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Episcopal Questions, Episcopal Answers
Exploring Christian Faith
By Ian Markham, C. K. ROBERTSON
Church Publishing IncorporatedCopyright © 2014 Ian Markham and C. K. Robertson
All rights reserved.
Is there any evidence that God exists?
In brief the answer is yes. Anglicans tend to be inclined to the view that there are several arguments that suggest the existence of God. Generally Anglican theologians, such as Keith Ward and Eric Mascall, are sympathetic to the project known as "natural theology." Natural theology is the attempt to show that there is in nature and our experience good evidence that God exists. Indeed, the great Roman Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas (1274) insisted that human reason, without the help of the Bible, was able to establish three truths—namely, the existence of God, the nature of God, and the immortality of the soul.
Although Anglican theologians would not want to overstate the power of these arguments, they are sympathetic to the suggestion that one's view of the world is incomplete unless one affirms the reality of God. Some have talked about pointers to God's existence. These pointers include the big metaphysical questions (e.g., why does anything exist?) as well as the mysteries of experience (what is the source of our moral instincts?).
On the big metaphysical questions, probably the one which is most striking is the emerging mystery around the remarkable improbable mathematics of our existence. This is known as the "anthropic principle." Cosmologists are now in agreement that it is remarkable that this universe is a life-producing universe. To take one illustration, at the Big Bang the relationship between the force of gravity and the expansive force had to be exactly right. If the force of gravity was too strong, then the universe would collapse into itself; if the expansive force was too great, then the universe would just dissipate into a mass of gases and stars and planets that would not have formed. The universe ended up being just right; and the odds of this occurring are the equivalent of taking a gun and hitting a target on the other side of the universe. This is just one of many such remarkable instances. The universe looks as if life was intended. This doesn't surprise Episcopalians because this is exactly what we believe about the universe.
On the mysteries of experience, many Anglican thinkers have felt that the mystery of our moral sensitivity needed explaining. Our sense of moral obligation is puzzling. When we feel that we really "ought" to do something (for example, visit a relative in hospital), the "ought" feels as if it is an external pressure on our life. Although we might wish to go to the movie theater, we are feeling obligated to do something we would rather not do. How do we explain this basic phenomenon? For Anglican thinkers, the strongest explanation was God, the source of all love and justice, who calls all humanity into a deeper relationship through our commitment to live life appropriately.
There are plenty of other arguments, but these are just two illustrations of why Anglicans believe that there is good evidence that God exists.
Additional question: What do you think is the strongest argument for God's existence? Do you think such an argument is possible or necessary for faith?
What is God like?
There isn't a distinctively Episcopalian answer to this question. This is good; after all, we see ourselves as a tradition that builds on and shares the wisdom of the entire Christian tradition. And our church has advocates reflecting the main options in Christendom generally. The classical answer, with which many Episcopalians would identify and perhaps is the one found most clearly in our liturgy, is that God is Spirit, source of everything that is, who is timeless, omniscient (all knowing), omnipotent (all powerful), and perfect love.
The argument for the classical position is this. Given God is the source of everything that is, God must be different from matter. If God was matter, then the question "who made God?" would have some force. But given that belief in God is a belief in a creator, God must be different from matter. Furthermore this source of everything is perfect, which is the reason why we worship God. If God is perfect, then God cannot be constantly changing. And if God doesn't change, then God must be timeless (i.e., there is no duration at all in the life of God). From this timeless vantage point, God has complete knowledge of past, present, and future. In addition, God is able to do anything that can be done (create, perform miracles, end the universe), yet we know from Scripture that this power is entirely used for the purposes of furthering the ends of love.
Some thinkers in the Episcopal Church have more sympathy with an alternative account, which brings God closer to the physical universe. Some even talk of the world being the "body of God" or of the universe existing within God (much like an embryo grows inside the womb of the mother). With these pictures, we have a God who has a temporal life (so time is part of God—God does one thing after another), who has allowed free creatures to emerge within the universe. These free creatures are invited to be "cocreators" with God of the future. On this view, God is able to predict the future, but cannot see the future (after all, it hasn't yet happened). God is not so much timeless and eternal, but everlasting. And given God has created free creatures, it is possible for humans to behave in a way that surprises God. Advocates of this position believe that it is closer with the picture of God in the Bible.
Both of these pictures share the affirmation that God creates the universe (the first out of nothing, the second forming within God's own life) and that God is calling us into relationship. A key factor is our interpretation of Scripture. For the classical position, this account is grounded in philosophical speculation derived perhaps from the logic of Scripture; for the alternative account, it is inspired from the dynamic and description of exactly how God seems to relate to the people of God in Scripture.
Additional question: Which account of God do you find more attractive?
Can I have doubts and still be an Episcopalian?
Yes. One joy of being in a deeply biblical tradition is that we spend considerable time among the Psalms. A psalm is one of the lessons appointed for every service. In the Psalms, the people of God struggle with their faith. They rage with God; they puzzle; and yes, they doubt (see, for example, Psalm 77). The Psalms are our biblical justification of the legitimacy of doubt.
It is often said that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. When we think about God, we do so from the vantage point of humans. We are small entities in a vast universe; we are trying to work out what the source and creator of the universe is like. We should approach this project with some humility. Our vantage point does not permit certainty. We are called to think, struggle, and discern the truth about God and God's relations with the world.
Given all this, the Episcopal Church recognizes that we are all on a journey of faith. This journey will have many twists and turns. Sometimes our sense and experience of God will be strong; at other times, God will seem to be further away.
