Reading oneself and the Bible: follow-up 3

My last blog post was the second of a three-part reply to a recent comment, by “Listener.” In this last part I want to address two of Listener’s points. Here is the first:

“Some things must be felt with the heart because the intellect cannot adequately hold the entire mystery of God.” I agree that our emotional responses provide important information, and that some things may be more immediately accessible to the emotions than, say, the intellect. Yet as I wrote last post about the need to become skilled ‘readers of ourselves’, so I would argue that it is not either the intellect or the emotions. It must, to my way of thinking, always be both.  And not just these two.

In other words, human understanding necessarily incorporates the entirety of what and who we are as human beings. What does this entail? At base, it means learning how to invigorate and then interweave our faculties (intellect, emotions, memory, sense perception, imagination, experience) judiciously yet artfully, such that our way of seeing and our way of being are individually and mutually informing (and so able both to corroborate and critique one another). This, in essence, is the meaning (and result) of being a competent ‘reader’ of oneself.

Concerning the “mystery of God,” I think that we must be careful in what we view as “mysterious” about God, and what we do not.  For instance, whether an event represents God expressing love to me in some rather direct way may be mysterious in that we cannot be definitive about such conclusions, but the fact that God loves us is not.  Much more could be said, but I will leave it there for now.

This leads me to Listener’s second point: “What I have found in my spiritual journey is that people often measure my experiences of God against their own, rather than anything else. In other words, if they do not experience God in the same way, then they will dismiss what I have experienced. This seems to driven (at least in part) either by ego or envy. People can become envious that they have not heard from God in the same way. The fact is that God interacts personally and uniquely with each individual according to the grace given them and to their specific purpose.”

I resonate with this situation. Yet I also think that matters are not so straightforward. First, I believe that scepticism and suspicion must be overcome, not avoided, which is actually best achieved by encouraging my listeners to assume these perspectives: encouraging them to be sceptical and suspicious. And I do so not only by appreciating their questions but by having already applied these perspectives to myself: having my own sceptical and suspicious perspectives “ready at hand” concerning the very experiences that I proclaim, as true, to others.

In fact, I feel comforted when my audience is sceptical or suspicious because then I know that they share with me an important goal: truth-seeking. And my audience will likely be reassured when they understand that I, too, have taken a rigorous approach by applying scepticism to any event to which I attach such large claims, and to myself as the claimant.

Thus for the events in my life that I believe represent “exceptional experiences” of God, I hope that people will judge them. I hope that they will do so by applying scepticism and suspicion to how I present these events and to what I have “made of” the situations upon which they are based. For by so doing my audience inevitably spends more time and pays more attention to these events and, should they view me as credible, may develop greater trust in my accounts (or testimony).

So my job is not to try to avoid their scepticism and suspicion, but to encourage it. Further, by having a better understanding both of human being and the Christian God, my job is both to assist listeners to assess my experiences, whether by anticipating objections (and thus including partial responses when presenting my experiences) or by educating listeners towards the most applicable lines of questioning in order, thereby, to validate my experiences as true.

Lastly, what I’m proposing is time consuming. Yet this is not a problem but to be expected, for my goal is not explaining my experience so much as offering possibilities, through presenting my experience, of relationship between my audience and God. And this means two things.

On the one hand, my experience is not incidental to this “furthering” but essential to it, because I am proposing relationship between my audience and this God, the God that I have encountered and am describing to you. On the other hand, then, I believe that this process of presenting my experience and jointly validating it will both take time to unfold and will itself be part of that larger relationship that I am hope will develop.

In this way, as I engage with the other I both “remain myself” and become part of this person’s relationship with God: I become a partial embodiment of what it means for God to be present to another person, to meet that person’s needs, etc.

Atheism’s “religious” significance—Part 1


What is atheism?

At base, atheism is a truth-seeking enterprise inquiring into the nature of material reality, human existence, and the divine.  Atheists champion the use of reason and emphasize the role of personal experience and the verifiability (scientific and otherwise) of information.

In their approach to religion, atheists maintain two prominent orientations.  First, evidential atheists—philosopher Bertrand Russell is a good example—disbelieve in God (and religion) because they find insufficient evidence for belief.  Second, atheists of suspicion—Sigmund Freud and Friedrich Nietzsche are good examples—disbelieve because the practices of its adherents show religion to be something other than what it claims to be.

The first target belief content, the second target the belief’s outworkings.  But of course, this is not how Christians typically consider atheism.

Typically, atheism is identified with its conclusion that the most truthful characterization of the preceding is that no God or Gods exist—that the material world is all that there is and that human existence is the result of natural forces, including chance.

Yet by jumping straight to its conclusion, Christians overlook a lot:

They overlook the common goal that they share with atheists: an ardent pursuit of truth.  They further overlook that both claim to engage seriously with the real world in attaining this truth.  And many again overlook that they too, to a certain extent, are atheistic: most Christians would claim that the White Supremist church (in the early American South or during South African apartheid) is a false church, and that its God is a distortion of the true Christian God, and is not to be worshiped.

