Luke over at Common Sense Atheism is engaging in a letter exchange with Tim Challies which should be really great. I am not Tim Challies, but I endeavor to be. All I need is to publish my own book and read a few hundred books to catch up, right?
Anyway, here is my response to Luke. I know that he may not have the time or the desire to answer me as well, since I am less influential. However, I think Luke asks good questions, and I have praised his blog before, as well as
trolled commented on it.
So here’s my response to Luke’s first letter.
I know I am not (yet) and influential blogger, but I truly do plan to change that, and my over 1000 posts on wholereason.com show both my depth of thought and sometimes lack of it. Here’s how I might respond to your first letter. Please excuse my didactic, outlined approach, it’s just easier for me to organize my thoughts this way.
1. What is important for church people to be doing?
I think we would both agree that service to suffering humanity, be it directly through acts of compassion, or indirectly through such avenues as environmental stewardship or philosophy (!) are important.
However, practical help alone will not solve the existential or practical suffering of mankind until we address human behaviors and underlying attitudes. And to address those, we need to provide ideological help – i.e. ‘truth’. And this is where we are going to diverge – you have the rationalist/scientific/materialist and ‘godless’ approach, and we offer hope through a theist world view.
To put it in other words, we both will want to help the world through service and evangelism. And we won’t both have the same evangelical message. In fact, that is perhaps the main difference between religions/ideologies in general. And this important and large difference will necessarily limit what we can do together.
That does not mean that we can’t still accomplish more by working together in mutual respect. But I believe we will often be frustrated in our efforts by our ideological differences.
2. “If everyone believed that we should be helping the homeless, we wouldn’t have any.”
I think that this half truth reveals the underlying assumption that undermines the whole premise of unifying around common goals while maintaining our unique world views. Now, perhaps the author is just using hyperbole to make his point, but I think it undervalues and underestimates the need for a powerful ideological change in the people/nations we desire to help. It also underestimates the difficulty we will have in agreeing upon the MEANS to common ends due to our differing world views.
For instance, we see that some areas of the world that have a severe AIDS problem. Do we give them birth control and lessons in safe sex, or do we teach the ABC method? With our limited resources, do we work at destigmatizing HIV or encouraging faithfulness in marriage?
I will agree that if we worked together to eradicate certain highly prioritized items like the needs for sanitation and water, we might make better headway. But the oversimplification above ignores the real difficulties in bringing together groups with different ideologies for common purpose.
3. We spend our time arguing about whether we should put the Ten Commandments in a courthouse or not, or whether gay people should get married or not.
I agree and understand the point that perhaps we should not waste our energies on secondary cultural squabbles while Rome burns.
However, there may be a few such issues, like ESC research or even gay rights that some of us may not see as secondary, but root issues. I would propose that when human life or death is on the line (which includes abortion, but perhaps not ESC research), perhaps we should focus on that.
But I do need to reiterate that we may not agree on our hierarchy of values and issues, esp. if we project long term calamity with one or another approach. For instance, encouraging responsible fatherhood may not directly affect life and death, but I may believe that it will do the most to eradicate criminal behavior and poverty among the poor.
4. My Faith Journey
I grew up in an agnostic home, looking down upon religious people as
largely uneducated and fearful. However, I was very much a non-conforming seeker. Like todays’ Goths, in some respects I rejected the worldly pursuits of money and power, seeing them as empty. I tried many identities during that time, including being a punk, a redneck, and a rasta. During my senior year at NC State University, just as I was starting to trip on LSD and get into the Grateful Dead, I became a Christian through a couple of gospel presentations from Campus Crusade, some Christian friends, and finally, the preaching of a local pastor. That was 1986.
1987, I received my B.S. in Biochemistry (and B.A. in Chemistry), and
went on to do five years of cancer research at the University of North
Carolina at Chapel Hill. During that time, I grew in my faith, and I also came to reject evolution as the best explanation for origins, mainly through reading Creationist literature. For my evolutionary deconversion, see On Leaving Evolution.
