A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco, on December 7, 2014, the Second Sunday in Advent.
Lewis Thomas died 20 years ago but I remember him in connection with today’s Old Testament reading. I read a magazine article in the New York Times some while ago about Lewis Thomas and his thoughts about life and death and the words of Isaiah in the first lesson today seemed to connect: “All flesh is grass” the prophet tells us,
All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever. (Isaiah 40:6-8)
So who was Lewis Thomas? He was dean of the medical schools at NYU and Yale, chancellor of the Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Scholar in residence at Cornell Medical School and author of essays collected in books called “The Lives of a Cell,” “The Medusa and the Snail,” “The Youngest Profession,” and others. I enjoyed reading them. They are wise and warm and endlessly interesting observations about human nature and about the human race.
When Lewis Thomas learned that he was terminally ill someone interviewed him and wrote about it so I read the article with special interest and I was disappointed because he was a man who had seen so much and understood so much and now he was dying and it turned out that he didn’t have a clue about some pretty basic things like God and heaven and life hereafter. Whatever ideas he had picked up on the subject could have been picked up secondhand from a church school dropout.
Now, I think when someone in this culture, this society, has no idea of what Christianity is all about we have to take some of the blame. It’s at least in part because we who are Christians are not communicating, not getting our message across, not living up to our faith in a way that gets any attention or understanding. It’s partly our fault surely, but on the other hand wouldn’t you think that a highly intelligent, curious man would wonder what it was that shaped our world, our culture, our civilization? He must have heard of Augustine and Aquinas, Karl Barth, Rheinhold Neibuhr, William Temple – some of the greatest minds of western civilization have been Christians. Wouldn’t you think that a well-read, well educated, reflective man would wonder why? Wouldn’t you think he would want to test their ideas for himself?
Lewis Thomas wrote an essay once about a space probe that was being sent out toward the far end of the universe with a carefully coded message on board to tell any intelligent beings out there that we are here. He pondered what message we might send as typifying the very best of what we have done and he suggested some music of Bach, all of Bach. “It would be boasting, of course,” he said, “but it’s surely excusable to put the best face on at the beginning. We can tell the hard truths later.”
I like that suggestion, but can you imagine listening to Bach and Mozart and Haydn and Handel and not wondering about the faith that shaped that music? Is it possible truly to appreciate music like that and not understand what it’s saying? It seems to me that it would be like attending a performance of Shakespeare in Russian and not asking for a translation. Can you live in the western world and hear the Messiah and never wonder what it means?
“Comfort ye, my people.” We heard that passage read this morning. I remember the first time I heard it sung live my first year away from home at college. I’d heard it on the radio and maybe we had a recording, but I grew up in a small town and there was no one there who could have sung that aria. But Trinity Church Princeton had a good choir and in Advent the tenor sang “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people.” I was seventeen so it was a long time ago but I’ve never forgotten it. They are the words of the prophet Isaiah, words of faith and hope, and the music enhances that expression.
So who was Isaiah? Why did he write those words. Are they just beautiful words with no meaning at all? No, Isaiah was writing at a critical turning point in Jewish history. The exile was ending, God’s people were experiencing God’s goodness in the chance for a new beginning. God had promised and God was keeping that promise. In Isaiah’s vision even death comes into a new perspective “Surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flowers fades, but the word of our God shall stand for ever.” Death is real, but God is stronger than death.
In some of his essays, Lewis Thomas wrote about death as a scientist, as an observer, and never apparently asked whether there might be a meaning beyond what a scientist might observe. I guess I never really understood before how blind a scientist can be to so much of the same world he or she is studying. That needs to be said. We need to recognize how blind a scientist can be and how narrow minded.
I remember that there was a science teacher in the local high school when I was rector of Christ Church in Bronxville, New York, who delighted in telling children that the crossing of the Red Sea was probably made possible by a volcanic explosion in the Mediterranean that drained the water away for a while and then sent it rushing back so that the Hebrews could cross and then the Egyptians were drowned. Well, I think that’s quite possible myself but unlike the scientist I don’t consider that a full explanation. I can’t stop asking questions at that point. I’d want to ask what caused the volcanic explosion and why did it go off at just that time. Was it coincidence that led Moses to exactly the right place at exactly the right time? For myself I can’t imagine not asking the rest of the questions. It amazed me how uncurious scientists are.
Parenthetically isn’t it odd that a teacher in a public school was free to try undermine a student’s faith but would never be free to try to build it up? I don’t want faith taught in a public school; they’d make a mess of it. But I don’t want atheism taught there either. We need to teach science and I wouldn’t leave it to the churches; they’d make a mess of that! So we equip our school buildings with all the latest scientific equipment. Students need it to survive in this world of ours.
