I am reading a book recently out—by Krista Tippett who hosts a Sunday morning show on NPR. That show is called On Being. I used to listen to Krista on my Sunday car trips to Kenbridge, Virginia when I was preaching at Ebenezer—long 2 ¼ hour trips—each way. Krista doesn’t know this, but we became soul mates on those long commutes. And get this. I’m not a stalker or anything, but I do have a connection to Krista. She and I both studied abroad while we were in college, we both went to divinity school, she lives in the DC area and I used to live in the DC area, and we are both divorced. See, a lot in common. Soul mates.You can touch me after the service.
Krista Tippett, was and still is, a journalist who took a leap of faith. She put her journalism career on hold long enough to get a Yale religious degree. After receiving that degree, she was able to combine her talents as a journalist with her command of subjects religious and spiritual. On her weekly broadcast she interviews pastors and rabbis, poets, and scientists about their spirituality. Some of those interviews and her personal reflections on them are recorded in the book I’m reading, entitled, Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living. If you are considering reading it, I will warn you, it is definitely not a quick read.
Last week, snuggled up with my dog Pepper on the sofa. I read this line from Krista—a line that made me sit up and push poor Pepper aside: Krista says: “I see that an undeniable aspect of the science of our age, mirrored in the disarray of journalism as I first learned to practice it, is the acknowledgment that the very notion of objectivity is an illusion. The human participant is always a participant, never merely an observer.
The science part Krista Tippett is alluding to is quantum physics. Quantum physicists have observed some really weird things about the way things work at the subatomic level. So for example, scientists who study a sub atomic wave, note that the minute they observe that wave, it stops behaving like one, and behaves like a subatomic particle in motion, instead. What that means is that just by studying subatomic reality at a distance, physicists change it. They become participants in the life of the subatomic wave/particle. And if you understand how that could possibly be so, you understand more than the scientists. It makes no sense, it is something we can’t begin to wrap our brains around, and yet, it seems to be true.
Krista, who as I said, is a journalist, has come to the frustrating conclusion, that journalism, like science, is never objective. Just like quantum physicists working at the subatomic level, journalists cannot help but participate in and interact with the world about which they are reporting. They change the circumstances ever so slightly, or maybe not so slightly—and of course, they have their own slant on how they perceive and then record a story—screening out or highlighting certain elements. In fact, determining which story out of all the stories in the world to report, portrays a certain bias, right? It is probably not too far-fetched to say that ALL journalism is biased. And, of course, that’s why today we have both Fox News and MSNBC.
Quantum physicists’ discoveries and Krista Tippett’s wise assessment of journalism remind me of something I read while I was in seminary. It is a quote by the German theologian/philosopher, Ernst Troeltsch who lived in the latter half of the 1800’s. Philosophers are always darker than theologians and usually they are short on hope. Since Troeltsch was a theologian AND a philosopher, he was either a hopeful philosopher or a dark theologian.
The quote I am going to share with you, betrays his dark side, I think. So maybe he leaned toward being a dark theologian. Ernest Troeltsch says this: “There is no such thing as objective reality, but only our various subjective realities.” Did you get that? As I said, dark. “There is no such thing as objective reality but only our various subjective realities.”
Whoa! According to Troeltsch, as according to Quantum physicists, as according to Krista Tippett, we can never get out of the way of our own shadows. WE and by that I mean all human beings, everything WE observe is colored by our own perspectives, and skewed perceptions—again, we can grasp nothing objectively. Put another way, reality always comes to us through an interpreted lens, our own and that of other people. The physicist Brian Greene appreciated that fact. He said, “Assessing life through the lens of everyday is like gazing at a Van Gogh (pause) through the lens of an empty coke bottle.” (eyes)
Isn’t that about the saddest, most depressing thing you have ever heard? That which we see, and hear and touch, and think we understand, isn’t so? It’s not only depressing, though. it’s scary too. It’s like life is a river—imagine floating on that river--maybe tubing on the James—The current is so swift, and the river so wide--you can’t grab hold of a rock or a tree branch on either river bank—AND the river is so deep you can’t touch bottom-EVER.
