St David's Uniting Church, Canterbury
May 18, 2003 (Volunteers' Sunday)




George Gallup, of Gallup Polls fame, once said, "I could prove God statistically.  Take the human body alone.  The chances that all the functions of an individual could just happen is a statistical monstrosity!"  Quite a few scientists would probably agree.  On the other hand, the novelist and theologian Frederick Buechner wrote, "It's as impossible for humanity to demonstrate the existence of God as it is for Sherlock Holmes to demonstrate the existence of Arthur Conan Doyle!"   It may be that the truth lies somewhere between those two.


Last week we said this was not one of those things that was subject to proof (or disproof) in a scientific sense.  However, we did say there was 'evidence' of certain kinds, from which you might reasonably infer the existence of something which could explain that evidence. Where there's smoke, there's fire.  Today I want to talk about three kinds of evidence: 'hieroglyphs of the heart'.  Twenty-five hundred years before Jesus, the Egyptians had a kind of picture writing.  The characters were people, animals, weapons, geographical features, plants and so on.  These were inscribed on stone, carved or painted on wood, and written on leather or papyrus. They were called 'hieroglyphs', from the Greek for 'sacred carvings'.   I want to suggest that certain hieroglyphs of the heart may be read as evidence for something not of our own making.  That is to say, they point to something else, which is deeply mysterious.




First, picking up where we concluded last Sunday, is THE CAPACITY FOR REVERENCE.  We talked about the work of Manfred Clynes, whose research on brain activity over 25 years led him to conclude that the capacity for reverence is in everyone irrespective or race or culture.  In a ground-breaking work about 80 years ago, called "The Idea of the Holy", Rudolf Otto wrote about what he called our sense of the 'numinous'.  He coined the Latin phrase 'mysterium tremendum et fascinans' for that mystery at the heart of things which arouses awe and wonder and fascination.  Let me give you a couple of illustrations.


In 1992 my wife and I took one of those lightning Euro tours: seven countries in two weeks, like a massive school excursion!  Many of the great cathedrals were included.  What interested me almost as much as these places was the effect on some members of our party few of whom had displayed much evidence of religious fervour.  In Notre Dame (Paris) I was surprised to see one of the men, travelling with spouse and two teenagers, drop on his knees.  By this time some of us knew a bit about one another, and several had me tagged. As we walked out, this man said, "We hardly ever go to church, but I felt something in there that I can't explain at all.  Maybe you understand."  Another illustration . . .


A few weeks prior to the Euro tour, we had been in Boston.  There I had taken part in a seminar on the interface between godtalk and science.  The guest was a physics professor named Chet Raymo, who is science writer with the Boston Globe.  He recounted his own pilgrimage.  He'd had a very traditional Catholic upbringing;  "French piety, pebble in the shoe stuff." (good for you because it's painful!)  At the University of Southern California he became friends with a Panamanian atheist Jew, who 'liberated' him from religion or so he said.


When we talked afterwards, Chet Raymo told me the lifelong study of physics had filled him with a sense of awe and wonder and reverence like nothing he had ever experienced in church.  The previous week he had written about this in the Boston Globe.  He began his article by referring to John Updike's novel "The Meaning of Life".  In there, Updike says, "Ancient religion and modern science agree: we are here to give praise."  In his article Chet Raymo said,


"Biographies of the great scientists amply confirm that religious awe is often the motive that sparks the scientific search for truth.  The universe is apparently vast beyond our knowing, and filled with patterns of order that move us to admiration.  What is more natural than to speak of the beauty we see and what is awestruck speech but praise?" 




My second 'hieroglyph' is THE DRIVE TO SELF-TRANSCENDENCE.   Even some of the most cynical and case-hardened specimens know that experience of something within nudging, coaxing, persuading them to shed the bonds of self-interest and go higher.  This may partly explain why church folks are over-represented in voluntary organisations.   Two stories . . .


About four years ago I had a phone call from a man in his early twenties I could not recall having met.  In fact, I had shaken his hand a couple of weeks earlier at one of our churches, where I was preaching.  It had no minister, and neither did he.  He introduced himself like this.   "I was in town for country week sports, and staying with my Gran.  My family don't go to church, but Gran wanted me to go with her.  I didn't understand it too well, and I can't say I remember what you said, but in the porch I picked up something that set me thinking.  It was a pamphlet about what your church was doing in some of the farming districts that are having a hard time."  Maybe I should add that he was from a part of Victoria not so affected.  But back to the story.


