Interview with an Atheist Part 2

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.

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Interview with an Atheist

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 a third interview in which Luke questioned me. You can ready that interview here.

So Luke, first, thanks for doing this, again. Why don’t you start by telling us a little bit about your story—How did you become an atheist? Because you haven’t always been an atheist, right? (In fact, full disclose here, Luke and I know each other from church—we grew up in church youth group together).

That’s right. I should mention here, because when I talk to most Christians there is some confusion, that for most atheists I think there isn’t a conversion experience. I can’t tell you the day I became an atheist but I can tell you the day I became a Christian. I was raised in a Christian home and even attended a Christian school. It was sometime in my late teens and early adulthood that I really began to have difficult questions that I wasn’t able to get satisfactory answers for. So I began to sort of remove things and pick and choose the Christianity that was suited to my worldview until there was basically nothing of Christianity left.  I looked into all sorts of other avenues for answers – I was even a Christian Buddhist for a while but ultimately I realized that I wasn’t a Christian at all. That’s when I stopped looking for churches that would fit my world view.

What sorts of questions were they that you couldn’t seem to find answers for?

Well I believe that it started with some moral and ethical questions and worldview questions.  You know, I had questions about why God would care about homosexuality, why God would punish people with eternal damnation, and probably most importantly – even though it’s a bit cliché – why would God let bad things happen.   I think that for the most part the answers that I got were almost always along the lines of “because” or “God works in mysterious ways” which aren’t very comforting to someone seeking truth and facts.  There were lots of other questions as well that were really just inconsistencies with doctrine which I don’t find as important as I once did, but I was awfully concerned with the glaring incongruity between what biblical Christianity and science had to say about the facts of our world.

Do you still ask those same questions today? Like, when you engage with people of faith now, what’s the one question—and I’m sure there are many—but what’s the one question you ask that they can’t seem to give a satisfactory answer for?

I do ask those questions today and I usually get the same results as I am accustomed to.  I think there are really two major questions that I am not able to get satisfactory answers to.  The first one is the so called Problem of Evil which just asks the question: if an omnipotent God exists who is all loving and good why does evil persist in the world?  “I don’t know” tends to be the answer that I get most often and the follow up question is “Don’t you think you should figure out why before worshipping him?”  Logically it follows that for evil to exist God is either powerless to stop it and therefore not worth the adoration afforded him, or not all good and we should not want to follow him. The second one is the Problem of Multiplicity which asks: Let’s assume God exists – how do you know you’ve picked the right one?  There are hundreds of religions, thousands upon thousands of deities and more often than not Christians believe that they have it right.  In a Western culture it’s awfully convenient that most Christians have lucked into being born into the correct faith.  The truth is most religions are just as sure of their “truth” as any other religion. The most common thing that separates them is not ideology but geography and cultural identity.

Are there questions that people of faith ask you that you struggle to answer?

Oh definitely.  I think the biggest question for me—one that I have to default to “I don’t know”—is “Why be good if there’s no God?”  And it’s actually a valid question I think for a Christian to want to know the answer to.  Because without an afterlife or an eternity there’s this sense that nothing matters and that being a good person is no different from being a bad person.  I think for me the answer must simply be “Being good works for me.”  I have very little desire to be anything other than good and I might say shame on you to someone who can’t find a better reason to be good than God. For me I recognize that I have only a few short years of life and I really want to make the best of it.  I want to leave the world a better place than I found it for the sake of you know, everyone else who will still have to be here.  But “why be good?” is a question that I don’t think I ever really give a satisfactory answer to for Christians because my answer is “I don’t know, I just do” or “Why not?”

So you grew up in church. Your extended family are mostly all Christians. You still engage with Christians on a regular basis. In what ways, if any, do you think your atheism or just your own worldview has been or is being shaped by this engagement with Christianity?

I did. In fact I would say that a good portion of my closest friends are still Christians, my parents are quite fervent themselves as well.  I think in a lot of ways the things I was raised to believe still impact me sometimes this is good and sometimes it’s not so good.  Of course the people that I regularly interact with also affect me.  More often than not these interactions are argumentative in nature.  I should say here that in reality I’m only an “atheist” when in situations with a theist.  The only thing that atheism really says is that I’m not a theist.  But that means that any time the conversation turns to religious matters I’m in opposition to the religious people I’m around so even sharing opinions can turn quickly into a debate if you aren’t incredibly tactful.

