The Thanksgiving Paradox

Tree“Yahweh gave, and Yahweh has taken away; blessed be the name of Yahweh.”

–Job 1:21

Several years ago, I was invited to represent the local atheist community at an interpath event held at the Unity Church of Dallas. There were all manners of religious traditions present, including several liberal forms of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, as well as a few dozen or so eclectic individuals who had adopted a kind of a mix-n-match approach to their religious worldview, blending certain aspects of Hinduism with various other aspects of Paganism, for example. It was an interesting cohort, to be sure, and I felt unexpectedly comfortable among this metaphysical diversity.

As the event drew to a close, the organizers announced that there would be a circular prayer, in which each of the invited participants would give a culminating invocation to their respective gods or goddesses to bring the proceedings to a close. As the circle drew around to my seat, I briefly considered remaining silent, but then at the last minute offered this supplication:

“Dear God in Heaven, thank you for giving me the intellectual capacity to disbelieve in You.”

After the event had ended, one of the younger Ahmadiyya Muslims in attendance approached me with a wry grin. “That was a funny prayer you offered,” he said. “I totally got the joke.”

I flashed him a smile in return, and said, “Thanks. But I was also being quite serious.”


As a child, the religious character of the Thanksgiving holiday was an obvious example of the manifest destiny concept with which most American history is colloquially taught. And the narrative most of us absorbed is full of justification for such gratitude: after fleeing religious persecution in England, the Separatist Dissenters sailed across the Atlantic on the Mayflower, landed and founded Plymouth Colony, starved through their first winter, and then were contacted by Samoset of the Native Abenaki tribe, who introduced them to Squanto, the last of the Native Patuxet tribe. According to the English Separtists’ accounts, Squanto not only provided them with crucial guidance in survival techniques, but he also negotiated a political treaty between them and Massasoit of the Wampanoag, culminating in a Thanksgiving feast that we memorialize each year on the fourth Thursday in November.

Except that’s not exactly all there is to the story.

The Separatists or “Pilgrims” as we call them were not the last English settlers to come, but neither were they the first. Squanto, the Pilgrims’ benefactor, had previously been kidnapped and enslaved by English explorers, taught their language, and trained as an interpreter. Upon returning to his homeland, he was kidnapped and enslaved again, to eventually be set free by kindly Spanish monks. When he finally did return home a second time, he found that the entire population of his tribe had been wiped out by disease just the year before, leaving him as the sole survivor. Indeed, the very reason why the Pilgrims chose the Patuxet’s former territory for Plymouth Colony was because the land had obviously been cleared and tended but was abandoned, precisely because of this plague, part of the legacy of the introduction of European pathogens to the Americas.

And following the happy Thanksgiving feast, things did not go so well for the Wampanoag. More English settlers, primarily Puritans, arrived in what they were calling “New England,” to the point where the Native Americans were now in the minority. Not all of these settlers were as interested in cohabitation as the original Pilgrims had been, and between recurrent disease outbreaks, pressure to covert Natives to Christianity and English culture, and also the violent retribution against Native attempts to reassert their sovereignty, their participation in America’s history was reduced to a mere footnote.

So looking back at the history of the event we celebrate every year, I have to wonder… is the gratitude of the Pilgrims enough to make up for the calamity of the Wamapoag? To say nothing of the utter disaster that characterized European/Native relations over the following four centuries?

And I feel much the same way about expressing gratitude to the divine.

Author J. Daniel Sawyer has remarked, though he doesn’t believe in God, he’d “like to have someone to say thanks to.” And that desire resonates with me, especially in the middle of an autumn walk through some particularly spectacular foliage. “Wouldn’t it be nice,” I sometimes think to myself on these occasions, “to know that someone was responsible for all of this natural beauty, and be able to thank them for the joy that I feel in this moment.”

But it’s a sentiment with strict demarcation.

Because I know too much about the natural world, and I know that for every fiery leaf that catches my eye, there is an innocent creature caught in an inferno and turned to ash. For every streaming cataract that captures my imagination, there is a pool of deadly water that imprisons a drowned child. For every soft breeze that tousles my hair and caresses my cheeks, there is a person smashed into oblivion by a raging tempest.

