Righting America

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If It Sounds Unbelievable, It Probably Is | Righting America

by Mark Wastler

Mark Wastler is a sheep farmer in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley and an Episcopal priest serving a village church in Maryland. Mark’s spirituality, politics, and way of life have been deeply shaped by agrarian thought and American Pragmatism. He studied American intellectual history in graduate school at the University of Maryland, then went to seminary in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he studied Pragmatism with Richard Niebuhr at Harvard Divinity School. He became a radical empiricist the day he encountered William James, “The Will to Believe” in Bill Trollinger’s “History of American Thought” class at Messiah College in 1990. The following is adapted from his March 4 2018 sermon to the St. Paul’s Church, Sharpsburg, Maryland.

It was 1979 or 1980, I can’t quite remember the year or what grade I was in at school. I think I was in eighth grade.  But I do remember the girl. I was in love. She went to a fundamentalist Baptist church in town, and so I decided to go.  I would have gone just about anywhere that she went, and so church seemed like a reasonable place. I could show her and her parents what a fine, upstanding young man I was.  It didn’t work. I got my heart broken.

One Sunday morning I was snapped out of my daydreams of Lori, as she sat two pews in front of me and to the right. I was brought back to the moment when Pastor Jack Power, a hell-fire and brimstone preacher whose booming voice could wake the dead and scare the hell out of teenage boys, proclaimed with great authority, “I would believe the bible if it said that Jonah swallowed the whale.”  (For those of you who are unfamiliar with the story, the ancient prophet, Jonah, spent three days in the belly of a big fish that then vomited him out on shore.)

“I would believe it if it said that Jonah swallowed the whale,” he said. Thirty-eight years later and I can still hear him say it.  He laid down the gauntlet for everyone there. He set the standard for what it means to believe the Christian message. What he was saying is that the more unbelievable things are, the bigger your faith is. To be a Christian, in his mind, was to believe outrageous things in spite of what anybody else might think.

I remember that I admired his audacity and simplicity. But I also quickly realized that this was going to lead to my exit from the church. There was no way I was going to live up to his standard for belief. His faith lacked intellectual curiosity, and he really believed that there was no truth to be found outside of a literal reading of the bible.  

That preacher could easily have been preaching on St. Paul’s words to the Corinthians that we heard this morning. In 1 Corinthians, chapter 1, verse 20, Paul wrote, “Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world.” That verse and plenty of others like it make it very easy to set up a dichotomy between Christianity and the world. You don’t have to be a very smart preacher to set up an “us versus them” scenario. Those kinds of binaries preach pretty well, especially if your audience already feels under siege.

Throughout the history of Christianity, but especially in modern times, we have asked people to believe some pretty extraordinary things—things that have little, if anything, to do with the core message of Christianity.

In 1859 Charles Darwin published his book titled, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. In that work Darwin argued that species change and evolve over time—over millions of years species change and adapt to their environment, and that process eventually brings about new forms of life.

Some people thought this was a radical new idea, and to many it was. Most farmers just kind of yawned at the idea because they had known this for years. You can easily change an animal through selective breeding. That is why there is such diversity among domestic animals, from cattle to dogs.

Christians divided over Darwin’s ideas. It is called the fundamentalist/modernist controversy. Some Christians, like Episcopalians, found ways to rethink their theology in light of these new ideas about biology and evolution. Others, however, said that Darwin was evil, that his ideas were demonic. The bible said that God created the world in six days, and if you did not believe that, then you were not a Christian. The litmus test for where you stood was whether or not you believed that Adam and Eve were real people, not part of a mythic story that conveyed spiritual truth.

I went to a small, Christian liberal arts college in Pennsylvania. As part of our general education requirements we had to take “Introduction to Bible Study.” It was a college level bible class, not your average Sunday School sort of thing. We studied textual and historical criticism, and looked at the bible from a variety of angles.

I went into that class with Pastor Jack Power’s assertion that true believers believed it all, just the way it was written on the page, still echoing in my head.  His assertion dominated my definition of what it meant to be a Christian. I could never live up to his literalism and I always felt guilty about it.

We got to the part in the class on Genesis, about Adam and Eve and evolution and all of that. We learned that there were other ways of looking at it. We learned that the writers of the bible were not addressing modern, scientific questions. We learned about ancient ideas of the universe. We learned that the early writers probably thought that Adam and Eve were metaphors for humanity at large.

I was talking with the associate pastor at the church I went to in college. He and I were good friends. I told him the ridiculous thing my professor had said that week, that Adam and Eve were not real people. I fully expected him to say how stupid that was. Instead he said, “I don’t believe that Adam and Eve were real people. I think they are ways the biblical writers used to talk about deeper truths.”

I was a bit shocked, relieved, and excited. I was excited to find out that one could believe in the message of Christianity without buying into all the fundamentalist stuff. I could follow Jesus and not buy all the alternative truths. My friend and pastor saved my faith that day by showing me it was possible to be a Christian and still have intellectual integrity in the modern world.

I am sharing all of this with you for two reasons. The first is because I want you to know that being a Christian is about living the radical message of God’s love. It is not about believing in unbelievable things. You can believe those if you want, but they are not essential to the Christian project. Jesus calls us to love, plain and simple.  Do that and you are a Christian.

The other reason I share all of this is because I have become deeply concerned with the long-term impact of Christians and their so-called alternative forms of knowledge.  Every time we say that science is a bunch of lies, we undermine the public good. Every time we assert some conspiracy theory about the anti-Christ and the end of the world, we are teaching people to be suspicious and not trust one another.  Every time we say that the bible is to be taken literally, we call into question all other pursuits of knowledge.

Sowing such doubt and mistrust is not an act of love. It is deception. The long-term impact of asserting wild claims and undermining the bonds of trust will not take us good places. We bear a large responsibility for all of this talk of fake news these days and for the general mistrust that permeates society. For almost a hundred years now, we have said that it is a Christian thing to do to deny science, promote conspiracy theories, and believe in fairy tales.

Love, Jesus tells us, is about embracing the truth wherever it may lead us. And he was deeply convinced that the truth, no matter how we discover it and no matter how uncomfortable it makes us, will set us free.