As we will discover when we look at the Episcopal Church's view of baptism, we have in that moment a promise from God that God is always close to us, even when it is difficult to live that reality. We take the view that as our commitment and confidence in God fluctuates the beauty of the gospel is that God is holding us in a loving embrace regardless.
For most clergy in the Episcopal Church, they are accustomed to members who have doubts and questions. Access to the sacraments does not depend on passing a theology exam or explaining precisely and in what way you believe the creeds.
Additional question: Reflect on the moments in your life when God has seemed close to you and those moments when God has seemed further away. Why the difference?
Why does God allow evil and suffering?
Pain and suffering are built into all of nature. First, it is built into the structure of the planet. Periodically, the tectonic plates on the earth's crust shift, creating an earthquake; and hurricanes, floods, and droughts inflict different parts of the globe every year. Second, it is built into the cycle of life. Every living thing dies; and pain and illness are part of the regular processes of nature. Third, it is part of the reality of human coexistence. Humans have an extraordinary capacity to inflict additional pain and hurt on each other. From rape to the holocaust, humans can be extraordinarily cruel to each other.
The reason why evil and suffering are such a major problem for faith is that Christians believe that God is both all powerful and, simultaneously, perfect love. The problem is often stated as a conundrum as follows: if God is all powerful, then God must be able to abolish suffering; if God is perfect love, then God must wish to abolish suffering. But suffering exists, therefore God cannot be both all powerful and all loving. This is the problem of theodicy.
Within the tradition, there are two responses to this. One response speaks primarily to the head; the other response speaks to the heart. The head response starts by recognizing that the purpose of creation is not to build an idyllic setting where all human needs are satisfied, but to provide an environment where we can be formed to discover the centrality of love in our lives. So we are born into families where the cycle of life and death is the pattern and we learn the precious nature of time spent with each other; we are born into communities where we have to learn to cope with adversity and challenges together; and we learn that each of us has the option of hating rather than loving and with hate comes pain and hurt. For God to have this universe that can create love, it needed to be like this one. And love is so high a value, this universe is worth realizing.
The problem with the head answer is that it feels so inadequate in the light of so many tragedies we read about and see on television. So perhaps the heart response is more helpful. The ultimate Christian response to the tragedy of evil and suffering is Good Friday. Christians believe that on the cross was the creator of the universe hanging and dying. The point is simple: whatever reason God had for allowing evil and suffering, Christians believe that God got involved and fully participated in the tragedy and demands of human existence. And Good Friday is not the end; it is followed by Easter Sunday. So we affirm that in the midst of the tragic, there is always hope. There is always resurrection. There is always a way through.
Can I believe in evolution and be an Episcopalian?
Yes. Unlike some other Christian traditions, we have no problem with the modern account of the universe informed by science. We start from the assumption that all truth is part of the truth of God. Therefore any discovery in any field needs to be taken seriously. Given the evidence for the theory of natural selection is very strong (there is no reputable biologist working at a nonsectarian university who does not accept that some form of natural selection over a long period of time is part of our origins), we believe that Christians need to accommodate that truth.
For some Christians, the problem is the relationship of the theory of evolution with the narrative of Scripture. As we will see, Episcopalians also believe in the authority of Scripture. However, we do not accept that our interpretation of the opening chapters of Genesis need involve the rejection of evolution.
The first and second chapters of Genesis are best read as "poetic." They start with the declaration that "in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth" and then each stage of creation is ushered in by God speaking. Naturally, it assumed an ancient cosmological model—one where the sun appears as a lamp in the sky and is not the source of the light. However, the point of the narrative is not the cosmology, but the act of God speaking and God creating.
The point of this majestic narrative is that God is the source of everything that is. In addition, this is a world which God loves and is engaged with us. When we speak, we reveal our thoughts. So by analogy, everything that is comes from the thought of God. In the same way our words show others who we are, so the creation shows us who God is. Now the precise mechanism of creation is not actually described in the narrative. So we believe that God's mechanism of creation is being discovered by modern biologists. God created using the mechanisms of natural selection. This means that Episcopalians are able to affirm the truth of Genesis and at the same time affirm the truths being discovered by modern science.
Additional question: How do you understand Genesis 1?
How do Episcopalians respond to the claim that science has made religion redundant?
Many have heard of Richard Dawkins and his attack on religion. Dawkins believes that science has made the God hypothesis redundant. Needless to say, Episcopalians disagree strongly with this.
Naturally, we recognize that the achievements of science are remarkable. We appreciate the discovery of antibiotics and modern dentistry; we also affirm the many discoveries that science is making about the nature of the universe. We have already seen how some of those discoveries seem to point to faith. The very fact of science is evidence for God. Science assumes the universe is orderly and predictable. Such order requires explanation, which Christians believe takes the form of divine intention and agency. In other words, the world is orderly because God wanted it to be a stable and predictable environment, in which we can move and learn how to relate to each other.
However, our primary response is to suggest that science explains an aspect of reality but not all of reality. The truth about our universe is that it is a spiritually infused reality. We are not simply complex bundles of atoms that emerged from nowhere and ultimately will be made extinct. Instead, we are a result of divine purpose; we are made with the capacity to love and reason; and we are intended to discover love and thereby construct a reality that can endure for eternity.
Excerpted from Episcopal Questions, Episcopal Answers by Ian Markham, C. K. ROBERTSON. Copyright © 2014 Ian Markham and C. K. Robertson. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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