Atheism’s “religious” significance—Part 2

 

Q:  What might happen if Christians first dialogued with atheists about our points of agreement, rather than disputed our disagreements?

From the average Christian, stunned silence.  Or questions like: What would be the point of that?

The point, actually, would be learning something.  And not simply something trivial about “those poor atheists” en route to witnessing to them, but something deeply true (and perhaps even essential) about ourselves as Christians.

More stunned silence, I wager.  But consider this:

Where the Bible indicates that Christians (and all people) “know in part”1 it is calling for Christians to hold confidence and humility in flexible and variable tension.  Thus “knowing in part” implies that all truth is God’s truth (and not ours, as Christians)2 and therefore that Christians should welcome truth wherever it is found (even, as Augustine notes, within “the teachings of the pagans”3).

Hence the need for “tension”: maintaining suppleness regarding how much confidence versus how much humility we apply in any given situation, with the practical upshot that we cultivate the flexibility to adjust this proportion based on new contexts and new information.

In the most general sense, the result of maintaining this tension (and not assuming that we know all that we need to know about atheists) is that we hold off our criticism long enough to listen.  And in listening we find some shocking similarities.  For example, we learn that even the most ardent atheists are concerned about the same things we Christians are.

So where Bertrand Russell vouches that “‘the good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge’ ” (of which he claims love is the greater)4, a discussion with such outsiders to Christianity embraces considerations (like love and truth) with which Christians may competently and enthusiastically engage.  Moreover, when we attain Bertrand Russell’s goals we are actually faced with “the problem of good:” having to account for and express wonder at truth, and at the reality of being loved and in love.

Next, where Christians can acknowledge that the atheist’s demand for proof of God’s existence amounts to a common need to “taste and see” God’s goodness (“common” because such experiences of God not only strengthen but create faith), Christians learn not to subordinate experience and sense perceptions to theology.5

So rather than disputing atheists with Scripture Christians can agree, in our post-Shoah world, that God’s love must “show up” in opposition to evil.  Thus instead of disdaining the human need to validate–and the created ability to perceive–goodness in our lived experience, Christians can foster dialogues about what counts as goodness in the ‘here and now’.

Last, given that “no one is born a Christian”6 and that God approaches humanity in creative and surprising ways, Christian must not insist that atheists “think like them” before these outsiders can understand or love aright.

Rather, productively dialoging with outsiders requires Christians to recognize their own conversions (i.e., the situations and understandings that enabled new experiences of God’s truth and love for them) as the gold standard that underwrites their arguments and validates their theological viewpoints.  Thus defending our Christian convictions requires not theological but personal explanation (which in turn contain theological, philosophical, psychological, historical elements and so forth).

This personal content is not superfluous but is intrinsically necessary as that which renders our philosophical arguments and theological viewpoints plausible and enticing to those outside of Christianity.

So by listening to atheists Christians first understand that they have misjudged how much we share in common with them.  Second, the conversations arising from an awareness of shared interests are less disputes fueled by our need to defend God’s truth (and to present biblical truth claims) as dialogues explaining our experiences of God’s truth and love (as our personal, embodied examples of biblical truth values).

To conclude,

When we first dialogue with them, Atheists then become people that need to be understood and loved rather than enemies that need to be contradicted, defeated, or converted.  In other words, we are able to treat them as God sees them: tremendously valuable and worthy of respect… just like us.

Is Sin real?

 

Sin is not the problem with humanity.

Whew!  Nice to get that bit of “heresy” out the way!  But of course, sin must be the problem with humanity.  That’s what the Bible tells us: sin is the problem, and Jesus is the answer, right?

Wrong.

Think about it this way: if sin is the wrong way to be, then sin’s opposite would be the right way to be, which is holy.  So if sin is the problem, and Jesus is the answer, then Jesus came and died to make us holy, right?  But while the New Testament speaks of Christ’s death as removing sin, that is not the goal.  If it were, the matter would be left there.

But it’s not.

Rather, the goal is plainly stated: as part of inaugurating the kingdom of God—that is, claiming all of existence for God and as God’s—Jesus came to renew right relationship between God and all things.  Dealing with sin is part of solving the problem, but it is not the problem.  The problem is that all things (foremost among them, perhaps, human beings) are not in right relationship with God.

Or better, that God loves us and longs for us, but our relationship with God is sundered and needs fixing.

If this is so, then God never see us simply as “sinners” in need of grace but as Gregg, John, Sally, and Matt, whom God loves with wild abandon and whom God longs to embrace as God’s own, beautiful and beloved children.  God does not so much seek to make us right as to hold us tight—not so much to right our behaviours as to right our hearts (and to write God’s law within our hearts, as Jer 33:31), and then our behaviours will follow.