Believe me, I actually wrestled with whether to share with you the concept of no objective reality it’s so very depressing, and frightening—I imagined you hearing a message like that and leaving here with a heavy heart, sighing and with weak knees and drooping hands. Weak knees and drooping hands-that’s from scripture—great image, don’t you think? Weak knees and drooping hands. That’s how depressed and frightened you’d be.
There is an upside to all of this, though, and that’s why I decided to share all of this with you today. First, though, it requires that we distance ourselves from Ernst Troeltsch. He may say there is no objective reality, but we who are not philosophers or dark theologians can choose to believe that reality actually DOES exist. God is the transcendent I AM what I AM and I Will be what I will be. The one in whom all things have their being. God creates and owns reality. God creates and owns the truth. I will go further. From time to time God allows us glimpses of unfiltered objective reality. We may quickly bend or warp that reality, but the “suspicion of reality” is still with us. And when we receive this suspicion of reality, we are moved to share it—through stories and poetry, oral and written, in sermons, in music and in art.
The most important piece of objective reality that has come to us, from God is this: God loves us. We read that in Genesis, and it is a clear message in every book of scripture.
The great Christian theologian Karl Barth, was asked to sum up all of Scripture in one line. He responded by reciting the first line of a song we are probably all familiar with: “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” That’s it. One piece of objective reality that we can hold on to as we drift down that river of life.
That fact of God’s love for us, is really at the core of our dense scripture reading for today. Paul is stating his side of a dispute with Peter and some Jews who had joined in following the Christian way. The outcome of that dispute with Peter and some Jews would determine whether Christianity would stay a sect of Judaism, or a religion in its own right. The Apostle Peter and some Jews emphasized to the Gentiles, “if you don’t follow the traditions and laws of Judaism, you are not in right relationship with God. You are not justified.” Again, justified means right relationship with God.
Paul, though, says that circumcision and Jewish laws are not primarily what Jesus was about. They have missed the message. They are looking at Jesus, and at scripture through those coke bottle lenses Jesus demonstrated and taught and preached God’s love. Faith in Jesus and the word that he embodied—again, God’s love, is all that is required. So strongly does Paul believe that that he ends his argument, with this: “If relationship with God comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing!” I imagine that he was wild eyed when we wrote those words and he stabbed at the parchment with his writing implement as he wrote the last letter-- “Take that Peter!”
God loves us. It’s so simple—the one reality, THE one truth—and yet so difficult to embrace; so impossible to live out. For some reason, we hold the notion that we are so flawed that we don’t have a right to God’s love. Instead we have to work ourselves into a frazzle trying to earn it. Where does that COME from? Are we born with it? Are we taught it by our parents? Our teachers? Just think if everyone accepted that truth, lived that one objective reality, how different the world would be! God loves us.
I want to end with a story about the reality of God’s love. Maya Angelou the great poet, writer, thinker shares this from her book, Wouldn’t take Nothing for my Journey Now: Maya Angelou says this: In my twenties in San Francisco I became a sophisticate and an acting agnostic—It wasn’t that I had stopped believing in God; it’s just that God didn’t seem to be around the neighborhoods I frequented. And then a voice teacher introduced me to Lessons in Truth, published by the Unity School of Christianity.
One day the teacher, Frederick Wilkerson, asked me to read to him. I was 24, very erudite, very worldly. He asked that I read from Lessons in Truth, a section which ended with these words: “God loves me.” I read the piece and closed the book, and the teacher said, “Read it again.” I pointedly opened the book, and sarcastically read, “God loves me.” He said, “Again.” After about the seventh repetition I began to sense that there might be a truth in the statement, that there was a possibility that God really did love me. Me, Maya Angelou. I suddenly began to cry at the grandness of it all. I knew that if God loved me, then I could do wonderful things, I could try great things, learn anything, achieve anything. For what could stand against me with God, since one person, any person with God, constitutes the majority?
That knowledge humbles me, melts my bones, closes my ears and makes my teeth rock loosely in their gums. And it also liberates me. I am a big bird winging over high mountains down into serene valleys. I am ripples of waves on silver seas. I’m a spring leaf trembling in anticipation.
God loves you. The one objective reality. The one objective truth. Believe it. Amen