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Are Panentheists Atheists?

Are Panentheists Atheists?

Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God

Updated 17:09 central time to fix video link.

Last night I interviewed Dr. Bruce Epperly, process theologian, as an excursus to my study of According to John using Google Hangouts on Air. I’m following the book Meditations on According to John by Dr. Herold Weiss, but I wanted to talk to Bruce about his book Healing Marks, in which he discusses the healings recording in John 5 & 9. More relevant to this extract, however, is his book Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God.

Since there has been some recent discussion of panentheists in particular, and liberal Christians generally, I thought would be nice to hear an actual panentheist answer the question. I started my interview by asking Bruce: Are you an atheist? I’ve extracted his answer to this and posted it to YouTube. Here it is:

Now I do not embrace process theology or panentheism, but I’m also not allergic to either term. It seems to me that one of the great tensions in scripture is between the story, which often reads very much like panentheism as Bruce noted, and the theological affirmations, which tend to separate God from the world more. I’m not sure that this tension is not valuable in itself, in that it keeps us from being too certain of our answers. We can see both in action, as God repents of making humankind or bargains with Abraham about how many righteous people need to be found in Sodom for that city to be spared. Both stories speak as if God doesn’t actually know the answers ahead of time. Yet at the same time we have the affirmation that he knows the end from the beginning, and indeed some scriptures that seem to say that he predetermines all. I see a parallel to the “God is sovereign” and “people have freewill” affirmations. Many Christians affirm both (whether they are Calvinists or Arminians), but explaining how they work together is much more difficult.

For those who watched the interview and would like to know where I started with this discussion, James McGrath’s post Is This Atheism? is a good place to start. In fact, it links to one of my points in turn. I’m also planning to post another excerpt from the interview, in which I ask Bruce whether Jesus was a healer. His answer there might be enlightening in connection with asking whether he’s an atheist!

Serious about Whose Faith

Serious about Whose Faith

I was mentioned by Ed Brayton (blogs at Dispatches from the Culture Wars) in a comment to a post on Facebook, and made a couple of comments myself. Here’s the Facebook post:

There are two things here that interest me. First is the claim that moderates and liberals don’t take their faith seriously. This is silly, sort of like the claim that atheists really do believe in God, they’re just rebelling against him. What these two things share in common is that the person making the accusation makes assumptions about the other person’s mental processes that are not justified.

I have spoken to people who called themselves atheists, but who were actually angry with God. They say certain things that tell you they actually believe. I also have spoken to any number of atheists. While they vary in the reasons they don’t believe in God, I have found their thinking quite clear. I have actually occasionally told someone who claimed to be an atheist that they sounded more like a deist or an agnostic (or a whatever to me), and asked them to explain their use of the term. It’s amazing what you can learn just by asking and listening to the response.

On the other hand my faith is my faith, i.e., I have come to believe certain things. I don’t deny that many of these result from my upbringing. I was born into a Christian home, and that does predispose me to be a Christian. On the other hand, I know atheists who were born into a Christian home as well. More importantly, I don’t believe the same things my parents did. My Christianity is somewhat different. They were (and are) Seventh-day Adventists. I am not. They accepted and taught me young earth creationism. I have rejected that and am, to the extent I can tolerate the term, a theistic evolutionist. There are parts of the Bible that they treated as historical that I do not.

How do you find that out? In my case, of course, you could read. But if you want to have dialogue with someone, it’s a good idea to find out what they actually believe. It may differ from your assumptions. I am probably more frequently accused of not taking my faith seriously by people who are more conservative Christians than I am. What they mean, generally, is that I don’t take their faith seriously, and generally I don’t. No, I don’t mean that I don’t take the faith of conservative Christians seriously. What I don’t take seriously is the faith of people who are so shallow as to make such accusations without bothering to investigate and learn.

