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Letter To Tim Challies / Luke – Part II15 min read

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Challies-lukeprog In the six part interchange between Tim Challies the Christian and Luke the atheist, it looks like Tim took a different approach than me, which seems to take offense at Luke’s confident declarations of Biblical problems.  I agree with Tim a little, such declarations are a bit too definitive and value-laden to allow for discussion of cooperation within an umbrella of mutual respect, but I also agree a bit more with Luke that they were spoken in context of his personal journey and feelings in his ‘deconversion’ process.

So Luke also went sort of in Tim’s direction, although I think he is trying to redirect things back to ‘how can we work together?’ which I tried to address in Letter To Tim Challies / Luke – Part I.  Luke has written a second Letter to Tim Challies, to which I now respond.

1. Communications breakdown – why?

Luke writes:

You sum this up with your own paraphrase of my letter: “All thinking people acknowledge that the foundations of the Christian faith are complete nonsense.”

But that is not at all what I was trying to say.

Luke, perhaps before we can work together, we need to address this communications gap.  What you intended to communicate was not understood, but rather, was misunderstood.

As a growing communicator myself, I recognize this as a problem for the COMMUNICATOR to solve, not the listener.  Regardless of what I intend or mean, if that does not come across, it is I who have failed, not the listener.  I make, therefore, the following observations about your communication

  • I Feel v. I Know:  I would still like you to be candid, but to couch your words a little differently.  You might use the term “I felt” or “I feel” when you make such declarations as part of your introduction.  Granted, you may believe that you have strong empirical evidence for such sentiments, but declaring that your opponent is essentially stupid and wrong will not open up conversation ;).
  • Value Judgments: Similarly, I think that you ought to work at removing overt and implied value judgments from your arguments.  Actually, i think you do pretty well in refraining from such judgements, but phrases like “why a loving Jesus would torture millions of good people” are perhaps not wise to throw out there and expect that you are building bridges.
  • Understatement:  I think one thing that will help is to refrain from highly definitive statements and hyperbole that imply that anyone who disagrees must be unreasonable or stupid.  Your use of superlatives like “known to be forgeries” and “the religion of Jesus was quite different” leave little room for doubt or discussion.  In your second letter, you did a much better job of softening your tone.

You also did quite well in the use of understatement when you suggested to Tim possible reasons why he might doubt Christianity.  We get the point that you disagree, you don’t have to do it so strongly that you get hackles up.  I know that’s hard to do when you feel strongly about your conclusions.  I am not accusing you of being illogical or only motivated by feelings, only that your use of superlatives communicates a forceful commitment to those conclusions.

2. On the foolishness of atheism

I was a bit sorry that Tim brought this up, since I’m sure that you as a former Christian and present atheist are quite familiar with this scripture, and know that it is often used in a dismissive sense rather than one that engages in dialogue.

This is a case in which I would want to use my rules of engagement listed in the section above, and perhaps keep this to myself or understate it.  However, we may need to dicsuss it, and if examined dispassionately, I think we can learn some things from it that will help Christians communicate to atheists.  But I’m not sure that discussion is necessary or helpful if your end is to get some sort of practical cooperation in service going between us.

However, let me just tell you what I get out of the ‘atheist is a fool’ scripture, and how that affects my strategy in conversing with atheists:

  1. “Said in in his heart” – while we will of necessity be employing intellectual arguments with atheists, the primary issue with the atheist is, from a Biblical perspective, a heart problem, not a head one.  That is, while we may attempt to dismantle ‘vain philosophies’ and perspectives that obviate belief, doing so will only create an opportunity for faith, but not faith itself.  Eventually, we must deal with the heart issues. But how?
  2. “All creation speaks” – Romans 1:20 declares that the primary argument (but not the only one) that we should use is the testimony of the creation, and how that speaks to us, not just intellectually, but intuitively that God is (cf. Psalm 19:1).  At the very least, even social science shows that the human heart longs for a personal God, even if atheists think that is an infantile need.  In point of fact, it may be as ‘infantile’ as wanting to be loved and to love.
  3. Bitterness – Along with appealing to the obviousness of God as shown by creation, we ought to also address what we Christians all suspect (is “know” too strong a word?) is at the root of this heart problem with God – people are hurt and/or insulted by the hurts incurred in this world, esp. those at the hands of religious people.  Whether they manipulated or abused us, or failed to teach us how to think rather than what to think, or whether the realities of sin, sickness, and death, or the vagaries and enigmas of spiritual truths have pushed atheists away, we must address each of these the best we can, and not just from an intellectual perspective, but from a relational and emotional perspective.  That might entail being kinder to atheists in personal interaction, in showing them true kindness, in being good people of conviction and character, and offering solutions that involve not just intellectual perspectives, but practical steps towards addressing inner wounds, esp. those of childhood.  Just thinking out loud here.

3. On Predestination and Free Will and the unsatisfactory answers to this enigma

One of the most common intellectual offenses that atheists like to quote is the injustice of the whole salvation plan.  And this is one of the few questions to which the Bible resorts to a tactic which is remarkable in it’s finitude and disregard for human reason.  And it’s a conversation stopper for most atheists, and their offense at it is so great that they feel exonerated in rejecting God because of it.

