By John I. Carney
A new breed of atheists, sometimes described by others as “militant,” has come to the forefront in recent years, writing books and going on lecture tours and even taking out billboards. They take the view that religion is a negative influence on humanity and should be actively discouraged.
A previous generation of atheists, the ones against whom evangelical Christians railed in my childhood, might have seemed angry, but they were in some ways more libertarian in their approach. They didn’t want their children to pray in schools, they didn’t want their taxpayer-owned public property used for nativity displays, but they weren’t seeking to do away with religion. They were condescending enough to assume that religion would eventually fade away of its own accord. Some of today’s atheists have apparently grown impatient waiting for this to happen, and are intent on proclaiming what they perceive to be the corrosive effects of religion on society.
My faith is important to me. I am not a member of the clergy, I have never attended seminary, I am not fluent in ancient Greek. But God is a reality to me. I have specific beliefs about God and about God’s relationship to the world.
I am not a universalist. I admire the work of Joseph Campbell, and the work done by Bill Moyers in popularizing him, but I do not believe, as Campbell sometimes seemed to imply, that all religions are myths, seemingly equal in validity, which point to some inner Jungian truth. I consider my faith to be something more concrete and specific than a mythic expression of something inside my subconscious.
Jesse Bering, a researcher with Queens University in Belfast, is an atheist who has posited the theory that belief in God was encouraged in the human race from an evolutionary perspective – those who believed in a higher power were more likely to behave in certain ways, and in the long run the communities or societies where ethical behavior was encouraged were the ones that thrived and prospered.
The universalist mindset treats religion as sort of a delivery system for ethics. It doesn’t matter what your god looks like or calls himself, or how many gods you have, as long as believing in some sort of god leads you to the Golden Rule.
While several of the world’s best-known religions share certain ethical principles, they also have drastically different and (to my mind) incompatible things to say about the nature of man, the nature of the universe and about how we should believe and behave. To imply that all religions are equally true is to cheapen all of them by selectively ignoring whatever about them we find inconvenient.
Boston University religion professor Stephen Prothero is the author of a book called “God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World – And Why Their Differences Matter.” In an interview with the Charlotte Observer, he said, “We keep racing to pretend that all religions are the same – both among multiculturalists who want to say they’re all good, and atheists who say they’re all bad. That doesn’t help us understand the world we live in.”
A former college roommate of mine – with whom I will have to respectfully disagree – criticized theologian Luke Timothy Johnson for his use of “Barnes & Noble theology” as a scornful term for people who, in Johnson’s analysis, pick and choose the elements their faith as if choosing items from the salad bar or favorite songs for the MP3 player. My friend thinks his varied influences give his faith vitality, but I am skeptical. I agree with Johnson that too many of us customize our faith like a playlist.
Paul, in the second letter to Timothy, said that “the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but, having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires.” (2 Timothy 4:3, NRSV)
Kenda Creasy, dean of Princeton University, has warned that today’s generation of teenagers has picked up a very non-specific, non-demanding form of deism, and that while they may identify themselves as “Christian” their beliefs and expectations may actually differ dramatically from the orthodox faith.
I worry that a pick-and-choose theology puts God at the service of the believer rather than the other way around; it’s easy to pick the beliefs with which you’re the most comfortable and reject those that challenge you.
John Blake of CNN noted that many people now say that they are “spiritual but not religious,” and took a closer look at what that statement might actually mean:
“It’s a trendy phrase,” wrote Blake, “people often use to describe their belief that they don’t need organized religion to live a life of faith.
“But for Jesuit priest James Martin, the phrase also hints at something else: selfishness.
“‘Being spiritual but not religious can lead to complacency and self-centeredness,’ says Martin, an editor at America, a national Catholic magazine based in New York City. ‘If it’s just you and God in your room, and a religious community makes no demands on you, why help the poor?’”
On the blog Get Religion (getreligion.org), Terry Mattingly once quoted a liberal rabbi on the subject of intermarriage between Jews and Gentiles. The rabbi was not necessarily a proponent of intermarriage, but he recognized that it was sometimes going to take place. On one point, though, he stood firm: he did not believe the child should be raised in both faiths.
He said, according to Mattingly, that there was a better statistical chance of a child from a mixed marriage becoming an adult Jew if the child was raised completely Jewish … or even if the child was raised completely Christian … than if the child were raised in a lukewarm mixture of both faiths.
