion unites by challenging us to the higher calling of loving God and our neighbors, which is the fulfillment of humanity. What Jesus lived and taught is indeed the “road less traveled.”
For those of you want to read the full text of the Belhar Confession, here it is…
Confession of Belhar September 1986
- We believe in the triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who gathers, protects and cares for the church through Word and Spirit. This, God has done since the beginning of the world and will do to the end.
- We believe in one holy, universal Christian church, the communion of saints called from the entire human family.
- that Christ’s work of reconciliation is made manifest in the church as the community of believers who have been reconciled with God and with one another;
- that unity is, therefore, both a gift and an obligation for the church of Jesus Christ; that through the working of God’s Spirit it is a binding force, yet simultaneously a reality which must be earnestly pursued and sought: one which the people of God must continually be built up to attain;
- that this unity must become visible so that the world may believe that separation, enmity and hatred between people and groups is sin which Christ has already conquered, and accordingly that anything which threatens this unity may have no place in the church and must be resisted;
- that this unity of the people of God must be manifested and be active in a variety of ways: in that we love one another; that we experience, practice and pursue community with one another; that we are obligated to give ourselves willingly and joyfully to be of benefit and blessing to one another; that we share one faith, have one calling, are of one soul and one mind; have one God and Father, are filled with one Spirit, are baptized with one baptism, eat of one bread and drink of one cup, confess one name, are obedient to one Lord, work for one cause, and share one hope; together come to know the height and the breadth and the depth of the love of Christ; together are built up to the stature of Christ, to the new humanity; together know and bear one another’s burdens, thereby fulfilling the law of Christ that we need one another and upbuild one another, admonishing and comforting one another; that we suffer with one another for the sake of righteousness; pray together; together serve God in this world; and together fight against all which may threaten or hinder this unity;
- that this unity can be established only in freedom and not under constraint; that the variety of spiritual gifts, opportunities, backgrounds, convictions, as well as the various languages and cultures, are by virtue of the reconciliation in Christ, opportunities for mutual service and enrichment within the one visible people of God;
- that true faith in Jesus Christ is the only condition for membership of this church;
Therefore, we reject any doctrine
- which absolutizes either natural diversity or the sinful separation of people in such a way that this absolutization hinders or breaks the visible and active unity of the church, or even leads to the establishment of a separate church formation;
- which professes that this spiritual unity is truly being maintained in the bond of peace while believers of the same confession are in effect alienated from one another for the sake of diversity and in despair of reconciliation;
- which denies that a refusal earnestly to pursue this visible unity as a priceless gift is sin;
- which explicitly or implicitly maintains that descent or any other human or social factor should be a consideration in determining membership of the church.
3. We believe
- that God has entrusted the church with the message of reconciliation in and through Jesus Christ; that the church is called to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world, that the church is called blessed because it is a peacemaker, that the church is witness both by word and by deed to the new heaven and the new earth in which righteousness dwells.
- that God’s lifegiving Word and Spirit has conquered the powers of sin and death, and therefore also of irreconciliation and hatred, bitterness and enmity, that God’s lifegiving Word and Spirit will enable the church to live in a new obedience which can open new possibilities of life for society and the world;
- that the credibility of this message is seriously affected and its beneficial work obstructed when it is proclaimed in a land which professes to be Christian, but in which the enforced separation of people on a racial basis promotes and perpetuates alienation, hatred and enmity;
- that any teaching which attempts to legitimate such forced separation by appeal to the gospel, and is not prepared to venture on the road of obedience and reconciliation, but rather, out of prejudice, fear, selfishness and unbelief, denies in advance the reconciling power of the gospel, must be considered ideology and false doctrine.
Therefore, we reject any doctrine which, in such a situation sanctions in the name of the gospel or of the will of God the forced separation of people on the grounds of race and color and thereby in advance obstructs and weakens the ministry and experience of reconciliation in Christ.
4. We believe that God has revealed himself as the one who wishes to bring about justice and true peace among people;
- that God, in a world full of injustice and enmity, is in a special way the God of the destitute, the poor and the wronged
- that God calls the church to follow him in this; for God brings justice to the oppressed and gives bread to the hungry;
- that God frees the prisoner and restores sight to the blind;
- that God supports the downtrodden, protects the stranger, helps orphans and widows and blocks the path of the ungodly;
- that for God pure and undefiled religion is to visit the orphans and the widows in their suffering;
- that God wishes to teach the church to do what is good and to seek the right;
- that the church must therefore stand by people in any form of suffering and need, which implies, among other things, that the church must witness against and strive against any form of injustice, so that justice may roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream;
- that the church as the possession of God must stand where the Lord stands, namely against injustice and with the wronged; that in following Christ the church must witness against all the powerful and privileged who selfishly seek their own interests and thus control and harm others.
Therefore, we reject any ideology which would legitimate forms of injustice and any doctrine which is unwilling to resist such an ideology in the name of the gospel.
5. We believe that, in obedience to Jesus Christ, its only head, the church is called to confess and to do all these things, even though the authorities and human laws might forbid them and punishment and suffering be the consequence.
Jesus is Lord.
To the one and only God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, be the honor and the glory for ever and ever.
1. This is a translation of the original Afrikaans text of the confession as it was adopted by the synod of the Dutch Reformed Mission Church in South Africa in 1986. In 1994 the Dutch Reformed Mission Church and the Dutch Reformed Church in Africa united to form the Uniting Reformed Church in Southern Africa (URCSA). This inclusive language text was prepared by the Office of Theology and Worship, Presbyterian Church (USA).
I hope to see you this Sunday – until then this what I know…
IT’S TIME FOR THE PASTOR’S BOOK CLUB:
We’re reading “Waking Up White: And Finding Myself in the Story of Race”, by Debby Irving. The Book Club meets this Sunday, June 10th at 11:45AM and Tuesday, June 12th at 7:00PM for book discussions. Plan to have the book read before the discussion date and pick the date/time that works best for your schedule (it is not necessary to attend both dates).
MARK YOUR CALENDARS: Join us Sunday, June 24th at 11:45am in the Fellowship Hall for the next step in St. Andrew’s Capital Campaign. We’ll meet with Denis Greene and his team for a light lunch to review upcoming projects and to organize our Volunteer Teams. Everyone is welcome and encouraged to get involved – Childcare will be available! RSVP with the church office on your Communication Card this Sunday.