We Praise Because We Are

Psalm 148 gives the amazing grace of being as the rationale for praising God.

A NASA photo looking out into outer space.

The last five psalms in the Book of Psalms are known as the Hallelujah psalms. That’s because each starts and ends with the word Hallelujah, which in Hebrew means “Praise the Lord.”

Why praise the Lord, however? The five psalms give different answers. The answer given by Psalm 148 is one we might not expect. It comes in verses 3 through 5. There the psalmist summons the heavenly bodies–sun, moon, and shining stars–to join the angelic choirs in singing God’s praises.

But why? Because God commanded and they were created (Psalm 148:5). They are to praise God because God summoned them into being.

This turns out to be a rationale for praising God for not only the heavenly beings, but for every existing thing, including us humans. The psalmist calls upon all creation, including us, to praise God just because all creation exists. This summoning into being is a gift, in fact, one of God’s greatest gifts to all that is.

I say it is a great gift because the alternative is not to be. If we had never been, we would have missed out on this great privilege of being alive and a part of this splendid creation that God is making.

God considers it important that each one of us be a part of this great work, and so he summons us into being. I know that life can bring many disappointments, sufferings, and sorrows, but I wonder how many of us pause now and them to remind ourselves of what an astonishing gift it is to just be.

The Question Science Can’t Answer

Science tells us a great deal about how the universe and living things came into being. They say it all began about 13 and a half billion years ago with a stupendous, big, explosive bang.

They have mapped out the many evolutionary stages that that expanding universe has gone through in the billions of years since to bring us to the amazing planet on which we now live with all its teeming life.

But there is one thing I am convinced that science cannot answer. That is the question Why? Why does the world exist? Why do we exist? What is the universe’s meaning? What is its–and our–purpose?

Science is not able to answer that question. In fact, many scientists today, relying only on scientific observations, will tell us that the universe has no meaning. So human beings must turn to philosophy and religion to find an answer.

I believe that Christianity has an answer to this question Why? The answer is: Because of the overflowing love of God. The God we acknowledge is one who out of love creates because it gives God pleasure and God wants to share that pleasure with an abundance of other material and living beings.

When my Presbyterian heritage asks the question–“What is the chief end of human beings?”–it answers it with a statement of faith–“To glorify God and enjoy God forever.” God creates the universe–and each one of us individually–so that we can all share in his life of super-abundant love. Creation gives God delight and God can’t keep that delight to God’s self.

That is a compelling reason for the invitation to praise God that the psalmist issues to us. Let everything that is praise the Lord.


The Slippery Witness of Religious Experience

Can religious experience settle the question of how do we know God is real?

I have a friend who is a scientist. He is also an atheist. He says that he is so because he sees no scientific evidence that there is a God. And scientific evidence is all that counts with him. So he keeps challenging me with the question: How do I know that God is real?

We’ve talked this over many times. I agree that science cannot prove the existence of God–nor does it disprove that existence. Science does raise the question why the universe seems to manifest so much finely tuned order. Can chance alone account for that order? I think not, but my friend thinks it does.

How do we know that God is real? For me, it finally boils down to the fact that I have at times sensed a mysterious, invisible presence making itself known to me. Yes, I have had some experiences that might be described as mystical.

But sometimes that presence is not sensed with any of my senses. I simply have this inner confidence that that presence is here, even though I have no basis I can point to for this confidence. In this sense, I like to say that I sense it intuitively, which may be what we mean when spiritual masters talk about knowing the spiritual spiritually.

What this suggests is that for me the only conclusive answer to the question of how do I know God is real is the answer of religious experience. When we experience God in our lives, we come to believe that a mysterious presence is present in and behind and above the world as we experience it. Theists, like Christians, Jews, and Muslims, call that presence God.

Only the reality of religious experience, I suspect, can account for the persistence of religious belief and practice throughout the ages in a variety of cultures. That persistence does not prove the existence of God, but it does raise the question why religious belief and practice are so pervasive among human beings.

However, religious experience is no more an infallible proof for the existence of God than any of those notorious philosophical proofs. Religious experience can rightly be challenged. There are those who charge that religious experiences are nothing more than psychological delusions. We only experience things that are created by chemical interactions in our brains or created by social and cultural suggestions. Religious experiences are just projections of our own inner needs and compulsions.

So the witness of religious experiences can be slippery. For some persons, the experience seems to confirm our belief that God is real. Other persons, however, may have similar experiences and find them not convincing at all. They discount what has happened to them. So doubt can constantly haunt our most precious religious moments.

A Gospel Testimony to the Mystery of Faith

I think the Bible confirms this. In particular, I am struck by the passage that closes the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 28:16-20). This short segment recounts the final appearance of Jesus to his disciples after his resurrection. In that final encounter Jesus charges his disciples to go out into all the world and make disciples. He also promises to be with them always. Christian preaching has labeled this passage the Great Commission.

It must have been an overwhelming experience for the disciples. Talk about being in the presence of the numinous. These disciples had experienced Jesus’ crucifixion. They had known their master was dead. Then their world had been turned upside down. Their master returned to them alive, fully alive. And now he was instructing them again with this special charge. What could be more supernatural than that?

Most of us would want to fall on our knees in awe. In fact, Matthew tells us the disciples did so there on that mountain top. He says they worshipped Jesus. That makes perfect sense.

But then Matthew adds a bizarre note. He says some of the disciples doubted. Here in the middle of what most of us would expect to be a fully convincing religious experience, we find some are not at all sure. Some of those doubters may have thought they were in fact experiencing some group-induced delusion. Their mental assumptions would have told them that what they were experiencing could not possibly be real.