Consider perhaps, a painting so beautifully transcendent that its subject seems to connect right through into the center of your being, its composition so balanced and harmonious that it evokes an immediate and deep sense of peace and satisfaction, its colors so brilliant and textures so ideal that real life is dull and hazy by comparison. Such a work of art would demand the highest degree of respect and appreciation for the artist, would it not?

But then consider that the canvas for this magnum opus was cut, slowly and with the maximum possible amount of suffering, from the skin of a still-living person. And the pigments used to create the artwork were cunningly crafted from blood, drawn slowly from the same person, while she looked on in full conscious horror. And the brushes used to apply the paints to the canvas were fashioned from bones, cracked and wrenched violently from that same person’s fingers.

Would you still be able to enjoy that painting as you had originally?


What pains me most about offering gratitude to God is not simply reconciling the good things that happen with the bad. Even in a Godless Cosmos, there will be things that humans regard as good and evil; there is no inconsistency there. Because in a world without God, the existence of evil is either a failing of humanity or a happenstance of the apathetic Cosmos; two sources which I have no trouble reconciling and accepting. Instead, what I find myself unable to morally assent to is the prevalence of evil acts which no God worth the name could be inconvenienced to prevent, and yet which occur nonetheless. It would, for example, have been trivial for God to have introduced a strong genetic resistance to the smallpox virus in the Native peoples of the Americas. Such a small change would have had tremendous ramifications on the European colonization of this continent, and would have reduced the death and suffering of Squanto’s people by several orders of magnitude.

Now, theistic philosophers explain why this incrementally better God is not possible, citing any number of theodicies which almost-but-not-quite cover the entire range of natural and human evils we observe. But the same range of evils are consistent with a Godless existence as well; theists and atheists alike can agree that the worst of all human traits would manifest with or without a personal deity, and an impersonal Cosmos would hurl just as many bolts of destruction. So the paradox is that, it is only upon invocation of God that prayers of thanksgiving have any sense, but the tendency of that same God to balance the ledgers with calamity renders that thanksgiving senseless. That is to say, for every event God allows which inspire tears of joy, He also allows those which cause tears of despair. It is not necessarily the case that God has to play a zero-sum game, but it happens nonetheless. Would the Pilgrims have had as much to be thankful for in 1621 if the Patuxet were still living on their land, and if the larger Wampanoag confederation had not been decimated by European disease? Would America have risen to its level of prominence without centuries of slavery bolstering its national economy? Would I be able to enjoy the current privilege and safety I now have without the dripping blood of countless soldiers who are sent into warfare on my behalf?

As long as the God of classical theism cannot resolve this paradox any better than He did for His suffering servant Job, He is no God worth believing in. And yet still I wonder, is there not a God who could accomplish everything that inspires our gratitude without also allowing everything that provokes our pain? Such a God would, if He existed, be much more likely to earn my admiration, and certainly a much different prayer.

The Simplified Christian

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The retired Anglican Bishop N. T. Wright is highly regarded in educated conservative Christian circles, lauded by Catholics and Protestants alike (such as Tim Keller, whose work I’ve reviewed previously). Wright’s work as a scholar and popularizer of Christianity evokes the legacy of C. S. Lewis, another Anglican who cast a long shadow on the American evangelical community, in particular. His opinions on sexual ethics in the Church (especially the acceptance of homosexuality) has placed him more than once in the middle of cultural conflicts, and he has defended his conservative views with vigor. His writings for the lay Christian audience have sought to make a convincing argument for his conservative beliefs, without sacrificing the theological weight of their implications.

In his book, “Simply Christian,” Bishop Wright seeks to create an abstract of sorts, which the unsophisticated but earnest Christian may use as a framework for her beliefs until further details are accessible, and which the curious unbeliever may approach for a rough but comprehensible sketch of the religion which has dominated Western thought and culture for the past two millennia. That being said, Wright readily admits that this work can in no way be taken as a comprehensive assessment of the Christian faith; it is no exercise in systematic theology.

