Sermon given at Matins on St Peter's Day 2014

29 June 2014 at 10:00 am

The Reverend Professor Vernon White, Canon in Residence

A menacing crack of thunder, a nightmare, or just some unaccountable frisson of fear, and a young child runs to its mother. The mother instinctively gathers the child up. ‘It’s all right’, she says, ‘everything is all right’. And because, to the child, the mother is all powerful, the child believes and is reassured.

And so, some say, religious belief is also born. That is how religion is constructed. It is born precisely out of that deep need for reassurance that we all have in a hostile world. A reassurance we find temporarily in our earthly parents, if we are lucky, and then unconsciously we project our parents into the heavens and come to believe in a divine Father figure. Our ache for security is so great we invent God, and then hand him down in religious beliefs and practices which take on a life of their own. These invented religious beliefs then take even deeper root because they fulfil other needs too. They give us social purpose, pride, identity, belonging. They give us a set of rules to live by—and by which we can sometimes exert power over others. This sort of characterization of religion, as human invention, received huge impetus especially in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries from those great masters of suspicion: Nietzsche, Feuerbach, Durkheim, and Freud who brought new insights of psychology and anthropology to bear to show how easily and naturally religion could have all been constructed in this way.

There are two reactions to this. For some it is liberating! For those brought up under the yoke of an oppressive religion it helps them break free from its authority. To see through something is the first step to freeing ourselves from it. But for those for whom religion has been more about reassurance and identity, this possibility that it’s all made up is disturbing, not liberating. We feel that childhood frisson of fear more deeply still. If there really are no everlasting arms beneath the mother’s arms then this can be terrifying indeed. It means everything is not all right. And there is no guarantee it ever will be.

But do we really have to choose between believing either all religion is invented, oppressive, false, or that it’s all true and good? Surely it’s a false alternative!

Take those recent insights of psychology and anthropology. They do not really require us to think it is all just made-up. Yes, they’ve made us more aware of the causes and mechanisms by which we gain beliefs (those childhood fears or social needs), but to discover a cause of a belief or experience doesn’t necessarily change what it means. In other areas of life we don’t normally reckon that uncovering the mechanism of our needs and desires means that what we need and desire has no meaning and doesn’t exist. To take a simple example: I may now realize that my hunger for food, or for love, has a biological or evolutionary cause—but that doesn’t mean there’s no such thing as real food or real love. So why should it be any different with our ache for God? Yes, it may have been generated by a natural need, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a real God meeting us through that need.

Conversely, if we take the nature of our religious beliefs themselves, they do not really require us to believe it is all true, either. The best of faith has itself already seen that religion is a complex mix of things, the true and the false. The prophets frequently warned that even their own religion often included purely human and often false ideas of God. Jeremiah, for example, warned the people of Israel in the seventh century BC that their Temple had actually become a false symbol, just a sign of national pride by which they evaded the demands of real justice, real compassion; a place where they evaded the real God, rather than truly met him. Jesus likewise warned against trusting too much the religious systems of his time: he regularly critiqued it, urging people to beware of its legalisms, not to take refuge in their sense of religious rightness. One of the greatest twentieth-century theologians echoes this: ‘in religion’, he wrote, ‘man can bolt and bar himself against the real God’.

In fact, what Jeremiah and Jesus and the best of our theology are really wanting to do is take us deeper than the false alternative. They’re helping us sift through our beliefs to see what is really real, ultimately to see Christ himself—a much more generous and transformative way, truth, and life than so much of the religion we have created for ourselves. This is exactly as our second reading today was telling us too—that story of Peter who was opened up by the Spirit to see beyond his received religion of restrictive rules, to see the true God, the Christ-like God of grace who is at work amongst Gentiles as well as Jews, sinners as well as saints, who ‘makes no distinction between them and us’.

And so that is the very simple message I’m offering today. If you sometimes feel you have begun to see though things, to see through your own religious traditions and beliefs; if you’ve begun to suspect they are just human creations, just products of human need, or worse just tools of social oppression—you may be right! A lot of religion does need to be seen through. But if you then think that means you’ve seen through it all and there’s nothing there at all—you would be very wrong! For these religious beliefs are two-way traffic. They do sometimes just carry our own perilous fantasies and inventions. But they can also carry the real God to us; something that is really there; a God more mysterious and more challenging than the instantly reassuring arms of a mother, or familiar set of rules - but actually all the more real, and more liberating, than that. This is the God we find in Christ; the God who opened up to Peter to see through the refuge of his own customs and see this real spirit of Christ at work beyond his own tribe or religion—an infinitely more liberating, more real, more credible reality than any of our own creations of God—and so, as such, in the end, also more truly reassuring than they could ever be.

© 2018 The Dean and Chapter of Westminster

Website design - Design by Structure