However, I grew restless, awakening to
my desire to preach, teach, and do music. I quit my job and did six
months of missionary work with Youth With A Mission (YWAM), which was powerful and transforming.
returned to the U.S., attempted and failed to raise support for missionary
leadership training, and instead, worked on my inner life while
supporting myself with temp jobs. I healed many personal issues
through inner child work, Christian psychological works, and masculine
recovery literature. I also volunteered as a contemporary worship
leader in a local CMA church.
because my formative Christian years were spent in an unhealthy,
abusive and controlling Christian (charismatic) church, I began to seek even more
healing away from the somewhat warped Christianity I experienced. After moving to California to take a computer job, I left Christianity to
explore A Course in Miracles, Yoga and Buddhism.
learned much in the next 6 years, but eventually returned to evangelical
Christianity with a broader perspective, and without rejecting the
helpful practices I learned in those other traditions. And while I may
disagree with the revealed truths of the Eastern traditions, I embrace their common truths
and practices of mindfulness as disciplines that are compatible with
Christianity and useful in spiritual growth and practice, even if they
do not not provide salvific power.
Interestingly, while I had lost my faith in Christianity for that season, I did not lose my faith in the creation narrative, because I had come to that conclusion, not based on Biblical authority or experience, but on my own evaluation of the data.
I returned to Christianity, however, for a few reasons:
- It’s comprehensive, integrated world view not only seemed internally consistent to me, it best matched the world I saw in reality.
- No other ideology seemed to create freedom and morality so well, nor translated into public policy so well, including the ideas of justice, penitence, mercy, restitution, and redemption.
- I tried living as if there was no God, and it felt wrong to me. I wasn’t sure if I needed to converse with God because God is a reality, or because I just had an emotional need. However, I can tell you that the Buddhist practice of an impersonal, non-transcendant God did not just seem reasonable to me in principle, nor in practice.
- I learned some things that helped me hold my doubts in perspective – that is, based on what I *was* sure of, I could still carry my remaining doubts without denying faith OR reason.
Currently, I am an Associate Teaching Pastor at my local AOG church.
And as a former scientist, computer worker, and prodigal, I have much I
would like to contribute to the pursuit of God, love, and truth.
5. What things cause you the most doubt about your Christianity?
First, let me tell you what caused me to leave Christianity – unbalanced, extreme doctrines that were not even biblical, and some of the typical difficulties that are the subject of apologists and skeptics.
The doctrines that I had to reject and then reform in a balanced, biblical way include:
- An overly negative view of the created self, a lack of appreciation for the self, and a warped view of self love (self stewardship)
- A lack of integration of the body into spirituality (praise aerobics just doesn’t do it for me)
- The assertion that people of other faith traditions can not have Godly character (patience, kindness, love) and don’t’ have any spiritual truth
- The assertion that psychology is entirely built on an anti-biblical world view and is not to be trusted or employed by Christians
- The doctrine of plenary inspiration
However, the ideas that I think are a significant challenge to Christianity, and that I think I may now have reasonable defenses for include:
- The problem of evil and suffering
- Eternal Hell – I think that this is one of the primary objections that drove me to leave Christianity – it posed a problem of justice to me that had to be addressed.
- The eternal state of those who have ‘never heard’
- Unanswered prayer, and the studies that indicate that prayer doesn’t change things
- The lack of a totally unified manuscript collection for the Bible – doctrines of inspiration and inerrancy (whatever you think that term means)
6. What do you think are some common atheist misunderstandings about Christianity that you’d like to clear up?
That’s a tough question. I mean, straw men aside, I think most serious atheists understand Christianity fairly well, esp. the ex-Christian ones. However, I think that they often misrepresent Christanity, and faith in general, by painting them using the extremes, or by using valid complaints against historical and modern *practice* of Christianity as if those represent the Biblical teachings.
The main ideas I see in atheist literature all the time which frustrate me to no end include:
- That faith and reason are necessarily at odds or logically contrary
- That evolutionary origins are ‘as sure as gravity’ and therefore invalidate the Creation story of the Bible (I personally do NOT think that that evolutionary origins and the Biblical record and theology are compatible)
- That the Crusades and the Inquisition are indefensible and representative of Biblical teaching – I think that they were in some ways justified, and in some ways NOT representative.
I would not mind if you also answered the last two questions regarding atheism. What are it’s weak points, in your opinion? Objective morality? Cosmological or arguments from design? Historical atrocities? The mass appeal of theism? The limits of reason and its inability to definitively prove there is not a god?
And what misunderstandings about atheists would YOU like to clear up?
Regarding your endgame here, I think there IS something we can do – but I suspect that it will end in this way – that we can both agree to refocus our own communities on doing and being good, and on civil discourse. I am doubtful, though, that we can actually get much done actually coordinating our efforts. But I am open to being proven wrong.