Finding out for yourself
Notes on the Sunday address by Rev Ric Holland, 19 March 2017
The story we read from John’s Gospel is full of messages as is typical of this book. But for me the most important thread is that this Samaritan woman is absolutely gobsmacked by what she has seen and heard. So much so that she contacts her friends who at first would have been pretty sceptical, but once they had seen and heard this for themselves they too were convinced.
This is what our theme is today, finding out for yourself. This is crucial to our understanding of faith in this century. For centuries church goers have obligingly accepted what the institution has told them. So when Galileo in the 16th century suggested that the sun and not the earth was the centre of the solar system and that the earth was round he was excommunicated from the church and his followers took the way of the church not that of a mathematical scientist. It’s only a few years ago in 1992, that the Catholic Church rescinded that excommunication, somewhat 400 years too late. The church was preventing people from thinking for themselves.
So do we find things out?
Well, firstly we can read or listen or watch the media.
Many of you will remember an iconic Aussie TV broadcaster, Dan Webb, who died this week. Amongst many accomplishments he was the man responsible for the great April fool’s day spoof of the Spaghetti trees which were being affected by a dangerous epidemic of Spagworm, threatening to wipe out the whole of the spaghetti industry. As they were 10 years previous to that on a very prestigious documentary program Panorama, hosted by the great Richard Dimbelby. (He was the guy who commented on the coronation, Winston Churchill’s funeral)
Millions of people in both countries were devastated and phoned the TV networks asking what they could do to prevent this impending disaster.
Then again the media themselves can be completely fooled. Only last week Channel Nine reported on what appeared to be a dangerous incident outside Melbourne Magistrates Court: Deborah Knight C9 News; “Rival extremist groups have clashed outside the Melbourne Magistrates Court over the appearance of the controversial leader of the United Patriots Front”. Peter Mitchell repeated this through the day’s news cycle. The whole thing was a satirical spoof. If you looked closely at what might have been Australian flags representing a hard line nationalist position, you could see it wasn’t an Aussie flag at all.
But people believed it because it was presented by very serious and authoritative news journalists. This is what President Trump calls “fake news” although I think my definition of such would be different to his.
But there things we can read and believe. We can believe what we read in the bible, literally, because it is the word of god! Does that make sense to you? I was talking to someone last week who told me that she and her husband had banned their children from playing with plastic dinosaurs because they weren’t in the bible and therefore had not existed. I asked a fundamentalist relative of mine, how she could explain all the thousands of fossils that exist in the world, not to mention the huge reconstructions of bones the likes of the Natural History Museum in London and other great centres of learning in the world, and was told that “God had put those there to test our faith”. These statements remind me of the title of one of JB Phillips books “Your God is too small”.
So even clearly what we read in the bible is clearly not factual, but rather a collection of thousands of writing compiled over thousands of years with many different influences and intentions. That is why I often will contextualise our bible readings, they are often meaningless otherwise.
So in order to find out truth we can’t depend on what we read listen or view.
Another way of finding out truth is what other people tell us.
April fool’s day. Ric in church, full, baptism with large family! They believed it because I was the Minister.
I love tropical fish. I have always had large tropical fish tanks and with many people who share or enter my life find them therapeutic and stress relieving. And yes I will be setting up just such a tank in the office buildings here, particularly for prospective clients who come for services at Mingary. There is one wonderful breed of catfish known as the upside down catfish. The delight of seeing it upside down. It was! It was dead! I believed him because he repeatedly told me.
Another issue here is clearly different people see or understand the same thing often completely differently.
You only have to talk to people at a footy game and get a firsthand report on the game from opposing supporters. You wouldn’t believe that they were at the same game.
Or we can find out for ourselves
This for me is at the heart of our faith, our spirituality, our understanding of the ground of our being. Paul Tillech argues strongly that all our understanding of faith, or our theology if you like, must be grounded in real life human conditions. So even the word ‘God’ distances ourselves completely from the very concept we are trying to grasp. The more we place God out there beyond us and supernatural the more we are denying our own reason and experience. As Detreich Bonhoeffer would say God is not out there on the borders of life he/she/it is clearly in the midst of our life. Tillech goes on to say that we are so conditioned by the word God as a being out in the beyond that “You must forget everything traditional that you have learned about god (I would add “from other people”) that you should perhaps dispose of the word God itself.
This then comes down ultimately to what is your own experience and reasoned understanding. I’m not here talking about what is often described as a personal God. For me that itself is restricting and confining. I’m talking about what we can see and feel for ourselves in our relationships with each other, in the world and universe of which we are just one relatively small part. This is what Debra was referring to last week as she expounded on love. That’s the heart of it. Theological statements are not a description of the highest eternal out there being, but an analysis of the depths of personal relationships, an analysis of all our experiences interpreted by love.
This ultimately then down to us to work out for ourselves. Because you can read all the theological textbooks in the world, you can listen to all the ministers and preachers spouting on, even me, if it doesn’t make sense to YOU then it is not true for you.
Here let’s remind ourselves of Thomas, much maligned through history as “Doubting Thomas”. Not to me. For me Thomas is a HERO. Here was a man who refused to say that he understood what he did not understand and that he believed what he did not believe.. Good on him I say. There is an uncompromising honesty about him. He was not the kind of man who would rattle off a Creed without understanding what it was all about. Tennyson wrote in “In Memorium” “There lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the Creeds”.
And you can only do this through day in and day out experience. And that experience can change. Don’t be tied down to what might have worked for you last year or last night. Be open to it ever evolving.
We can change our minds as new experiences and understandings come our way. This way of thinking is known as process theology, there is no absolute just a process. This is so unlike the church which holds on to orthodoxy for fear that it might undermine its own status. A minister once said to me I can’t preach what I actually believe, or I would be thrown out”. This is how untruths are developed and flourish.
And when you experience yourselves then it feels real. Because for you it is real.
“Yeh we had him he’s rubbish” This young boy very quickly found out for himself and wasn’t afraid to say so.
So listen, view, read Yes. But most of all find out for yourself!