From the archives: What Happens When You Don’t Know?

I blogged for a long time before I switched to WordPress. I did an incomplete job of moving my writing from one platform (Livejournal) to another – partially because it was very manual. But a friend asked about my beliefs regarding the soul the other day, and I was reminded of this sermon I gave. I was surprised, checking the archives, that this one fell in the gap between platforms. Rereading it, I feel like it stands the test of time. This was originally published on 7/17/2007 after the first of two miscarriages, and before my second son was successfully brought into this world.

Job 39:1-4
Mark 4:35-41

The Book of Job is a story about people trying to understand God’s actions. In the story, the righteous man Job has horrible things happen to him for reasons he doesn’t understand. His friends spend several chapters claiming that they understand how God works, and that Job’s bad luck must be his own fault. Job complains to God, asking why he had such a tough time of it. God never answers that question for Job. Instead, God’s reply (in some of the most beautiful and poetic language that can be found anywhere in the Bible) is to talk about all the things that God understands, has done, and had witnessed that are far beyond Job’s ability to comprehend. Finally, Job accepts that while he might not understand why he was so miserable now, it was ok not to understand as long as his relationship with God was intact.

There is a lot to talk about in the story of Job. Right now I want to point out that it is possible for good people to misunderstand God’s nature, and believe the wrong thing about him.

Christianity has spent a lot of time and energy trying to decide what we believe about God’s nature. Some of the most divisive questions in the Christian church have been about that: Is Jesus both fully human and fully divine? What is the trinity? Is it three different people, or three aspects of the same person?

Belief is important. It can change how we act and what we try to do. If we believe that Jesus died and gave us grace for our sins, we act in hope and try to encourage others to do likewise, instead of falling into the inaction of despair.

But how we believe doesn’t actually change the nature of God. Job’s friends truly and sincerely believed that God was punishing Job for some sin Job had committed. God wasn’t – he had another reason. The conviction of Job’s friends didn’t change God’s nature.

Why is that important?

Sometimes I think that we’ve fallen into the habit of thinking that what we believe makes it true. This is easy to observe in a toddler, and fortunately I have one handy to watch. Grey is convinced that if he says that we are outside at the park often enough, then we actually will be outside at the park. A child can think that believing something makes it true. Adults fall into this sort of trap in much subtler ways. (Author’s note: I didn’t say, but one could argue a certain president of ours is doing this by claiming we’re winning in Iraq.) In some theological questions, where the Bible might not have much to say and there’s no way for us to test to find the answer, perhaps we can be forgiven for thinking that whatever we decide is true is actually true.

But God’s true nature doesn’t change based on what we think, and for that I am grateful.

Why?

Well, what happens when we don’t know what to think?

Most of you know I recently had a miscarriage. I’m hardly unique in this. I was stunned at how many of my sisters in these pews had gone through one or even many miscarriages. (Author’s note: I got three more miscarriage stories after this sermon.) Anyway, in the course of my recovery from this, one of the questions I was asked was whether I had any theological doubts or uncertainties that had been raised by the miscarriage.

There are certainly lots of questions to which I do not know the answer. When does a pregnancy turn into a person with a soul? Was my pregnancy even at that stage? What happens to the souls of children who are never born, if they have souls? When does a person accumulate enough actions and intentions to be judged and forgiven by God? For that matter, just what is heaven really like? On some of these issues, such as the miscarriages, the Bible is nearly silent. On others, such as what heaven is like, it is very mysterious and hard to translate to a concrete vision.

So when I look at my own experience and wonder: was there a child, and if so, what happened to them? It’s a question to which I will never have a concrete answer on this side of salvation. I don’t even know what I believe.

And that’s when I realized the beauty of the unchanging nature of God. I don’t HAVE to know what happened, in order for the right thing to have occurred. This possible child isn’t waiting in some limbo, pending me making up my mind as to what God does with early miscarriages. God has already acted, and if there was a baby with a soul, it is in God’s loving hands. I do not need understand, agree, believe, or consent for God to fulfill his covenant and relationship with this other person. I do not need to understand for the right and proper thing to have happened.

That raises another uncomfortable question, though. What if I don’t like what happened? What if it was something bad instead of something good?

I am at peace there, too, because I have faith. That’s where our other Bible story of the day comes into play. The disciples are in a tight spot, with a boat that may at any moment break apart and drown them all. Jesus is sleeping through what they fear might be his last moments alive. They wake him up. “Hey!” they say. “Don’t you care that we’re all about to die!” I imagine that they’re not saying he should do something, they’re waking him up to tell him to prepare himself for the worst. What can anyone do in the middle of the sea, in a horrible storm? I mean, there are miracles of returning sight to people with milky eyes, and then there’s commanding the very weather to act unnaturally. Doctors can return sight or it might come back on it’s own, but no one can command the weather. But Jesus does, and he comments on their lack of faith.

