By Dean Alan Culpepper (McAfee Chapel sermon on April 21, 2015)
Revelation 7:1-5; 21:1-5
Did you hear the announcement last week about Nik Wallenda? His family have been tightrope walkers for generations, and several years ago he walked a tightrope over Niagra Falls. Now he is going to walk on the top of a spinning Ferris wheel 400 feet off the ground! The image caught my imagination. Let me suggest that the journey of faith that we talk about so much here at McAfee can often feel like walking a tightrope crossing a great expanse while working hard to keep your balance. (I really wouldn't know—I have never walked a tightrope.)
John Bunyan had a similar view when he published the timeless classic, Pilgrim's Progress, in 1678. “Christian” sets out for the heavenly city, but he is often deterred by his traveling companions, Pliable and Obstinate. Along the way, he has to navigate hazards like the Slough of Despond and the Wicket Gate. The pilgrim's journey, for Bunyan, is a series of trials. Taking a cue from Bunyan, I want to at least point out to you, fellow pilgrims, three challenges to imagining God that you may face along the 21st-century pilgrims' path.
The First Gate: Biblical Criticism
The passage I read from Revelation describes the scene of the culmination of all things, the coming of the new heaven and the new earth. The first challenge that may arise from reading the Bible—and especially the book of Revelation—in a seminary context is the question of just what we should make of it. Is it, as many have believed throughout Christian history, and still today believe, a divinely inspired picture of the end of earthly history that is metaphorically, if not literally, true? Or is it just a typical example of ancient apocalyptic literature, offering a mythical hope to the oppressed and downtrodden victims of Roman imperial oppression—fascinating ancient literature, but nothing more?
The first wicket gate many seminarians encounter is the gate of biblical criticism. The church through the centuries has held the Bible to be God's inspired revelation for humankind, and in the last century, from the modernist–fundamentalist controversy of the 1920s through the Southern Baptist controversy of the 1980s, Christians debated the nature of the Bible's inspiration and authority. Some hold it to be literally true in everything that it affirms. Others hold that it is a reliable guide in matters of faith and doctrine.
But now you learn about the historical conditioning of the biblical writings, the patriarchalism it perpetuates, the historical discrepancies it contains, and its theological and ethical tensions. How in the world can we make such a collection of ancient writings normative for the church of the 21st century?
Understandably, most theological students react in one of two ways. They either reject what they read and hear from their professors and hold fast to the beliefs they brought with them, or they throw the whole thing over, dismiss the relevance of scripture and any real sense of its authority, and move on to search for truth in more contemporary ethicists, philosophers, musicians, and poets.
How do we walk the tightrope in the midst of such adverse and tricky winds? Obstinate pulls one way, and Pliable the other. Fundamentalism, or at least traditionalism, pulls on one side and skepticism and secular humanism on the other.
Narrow is the way that leads to a second naivete and a second criticality, and few there are that find it.
How do you find that balance point where you can be obstinate in response to skepticism and pliant in response to tradition?
Walking the tightrope requires that you be open to new truth while holding fast to the wisdom and values of traditional faith. In regard to the Bible, it challenges you to see the value of a historical understanding of Israel and the early church and the scriptures they produced. At the same time, it calls you to hear God's word to us in our scriptures, appreciate their rich tradition, and live more deeply into the truth they express: God's redemptive love and abundant grace. Such a posture is actually liberating. Paradoxically, it frees us to pursue the truth, while being sure of the faith that has sustained and nurtured us. Still, each step you take requires the balance of a tightrope walker.
The Second Wicket Gate: Religious Pluralism
In another of its several scenes of the end, the Seer of Revelation says,
After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne and to the Lamb!” (Rev 7:9-10)
He has just listed the twelve thousand from each of the tribes of Israel, so these are non-Israelites. The question comes, who are all these people, and how did they get to the throne of God? Here we encounter the second wicket gate: religious pluralism. The traditional Christian answer is that they are those who have come to faith in Christ in all the nations across the face of the earth, but we live in a new era when for the first time in history people are so mobile that communities of faith from virtually every religion on earth can be found here in Atlanta. How can we maintain that salvation requires a professed faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior? But if we can't maintain Christianity as the exclusive way to salvation, what do we have to offer to others, and why should it have any claim on our lives?
On the one side is traditional Christian exclusivism—Christ is the way the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father but by him (John 14:6). On the other side is a spineless relativism that says that all religions lead to God, just as all roads lead to Rome. Is there any room here to be obstinate in response to relativism and pliable in response to exclusivism? This is one of the great challenges facing 21st century Christians.
Here again the gate is narrow. There is nothing like the love of God as revealed in the death of Jesus in any other religion, and the power of the gospel still transforms lives in dramatic ways. Yes, we have a gospel to tell to the nations. When we gather at the table of shared witness, we have a story and a message of love the world needs to hear.
