(…continued) In 2002 Harvard professor of psychiatry Armand Nicholi wrote a book called The Question of God. In the book, Dr. Nicholi addresses that question (and other questions) by looking at two of the 20th Century’s most influential intellectuals, Sigmund Freud and C. S. Lewis. Lewis was an atheist for the first half of his life, but after his conversion, became one of the most powerful and eloquent defenders of the Christian faith. Sigmund Freud was raised in a religious home, became an atheist in college and then, along with his revolutionary work in psychiatry, became a powerful critic of all forms of religious belief. Freud called any sort of belief in God an illusion and a form of neurosis, helpful only for those of weak minds.
For 35 years, Harvard professor of psychiatry Armand Nicholi taught a class looking at the beliefs of these two men, and how those beliefs affected the way they lived their lives. He based his book on lectures and discussions from those many classes. A few years after the book was published, PBS produced a fascinating program based on Nicholi’s book. The program portrays the lives and beliefs of these two men, and adds a discussion by a panel of both believers and unbelievers, led by Dr. Nicholi.
I was already somewhat familiar with the beliefs and arguments of the two men, and the panel discussion did not always interest me. But one aspect of the discussion was most intriguing. The whole program was presented as an intellectual debate between these two intellectual giants, and, between the seven intellectual participants on the panel. Those on the panel were there to discuss and debate whether or not it was intellectually reasonable to believe in God. But beneath all the sophisticated arguments was the influence and importance of personal relationships. In the lives of Lewis and Freud, and in the lives of the panelists, even more important than the intellectual arguments, was the influence of the community of people around them– fathers, mothers, friends, teachers, congregations, and people who helped them.
An American scientist of Korean descent told stories of Christians who helped him and his family during and after the devastation of his homeland in the Korean War, and how because of that he was deeply drawn to the Christian faith. Today he is a strong believer in Jesus Christ, and was the most articulate Christian on the panel. Another man said that in college he did not have very strong beliefs at all, but he was attracted more to those of his friends who were atheists– and then later, found the arguments to support the beliefs of the group he had chosen to be in. C. S. Lewis himself was not at all interested in becoming a Christian, but was drawn to those other writers and teachers that were believers, and it was in that community that he finally came to faith. Sigmund Freud grew up in a faithful home of Jewish believers, but the Jews were mistreated by the Christian majority in the town of his youth, and though there were other influences, that negative personal contact certainly had a damaging impact on his faith.
No one on the panel argued with the participant who said the people around us are more important in determining what our faith will be than the evidence or philosophical arguments for or against the existence of God. And this was in a program that was about primarily those intellectual reasons and arguments.
Every congregation has its history of who started it and when, who served as pastors and leaders, what buildings were built, and so on. But the main story of every congregation is the story of how the faith has been passed on down through the years. A ‘communion of saints’ gathers each week, people grow up feeling a part of that community, and in that community faith is given and nurtured and sustained. In the Old Testament book of Ruth (1:16), Ruth says to her mother-in-law Naomi, “I will go with you, and your people will be my people and your God will be my God.” That is how is works. The people with whom we worship with become a part of who we are, and so does their faith. The Holy Spirit works through community just as surely as through the proclamation of God’s Word. People can still say ‘no,’ and often do. But it is for us to give the Spirit every opportunity to work in our hearts and minds.
As is the case with so much of God’s word to us, there is in this a gift and a command. The command is that we obey the third commandment, remembering the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, gathering with this communion of saints each week to worship God. The command is to be here, but the gift is that the Holy Spirit will use this time together to create and sustain saving faith in our hearts.
This is what is meant when we say in the creed that we believe in the communion of saints.
Matthew 5:15- 16 — (Jesus said), “No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lamp-stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
I Peter 3:15b-16 — In your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame.
II Timothy 1:5 — I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you.
Great Shepherd of souls, bring home into your fold all who have gone astray. Preserve your Church from all heresy and schism, from all that persecute or oppose the truth; and give to us all wisdom and holiness and the powerful aid of your blessed Spirit. Amen.
–John Wesley (1703-1791)