Let me illustrate this with a more specific example. While guest teaching a Sunday School class I stated that I found prayer at public events questionable at best, and that if asked (unlikely) I would decline to participate. I emphasized that I was not speaking here of constitutionality.  This was not a political position, but a religious one.

One of the class members immediately accused me of not really being willing to stand up for my convictions because I would not uphold them publicly by praying there. But you see, those were his convictions about prayer, not mine.

My convictions say that prayer is communion with God. My prayer takes place most commonly in my office while I’m studying my Bible. My prayer time is largely silent. You might even think I’m sleeping. If I pray in a group setting, I want that to be in a setting where we, as a group or community, pray. My city, county, state, or country does not constitute such a community. I can guarantee that someone in that audience is being forced to participate in my spiritual activity.

I’d like to say that I don’t do it because I don’t want them to be forced to pray, and indeed I don’t want them to. But what drives me is that my own idea of what it means to commune with my heavenly parent is so contradictory to the idea of someone being involved involuntarily, that I find it offensive. I find it hard to pray. You may think I’m stupid, but those are my convictions, and they are the convictions that I will take seriously and uphold.

I feel the same way about public school prayer. I would find it personally offensive for my children or grandchildren to be drafted into a government organized (or any other imposed) form of spiritual activity. So when I oppose prayer in public schools, I am not refusing to uphold my faith. Rather I am upholding it against something that is offensive to it. In my view the place for prayer with children would be at home with their parents,  or in some sort of voluntary faith community, not in the classroom with a public official.

The second thing that interests me is the question of what the Bible actually is. Is it metaphor? Is it myth? Is it history?

The problem here is that the Bible is many things. It contains history, fiction, a legend or so, plenty of metaphors, liturgy, political discussion, and even occasional theological discourse. In addition, it contains literature that is not commonly found elsewhere, such as visions and apocalyptic passages.

Anyone who says the Bible is any one thing is either ignorant or not paying attention. The idea that there is a variety of types of literature in scripture is not a liberal or progressive idea. Conservatives are aware of it. Many fundamentalists will try to deny it. But where the serious divide comes is in determining what is what. Is Jonah some sort of historical story or is it fiction? (I would say fiction, and written to challenge the activities of some folks like Nehemiah, but it’s hard to pin down precisely.)

One of the big questions is whether the early chapters of Genesis consist of myth or history. Obviously, young earth creationists regard them as history. I’ve heard people use the question “Is Genesis 1 a myth?” as a sort of touchstone. If you say “yes” you’re a liberal, but if you say “no” you’re a fundamentalist.

Well, I say no, and yet I accept the theory of evolution. How can this be? Well, quite simply the question of whether a passage contains accurate history and science is quite different from the question of its literary genre. The genre of Genesis 1 is, in my opinion, liturgy. Liturgy does not need to portray accurate history. Genesis 2:4ff, on the other hand, shares most of the characteristics of myth. It’s a different story, told in a different way.

I’ve been asked why, if the two stories are contradictory, they appear side by side. The reason is that they function in such different ways that they cannot really contradict, any more than an Easter liturgy, celebrating the resurrection at 11 on Sunday morning in Pensacola can contradict an account of a missing body at about dawn near Jerusalem. They’re just not talking the same language.

I find it annoying that so much Bible study has to do with proving or disproving the Bible. This often results in people taking positions because of what they need the result to be. One person wants to believe that the gospels were written late because he doesn’t want them to be eyewitness accounts. Another wants them to be written early because he does. Neither desire is relevant to the actual dating. I wrote a post about an hour ago maintaining that I thought it probable that Paul wrote Colossians, a position challenged by some scholars. Does this make me conservative? No, nor does it make me liberal. It means that’s what I believe the balance of the evidence is.

Whether you are a Christian supposedly defending the Bible or a non-Christian who wishes to challenge it, contrived arguments aren’t going to help. Ultimately they’ll undermine your position with thinking people. I don’t mean every wrong conclusion is somehow a disaster. What I mean is every trite, contrived solution whose best evidence is the fact that you need it to be true, is going to backfire.]

