Fool’s god

[A sermon based on Psalm 14
Preached Sunday August 18 at First Mennonite Church, Winnipeg MB]

Fools say in their hearts, “There is no God.”
. . .
There is no one who does good,
no, not one.

Early in Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot the main character Prince Myshkin, a simple and awkward man, has a conversation with the more worldly Rogozhin. The two are in Rogozhin’s apartment and before Myshkin leaves they admire a copy of Hans Holbein’s painting of Christ in the Tomb. The painting depicts a gaunt and emaciated body, skin dried and stuck to the bones, with no signs of life within it. As Myshkin is about leave Rogozhin asks him, “I’ve long wanted to ask you something: Do you believe in God or not?”

Myshkin was about to leave without answering the question but as he took a step down the stairs he turned and told Rogozhin of four recent experiences. This is the first experience,

One morning I was traveling on a new railway line and spent four hours talking on the train with a certain man, having only just made his acquaintance. I heard a good deal about him before and, among other things, that he was an atheist. He’s really a very learned man, and I was glad to be talking with a true scholar. Moreover, he’s a man of rare courtesy, and he talked with me as if I were perfectly equal to him in knowledge and ideas. He doesn’t believe in God. Only one thing struck me: it was as if that was not at all what he was talking about all the while, and it struck me precisely because before, too, however many unbelievers I’ve met, however many books I’ve read on the subject, it has always seemed to me that they were talking or writing books that were not all about that, though it looked as if it was about that. I said this to him right then, but it must be I didn’t speak clearly, or didn’t know how to express it, because he didn’t understand anything . . .

What is at stake in the conversation between religious believers and atheists? Do we all agree that we are talking about the same thing, the same that as Dostoevsky puts it? Before we have time to consider what we are talking about, the conversations can take on a life of their own. These questions can quickly soar into theoretical abstractions removed from any experience in everyday life or they can cut painfully into some our deepest held personal convictions. These questions are relevant and they are around us. There was a time, perhaps, when atheism could be branded in North America as being closely identified with the so-called threat of communism or some other foreign entity and therefore it was easier to categorize and demonize. Today, however, the self-identified expression of atheism flows within our families and friends, and I will go out on a limb and suggest that it even wanders among our own thoughts here in the pews; that like the fool in the Psalm we may just say such a thing in our own heart.

But again, what is at stake here? What are we actually talking about? In some traditions the stakes are ratcheted up to eternal proportions hinging our everlasting salvation or damnation on what confession we offer in our hearts and on our lips. While the Christian notion of salvation is important our tradition in the Mennonite church does not view confession of faith as a signed insurance document for the eventualities of death. We tend to view questions of faith and belief as having to do as much with this life as what comes after.

Other conversations frame these questions as matters of empirical truth. Can God’s existence be proven? This is the typical arena where science or reason is pitted against faith. Here you get strange and convoluted expressions where believers will use science to prove God and scientists will herald deep faith in their scientific method as being able to answer all the questions posed by humanity.

There are of course the moral debates. One side parading an historical list of violent atrocities motivated and carried out in the name of God. The other side responding with our present moral crises and pointing to a lack of faith as how we have lost our moral compass. Belief in God is framed as both culprit and answer to our moral condition.

There are times when the conversation is more internal, more of a wrestling. There are so many religions, do they all point to the same God? If so, doesn’t that make them all sort of wrong? Doesn’t the language of God just reflect a worldview that is no longer adequate for our engagement with life? If there is a good and loving God then how can we explain God’s reality and the senseless violence and suffering we see around us? Why can’t I shake the experience of something more, something bigger, something beyond what we as humans can understand? How else can we explain the realities and experiences of deep beauty and profound love? What is that abiding sense which convinces me that I am not alone?

The questions, the conversations, the conflicts, can be multiplied. I want to return now to Psalm 14. The opening verse has been used by Christians as an easy proof text that atheists are ‘fools’ but this passage has little interest in most of the conversations or debates around belief and atheism today. The Psalms are poetry and Hebrew poetry often uses parallels to emphasize or contrast particular themes or images. Psalm 14 highlights two particular phrases. The first comes in the opening line, “Fools say in their hearts, ‘There is no God’”. In Hebrew there are just two words ‘No God’. Following this there are two lines that repeat a similar phrase which says, “There is no one who does good.”