And so we see how the witness of religious experience can cut two different ways. Some experiencing it fall down in worship; others waver in doubt. Religious experience is not necessarily as conclusive as we might like. A mysterious factor of faith still enters into our judgment upon the experience. Why one person interprets the experience real and another does not remains one of the great mysteries of life.

I find my religious experiences very conclusive in why I believe God is real. I choose to trust my perception and base my life and behavior on it. But I must always be ready to concede that I might just be wrong. Believers step out in faith, not conclusive knowledge, and wait to see what life brings us. For if that divine presence is real, then it will transform our experience of life and our way of living.


The Serpent’s Seduction, Part 2

Is the spirit of the Bible anti-intellectual?

Editorial Note: This posting forms the second part of a two-part reflection. To follow the full flow of my thoughts, please read “The Serpent’s Seduction, Part 1” (posted on May 18) first. 

In the ancient Mesopotamian myths the supreme gift humanity desires is the one gift denied them. It is the gift of immortality. The hero Gilgamesh discovers the plant of immortality in the depths of the sea and picks it. But he places it on the grass while he bathes in a pool. A snake slithers up and snatches it.

By contrast in the Genesis creation story (Genesis 2-3), God does not deny humans access to the tree of life. Presumably they can eat of its fruit and be constantly rejuvenated. Instead God prohibits eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Knowledge is the forbidden fruit, not immortality.

Faced with this oddity, we are left to wonder: What is so dangerous about knowledge?

In my last posting, I suggest that when Adam and Eve grasp at this fruit, they are seeking to gain omniscience. Once they know everything, they can be truly independent. They will be masters of their own lives. God will be pushed to the fringes of life. He becomes a needless hypothesis.

This, I think, carries us to the heart of the author’s concern. The grasping for omniscience is a delusional act. Human beings are not gods. Instead the grasping for omniscience severs their relationship of trust in God. It cuts the spiritual artery of life.

Are faith and knowledge in eternal conflict?

This raises another question. Does the author then see a fundamental conflict between faith and knowledge? Is his attitude deeply anti-intellectual? In fact, is the spirit of the Bible itself anti-intellectual?

Some Christians today certainly hold this position. They worry that too much intellectual study will undermine a person’s faith. Instead “give me that old-time religion” simple and emotional as it is, even if it is an ignorant faith.

Many non-believers assume the same. I find it a common prejudice among scientists. Religion and science are inherently incompatible, they contend. Many Christians also seem to confirm that prejudice. In field after field, they set themselves in opposition to the scientific consensus.

But that is not a fair reading of the Bible. The Biblical writers place great value in knowledge, especially knowledge that advances human well-being (wisdom). There are many places where the Biblical authors praise wisdom. The opening chapters of the Book of Proverbs are one classic exposition. There not only are humans exhorted to pursue wisdom, but wisdom is praised as God’s partner in the creation and ordering of the world (see Proverbs 8). One can hardly exalt knowledge and wisdom to a higher status.

There is one striking feature, however, of how the Bible, especially the Book of Proverbs, understands its lauded pursuit of knowledge. That pursuit begins—and must begin–with a foundational reverence for God as God. This is stated explicitly in the opening verses of Proverbs.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge;

        fools despise wisdom and knowledge. (Proverbs 1:7)

Psalm 111 repeats this conviction:

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom;

         all those who practice it have a good understanding. (Psalm 111:10)

The Biblical writers do not use the word fear to stand for terror in the presence of God. Rather it stands for a basic reverence for God. That reverence is grounded in trust, trust in the power and the goodness of God.

The pursuit of knowledge is not dangerous as long as it is united with a basic reverence for and trust in God. When Adam and Eve grab the forbidden fruit, they seek knowledge at the expense of that relationship to their Maker.

The contrast between the Greek and Hebrew attitudes towards knowledge

The Garden of Eden story highlights, I believe, a fundamental contrast between ancient Greek and ancient Hebrew attitudes towards life. If I understand the Greek philosophical tradition correctly, the fundamental assumption of that tradition is that the source of humanity’s many frustrations and problems is ignorance. Therefore our salvation is closely tied to the pursuit of the truth. Knowledge will save.

In his dialogues around Athens, Socrates, for example, seems to assume that if human beings can come to know the truth, they will do the truth. I have never been quite sure why. Maybe it’s because once we recognize the truth, it will be so attractive that we will want instinctively to live by it. We will not be able not to want to live by it. Truth attracts us by its beauty. So as knowledge advances and ignorance recedes, life will become better for everyone.

The Biblical authors operate on a different assumption. Ignorance is not the fundamental source of humanity’s problems. Humanity’s distorted will is. Humanity has sought to live in independence from its Maker. Therefore mankind’s salvation is closely tied to repentance, understood as a total reorientation to life. In repentance we return to a foundational trusting in God.

Until that happens, the pursuit of knowledge will always be an ambivalent affair. We have seen how science, for example, has done great good in advancing the welfare of human beings, especially in the field of medicine. But scientific knowledge has also given us the ability to annihilate life and civilization on this planet.

The question is: How will humans use the knowledge that science and other intellectual endeavors have given us? That involves choices made by the human will. And knowledge does not infallibly govern the human will. Attitudes, emotions, and desires play an important role as well. In fact, in my opinion, the more decisive role.

When Adam and Eve grasped at the forbidden fruit, they introduced a fatal separation between the head and the heart. Instead of working in harmony, reason and human desires work at cross purposes a lot of the time. We see this separation continued in the tension between science and religion in our own day. This is what makes the Genesis myth so insightful for understanding the human dilemma.