Editor’s note: My church does a thing called Food for Thought. Once a month we get together over a good, homemade breakfast to ask tough questions about Christian life and faith. Last month, my friend, and an ardent atheist, Luke Sullivan, agreed to let me interview him for the event. We had really hoped to video the interview and post it here, but that didn’t pan out. So, Luke agreed to do a second interview, this time in print, for you theologoholics.
We had such a good time with the first two that we then decided to put it in reverse and do this third interview in which Luke questioned me.
Can you tell us about your introduction to Christianity? Were you raised in a Christian home or did you discover Christianity elsewhere? What is your conversion story?
Yeah, I was raised in the Church. And so, like you, I don’t really have much of a conversion experience to speak of. You know the sort of standard initiation rite in Christianity is baptism. I was actually baptized twice, as it turns out—once as an infant, and again later in what some churches call “believer’s baptism” when I was ten or eleven years old—which is an interesting story in itself. I guess I probably got born again at some point before my second baptism, because that’s the sort of thing that one does in the kind of congregation that I was raised in. And then I got born again, again half-a-dozen time or so after that. But, to tell you the truth, I really can’t remember a time that I didn’t have faith of some degree or other. These days I find myself continually turning to that first baptism—a moment that, of course, I don’t even remember—and sort of clinging to the promise that in baptism Christ claimed me as his own. But Christian faith is something I guess I just sort of grew into, am growing into still.
That’s a good answer. I like that. You said that you were baptized as an infant and that you have always had some sort of faith. I think you may have basically covered the answer to this question, but perhaps you could explain more about how strongly your parent’s beliefs growing up and the community you were raised in impacted your current beliefs?
I have a tortured love relationship with my religious upbringing. I mean, a big part of my theological education and my faith formation in adulthood has been about unlearning some of the doctrinal particularities and spiritual practices of my youth. That said, I grew up with parents and lots of other folks who genuinely loved Jesus, and they taught me to love Jesus. And I’m grateful for that.
Speaking of doctrine. What do you think is the biggest misconception that atheists have about Christians? What about Christianity in general?
Boy, that’s a tough one. Let me take the second question first. Really it depends on which atheist you’re talking to. I know a few atheists who have a pretty good grasp of Christian theology. For the others, it really just depends on their particular pet peeve. Some atheists repudiate the Bible, employing a hermeneutic that is utterly foreign to the Christian tradition. Others criticize Christianity for being anti-science. Still others harp on the history of religious violence. I think all of these come from some misconceived notion of Christianity.
Probably the biggest thing, though, is that the god atheists reject often has little if any resemblance to the God of Christianity. I often find myself saying to atheist something like: “I’m not surprised you don’t believe in that god; I don’t believe in him either.” That’s why, when I’m talking to atheists, I resist the impulse to get into “proofs” for the existence of God, because the only thing that can emerge from the “proofs” alone (if they work at all) is a sort of hollow, content-less deity—an “Unmoved Mover,” “That Greater Than Which Nothing Can Be Thought.” I have no stake in defending the existence of such a god. Interestingly, all of the so-called proofs for God’s existence were originally made by and for people who already had deep Christian faith. So the original context of Anselm’s ontological argument is actually a prayer. And in that way, these arguments truly are “faith seeking understanding.” So the God being “proven” already had all the necessary content—it was the God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. That’s the only God I’m interested in, but a lot of atheists I talk with seem to have no concept of this God.
To the first question, a lot of atheists I know seem to think that all Christians are stupid. Given their misconceptions about Christianity, I can’t say that I blame them. If I thought that someone had an immense capacity for violence and was averse to science, all because of her belief in an Unmoved Mover and her unquestioning loyalty to a woodenly literalistic reading of the Bible, I’d probably think her an idiot too.
Atheists usually have long lists of gripes and complaints about Christians. What are some of your biggest complaints about atheists? What are some of your biggest complaints about Christians?
Most of the interaction I have with atheists is with the so-called “New Atheists” (and those who read a lot of their work). With them, I’m consistently frustrated with the lack of knowledge about Christian theology. That’s not a fault in itself, of course. No one is expected to know everything. But the New Atheists all write and talk publicly a good deal about Christian theology, and none of them seem to have taken care to actually read much of it. So they all end up misrepresenting Christian theology—and I really don’t believe it’s intentional, they come by it honestly—but then they attack it at precisely those places they have misrepresented it.
As for Christians, it’s how consistently and abysmally we fail to love our neighbors.
You asked me what was the hardest question I’ve posed to people of faith. So I’d like to ask you what’s the hardest question an atheist has ever asked you?
Why we suffer. If God is good, why is there evil in the world?
One of my favorite questions to ask. What’s one question you’ve asked atheists that they struggle the most with or provide the least satisfying answer for?
Who do you cry out to in the throes of an orgasm?
No, seriously. You know, it’s funny, I never really thought about it until you asked, but I suppose I don’t ask atheists a whole lot of searing questions. In my conversations with atheists, I tend to be on the receiving end of the zingers. It’s not that I don’t think there are questions to be asked. I guess I’m just not much of an apologist in that way. It’s not really my nature.
I guess if I were going to question my atheist friends, my questions would center around reason and tradition. Most atheists I know seem to think that they have abandoned the irrational traditions and traded up for a kind of unconditioned, universal reason. That’s interesting to me first as a student of history because it seems clear to me that modern atheism, like the Enlightenment more generally, is part of a tradition, which, interestingly, can trace its roots to certain movements within Christian theology. I think the argument can be made that the Enlightenment project failed precisely because the Enlightenment was a tradition that could not survive the realization that it was a tradition. Could the same fate befall modern atheism?
