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a long history and culture of seeking and embracing a firm foundation. Already in 1500s at the time of the Reformation and even before that time there emerged a new generation of people challenging the accepted ideas of the day. The church, the foundation of Christian Europe, was increasingly viewed as self-serving, superstitious and ultimately unsuitable as a firm foundation. The growing unrest increased until people like Martin Luther rejected the idea that Church leaders and doctrines alone held supreme authority and was the foundation for all of life and truth. Luther decided to base his work instead on the foundation of interpreting the Bible and not simply what the church told him. This led to charges of heresy and he was taken before a type of jury where he told them, “I am bound by the texts of the Bible, and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. Here I stand; I can do nothing else.” Luther had lifted his feet off of the assumed foundation of the church and accepted the authority of the Bible alone. It was not only in the church that people were questioning the foundational truths of that time. Some people set sail with the crazy idea that the earth was round. Others went further saying that not only is the earth round but that it is not even fixed or stationary. They said that perhaps it is the Sun that is fixed and the world is actually moving as we speak, spinning around. Imagine having been nurtured on the Bible that tells us that yes the sea can be chaotic and unstable but the ground, the ground was sure and stable, fixed by God at creation. Imagine having to overcome what must have been basic common sense to people as they could not feel or see the earth moving.
And so over time a massive shift in the culture’s sense of foundation began to occur. At one time authority was placed in the hands of religious leaders who were supposed to be inspired by God. Now, authority was placed in the ability of the individual’s mind to reason and make sense of observable nature. The individual mind had the right to determine what was trustworthy, what was a good foundation. This movement inspired philosophers to rethink just what truth was. It is little publicized that around 1640 Rene Descartes, who is often viewed as the father of western philosophy, wrote his most famous piece, at least in part, to prove the existence of God. In his quest to prove the existence of God he writes, I can think there can be no more useful service to be rendered in philosophy than to conduct a careful search, once and for all, for the best of these arguments, and to set them out so precisely and clearly as to produce for the future a general agreement that they amount to a demonstration of proof. I should mention that he was quite hopeful and ambitious in this pursuit adding “that these proofs are of such a kind that I reckon they leave no room for the possibility that the human mind will ever discover better ones.” So Descartes set out to prove God, the ultimate foundation. And how did Descartes begin? Listen to the words of his opening meditation, Some years ago I was struck by the large number of falsehoods that I accepted as true in my childhood, and by the highly doubtful nature of the whole foundation that I had subsequently based on them. I realized that it was necessary, once in the course of my life, to demolish everything completely and start again right from the foundations if I wanted to establish anything at all . . . that was likely to last.
As I said, he was ambitious. And so Descartes set about the task of distrusting and rejecting everything that could possibly be doubted. And what was at the bottom of it all? He secluded himself in a small cabin and thought and thought and thought. He decided that he could not trust his feelings or his senses and eventually came to the conclusion that the one thing he could never doubt or deny was that he was thinking. And so the famous line, I think therefore I am. Descartes’ work concluded that the individual self and more specifically the mind was the foundation of all truth and reality.
And so the West began to build. The foundation of reason through individual ability was trusted as secure. Some wrote histories that traced and forecasted the evolution and triumph of the human spirit. Others boldly crossed the ocean to establish a new society and empire on this continent. There were unprecedented achievements in medicine, architecture, transportation and communication. The spirit of human achievement was full and robust as the West entered the twentieth century.
Many announced science as the saviour of our society. Sigmund Freud wrote powerfully that religion was no foundation, it was in fact an illusion. Science he believed exposed religion’s contradictions and superstitions. To him religion was infantile, childish, and we needed as a society to grow-up and accept the foundation of science. He concludes one of his books saying, “No, our science is no illusion. But an illusion it would be to suppose that what science cannot give us we can get elsewhere.” Science will save. Science is our foundation. This is what emerged in the West.
