“A relationship with God can be direct, naive, lively, not the kind adults have which usually takes place in the sphere of rumor.” – R. M. Rilke
Text: Revelation 10: 1-3, 8-9
In any sermon titled “Changing the Real Estate,” you would naturally expect me to talk about two things — the way the real estate was, and what the real estate is becoming. And because this is a sermon you’d expect me to talk about how God’s changed real estate makes a difference and what that difference calls you to do.
A little over 10 years ago, a pastor by the name of Scott Holland published an article titled “Theology is a Kind of Writing,” that sparked a different way of thinking about theology. Rev. Holland had in mind that the language of faith should be more poetic — it should be marked by a desire to tell a story, to evoke drama, to suggest the barest outlines of the interior desire that enlivens life and resists complete description. He writes in that article that with the demise of metaphyiscs, theology will need to attend to poetry for inspiration and motivation and, more importantly, to carry the weight of its demands.
Despite the fact that I like the direction Holland wants to go, I think Holland makes a mistake that many people make by confusing the word theology, with the word witness. It makes perfect sense to suggest that our witness language, the language of our church liturgies of sermons, even of certain kinds of religious texts, should be more poetic. Theology is simply a second order of criticism directed toward our witness. We need both. And if we need theology, it cannot be that metaphysics is dead, as Holland and many others claim, since metaphysics is the initial reflections on the necessary requirements to reflect at all.
In fact — you could argue that a new book out by two of our nations preeminent physicists, Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, dip into metaphysics in a their new book called The Grand Design. The book begins with these words:
We each exist for but a short time, and in that time explore but a small part of the whole universe. But humans are a curious species. We wonder. We seek answers. Living in this vast world that is by turns kind and cruel, and gazing at the immense heavens above, people have always asked a multitude of questions. How can we understand the world in which we find ourselves? How does the universe behave? What is the nature of reality? Where did all this come from?
The book, it is clear, will be about the very thing Holland proclaims is dead. But in a curious and ironic parallel, the physicists write in the very next paragraph that “these questions are traditionally questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead,” they say.
All of this dying off of favorite topics of mine had me a bit defensive this week. But that wore off quite quickly. I am convinced that neither philosophy nor metaphysics have met their demise despite the prognostications from these two quite different fronts.
Instead, I see that these fronts of physics and poetry are shifting inquiry about these ultimate questions in a more fruitful direction than the Church has traditionally allowed. These two fronts are doing exactly what Rainer Maria Rilke suggests in his later writing about his stories of God (of which the children heard the first, “God’s Hands” namely, moving God out of the realm of rumor — that is moving God from the realm of what you’ve heard said about God, into the realm of lively relationship.
So disturbed was I by the cheap-shots that Hawking and Mlodinow were shooting at religion that I decided to listen to an interview that Tom Ashbrook of On Point radio conducted with coauthor Leonard Mlodinow. There, in his conversational voice, I realized that he and Hawking were rejecting a God which should be rejected. A God whose only purpose was to create to universe like some watchmaker, and then sit back and rule over it with absolute power, intervening with miracle when necessary.
In that interview which I just mentioned, Ashbrook asks Mlodinow:
Ashbrook: You say there are no miracles.
Mlodinow: When we say there are no miracles we are speaking as physicists. There are no miracles in the natural world. We’ve been observing the natural world for quite a long time and quite detailed theories of the world and they always apply.
Ashbrook: “Not saying there’s no God, but you sure cut down on the real estate that God would inhabit.
Mlodinow: Right, and we definitely push back the need for a God several layers. We know that we don’t need God to create and earthly environment. Darwin’s theory of evolution showed that you don’t need God to design people. We say now that we don’t need God to create the universe or create the laws as they are.
I was impressed with Mlodinow’s courage, and his intellectual honesty. It has never been easy to suggest the real estate that God has inhabited in our thinking is changed. Equally it has never been easy to acknowledge that there might very well be a different way to think about God.
So here’s an idea about God, about which you’ve heard me speak, but for which I suspect, remains news for Mlodinow.
Just as Hawking and Mlodinow’s thinking about the universes are complex, so is the thinking we now have to engage about God.
It could go like this. (There are many ways it could go!)
We gather every week to worship. And it’s not just worship of any old thing — but we call it the worship of God. So, while the word “God” has lots of uses in our common language, we use it in a specific sense — the great reality that is beyond ourselves with which we have to deal through worship. We deal with God through worship because in worship the total integrity of our thoughts and purposes, in our valueing of the highest things, is expressed. Because this expression is what it is — it means that God is also that ultimate reality which has to do with us. Worship is not the submission of our selves to a higher power, but a realization of love as the highest expression of our common humanity.
Perhaps it seems that the cosmological questions addressed in “The Grand Design” inhabit the proper real estate of this strictly ultimate reality, but a moment’s thought reveals otherwise. The great cosmological questions exist as abstractions from our own question of existence — from our greatest concerns of our common humanity. This means that while God is indeed the strictly ultimate reality, it cannot be all, or even primarily what God is. God is also a concrete reality — that is, God is relative. God changes. God’s actuality is in this actuality of our common humanity which is always changing, for better and sadly, sometimes for worse.
I could also say it this way — using the language of Tom Ashbrook in his interview with Mlodinow. God just is the real-estate. God does not inhabit a shrinking real-estate, or any real estate whatsoever that we might cordon off and suggest is God’s, but that as the ultimate reality God is actualized in the real estate of all creation. This means that, contrary to the usual thinking about God that Hawking and Mlodinow only seem to know and rightly criticize, God is not some pure, unchanging, Being, who sets things into motion at the beginning and now simply exists to provide a rule by which all our laws are measured. As actualized in the real estate of all creation, God is the one whom all creation must take account.
The changed real estate suggests that God is not only the ultimate reality, but the individual reality. And the only reason that this has not been acknowledged, despite what we know about love in our everyday world, is because it seemed unworthy for the creator of the universe to have to do with the creatures. It seemed unseemly, a blasphemy.
What does this mean for us? Put, perhaps too simply, it means we can relax. It’s ok that God’s real estate is changing, as Ashbrook put it, because that never properly was God’s real estate.
Put more poignantly, what it means is that, while we are not engaged on a fool’s errand in this hour of worship, we are engaged in a high and perpetual quest to lodge within our humanity all that this meaning entails — to love — to be open to the other and to be courageous in the face of trouble, to walk with heart and to speak in truth, to offer a hand of aid and a word of hope — in short to follow after our better angels.
And this is why I chose to have us read today from that odd book of John’s — the Book of Revelation. Despite spending the energy just now on thinking about the real estate of God, really what we are called to do could be just what the angel ordered John to do — These words are not to be thought — they are to be eaten. Without being quite so literal about it, I think the book, and this passage in particular calls us to the realization that artists and poets have long known: the strength of religious language, when it is strong, comes from it’s evocative power, inviting imaginative participation in the realm of the highest humanity. By this, we are led to the higher things that we would have guide us — and to that realm of life Jesus called the kingdom of God. Amen.