“I Will Not Believe: Belief and Willful Ignorance”

~ John 20:19-31 ~

It was the Sunday after Easter, actually called the Second Sunday of Easter, six years ago that I preached my first sermon at Noe Valley Ministry. My, how time flies. You had been meeting in the chapel of St. Luke’s Hospital for some time already. I couldn’t help but notice that you had to walk through the Emergency Department to get to the chapel.

In that sermon, entitled I Doubt It, I noted how Thomas, through the centuries, hasn’t been treated very well. That labeled with the derogatory “Doubting Thomas,” he was the butt of Christian moral lessons. Paintings abound, some of which are featured in our worship slides today, featuring the “incredulity” of Thomas, such as in Rembrandt’s depiction. In that sermon I noted how a hymn in our own hymnal, These Things Did Thomas Count, features Thomas’s unbelief and extolling believers not to doubt:

The vision of his skeptic mind was keen enough to make him blind

To any unexpected act too large for his small world of fact.

May we, O God, by grace believe and thus the risen Christ receive,

Whose raw, imprinted palms reached out and beckoned Thomas from his doubt.

The message was, and is, simple: Doubt and belief don’t go together. So, Christian, beware: “Do no doubt, but believe,” as our scripture reading for today says.

But I went on to say that I thought Thomas was getting a bum rap. That all he wanted was to see and experience the same thing all the rest of them had. That, once given the opportunity to actually see for himself, he too would believe. And, the whole scene, the drama of the whole narrative, was to drive home the punchline, said by Jesus: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe,” which would be all those reading and hearing John’s gospel some 70 years after Jesus’s death and resurrection and, of course, presumably ‘us’.

So it is, through all the centuries the church has had a real problem with doubters. The only thing worse than a Doubting Thomas is a Judas. Doubts are seen as the enemy of faith. A questioning spirit is dangerous. Skepticism is just downright bad. The Christian must believe with one’s whole heart; doubters need not apply.

In contradiction, however, I concluded my sermon that Sunday six years ago that we should be a community that encourages questions to be asked and doubts to be expressed and explored. That being a skeptic is a worthy characteristic; that being a doubter is a badge of honor.

But today I want to explore Thomas’s defiant declaration, “I will not believe,” from a different angle. Today, “I will not believe” is not about a lack of faith but because of, maybe, too much faith, the kind of faith that results in doubting good medical science. Of course, I am talking about how some, if not many, people of faith (of various faith traditions – but I will focus my remarks on Christians), refuse to accept the sound medical advice of medical experts and scientists regarding the COVID19 pandemic. True, here in the Bay Area, the vast majority of churches, synagogues, and mosques have adhered, even if somewhat painfully, to the strict shelter-in-place orders that have resulting doing worship on Zoom. I must say much of that success is due to the relentless efforts of Michael Pappas and the San Francisco Interfaith Council to keep everyone in the loop. Even though I was away at the time, I am quite aware of how difficult it was for our congregation to decide to suspend in-person worship and go virtual. But we did because we believed that what the scientists and doctors are telling us is true, that it is trustworthy. We believe the science. We are not doubters; we have faith in the science to keep us alive.

Ah, but there are those who don’t believe. Indeed, they declare, “I will not believe.” These seem to be people who have decided that their faith, their religious beliefs, trumps (pun intended) the science. Now, I am very aware that the resistance to shelter-in-place guidelines and orders we are witnessing around the country has turned into a political game, that our president is actively encouraging defiant protests against the strict orders imposed by governors and local officials. So, there is the political angle.

But much of the religious resistance we see goes deeper than political agendas. I believe it comes out of a deep-seated antagonism towards science itself. They don’t trust the scientists who are advising us on COVID19 because they don’t trust science generally. In fact, they tend to see scientific endeavors and those who pursue them in a conspiratorial light. They are convinced that scientists are all part of a vast conspiracy of an anti-God, secularizing effort to remove all vestiges of God in our lives and in the culture at large.

Instead, they say, faith is the answer, even to the pandemic. And this expresses itself, often, in some rather strange ways. When the COVID19 pandemic became a serious issue in New Zealand (yes, later than it did here, but it came) the minister of the largest church in New Zealand, Destiny Church, claimed that “airborne demons” were responsible for the Coronavirus and said this:

Satan has control of atmospheres unless you’re a born-again, Jesus-loving, bible-believing, Holy Ghost-filled, tithe-paying believer. You’re the only one that can walk through atmospheres and have literally a protection, the PS-91 protection policy.