Descartes and those in his wake believed that this foundation was accessible to them. They believed that at some point they could peel away all the superstitions and illusions that the world and especially the church used to believe and establish their thought and life on unmovable bedrock. But what happened to their project, to their quest for foundations? People simply continued to peel back the layers. They continued, like Descartes, to be skeptically of everything. People continued to chip away at anything that claimed to be true not just religion. We cannot agree on what is proper ethical behaviour in our community and in our country or what is important in our school systems. Our families seem to be becoming more fractured and divided in our beliefs and practices. We find it difficult to agree on any sense of common authority or foundation. And so we hear phrases like postmodern. This tends to be characteristic of people who say that perhaps there is no foundation, no common ground from which we all stand. They are beginning to see that perhaps much of what the West was building on was not rock but shifting sand.
Where does this leave us? Like Luther we desire to make our sure confession, “Here I stand.” But we feel pushed and pulled in our lives, the ground beneath us begins to shift and sway. Conflicts arise in our thoughts,
I have been told that Jesus is the only way of salvation but my coworker is Muslim and he is so gracious. I feel like he is more a follower of Christ than I am. The Bible seems to be pretty clear about same-sex relationships but look at the love and commitment those two have for each other. My husband and I could really learn a lot from them. Technology was supposed to improve my life but now the gap between the rich and poor is growing and look at the price the environment is paying.
What would it mean if we did actually evolve from another life form? Or if Moses, Noah or Adam never existed? Why does it seem like there were so many miracles in the Bible and today it does not seem like there are any? When Frank came home from seminary he said that miracles were just they way that culture described things they didn’t understand. What’s the point in believing in anything if I can’t be sure that it is true?
I am NOT trying to imply or assume any sort of answers or responses to those thoughts. What I am sure most of us experience at one time or another is a threat to what we hold to be foundational. So what then? Do we throw away our foundation? What is the foundation that the church has tried to lay? Most churches attempt to teach its members the right beliefs. The basis of my Sunday School experience was trying to memorize the Catechism of the General Conference of Mennonites. It was laid out in a question and answer format. Now some of these answers are wonderful statements of faith. The first question of the Catechism was, Q. What should be our chief aim in this life? A. To live in God’s fellowship, enjoy God’s favour, and receive eternal happiness hereafter. However, most of the Catechism is simply turning biblical statements into questions.
Q. What is the duty of Christians in all they do, in word and deed? A. Col 3.17 “And whatsoever ye do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God and the Father by him.” Q. Should we use many words in prayer? A. Matt 6. 7-8 “When you pray do not keep babbling like those who think they will be heard by their many words.”
And so forth. We would do well to reflect on many of the statements in this Catechism. However, approaching life in this way creates the illusion that there are clear answers to every situation that we face when in reality neither the 199 answers in the Catechism nor the Bible for that matter offer us an exhaustive list of specific answers for all of life’s questions. Despite this most of us try to formulate our own personal Catechism in our minds.
Q. How shalt thou respond to an annoying co-worker? A. Proverbs 26:3, “A whip for the horse, a bridle for the donkey, and a rod for the backs of fools!” Q. To what end shall we aspire to as a family at the dinner table? A. Revelation 8:1, “There was silence in heaven for about half an hour.” And more seriously. How should I respond to my child who seems to have left the faith? How should I view the Bible when it seems that at times it is irrelevant if not wrong? Really why should I believe in a God that I can’t hear and that let’s so many bad things happen around us? We look for answers that we can stand on when we feel the earth move below us. When I served in the inner-city I always wrestled with how to respond to people asking for money. Every time I thought I had the answer I would face someone who would come up to me and say or do something I had never thought of and it would dismiss my whole strategy. I felt secure on my foundation as long my answer satisfied the questions and challenges that I faced. The problem, as modern philosophers found out, and as we all find out is that there are simply not enough answers to the questions and challenges that we face. Answers and stated beliefs are good but they are not foundational.
So how then are we to approach our text when Jesus says at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.
Doesn’t this lead us to view the Sermon on the Mount as another type of Catechism or answer book? Q. How should you look when you are fasting? A. Matthew 6:16 When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do. Q. How will recognize false prophets? A. Matthew 7:16 By their fruit you will recognize them. Q. Should you announce it when you give to the needy? A. No, when you give to the needy do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. This approach to Scripture has supported much of the Mennonite view on non-violence. Q. Should I resist an evil person? A. Matthew 5:39 Do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. Is this not what Jesus means when he says for us to hear his words and do them? We are taught to know the rules and follow them. Know what Jesus taught us and do it. The problem of course is the problem we always have with God. God is not asking us simply to hear new laws and do them. As helpful as a catechism may be this is not what God gave us a foundation. The Sermon the Mount and the New Testament itself is not a new law and our foundation does not depend on our ability to fulfill it.