That’s an interesting point, because I tend to include in my picture of an atheist a whole set of beliefs: skepticism, materialism, secularism, modern liberal optimism about progress and science etc. But I hear you saying that atheism, for you, really is just that—a negation of the proposition that there is a god. So I’m wondering if there are other misconceptions you might want to clear up. What do you think it the biggest misconception folks have about atheists?    

That’s a very interesting point, because for me atheism did stem from skepticism, materialism, secularism, and a real humanistic optimism about progress and science – but I would be doing my fellow atheists a disservice if I lumped them all into that group.  I think there is a common misconception that atheism is a religion and that we want you to join our numbers.  That simply isn’t the case.  I think that one is far better off leaving behind their belief in deities and their adherence to religion, but I have no real impulse to go out and preach that.  Some of my dear atheist friends do have just that impulse, so it’s easy to get stereotyped as an “evangelical” atheist because that does happen, but it’s by no means a requirement and I really don’t think it’s all that common.

One other thing that I think probably is a common misconception, because it came up quite a lot in the facebook conversion we had leading up to the live version of this interview—and no one said this explicitly, but it was implied in many of the questions they asked: that this guys must be just so unhappy –I’m thinking that a lot of people of faith, because we find so much joy and excitement in our religious experience, must automatically assume that atheists are unhappy people. So, this is a two-part question. I’d like you first to address that assumption. Is that something you’ve been confronted with? And then can you tell us, what does make you happy? What excites you? What mystifies you?

That is a great question!  I do get that quite often and I think in a lot of ways it is because for the religious person – the Christian – regardless if the level of devotion or zeal Christianity and God are such pivotal and integral parts of their happiness and their comfort. For me – I have a daughter – and my joy comes from her and my motivation again is to leave the world in a better way than I found it.  I have such a short life and the ability to be impactful is important to me.  Apart from that the world is such a fascinating place and it offers us so much to learn and to know and so many ways to grow I cannot help but to be curious and interested in that and what we can learn.

That kind of leads me to another question, because, you’re right, people do find happiness and comfort in their religious traditions. But some atheists, it seems to me, often feel compelled in public forums to refute or discredit religious claims. So in a certain sense I’m asking you to speak for atheists generally, but I have also known you do this—always gracefully and respectfully, but do it none the less. So my question is: Why do you care? If we agree that faith does these good things for people, why the compulsion to root it out? In other words, what makes faith seem dangerous to you?

I think that faith is dangerous for a lot of reasons but the biggest one is when faith trumps facts people can firmly stick to a belief despite their better judgment. I think that’s why so many parents spank their kids for instance, because they believe that’s what the Bible tells them to do and they have faith that it’s the right thing even though it seems and is very wrong. Faith can make people do horrible things and the benefit is usually feeling better.  I also think that often times faith prevents people from being intellectually honest because they realize that getting answers from outside of the faith puts that thing which makes them feel better in jeopardy. It’s why so many people were content believing the earth was the center of our solar system and why so many people are content believing the earth is only six thousand years old. So in that regard I feel I have a duty to point out those things which are wrong and to promote reasonable thought and integrity when approaching a situation or a question.

So are there good and bad kinds or instances of faith? And if so, what makes the difference?

Oh definitely. I’m not the kind of atheist that believes that faith in and of itself is a bad thing. Bad kinds of faith can create suicide bombers and all kinds of evil because it’s a faith that doesn’t permit being disproven. It’s untestable and that means it can make good people do bad things all in the misguided belief that they are doing what’s right because God told them so. Good kinds of faith can keep a person motivated and at peace. A person can have faith that their spouse isn’t going to cheat on them and it will make their relationship better and give them peace but that can be disproven and that faith can end when it’s proved to be wrongly held. Another unique part of religious faith is that it can have such a huge impact on a person that if that faith is lost it can be detrimental to the person when it’s gone.  Imagine discovering a cheating spouse but amplify that by a truly cosmic amount and that’s the kind of sorrow someone can feel when they lose their faith.

Oh, I can only imagine. And that’s a serious concern, because people are losing faith at an incredible rate these days. A study released by the Pew Forum just last week showed that twenty percent of Americans—one of every five people in America—do not identify with any particular religious belief. And that’s up from fifteen percent just five years ago. What’s interesting to me, is that much of that increase is accounted for by people who have not necessarily rejected a set of doctrines, but are instead disenchanted with organized religion. In some cases they even say that they like Jesus but not the Church. So to hear from you, as someone who identifies philosophically as an atheist: What do you think of Jesus of Nazareth?