Well, at least it will backfire eventually with thinking people.

A Liberal Adventist Pastor and Young Atheists

A Liberal Adventist Pastor and Young Atheists

Pastor John T. McLarty, a Seventh-day Adventist who blogs at Liberal Adventist Pastor has posted his sermon for today, titled Church and Young Atheists as well as another related piece Questions My Kids Ask, written for the Green Lake Church Gazette.

I mostly want you to go, read these posts, and hopefully comment and enter the discussion. What I want to add here is that we need more pastors to try to hear what young people are saying, learn what they’re thinking and see how the church can respond. I have friends who are very leery of the idea of the church, or God, trying to be relevant. They suggest we should become relevant to God. And I agree that the end result is supposed to be that we become more Christ-like, more God-like. But I see the whole story of the Bible as God becoming relevant to us first, so that we have the opportunity to move on from there.

Too much of the discussion of young people that I hear has to do with our stereotypes of who they are and what they are doing. For example, there’s the stereotype of the atheist who was hurt at church and therefore really hates the church and not God. And, like most stereotypes, there’s a basis for this. There are many people who have distanced themselves from faith because of the people in the church.

But there are also those like the young lady Pastor McLarty describes, who have simply found too many things they were asked to believe by the church that they couldn’t manage. They aren’t really atheists. They disbelieve a number of things they were taught, are unsure about many others, and they have more important things to do with their lives than to try to create their own theological system.

Further, there are those I would call real atheists. These are people who have come to the conclusion for various reasons that there is no God. And yes, my Christian friends, these people exist. You can tell yourself that they aren’t real, that deep down they do believe and are just rebels. I’m sure it’s comforting at some level to pretend that this form of rejection of everything you hold dear doesn’t actually exist. But it does. Not only that, they’re generally good people, great neighbors, and credits to their communities.

Why am I saying all of this? Simply to say that in any conversation on any topic we need to listen to what the other person has to say and then respond to them, not to a label. And Pastor McLarty is quite correct that for those he was referring to, rolling out proofs of God’s existence isn’t really relevant. In fact, I rarely find that rolling out proofs of God’s existence, all of which are quite inadequate in so many ways, is the best approach. These “proofs” answer certain objections in certain ways, but they don’t really prove that the Christian God is real.

But that is another subject …

Christians Behaving Vilely (Rhode Island Edition)

Christians Behaving Vilely (Rhode Island Edition)

43 “You have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy. 44 But I say, love your enemies Pray for those who persecute you! 45 In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike. (Matthew 5:43-45, NLT)

It appears that this message has not reached many Christians responding to a court order to remove a Christian banner from a Rhode Island high school. There have been treats against the 17 year old student who was the plaintiff. To get some of the tone of the remarks that aren’t legally “threats,” you might read this article. Ed Brayton at Dispatches from the Culture Wars has collected some comments from Twitter (language warning!) in a post titled Crank Up the Christian Hatred.

What I find even more disturbing is the number of people who are willing to provide some sort of justification for this type of behavior. Again, you’ll find them in the comments with comments such as “What did you expect?” Well, since I have followed church/state cases for years, including one just in the next county, I unfortunately expect Christians to behave very badly, to yell, scream, whine, defy the law, threaten, and resort to vile language in response to being denied some public stage. But in another sense, I expect better.

And don’t get me wrong based on the text I quoted at the start. These Christians are not experiencing persecution. While they may no longer have a religious banner in their high school, a public place, they doubtless have plenty of churches where they can express their viewpoints, not to mention Twitter and the comments sections of their newspapers, where they can make incredibly unchristian comments while others say, “It’s just natural,” or something of the sort.

Jesus said to respond in a loving and kind manner when you are persecuted. There’s an Iranian pastor on death row because he will not deny Christ. He’s being persecuted. A young woman was given 40 lashes for converting to Christianity in the Sudan. She is persecuted.