Before examining their significance, we must ask: Why do Christians typically overlook these similarities?  Because most have adopted a posture of dispute with those who oppose them.


My wager is because many of them understand loving God in much the same way that Kyle Idleman describes in his book, not a fan: being “so committed [to Jesus] that by comparison, you hate everyone else.” (p. 65).    And what happens when such Christians encounter outsiders to their views?  Let’s see what Kyle did:

He tells a story (pages 110 – 111) of a single dad who started coming to Kyle’s church and “fell in love with Jesus.”  Later the fellow’s mother, herself a churchgoer, wanted to meet Kyle with her son.  During the meeting the mother expressed concern that her son was going too far, becoming immoderate with his beliefs.  Kyle’s response?

“I tried to keep a pleasant smile, but my teeth were clenched, and my breath was short.  I was feeling defensive of my friend. . . . So I did what I always do when I get angry; I started quoting Scripture from Revelation.  I said to this lady who had been in church most of her life:

‘In Revelation 3 Jesus says to the Christians in Laodicea, ‘You are neither hot or cold but because you are lukewarm I’m about to spit you out of my mouth.’  Jesus doesn’t say: ‘everything in moderation”; he says you can’t be my follower if you don’t give up everything.’ “

On the one hand my reply is: Shame on you, Kyle Idleman.

You had an occasion to love you neighbour and instead of offering acceptance in order to foster a relationship and develop understanding, you chastised and excluded her.  Faced with an opportunity to discuss what it means to love (and be loved by) God, you instead chose to shut down dialogue by arguing against her with your righteous indignation?  Poorly done.

On the other hand, sadly, the problem is much larger than Kyle Idleman.  To begin, we need dialogue instead of dispute.

More so, we need church leaders who clearly perceive the deep kinship that exists between Christians and all “outsiders” to the Christian faith.  We need those who, given our common humanity, do not curtail dialogue because either we “don’t have Christ in common” or we do not view Christ (or Christianity) the same way.

And ultimately the Church needs leaders who understand the love of God aright, so that thereby they may model love of neighbour rightly.

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.

Truth-seeking (in the sticks)


“My fiancée is having an affair with my friend.”

“My pastor was caught having sex with the principal of the Christian school.”

“When my baby came I started going to church.  Not because I believed, but because I needed a place where I could sing—a place to express my joy and thankfulness.”

The price of truth-seeking is high.  Ask anyone who has walked away from a relationship or a belief that turned out to be false, or whose entire life was changed because they fell in love.  And where this thing is central to our self-identity, we do not simply choose what to believe or how to act but must actually—and necessarily—embody who we most truly are, and wish to become.

A philosopher I read called such moments “boundary situations,” situations of intense grief, despair, or love, where the stakes are so high that one cannot but respond with one’s whole self.

1 year ago I moved from a big city to a small rural town, in part because I hoped to find more authentic community here, in part because my pastor friend here seemed enthusiastic about my grad work in philosophical theology.  I had hoped to jump-start this process through the summers that I spent here with friends I had had, and through exposure to people in the community through my friends’ church.

However, I came to see that these pre-established relationships were mostly based on who Church people thought I was or, better, what they thought I believed.  They were based on them thinking that I was a member of their Christian “tribe.”  They weren’t so much accepting me (there was little interest even in who I am or questions about what I believed) as granting me membership, by association.

In small towns I had assumed ignorance to be the main reason that certain, faulty, religious beliefs were held: lack of information and / or lack of better formulations of the information that they have.  But after living here for a year I now see that ignorance or, better, complacency about knowledge, also has a social value.  It is an important denominator in communal identity.

In other words, where the most important thing in a small town is being part of the community, holding certain beliefs (or sets of beliefs) cements identity and delimit inclusion (and exclusion).

On the one hand, then, the content of a set (or sets) of beliefs is only every generally expressed and is not much at issue.  Rather, belief sets indicate which group one is part of, with different groups having different combinations of belief sets with variously different, though general, content.  Instead, membership is what counts.  On the other hand, attempts to examine (or worse, critique and modify) such belief sets will often be met with staunch resistance, because the issue is not so much what people believe but who they are and how (and whether!) they are rightly related to their fellows.

So the point is not that obtuse or uneducated people feel at ease with other such people.  Nor is it that rural people can’t be bothered thinking about whether a given belief is right or wrong.  Rather, it is that life is already hard enough and ready explanations and traditional views make life easier, particularly by facilitating bonding between people.  So by believing (by and large) what Joe believes I am accepted by Joe.  Or more generally, by believing what a group believes, I am accepted by this group.

And in a small community avoiding conflict and maintaining acceptance is crucial (to my identity and, to a certain extent, even happiness and prosperity).

Sadly, because they idolize acceptance, they also disparage conflict (and so avoid dialogue on contentious issues).  So tribal churches necessarily orient themselves toward anti-intellectualism (versus critical investigation) and conformity (versus diversity).  By thus dumbing-down the process of truth-seeking with respect to the gospel they also trivialize conversion into a mere “decision,” rather than a living encounter with a being toward whom one cannot but respond with one’s entire self.

For how could an encounter with a being who is love be less than a boundary situation?