Ghandi said, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” I think that really is very true for a lot of people.  I can’t say that I necessarily agree.  I have strong opinions about some of the teachings of Jesus Christ and I feel that for the most part they aren’t all good.  Although as a character, not as an actual person, maybe I do like Jesus a little more.  And I’m not arguing about whether or not Jesus did exist, honestly I don’t really care or even think about it that much. If I had read the Jefferson Bible before I became an atheist I might still be an atheist, but I might be more sympathetic to Christianity simply because there are good lessons that can be gained from Christianity. The problem for me has always been that there are more good lessons outside of Christianity as well.   One of the biggest failings of organized religion is that it often precludes its followers from learning lessons anywhere outside of their holy book.  So I guess I’m saying that not all of Jesus is bad but only Jesus can be pretty bad.  Does that make sense?

Which of Jesus’ teachings are bad?

I think the idea of giving no thought for tomorrow can be pretty damaging and I also think that there are an awful lot of people interpreting Jesus as being someone who preached that we should not judge our fellow man when in fact judging people is actually okay.  I had a friend once who punched me, I judged him to not be worthy of my friendship.  That was a good judgment on my part I think.  Jesus took 12 guys and had them abandon their lives so that they could go hang out with him; I think that was probably a bad call.  I think many wives would agree with me.  Although the worst lesson I think Jesus probably taught was, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.”  Of course I don’t believe that’s true so I obviously think it’s bad.

I’d like to switch gears for a moment, if we could, and talk a bit about your existential experience of atheism.  People of faith (some of us, at least) often live with quite a bit of tension. So, the tension that comes with believing that God is good, that God created and sustains the world and at the same time recognizing that the world if full of abject evil—that’s one example. Or, there’s the tension between believing that the Bible is the Word of God and also recognizing that it is at the same time part of and often embodies that brokenness that we see in the created order. So the question is: Could you talk about some of the tensions in your belief system or philosophy?

Oh definitely.  I think that tension is something that comes with any philosophy or with any worldview.  For my, and this is just me I can’t really speak for other atheists, but for me I think that a big source of cognitive dissonance comes from how I deal with what is it that I’m doing with my life.  It’s a little cliché I know, but for me finding out the meaning of  my life can be a huge source of tension.  But at the same time having the ability to find out the meaning of my life in fact to give my life meaning is an exciting experience.  I think for me that’s another benefit of my atheism and of not relying on a God.  For many religious people that tension is something that you simply must live with, ignore, or try to cover up.  For me that tension is a huge motivating factor in my life and I feel it makes me a better person ultimately, but it’s still there and that means I still get pretty bummed out sometimes – I’ll admit that, but I think that’s part of the human experience in general.

And what about doubt? Christians throughout the centuries have testified to the experience of profound and lingering doubt. For some it comes in waves; for others doubt is just a persistent part of the structure of belief in Christ. Is that kind of doubt ever a part of your experience of unbelief?

There is a pretty significant measure of doubt associated with my lack of belief.  I think in part that’s because of how strongly indoctrinated I was when I was younger.  I still get a catchy Christian tune stuck in my head occasionally and momentarily I get the “what if this is God?” thought that rushes past me, but it’s always been dismissed as a hold-over from my past or nostalgia.  I think that for most atheists doubt is unapologetic.  You mentioned that many atheists are also skeptics and what is a skeptic if it isn’t someone who doubts?  I would say that I am 95% sure that there aren’t gods at all with some room for movement depending on the specific god.  I’m far more certain that Zeus doesn’t exist for example.  For me that doubt is part of what makes my lack of belief honest, because I do leave enough room to be disproven.

Almost all religious traditions have some narrative that helps us to confront our mortality. So, for instance, in Christianity there’s the resurrection. Lacking any such narrative (at least of a religious variety), a lot of folks in our facebook conversation wanted to know how you think about, and deal with emotionally, the death of a loved one or the thought of your own mortality.