But pampered Americans who have to pray in their homes, their churches, in restaurants, on the sidewalks, and in many, many non-governmentally sponsored events? Oh the deprivation! Oh the sorrow! Doubtless God will no longer hear us.

And there are easy targets to blame. Atheists. See how you can make an epithet out of it? So now we talk about how much we hate them because they did what? Because they limited very slightly the places where we can proclaim our message. We don’t get the government’s authority behind our religion? How will the gospel ever survive without the backing of Uncle Sam?

In a general sense it’s pathetic. The persecuted majority. I’d be laughing if it didn’t make me so furious. But that’s just as an American citizen.

As a Christian myself, it makes me deeply ashamed and embarrassed. Here we have a perfect opportunity to model the behavior that Jesus commanded. We could be right up front and say, “We don’t want to use the power of the government to pursue our agenda in any case. The gospel doesn’t need a captive audience guaranteed by the power of the police (the public school classroom and facilities). Christians should be defending Jessica Ahlquist. They should be happy that she’s thinking enough about faith to take a courageous stand as she has done.

And no Christian should excuse the behavior of those who threaten or revile any group of people, in this case atheists and the ACLU (convenient cultural tags for those who don’t go along with our “Christian” culture). We should make it clear that this kind of behavior is not acceptable. Note here that by “revile” I don’t mean “say they’re wrong.” I’m very clearly saying the people who made these comments are wrong. I think they should repent. I don’t think they should be subject to threats of violence, or obscenities, and what’s more I don’t hate them. Their behavior infuriates me. I hope they repent. I call on them to repent.

I’ve used the word “Christian” for people who behave this way simply because that is what they claim to be. I don’t believe in trying to make non-Christians figure out who the “true” Christians are. God gets to judge that. But there is nothing “Christian” or “Christ-like” about this behavior.

There are those who call people “Christians in name only” because of doctrinal beliefs. Well, people who behave in the way demonstrated on Twitter and the newspaper comments section are Christians in name only, much more so than anyone who denies some doctrine. There is nothing Christ-like whatsoever about their behavior.

And those Christians among us who realize this should proclaim it.

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On Christians Insulting Atheists

On Christians Insulting Atheists

A couple of months ago I got a forwarded e-mail which purported to tell about a court case in Florida. An atheist was said to be complaining about not having a holiday like various varieties of religious folks, and got the ACLU to take the issue to court. The judge explains that he does have a holiday already, April Fools Day, citing Psalm 14:1/Psalm 53:1. It was an obvious joke, though it was forwarded seriously. I read it and deleted it. It wasn’t even the first time I’d seen a variant of this story. I decided to look for a link for this post, and the obvious source was Snopes.com, which does, indeed, list the story and informs us it is fake, though they note that there certainly are plenty of people who have taken it seriously.

I find it disturbing that people with the intelligence to turn on a computer might think this was real. What matters more, I think, is that people regard this as a good joke, and that some of those who regard it as real expressed the hope that we would get more judges like the one in this joke. We would be rightly be angry if such a joke were told about a racial minority or a disabled person, but it’s just fine to tell it about atheists.

What got me thinking about this was all the “war on Christmas” junk that goes around this time of year. We have the constant effort to get religious displays on public property and then to prevent other displays, such as atheist or humanist ones, from getting shown as well. It’s not as if we don’t have hundreds of places to display our nativity scenes. I even put one on the header of my company’s web site, Energion Publications. I get to do that. It’s my company. I don’t have to give equal time.

My downtown Pensacola church can put up any displays they want, and most of the town will have the opportunity to see them. My church doesn’t have to give other groups equal time. It’s a church. It gets to promote the views of its membership. But once we go onto public property, such as at city hall or at a school, things are somewhat different. There, the government is a sponsor.