“All that approach taught the children was that faith was a buffet and that their choices didn’t really matter much,” said Mattingly, paraphrasing the rabbi. “The key was whether the children were taught that faith actually mattered in their lives. They would eventually make their own choices about the faith that they would practice.”
I believe that there is such a thing as truth and falsehood within the realm of religion, just as there is truth and falsehood within mathematics, or chemistry, or biology. The trouble is that (as the atheists will be quick to remind me) there are objective criteria for testing the truth or falsehood of a scientific theory.
Scientific knowledge grows and evolves over time – the laws of Newton seemed to have been proven by observation, but more sophisticated observations and better understanding replaced them in time. But the basic principle of the scientific method holds true, and it is a sound one – for those things which it claims to be able to observe.
But are there things beyond measurement? And if so, how should they affect us and our lives?
I cannot measure God, nor can I prove God’s existence. There are aspects of the nature of God about which I might disagree with a Muslim or a Hindu, and I am utterly incapable of producing facts, figures or test results to back up my positions on those issues.
In the Bible, in the book of 1 Kings, Elijah engages in a demonstration in which altars to Baal and to Jehovah are built side-by-side, and Jehovah brings down fire on the altar which Elijah had built. But God does not, as far as I can tell, encourage that same type of activity under the new covenant, and Jesus resisted the Devil’s tempting suggestion that he put God to the test with showy and meaningless demonstrations.
Jesus himself gave one criteria for judging those who claim to be purveyors of religion, truth and meaning: “By their fruit you will recognize them.” (Matthew 7:16) But some who have claimed to serve Jesus have borne bitter and poisonous fruit.
I see, in my own time and community and throughout history, those for whom religion seems to be a negative influence, or for whom it seems to be something false and superficial. If they were my only exposure to religion, I might well have reached the same conclusions as Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris.
Of course, I think that judging Christianity (or any other religion) by its worst adherents or those who claim to be its adherents is a fallacy. Naturally, I look at Torquemada and see him as a distortion of Christianity, having no real relationship to Christ’s love or teachings.
One of the reasons I tend to be so skeptical of church-state alliances and so strong a believer in separation of church and state, even when that separation seems to inconvenience Christianity, is that when Christianity (or something by that name) is in political power, the power-hungry must operate under the banner of Christianity.
Christ himself sought no political power, despite the fervent hopes of his followers in Roman-occupied Judaea. It would have been a distraction from his mission. I fervently believe that Christians, as individuals, have a responsibility to be informed and active citizens, and ideally our faith should influence everything we do, whether in the home, the workplace or the voting booth. What I am skeptical of is any attempt to tie organized religion to organized politics, which in the end cheapens both.
Attempts to single out any party or candidate at the “Christian” choice ignore the complexity of our society and the vast array of issues demanding our attention. There are issues for which the conservative position seems more in line with the Bible, and other issues for which the liberal position seems more in line with the Bible, and there are many, many issues where determining the Biblical mandate depends on whose statistics and observations one trusts. Then, even if you were somehow able to determine the “Christian” position on each and every single issue, it’s highly unlikely you’d find a candidate who fell in exactly the right camp every time. That means you’d have to find some sort of formula for deciding which of those issues are the most important in evaluating a given candidate.
There is room for vigorous debate and dialogue among individual Christians about which candidate or party is most deserving of support at a given moment. If you think there isn’t, if you see one party (either one) as Heaven’s branch office in Washington, you’ve confused your own politics with God’s.
Church and State
Jesus, answering what was meant to be a trick question from his detractors, said we should “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.” America was settled, in many cases, by those who sought a refuge from government-sponsored religion, members of persecuted minority denominations who felt unwelcome in their European countries or origin, each of which had a government-sanctioned flavor of Christianity.
Conservatives and liberals debate hotly over whether America’s Founding Fathers were devout Christians who saw the right to self-governance as an expression of their deep and abiding faith, or deists who believed in proto-humanist Enlightenment ideas, occasionally expressing them in a Christian context because, hey, it was only the 18th Century.
I think both of these perspectives may be true. It’s clear that the Founding Fathers didn’t always agree and didn’t necessarily speak with one voice. Both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were documents born of intense debate and ultimate compromise. But what is clear is that we were meant to be a nation of religious freedom, a nation where prayers and practices are not mandated by the government.