"Well, I got this powerful urge to talk with you about it.  I don't know what I'm supposed to do, but I think I've been feeling for a long time that there's more to life than selling milk and playing football.  I think I somehow need to be doing more for other people even if this means giving up some of the things I'm used to."  He had been thinking along these lines for months, it seemed lying awake nights and getting more and more restless inside.


My other story (which I've permission to tell) concerns a state parliamentarian I knew.  He had left a career in the law, where the financial and other rewards were handsome.  He had shifted to a modest suburb to qualify for pre-selection, and duly won the seat.  He had moved his kids from private school to state school, and even changed his car to the make more commonly seen in this suburb.  As I quite often do, I asked what had prompted all this.


His explanation ran along these lines.  "You know, John, that most of what I've touched has turned to gold.  I was dux at school and won medals at the uni, while the truth is that lots of others worked a lot harder, and probably deserved those gongs more than I did.  Then I was articled with . . . & . . .   That led to a partnership, and on it went.  Life was pretty sweet."


So, what had happened?  "We were holidaying down at . . . , and there was a sand castle competition.  I helped the kids a bit, and wouldn't you know it!  We got the prize.  I walked back to the beach that evening, around dusk.  The breeze had sprung up, and the waves were washing over our sand castle.  I suddenly felt this tremendous disgust with all my successes; felt that I'd been getting, getting, getting and should be giving."  Then he said, "You'd probably say it was God pushing me.  A mate who's a psychiatrist said it was probably guilt.  I don't know what it was, but it came as this overpowering urge to get stuck in for other people and the hell with the rewards!"


I'm not saying the drive to self-transcendence 'proves' the existence of this mysterious spirit we call God.  What I am saying is that it's one of those hieroglyphs of the heart (like the capacity for reverence), from which you may well ask, "Who inscribed it?"  Indeed, from which you may infer that something deep and mysterious is happening, not just of your own making and not just guilt!




My third 'hieroglyph' is THE EXPERIENCE OF ENABLEMENT.  What I mean by this is the discovery of resources one didn't know were there; perhaps the feeling of being somehow picked up and borne along by something not of our own making.  This I want to illustrate with the help of a very distinguished American rabbi; probably still the best known in the US: Harold Kushner.

At the end of 1991 I had a short study leave.  It was spent mainly in and around Boston.   Thus it was that I heard one of the most grace-filled sermons I can  remember.  It was called "To what questions is God the answer?" It was delivered by Harold Kushner.  Harold was preaching at Memorial Church, Harvard, as part of that place's commitment to developing Christian-Jewish relations.  You may recall that he first came to prominence with his book "When Bad Things Happen to Good People".  This was forged out of his professional experience as a synagogue rabbi, and also his personal experience.  His son Aaron died from a rare disease called 'progeria' (premature ageing).  At fourteen Aaron was like a withered old man. This is from Kushner's sermon that day.


"After all I have endured, and after all I have seen in the families I cherish, I can believe in God not because of the ontological proof or the cosmological proof or the unmoved mover, or any of those arguments you have learned here.


"I believe in God because I am constantly seeing ordinary people do extra-ordinary things. I am seeing miracles happen daily: weak people become strong, and timid people become brave, and selfish people become generous.  And I look at these people, and I can't understand how did this change come about unless there really is a God.


"I have seen people deal with deep personal problems: tragedies, crippled children, mentally ill children, neurological diseases in someone they love.  Not for a month; I think most of us could do it for a month.  I have seen people do it for year after year after year, with no prospect of a happy ending to the story.


"And I look at these people, and say, 'How can they do it?'  Ordinary, average people, not terribly intellectual, not terribly spiritual.  Was it conceivable that fifteen years ago, when the illness was diagnosed, they had a fifteen year supply of love and strength and courage?  Or is it more likely that when they used up the love and strength and courage they had, they turned to God and he replenished their strength so that they could go on?" 


Hieroglyphs of the heart are not 'proofs' for the existence of God in any scientific sense. But they are genuine experiences of what often seems not of our own making.  They are evidence from life that deserves to be taken seriously.  Whether you decide to say, "This surely is of God" depends on what you mean by 'G-O-D' and how you believe God is engaged with us.  Next week, "Just what does 'G-O-D' spell?"


Scriptures: Psalm 121, Matthew 7:7-11


An address given at St David's Uniting Church, Canterbury by Rev Dr John Bodycomb