Sermon: Fourth Sunday after Trinity, 9 July 2017, St Matthias

Reading  Matthew 11: 16-19 & 25-30

Preacher  Revd Alan Sykes

 

You may have heard of something called the Templeton Prize. It’s awarded every year to a person who, in the judges’ estimation, (and I quote) ‘has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works’.

The prize was endowed in 1972 by Sir John Templeton. I know nothing about Sir John but, since each winner receives a million dollars, I think we can assume he wasn’t short of a bob or two.

The winner of this year’s prize was someone called Alvin Plantinga, a highly regarded American philosopher. The citation says the following: ‘[Plantinga’s] rigorous writings over a half century have made theism – the belief in a divine reality or god – a serious option within academic philosophy’.

It may surprise you to know that there has been a resurgence in Christian philosophy over the last few decades, especially in the States, and Alvin Plantinga has been at the very heart of it.

The general consensus would, I think, be that Mr Plantinga is a highly intelligent man.

So far, so good – but it may also surprise you to learn – you may even find it vaguely humiliating – that there have been several surveys over the years about the relative intelligence of atheists and religious believers and, you guessed it, most of them have concluded that atheists tend to be the more intelligent species.

Ouch! That’s probably not what you wanted to hear. I’m going to suggest that those results may actually be a good thing, but I’m going to leave that little paradox till the end.

Personally, I’ve never dared to have my IQ tested – for fear of what it might reveal – but I’ve always liked to think that I’m not completely dense. I suppose we all like to think we’re reasonably intelligent.

So what might we say in response to these ‘findings’, if indeed they are true?

Well, it’s worth pointing out that there are plenty of highly intelligent Christians around – such as Alvin Plantinga. I assume that goes for those other Christian philosophers that I mentioned.

So, intelligence isn’t the sole preserve of atheists. Remember, those surveys deal in averages not in individuals, who of course vary enormously, whether they are believers or not.

Now, it’s interesting that Jesus in our gospel reading doesn’t seem to rate intelligence very highly at all. Here’s a reminder of what he says: I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants.

He seems to be suggesting that what the world perceives as wisdom and intelligence isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. What the world commends isn’t necessarily what God commends.

Intelligence might even be a hindrance in this context, if it leads – as I believe it sometimes does – to a kind of intellectual pride.

So, it’s the infants, who were mere nobodies in the ancient world in terms of social status, it’s the infants who have access to the knowledge that really matters.

What Jesus means by ‘infants’ has something to do with an inner humility, a receptivity to what is ultimately real. They haven’t yet got to that stage where the ego dominates everything – the ego that is needy, insistent and completely insecure.

And yet that is where we most easily end up, if we’re not careful – swallowed whole by our own egos, and often without even noticing it.

And you can’t argue with the ego, because the ego lies completely outside the realm of rational discussion. I think that’s the meaning of the first part of our gospel. John didn’t come eating and drinking and people think he’s mad. Jesus comes eating and drinking and they say he’s a glutton and a drunkard.

You can’t win and you can’t win because the ego doesn’t want truth or reality. It wants gratification and nothing else.

When I was planning today’s sermon I thought at this point that, in order to downplay the importance of intelligence, I would say that religious faith is more a matter of the heart than the head. But on reflection I don’t think that that is quite right.

In my sermon here last week I quoted what Jesus called the two greatest commandments. I’m just going to quote the first of those today: you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength and with all your mind.

Jesus wants us to use our minds.

Faith, ideally, is a marriage of heart and head. We need our Alvin Plantingas and we need our Mother Theresas.

We need those who pray and those who act – and those who think. In fact, we are called to embody all these qualities in our own individual lives.

Of course, we’re not all professional philosophers, we’re not all piercingly intelligent but we are all called to exercise our minds to the most effective extent of which we are capable, in the context where we find ourselves – but always in conjunction with our hearts.

And so to my paradoxical conclusion. Let’s turn this world of surveys on its head. Let’s imagine that further surveys are done and Christians are found to be more intelligent than atheists – that the more intelligent a person is, the more likely that person is to be a religious believer.

We might be pleased, not to say smug, about such findings. But, not only would that be a turn-up for the books but it would also have one very sinister implication.

It would imply that faith is dependent in some sense on how intelligent we are and that, I suggest, would be outrageous.

If you had to have a degree to be a Christian and a PhD to be an even better Christian, that would be a very good reason to be an atheist.

Thankfully, there’s a place for us all in God’s kingdom, however bright or not so bright we are.

The point about Christian faith is that it’s a living possibility for everyone – whatever our IQ. That’s one of the glories of the Christian faith. It’s literally a free for all.

So, in my view, it’s a good thing when these surveys suggest that atheists are more intelligent than believers because they help us to see that God loves us all and not just those of us who happen to have the correct natural attributes.

Long may such surveys and such results continue!

About Revd Alan Sykes

Revd Alan Sykes is a self-supporting minister (SSM) based at St Mary Magdalene. He was ordained in 2009. He has worshipped at St Mary’s for over 25 years. No longer employed, he gave up his job as a librarian early in 2009. His interests include poetry, classical music, cricket and football. Which team he supports remains a closely guarded secret as he does not wish to cause merriment among the congregation.
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