Community Christian Church of Springfield

4806 E. Cherry
Springfield, MO 65809
(417) 877-7821 





Sermon

(Un)Common Sense

July 20, 2014
Community Christian Church of Springfield, MO
Roger Ray, pastor

Voltaire - Would it not be that which taught much morality and very little dogma? That which tended to make men just without making them absurd? That which did not order one to believe in things that are impossible, contradictory, injurious to divinity, and pernicious to mankind, and which dared not menace with eternal punishment anyone possessing common sense? Would it not be that which did not uphold its belief with executioners, and did not inundate the earth with blood on account of unintelligible sophism? Which taught only the worship of one god, justice, tolerance, and humanity?

In the decade before the Revolutionary War began here in America, the seeds of revolution were being planted by the modern Enlightenment all over Europe.  The very dramatic social reformation seen in French Revolution took place after the former British Colonies in the Americas had won their independence but the movement had been gaining steam for a generation.

There are always those who resist substantive change.  Albert Einstein said, "Great spirits have always found violent opposition from mediocre minds. The latter cannot understand it when a [person] does not thoughtlessly submit to hereditary prejudices but honestly and courageously uses their intelligence."  But when you question the basic assumptions of a society's mythology, you can expect that opposition to be very fierce.

On the first of July in 1766, the Parliament in Paris carried out the torture, beheading, immolation and scattering of the ashes of a nineteen year old man, The chevalier de La Barre.  He was charged with failing to doff his hat in the presence of the Holy Host and of singing racy songs but the real offense for which this young man gave his life was that he was found to be in possession of this book:  Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary.

Voltaire published this book 250 years ago and it was almost immediately the target for church and government sponsored book burning.  I would hazard a guess that it is not a favorite read among government officials today and I doubt that it would be found in any church libraries or offices here in town, other than, of course, ours.

Voltaire challenged the authority of the church and of the royalty in both plays and books and because that way of thinking challenged the established order of society, he had to live in virtual exile to avoid execution.  Perhaps we are less likely to torture, behead, burn, and scatter the ashes of free thinkers in our day but, believe me, corporations, the media, the government, and the institutional church still have ways of silencing opposition... some of which make beheading sound inviting.

But at least for us, this voice of common sense and critical thinking, not only does not pose a threat but we can look to him for inspiration.  He did not want to do away with religion, he just wanted religion to be sane and intelligent.  He preferred for religious instruction to teach morality rather than dogmatic beliefs.

He thought that being a church goer should help to make people more just rather than more absurd.  He said that the church should not "order one to believe in things that are impossible, contradictory, injurious to divinity, and pernicious to humankind" and he added that we shouldn't threaten people with being sent into eternal torment for thinking rationally about these things.

I was asked to preside at a funeral service recently for a man who had been a long time reader of my newspaper columns but who had never gone to church and was not very tolerant of religious beliefs.
The family wanted me to do the service which I was glad to do, and in honor of the deceased, I spoke about his personal choice to do what Voltaire had suggested... he gave years of his life working for the poor in Appalachia and then came back to Springfield owned a book store in a north side neighborhood where he tried to foster a love of learning among some of our city's most impoverished students.... But he didn't have much use for religious beliefs and speculations.

You have all been to enough Ozark funerals to know the routine.... Some people want to keep the casket open during the service and at the end, the minister is supposed to go stand by the coffin and there is a solemn procession during which everyone in the room is supposed to make a respectful pass by the body, shake the minister's hand and depart.

At this funeral, the first person out of her chair was a white-haired little woman who charged up to me, took my hand and stood on tip-toes to whisper in my ear, "I think you are a (explicative deleted) idiot."  I'm sure Jesus was proud of her eloquent defense of traditional religion.....  People often have very angry reactions to having their mythology challenged.

There was a research project recently published in the July issue of Cognitive Science that showed that children who are not exposed to religious training can more easily tell the difference between reality and imagination.  I'm sorry that they didn't conduct the research on adults because it seems to me that traditional religion skews the ability of many adults to be able to clearly remain oriented to reality.

I've talked a lot about evidence based faith, about discarding magic and superstition in favor of what can rationally be known and intelligently discussed, but it is not just religion that participates in irrational superstition.
Politics does too.  There is such a thing as an American myth that is often obvious to people in other nations but rather less obvious to us.

There was a tragic event a couple of days ago that has been heavily reported in the news.  As if Malaysian airlines needed another catastrophe after losing an airplane in March, another of their planes was shot down over the Ukraine on Thursday.  I have heard reports on several different media as people have speculated about whether this was the fault of Russia, the government of Ukraine, or, the apparently more likely guilty parties, the insurgents in the Ukraine.

I have heard a lot of anger about how irresponsible Vladimir Putin has been to arm these insurgents, many of whom have described the insurgents in ways that make it sound like someone gave their 13 year old the keys to the family car with a cooler of beer and a bunch of fireworks.

What I have not heard referenced in any of the public discussion of this tragedy is that our highly trained, very professional navy on board the USS Vincennes, while it was illegally in Iranian waters in the Persian Gulf in 1988, accidentally shot down an Iranian passenger jet, killing nearly 300 innocent civilians.

This has happened about a dozen times since 1980.  In almost every case, this happens when a commercial airplane is flying near a military conflict.  Unlike this most recent incident, when the US makes a horrible mistake like this, we are quick to apologize and make some financial reparations.
The people in the Ukraine now appear to be destroying evidence while Russia is feigning ignorance of the circumstances.  But what I find lacking in the conversation is any humility about the fact that we have done the exact same thing.  Virtually all of us here today were adults in 1988.... Did you even remember the incident with the Vincennes and the Iranian airliner?

I'm not wanting to white wash the incident, but in any rational analysis, we have to say that these things happen when you put these kinds of weapons into hostile arenas.  What we should be talking about is how to settle the disputes among the nations of the world before we start passing off surface to air missiles to the political equivalent of drunk teenagers.

Tensions have risen to a crescendo in the Gaza Strip again, provoking the firing of hundreds of totally ineffective Syrian made rockets at Israel.  No one has been killed in Israel from these very low-tech weapons but they have managed to provoke Israel into armed and very lethal response. Our media seems to view these things in about the same way that they covered the world cup, wanting us to take sides.

Even NPR broadcast an Intelligence Squared debate this week to argue whether Israel or Hamas was to be blamed for this violence.  Ironically, it was not a new recording, it was replayed from a debate they held in 2006..... that's right.... Eight years old and still just pointing fingers to say that it is all the other guy's fault.

The conflict between Israel and Hamas is not a religious problem.  It is a real estate problem expressed in religious language.  The conflict in the Ukraine is not a cultural or a language conflict.  It is, at its root, an economic control issue.

The real resolution to our historical wars with England, Japan, and Germany happened when we became economic trading partners.  Now they are our closest allies.  Imagine what could happen if we applied that same rational logic to Cuba.  Imagine what could have been done to resolve the real estate problem in Palestine if we had spent a tenth as much money on the real problem as we have spent on military solutions that never provide solutions.

Voltaire asked his countrymen to give up on a religion that required executioners to enforce their dogma, and that inundated the earth with blood fighting over entirely unintelligible religious claims.  Before you think about beheading, burning me, and scattering my ashes, I'm just saying that maybe we should give rational thinking a chance.


Roger L. Ray, D.Min. 

Pastor
Community Christian Church
4806 E. Cherry Springfield, MO 65809
(417) 877-7821

"I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits. I believe that what self-centered men have torn down men other-centered can build up." (Martin Luther King, Jr. - Nobel Speech)
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