By Stanley Hauerwas
In the conclusion to the varieties of religious experience William James wrote:
Though the scientist may individually nourish a religion and be a theist in his irresponsible hours, the days are over when it could be said that for Science herself the heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament showeth his handiwork. Our solar system, with its harmonies, is seen now as but one passing case of a certain sort of moving equilibrium in the heavens, realized by a local accident in an appalling wilderness of worlds where no life can exist. In the span of time which as a cosmic interval will count as but an hour, it will have ceased to be. The Darwinian notion of chance production, and subsequent destruction, speedy or deferred, applies to the largest as well as the smallest facts. It is impossible, in the present temper of the scientific imagination, to find in the drifting of the cosmic atoms, whether they work on the universal or on the particular scale, anything but it kind of aimless weather, doing and undoing , achieving no proper history, and leaving no result. Nature has no one distinguishable ultimate tendency with which it is possible to feel a sympathy. In the vast rhythm of her processes, as the scientific mind now follows them, she appears to cancel herself. The bubbles on the foam which coats a stormy sea are floating episodes, made and unmade by the forces of the wind and water. Our private selves are like those bubbles – epiphenomena, as Clifford, I believe, ingeniously called them; their destinies weigh nothing and determine nothing in the world’s irremediable currents of events.
In this eloquent hymn to our nothingness, James gives expression to what I suspect many fear may be the way things are. Staring into the vast darkness, the unending randomness of numberless stars, can produce in believer and non-believer alike a sense of diminishment. How dare we believe, in the face of the purposelessness of the birth and death of solar systems, including our own, that our lives count for anything. We exist but for a moment, not only as individuals, but as a species. That the “weather,” to use William James’s language, produced for a brief time creatures conscious of their nothingness suggests that insofar as any purpose can be attributed to the process that produced such creatures, the process is best described as cruelty.
Such a view of the world is often thought to be particularly challenging for those who continue to identify with religious traditions. However, those who reject any attempt to account for our existence as determined by a god or the gods have a great difficulty justifying their commitment to the human project, giving the meaninglessness of our existence. James did his best, suggesting that as long as two loving souls clung to one another in the devastated universe there would still be present real good and bad things. That position, however, has not proved persuasive for many who faced the nothingness that surrounds our existence. It cannot be denied that for some the recognition that our lives finally do not matter instills in them a humility that is morally attractive. Believing that our existence makes no difference, they nonetheless try to make a difference. The universe may be hopeless, but they cannot refrain from living lives of hope. The question, of course, remains whether there is any basis for lives so lived.
At least one reason for trying to live lives that make a difference is the hope that we will not be forgotten by those who benefit from our trying to make a difference. Yet our attempts to ensure we will not be forgotten too often result in desperate manipulative strategies that are doomed to fail. Civilizations and nations come and go, families come and go, friends come and go. Such coming and going in the face of death signifies nothing. Many who live their lives in the hope of being remembered must face the reality that those they count on to remember them will also be forgotten. We may remember the Hittites (after all they are mentioned in the Bible) but that we know of people by that name once existed does little good for them or us. Such will be our fate.
Some, faced with the sheer nothingness of our existence, draw a quite different conclusion than the humanist who thinks it is important that we try to be humane. These folk, let us call them “realists” recognize that the only alternative is to kill rather than be killed. Life is a struggle. We simply must make the best of a murderous world while we can. Let tomorrow take care of tomorrow; The task is to survive the present. Those who assume such an aggressive stance can appear quite cruel, but often they often do not complain when their turn comes to be killed. They recognized they had it coming. After all that is the way life is.
But what about us? What about those of us gathered here to worship God with the vague hope that our lives are not pointless? Dare we acknowledge that we fear, a fear we suppress through normality, that our faith may be little more than a manifestation of our species’ collective narcissism? The narcissism that cannot help but create a god or gods of our liking because we assume they exist primarily to ensure the significance of our existence. The desperate character of a faith so determined is betrayed by our inability to repress our suspicion that we live lives that seemed to be no more than roles in a play written by a sadist.
The Psalmist tells us that “truth shall spring up from the earth” (Psalm 85: 11). The “earthy” character of James’s description of our world has the ring of truth. In the very least, we cannot help but admire James’s refusal to offer false consolations or hope in the face of nothingness. There is something right, as well as ironic, about the diminishment of our existence in a world in which we have made our human existence more important than the existence of God. That is why it is surely the case that only the only interesting atheism left is not the denial of God, but rather the denial by some of the significance of our existence as a human species.
William James was not a prophet. He was a philosopher whose philosophy reflected his profound humanity. Isaiah was a prophet charged by God to cry out to his people. Contrasting James and Isaiah no doubt seems like comparing apples to oranges, but the similarities and differences they represent help us see how the contrast between facing God and facing nothingness works for how we live.