That’s a good question and it’s probably one that I get very often and the first major question I dealt with after becoming a non-believer.  I recognize that it can be uplifting and hopeful to believe that I will live on in the next life forever and that next life will be better than this life.  But for me as an atheist now I find that kind of disturbing.  Since becoming an atheist I’ve never wished for the end of times.  For me, having this one life is important.  Because as the bible says our individual lives are like a vapor relatively speaking and we only get the one opportunity to make a difference and to do good.  Without the threat of eternal life or eternal forgiveness we have to make this life count and we have to put forth our best effort to live the world a better place than we found it.  As far as mortality in general?  I’m not worried about my own death because when I am there death is not and when death is there I am not.  It’s something that happens to everyone and I’m not really afraid of it, I probably won’t like it but there’s no reason for me to fear it.  The same is true for my friends and family that die, there’s no reason to be concerned with death but rather to spend time cherishing life.

Okay, last question. Is there anything you miss about religious life?

Oh definitely. I think, for me, the biggest thing is probably the community and the support that you have being part of a religious group.  I’ve made lifelong friends, I hope, being part of a religious community and I’ve lost friends by removing myself from that community.  I’m not able to get the same kind of support that I used to get from my family either because for them I need to be a Christian first and then let everything else fall into place.  There really isn’t a good secular alternative for an extended community like that.  Groups like American Atheists are really great activist groups but they aren’t, in my experience, so great at building a community because two atheists don’t necessarily have much in common at all beyond atheism.  So I do miss that, I have friends and family that I still rely on and that’s good.

Well, Luke, thank you again for doing this. I’ve learned a lot (both times!) And it’s been a real pleasure.

I enjoyed it as well as I always do.  We’ll have to get together sometime and have a deep in depth discussion over a stiff drink or several.

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A Homily: Why Our Suffering is Meaningless (And Why That’s Really Good News)

Job 38:1-7

You know Job’s story. He has suffered great loss—loss his personal fortune, his health, even his own children. All of this through no fault of his own, but as the result of some strange cosmic pissing contest between God and the devil, which we the readers are privy to, but which Job knows nothing of. He suffers, like the rest of us, in the dark—searching for answers, for the meaning in his pain.

And here, in the passage I just read to you, God enters the conversation for the very first time. He comes with perhaps an unexpected agenda. “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” he asks Job. In other words: Who the hell do you think you are, Job, to question me? “Dress for action like a man, and I will question you.”

And question him, God does: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know!”

Are you picking up the sarcasm? I hope so, because he’s laying it on pretty thick. And God doesn’t let up after these seven verses we read this morning. No, it goes on like this for almost four chapters.

  • Who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb…and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stayed’?
  • Have you commanded the morning, Job…and caused the dawn to know its place?
  • Have you entered the storehouses of the snow?
  • What is the way to the place where the light is distributed?
  • And who provides for the raven its prey, when its young ones cry to God for help, and wander about for lack of food?
  • Do you know when the mountain goats give birth?
  • Is it by your understanding, Job, that the hawk soars and spreads his wings toward the south? Is it at your command that the eagle mounts up and makes his nest on high?

If I’m honest, I find these verses more than a little distasteful. Maybe you do too? I mean, Job is at the end of his rope here. He’s poor, mourning the death of his children, scratching the boils on his skin with broken pottery in hopes of a moment’s relief. Now God shows up? And just to give Job the third degree? If we read these chapters by themselves God comes across as a pitiless bully who just wants to kick Job while he’s down.

But hold on just one minute. It was, after all, Job himself who asked for this trial—back in chapter 31. After rattling off a litany of his innocence:

  •  He’s always shared what he had with the poor.
  • Never said a bad word about anyone.
  • He’s been honest.
  • Faithful to his wife.
  • Why, Job’s never even looked upon another woman lust in his heart.

Then he cries out, in the words of Eugene Peterson’s translation, The Message:

Oh, if only someone would give me a hearing! I’ve signed my name to my defense—let the Almighty One answer! I want to see my indictment in writing. Anyone’s welcome to read my defense; I’ll write it on a poster and carry it around town. I’m prepared to account for every move I’ve ever made—to anyone and everyone, prince or pauper.

God is just giving Job the trial he had asked for. But you see, therein lies Job’s problem, and, I would argue, the reason for God’s unorthodox interrogation. Both Job and his so-called friends have, throughout the book, been assuming the law of reciprocity: suffering properly comes to the wicked, while the righteous should prosper.

What goes around, comes around.

You reap what you sow.

We may call it karma. Or, if you grew up in a certain corner of Pentecostalism, perhaps the health and wealth gospel: if only you have enough faith God will make you rich and prosperous.

So Job’s friends keep trying to convince him that he’s done something wrong, and that’s why God is punishing him.