Now I am not, for all of that, suggesting that the notion of sin is nonsensical, oppressive or outdated.  Nor am I implying that the rightness of our thoughts, words, and actions are unimportant—both to ourselves and to God.  Perhaps I could say it this way: God’s love (and truth) are focal, but sin matters.

God’s love being focal means that Christianity is not about rules.  It means that as a Christian I never get to the point where I am “a hopeless case,” “unforgivable,” or “worthless.”

In short, for me the deep reality of God’s loves and God’s truth means that when people ask why I am a Christian I give them this reason: because I have been convinced by God’s truth and fallen in love with God, who loves and heals me.  Because I have felt the deep, deep desire of God for me and, like Augustine says, “the satiation of God’s love is insatiable.”

So what about sin: what is it and why is it important?

To my mind, “sin” is things we do or maintain (acts, thoughts, or dispositions commissive or omissive–conscious, pre-conscious, or unconscious), that thwart our proper relationship with ourselves, our fellows, our world, and ultimately God.  Fleshing this out in terms of life’s daily activities is an important task, but it’s beyond the scope of this post.

Instead, I’d like to offer my main reasons for not jettisoning a concrete notion of sin.  First, because evil is real.  Second, because evil is real.  Third—need I go on?

The reality of evil is the reality that people suffer and die.  In that sense, insisting on evil’s reality is  an insistence that people matter.  So against the idea that sin burdens us with unnecessary guilt, maintaining the seriousness of evil and wrongdoing does not straightjacket our freedom but rather deeply affirms our worth.  As such, it is the crucial correlate to the biblical claim that God loves us.

The flipside of evil being real (and wrong) is that justice is necessary.  And this is one of the central claims of Jesus as Messiah: he came to deal with sin and death—with evil in all its various forms.  But the reality is, God’s justice is limited.

What… more heresy…?

I think not.  But you’ll have to wait until next post to decide.

Truth-seeking & outsiders

 

I don’t believe Jesus came to save us from our sins.”

In a room full of Evangelicals, you could imagine the reaction!  How could the leader of a Christian study centre possibly say that?  What could his strange words mean?

“Strange” words can indicate that someone is an outsider—a stranger to our way of thinking and viewing the world.  For evangelical Christians, strangers come in two general types: those who have different belief sets (non-Christians) and those who call themselves Christians but who read (and understand) the Bible in very different ways from Evangelicals.

Recently I discussed how, in a small town, belief sets play a key role in defining group membership—they are more about facilitating bonding between people than getting ideas “right.”  By corollary, in these contexts conformity is prized over diversity and intellectual complacency (rather than critical investigation) is the norm.

In such a context divergent beliefs or openness to questioning status quo beliefs—being unwilling to “check your brain at the door”—creates discomfort and suspicion.  To be accepted in such churches one must either share a bounded set of common beliefs or be willing to acquire them.  Otherwise, one is different: an outsider.  And at best, outsiders don’t belong.

The irony, of course, is that welcoming strangers is a Biblical norm, and Jesus self-identifies with the stranger (Matt 25:40).

Now Evangelicals may object: surely they accommodate many who are different.

They accommodate physical differences, for example, by creating special access and seating for wheel chairs.  Likewise they accommodate intellectually differences (e.g., developmental challenges), perhaps by special classes and teaching.

However, for evangelical Christians to “accommodate” those who are ideologically different (non-Christians) or methodologically different (like liberal Christians, who read and understand the Bible differently from Evangelicals) would amount betraying their Christian beliefs, which Christians cannot do.

The error in such thinking is failing to see that accommodating a viewpoint need not mean accepting it.  For if Evangelicals agree with Augustine that “all truth is God’s truth” then they need not fear truth, wherever it may be found.  Last and most importantly, as those called to love their neighbour “as themselves,” this includes respecting (if not always adopting) her ideas and texts as much as our own.

So how does this work?

Just as Evangelicals have empathy for physical differences and compassion for intellectual differences, so they need openness for ideological or methodological differences.  So “accommodation” for such differences amounts to dialogue which, unlike dispute, does not seek for the weaknesses in what is said, but for its real strength.

True dialogue is thus truth-seeking, and the openness that it requires is self-awareness: understanding that I know in part, but not in full.  Thus dialogue requires both: an openness to listen, a willingness to critique.

If my assessment is accurate it’s easy to see why most Evangelicals have no real interaction with ideologically or methodologically outsiders.

For where churches prize acceptance there is no real dialogue, for dialogue on contentious issues promotes conflict.  The result is that when it comes to ideas the church is not a place of reciprocity and openness, but of receiving and conforming.

Rejecting dialogue causes two misfortunes.