For example, in West Chest, PA, a display on public property excluded a Tree of Knowledge sponsored by the local free thought society. I mention this one in particular—there are dozens—because I know someone who is involved. My question would be just who is harmed by the display of this tree of knowledge. Why would someone be insulted that some other person disagreed, and was able to express their disagreement. It is not as though Christians don’t have plenty of opportunity to express their point of view.

Elsewhere, Christians have tried to prevent Muslims from erecting a mosque, a place of worship. The argument has been made that Muslims should be regarded as a political movement, and thus not covered by freedom of religion. Often Christians have led in these actions. (Note that this point alone would be sufficient to mean that I would never vote for Cain or Gingrich under any circumstances.)

The comments on posts and news stories about these issues are very revealing, however. I’m amazed at the insulting language used by Christian commenters. Now there are doubtless readers who are thinking, “But what about the insulting language used by atheist posters?” I know of atheists who are quite concerned with such insulting language, but I’m a Christian, and what concerns me here is Christian witness. Posting obscenities about atheists says very bad things about Christians who do it.

My interest here is not in the legal aspects. I support separation of church and state, but I really want to address Christians and the way we think about these issues and the way we behave. The word “blasphemy,” in my opinion, has no place in political discourse. The government should know nothing of and have no concern with “blasphemy.” It’s a religious concept. One of the arguments Christians use is that by their very denial of God, atheists blaspheme. By writing against Christianity, they do so even more.

But here’s what I think is truly blasphemous, and since I’m addressing Christians about what would be blasphemy in Christianity, I think the word “blasphemy” is entirely appropriate. When a Christian says “I am a Christian” and then uses obscenities about another human being, or insults that person, that is blasphemy. It is also taking the name of the Lord, Jesus, in vain. It’s not the use of four letter words that constitutes “in vain.” It’s the claim that you are a follower of Jesus, in scriptural terms part of the Body of Christ in the world, and then acting in a way that is diametrically opposed to what you claim.

By insulting, I don’t mean disagreement, even when vigorously expressed. If you disagree with me, for example, and inform me of that disagreement, that’s not insult. But if you call me immoral for my view, or call me a fool, or lace your explanation with obscenities directed at me, then that’s insulting. Christians shouldn’t be doing that. Indeed, nobody should, but as a Christian, I’m addressing Christians.

What should we do instead? In my view, there should be a line of Christians at any hearing that was about denying someone else their freedom of expression. We should be testifying in their favor. Just think of the difference in our witness if, instead of being insulted that others have views that differ from ours, we went out of our way to treat them as we would want to be treated.

I think Jesus said something about that somewhere.

Oh, yes.  “Do to others whatever you would like them to do to you. This is the essence of all that is taught in the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7:12 NLT).

 

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Atheist Holiday Ads and Christian Freedom

Atheist Holiday Ads and Christian Freedom

The Christian Post reports that the American Humanist Association has some holiday ads out. These ads have messages such as “Bias against atheists is naughty, not nice.” Such a message seems pretty straightforward to me.

But the Christian Post writer chose to quote Matthew D. Staver:

Mathew D. Staver, founder and chairman of the Liberty Counsel, said that the campaign was a crass attempt at restricting the religious freedom of Christians passionate about Christmas. As the birthdate of Christianity, he said no other holiday deserved more public worship.

Now as a Christian, I’m fully in tune with the idea of being passionate about Christmas and in worshiping on this holiday. That is my choice as a Christian. In addition, there are a number of things I like to do about Christmas to make it more a matter of worship and less a matter of commercialism. This includes paying close attention to the advent season and the worship involved, and in also following the season, always noting that Christmas, as a liturgical season, begins and does not end on Christmas day.

But all of that is my choice. I can be passionate about what I want to do. Nobody else can prevent me from worshiping during the Christmas season. Nobody can prevent me from being passionate about the incarnation during this season.

But the incarnation does suggest something else to me. It suggests that I shouldn’t want to try to exclude others. The incarnation represents the greatest inclusion, or gap crossing, in religious thought. Infinite God reaches across the gulf to the finite, us, and draws us in.