The American Civil Liberties Union, often demonized by Christians of a conservative political bent, opposes government-affiliated expressions of religion which it perceives to be in violation of the First Amendment. But the ACLU has been equally vigilant in supporting the rights of individuals — including some Christians — to practice their faith free of government interference. I don’t necessarily support the ACLU’s position on every specific case. There is room for debate about what constitutes government-sponsored religion and about whether there’s any real harm in, say, a nativity display in a public park. But I have to say that Jefferson’s description of the First Amendment as creating “a wall of separation between church and state” is a good thing for both church and state. Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and unto God what is God’s, which requires that you not confuse the two.
‘Holy’ wars (or not)
I distance myself from behavior of those who have abused power or authority in the name of Christ. But I believe they demonstrate the dangers of theocracy, not the flaws of Christ or his teachings.
I am not in a place to judge the internal motivations or the faith of others. When I see truly evil behavior committed in the name of Christianity, I want to think that the people who committed it were completely divorced from the true Christian faith. But there are other cases in which I can believe that Christians have been tragically misguided, even as I hope that, in their heart of hearts, they love God and believe that they are working towards the right ends. It is not for me to judge someone’s heart of hearts; it may sometimes be my place to object to their actions, whether or not they are Christian.
The militant atheists point their fingers at holy wars and inquisitions and at missionaries who confused evangelism with cultural genocide (or even literal genocide). I believe those are the fault of our humanness, not our godliness. The TV show “South Park” once poked fun at the atheist idea that holy wars are the natural result of religious belief by imagining a future in which religion, thanks to Dawkins’ influence, has been eradicated – and in its place, there is the functional equivalent of a holy war between two competing fictional groups: the United Atheist League and the Allied Atheist Allegiance.
I think that’s spot on. True faith is not the cause of holy wars; holy wars are the result of the church, like every other human institution, falling prey to our innate human failings – the very failings about which the church teaches us and which some writers want to downplay or blame on external factors.
For that matter, it’s easy for me to sit here and opine on human failings without mentioning my own – which are legion. I have caused outward harm; I have had dark inner thoughts. Like the apostle Paul, I sometimes think I am “chief among sinners” – that is, whenever I’m not busy denying some particular sin.
So, yes, people who have claimed a relationship with Christ have done or said or thought terrible things.
I prefer to look at those who have built hospitals in the name of Christ, who have painted great masterpieces in the name of Christ, who have made scientific advances in the interest of illuminating God’s creation. I think it is important to note that, even today, there are scientists who see their important work as part and parcel of their faith, as part of a quest to better understand the universe that God has given us. It is a fallacy to assume that all scientists are atheists, or that all Christians are anti-scientific.
I’ve heard some of the militant atheists reject the positive historical impact of Christians by saying that any such good works were clearly the products of humanism, even if those who performed them operated under the veneer of a Christian world view. I have to admit I was a little slack-jawed when I first heard this argument.
But in some sense, their argument is the same as an argument I made earlier. We all acknowledge humanity has capacity for great good and great evil. Where we differ is in assessing religion’s role in amplifying good and/or evil. We differ in whether we believe religion has had a net influence on one side of the ledger or the other.
Faith of our fathers
All of which brings me back to my big problem. What right do I have to tell anyone else what to believe? What evidence can I present for my faith? What words of comfort or challenge can I speak to others, and on what authority?
Also, having stated that I am not a universalist, how can I treat other faiths, and those who practice them, with tolerance and respect?
To put it another way – how can I be at the same time passionate about my own belief, eager to share it with others, serious enough about it to allow it to govern my life, and yet respectful of other beliefs in a peaceful, pluralistic society?
Many factors affect our faith. Obviously, the tradition in which we are raised affects our faith. If you were raised Methodist, or Baptist, or Catholic, there are factors in play that make it likely you will adopt that tradition (or, in some cases, that you will have a knee-jerk, polar-opposite reaction to that tradition). I tell myself, and others, that I am a United Methodist because I believe in key aspects of our theology and tradition. But if my parents had been, for example, Lutheran (the denomination in which my mother was raised), I understand that I might have become a Lutheran.
I can at least try to speak to some reasons why I believe what I believe.
