Thursday, 27 December 2012

Questioning our assumptions

What assumptions do you base your life on? After all, everyone makes assumptions about reality, so I wonder what yours are. We assume, for example, that everyone sees the colour red in the same way that we do, but how do you know that your red doesn’t look like green to me.

We assume that the sound of a blackbird singing sounds the same to us as it does to everyone else, but how do you know that I hear the same frequencies as you do? We assume that the feel of the heat of the sun on our skin feels the same to us as to the person next to us. But can you prove that?

Science is very good at assumptions, and I speak as someone who had a career in science before coming to holy orders, so I’m not just knocking down an ‘Aunt Sally’. Scientists’ greatest assumption is that surely something can only exist if you can measure it reproducibly; if you can prove it. So we have accurate scales that can measure the mass of the tiniest amount, nanograms or even picograms.

And by observing the movement of stars in the skies we can now determine, from how they wobble, not just whether they have planets, but how many and how far away they are from their parent stars. And by measuring just how much the wavelength of light from a distant galaxy has been stretched by the expansion of the universe as it’s travelled to our telescopes, we can determine how far away it is and how old it is.

All this is marvellous and useful information, information that I would not dream of denying the truth of, so don’t worry you’re not going to get a ‘science is pointless’ post from me, not ever. But science then goes further than that and assumes that everything that exists can be observed and measured in this way, and therefore if you can’t measure it, then it must be a myth or a figment of your imagination.

And we, living in our modern western culture, assume that the scientists must be correct because they’re, well they’re scientists, but it is still nevertheless an assumption. It’s an assumption that says that we have developed tools for reproducibly measuring the things which we observe and therefore if something cannot be observed, it cannot be measured and therefore it doesn’t exist.

But who says that the definition of existence is that it is something which can be observed and measured? That is a huge assumption, and it’s one which cannot be proved. There are numerous things that we can observe, but we are making a massive leap, a very big assumption indeed, if we say that if we cannot observe something then it doesn’t exist.

Science operates on the laws of cause and effect, but what if something exists which doesn’t operate by cause and effect? It is a large assumption to say that if something doesn’t obey cause and effect then it cannot exist. Why? Who says? On what do we base that assumption?

Many people have had an experience at some point in their life that they can’t explain in earthly terms. The reason we can’t explain these things is because they do not happen reproducibly. They fall outside our assumptions about reality.

For example, at the last church at which I worked we had a similar model to the one we have here, that people can request prayer with the laying on of hands at the altar when they receive communion. On two occasions when I laid hands on the head of a particular woman, I felt a hand being laid on my own shoulder. It was so definitely ‘there’ that I looked around thinking someone was standing behind me, trying to get my attention. But there was no one visible there.

It only happened on those two occasions, and there is nothing I can do to make it happen, to conjur up the same experience. It was not measurable or reproducible, and the only observation was made by me. But it still happened. I know I’m not mad. It has been experiences like that which have made me want to start questioning assumptions.

They are one-offs and fall outside normal experience, but is that any reason to doubt their validity? It is my belief that we cannot grow as people unless we question our assumptions. So when someone says that my experiences of God are in my imagination, or that I was mistaken, my answer to that is, prove it. I could list a number of occasions, some shared with others, when that which falls outside our usual experience of reality took place, when something spiritual, something ‘other’, happened.

Now don’t get me wrong, we need assumptions to make sense of the world. If we didn’t trust anything we’d descend into meaningless chaos. But we do still have to question our assumptions.

So what assumptions have you made about Christmas?

Perhaps you have assumed that Christmas is a celebration for an outdated religion, and suitable for the twenty-first century only because of its value to children. I suggest that this is an assumption based on the mindset I’ve just been criticising. We only think religion is outdated because someone else in society is saying we should have grown out of mumbo-jumbo.

But what if it’s true? What if God, who is Father and Mother, loves creation so much that God could see the only way to put things right was to come in person? I can’t prove it and we have to depend on the observations of others in the Bible, observations which don’t always agree, but to me it seems logical that if a God who is love exists, then this God would want to offer us a way to know him back, and to reciprocate the love he offers.

Another assumption we might make is, God can’t be real because if he was then wouldn’t he show himself in a way that can’t be mistaken? But the assumption made here is that if God showed up in a way that made his existence absolutely plain then that would sort everything out.