The “PS-91 protection policy” is a meme going around these days – Catholics, Protestants, Pentecostals – that asserts that if you faithfully pray Psalm 91 you will be protected. And note the “tithe-paying” part.

Of course, there are plenty of ministers and churches here in the States doing much of the same. Churches in Louisiana, Kentucky, Tennessee and even Redding, CA defying shelter-in-place orders believing that to stop meeting is to concede that Satan has won. A minister in Baton Rouge declared that if any in his congregation got the virus, he personally would heal them. Two days ago one of his parishioners died of COVID19. Evidently the pastor couldn’t get to him in time to heal him. He also suggested that parishioners should donate their stimulus checks to the church.

Now, while some, if not many, would see all this as profound expressions of faith in God, it is not. In reality, it is all a profound distrust of science. They resist the shelter-in-place orders, not because they believe their faith will overcome the disease, but because they deny the science of it – science deniers. Denying science is actually a deeply ingrained aspect of many Christians’ belief systems. It usually expresses itself in the age-old debate over creationism vs evolution.

For example, Tim Keller is a highly respected, albeit conservative and thoroughly Calvinistic, Presbyterian minister in Brooklyn, New York. Having written many books, he is regarded as a thinking-person’s Christian intellectual. And he has many Christian scientist friends like the ones who run Biologos who are serious researchers of the human genome. And they have tried to convince Keller that all of the human genetic markers point to a common ancestry with other species. But he cann’t go there because as an evangelical theologian he cannot bring himself to contradict what the Bible says, that we are all descendent from a literal Adam and Eve. As he has written, “I’ve got to have my reading of the text correct my understanding of what science says.” Why? Because too much of this theology hangs in the balance. So, basically, he must reject pretty much all that current scientific research relies on – evolution – to address the issues of the day, like scientific research on COVID19.

Unfortunately, this anti-science bias can have serious consequences. Take all the protesters in Michigan the other day – please! Yes, this was a politically induced protest, but at the base of it all was science denial, they are people who have chosen to not believe the medical experts about this pandemic. I say they ‘chose’ because it is willful – willful ignorance. They don’t want to know. For some it is a reckless defiant political statement of the stay at home orders. For some it arises out of their own nationalistic, “Don’t Tread on Me” mythology. For others it is an expression of their individualistic selfishness. And, yet for others, they are taking a showy religious stance. Unfortunately, their willfulness has most assuredly put other people at risk.

I have to admit, I was tempted to use the word ‘stupid’ in my sermon title this morning. For the willful ignorance we are witnessing amongst our fellow Americans could be just that – stupid. Popping up on social media of late is an excerpt from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison, written in 1945 while he was awaiting execution by the Nazi’s. It’s entitled “On Stupidity.” Actually I’ve had this essay tucked away in a computer file for many years. Bonhoeffer asserts that stupidity is more dangerous than malicious evil. He goes on:

Against stupidity we are defenseless…reasons fall on deaf ears; facts that contradict one’s prejudgment simply need not be believed…and when facts are irrefutable, they are just pushed aside as inconsequential, as incidental.

How prescient Dietrich seemed to be of our current situation.

In that sermon from six years ago I suggested that faith and reason are not easy companions. But they must be held together. A good understanding of how the world works, a good grounding in science, doesn’t necessarily answer the ‘why’ of the world, of life. Questions like “Who am I, really?” and “Why am I here?” and “Does any of this matter?” Yes, we are called to make the commitment of faith even as we struggle with the questions. Faith is taking the risk of commitment in the absence of certainty. “Sometimes,” said the philosopher Albert Camus, “life beckons us to make 100% commitment to something about which we are only 51% sure.” Faith will always be a risk.

But faith does not and should not be against reason, against science. And in these perilous times, even as people of faith we are called to believe the science for the sake of the world. As people of faith we are called, not to proclaim religious magical solutions, but to continue to find ways to love our neighbor as ourselves. As people of faith we are called, not to live recklessly because we believe God will protect us, but to stop helping the virus and start helping one another. As people of faith we are called, not to flout responsible social distancing protocols, but to just stay home and end this nightmare. Let’s not be…. Amen.

 

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