Sunday, July 15, 2012

The End of Faith

The End of Faith
Ephesians 1:3-14[1]
Sam Harris is one of several “New Atheists” who severely criticize religious faith as dangerous, prone to violence, detrimental to democratic society, and something that is best likened to mental illness!  One of his most popular books is The End of Faith, in which he seems to view all religion through the eyes of its most violent fanatics, including the Inquisition, Nazis, and bomb-wielding terrorists.[2] Ironically, he rejects the designation “atheist,” insisting that he is simply being intellectually honest and advocating that everything attributed to faith is capable of rational explanation, especially through the science of how the brain functions.   He insists that religious faith deserves no more respect than claiming that Elvis is still alive! So it should come as no surprise that Dr. Harris advocates the “end of faith” in the sense of its termination as an influence in our society.
When you look at some of what has been done in the name of God, I’m not sure I wouldn’t be in favor of the end of that kind of faith myself.  A faith that legitimates killing in the name of God doesn’t deserve our devotion—even if there are passages in the Bible that do just that.  The idea that God has chosen only a favored few for eternal bliss and rejected all others for eternal punishment is nothing if not offensive and at worst inhumane.[3]  A church or synagogue or mosque or temple that manipulates people through guilt and fear or through promises that all your dreams will come true is simply exploiting people’s emotions.  I for one would not be sad to see the end of that kind of religion.
But it seems to me that our lesson from St. Paul points us to a different end of faith.  Not the termination of smug and toxic faith, but rather the fulfillment of a gracious and open-hearted faith in the God who created all things very good.  Paul’s faith is in the God who entered this broken world to restore us all, and who will not rest until all things are once again “very good.” From Genesis to Isaiah to Jesus to the Book of Revelation, the good news is that God is working to establish “justice and compassion for all people, everywhere.”[4]
That seems to be what Paul talks about in our lesson for today when he speaks of gathering all things together in Jesus Christ (Eph. 1:10). I like the way J. B. Phillips’ translation puts it: God’s plan is “that everything that exists in Heaven or earth shall find its perfection and fulfillment in him.”[5] Paul believed that the return of Christ would be a day when the entire created order would be “reconciled to God” (Colossians 1:20) and restored to the way it was meant to be. He believed that there would come a time when “every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Philippians 2:10-11) and that in the end God would be “all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:28).[6]
I believe that God’s ultimate purpose is to restore what is broken in all of us, and that includes all humanity—in fact, all of creation! I really fail to see what is good about the news that those of us who are “in” will inherit an eternity of blessing in the presence of God, while those who are “out” are going to suffer an eternity of torment. From the perspective of our lesson from St. Paul for today, it would seem to me that the Christian hope is that God’s plan to set things right will prevail—for everyone and everything.[7] It is the hope that at the end of all things, all people and all creation will be restored so that we are all once again “very good.”
We’ve been talking a lot about faith lately.  I think the way you envision the outcome of your faith plays a pretty big role in shaping your faith.  If you envision faith as something that gives you privileged status over against those on the outside, then I think that faith is very likely going to be smug and toxic.  It seems to me that’s the kind of faith that can justify doing just about anything in God’s name.  I look forward to the end of that kind of faith.
But it seems to me that the vision of our faith is a very different one.  It is the hope that the God who made all things “very good” will one day restore all things through grace and mercy and love.  I think this faith by definition is going to be more open, more humble, and more joyful.  It’s the vision of Charles Henry Brent, Anglican Bishop of the Philippines, who prayed, “Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace.”[8]   I look forward to end of our faith as well—the day when it reaches its fulfillment in God’s realm of peace, justice and freedom, where everything and everyone is restored to being “very good.”

[1] © 2012 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 7/15/12 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Cf. Natalie Angier, “ ‘The End of  Faith’: Against Toleration,” The New York Times 4 Sept 2004; accessed at 05ANGIERL.html?pagewanted=all&position=; Johann Hari, “The End of Faith by Sam Harris: The sea of faith and violence,” The Independent 11 Feb 2005; accessed at .
[3] Cf. H. S. Reimarus, Apology: “My own salvation gets lost amid the piteous cries of millions of souls condemned to unending torture”; see Jarolsav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition V:114.
[4] Shirley C. Guthrie, “The Way, the Truth, and the Life,”Presbyterian Outlook (Feb. 11, 2002); at
[5] Our Confession of 1967 puts it this way: “It is the will of God that his purpose for human life shall be fulfilled under the rule of Christ.” Confession of 1967, 9.53.
[6] See Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 2.1, 411; Jürgen Moltmann,Crucified God, 129, 178, 244; Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, 38-40, 57, 151; Jürgen Moltmann, God in Creation, 76, 85; Moltmann, In the End—The Beginning, 145, 147-49.
[7] Cf. Andrew T. Lincoln, Ephesians, 34: “Christ is the one in whom God chooses to sum up the universe, in whom he restores the harmony of the cosmos.”
[8] The Book of Common Prayer, 101; cf. a similar sentiment by Cyril of Jerusalem in the 4th Century: “On the cross, God stretched out his hands to embrace the ends of the earth.” Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, 207.

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