And secondly, it interests me because I don’t believe in unconditioned, universal rationality. Instead I think that all rationality begins from within a tradition of enquiry.
That’s a pretty good question. Most of us redirect our passion to the partner we’re having sex with than to the divine. We skip that bit altogether if we’re alone though.
I think that’s interesting, about reason and tradition, but for myself I’m not concerned with atheism as a movement. Nor does it bother me too much if in the long history of atheism there was some tradition of rational thought borrowed. I think that there will be nonbelievers for as long as there are believers. But that’s is a tough question to even begin to address. I think you might have asked me that before.
Here’s my next question: atheists are often accused of being militant or making mountains out of molehills when standing up for things like the Separation of Church and State or when trying to prevent prayer from being endorsed by schools. As a Christian do you feel that this kind of atheism poses a threat to you or to Christianity? If so, do you feel the need to speak out against atheism to protect your own beliefs?
No. I mean, I’m a theologian by training, so it ruffles my intellectual feathers when someone misrepresents Christian theology. In those instances I tend to push back a bit, but purely in the interest of intellectual integrity. It doesn’t offend my religious sensibilities, though. And I don’t feel threatened by it in any way.
You asked me whether or not I thought there were good kinds of faith; I would like to ask if there are bad kinds of faith within the Christian Church?
Of course! Well, I mean, I might parse the terms a bit differently. Faith is that which clings to Christ. I’m not sure how much harm actual faith has ever done. But I doubt I even need to list the instances in which people have done really terrible things to themselves and to others as the result bad theology. More often than that, though, I suspect that people in the Church do terrible things for all the normal reasons that people do terrible things, and that faith is just a good veil to hide it under so that we won’t feel so terrible about doing terrible things. But everybody’s got their veils.
Everyone does have their veils.
Many atheists who are at least somewhat knowledgeable about the bible, myself included, often cite the bible as one of the key factors in their conversion. For many readers the bible is full of inaccuracies, absurdities, and what seems like illogical cruelties. For me as an atheist I’m also a bit of a biblical legalist because I interpret the bible to be pretty evil when taken at face value or in depth. What, if any, areas of the bible confuse you or are you unable to answer?
The whole thing confuses me…and mystifies me and delights me and frustrates me. That’s part of why I love the Bible, I guess—it’s such a rich and diverse book that you could spend a lifetime getting more and more confused by it. And to be sure, there are lots of ugly parts of the Bible that support slavery and misogyny and abject violence, so I certainly can identify with your distaste and others’. I wrestle with Bible. And, in a manner of speaking, like Jacob, I walk with a limp because of it. But there’s something about it—I just can’t let go.
Generally speaking atheists have only one thing in common, a lack of belief in God. There are many different denominations of Christianity and in each of those there are many different beliefs and doctrines and ideas. I remember a pastor I had once that refused to watch movies because he believed they were from the devil. I’ve dealt with Christians who believe in demon possession and I’ve dealt with Christians who think that demon possession is just silly fiction. To what do you attribute all of these varying interpretations and belief systems and what makes you confident in your personal opinions on topics like this?
Yeah, this is a broad stream to be sure. I think it’s got to have something to do with the kind of community the Church is. What I mean by that is this: I used to spend a lot of time thinking about what makes certain beliefs Christian. What are the doctrines you can’t deny and still call yourself a Christian? Is it the Bible—we all believe the Bible? Well there are so many different way to interpret a text like the Bible and so many different things that could be implied by “believing the Bible,” that that’s hardly meaningful. What about then Nicene Creed? Well, lots of Christians came and went before the Nicene Creed was ever penned. For cryin’ out loud, the Apostle Paul had never heard of the Nicene Creed. So that doesn’t work. So what is it? And no matter where I tried to identify the boundary, I would inevitably find some group that we would legitimately consider Christian to be outliers.
And then a Baptist preacher by the name of Bill Leonard helped me get my head around this. When he was asked this same question that I had been struggling with, Leonard said “Its Jesus. Jesus is the one who makes us Christians. Christians are people who love Jesus.” For me, that hits the nail on the head. So what that means in sociological terms is that Christianity is a “centered set,” not a “bound set.” Rather than some set of beliefs or practices creating a boarder that you can’t transgress and still call yourself a Christian, we come together around one centering belief—or rather one person. Christians are people who love Jesus. So just like Trekkies or Dead Heads (or just about any other group you could think of) may disagree about any number of things, they have this one thing that brings them together. I think the Church works something like that. We’re like a Jesus fan club.
Interesting. Sociologically relevant and you mentioned Trekkies which helps me understand your point. Okay, final question is there anything that you truly dislike the religious life?
I think the thing I love the most is also the thing that’s most annoying, and that’s being a part of the Church. Stanley Hauerwas, a theologian that I like, talks about his Jewish friend who says, “A god who doesn’t care what you do with your pots and pans and genitals isn’t very interesting.” I think that’s probably right. But what that means is that this community of people that I was baptized into also care about what I do with my pots and pans and genitals and my wallet and my time and my talents and my words. That can be pretty invasive. But I’d be lost without it (pun intended).
Thank you Joe. And if I might add in conclusion a paraphrase of Captain James Kirk, “what does God want with foreskin?” Maybe we’ll save that question for some other time?
It was my pleasure.