So should we, as does Mr. Staver, complain that our freedom is being limited or that these ads prevent us from passionately celebrating our own holiday? Or perhaps we should see this as an opportunity to treat people in a respectful way ourselves.

They aren’t hurting Christians in any way by disagreeing with us. That’s their choice. Complaining about it just suggests that in this country we have a majority (Christians) who are so thin skinned that they can’t tolerate a very small minority asking for a little respect.

And that’s pathetic.

 

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O’Reilly vs Dawkins and Mocking God

O’Reilly vs Dawkins and Mocking God

The video below is a short exchange between Richard Dawkins and Bill O’Reilly. I’ve come to expect nonsense from O’Reilly, and I have a fairly low opinion of what Dawkins writes regarding theology, while considering his science writing second to none.

Watch the latest video at video.foxnews.com

What caught my attention here was the accusation that Dawkins is mocking God. More and more, I see this accusation used against anyone who doesn’t accept someone’s religious beliefs and has the audacity to challenge them. I’ve expressed a certain disdain for what Dawkins writes about theology, but I believe he has the right to say that.

Is what he says “mocking God”? Well, he’s an atheist. He doesn’t believe in God. What exactly do you expect him to say?

Thus I can be regarded as blaspheming Islam because I don’t believe that Mohammed was a prophet. In turn, a Christian might think a Muslim was blaspheming Jesus because he doesn’t believe Jesus is divine. If you believe something isn’t true, well, you believe it isn’t true!

Dawkins is bound to think the core story of Christianity is myth (understood in the derogatory sense), because he doesn’t believe it’s true, either as history, or as a good, effective myth (seen in the more positive sense). I may disagree. I may dislike what he has to say. I may even think his language is intemperate from time to time, but that fact still remains.

But expressing it in a children’s book? Again, I have the right to produce a children’s book based on my theological beliefs, entwining them in the story. Is this not also acceptable when done by someone else with different beliefs?

Just because faith is involved shouldn’t mean that it’s unacceptable for each person to express their point of view, and defend it, even vigorously.

Interpreting the Bible – Mid-Course Focus

Interpreting the Bible – Mid-Course Focus

This isn’t a summary of previous posts, but rather an attempt to focus on the issue I’m trying to address with this series before I continue. The problem with a series like this is that the examples begin to take over the topic. Since I have used complementarianism and theistic evolution as examples, and brought inerrancy into the discussion in order to demonstrate that it is not the key issue involved, it is easy for a reader to decide that I’m trying to debate any one of those issues, or perhaps to prefer that I debate them and try to redirect the topic.

Since the posts to which I responded brought up two more issues, homosexuality and violent passages in the Bible, which are again controversial issues, I want to focus back on the point I’m trying to make: It’s both difficult and inappropriate to tell your opponent what his or her position ought to be. In this case I’m responding to the charge that a Christian who accepts the theory of evolution is less Biblical because the “obvious exegesis” of Genesis favors a young earth creationist position.

Also, though I believe that theistic evolution is the best position to take at the moment, I am not attempting to demonstrate that. Rather, I’m attempting to show that it, along with a number of other positions on Genesis, can be held plausibly as interpretations of the Biblical text. The particular position one adopts depends on other factors, including the particular approach one takes to Biblical interpretation. After this mid-course focus I’m going to look at other issues and ask whether the exegesis is so obvious that an opponent of some particular brand of theology can easily dismiss it as “not real Christianity.” Within some limits, Christianity allows, and has always allowed, some flexibility.

