Several years ago, I was referred to a brilliant optometrist who happened to be Jewish. I was introduced to him as a Catholic priest. He was peering silently into the inner regions of my eye and suddenly pushed back away from me and said, “You know, Father, I don’t need someone to change water into wine for me to believe in God. The marvelous apparatus that enables us to see is so exquisitely complex that it makes the control system of a 747 jet liner seem crude and primitive by comparison. No one could ever convince me that there is not an infinite intelligence behind all this. I believe in God.”
The doctor’s argument in favor of the existence of God is not beyond reasonable contradiction, I agree; it’s not a perfect argument by any means. Atheists can make a very good case against it. But it is an impressive profession of personal faith that has a unique value all its own and is worthy of our attention and respect.
I say that in regard to the first reading and the gospel excerpt that we heard today. If we react to them with ridicule, passing them off as bits of useless, pious fiction, we would be missing the reason that they continue to be proclaimed in our sophisticated, scientific age. In their own way, and proper to their own time in history, they celebrate belief in the powerful, loving presence of God in the lives of human beings, a power that includes, of course, mastery over life and death.
Hearing these quaint readings is like visiting a museum of human religious history to honor what we see as consistent with the standards of their time.
The Episcopal bishop, John Spong, has written that, among the ancient writings that he is required, as is every priest, deacon and lector, to proclaim publicly in the context of liturgy, there are beliefs expressed that he no longer accepts, as many of us do not accept. However, he says, I proclaim them with respect and gratitude, without being insincere or dishonest, as a way of paying reverence to our ancestors who came long before us in the development of our faith tradition.
There has been a constant thread in the fabric of humanity right down to our present day: an awareness of the presence of God in all of creation. Some possessed that consciousness; many others did not. Many attributed divinity to the idols they themselves had produced. But that sturdy thread of authentic religion has never been broken. Stories of fantastic cures, improbable victories, conversations with the divine spirit, spectacular astronomical events, punishing plagues and pestilences — these and their like were at their core ways of professing the conviction that there is a God whose benign power is to be found everywhere.
In this 21st century we are saying that God is not a person like ourselves, God is not a being like ourselves. God is, rather, the infinite Spirit that gives existence and/or life to all that is.
We ought to be respectful of our religious past, as we hope future generations will be of us. What we share with our ancestors is basically belief and trust in the mystery we name God, although their perceptions and their practices were, very naturally, so different from ours.
It’s been wisely said that a people without a tradition is like a person without a memory. We should cherish and celebrate our Judaeo/Christian tradition. And that should be with gratitude to those who came before us and, with far fewer tools than we have today, did their best to grapple with the unfathomable mystery of Emmanuel, God-with-us.