Well, I do have faith. I believe that God is good, and kind, and loving. If there was a soul in place, I believe that he holds my unborn child in his hands and has carried that child to a good end. I trust in that not only for this Schroedinger’s baby, who may or may not have ever existed as a person, but I also trust it for myself. I believe, in the end, that God loves us and cares for us. And so, when theology goes dark and God’s plan is unknown and unknowable, and we do not know what the right thing is to believe, then have faith friends. For we do know that God is good, and his steadfast love for us endures forever.

Me, then

I believe

The Boston Globe published an article this week about how climate change is already being felt in New England. ”

“I tell my students that they’re going to be able to tell their children, ‘I remember when it used to snow in Boston,’ ” said Ray Bradley, an author of the study and director of the Climate System Research Center at the University of Massachusetts. “We’ll have occasional snow, but we won’t have weeks and weeks of snow on the ground.”

I’ve wrestled a lot lately with how – and why – people can vehemently believe something is true when the facts and evidence point to the opposite conclusion. The science has been saying for 30 years that our planet is warming. Walking around in a fifty degree January – the second year that’s been possible. Last year we had 11 straight months of “the hottest year on record”. This graph shows just how fast the change has been occurring, compared to geological normal shifts in temperature. It’s hard to look at these facts and understand how you can reasonably deny that the world is warming. Even if you find it in your heart to say this is totally a coincidence and has nothing to do with human causes (also a real stretch), we can *see* how the climate is changing. It’s literally cracking apart the Antarctic ice shelf. But even people in a position to know otherwise, such as our president-elect, claim that this shift isn’t taking place.

Why? If you don’t realize what’s coming, you can’t plan for it. If you pretend this isn’t happening, and oh, build huge buildings whose foundations are likely to be under water in 20 years, you may lose a lot of money. I get that it may be very expensive to cut CO2 levels, and that some current economic powerhouses will suffer. But it’s another thing altogether to decide not to plan for the inevitable outcome of that decision.

The vehemence with which people *don’t believe this* confuses me. I was thinking about it, and I realized I was missing a critical element. People think that what you believe changes the truth. I wonder if there’s some unspoken conviction that if we all BELIEVE the world isn’t warming, then in fact the world will not be warming. From that perspective, the persistent voices of climate scientists saying otherwise is a threat. They’re disrupting the concerted belief required to make global warming untrue. By disrupting the belief, they’re actually making global warming happen. If we just all believed together it wasn’t happening, it wouldn’t happen.

This explains both the solution they have (prevent global warming by believing it isn’t happening with the assumption that what is believed is true) and why they’re so vitriolic to opposing voices.

As a Christian, I think I understand where this mind set might come from. Christianity is rife with the power of belief. In the Gospel of Mark chapter 9, the very mindset I lay out above is preached:

23 Jesus said to him, “If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes.”
24 Immediately the father of the child cried out and said with tears, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!”

Mark is at it again in Chapter 11:

22“Have faith in God,” Jesus answered. 23 “Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them. 24 Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.”

Let’s not forget walking on water. Peter does the impossible because of the strength of his belief.

But there are some things are, or are not, regardless of your belief in them. God does not require our belief in order to exist (and therefore unbelievers aren’t a threat to God – would you really want to believe in a God who needed us to exist?). This universe does not need to be believed in to keep spinning in its glorious order and chaos. Gravity operated unobserved for millions of years before we believed in it. Believing really hard will not make false things true. And failing to believe – even the most willful denial – will not make unwanted things go away. We need to be more careful in our thinking about where belief matters, and where the world is uncaring about what we believe to be true.

I was about ready to stop my thinking there, when Martin Luther King Day happened. My son came home with a copy of Dr. King’s famous “I have a dream” speech. Was this iconic, inspiring speech the exact same thing, only on the other side of the belief divide? I read it carefully for the word “belief”. And I discovered something remarkable – the difference I would invite you to embrace. What Dr. King believed was that it was possible for this post-racial environment to exist. He dreamed of a day when his four little children would live in a nation where they would not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. He did not believe we lived in that world already, or that such a world was an inevitable one. He only dreamed that it was possible.

And that difference – between believing that what you want is possible, and believing that wanting it will make it true.

So, let’s believe that it’s possible for us to decide whether to make the sacrifices necessary to not warm our planet any further … or to plan for living in a much warmer planet. But whenever you get angry at someone for not believing the way you do, ask where your anger comes from. If it comes from a conviction that belief will change the outcome, ask yourself if that is really true.


Thoughts? Where are some of the other places in our society where the belief itself is important? What are some things that really do change based on whether you believe? What am I misunderstanding here?