But do we really need to know nothing more than that? Are the scientific answers really the full, complete, and final answers? Do a man and woman alone on a beach at sunset talk about computers and equations? When we have a free evening do we go out to watch computer screens or to enjoy a dinner, hear a concert, watch a play, even go to a basketball game, do things that are unscientific and can’t be measured or calibrated. Is it cold facts, is it measurable data, that give meaning to human life and relationships? Is it the power that flows through wires that creates human relationships or the inscrutable power of love? And wouldn’t you want to know where that love comes from and what it means even if you can’t check it in test tubes??
Now maybe the reviewer misrepresented Dr. Thomas. I hope so. But here’s a typical quotation:
I’m not sure that we’ll come to a flat end but I don’t believe in heaven either. Once we get better at living together I think the question of an afterlife will not seem so important. And once we acquire the habit of peacemaking I don’t think we’ll feel the need for ideas like immortality. I don’t think that the permanence of the individual human soul is an indispensable part of religious thought.
The simple naivete is breath-taking! “Once we get better at living together” he said as if it were a problem to be solved and it’s just around the corner. “Once we acquire the habit of peacemaking . . .” he said. Right. Maybe after the next election. And then that line about “I don’t think the permanence of the individual human soul is an indispensable part of human thought.” Well, I don’t think that either. But the interviewer and the doctor both seem to assume that that’s what Christians believe. I guess actually a lot of them do, because they also may never have gone beyond first grade in church school.
The Creed we recite every Sunday talks about resurrection not immortality of the soul and resurrection is a very different idea. It’s based, for one thing, not on a philosopher’s speculation but on a real, witnessed event: the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. So where did Lewis Thomas get the idea that “the permanence of the individual human soul is an indispensable part of religious thought.” Isaiah didn’t believe in it nor did Jesus nor did Paul. The Greeks did, but that’s where we get our philosophy not our faith. Yes, Buddhists and Hindus believe in a permanent soul, but we’re not Hindus or Buddhists.
Listen again to what Isaiah says: ‘The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.” Isaiah, of course, didn’t know about resurrection. But he knew that human beings were not immortal. He knew that God alone is immortal. And he knew that whatever meaning life has, what ever hope we have, depends entirely on God. But who needs God, if you have an immortal soul? If you’re immortal, you don’t need God. Or else you are God. But that’s eastern religion. Jews and Christians know better. Life is fragile. Death is real. Without God, we’re doomed. But the joy and wonder of the Christian faith is that we know God loves us and God offers us life, new life, resurrection life.
When I went back and looked at some more of Thomas’s essays I found one about death. He investigated it like a scientist, observing what can be observed and ignoring what can’t be measured. He saw it as inevitable, part of the biological process, not a matter of disease as he saw it, but simply of a biological clock that runs out. “ if we ever do achieve freedom from most of today’s diseases,” he writes, “ or even complete freedom from disease, we will perhaps terminate by drying out and blowing away on a light breeze, but we will still die.” Well, he’s right about that, of course. But then he goes on, even so if the transformation is a coordinated integrated physiological process in its initial local stages, there is still that permanent vanishing of consciousness to account for. Are we to be stuck forever with this problem? Where on earth does it go? Is it simply stopped dead in its tracks, lost in humus, wasted? This seems to me unnatural . . . but I have no data on the matter.
It’s almost funny. Where does the consciousness go? “I have no data on the matter.” No. Lewis Thomas was married for over fifty years; did he never notice that love and faithfulness are something more than scientific data?
But I value the scientific data. In recent years as we’ve heard more and more about black holes and light years and spiral galaxies and an ever expanding universe, I’ve become more aware than ever before of the inadequacy of all our language about God and how much we need to be learning new and better and greater ways to speak about a God beyond all language. We need the scientists to expand our vision – and I think they need us to remind them of the limits of their data.
Isaiah demands that we pay attention to the basic realities of the human condition: our humanity and God’s divinity, our mortality, God’s eternity. Isaiah demands that we pay attention to areas of more concern than spread sheets and Dow Jones averages, bank balances, and shopping lists. Isaiah insists that we pay attention to the fact that three weeks from now the stock exchange will close down and the stores will be shut and life as we know it will come to an end and the whole world will celebrate again the birth of a child demanding love, God speaking to us, God offering life to dying human beings. “Surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the Word of our God will stand for ever.” In that Word is our life.
© 2014 by Chistopher L Webber. All rights reserved. Used by permission.