I resonate completely with the defense of God in the first few chapters of C.S. Lewis’ “Mere Christianity.” Lewis – and I advise you to read this on your own, because his words are much better than my anemic paraphrase – writes about the fact that the fact that we seem to agree on the existence of certain ideal concepts like “good” – even if we are unable to completely realize them and disagree sharply among ourselves on their definition. Lewis argues that our ability to imagine and year for such ideals points to an existence beyond our own. Our inability to realize any sort of ideal state makes the fact that we can imagine its existence an argument for the metaphysical.
But that particular argument doesn’t even get us to a personal God, much less to the specific God described in the pages of the Bible (or, for that matter, the latter chapters of “Mere Christianity”).
My insistence on belief in Jesus Christ leads to a peculiar and yet seemingly-unavoidable piece of circular logic. The story is that theologian Karl Barth was asked if he could sum up the truth of Christianity in one sentence. He quoted lyrics from a children’s song:
“Jesus loves me, this I know / For the Bible tells me so.”
Well, yes. I believe that Jesus loves me because the Bible tells me so. I believe in the Bible because … well, because Jesus tells me so.
That makes no sense. I would have a hard time convincing a militant atheist of its truth. And yet, it is the essence of faith.
Chesterton put it this way: “If I am asked, as a purely intellectual question, why I believe in Christianity, I can only answer, ‘For the same reason that an intelligent agnostic disbelieves in Christianity.’ I believe in it quite rationally upon the evidence. But the evidence in my case, as in the case of the intelligent agnostic, is not really in this or that alleged demonstration; it is in an enormous accumulation of small but unanimous facts …. I mean that a man may well be less convinced of a philosophy from four books than from one book, one battle, one landscape and one old friend.”
I think that rings true. The sources of our faith are sometimes varied and subtle elements of our experience, our culture, our background.
Scott Peck, author of “The Road Less Traveled,” did a wonderful interview with The Wittenburg Door, a magazine known for its religious satire and with which I was involved for a number of years. The interview, published in the magazine’s August/September 1983 issue, included the following quote: “But gradually, over the years, I became convinced that there were certain flaws with Oriental religions, a kind of bloodless abstract religion, whereas I was being attracted to a much more carnal and bloody religion. I found that in Jesus hanging on a cross. That was real ….
“I was absolutely thunderstruck by the reality of the man I found in the Gospels. I found a man who was continually frustrated. It eeks [sic] out of every page. He says, ‘What do I have to say to you? How many times do I have to say it? What do I have to do to get through to you?’ I found a man who was frequently angry, a man who was scared, and a man who was terribly lonely.
“I realized that this Jesus was so real that no one could have made him up. If the Gospel writers had been into myth making and embellishing, as I had assumed they had, they certainly would have tried to create the kind of Jesus that my wife calls the ‘wimpy Jesus’ …. [t]he Jesus who goes around with His sweet sickening smile that never leaves His face while He does nothing but pat little children on the head. The Jesus with His own highly developed Christ consciousness which causes him to achieve a mellow-yellow sort of nirvana and peace of mind.
“But the Jesus of the Gospels did not have peace of mind, and I began to suspect that the Gospel writers, instead of being myth makers and embellishers, were in fact extremely accurate and conservative reporters.”
I have read, and strongly agree with, comments that call the little inconsistencies among the four Gospels evidence, not of their falsehood, but of their truth. If I were fabricating a religion, cutting its pattern from whole cloth, I would want one story, clean and consistent. The fact that we have four stories, with four perspectives, makes Jesus’ life and ministry seem less like mythology and more like history, which also sometimes come to us from multiple sources who disagree about minor details.
I believe in Jesus, as described in the Gospels, both fully man and fully God. But let’s back up a bit. I believe that God created the world.
News reports about physicist Stephen Hawking’s new book in fall 2010 used as their lead the fact that Hawking believes the laws of physics are sufficient to explain the existence of the universe – that it could and would have come into existence on its own without intervention.
But where did those laws come from?
There’s an old joke – which Hawking himself cited in “A Brief History of Time” — about a scientist explaining that the earth is round, only to be challenged by a resolute old lady who claims that the world is flat and rests on the back of a giant tortoise. The scientist, bemused, asked her what the tortoise is standing on.
“You’re very clever, young man, very clever”, said the old lady, in Hawking’s account. “But it’s turtles all the way down!”
Physicists like Hawking can certainly explain how various principles and laws explain the development of the physical cosmos. But they’ll never be able to explain why such laws exist in the first place. In this case, it’s Hawking who believes in “turtles all the way down” and is unable to explain on what the bottom turtle might be standing.
