Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Silent Sermon

Psalm 19 in the Bible is a beautiful poem that describes the daily sermon given by nature without a word spoken. The poem begins this way:

The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.

What I wouldn’t give if just once in my life I could write a few lines of poetry as perfect as that.

In 1888 the Gifford Lectures began in Scotland. Lord Gifford was a judge who cared more about religion and metaphysics than the law, so upon his death he endowed a lectureship that has become the most important theological lectureship in the world. Lord Gifford’s sole aim in setting up this series was to prove that God could be known through natural theology without any reference to the miraculous. Over the decades great philosophers and theologians were awarded the Gifford Lectures. People like William James, Alfred North Whitehead, Albert Schweitzer, Karl Barth, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Paul Tillich have all spoken to Lord Gifford’s quest to discover a natural theology based on observation and reason.

Sadly, in ways that might make Lord Gifford spin in his grave, many of these scholars have determined natural theology is a dead end. In 2001, Stanley Hauerwas of Duke Divinity School was awarded the Gifford Lectureship. Hauerwas declared that the God one would discover through natural theology was not a God he could worship.

And why should we care about any of this? Because right now our world is bitterly divided between those who believe the poet’s universal vision in Psalm 19 and those who believe God and the truth can only be known in our sectarian communities and traditions.

The poet of Psalm 19 sees each day declaring in silence the beauty and power of a creator who is open to all. On the other hand, the world is filled with religious extremists who declare God and the truth can only be known through their interpretation of the Quran or the Bible. We see political operatives insinuating that God and the truth are on their side. Disputes in the public schools often pit people of different faiths and worldviews against one another.

And what I fear is that the vision of the poet in Psalm 19, and the hope of Lord Gifford, is dying. The idea that we can observe the silent witness of the created order, and from that witness deduce universal truths that draw us together, is not an idea that holds much sway right now.

We are paying a terrible price for ignoring the universal truths that are preached each dawn and each dusk. Even the most basic universal lessons are being pushed aside in favor of brutal sectarian aims. Suicide bombers destroy innocent lives in the name of Allah. Smart bombs are dropped from the skies onto the heads of innocent people in the name of freedom. Torture is not only tolerated, but in recent years became a tool of the United States to secure our liberty. How absurd is that? Can there be a more basic universal truth than it is wrong, immoral, indecent, and obscene to torture other human beings?

Of course there are other crucial points the natural world makes to us each day in its silent speech. Surely we can see that the desecration of our water, air, and land is a sin according to the magnificent sermon that comes with the break of day. We shouldn’t need virtually every reputable scientist telling us that global warming is real, and that environmental abuse is the great holocaust in our future. We should simply witness the proclamation of day and night and want to preserve this treasure that has been handed to us.

But truth be known, it is hard for us to hear this sermon without words. Technology has allowed us to fill the night with light, and to fill every silence with sounds, and to fill every empty space with video pixels. We are busy and productive and affluent, but we are also anxious and exhausted and empty. Our inability to hear the silent sermon of nature, and its universal truths, not only means we are committing atrocities against one another; it also means our personal lives are decadent and dead.

In this world ablaze with sectarian violence, and divided by narrow self-interest, and filled with non-stop noise and clutter, there is a way out of our splintered, empty ways. It is through the daily sermon of nature that begins at dawn with a beauty that can move us and a power that can shake us. This silent proclamation is open to all without regard to nation, creed, race, or religion. And if we will stop and pay attention, and recognize the universal truths contained in this wordless speech, we can be healed, and we can be whole, and we can be one.

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About Me

former pastor who is now a pastoral counselor and consultant (; married with two teenagers; progressive in my politics and theology