Between fundamentalism and atheism


A follow up on this past Sunday’s sermon: Our text came from the end of the 18th chapter of the Gospel of John, where Jesus stands as a prisoner before Pilate. In the background are the religous leaders who have arrested Jesus and seek now for Pilate, the Roman, to condemn Jesus to death.

Pilate and the religious authorities are two extreme positions easily identifiable in our age:

The religious authorities represent fundamentalism in all its forms (Christian, Moslem, etc.) In their view, Jesus, with his unorthodox theology and his challenge to their oppressive authority, must be silenced.

Pilate represents the cynical atheism, nihilism, hedonism of our age that doubts there is such a thing as truth. “What is truth?” he asks Jesus, with resigned despair. Perhaps he has been driven to this position in part by the transparency of the fundamentalists’ hypocricy, who demand the silencing of Jesus supposedly for the sake of “truth”, when it is obvious to Pilate that they are merely out to protect their own power and privilege. “If these guys represent belief in God, there must not be much to it.”

It is my aspiration and hope that our church can provide a middle path between fundamentalism and cynical atheism. We know that God is real, and we know the need to connect to this God. We know this God is greater than our belief systems — an awesome mystery that cannot be reduced to a neat and tidy book of rules explaining everything. We believe this God is most clearly revealed in the person of Jesus. It seems to me that fundamentalists put more attention on Jesus as an abstract concept — “the only son of God whose death paid the price for our sins” — than they do the actual practical truths that this man’s life and death embodied: Love, forgiveness, authenticity (as opposed to the duplicity of the scribes and pharisees), humility (consider Jesus’ story of the taxcollector and the pharisee in the temple) and the simple truth that every single person is precious to God, with an inherent dignity that should not be oppressed.

There really is such a thing as TRUTH, but generally speaking it is not the truth of doctrine but rather the truth of values we are called to live out. The great mystery that is God who gave us this life cares for these kinds of emobodied truths and, I suspect, is often repulsed by our doctrines.

In certain ways it would make fundraising and membership growth a lot easier if we could tell convenient lies that make our church indispensable to people’s eternal salvation, i.e., that if you don’t worship here and give generously here you are going to hell.  But it would not be the truth. And Jesus makes it very clear in our passage that he and truth are best buddies.  You can’t tell a lie in the name of Jesus.

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