To say that the “Big Bang” – or some alternate account – happened because of the interaction of matter and energy, therefore there is no need for a Creator of the Universe, is to take a too-limited view of God and of the Universe.
Of course, the account given by physicists (including those who practice science within a context of faith) of the creation differs from the old story from Genesis that we learned in Sunday School. That troubles me not one bit. Genesis is a part of the Bible, the holy word of God, and I believe that the Bible is divinely-inspired and has been given to us as a foundation for our belief. But I do not believe God intended us to use Genesis as a science textbook, and it certainly isn’t a first-person eyewitness account in any human sense. The purpose of the creation story is to explain the parameters of our situation, and the problem which needed a solution. God created the universe, created humankind, and gave us free will. That free will allows us to fall away from God – that we are inherently sinful.
Those who passed down the two different (and in some ways, contradictory) creation accounts which Bible scholars tell us were shoehorned together in the first few chapters of Genesis would not have been interested in, nor able to understand, an explanation of particle physics or Hawking’s level of cosmology. What they needed to know was who God is, who we are, and how the two are both joined and separated.
A number of authors say that fundamentalist assertions about the literal truth of the book of Genesis are not as traditional as we may assume them to be. For example, as far back as Augustine, it was understood that some passages were to be taken poetically or metaphorically. David Lose, religion writer for the Huffington Post, wrote a column entitled “Four Good Reasons Not To Read The Bible Literally,” and told this story:
“For instance, St. Augustine — rarely described as a liberal — lived for many years at the margins of the church. An impediment to his conversation was precisely the notion that Christians took literally stories like that of Jonah spending three days in the belly of a whale. It was not until Ambrose, bishop of Milan, introduced Augustine to allegorical interpretation — that is, that stories can point metaphorically to spiritual realities rather than historical facts — that Augustine could contemplate taking the Bible (and those who read it!) seriously.”
By the same token, we have to be cautious about Biblical revisionism, about simply discarding or using an allegorical interpretation to deprecate anything in the Bible we happen to find disagreable. Responsible, prayerful scholarship is the key.
Sin in the street
Craig Ferguson, one of my favorite TV personalities, once interviewed a young actress and asked her if she thought people were inherently good or inherently evil. She replied that they are half and half. It seemed like a strange question to ask in this particular kind of interview with this particular kind of subject, but that’s Ferguson.
My answer to that question, based on my understanding of the Bible, is that God has created us – and so we are certainly imbued with the potential for good – but God has given us free will, leading to a sort of moral entropy. A house of cards may fall, will certainly fall in time; a pile of cards on the floor will never spontaneously form itself into a house.
“Certain new theologians dispute original sin,” wrote G.K. Chesterton, “which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved. Some followers of the Reverend R.J. Campbell [an English congregational minister from the turn of the 20th Century], in their almost too fastidious spirituality, admit divine sinlessness, which they cannot see even in their dreams. But they essentially deny human sin, which they can see in the street.”
Our free will takes us away from God, requiring that we somehow be reconciled with God.
I believe that God has, through a mechanism that I cannot adequately explain, established a way for us to be reconciled to him, through the substitutionary death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I believe that we must commit ourselves to Jesus in order to avail ourselves of this reconciliation, and I believe that commitment begins a transformative process which remains incomplete in this lifetime but which will result in an eternal reconciliation.
I also believe that refusing that reconciliation would have terrible consequences. Rob Bell, in his controversial and hotly-debated book “Love Wins,” challenges some Christian ideas about Hell. He leaves open possibilities that God may find a way to reconcile the unreconciled.
Amusingly, both Bell and his critics use basically the same argument against each other – “You’re being small-minded, trying to force things into a human perspective, and failing to acknowledge that God’s ways may be beyond our understanding.”
For the purposes of this essay, I will leave the debate on eternal separation from God to those with a deeper Biblical and theological understanding than myself. But I agree that any such consequences are the result of our own stubbornness, and not some petty desire by God to slap us down.
Doubt yourself, but not the truth
So I believe in sin, and in the need for us to be reconciled to God.
I make no apologies for these beliefs.
“[W]hat we suffer from to-day,” wrote Chesterton, “is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert – himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt – the Divine Reason.”
