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Sermon illustrations

Certainty

Truth Love that Believes in Resurrection

Norman Malcolm was an American philosopher who became close friends with Ludwig Wittgenstein. In 1958, seven years after Wittgenstein’s death, Malcolm published a memoir in which he said that Wittgenstein was interested in religious matters but of course held no religious belief whatsoever. But later on, when he saw more of Wittgenstein’s journals and letters, he realized that he had been too confident, and had misinterpreted many of Wittgenstein’s statements about religion.

For instance, when Wittgenstein said that he could never bring himself to believe in the Catholicism of his friend (and, later, literary executor) Elizabeth Anscombe, Malcolm assumed that he meant something like “I would never believe such nonsense.” But eventually he came to see that Wittgenstein had been making a far less critical statement, had been essentially saying that he was not formed in such a way that he could believe in what Anscombe believed – but that that incapacity might well have been some kind of flaw in his formation.

In one of his journals, later published in the book Culture and Value, Wittgenstein wrote,

What inclines even me to believe in Christ’s Resurrection? It is as though I play with the thought. — If he did not rise from the dead, then he decomposed in the grave like any other man. He is dead and decomposed. In that case he is a teacher like any other and can no longer help; and once more we are orphaned and alone. So we have to content ourselves with wisdom and speculation. We are in a sort of hell where we can do nothing but dream, roofed in, as it were, and cut off from heaven.

But if I am to be REALLY saved, — what I need is certainty — not wisdom, dreams of speculation — and this certainty is faith. And faith is faith in what is needed by my heart, my soul, not my speculative intelligence. For it is my soul with its passions, as it were with its flesh and blood, that has to be saved, not my abstract mind. Perhaps we can say: Only love can believe the Resurrection. Or: It is love that believes the Resurrection. We might say: Redeeming love believes even in the Resurrection; holds fast even to the Resurrection. What combats doubt is, as it were, redemption.

Introduction by Alan Jacobs, Snakes & Ladders (Newsletter), April 5, 2021. Source Material from Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, Chicago University Press,  Ed. Georg Henrik von Wright, 1977.

Presence in the Universe

Now, in our lifetime, scientists are finding ever newer evidence for what some religious people called presence in the very organizing energy of the universe—from fractals, to holograms, to electro-magnetism, to force fields, to gravitation itself—all of which invite us into a certain degree of mystery and non-explainability—and also participation!

The great scientists are revealed in their contentment to live provisionally with a certain degree of mystery! I wish we clergy were as patient. We seem to like certainty and answers—now. In our too literal attempts to explain and control presence, we often explain it away, and most people just lose interest in the deeper journey because they are told, in effect, that there is no “deeper” to be had!

Meanwhile, the scientists still search for the pattern behind the patterns, the seeming vibrational fields that hold all things together. We from the religious world often call these vibrational fields the divine presence or perhaps the Holy Spirit. As usual, religion intuits and gives metaphor to what science is now confirming and illustrating on ever new verifiable levels. Remember, truth is one (Ephesians 4:4–5) and will necessarily and in time be seen from different angles and at different levels—with ever more appreciation. How blessed we are to live in our time! There are, however, few teachers who can honor the different levels at the same time.

David G. Benner, Presence and Encounter: The Sacramental Possibilities of Everyday Life, Brazos Press, 2014.

Top Ten Unquestioned Answers to Faith’s Difficult Questions

In his thoughtful book, Unquestioned Answers, Jeff Myers attempts to uproot some of the widely-held clichès that keep Christians from engaging difficult topics. Here are his top ten “Unquestioned Answers”:

  1. “God said it; I believe it; that settles it for me.”
  2. “Just have faith.”
  3. “God will heal our land if we humble ourselves and pray.”
  4. “It’s just me and Jesus.”
  5. “Love the sinner; hate the sin.”
  6. “Christianity is a relationship, not a religion.”
  7. “Jesus was a social justice warrior.”
  8. “It’s not my place to judge.”
  9. “This world has nothing for me.”
  10. “God is good all the time—all the time God is good.”

Jeff Myers, Unquestioned Answers: Rethinking Ten Christian Clichés to Rediscover Biblical Truths, David C Cook, 2020.

The Virtue of Simplicism

Bumper stickers—and their counterparts on social media—make Simplicism seem virtuous: “Look at me! I’m a good and brave person for distilling this complex issue down to its essence and righteously taking a public stand.” I make fun, but in truth I’m easy prey for Simplicism’s false offer of salvation.

I hate clutter. In moments of stress, I obsessively look for things I can throw in the trash. I even discarded my paycheck once and had to retrieve it from the dumpster. When someone promises to reveal a shortcut that gets me to my destination with minimal effort, I’m all in. When someone tells me that all truth can be summarized in 280 characters, I want to believe that person.

Jeff Myers, Unquestioned Answers: Rethinking Ten Christian Clichés to Rediscover Biblical Truths, David C Cook, 2020.

See Also Illustrations on Doubt, Faith, Truth, Uncertainty