Sermon: An Epidemic of Wandering Away

09.27.2015     Preaching Text: “Get them back and you will have rescued precious lives from destruction and prevented an epidemic of wandering away from God.” (MSG James 5:20)

The burning question is: just how did Martin Heidegger’s see life and death?

Heidegger was in many respect a prototypical prophet of our secular age, an existentialist who championed the philosophical notion that each individual is a free agent solely responsible for determining his or her own development by means of his or her own will (as opposed to, say, God’s). You really can’t get more modern than that.

And one of Heidegger’s most fundamental claims is that awareness of our own death is what makes human beings different from all other life-forms.

If we’re honest, he argued, we know that our time is limited. And it is this knowledge that creates no small amount of anxiety. To be human, as he put it, is to be a “being-toward-death.”

In Heidegger’s view, anxiety is our default mood because it reflects the unvarnished truth of the human condition. We are finite human beings with limited time and energy, yet we imagine limitless possibilities and aspire toward infinite hopes. This can only lead to existential disappointment and angst.

This is, of course, a striking departure from Christian faith (though not from the history of the world without Christ). For though the gospel does indeed recognize the reality of our finitude and physical death, its central tenet is the good news of the Resurrection.

Christianity proclaims the countercultural message that we finite creatures are set free from the crushing anxiety of Heidegger’s “being-toward-death.” The good news is that God raised Jesus from the dead, and we are raised with him.

And this resurrection-life is promised to us not just beyond death but in the here-and-now.

Which is to say that because of the Resurrection the church is part of the “already, not yet” of God’s new creation.

So much so, in fact, that the contemporary British theologian/historian N.T. Wright can state unequivocably that the early Christians “behaved as if they were in some important senses already living in God’s new creation.”

Thus, while Heidegger’s “being-toward-death” gives rise to a mood of listless anxiety and dread, joy is the mood that best accords with “being-in-Christ.” This mood change offers a new way of being in the world, a world that now includes an empty tomb.

As Kevin Vanhoozer writes in The Pastor as Public Theologian, “The resurrection reminds us that death, foe though it be, has been defeated, along with its cohorts, meaninglessness and hopelessness.” The soul is cured from its existential despair by the “reality” of the risen Christ.

In this knowledge we Christians are invited not only to live now in this new “reality” but to share its “first fruits” with an otherwise anxious world.

Eugene Peterson, in The Message, ends the 5th chapter of James this say: “My dear friends, if you know people who have wandered off from God’s truth, don’t write them off. Go after them. Get them back and you will have rescued precious lives from destruction and prevented an epidemic of wandering away from God.”

And is it not the case that many have wandered away, only to experience some version of Heidegger’s existential despair, along with its destructive fruits?

In the West, it must be said, this ‘wandering away’ has been real but largely incremental, almost imperceptible.

In a recent article in the New York Times, Steven Erlanger asks the question: “Are Western Values Losing Their Sway?” His first line seems to get it mostly right: “The West is suddenly suffused with self-doubt.”

Though I’m not sure how sudden it’s been, it’s undeniably true. What makes it sudden for Erlanger is the fall of the Iron Curtain in the late 80’s and early 90’s. Since that time, he argues, Western values have fallen from their momentary pedestal as something considered universal in nature.

There was a time, he notes, when we in the West thought just that, and in fact may still. Yet as the world has replaced the erstwhile bi-polar world of U.S. dominance following WWII with a more contemporary, multi-polar one, what we’ve discovered is that other societies and cultures are rejecting these “universal values.”

Even emerging democracies, which we previously assumed would grow organically into a kind of Jeffersonian ethos, have proved resistant to a value system based largely on the Judeo-Christian tradition, values such as tolerance, justice, truth, compassion, etc.

Our mistake has been in thinking that every human being thinks the way we do – or wishes to. Alas, recent history is proving us wrong.

And it isn’t just overseas where we see this happening. As the American church grows increasingly mute, our own culture moves inexorably in a different direction. Enter Heidegger, stage left.

It’s as if two parents, starting from nothing, and based on hard work, discipline, and great sacrifice, build a nice life for themselves and their family.

Only their children, rather than appreciating their good fortune, take what they’ve received as their birthright. They come to believe they are not only entitled to these blessings but to vastly more. They may even come to believe that life owes them nothing short of perfection.

What gets lost are the values and sacrifices that brought these blessings into being.

As a culture, I fear that’s where we’re at. The blessings bequeathed to us by our spiritual forebears through struggle and hardship are now assumed to be our birthright, something everybody naturally possesses. We act as if faith is simply passed down without our having to lift a finger to insure its survival.

The truth of the matter, however, is that the values and norms we cherish are learned, inculcated, lived. They’re not just floating ideas that everybody possesses by virtue of simply breathing.

And if they must be learned, they can also be unlearned.

The church has been gifted with the resurrection-life, to be lived now in anticipation of its future completion. We have something our world is increasingly short of, but needs desperately. If we fail to share it with others, it can be lost. Amen.