So, I have faith in ideas and principles which I believe to be true, and important. I have a responsibility to share those ideas, just as I would have a responsibility to tell my fellow patrons if the movie theater were on fire.
But there are others who are just as secure in ideas and principles which differ substantially from mine. In a pluralistic society, it is essential that my boldness in expressing my views be tempered with courtesy and tolerance, and that my only battleground be the battleground of ideas. I do not doubt the truth; I must acknowledge that I may be mistaken in my interpretation of the truth, and that is the source of my humility and the prevention against me imposing my ideas upon others through any method other than dialogue.
God in the locker room
That having been said, I will not yield the right to dialogue. There has been a thread in popular culture that tends toward annoyance with anyone who talks about their faith. For example, any athlete who is open about his or her faith in locker room interviews opens the door for legions of scoffers.
“As if God cared who wins a football game!” they say. “Doesn’t God – if God even exists – have better things to worry about?”
I have a couple of responses to that.
When I first posted this essay, I wrote that I personally did not recall ever seeing an athlete claim that God wanted his or her team to win and the other team to lose. I have seen many athletes praise God for their athletic success – which is not the same thing.
Since that time, there has been at least one high-profile case in which an athlete seemed to imply that he or his team had God’s blessing. But I stand by my original argument that the vast majority of athletes who mention their faith in locker room interviews are saying nothing of the sort.
It is always appropriate, for anyone in any line of work, to thank God at all times and in all situations. If I had a good day at my chosen profession (or, in the case of amateur athletes, my chosen avocation), I would make no apologies for praising God and expressing my gratitude. That does not mean that I am deluded enough to assume that God prefers my sports team to the other team or prefers me to my individual competitors.
Tennis star Michael Chang put it this way, in another story at the CNN web site written by Blake: “Chang won the French Open in 1989 as a 17-year-old underdog. He was booed by a Parisian crowd when he thanked Jesus for his victory at the tournament’s trophy presentation.
“Chang, who now helps runs a Christian Sports League in California, says he thanked Jesus not to gloat, but to show gratitude.
“‘When I go out there and share my faith, I’m not saying God is on my side and he’s not on your side,’ Chang says. ‘The Lord loves everybody, and the Lord is on everyone’s side.’”
In fact, at many NFL games, Christian players from opposing teams meet on the field following the game for a quick celebratory prayer. These huddles are seldom shown on television – because of this same irrational attitude that any expression of personal faith is somehow tantamount to shoving Jesus down people’s throats. (To be fair, I’m sure the network would be even less likely to show such interaction between Muslim players.)
It is self-evident that these huddles, involving opponents praying together, are not based on the idea that God prefers one team to another. They are based on the idea that praise and gratitude are Christian virtues and Biblical commandments.
Objections to faith in locker-room interviews often include either a direct statement or an implication that “God has better things to worry about than a football game.” At first glance, this is quite a reasonable statement. But the extended implications of it disturb me, and I hear it even from Christians who should know better. The Bible makes it clear that God is aware of, and concerned with, not only the great matters of cosmology but with the most intimate details of earthly existence. The Bible explicitly tells us that God knows about each sparrow that falls from the sky and that God knows how many hairs are on your head.
It may be true that the CEO of McDonald’s does not know whether you ordered a large fries or a medium fries, or whether there’s toilet paper in the men’s restroom at your local McDonald’s. The CEO of McDonald’s would drive himself crazy if he had to micromanage each of the thousands of locations the chain operates around the world. But God is not a CEO. God is deity. There’s a difference. God is capable of attending to both the infinite and the intimate.
God has encouraged us to lift up all our concerns in prayer – anything that is important to us. Some of the things we pray about seem petty, and selfish, and beneath God’s purpose. Some of them are. But the funny thing about prayer is that, ideally, it becomes a dialogue. The more we pray, the better we get at it, and over time our priorities change. The dialogue must start with honesty, and I think that’s why God instructs us to bring all our cares and concerns to the holy throne.
Here’s another way of looking at it: a five-year-old may ask her daddy for a candy bar one day, a pony the next. A sixteen-year-old may ask for permission to stay out late. A woman who’s about to be married may ask for advice, some reassurance that she’s doing the right thing. Those are very different requests, with very different levels of importance. When the daughter is a child, the father may have to say “no” and may not have the chance to make the child understand why. But each request is special to the father, and the father will treasure those requests as precious memories.
