The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
Sigmund Freud hypothesized that believers make up the existence of God because they are afraid to face the reality of this cold, cruel world without imagining there to be in it a powerful and beneficial Father who, like the one they always wished they’d had, would protect them and provide for them. To believe then is to engage in wish fulfillment.
There are three quick responses I have to make here: First, that some of us might wish that something were there argues neither for nor against its existence. It just puts us on notice that we might have a prejudice that would tempt us to jump to the conclusion we hope to reach. Second, it is equally possible that we have just as much prejudice in the opposite direction and that atheism is just as often an act of wish fulfillment. After all, many of us would like to think that there is no one above us telling us what to do and holding us accountable to do it. Third, it is possible to be aware of one’s wishes about what’s out there and yet remain disciplined enough to keep open-minded and face facts.
Some years ago, this church housed a special high school for students who had been kicked out of all other high schools. The principal was a great guy named Chris, and he and I became good friends.
We were, I suppose, an odd couple. For he was as much an evangelistic atheist as I am an evangelistic believer. Chris gave me Christopher Hitchens’ book, God Is Not Great, perhaps the most read book of the last quarter century making the case against believing in God; and I gave Chris Timothy Keller’s book, The Reason for God, a recent book making the case for believing in God. Chris and I would regularly meet at the Yardhouse for a beer and a burger, and some friendly debate.
Eventually, Chris was promoted, and moved out of the area. I still miss him. By the way, neither of us converted the other.
Christopher Hitchens, the author of God Is Not Great, himself enjoyed the kind of friendship Chris and I did. He befriended a Christian apologist, Larry Taunton, with whom he frequently participated in public debates over the validity of believing in God. The two of them – despite their disparate worldviews – grew close.
Taunton has written a book about their remarkable relationship. It focuses on two long roads trips they shared during which they studied the Gospel of John together. Taunton would do all the driving while Hitchens, fighting the esophageal cancer that eventually killed him in 2011, would read John aloud and drink Scotch. Hitchens never came to believe, but he did begin to doubt some of his doubts and to view faith as at least something worth serious consideration.
Many of Hitchens’s atheistic friends have responded with irrational anger upon learning of Hitchens’ openness to considering the Christian faith. According to the reporting of Eric Metaxas in a recent article in – of all places! – The Wall Street Journal, Hitchen’s outraged atheistic buddies have been crashing Taulon’s book’s Amazon page with one-star reviews saying that the book is “tripe”, “dishonest” and “morally reprehensible”, and that Taunton is just trying to ride Hitchens’ coattails “to make a fast buck”. Most of these reviews make it clear that the reviewer hasn’t bothered to read Taunton’s book.
It would appear that a lot of Hitchens’ admirers lack his intellectual courage and integrity to give the Christian faith a fair-minded look-over. In such cases, who’s afraid of facing reality? Who’s indulging in wish fulfillment? Is God a subject too scary for some to seriously consider?
For some atheists it is. But that is also true for some nominal Christians as well. Some people want to believe in God but not take a very close look at Him. Some church-goers want to know God a little but not all that well.
You can see this in today’s Gospel story. Jesus has resurrected a poor widow’s only son, and the witnesses to the miracle are both delighted and upset. The text tells us that they exclaimed, “A great prophet has arisen among us,” and “God has visited his people.” But the text also tells us they were dismayed and disconcerted, saying, “Fear seized them all.” The Greek word used here is a strong one from which we get the word “phobia”, and it suggests the kind of dread and terror that causes folks to flee in fright. If God has visited, it’s alarming. If God is showing His power, it makes many shudder at the thought of His being that real and that close. Two weeks from today, we’ll be reading another Gospel story about how, after Jesus makes a deranged man living among the tombs and terrorizing the community sound and calm of mind, the one thing folks ask of Jesus is that He leave and never come back.
After all, if God is as present and potent a force as these stories imply, would we not have to live differently? How could we ever pretend God was not watching or imagine He wasn’t right there?
I remember hearing of a pastor’s receiving a half-serious note from a parishioner that read: “Pastor, you talk about a really big God. I find the idea of such a big God frightening. So I was wondering whether I could have about ten bucks worth of God. I don’t want so much of God that He might call into question how I spend my time or my money, or that He might make me feel unsettled over the plans I’ve made for the rest of my life. I want just enough of God to get some comfort from a once-a-week visit at church, some inspiration to help me through my hard stretches, and maybe some reinforcement of my being the nice guy I usually am. I might even pay twenty dollars a week for a good amount of God if we could skip the rest. I surely don’t want a big God who might turn my life upside down.”
To believe in a big God is a decision you don’t want to take lightly. Such a God might change anything and everything. If He really is as wonderful as we sing He is, how could we not make some effort to help those we care about to meet Him? If He really loves us as much as the Bible says, how could we not invest some time and energy into deepening our friendship? And if He really did say that the sacrifices we make for love’s sake will enrich our lives, how could we not try to develop greater generosity?
The truth is that, when God shows up, we like the people of Nain feel both gladness and dread. We have to decide with which feeling we will go. And that we will decide, not so much on the basis of reason, as on the basis of what we want and wish. Let us pray.