No God and No Good are in parallel here. What is the connection here? It is common, as I mentioned earlier, that people protest that we are more immoral, that we are less good, because we stopped believing in God. But I don’t think that is the connection should be made quite that way. How does the Psalm address the relationship between good and God? Where could the fool see God? The Psalm answers this question by saying that these fools are consuming God’s people like they consume bread. And who are God’s people? Verse five says that God is in line with the righteous. And who are the righteous? Verse six says that it is in the company of the impoverished. The fool does not see God because the fool does not see the value of his neighbour, or sees the value only as something to be consumed. The atheism here is cruelty and injustice. The one practicing such will not know the God of Israel.

Perhaps the most appropriate but also the most chilling account of what is going on here in Psalm 14 comes from the author Elie Wiesel’s experience of the concentration camps during the Holocaust. In his book Night Wiesel had already given accounts of several horrors and traumatic experiences of death and violence but then he comes to a story a young boy who is given no name. Wiesel writes, “This one had a delicate and beautiful face – an incredible sight in this camp.” This boy and two other adult prisoners were found to have sabotaged some equipment in the camp and were also found with weapons. They were sentenced to be hanged. As was the routine the other prisoners were gathered around the gallows to witness the hanging. After the chairs were knocked over and the bodies hung from the noose, Wiesel recounts,

Then came the march past the victims. The two men were no longer alive. Their tongues were hanging out, swollen and bluish. But the third rope was still moving: the child, too light, was still breathing . . .

And so he remained for more than half an hour, lingering between life and death, writhing before our eyes. And we were forced to look at him at close range. He was still alive when I passed him. His tongue was still red, his eyes not yet extinguished.
Behind me, I heard [a] man asking:
“For God’s sake, where is God?”
And from within me, I heard a voice answer:
“Where He is? This is where – hanging here from this gallows . . .”

And then as though intuitively connected to those who would consume God’s people in Psalm 14 Wiesel concludes saying,

That night, the soup tasted like corpses.

I struggled with whether or not to include this story. It seemed somehow beyond my ability to share and communicate. To handle this story seemed profane. But the story demands of us what the Psalm points to. The Jewish and Christian notion of God is intimately and indelibly tied up with those who suffer this world. As I said at the beginning there are many ways of talking about God but to talk about God within the Jewish and Christian tradition at least, means that you must talk about your neighbour. It is amazing how dramatically we miss that point despite the fact that Jesus clarified this reality in some pretty unambiguous terms in the Great Commandment. Later on Jesus even gives the positive and constructive response to what Psalm 14 is criticizing. In a parable from Matthew 25 Jesus describes how caring for and giving attention to the least of these around us is the same as giving attention to and encountering God. Any other debates about God are at best interesting but are most likely just a practice of trading in fool’s god, it might even look pretty but it’s still worthless.

I began this sermon with an image of from Dostoeveky’s novel The Idiot. It was one of four images he shared in response to Rogozhin questioning Myshkin about whether he believed in God. I want to conclude now with the final image. Myshkin continues saying,

I ran into a peasant woman with a nursing baby. She was a young woman. And the baby was about six weeks old. And the baby smiled at her, as far as she’d noticed, for the first time since it was born. I saw her suddenly cross herself very, very piously. ‘What is it, young woman?’ I say. (I was asking questions all the time then.) ‘It’s just that a mother rejoices,’ she says, ‘when she notices her baby’s first smile, the same as God rejoices each time he looks down from heaven and sees a sinner standing before him and praying with all his heart.’ The woman said that to me, in almost those words, and it was such a deep, such a subtle and truly religious thought, a thought that all at once expressed the whole essence of Christianity, that is, the whole idea of God as our father, and that God rejoices over man as a father over his own child – the main thought of Christ! A simple peasant woman! . . . Listen [Rogozhin] you asked me earlier, here is my answer: the essence of religious feeling doesn’t fit with any reasoning, with any crimes and trespasses, or with any atheisms; there’s something else here that’s not that, and will eternally be not that; there’s something in it that atheisms will eternally glance off, and they will eternally by talking not about that.

I would only want to add that this is not simply the case with some atheists but equally with the Christians who would debate over this fool’s god. And conversely there are many atheists deeply committed to the sustained and loving attention towards their neighbours. We don’t prove the presence of God we practice the presence of God. And if we do want to want to talk about our beliefs or non-beliefs we would be wise to imitate the pious Myshkin and atheist Rogozhin. Before Rogozhin even asked the question of belief they stood there together considering, giving attention to, Christ in the Tomb, and so if we are venture into this conversation we must also first consider the boy on the gallows, the lamb of God, the lamb that is God. We gather there as we are, and we acknowledge what we see. These are the realities by which any talk, any expression of God will have any value.

Amen.

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