Years ago during Lent at my former congregation in Grand Rapids, Michigan, I structured a series of Lenten sermons around Merold Westphal’s then-new book Suspicion & Faith: The Religious Uses of Modern Atheism (Fordham University Press, 1998). In the book, Westphal profiled three of the most prominent atheists in the modern era: Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Nietzsche. Among the many other things each of these figures thought and wrote about, each had some choice words for religious faith and in particular for the Christian faith.
In addition to summarizing the teachings of these men, Westphal’s main point was to say that despite our overall Christian disagreement with core ideas promulgated by each, these atheists were partly right, too. They were onto something then and now. Whether it was various projection theories of religion, thoughts on economics and faith, religion as an opiate of the masses, or musings on various forms of will-to-power, surely we Christians can be big enough to admit that what each philosopher/thinker observed and concluded really did have some basis in fact. They may not have been targeting actual core doctrines of the Christian faith, but they did have on-the-ground evidence from Christian behavior and practice on which to base some of their ideas.
Taking off from Westphal, then, I preached a series of sermons that Lent that helped us to confess our sins in the very areas targeted by Freud and Marx and Nietzsche. No one thinks the church is perfect—not the larger church of Christ nor any individual denomination or congregation. Sometimes it takes an outside perspective to see more clearly where and why we “insiders” sometimes go astray. And such clarity can be helpful to all of us who want to be—as we always say in my denominational neck of the woods—semper reformanda, or “always reforming.”
A number of people in my congregation appreciated this series. A couple of the philosophers in the congregation—including a professor then newly appointed at Calvin College—were downright wowed by the series, both in its concept and in its individual sermons. However, to put it mildly, there were quite a few others in the congregation who, shall we say, had a most decidedly opposite reaction. “Ridiculous” was one elder’s reaction. “Offensive” was the opinion of another who deemed it wrong to grant even a scintilla of credit to such vandalistic atheist thinkers—much less how much credit Westphal and my own sermon series seemed willing to grant them.
Well, okay. It was a bit of an experiment, after all. We preachers know when we are inching onto a slim-looking limb, so we are never totally shocked when a sermon or sermon series falls flat for some. My friend Neal Plantinga likes to tell the story of his earliest days as a pastor and his rich enthusiasm for a series he preached based on Rudolf Otto’s 1917 classic The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry Into the Non-rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and Its Relation to the Rational. A couple of sermons into the series and its many deep ponderings of “the numinous,” a kind elder gently pulled Neal aside to alert him to the utter puzzlement of the congregation. The series ended early.
In my case, I sensed something more than mere befuddlement as to why a preacher would ever want to put in a good word for Karl Marx. I picked up some vibes indicating people just generally disliked the idea that any outsider should criticize the church. Worse, a few people sent me the subtle message that maybe there is something unseemly about spending much—or any—time confessing or fretting about the church’s faults.
Given how much better off the church is compared to the unbelieving secular world outside the church’s walls, why would we concern ourselves with any critique coming from that very fallen and depraved realm? No matter how you slice it, the church is still more right than wrong. It’s still on God’s side far, far more than any outside philosopher, writer, thinker, or pundit could ever claim to be, so why spend undue time wringing our hands over the faults others see?
As we preachers prepare to enter another season of Lent, these are interesting questions to ponder. But perhaps we would do well to address these questions from the pulpit in a series of Lenten sermons that confront head-on the church’s weaknesses and failures. If some of what we need to confess is what outsiders are noticing, so be it. Jesus said that when the Holy Spirit came, it would lead us into all truth. If I’m not mistaken, the sense of the Greek verb there was one of ongoing, abiding activity.
The Spirit’s work was not going to be a one-time excursion at the end of which we’d arrive at our end destination of Truth-with-a-capital-T. This was going to keep happening. Any fair assessment of church history would indicate that exactly this has happened too: the church has again and again had to assess and reassess its teachings, it practice, its witness. What were things like the Protestant Reformation or, for that matter, the Catholic Reformation/Counter-Reformation or gatherings like Vatican II if not examples of the Holy Spirit helping us to repent and try to do better? Unsurprisingly, the Spirit also does that common-grace thing of bringing us truths from lots of sources, including some outside the sphere of the church.
Alas, we live in a time of hyperpartisanship. The acoustics in the church have changed so radically over the last twenty years that if we now dare to suggest where the church is falling short or observe how the evangelical church in particular is being perceived in various quarters of society, it instantly sounds like a political screed. “We are only confessing this because that’s what the President’s/Prime Minister’s critics say,” some think, or “We are confessing this shortcoming, but it’s really a veiled policy statement.”
These are tough times for preachers, and perhaps never more so than when doing that utterly Lenten thing of targeting the sins for which we ought collectively to repent. I have no magical solutions for how to cut through the partisan noise or how to recalibrate those diminished ecclesiastical acoustics in which everything is now heard and parsed. But if through our preaching and worship leading and public praying we become incapable of helping the church to continue being led by the Spirit into all truth, then something vital has died among God’s people.
No preacher wants conflict, much less to be seen as a fomenter of conflict. But perhaps the upcoming Lenten season is a good time to help God’s people to see the importance of ongoing confession and reform as well as the things that might be hindering those very practices. The conversations that result might be uncomfortable. These days we could almost be certain that some of those discussions are not going to end well for everyone (notice how the average Facebook conversation goes these days if anything remotely political is brought up). But those unhappy truths are no reason to keep from examining ourselves as believers and congregations. If we ignore what is wrong with the church—even if the criticism comes from those on the “outside”—then the very nerve of the Lenten tradition has been irreparably severed.
This column is provided in cooperation with the Center for Excellence in Preaching. For more on the CEP, its upcoming events, and its online resources, visit cep.calvinseminary.edu.