To view our foundation as a collection of answers is to continue in the spirit of Descartes who believed that he could reason his way to the foundation. We often believe that what we create is a foundation. As with modern philosophy so too in modern construction we
lay our own foundation. It is like the Lego many of us played with as children. I quickly learned that overlapping the blocks made my house much stronger than if built the blocks straight up. So I overlap my walls and press down hard on the bricks hearing them connect firmly together. This was my image of strength, to be firm and fixed. However, what this image assumes is that things around me are ultimately passive and that I can control them. This is most often how philosophers approached truth and how we have approached life.
Centuries after Descartes’ attempt to offer foundational proofs for God and truth Nietzsche asked the question, “Suppose truth were a woman, what then?” Nietzsche goes on to say that most philosophers and especially theologians are like little children playing with Lego thinking that they can understand something as complex as another human being. We know how well our children, parents and spouses react to be treating like some block that we are trying to fit into our plans.
So what if our foundation, the rock that we build on is actually relationship, something dynamic and living, what then? What if having a firm foundation does NOT mean having the right answers and being in a fixed rigid place, as the image of the rock often leads us to think. What if the image of foundation that we often assume is actually more about our desire for control? Jesus is not unaware of the tendency to misunderstand foundation in this way. Think of how he began the Sermon on the Mount. Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are those who hunger for righteousness.
Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are those who show mercy.
This is the tone Jesus sets in his vision of foundation. These are not images of a rigid position. Rather, these images point to our ability to relate intimately and vulnerably, to relate well. These words are a call to step out of our fortress of well overlapped bricks and move beyond our fixed beliefs. If our foundation is a relationship then it is only as good our ability to be open and trusting in that space between God and ourselves. In an anonymous short story I came across this image that I think touches on what is for relationship, divine relationship, to be our foundation.
John and Mary had been married for a few years. Not a long time but long enough for some clear and distinct patterns to have emerged. In the early years the experienced the exhilaration of many highs and lows as their lives were brought closer for better or for worse but lately, well for months now, the fighting had taken center stage and dug itself deeply into how they were relating to one another. Their picket fence looked more like a cage and the walls became tighter with every fight. The arguments were never resolved, only exhausted. That afternoon, the weekend they planned to spend together, a switch was flipped a wrong word, a wrong action (Mary couldn’t remember now anyway) and the thin veneer of peace they were treading on broke beneath them and as they sunk into anxiety, insecurity and anger they dug their hands deep into the mud and started slinging it. In the midst of traded accusations and attacks Mary began to grow tired, the word weary that she had always associated with people going through the Great Depression
now came to mind. She was still yelling but there was nothing behind her words. Any possible meaning or hope in them trickled over her lips and fell flat on the floor. She knew she had nothing that would heal the hemorrhage between them. Her hands were too small the wound too large. And then it came, a strange but soft presence. Her words began to trail off and his words faded into a light buzzing. And then a third voice emerged. The words were not thrust forward rather they came like seeds carried on the wind, patient but sure. The words came, ‘Grace and Peace.’ They offered no answers and preached no sermons but they came and were fully present. They did not counsel her but they continued all the same, ‘Grace and Peace. . . Grace and Peace.’ After months of fighting she had no place to hide or rest every place they took cover in was attacked in their shared anger and frustration. She was laid bare, exposed, vulnerable but instead of receiving a devastating final blow she was touched instead by something tender but altogether more powerful. It was as though she had never heard those words before. ‘Grace and Peace.’ Eventually John’s deluge of words also began to subside and with it Mary’s words of comfort also seemed to quiet. And as the words stopped it was as though she awoke not to a perfect world or even to world that was better than it was before. Rather she awoke to a world where a rainbow, of all things, watched over their storm below.
Mary discovered that beneath it all there was a foundation she did not create. Paul tells us “For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.”
Matthew 7:25. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. 1 Corinthians 3:16 Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s Temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst?
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