Sermon: When Seeing Is Not Believing

06.14.15     Preaching Text: “We walk by faith, not by sight.” (2 Corinthians 5:7)

One of the basic dogmatic truths of traditional Christianity is its distrust of the “world” in favor of the things of heaven. In today’s reading from 2 Corinthians we see this biblical truism at work.

“From now on,” writes the apostle Paul, “we regard no one from human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way.” He carries this idea forward, pointing out that for Christians the old has passed away and a new creation, a whole new reality, has been presented to the believer.

The things of the world thus are rejected in deference to the ways of God’s kingdom. Viewing life from a human perspective (minus the revelation of God) has become passé.

Yet such a perspective is, dare I say it, almost un-American!

In a recent article in the New York Times, Ross Douthat quotes American writer, Will Wilkinson, who writes:

“One of the enduring puzzles of America is why it has remained so robustly religious while its European cousins have secularized with startling rapidity.”

”One stock answer,” he continues, “is that America, colonized by religious dissenters and lacking an officially sanctioned creed, has always been a cauldron of religious competition and, therefore, innovation. The path to success in a competitive religious marketplace is the same as the path to success in business: give the people what they want.”

And what do Americans want? A religious version of Americanism! This involves a “frontier creed of freedom, of the inviolability of individual conscience and salvation as self-realization [italics mine].”

Among other things, this means that everybody is qualified to interpret scripture according to his or her own dictates for the simple reason that each of us has a “direct line to God.’ We can “feel Jesus.”

Wilkinson cites the famed Yale literary critic Harold Bloom’s seminal work, The American Religion, in identifying the core of American religion as based on the idea of a “Real Me,” which is an aspect of divinity itself, the “spark of God.”

As such, American religious experience is not bound by nature, laws, churches, creeds, or anything external to oneself. The “sovereign Self” is both higher and deeper and truer.

To find God “is to burrow inward and excavate the true self from beneath the layers of convention and indoctrination,” Wilkinson writes. Which, I might add, is a defining characteristic of Gnosticism, the ancient belief in a kind of self-procured, inward enlightenment that flies in the face of any and all outside forces, norms, or truths. (It is perhaps ironic that this ancient heresy is precisely what Paul was fighting against when he wrote both 1 and 2 Corinthians!)

What we find in America, Douthat reports, is not “a secularization of America, but [an] ongoing Americanization [italics mine] of Christianity.”

What Bloom refers to as American gnosticism helps frame almost everything that is distinctive about American religion, whether it be “liberal spirituality [or] red-state religious nationalism, New Age questings [or] prosperity theology, the Latter Day Saints [or] non-denominational Protestantism, Joel Osteen [or] Deepak Chopra [or] every other guru or guide that we seek out.” Each presumes, in other words, “the God Within.”

Such American spirituality, says Douthat, asserts that “freedom is good in and of itself, to a point, but it’s ultimately good [because] it enables us to pursue God/the divine spark/the True Self…, and in finding it, fulfill our true destiny and reach our perfect end.”

“Natural law or biblical morality,” he continues, “[isn’t] being rejected in favor of a purposeless freedom…but rather in favor of a higher law that fulfills a higher purpose, bringing salvation neither through faith nor works but through a gnostic revelation about Who We Really Are.”

In such an environment, the “old world dogmas” of traditional biblical theology are widely considered misleading or false, precisely because they do not originate or find expression in the self.

This old world Christianity is thus replaced by a “spiritual but not religious” sensibility. This has been referred to as a “salad bar spirituality” as the individual “believer” picks and chooses what he or she likes, discarding the rest.

I can spoon out a few yummy dollops of Christian love and grace but forego the decidedly unappetizing spinach of its judgment and calls for obedience. With my tongs, I can pick out the “best” of Buddhism, Shintoism, Islam, Judaism, or whatever, while assiduously avoiding beliefs that don’t fit my own idiosyncratic wishes and desires.

Of course, traditional Christianity argues that this kind of spirituality is very close to Original Sin, whereby human beings decide to be gods unto themselves, rather than allowing God to be God.

Traditional Christianity insists that the path to salvation and personal fulfillment can only be obtained by being obedient to the one true God, who is by definition ‘holy,’ or other. Inward joy and peace comes not from doing our own will but from doing God’s will.

In contradistinction, Americans, especially contemporary Americans, place feelings on the highest pedestal, at the very heights of the highest pantheon of the gods. If something feels right it, it has to be right. Yet in the real world, feelings are often found to be misleading, sometimes dangerously so.

Alas, the old, tired faith of the biblical witness still insists on displacing the self from the center of existence. It reveals a transcendent, all-encompassing God who exists beyond our individual thoughts, feelings, and insights, and who alone knows how to fulfill our deepest desires.

At the core of biblical faith, then, is the one truth we’re most loathe to admit: the truth is not in us, but beyond us. And only in obedience to that truth will we ever find genuine peace. Thus, as Paul puts it, “We walk by faith, not by sight.” Amen.