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June 3, 2001
By Tony Grant
I invite you to turn in your Bibles to the book of Acts chapter 2 and follow along as I read verses 1-21. "Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit says to the churches." (RV2:29).
1 And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place.
2 And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting.
3 And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them.
4 And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.
5 And there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven.
6 Now when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together, and were confounded, because that every man heard them speak in his own language.
7 And they were all amazed and marvelled, saying one to another, Behold, are not all these which speak Galilaeans?
8 And how hear we every man in our own tongue, wherein we were born?
9 Parthians, and Medes, and Elamites, and the dwellers in Mesopotamia, and in Judaea, and Cappadocia, in Pontus, and Asia,
10 Phrygia, and Pamphylia, in Egypt, and in the parts of Libya about Cyrene, and strangers of Rome, Jews and proselytes,
11 Cretes and Arabians, we do hear them speak in our tongues the wonderful works of God.
12 And they were all amazed, and were in doubt, saying one to another, What meaneth this?
13 Others mocking said, These men are full of new wine.
14 But Peter, standing up with the eleven, lifted up his voice, and said unto them, Ye men of Judaea, and all ye that dwell at Jerusalem, be this known unto you, and hearken to my words:
15 For these are not drunken, as ye suppose, seeing it is but the third hour of the day.
16 But this is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel;
17 And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams:
18 And on my servants and on my handmaidens I will pour out in those days of my Spirit; and they shall prophesy:
19 And I will show wonders in heaven above, and signs in the earth beneath; blood, and fire, and vapour of smoke:
20 The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before that great and notable day of the Lord come:
21 And it shall come to pass, that whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved.
Amen. The Word of God. Thanks be to God.
Everything is getting "smart" these days. Mobil Oil has introduced its "Smart Pass," a gadget you simply wave at a gas pump and you can immediately fill you car with fuel and be on your way - no more credit cards and no more cash. In the prototype stage of development is the next generation of the "smart car," which gauges the distance between your vehicle and the car in front of you and automatically slows your car down when that distance narrows beyond safe limits. In cities all across the country, architects are designing and builders are constructing smart buildings. These smart buildings control every aspect of a building's energy, security and communications through an integrated network that can do everything from relaying a telephone call to wherever a person might be in the building to automatically turning off lights when a room is empty.
Just how did these cards, cars, gadgets, and buildings get so smart? The answer, of course, is the ubiquitous "chip" - that micro-thin wafer that renders an ordinary card, or gadget, more useful. The object is transformed, if you will, because now it possesses something - a chip - that it did not possess previously. And that, believe it or not, brings us to our text.
The disciples of Jesus were huddled in Jerusalem following his Ascension. They were waiting, but were not sure what they were waiting for. Jesus had told them to wait in Jerusalem for "the promise of the Father," that soon they would be "baptized with the Holy Spirit." He further told them that, as a result of this outpouring of the Holy Spirit, they were to give witness of the risen Christ wherever they happened to go.
The immediate consequence of this being filled with the Spirit was that as each person spoke, his or her message was heard in the languages of the various international visitors to Jerusalem. Almost just as immediately, questions began to arise. How did these natives learn to speak my language? Don't they come from that cultural backwater, Galilee? How did these guys get so smart? The onlookers said, "They are either mighty smart or mighty drunk ,and they are probably drunk."
Now this brings up another question that is still very much with us today. Religious people are generally considered to be not as smart as non-religious people. Einstein was smart. He taught us some things about the world around us. Steven Hawkings is smart. He also deals in the world around us. I saw a survey the other day listing the smartest people in the twentieth century. Carl Sagan was up near the top. But I noticed this: Not one religious figure was on the list--not the pope, not Billy Graham, not Mahatma Gandhi Not Martin Luther King, no religious people were thought of as being the smartest people of the century. This illustrates a bias against religion that I find everywhere, even among religious people. The belief is that religious people are kind of dumb and all the real smart folks are non-religious. We are kind of dumb you see because we believe in all sorts of strange things--like God, and heaven and a soul. And smart people are smart because they believe in what we would call common sense or ordinary reality.