But Job maintains his innocence. He’s done nothing wrong, and he certainly doesn’t deserve this. That’s why Job calls God to the carpet: He’s being treated unfairly, according to the law of reciprocity, and he wants some answers.

But maybe God’s not bullying Job. Maybe instead he’s showing Job just how little he understands the way the world works.

Have you commanded the morning…and caused the dawn to know its place?

Maybe God is pushing back against Job’s unquestioned assumption of the law of reciprocity.

But before we write off this naive worldview, consider how often you and I think like Job and his friends. It might be easy to see how we’re not thinking like them—we have long since given up the notion of reciprocity. Sure, there are folks like Pat Robertson who are always quick to blame every natural disaster on Wiccans or homosexuals or whatever group happens to be on the chopping block that week. But most of us, on our better days, don’t really believe that good things come only to those who do good, or that only the wicked suffer. We have seen too many good people stricken with cancer. Too many good parents cradle dead babies in their arms. Too many tsunami waves crash indiscriminately upon the righteous and the wicked alike. Yet, still, we search, sometimes frantically, for some purpose to our pain, some narrative that will explain why we suffer.

A friend of mine once told me about an essay he had read in an evangelical magazine. The author—whose name I can no longer remember—was trying to answer that age old question, why we suffer. His story was tame. Some hooligan had thrown a rock through his windshield. So he called AAA, had the window repaired, and then told the repairman about Jesus. Then he had an epiphany!  This, this is the reason God allowed his window to be broken—so he could tell another soul about Jesus!

Then he had another epiphany: this is the reason for all sorts of suffering in this world. Now, think about that. In essence, this author is declaring that God kills the children of his followers, strikes wives and husbands with cancer, destroys cities in earthquakes, and wreaks general havoc with human lives…

…so that believers can tell non-believers about Jesus?

That’s it? That’s the meaning of suffering?

Well, I don’t know about you, but I don’t buy it.

Are we really to believe that broken car windows and broken lives are the same thing—all a part of God’s plan for evangelism?

But this author is not alone. I can’t tell you the number of sermons I’ve heard explaining that God allows human suffering to teach us patience or humility or to make us ready to help others through times of suffering.

This is the same thing Job’s friends were doing. They came to help Job, to comfort him, to endure his trial with him.  But they ended up blaming him for his suffering.  Well-intended though they may be—Job’s friends, the preachers we’ve all heard over the years, the author of that essay about the windshield—each claims a wisdom no one really has, the wisdom to explain this world’s inscrutable ways.

The Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky resisted similar consolations. Ivan, an atheist character in Dostoevsky’s The Brother’s Karamazov, refused to accept the notion that suffering serves any purpose whatsoever.  And if it does, it’s a cruel purpose.

“Imagine,” Ivan says, “that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one [innocent child] . . . would you consent to be the architect on those conditions?”

Ivan’s protest is powerful because he does not dally in the realm of the inconvenient—the realm of shattered car windows—but goes to the heart of the real question: murder, abuse, torture, the gratuitous suffering of children.  Did God allow the Russian nobleman in Dostoevsky’s story to set his dogs upon an eight-year old boy so that the boy could later testify to the love of Jesus?

Well, the boy died.

Did he do it so the mother could—the mother who was forced to watch?

The fact of the matter is that these answers just won’t work for Christian theology.

Christian theology has always held that evil has no being of its own, but is merely parasitic on God’s creation. Think of evil like a hole in a shirt. A hole in your favorite shirt can be a pretty terrible thing. But when you think about it, it’s really no-thing at all. It’s just a big, gaping nothingness, where there should be fabric. So, the technical language for this is: evil is “a privation of the good.” Evil, according to Christian theology, is literally nothingness, a corruption of God’s good creation, a perversion of God’s purposes. So, according to classic Christian theology, we can never know why there is evil in the world, because there is no why. Evil, at its core, is chaotic, arbitrary, nothingness. I want to repeat that—and I’d like for us to let it soak in—because this is the frightening reality that many of us have spent a lifetime trying to escape:

Our suffering is utterly meaningless…

But now let me alleviate the tension a little bit. I want to suggest that this notion—that our suffering is not a part of God’s plan and purposes—it right near the heart of the gospel, the good news.

It really is good news, I think, that we don’t have look upon the devastation wreaked by the latest natural disaster and console ourselves with sentimental drivel about how God works in mysterious ways, or assure ourselves that there is some ultimate meaning or purpose in such misery. It is good news that we are permitted to hate death and evil and suffering with the kind of perfect hatred that they deserve.