First, it forces newcomers to divest themselves of their identity in order to acquire some supposed, uniform Christian identity (as though being “in Christ” [Gal 3] is about personality as opposed to being about character and relationship).  Second, it serves to reinforce the church’s insularity as a “tribe”—keeping existing tribesmen untainted and unthreatened by anything that from outside.

 

Jesus didn’t come to save us from our sins.”

No, he didn’t.

Matt 3:2 and 4:17, Mk 1:14-15, and Lk 4:43 all prove it.  Jesus came to inaugurate the Kingdom of God, which includes me (and my need to be delivered from the harmful patterns and negative consequences of so many of my orientations—my need to be in right relationship with God) but is neither mine nor primarily about me.  The difference is subtle, but the impact is crucial.  Thankfully for those that heard this comment, a healthy dialogue ensued.

Hell, free will, and love? (Or, Making a hot topic hotter)

 

While it may appear mad, I venture that the free will / predestination debate is actually the most productive place to begin an assessment of the doctrine of Hell.

I recently skimmed Why I am not a Calvinist, where the authors note how in his article ‘How does a sovereign God Love?’ John Piper “insists on adoring a God who might consign his sons to hell.”1  For those like John Piper, God’s sovereignty trumps all: God is both Lord—and so can and should do as God pleases—and God is the measure of all things (something is not good, and so God does it; God does a thing, and so it is good).  Conversely, when non-Christians bemoan the absence of “signs” or “evidence” of God’s existence, other Christians counter that “God won’t prove his existence—that would violate your free will.”

Both of these perspectives are, in different ways, problematic.  And in their proposed resolutions we may find helpful pointers on the question of Hell.

The free will debate turns on what we make of this tension between God’s sovereignty and God’s love.  On the one hand, the authors above believe that “Piper has the question backwards and that . . . the question that we should be asking is how could a God of perfect love express sovereignty?”  Likewise theologian Colin Gunton observes that “in Western theology since Augustine, ‘the theme of love becomes subordinate to that of will.’ ”2

These criticisms express much of my experience: Christianity seems to prioritize laws to love, the will to the heart.  But what about the opposing view, that God is “unobtrusive” to allow human free will to develop into faith?

While I agree that God’s “coming on the scene” is not about convincing through miracles and signs, nor by righting all the world’s wrongs, yet I believe that God must show up.  And just as personal experience is critical to weighing up the Bible’s truth claims correctly, so God must “show up” in a way that does for each of us what God claims to seek to do for all the world: to enable authentic relationship with me.

So my criticism of both views intersects here: how we assess the greatest commandment “Love God with all your heart.”  The sovereigntist thinks to subordinate love to the will.  The free will advocate believes that faith prohibits ostentatious displays.  Both responses misunderstand the nature of love, and so both misportray God.

First, love by its very nature is a gift.  And a gift is no longer a gift when it comes as a response to subjugation (i.e., tribute) or petition (i.e., acquiescing) or threat (i.e., blackmail) or payment (i.e., exchange).  Many responses may come as a result of a command—love is not one of them.

Second, love by its very nature is the epitome of ostentaciousness.  The “economy” of love is superabundance and love is larger than we are (we “fall” into it).  Thus faith is both necessary to belief in God and yet strangely irrelevant in the face of love.

In the end, God’s law being “written on my heart” (Jer 31:33) can only reasonably describe the request of one who loves me deeply, whom I both love and by whom I deeply desire to be beloved; it describes a context wherein “sin itself would be seen not as the transgression of prohibitions but as the antithesis of life and grace.”3  This does not mean that truth vanishes in wishy-wash sea of emotion but that, beyond needing something that makes sense, I must agree with Bono: I need something “that I can feel.”  Deeply and powerfully.

So I wager that it is no co-incidence that while God epitomizes many attributes (justice, mercy, etc.), God substantively is only one: love.4  More to come.

The Cheese stands alone!

 

Recently a friend was discussing her interpretation of a biblical passage.

“Yes,” I said, “that position originates with Augustine.”

“Ah, excuse me?” she replied, “I don’t remember mentioning Augustine.  We’re talking about what I know from what I read in the Bible.”

Her view of interpretation is different from the “you-may-need-to-interpret-but-I-just-read-what’s-there” view.  Instead of claiming not to interpret, she was claiming to interpret independently of other, past sources: to interpret the Bible directly, on the basis of her skills and knowledge alone.

This raises several points.   First, this method of interpretation consists in being maximally open to the Bible’s content.  Second, by assuming that we should (and can) interpret from our present situation and knowledge alone, it equates openness with being unbiased by past views and unprejudiced by false beliefs.  Third, it arrives at its goal (of getting the best possible interpretation) by basing interpretations not on mere biases or beliefs, but on true knowledge.

Now openness to biblical texts is important.  But is this degree of openness—or openness achieved in this way—possible?

