The last words of the gospel story we have just heard read: “Jesus did this…and revealed his glory, and his disciples believed.” And, towards the end of the gospel of John, from the story of the resurrection, John 20v.8 “Then the other disciple also went in [to the tomb] and he saw and believed.”
There is an unbreakable connection between “faith” and sharing in the reality of God.
Martin Buber retells the story of God calling to Adam in the Garden of Eden. God asks the question: “Adam, Where are you?” This is a loving and liberating question from a God who wants us close to him. Buber says that the devil doesn’t ask, “Where are you?” The devil tells you “From where you have got to there is no way out.”
The other day I came across a mean-spirited secular-humanist bumper sticker that reads: “God is just pretend.” Buber’s words echoed in my mind. The slogan on the bumper-sticker is designed to leave no way out. It is meant to be the deathblow to faith. It is intended to be so crushingly and obviously true that no faith could survive.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t need any help from the secular humanists. My faith is shaky enough already.
There is the story of a Victorian aunt who was told by her niece about Darwin’s theory of human evolution. The old lady is said to have cried: “Descended from the apes! My dear! Let us pray that it be not true. But if it be true, let us pray that it might not become too widely known.”
“God is just pretend.” Let us pray that it be not true. But if it be true, let us pray that it might not become too widely known.
Too late! It is already widely known. “God is dead” was the theological discovery of the late 20th Century. The world had moved on beyond God.
God was a primitive idea for primitive people. God was no longer necessary. There was no way out of the obvious.
A great ditch stands between us and the first disciples. We live in different worlds. Like Thomas, we may suspect that things would be different if only we could talk to Jesus. But that isn’t possible.
Or is it?
“God is just pretend.” The ugly humanist bumper-sticker is also a means of grace. A mean slogan designed by the devil’s disciples might also be the key to the Kingdom as the world moves into the new Millennium. If we have the courage to face the question, it might be a place to start again and reconstruct faith out of the ashes of doubt.
At the end of the 11th Century, Anselm wrote out a famous and controversial argument for the existence of God. It begins with a long and beautiful prayer that ends with the following words:
“I do not seek to understand so that I may believe, but I believe so that I may understand; and what is more, I believe that unless I do believe I shall not understand.”
In the pagan world, Christian faith is criticized as a deficiency of limited intellects who cling to a collection of more or less stupid ideas that cannot be proved and might be better abandoned. That is what the miserable bumper-sticker was intended to say: faith is a Neanderthal response to the failure of reason.
Not so for Anselm. In his eyes, there is no being truly and fully human without first believing. Without faith, we are only half human. Faith is the crown of creation. Faith takes us into a larger world. Faith is our ticket to a new country inhabited by the Spirit of God. Faith is a conscious act of the will that connects us to the reality of God. It is a way of being that opens up new horizons of understanding. Faith connects us to a realm of mind-blowing possibilities. Faith puts us in touch with the way things really are. The letter to the Hebrews says: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1). Faith shakes off the restrictions on our future and on our humanity. When the devil tells us there is no way out, faith enables the Spirit to lead us out of bondage. The people who devised the bumper-sticker don’t come close to understanding the reality of faith. You can choose which world you want to live in.
As is often the case, Hollywood manages to reduce a whole load of theology to a powerful one-liner. In The Prince of Egypt, Miriam sings with the voice of Whitney Houston: “There will be miracles if you believe.” Whitney Houston may be better looking than me, but she and Anselm are singing the same song nine centuries apart.
Like the disciple of old, to experience the resurrection you have first to pluck up the courage to enter the tomb. You have probably already heard it said: “to walk on water, you have first to get out of the boat.” You will only know the conquering power of love if you can first pretend that love conquers all. In the 14th Century an English mystic urged his reader to “Loose a dart of longing love into the cloud of unknowing.” That first step of love, that first “pretend”, is the way humans break into the reality of God
“God is just pretend,” proclaims the bumper-sticker. Absolutely right. “Just pretend.” Just pretend that there is love and you will find Love. “Just pretend.” Just pretend that there is life and you will find Life. “Just pretend” that there is God, and you will know God. Live “as if.” Live as if it were true, and you will discover Truth. “There will be miracles if you believe.”
This holy place is nothing less than the Temple of Pretend. The people of God gather every Sunday at the Temple of Pretend. As we gather, the priest calls to us: “Let us pray.” Let us pretend. Let us believe. Let us enter the world of possibility. Let us enter the world of miracle. Let us open ourselves to new life.
God calls to us from the Temple of Pretend. Jesus walks and talks with us in the Temple of Pretend. The Spirit enters the world though the Temple of Pretend. The Kingdom of God begins in the Temple of Pretend. In the Temple of Pretend, Caesar is no longer God. In the Temple of Pretend, the poor are blessed, the mourners rejoice, lepers are whole, sinners are forgiven, the blind see, the deaf hear and the dumb speak. Martyrs are born in the Temple of Pretend. The seeds of justice are sown in the Temple of Pretend. Bread becomes Christ’s body. Water is turned into wine. Death is swallowed up by life.
In the frozen hearts and intellects of the pagan world, God may be dead. But here, in the Temple of Pretend, he just won’t lie down.