I am reminded of the story of the great missionary E. Stanley Jones, who was approached by a man in an Ashram in India who grabbed his lapels and challenged him, “Tell me what you know about God!”
On the other hand, do others have nothing to tell us? Has not the God who seeks to be known by every human person worked in other cultures and traditions also, and are there not devout believers from other religious traditions, whose lives bear the marks of a transforming knowledge of the love and grace of God?
Tread carefully here. I for one will live to my last breath knowing that my life has been molded by the love of Jesus Christ, his death and resurrection, and his teachings.
At the same time, I have found fellow travelers on my spiritual pilgrimage who are Jews and Muslims, and my appreciation for scripture, Sabbath, prayer, the community of faith, the religious quest, and—yes—God has been enriched by walking a pace with them. Salvation is more a relationship than a transaction or a legal verdict. Sadly, some who say, “Lord, Lord,” give little evidence in their lives of such a relationship, while some who are not part of a Christian community live out of a profound fellowship with the grace and love of God. I expect—at least I fervently hope—that they too will be among that throng around the throne from every nation, tribe, and people.
The Third Wicket Gate: The Evolution of Life
Revelation depicts the culmination of history as the gathering of the people of God and the coming of a new heaven and a new earth. History is a drama, an ongoing conflict between good and evil, chaos and redemption, but in the end God will vanquish evil and extend sovereign control over all things. The drama that began with creation has purpose and direction. Here we encounter the third wicket gate: the challenge of modern science.
Ancient Israelites could look at the world around them, with its distinct life forms, and see that they had each been created by God, who pronounced them good. They had no concept of cosmic time, natural causation, or the evolution of the species. How things have changed! We now know that the universe is 13.8 billion years old—a number we cannot wrap our minds around.
A couple of years ago, John Haught, in the Ginn lectures he delivered at McAfee, suggested that we can imagine the history of the universe written in thirty 450-page volumes, each covering 450 million years. Each page would cover one million years. The Big Bang occurred on page one. The earth was not formed until volume 21 (4.54 billion years ago); life appears suddenly in volume 22 (3.8 billion years ago); the Cambrian explosion of primitive life forms in volume 29; and dinosaurs in volume 30, page 385. Human beings do not appear until the last page and a half of the last volume, and do not develop the capacity for figurative speech until the last few lines of the last page, around 100 thousand years ago.
Some scientists see no evidence of a purposeful creation, claiming that random chance, mutations, adaptation, and natural selection working over the extent of cosmic time produced life as we know, and there are countless other planets like ours that could sustain completely different forms of life.
Once again our fellow travelers, Obstinate and Pliable, pull in different directions. Obstinate rejects modern science, maintaining a literal understanding of the biblical story of creation. Pliable abandons not only the biblical account of creation but theism itself: there is no God guiding the course of history.
Once again the journey of faith calls us to deeper discernment. Can we find a way to be obstinate in our faith in a creator God who is drawing all history toward a purposeful end, while being pliable in our understanding of the biblical account of the origin and end of life? I believe we can.
The Bible tells stories and paints pictures; it is not a book of science. It tells us who God is, who we are, and how we are to live, not how God created the world. On the other hand, the claims of the naturalists are as fanciful and hard to believe as a literal, six-day creation. Is it really plausible that the universe has moved—by purely natural processes—inexorably through the emergence of a series of ever more complex states that could not have been anticipated by what went before them, until life emerged—once and never again from inorganic matter!—and then evolved to the point that it could appreciate goodness and beauty, love, and respond to God's Spirit among us?
I believe a theistic faith in a divine Creator and a scientific understanding of the processes of creation, taken together, offer a far more satisfying understanding of life than either one taken to the exclusion of the other.
No doubt there are wicket gates ahead that we have not yet encountered, so I want to challenge you to be open to new truths while you hold fast to the core convictions of our faith. Biblical criticism, religious pluralism, and modern science need not undermine your faith. Wrestling with them will actually deepen and enrich your faith, but you need to develop the determination of a pilgrim and the balance of a tightrope walker.
In 1987 my father suffered a heart attack that required bypass surgery, when that was still a fairly new and potentially life-threatening procedure. The afternoon before his bypass surgery, I sat at my father's bedside and listened to him reflect on his life and faith. He too was a theology professor and had a special interest in eschatology. He had written his dissertation on Miguel de Unamuno's Tragic Sense of Life, and had read all the theologians on death and resurrection. In that moment, however, facing the possibility that he would not survive the surgery the next day, he said, “In the end, if God is, that is the God revealed to us in Jesus, then it doesn't really matter how it will all come about. If God is, then we have nothing to fear.”
Here is genuine simplicity the other side of complexity—words we can life by. God is! Thanks be to God!
Go now in the sure love of Jesus Christ, and as you go, walk together with the determination of pilgrims and the balance of tightrope walkers, and live in the transforming knowledge that God is. Amen.
This sermon is was delivered on April 21, 2015 at McAfee School of Theology and is the last chapel service with Alan Culpepper as dean.