The problem often starts with a charge that goes something like this:

1) The Bible clearly teaches X
2) X is unthinkable or false
3) So Christianity must be false

Now there are numerous and huge gaps in the logic as I have written it, but I think those gaps generally exist in the argument as presented by critics of Christianity. (Note to my philosophically inclined friends: To avoid general implosion with possible damage to the space-time continuum, do not try to critique that as a syllogism. Did I say it was a syllogism? I did not!) Let me apply this to a couple of relevant issues:

1) The Bible clearly teaches that the earth was created in seven literal days 6,000 years ago
2) That teaching is false
3) Christianity must be false

One obviously missing element here is “Christianity actually teaches X” but that is generally assumed, as is the direct connection between “The Bible clearly teaches X” and “Christianity accepts X as true.”

For example, one could say that the Bible teaches that an animal must be brought as a sacrifice if one sins, but Christianity does not teach this, for reasons that seem good and proper to pretty much all Christians. Here we have a teaching that is fairly clear, but that Christians believe applied to a particular set of times and places, not including the present. You can try to use this to demonstrate that Christians don’t really follow the Bible, but it’s not going to help as an argument against Christianity because it teaches animal sacrifice. (PETA beware!)

That would fit more with another form of the argument:

1) The Bible teaches that God condones and even commands violence
2) Condoning violence is unthinkable (but where is the demonstration that it is wrong?)
3) Therefore Christianity is false

Now supposing this argument is used against a Christian who is a pacifist. Clearly the conclusion is false with reference to that person’s belief.

The point I am trying to make here is not primarily whether the Bible teaches any of these things, or whether they are true or false, but whether a Christian can believe or disbelieve them and still be a Christian. Is it proper to dismiss theistic evolutionists and even old earth creationists as “not real Christians,” rather than to respond to their actual position?

Dawkins, in his book The God Delusion, clearly wants to argue with fundamentalists and then dismiss all Christians based on his arguments against fundamentalists. I blogged about that starting in From the Land of the Deluded, where I make some similar points.

I have two suggestions here. First, that Christianity is not defined by American fundamentalism. I have supported that partially and will continue to do so as the series progresses. Second, that it is better to respond to an opponent based on what that opponent actually believes rather than what you imagine them to believe or what you think they ought to believe.

It is inevitable that this will sometimes fail, but it is an admirable goal in any case, and trying to define your opponent out of existence as the first step to a debate is probably not going to get you very far.

Christians do this to atheists from time to time as well, in particular by concluding that an atheist actually hates God or does not desire to be under authority. This suggests that an atheist isn’t really an atheist, but is rather a rebellious theist. Perhaps it would be a good idea to stretch our Christian imaginations a little bit, and allow that someone might just not find the idea of God convincing, or might not see sufficient evidence to believe. Imagine, in other words, that the atheist is honestly stating his or her beliefs.

Further, we need to realize that what seems to us a certain result of a particular belief might not be so certain for someone else. In talking about grief, I am likely to mention that my relationship with Jesus Christ and spiritual disciplines including prayer and fasting have been critical to me in facing loss. Do I mean that someone without those particular beliefs will not be able to handle what I have handled? Not at all! From personal experience I know persons from other faith traditions who have found their beliefs and spiritual practices critical, and I know non-believers who have also endured and come out of such trials successfully. I mention this particular case because it is very common for Christians to believe that atheists will be unable to endure hardship and loss.

One last illustration might help. I speak frequently to Methodist groups, as I’m a member of a United Methodist congregation. Every Methodist group with whom I have discussed Calvinism has come to the conclusion that Calvinists will not engage in evangelism. Why? If Calvinists believe in predestination–that God has determined who will be saved or lost–what purpose is their for evangelism? The result is already determined!

Now I have always pointed out that Calvinists do, in fact, practice evangelism, and thus attacking them for a failure in outreach would be inappropriate. A few years ago, however, I had the experience of hearing John Blanchard, a Calvinist evangelist (something many Methodists would regard as an oxymoron), who was asked this very question: Why, if you believe in predestination, are you an evangelist?

His answer, as I remember it, was this: Predestination is a doctrine, and I believe it; evangelism is a command, and I obey it.

