Sermon Evensong 7 August 2011
In Matthew’s gospel for this Sunday, where Jesus appears to the disciples walking on the water, Peter is shown as getting into trouble and nearly drowning at the moment he loses his focus on Christ. It is as if Peter has doubts about what he is doing – that it is after all impossible – and at that moment of doubt he is lost. Doubt and belief – that is what I found myself thinking about for this evening.
You may recall these lines from Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass.
Alice laughed. "There's no use trying," she said: "one can't believe impossible things."
"I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast." (Through the Looking Glass, Chapter 5)
People expect me to be an expert on God but I think that despite a good deal of study, I am a slow learner – and no expert. So when people ask me to explain the Trinity or the nature of God, or the nature of miracles, I can almost feel my eyes glazing over and my brain going rather numb. Yet, I believe in God – though I can quite understand why some would consider that claim rather quaint.
I suppose, in the manner of the Queen in Through the Looking Glass, it is a matter of practice – work at it for half an hour a day; spend time working at prayer, meditation, reading scripture and so on (all those things clergy promise to do) – and the impossible stuff begins to stop being impossible and becomes somehow, strangely true and sometimes one even has an intuitive sense of understanding it.
Which may mean that St Anselm knew he was on to something when he famously said "This I know to be true: that unless I first believe, I shall not understand."(St Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury 1033-1109).
Now when we say we believe in God folk usually have the idea that one is talking about intellectual certainty and that we are dealing with the traditional so-called proofs for the existence of God. You know the kind of thing – there must be a God because...:
- People have intermittently believed in a God from the beginning of history;
- It is hard to consider the vast structure of the universe and of the human mind originating merely by chance and not from some vast, complex source;
- That built into us seems to be some need for something like truth, goodness, love – or some similar alias for God;
- That every age and culture has produced mystics who have experienced a Reality beyond reality and have come to report on that experience with wonder and awe.
But the trouble with so-called proofs is that a moderately intelligent child could come up with arguments to counter them. If you don’t want to be convinced by them, if you have no desire for God, then all the proofs in the world won’t move you an inch. One could take Descartes’ advice and doubt everything – but what does that achieve? Pascal took a different approach: he argued that doubt could only lead to more doubt. Instead he argued that “we arrive at the truth not by the reason only but also by the heart.”
Now, I’d argue that to be a valuable insight. So, when we say, as we do in the Creed, ‘I believe’, it does not mean that I am advancing an intellectual conviction. It certain does not mean that I say the Creed without any doubts: far from it. On the contrary I have frequently considered writing a brief book – but made no progress beyond the title – which was ‘The Doubters Dictionary’. Doubt is that helpful presence of the mind that keeps us questioning (Descartes) and balances what Pascal would have called the heart.
Now, I speak personally here: what I think happens when we say the Creed is not so much a declaration of intellectual conviction as an assertion of commitment. Although the Latin ‘credo’ has traditionally been translated as 'I believe', the Latin word for 'believe' is opinio and it means to have an opinion or to make an intellectual assertion. Instead credo means something much more important. It means 'I set my heart' and it is a pledge of faith and commitment.
So, with Peter and all those other wavering disciples tossed about in that frail craft we call the church, we may indeed be tormented by doubt; we may indeed see ourselves as a motley crew of the wavering and the undecided. Yet at the end, when we clamber to our feet and say the creed, the doubts remain and yet we set our hearts on Christ and follow him.
This evening and in the week ahead, keep practising, keep, day by day, setting your hearts on Christ.