This argument, again, has nothing to do with cooperation between us, but it comes up in nearly every attempt to speak w/ atheists, who reject God, not just because of a lack of empirical evidence, but because their sense of what is just is offended by God’s method and answer to their question “if you are somehow omnipotent and in control, how can you blame us or find us guilty?  Aren’t YOU to blame?”

While many of the paradoxes of reality and faith seem to have decent answers, this is one that the bible refuses to answer definitively.  Paul the Apostle plays out the argument in Romans 9, playing devil’s advocate along the way.  Finally, after declaring that God indeed hardens some and softens others to the gospel, the question is asked:

You will say to me then, “Why does He still find fault? For who has resisted His will?” (Romans 9:19)

To this point, Paul asserted that God is just even in his predestining human decision, and in the face of this last challenge, he answers this way:

But indeed, O man, who are you to reply against God? Will the thing formed say to him who formed it, “Why have you made me like this?” (Romans 9:20)

That’s it.  What he is saying is that the conversation is over.  Implied here and in other scripture is the idea that such things are hard to understand, yet nevertheless true.  

This type of response certainly is abused by Christians who fail to employ their intellect in defending their other positions, but in this case, the Bible and Paul feel that that is the only place where we can go from here.  There is no better or other explanation.  God is not unjust, and he is just in condemning those who disbelieve.  Not glad of it, only just.

Again, it seems to me that, beyond the lack of empirical validation for God, this accusation of the injustice of the Christian view of God, i.e. the problem of evil, is the major atheist objection to God.  And we will have to agree to disagree on this – Bill Craig has, of course, done some reasoning that shows that a just and loving God is logically possible with the idea of eternal hell, but interestingly, that does not make it palatable or possible to the atheist – perhaps because he still thinks that it is statistically a long shot or merely a flawed proof, but from another persepective, perhaps it is precisely BECAUSE his root problem is an emotional problem with his own idea of what God ought to do if he was just.

But all this is a divergence from wanting to solve problems together.  So I’ll not digress further.

4. Poor Design

Again, this seems off topic, so I’ll be brief.  What you call ‘bad design’ we call either ‘good design misdianosed’ or ‘good design degraded over time.’  Why do you conclude that the errors you see in nature are bad design rather than good design gone awry, which is more consistent with the Biblical view than seeing perfection everywhere?

How can you look at the information content of the cell, or the engineering excellence of living things that in many ways still serves to outstrip our engineering efforts and say ‘no design’?  Even well known atheists have remarked about needing to remind one’s self that what we see ‘has the appearance of design, but is not designed.’

And BTW, poor design does not equal NO design.  I agree that nature is flawed and often dangerous, but that does not mean no design at all.  Why must it be so black or white?  No design or perfect design?  I think design gone awry fits what we see very well.

5. What you’ve lost

Anyone who changes ideologies is going to lose friends, not just atheists, and I don’t think that was what Tim was getting at.  The Christian community is known for providing some communal benefits that many people can’t get elsewhere, like moral education for kids, being part of a missional community with positive goals, or just having people to pray with, which is an intimate activity even if it’s bunk.

I think Tim is alluding to some of the existential impact of becoming an atheist – no divine comfort in tough times, no promise of redemption for suffering or loss, no assurance of life beyond this, and no God to talk to in one’s heart.

I woudn’t poo-poo Ehrman’s discussion of gratitude either – not practicing thankfulness might be bad for the psyche.  It might be unnatural – unnatural in the way that I experienced the emptiness of the Bhuddist practice without a personal God.  Whether or not that need reflects the reality of God or just our need is not known, but I think it is an important concept and critique of atheism’s compatibility with the human psyche.

But deep down, I think he is also after the answer to the question I turned to you in my first response – what in atheism do you find incomplete, insufficient, or a weakness?  What causes you to actually doubt your atheism?

6. What can we do together?

Again, I refer you back to my first letter.  I think we may be severely limited because all real change includes not just practical service, but ideological education, and there, both in content and perhaps in means, we will diverge greatly.  Do you see a solution there?

I want to say one thing in defense of focusing on ideological change, and then turn around and criticize the evangelical overemphasis on this.

When I worked in medicine, I realized that there is a continuum of care, from Prevention to Emergency Medicine.  And while everyone along that continuum is doing worthy work, it seemed to me that we ought to spend more on prevention than cure.  But as I examined prevention, I realized that this meant more and more that you had to be changing people’s values and behavior.  And this will also be a consideration if we are to work together.

It would be easier for us to work together on short term, emergent problems rather than the more effective long term prevention issues, for at that point our respective ideologies will clash.  So I ask you – do you really want to focus on the symptoms and not the root of the problems?  I think that is the only place we might cooperate.

Even worse, the best emergent solutions ought to be paired with long term methods and perspectives, which again, we may not be able to do together.

One last thing.  While it has been shown that conservative religious people are more generous with their time and money than others (even when looking at secular charities, see Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism), I do think that most evangelical churches could do more in the way of loving service to balance out our emphasis on evangelism.  When we focus mostly on evangelism, we can easily develop an us vs. them mentality, but wheh you are out with people, it humanizes them to you, and you are reminded more directly that we are all the same in our need.