Hmmm. A bit different logic than we Methodists were assuming he would use, but here we have him believing both things. He is not the person we assumed he would be.

Neither is the theistic evolutionist the person you assumed him to be. He is not necessarily a scientist whose religion is loosely pasted on. He might be a devout believer and a scientist. On the other hand, his training might be in Biblical studies, like mine is, and the church and faith might be the stuff of his daily life. In any case, he (or she) not likely to be impressed when you claim he’s not who he says he is.

As I move forward I’m going to discuss views on homosexuality and the church. It may surprise some to know that many advocates of acceptance of gays and lesbians in the full fellowship of the church are actually quite conservative in their understanding of exegesis. One can fault their results in a number of passages, in my view, but one can hardly say that they lack the intent or a conservative approach, even as one charges them with special pleading in particular cases.

And so as not to disappoint, let me note right now that my intention will not be to argue one side or another here, but rather to look at the types of Biblical interpretation involved.

Previous posts in this series were:

And Now, Prayers from Everybody

And Now, Prayers from Everybody

… or almost, that is. According to this Christian Post story, quite a variety of clergy have joined in the various services that will be involved in the inauguration.

So if people want to bash Rev. Rick Warren or Bishop Gene Robinson, they should at least consider the broader range of targets available.

Before anyone misunderstands me, let me tell you what does not disturb me here. First, I think that the president-elect is a man of faith, and that should be reflected in his inauguration. Second, I also think he will be president of a diverse nation, including people of a variety of faiths and of no faith (set of religious practices), and that should be celebrated as well.

Under the circumstances, we’re beginning to see the sort of representation that is needed, and some of us, at least, should have expected this all along–that the participants in the weekend would not only include the folks who pray at the inaugural itself, but who would be involved in many events surrounding that one.

What I would be delighted to hear from our political leaders at some point would be an explicit acknowledgement that our celebration of diversity extends specifically to include those who are atheist, agnostic, non-religious humanist, and so forth.

Why do I, as a Christian, get worked up about this? Because recent polls show that these are people who are actually despised by large percentages of the population. An interesting set of poll numbers can be found here, in which I would simply note that 56% say they would be willing to vote for an otherwise qualified homosexual, but only 46% would be willing to vote for an atheist. Both of those numbers are troubling to me, but in the wake of movements such as Proposition 8 in California, consider that less people regard atheists as acceptable. I take the golden rule seriously–do to others as you would have them do to you–and I think it applies here.

The problem, in my view, is that we work on these groups one at a time, rather than simply learning to celebrate diversity as long as that diversity is not injurious in a society with a variety of beliefs and practices. (I don’t advocate tolerance of people who practice human sacrifice, for example.) The reason I would like to hear something said is that it is only by expressing the view publicly that each of these groups consists of people, who should be judged on their merits whether for a job in one’s business or for public office, that we get people to think about them and change their attitudes. If nothing else, the previous century should have taught us that silence doesn’t work.

I grow more able to celebrate the inauguration mix as a whole, though still wondering about homogenization. I prefer a robust diversity where each practices his or her own religion, and it is the differences, not the sameness, that is celebrated. But one thing at a time.

Evangelism from an Atheist Perspective

Evangelism from an Atheist Perspective

I tend to talk a great deal about how we should approach those of other faiths. It’s something that interests me a great deal. Going way back to the early days of this blog, I find the post Witnessing without being a Pest.

Let me note here, however, that I’m not calling on any of us, of any faith or none, to homogenize or compromise what we believe. I think it’s important to express one’s actual beliefs honestly and clearly. The trouble is, it’s often the behavior of the messenger much more than the honesty of the beliefs that often offends other people.

Of course what I write is from a Christian perspective, and one may question whether I have a good idea how non-Christians may feel. Thus I think that three recent blog posts on the blog Caraleisa are quite useful. She has encountered Christians whose obvious goal is to convert her, and to do it as quickly as possible.

The posts are:

Check it out!