So let us think for a moment about this stuff that it is smart to believe in. Ordinary reality. Let us talk about what is real.
The Appearance of Reality
We begin at the beginning: and remind ourselves of a few facts that all practical persons agree to ignore. For any human being, the beginning as far as any thought about reality is concerned is the I, the Ego, the self-conscious person. We are all quite sure on this point--we believe in our own existence. The problem is how do we know what exists outside of ourselves. We exist. How do we know that everything else exists. How do we know what is really real.
To our mind comes a constant stream of messages and experiences. Our eyes, our fingers, our ears, send us messages about what is out there. And usually we suppose that these messages indicate reality. When we are asked what the world is like: we cite the evidence of our senses. From the messages received through those senses, we construct that which is the real and solid world of normal people. As the impressions come in, we pounce on them, much as players in a game of scrabble pounce on the separate letters dealt out to them, we sort, accept, reject, combine: and then triumphantly produce from these sensory impressions a "concept" which is, we say, reality. With an enviable and amazing simplicity we attribute our own sensations to the unknown universe. The stars, we say, are bright; the grass is green. But this is not the real world at all. This is only our impression of the real world. We have no way at all of knowing if our sense impressions are actually true.
The conscious self sits, so to speak, at the receiving end of a telegraph wire. Not a telephone, not a television, but a telegraph. This sensory telegraph is the channel of communication the self has with the hypothetical external world. The receiving instrument of our physical senses registers certain messages. We do not know the object, the reality, at the other end of the wire, by which those messages are sent; neither can the messages truly disclose the nature of that object. The messages say to our mind that something is out there, but not exactly what. Moreover, we know that the structural peculiarities of our senses, the way we see, the way we hear and touch modifies the message. That which is conveyed by telegraph as dash and dot, and by our eyes and ears as color and sound, may have been received in a very different form. Therefore this message, though it may be relevant to the supposed reality at the other end of the line, can never entirely convey that reality. some vibrations it will not receive, others it will confuse. Hence a portion of the message is always lost; or, in other language, some aspects of the world we can never know. The sphere of our possible intellectual knowledge is thus strictly conditioned by the limits of our senses.
A direct encounter with absolute truth, then, appears to be impossible, if we depend upon our physcial senses for our understanding of reality. We cannot prove the existence of the simplest object. Now I know that most people do not realize this. Most people think tht their eyes give them an exact reproduction of what is out there, but they can never prove that.
Thus, the most elementary criticism, applied to any ordinary object of perception, invalidates what we might call the creed of "common sense." To believe in the so-called real world then requires not logic, but a blind faith that borders on stupidity. I say, for instance, that I "see" a house. What I mean is that the part of my receiving instrument which undertakes the duty called vision is affected in a certain way, and arouses in my mind the idea "house." The idea "house" is now treated by me as a real house, and my further observations will be an unfolding, enriching, and defining of this image. But what the external reality is which evoked the image that I call "house," I do not know and never can know. It is as mysterious, as far beyond my apprehension, as the constitution of an angelic choir. I may call in one sense to corroborate, as we trustfully say, the evidence of the other; may approach the house, and touch it. Then the nerves of my hand will be affected by a sensation which I translate as hardness and solidity; the eye by a peculiar sensation that we call redness; and thus my mind conceives the idea of red bricks. Do I actually know then that a red brick exists outside my mind. I do not. I know something is there. I do not know exactly what.
If we ask our scientists to verify the reality of our perceptions, they will tell us that that though the material world is real, the ideas of solidity and color are hallucination. "The red brick," says Science, "is a mere convention. In reality that brick consists of innumerable atoms whirling and dancing one about the other. The brick is no more solid than a snowstorm." Were we to eat of Alice-in-Wonderland's mushroom and shrink to the dimensions of the atom, each atom with its electrons might seem to us a solar system and the red brick itself a universe, or even a multitude of universes. Moreover, these atoms themselves elude me as I try to grasp them. They are only manifestations of something else.
