This sermon is part of the sermon series "Can Smart People Believe in God?". See series.
The story behind the series (from John Ortberg):
This series actually was inspired by Dallas Willard's book, Knowing Christ Today. The title of the series came when I saw a sign with a question on it: "Can smart people believe in God?" (I think it was at a church that was doing the alpha course.) It's a wonderful question—edgy enough to attract people's attention, and of course, most of us tend to put ourselves in the 'smart people' category; at least in the sense that we think our own opinions and judgments are usually right. Our church is located close to Stanford, and in an area where education is valued highly and where Christianity is of thought of as an out-dated non-option, so looking at these issues in a fresh way is a high need.
The first message was a high challenge from a content side—showing how "people perish from a lack of knowledge." The notion that knowledge is an important part of spiritual life is not thought about widely today and can be abstract (though crucial), so it was a challenge to present it in a compelling way.
The second week was the most fun. I asked Dallas if he'd be willing to come and face difficult questions, and he agreed. So we did a weekend called "As the Smart Guy." People sent in terrific and difficult questions ahead of time, and we sat through four services with difficult questions at each one. The hunger for answers is so deep that we actually set an attendance record by having people come listen to a philosopher talk about moral epistemology. Go figure.
The third message was aimed at an invitation to follow Jesus. Once the structure of it became clear it almost wrote itself—what is the bestreason to believe? This gave a chance to walk through some of the most compelling reasons for faith, but looking for the best one gave it some energy rather than making it a list.
Probably nobody in this room knows less about cars than I do. When I go to the auto mechanic, the number one thing I want is knowledge. I want somebody who knows how a car works and how to fix a broken one. I want knowledge. I don't want opinions, I don't want beliefs, I don't want preferences. I want somebody who knows what's going on, because when you know what's going on, you're able to deal with reality. That is the value of knowledge.
If something is wrong with my head, I go to a brain surgeon. I don't want a brain surgeon who will say, "You know, we all have our ideas about what is inside people's skulls, but no one idea is better than any other idea. The notion that there is truth about what is inside somebody's skull is a clever ploy by the American Medical Association to gain power over a gullible public. My ideas are no better than anyone else's ideas, but I'll crack open your skull and root around in there for a while." When it's time for someone to open my head up with a knife and do surgery, I want a brain surgeon who knows the truth about what is going on.
We all understand this. When you go to an accountant, when you hire a coach, if you're looking for a plumber, you want somebody who has knowledge. Belief is just a feeling of certitude you have about something, but knowledge is what enables you to deal successfully with reality. Therefore, when we're dealing with something that really matters in life, we value and love knowledge.
We live in a day when many people believe true knowledge is restricted to areas like science or mathematics—where there are only opinions and preferences regarding morals and spirituality. So where are we to find out how to live?
We're left with these questions: What is right? What is wrong? What is human nature? What happens to you when you die? Is there meaning intrinsic to the universe, or is it just a big, cosmic accident? Does evil exist, and if it does, what is its nature? Can suffering be redemptive, or does it just happen to you? Is there a moral standard before which we will one day be held accountable, and if there is, can we come to know it? Are some accounts of it better or truer than other accounts? Is there a God? What is he like? Do human beings have worth? Why? Where does justice come from? These are the most important questions of human existence—you know they are. You didn't learn these questions in an algebra class or a chemistry class, but you did learn them.
We're starting a series called "Can Smart People Believe in God?" which was inspired by a book by Dallas Willard called Knowing Christ Today. I'm very indebted to that book, and at the core of the book is the message that Jesus has, among other things, knowledge—the best knowledge available about the most important questions. Jesus has an account of how things are, how life works, what human nature is, what is good; he knows about life, death, and hope. His account of reality is to this day unrivaled in its brilliance and in its comprehension of reality and truth.
The main things I want to do in this message are establish the fact that Jesus really does claim to have knowledge, and so we have to take that seriously, and then look at the worldview he brought.
These questions are critical. They're critical for people who are searching and seeking the truth. They're also critical for people who have made a commitment to a belief, because in our culture, the truth question tends to get eroded, and our faith can turn into something in which we don't really have confidence—something that is not able to really govern our lives.
The claim to have knowledge
The biblical writers and Jesus in particular, claimed to offer knowledge about the way things are—not simply helpful, practical advice. It's a wide idea in our day that religions, if they're to be listened to at all, are just giving spirituality tips about being a better person—being good, being kind—but they're not making claims about reality, about who God is or about life after death. Those things are not scientific; they're not rational, so they end up vague claims that are really all alike.