Kierkegaard challenged that assumption when he told this story:
Suppose there was a king who loved a humble maiden. The king was like no other king. Every statesman trembled before his power. No one dared breathe a word against him, for he had the strength to crush all opponents. And yet this mighty king was melted by love for a humble maiden. How could he declare his love for her?

In an odd sort of way, his kingliness tied his hands. If he brought her to the palace and crowned her head with jewels and clothed her body in royal robes, she would surely not resist—no one dared resist him. But would she love him?

She would say she loved him, of course, but would she truly? If he rode to her forest cottage in his royal carriage…that too would overwhelm her. He did not want a cringing subject. He wanted a lover, an equal… For it is only in love that the unequal can be made equal.

If God loves us and wants us to reciprocate then the last thing that God can do is come to us from outside the creation in power. He would easily overwhelm us, but would we have the freewill to respond in love? I don’t think so. And so God took the other route and came to us from inside the creation as one of us. The simple act of being born as a human says more about God’s nature than any sermon.

The story of Christmas is one of God meeting us where we are because there can be no other way that gives us the freedom to choose whether to reciprocate, to choose to respond with love to the love which is offered.

So what assumptions did you come here with this morning? It may be an assumption that you’re worthless because of the way you have been treated by others. Look in the manger at the helplessness of God and ask whether God would give himself to be born for someone if they were worthless.

Or you might have come with the assumption that religion is for old people. Why then did God choose to be born as a child and grow into a young man who worked as a builder?

It may be any one of a hundred different assumptions. This Christmas is the time to challenge those assumptions. The idea of Almighty God emptying himself of all of his divine power in order to be born as a helpless child challenges every assumption we could make and inspires us to ask the difficult questions, questions like, ‘What if it’s true?’ Because if it is, then what?

Let me finish with a story:
There was once a man who didn't believe in God, and he didn't hesitate to let others know how he felt about religion and religious holidays, like Christmas. His... wife, however, did believe, and she raised their children to also have faith in God and Jesus, despite his disparaging comments.

One snowy Christmas Eve, his wife was taking their children to a Christmas Eve service in the farm community in which they lived. She asked him to come, but he refused. "That story is nonsense!" he said. "Why would God lower Himself to come to Earth as a man? That's ridiculous!" So she and the children left, and he stayed home.

A while later, the winds grew stronger and the snow turned into a blizzard. As the man looked out the window, all he saw was a blinding snowstorm. He sat down to relax before the fire for the evening. Then he heard a loud thump. Something had hit the window. Then another thump. He looked out, but couldn't see more than a few feet.

When the snow let up a little, he ventured outside to see what could have been beating on his window. In the field near his house he saw a flock of wild geese. Apparently they had been flying south for the winter when they got caught in the snowstorm and could not go on. They were lost and stranded on his farm, with no food or shelter.

They just flapped their wings and flew around the field in low circles, blindly and aimlessly. A couple of them had flown into his window, it seemed. The man felt sorry for the geese and wanted to help them. The barn would be a great place for them to stay, he thought. It is warm and safe; surely they could spend the night and wait out the storm.

So he walked over to the barn and opened the doors wide, then watched and waited, hoping they would notice the open barn and go inside. But the geese just fluttered around aimlessly and did not seem to notice the barn or realize what it could mean for them.

The man tried to get their attention, but that just seemed to scare them and they moved further away. He went into the house and came back out with some bread, broke it up, and made a breadcrumbs trail leading to the barn. They still didn't catch on. Now he was getting frustrated. He got behind them and tried to shoo them toward the barn, but they only got more scared and scattered in every direction except toward the barn. Nothing he did could get them to go into the barn where they would be warm and safe.

"Why don't they follow me?!" he exclaimed. "Can't they see this is the only place where they can survive the storm?" He thought for a moment and realized that they just wouldn't follow a human. "If only I were a goose, then I could save them," he said out loud. Then he had an idea. He went into barn, got one of his own geese, and carried it in his arms as he circled around behind the flock of wild geese. He then released it. His goose flew through the flock and straight into the barn -- and one by one the other geese followed it to safety.

He stood silently for a moment as the words he had spoken a few minutes earlier replayed in his mind:
"If only I were a goose, then I could save them!"
Then he thought about what he had said to his wife earlier.
"Why would God want to be like us? That's ridiculous!"

Suddenly it all made sense. That is what God had done.

We were like the geese -- blind, lost, perishing. God had His Son become like us so He could show us the way and save us.

So maybe it's time to start questioning some of our assumptions...

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