I think not.

Let’s start by re-considering the above conversation.  How did my friend acquire her knowledge of the Bible?  Well, from her Christian family, her pastor, and her Bible college professors.  And how did they get their knowledge?  And how did their sources get their knowledge?  And how did. . . ?

New understandings are possible.  Yet they always stand in relationship to (and have been informed by) past views.  Thus no view is ever independent of the course of its development.  Stated another way, knowledge itself has a history.  And being ignorant of that history does not mean that we are unaffected by it.

Rather, as historical beings humans have a deep and unbreakable relationship with the past.  Humans are contingent beings: our way of perceiving and understanding the world is conditioned by the world itself.  As such we cannot escape—or be unaffected by—our gender, race, ethnic background, or upbringing.

So seen, it is not only unfavourable to be unprejudiced, it is impossible!  Aspiring to such “absolute” openness is desiring neutrality and detachment from our world and our history.  For Christians, this amounts to disparaging both the necessity and “goodness” of God’s creation, and our own nature as creatures within it.

In short, it is by our attachment to the world that we know and understand anything at all.

In fact, our English word “prejudice” comes from the French préjugé légitime—legitimate prejudgements.  Prejudgements are the result of being in the world—existing in specific ways and situations.  They are legitimate because everyone has them: we need them in order to get by (and even survive) in these specific ways and situations.

So the goal is not to be unprejudiced, but to know our prejudgements, their origins, and  their limitations.  In other words, adapting our prejudgements as we receive new nformation (about ourselves, others, the world, and possibly God) from a variety of sources.

As contingent beings we always run the risk of founding our understandings on false beliefs.  But we cannot swap (mere) belief for (true) knowledge.  This is neither possible—humans cannot be like God, knowing all things truly—nor desirable.  For even as our beliefs are formed through our attachment to this world, so they also anchor us to this world: they centre us on the only locale where humans may encounter God.

And who is this God?

We come a step closer to knowing by contrasting the biblical picture of God with this ideal of unbiased, unprejudiced, neutrality.  The Christian God is far from neutral.  God is clearly presented as being for us before ever being against us, and as constantly seeking relationship with humanity.  And God’s motivation for performing God’s greatest act, sending Jesus?  “For God so loved the world . . .”

Love and truth: the road and the destination

Before going further I think it important to indicate why I’m writing about this topic: why I think it’s an important topic and what I hope to gain by writing on it.

First, my general topic is evangelical Christianity.  More particularly, given my experience of God “showing up” in my existence, I’m interested in why evangelical Christianity is a good thing and what “works” about it.  However, in order to get there much of what I’m going to write about is why evangelical Christianity is a bad thing and what doesn’t “work” about it.

For some people, holding such a contradictory stance (because I really do mean bad—not just “misunderstood” or “regrettable”—and I really do mean doesn’t work—not just “in process” or “fallible”) is a non sequitur.  This is because in many cases Christianity as a whole is either a very good thing or a very bad thing.  And the matter is settled.  If you are in either of these camps, I hope in the course of my writing to change your mind about this.

Literally.  In other words, if you are a Christian (or are well-disposed towards Christianity) I hope to have you see the very real problems and failures with Christian belief and practice and to embrace better ways of believing and living: ways that orient you toward yourself, others, your world, and God with more truth and greater love.  In essence, “better” because they are more Christian in being more authentically human, and more human in being more truly Christian.

And if you are a non-Christian (or are ill-disposed towards Christianity) I hope in the same course to have you re-consider the possibilities and value in Christianity—I hope to re-open what is likely, for you, a closed discussion.

I hope to do this by offering resources such that accepting these possibilities is not an act of stupidity or desperation but is legitimate and valid.  “Legitimate” in that it is commensurate with your best aspirations for selfhood and your clearest understanding of truth about the world and your existence.  “Valid” because it engages an essential interaction of affirming (you and your beliefs) while yet critiquing (them in direction of your / their ownmost possibilities).  Legitimate and valid, in essence, because their acceptance completes selfhood, understanding, and relationship in the direction of more truth and greater love.

Throughout this writing one of my key presuppositions is that these two things are co-central to both human existence and Christian faith (or more so, to the Christian God): truth and love, love and truth.  Yet this is not only where I’m coming from but, actually, where I’m ultimately headed.

Yes, literally.  As Augustine believed that the goal of human life was happiness (not God or relationship with God), so I believe that that which is most essential to human existence is love and truth (not God or relationship with God).  Now I too, like Augustine, believe that God (the Christian God, whose identity and character do need fleshing out, though we’ll put this off for now) has a good bit to do with how this works out—more on this too, later.

But suffice it for now to indicate my belief that love and truth are the two key constituents to the topic under discussion, both as its goals and its means.