It really is good news that when I see the death of a child I do not see the face of God, but the face of his enemy. That is why, at the end of the story, God vindicates Job’s complaint and says that his friends have spoken ill of God. For God does not permit human suffering to punish sin—nor for any reason.

It’s good news because the Christian gospel is a story of salvation. Our faith is in a God who has come to rescue his creation from the absurdity of sin and the emptiness of death. And while we know that the victory over evil and death has been won, we know also that it is a victory yet to come. The whole creation, Paul says, groans with the pains of childbirth in expectation of the glory that will one day be revealed. Until then, the world remains a place of struggle between light and darkness, good and evil, life and death. And the incarnate God enters this world, not to teach us how God works mysteriously through human suffering, but to break wide open the bonds of suffering and sin and death, and to redeem creation to its original beauty. God will not, in the end, show us how the tears of a small girl suffering in the dark were necessary for the building of the kingdom. No, God will raise her up and wipe away the tears from her eyes.

And there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor any more pain, for the former things will have passed away, and He that sits upon the throne will say, “Behold, I make all things new.”

Amen.

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Evangelicals and the GOP: Who’s Driving Whom?

According to the Citizen-Times of Ashville, NC:

A Billy Graham Evangelistic Association article labeling Mormonism a cult has been removed from the group’s website following the 93-year-old televangelist’s meeting with the Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney last week.

Graham pledged to do “all I can” to help Romney get elected during the meeting

The Citizen-Times at 4:56 p.m. on Thursday captured the article, which said cults are “Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, the Unification Church, Unitarians, Spiritists, Scientologists, and others.”

Graham met with Romney at his Montreat home just hours before. The article is not on the association’s Website today.

So, apparently, now that a Mormon is making a serious bid for the White House on the GOP ticket, The Latter Day Saints are totally kosher for evangelicalism. Funny how that works.

Look, I don’t care if Mitt Romney’s a Mormon. I don’t care if Barak Obama is a Muslim (like he was early in the 2008 campaign), or a Black Liberation Theologian (like he was later in that campaign). I don’t care if you’re a Hare Krishna, a Scientologist, an Atheist or a Baptimergent—if you’ll care for the poor and not drop as many bombs as the other guys would, then I’ll vote for you.

But I’m not the one saying that the POTUS should be an evangelical Christian and that Mormonism is a cult. It’s evangelicals who used to say that. Remember?

I like Billy Graham, I really do. And to be frank, the man is 93-years-old, has Parkinson’s and, as I understand it, has to have fluid drained off his brain every day. So he probably can’t be held responsible for most of the decisions made by the association. The fact that Graham’s association is literally willing to delete articles that constitue their doctrinal statement in order to relieve the cognitive dissonance of evangelicals considering voting for Romney is symptomatic of a much larger problem: Evangelicals have nuzzled up to the GOP for so long that it’s no longer their theological commitments driving them to support particular candidates, as I think it really was at the inception of the Moral Majority. Now, it seems, their unquestioned commitment to the GOP can actually drive an evangelical’s theological commitments.

Am I wrong?

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New Essay: Martin Luther and the New Horizons in Soteriology

I just submitted the final essay for a Research Methods course I’m taking for my masters degree. Since some of you helped me write it by critiquing the initial thoughts I shared here, I figure it’s only fair to give you a look at the finished product.

Here’s the abstract:

At the center of much of the stereological reflection in the last half century lies a debate about the interpretation of the theology of Martin Luther. The research here presented examines three areas in the contemporary soteriology debate. We will first consider the recent reassessment of the Christus Victor atonement theory, and evaluate Luther’s role in the development of various atonement theories. Next we will survey the New Perspective on Paul, which takes Luther as the catalyst for the malfunction of Western readings of the Apostle, and we will consider one possible response. Finally, we will evaluate whether, as some Finnish interpreters of Luther have been saying, there is an analogy to be made between Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith alone and the Eastern Orthodox doctrine of theosis.

One surprising implication of this research is that Luther’s theology cannot be accounted for merely as a tired continuation of the medieval tradition, expressed as it is in Protestant orthodoxy. Neither does Luther represent a fortress of insulation against the teaching of the Church universal. Rather, Luther is, on the one hand, a robust ecumenical dialogue partner, able to engage with the early Church from which he is thought to have rebelled, and on the other, a persistent challenge to his own theological progeny.

And you can read the entire essay here.

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