The God we learn about in the Bible is infinite enough to have created the universe, but also intimate enough to have a relationship with each one of us, and to care about each of our struggles. As we grow in our faith, and our understanding of God’s plan, we may learn to ask God for more important things than our missing car keys. But God welcomes, and listens to, every request, no matter how small or seemingly unimportant.
Sometimes what seems a petty and insignificant thing to an observer is a critical thing to the person doing the praying. I was a volunteer during an Adults In Ministry event some years back with Mountain T.O.P., a missions group which places volunteers onto the Cumberland Plateau for week-long service projects. I was a long-time board member for Mountain T.O.P. and love the program dearly.
Most of the people in our camp that week were doing home repair work for needy families from the mountains; I was either teaching creative writing to teenagers or assisting in an arts program for special needs children.
In the evenings at a Mountain T.O.P. camp, there is a chance for the various participants, both those working at the home repair sites and those working with youth programming, to share their stories of the day’s efforts. Some of the stories are quite funny, while others can be touching.
On this particular evening, someone from a home repair team got up and, with a pained expression, warned us that what he was about to share was not, not, not a joke.
“We would like for you to pray for the iguana at our site,” he said.
It turns out that a child living at the home where that team was working had lost a series of pets over the past year – on top of what was already, if I recall correctly, a somewhat tragic home situation. Now, the latest pet – an iguana – was ill. The members of the work team were concerned that the child would be devastated at one more perceived abandonment, and they wanted us to pray for the iguana.
We prayed for the iguana.
I don’t recall what happened; I don’t think we got any news one way or the other before camp broke for the week.
God invites us to bring all our petitions to the holy throne, but there is no guarantee that every prayer will be answered in the way we’d like. This earth is fallen, a land of toil and tragedy, and not the full and forthcoming realization of God’s kingdom. Things occur that seem like little miracles; other things occur that are inexplicably tragic and that cause us to question our faith.
We are left to question, and to trust, and to hope that a clearer understanding will be granted to us.
The challenge of faith
Faith is sometimes said to be a crutch – a way to avoid facing reality.
Woody Allen, in an interview with the New York Times, said this when asked about faith elements in one of his movies: “I was interested in the concept of faith in something. This sounds so bleak when I say it, but we need some delusions to keep us going. And the people who successfully delude themselves seem happier than the people who can’t.”
But the truth of the matter is that faith, true faith, in some ways, makes life more difficult. It has its rewards, and that is why someone like Woody Allen can think of the faithful as happy in their delusions (thereby dismissing their happiness), but true faith requires an act of will, particularly at times when the evil of this fallen existence seems at its most senseless and oppressive.
Singer-songwriter Steve Taylor put it this way:
“You know by now why the chosen are few / It’s harder to believe than not to.”
The problem of evil, as it’s known by theologians, is not going away. I have no simple answer for it; if I did, I would be wealthy and famous (or perhaps rejected and stoned to death). We can understand, in general terms, the idea that God created us with free will, and that our free will is somehow tied to the broken nature of the universe. We can certainly understand that free will leads to man’s inhumanity to man.
But it’s the specific application of that fallenness which causes us problems, especially in cases where human free will is clearly not a direct factor. If we believe in God’s presence, and even more so if we believe in miraculous stories of God’s seeming intervention, there are stories of senseless tragedy that make us doubt. How could a loving God allow that to happen?
If there is no answer, then there is no God, at least not the God we are familiar with. If there is an answer, it must be something beyond our ability to comprehend. Faith requires choosing to believe the latter.
Spread the word
But what is the best way to share our faith with others?
Going back to an earlier G.K. Chesterton quote, the key may be to present our message with boldness but ourselves with humility.
Donald Miller’s remarkable book “Blue Like Jazz” tells the story of his time in ministry at Reed College in Portland, Ore., which has been ranked as one of the most secular campuses in the nation. At one point in the book, Miller and his circle of Christian friends at Reed decide to set up a “confession booth” at the annual Ren Fayre, typically a setting for debauchery and substance abuse. But visitors to the confession booth were startled by what they found. Miller quotes his friend “Tony the Beat Poet” describing what would take place:
“We are not actually going to accept confessions …. We are going to confess to them. We are going to confess that, as followers of Jesus, we have not been very loving; we have been bitter, and for that we are sorry. We will apologize for the Crusades, we will apologize for televangelists, we will apologize for neglecting the poor and lonely; we will ask them to forgive us, and we will tell them that in our selfishness, we have misrepresented Jesus on this campus. We will tell people who come into the booth that Jesus loves them.”