. As for the color red that is only a matter of the relation between your optic nerve and the light waves which it absorbs. This evening, when the sun slopes, a brick may appear to be almost purple, A little deviation from normal vision on our part would make it green.
Even the sense that the object of perception is outside ourselves may be fancy. Think about this, when we dream, we are convinced that the objects in our dream are really there, but when we wake up, we say no it was all false, just a dream. So how do we know when something is really there or when it is just a dream?
Now there is a blunt old Darwinian argument that says that we must perceive at least some approximation of the real world, that our perceptions must be true to some degree, or else we would not be here. If our senses did not give us at least some semblance of what is actually out there, we would not survive and we would not be here talking about whether we can perceive the real world. That is probably true. But though our senses do give us an approximation and a semblance of reality, It is surely obvious that we can never really know how close that approximation is.
Thus, upon examination, people who insist upon the reality of the "real" world, and who look down their noses at those who talk of a spiritual world, are not so smart after all.
Bear with me for a minute while I talk about philosophy. The school of philosophy that is most closely linked to Christianity is called Idealism. Idealism says that the material universe probably does not exist at all, or at least we cannot know that it exists. The idealist says there are but two things about which we are sure: the existence of a thinking subject, and of an object, an Idea, with which that subject deals.
According to the Idealists, we live in a universe which is, in popular language, the Idea, or Dream of its Creator. We, as Tweedledum explained to Alice, in that most philosophic of all fairy tales, are "just part of the dream." All life, all phenomena, are the endless modifications and expressions of ideas that exist only in the mind of God. The idealist says that we conceive the ideas of God in terms of matter space and time. But we have no reason to suppose that matter, space, and time are real. They may just be our way of interpreting the ideas of God.
Basically what the idealists are saying is that the only real thing is God. The only reality is God. What most people call reality, is at best a perception of some aspect of God and at worst an illusion.
The founder of idealism was probably the Greek Philosopher Plato. As I have indicated many Christians have found his philosophy to be a valuable addition to Christianity. And we can see why. Idealism says that the destinies of humankind are determined, not by the concrete "facts" of the sense world, but by concepts that exist only on a spiritual plane. This is what every religion says. Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianitywe all say that the materialists have got it wrong. The material world is not the reality. God is the reality.
Now we should give Plato full credit for having some valuable insights into the nature of reality. But the problem of Idealism is that it does not tell us how to connect with the reality that it describes. That is why we are Christians and not Platonists. Plato tells us that ultimately God is the only reality, and we say yes, so how do we connect with this reality, how do we have communion with this truth, and the answer to that question is not found in Platonic idealism. St. Jerome remarked that "Plato located the soul of man in the head; Christ located it in the heart." That is to say, Idealism, though true does not actually bring us to God. Only Christ does that. Idealism, we might say, is a good philosophical theory. Christianity is a way of life based upon a connection with the Living Reality through Jesus Christ.
Now you might ask, why do we seek the spiritual, why are we not content with the material in which we find at least the appearance of reality. We seek the spiritual because we are spiritual beings. We are beings of light, not beings of clay. Yes, we have a material body, but we also have a soul that longs for the reality of the spirit.
Let us sum up then: Our ideas about the physical world are founded on nothing better than the reports of our sensory apparatus. Certainly those ideas are imperfect, perhaps even completely false. Thus, as a believer I prefer the real world of the spirit. Those disciples who spilled out of the Upper Room on the day of Pentecost were in touch with that real world. They were not stupid. They were the smartest people alive that day because they grabbed the most real thing they had ever encountered. They opened their lives to the Holy Spirit. That is what is real. That is what we should do. Trust what is real. God is what is real. Ultimately only God is real. Trust God. Amen.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2000 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified, 07/18/01