Isaiah had been called by God to a specific task. He was told he was to “comfort” God’s people. The Lord tells Isaiah to “speak tenderly to Jerusalem,” but what Isaiah is called to “cry out” sounds anything but tender. In response to his request, “What shall I cry?” God instructs Isaiah to say to the people of Israel that “all people are grass” that withers when the breath of the Lord blows upon it. Equally important, Isaiah is to remind Israel that her constancy is like a flower that fades in the presence of the Lord (Isaiah 40:6-8).
William James would have found Isaiah’s comparisons of our lives to grass and flowers a confirmation of his sense that our lives are but bubbles on the foam of a stormy sea. For Isaiah, however, this is not bad news, but rather than this necessary condition for the recognition that “the word of our God will stand forever.” For it turns out that the God whose word will stand forever does not exist to fulfill our fantasies that we will not have to die, either as individuals or as a species. Such a God, moreover, does not invite us to presume we can comprehend God’s creation. William James, like Isaiah, may rightly remind us that our lives are not the center of the universe, but James is unable to say as Isaiah says to the people of Judah, “Here is your God!”
That God, the God of Israel, is not a God we can force to conform to our purposes. For as Isaiah makes clear, we have been created to conform to God’s purposes. This, moreover, is extremely good news because it means that the world as we know it is not without purpose. It can only appear without purpose if we persist in viewing and acting in the world as if God does not exist. The question therefore is not does God exist, but do we? For whatever it means for us to exist, we do so as creatures created, as the universe has been created, to glorify God.
These last remarks, I fear, are properly called “metaphysical.” Metaphysics, however, does not have to be, as it sometimes becomes, an esoteric philosophical discipline. Rather metaphysics is as common as our text from 2 Peter in which we are told that for the Lord one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years is like one day. That is not an invitation to try to determine the age of the earth, but rather it is a reminder that time itself is God’s time. For God’s time is eternity and as God is Trinity, eternity does not mean timelessness but rather eternity describes the reality of a time that is more than time itself.
Peter puts the matter less abstractly by addressing the questions some have raised about how slowly God seems to fulfill his promises. Those who despair over God’s seemingly unfulfilled promises fail to understand that the time we enjoy is but the form God’s patience takes in a world that lacks patience. God’s patience allows us all the time we need to be the creatures he created us to be. Again this is a reminder that to see and act in the world as God’s world means that those who see the world through Jamesian eyes and those who see the world as God’s world quite literally do not live in the same world.
The good news is, however, that to see the world as God’s world, as God’s good creation, means we have something to do. What we have to do, as Peter writes, is wait for a new heaven and a new earth. That we wait for a new heaven and earth is to learn to wait for the same One John the Baptist was called to recognize. To learn to wait for this One is to learn to live in peace with one another. To learn to live at peace with one another to be sure requires patience, but as Peter suggests we are to “regard the patience of our Lord’s as salvation.”
Christian discipleship entails the forming of the people who know how to wait. This is Advent. This is the time of hastening that waits. Holiness and godliness are the characteristics of a people who have faced God and by doing so have refused the nihilism that threatens all our lives in this time called modernity. To have seen the face of God in Jesus Christ gives us confidence that time is not a tale told by an idiot, but rather time names God’s desire that we participate in God’s very life. We are not abandoned. The heavens do declare the glory of God.
William James paid close attention to the weather, but he missed the storm that bears the name Jesus. Jesus became one of us, subject to the weather, subject to nothingness, and in the process, he redeemed time and thus gave us something to do. We have been created to be disciples of Jesus. Through baptism into this man’s life, death, and resurrection, we are not fated to nothingness but rather by God’s grace our fate has been transformed into a destiny otherwise unimaginable.
William James was quite right: We cannot help but appear as an accident, as purposeless as the weather in a world destined for destruction, if Jesus is not the Son of God. To view the world without God’s care of us through Christ is to miss the wonder of our existence. James’s description of the pointless character of our existence is indeed poetic and elegant. But it lacks the element of wonder through which God first led Israel, and now us with them, into the miracle of divine love. Once in the burning bush now in the womb of Mary, the grandeur of creation is made manifest as God himself comes to us, reminding us who we are. We are those who receive him. This is our good work.
Christian humanism is not based on the presumption that our humanity is self- justifying. Rather, Christians are humanists because God showed up in Mary’s belly. We are not an evolutionary accident. We are not bubbles on the foam that coats a stormy sea. We are God’s chosen people. We have been given good work to do in a time when many no longer think there is good work period what an extraordinary claim. What extraordinary good news. Praise God and with gratitude enjoy the glory of his creation. Together, at this time called Advent, let us wait in joyful expectation for the surprising coming of the Lord.
Stanley Hauerwas is the Gilbert T. Rowe Professor Emeritus of Divinity and Law at Duke University. This sermon was preached on December 11, 2011 at Christ Church Cathedral, Nashville, Tennessee.