This is a dramatically different approach, but it got the attention of some Reed students who might otherwise have never even considered Christianity as a world view.
This is not to say that anyone wanting to share the Christian faith must start out by talking about the Spanish Inquisition. (No one expects the Spanish Inquisition, as they say.) But it’s a dramatic reminder that our evangelism must base itself on personal humility even though we have bold confidence in the message itself.
In the book of Acts, we read of Peter and Paul converting many to the new Christian faith in bold sermons and proclamations. We also hear about personal conversations, such as the one between Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch or between Paul, Silas and a very frightened jailer. We even hear of Paul’s dramatic conversion based on a vision given to him by God.
My belief, based on my understanding of the Bible, is that God uses many ways and means to reach us. The process of religious conversion is not like the process of convincing someone of the truth of a scientific theory or a political position.
But it is, at its best, a dialogue. I love the story of Paul, in Acts 17, having arrived in Athens to evangelize. He begins his sermon by noting the presence of an altar “to an unknown God.” He then casts his remarks about Jesus in that light, telling them that he is bringing them good news about a God previously unknown to them.
The good news about Jesus is unchanging, but it must be communicated in different ways in different settings.
God can use even inept or wrong-headed attempts at evangelism, but I think the best examples from the New Testament, especially the one-on-one conversations, involve genuine attempts to understand the hearer’s situation and relate that situation to the Gospel.
There’s a difference, of course, between empathy and exploitation.
A few days after the death of my mother in August 2010, I received an envelope in the mail from a fundamentalist Baptist church in my community. It had a tract and an invitation to visit the church during my time of grief. I found this quite offensive. It wasn’t based on any real dialogue; instead, it seemed like an impersonal attempt to take advantage of me at an emotionally-vulnerable time in my life. My father (a retired United Methodist minister!) got the same packet. Someone at the church apparently scans the obituary column and just sends this mailing out to any survivor for whom they can look up a mailing address. (Incredibly, they seem not to have noticed the “Rev.” in front of my father’s name.) I find that gruesome; it makes me think of the term “ambulance chaser,” which you used to hear applied to attorneys who aggressively marketed themselves to people involved in automobile accidents.
Of course, my self-righteousness over others’ ham-handed efforts at evangelism may hide guilt over the fact that I’m so poor at sharing my own faith – at least in one-to-one situations. I’m guilty of being passive-aggressive. I’m happy to write, or stand in the pulpit, and let people come to the message, but I’m not as bold as I should be about taking the message to others.
And I do have that responsibility. All of us do. We tend to think of the world as being in trouble, but our job is not to save the world – our job is to reach out to individuals. Our job is to give that person, and that person, and that person a framework of meaning in which to live life. Our job is to tell people about a God who loves them. The best way to do that is not with platitudes or slogans or formulae.
Ron Hall, in the wonderful “Same Kind Of Different As Me,” the joint memoir of his unique friendship with Denver Moore (Lynn Vincent is also a co-author), tells the story of his own conversion as part of a discussion group to which he and his wife had been invited as presumed prospects for conversion.
After that story, he writes this: “Looking back now, I mourn the mutual wounds inflicted in verbal battles with the ‘unsaved.’ In fact, I have chosen to delete that particular term from my vocabulary, as I have learned that even with my $500 European-designer bifocals, I cannot see into a person’s heart to know his spiritual condition. All I can do is tell the jagged tale of my own spiritual journey and declare that my life has been the better for having followed Christ.”
It is quite true that our lives, and the way we live them, are the most powerful sermon we will ever deliver. People see through hypocrisy; if we claim to offer a message of love but live our lives in hate, that will become evident, and our actions will undermine everything we say.
Even the greatest evangelist is still a sinner, of course, and there will be many, many times when our actions contradict our message. But that gives us the opportunity to live the Gospel in yet another way, through contrition and (when appropriate) by making amends.
As important as it is for us to share the Gospel through our lives and actions, the people who use that principle as an excuse never to talk about the message are missing the point. Also, their pride in the evangelism they are doing through their holy lives may be a tipoff that their lives aren’t quite so holy after all.
Through words and actions, our job is to offer a better way – a way that is not just another tune on the playlist, but a foundational truth.
August 7, 2011