But you'll never find someone who actually started a religion who taught that way—not Mohammed, not Confucius, not Buddha, and certainly not Jesus. Jesus claims to offer knowledge about the way things are. Look through Scripture at passages that use the word "know" or "knowledge": "If you call out for insight and cry aloud for understanding … then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God" (Proverbs 2:3-5).
Knowledge is what puts us in touch with reality, with truth. Paul says, "I know whom I have believed" (2 Timothy 1:12). I don't just believe; I also have knowledge. God wants all people to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth. So the question is, are these statements delusional? Can smart people believe in God? It is important to understand that the founder of any great religion or worldview, Jesus included, claims to know about the way things really are.
Knowledge is indispensable.
This is not abstract, idle, or merely philosophical information, because moral and spiritual knowledge are indispensable for living. Even people who claim to think moral and spiritual knowledge are not possible live as if they have such knowledge. God speaks about this through the prophet Hosea: "My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge; because you have rejected knowledge, I reject you from being a priest to me" (Hosea 4:6). This is a very famous statement from the Old Testament. God's people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.
What is it about knowledge that is so useful, as opposed to beliefs, opinions, and preferences? Knowledge allows you to successfully navigate reality—whether it's a brain, or a car, or your soul, you have to have knowledge! This is literally true on many levels: people perish for lack of knowledge.
Let me give you a prosaic example of this. I grew up playing tennis. I was in tournaments all the time as a kid. I taught tennis through high school and through college, and then I got married. Nancy likes to play tennis, but she didn't grow up with it, so I became her teacher—kind of an interesting experience in a marriage.
The hardest stroke to learn in tennis for most people is the backhand. The most common error is that people will stick their elbow way out and then just try to poke at the ball when they're going to hit it. They do this because it's easier to make contact that way when you're first starting to play, but the problem is nobody ever hits a good backhand that way. This has to do with laws of physics, fulcrums, and physiology of the body, elbows, shoulders, and so. To hit a good backhand, a person must get that elbow tucked into their body when they're swinging.
I would explain this to my wife. I would say to her, "Nancy, tuck your elbow in." And she would resist my knowledge. This actually gets very deeply into the nature of knowledge: when we don't want to know, we can choose not to know. Nancy would resist my knowledge, but her backhand would suffer. Her backhand was perishing for lack of knowledge.
How to have an effective backhand is not just a matter of opinion. There are some things that are preferences—you can hit a slice or a topspin if you want—but there is a body of knowledge about tennis, and if you gain access to it, then the kingdom of tennis is at hand, and you can enter into it and know, not just abstractly but in your body and with your whole self, how to hit a backhand.
Knowledge is this way; it is indispensable for living. This is true when it comes to zoology or hitting backhands. It is supremely true when it comes to the moral and spiritual realms of our lives.
We must be responsible with knowledge.
Now, there is a problem associated with having knowledge. The problem is my knowing how to hit a backhand can make me arrogant. This issue is spoken of a lot in our day under the category of intolerance. Intolerance can be often thought of as holding other people in contempt or arrogantly dismissing them because we think we have knowledge. Writers of the Bible are very familiar with this problem of arrogance and intolerance. The apostle Paul wrote, "Knowledge puffs up" (1 Corinthians 8:1). It tends to make people arrogant and intolerant.
But the solution to this problem is not what our world today often thinks is the solution—to just pretend that every idea of how to hit a backhand is equally valid with every other idea. The world thinks that if anyone claims they know moral or spiritual truth, they will become arrogant and superior, and maybe even violent towards others. So the world wants to treat morality and spirituality as simply matters of personal preference. You have your ideas; I have mine. Let's deny the possibility that anyone is truer than any other.
But I don't want to live in that world. I don't want to live in a world where Nazism or hedonism is granted equal moral status with the golden rule. And the reality is that nobody wants to live in that world; we know better. Furthermore, this idea of tolerance—honoring or respecting other people—is built on a truth claim: that all people should be treated with respect. It is a moral claim of truth or knowledge that all people ought to be treated with honor. So you cannot promote tolerance by making all moral claims relative, because if you do that, you've destroyed the very foundation, the very rationale, for tolerance and honoring people.
Arrogance is a huge problem, but at its heart, it is not a truth problem; it's a character problem. Arrogance is built on an illusion that knowing or being right about something makes you a superior being and justifies contempt for somebody else. Arrogance itself is built on a lack of knowledge, a lack of knowing Jesus' way and the worth of human beings.
Tolerance by itself does not go nearly far enough or as far as Jesus calls us to go. Jesus never says, "Just tolerate each other. Allow other people to exist in your world." He says, "Love one another." Now, this is another command. To love means to will and to give yourself to the good of other people. We need more than tolerance; we need humble love.
Everyone has a worldview.
The primary, big picture truth Jesus came to bring is what might be called your worldview. Your worldview is a big picture orientation or mental map of reality, and it governs how you see things, what you do, what you say, and how you live. Everyone has a worldview, whether you want to or not. You only get to choose what your worldview will be. You might not be able to articulate what your worldview is—many folks can't. Often, someone who looks at your life from the outside has a much clearer sense of your worldview than you do yourself, because they see how you live and what you value.
Jesus' understanding of how things are, the worldview he presented, has influenced the human race like none other, and it deserves to be thoughtfully considered by every human being in our day. And if it is to be rejected, wise people will decide whose worldview they will put in its place because no one can live without one.
Dallas Willard says, "There are four great questions every human being must adopt an answer for in order to live." These are worldview questions. Every philosophy, every religion, every system—even secularism—must answer these questions.
The first question is this: What is real? What can I count on? Much of our culture today says that what is real is only what can be seen, touched, or measured. In secularism or materialism or naturalism, the word spiritual may be used, but most often the assumption is that academia or science has shown us that only physical matter is real. Language in our culture reflects this, as people will say things like, "Don't impose your morals on me," or "Don't impose your values on me," or "Don't impose your beliefs on me." But you never hear somebody say, "Don't impose your mathematics on me," or "Don't impose your chemistry on me." Why don't we say that? Because we assume science and math are connected to reality. Claims about them can be right or can be wrong.
Now, if there is no God, if material reality is all there is, I think a logical consequence is that there is no such thing as moral truth built into the universe. There are only preferences. And if physical matter is all that is real, that is where you'll put your trust, because reality is what you can rely on. You'll just rely on stuff. Particularly in our culture, you'll rely on money.
Jesus told a story about a man like that. He got a big influx of cash, put up big barns, said to himself, Now you have laid up for yourself much stuff. That was his reality. That was what he was counting on. Eat, drink, and be merry. That night, something happened to the man. He died; he found out he had been living an illusion.
Illusion is a fascinating word. Willard says, "An illusion is a mistake about reality." Eventually, if I'm living in an illusion with a mistaken picture of reality, it will lead to a crisis. That is why we value knowledge and need it so deeply. An illusion will eventually (maybe not until I die, as was the case with this guy) lead to a crisis, and we call that crisis pain. Pain is what you experience when you bump into reality, and you've been living an illusion.
We all live with beliefs about what is real. What are we counting on? This question matters.
The second question is this: Who has the good life? Every worldview addresses this one. Every human being wants to know who has it made. There used to be a magazine in Southern California called The Good Life, and the ads in it suggest the good life is pursued mainly through fine dining and weight reduction. It's a paradox built right into the heart of that magazine. But the ads still prove that we all want to know. We all live with this question because we are not machines or computers; we are people, and if a person believes the good life is utterly beyond them, it can lead to despair and even to suicide.
There are obviously illusions around this question, and these illusions lead to chronic envy, work-a-holism, discontent, and pain. We're also left with tension regarding the next big question.
Who is a good person? It's very interesting to me that even though we might claim there is no such thing as moral knowledge, and even though we might claim that people are products of genetic determinism, we can't get away from this question: Who is a good person?
And we can't get away from the categories of good and bad. We might use different language, but when you listen to people in offices or restaurants or cubicles, you hear them constantly talking about other people. It's our biggest topic of conversation. And we're always saying things like, "He's such a jerk! She thinks she is so hot! He can't stop talking about himself!" We cannot escape our preoccupation with wanting to be worth being looked up to.
In his book Dallas Willard notes, "One of the many places to see how fundamental this question is is in obituaries." Have any of you ever looked at obituaries in the newspaper? It's kind of odd. The older I get, the more often I find myself reading them. Willard notes, "Obituaries rarely say things like 'She had a fine figure, and a thick head of hair, and wonderfully white teeth.' Do you ever see that in obituaries? 'He drove fast cars and dated fast women.' Do you ever see that in obituaries? Hardly ever."
It would be a fascinating exercise to look at the difference between the content of obituaries versus the content of advertisements. Ads are all about how to get great hair, a great body, great looks, great money, great success, great teeth, great sex, great food, great widescreen TVs—precisely the things obituaries don't mention, because we don't want people to think we were selfish when we were living. There is a tension between living the "good life"—and ads are all about claims to get you into the good life—versus being a good person. And that leads to a fourth question.
How do you become a genuinely good person? I think in our day, although we have a lot of information and technology, we get confused on the first three questions, and that leads to a lot of confusion around this fourth one.
Historically, the answer to this question often involved education. In ancient Israel people believed that moral and spiritual knowledge was available, so they were able to address these core questions. Parents and other teachers were not just trying to convey information; they were seeking to shape good people, people who would actually speak in truth and act in love. There is a most important passage in Deuteronomy that exhibits this. A devout Jewish person would recite this twice every day: "Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one." That verse gets to the "what is real?" question. "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength." That verse gets to the "what is a good person?" question. "These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up." What is real? Who is a good person? How is a good person developed? All that stuff is right here in this single paragraph.
But in our day, we have arrived at a place where most of our educational institutions do not deal with these four basic, fundamental questions. What university has a department of reality? What school can you go to to major in how to become a good person? In most universities, that question is addressed this way: "We'll teach you how to think critically, but we don't think there is knowledge available to really answer that question. There are just opinions, values." There is often in our day a vague notion that somehow science or history or academia has shown that faith, God, and moral truths are no longer intellectually credible.
These are the questions that make up our worldview: What is real? What is the good life? Who is a good person? How do I become one? And every worldview will answer those questions, for better or for worse.
How does Jesus answer these questions? Jesus says: At the heart of reality is a Person, and that Person is God, a Person of unimaginable goodness and competence. God the Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is the reason why anything exists. The universe did not create itself. Matter is not self-generating. Ironically, science does teach us that truth, which leads us to this notion that at the core of matter is something other than matter. Jesus says that at matter's core is a Person. And among other things, this is why we know that people have such unique worth. At our core, we know this.
Who is well off? Nobody has answered this question like Jesus. The Bible's word for well off is blessed. Who has the good life, the blessed life? Jesus addresses that question right away in the Sermon on the Mount: "Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are the meek." Jesus answers the question in surprising ways. Blessed are not the rich, the attractive, or the winners in the genetic lottery. Blessed is anybody who is interactively engaged with God, who is living in God's reality and his presence and his power and his love. Blessed are you, even if you look like you're shut off from the good life in our world. Blessed are you if you have now entered into Jesus' kingdom, into his reality.
The Bible equates the good life with knowing God. That is why knowing God is prized so deeply. Knowing God does not mean knowing about God. It doesn't just mean knowing information. To know God is to enter into this good life we all crave. Only one time in the Bible does Jesus define eternal life, though a lot of people have this idea of heaven as a pleasure factory. But here is how Jesus describes it: "Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent."
Who is the good person? Nobody has ever clarified goodness like Jesus has. The good person is the one who is pervaded by love, who does what love would do because in their inner being they have been transformed. John says, "Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love" (1 John 4:7). Love is not sentimental, soft, or fuzzy. It is to will and sacrifice ourselves for the good of those around us. It is the love of the knowledge of God.
How do you become good? By putting your confidence in Jesus and becoming his student, his follower. Jesus lives today.
These are your life's great questions. They cannot be avoided. And Jesus has already provided great answers. They cannot be improved upon. What is real? What is the good life? Who is the good person? How do I become one of those?
If you reject Jesus' answers, whose answers will you replace them with? Many people never make it to this point. They simply drift, cobbling together bits and pieces of ideas, images, and thoughts that are floating around in the culture, and the irony is they think they're being more rational or more scientific or more modern. Our culture really inhibits people from thinking deeply about these questions at all.
I'll end with three assignments. Here is the first one. Let's say you don't go with Jesus' answers. The first assignment is to determine whose answers you think are better than Jesus'. You can even choose yourself if you want to. You can say, "I think I have better answers than Jesus did," but be honest about this. As an exercise in thinking, actually write down whose answers to these questions you think are best. See what you come up with.
Second assignment: Next week, Dallas Willard, a philosopher at University of Southern California, is going to be with us to address faith's toughest questions. Come with the hardest questions you have!
Third assignment: As you go through your life this week, invite Jesus into it. Ask him to help you look at every person you see as God's creation—made in his image.
John Ortberg is pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in Menlo Park, California.