What Wright has clearly not anticipated, however, is the wondering gaze of the Christian apostate. One might similarly experience some level of bemusement at reading the realtor’s description of one’s former domicile. “Convenient parking, breathtaking views, and new appliances,” reads the sales notice. Ah, but not mentioned are the faulty plumbing in the guest bathroom, the pervasive weeds in the ill-tended garden, and the HVAC system one or two seasons away from shutdown. There’s a reason the former tenant abandoned the premises, after all, but Wright seems blissfully unaware (or unconcerned) about such readers.

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Like C. S. Lewis before him (whose model he clearly emulates), Wright also makes every effort to ecumenize his portrait of Christianity. As he says, “the book isn’t ‘Anglican,’ ‘Catholic,’ ‘Protestant,’ or ‘Orthodox,’ but simply Christian.” Though attempting anything else would make the book a complicated mess, I worry that Wright with a wave of his hand brushes aside too many of the differences between the various forms of Christianity. The variances between Protestants and Catholics are not trivial, neither in their experiences of the faith nor in the particulars of their respective theologies. Further, the intense and continuous fracturing of the Christian tradition is an important consideration for anyone interested in exploring the religion, believer and unbeliever alike.

Bishop Wright builds his case for Christianity carefully, progressively, and with the practiced technique of someone who has been enthusiastically engaged in the evangelism of his faith for decades. Yet the bricks he uses are mortared with generous assumptions, not wholly inappropriate given his assumed audience, but taken without proof by the author nonetheless. Assumptions like the objective nature of moral claims, the existence of the immaterial supernatural, and the impossibility of beauty and complexity to exist in a purely materialistic world. Many times also, Wright stops himself from making overt assumptions, but merely raises a question and considers the various responses, before moving forward taking for granted that the explanation which best points the way to God and Christianity should be taken as the assumed conclusion.

For example, Wright attempts an entire chapter outlining the Christian conception of the deity, without actually explaining why Christians are Theists in the first place, nor why they have decided that the ancient semitic god Yahweh is their God the Father. Similarly, later in the book he brushes past the most central and integral doctrine about the nature of the Christian god, Trinitarianism:

“The church’s official “doctrine of the Trinity” wasn’t fully formulated until three or four centuries after the time of Paul. Yet when the later theologians eventually worked it all through, it turned out to consist, in effect, of detailed footnotes to Paul, John, Hebrews, and the other New Testament books, with explanations designed to help later generations grasp what was already there in principle in the earliest writings.”

This is, quite simply, promoting theological poverty among Christians. I can’t imagine how Bishop Wright (or his publishers) were able to to pass this off, but he continues:

“Indeed, some have suggested that one way of understanding the Spirit is to see the Spirit as the personal love which the Father has for the Son and the Son for the Father.”

Not the Spirit as Person, but the Spirit as “personal love.” I’ll grant that it’s a pretty thought, but the good Bishop travels too close to Binitarianism with this kind of talk. After this, Wright encourages his readers to celebrate the “divine Trinity” doctrine as fact, but one wonders if any reader has any better sense of this core doctrine (or indeed, Wright himself) after completing his book.

Wright’s rationale when it comes to his assumptions about sex and gender are similarly opaque. He seems to have no understanding of the sociological relationship between the two concepts, how fluid they have always been throughout human society, and indeed the mixed messages of the Bible with regard to human relationships. Instead, he appears to insist on precisely the kind of inflexible, undeviating, restrictive view of sex and gender that his generation of Christians grew up with, unaware (or uncaring) that this is precisely the kind of attitude that younger Christians are objecting to, and which has already succeeded in alienating many of this generation, if not outright evacuating them.

“At one end of the scale, some people try to pretend that for all practical purposes their gender is irrelevant, as though they were in fact neuter. At the other end, some people are always sizing others up as potential sexual partners, even if only in imagination. And, again, we know in our bones that both of these are distortions of reality.”

“Today’s parents, however impeccable their idealistic credentials, have discovered that most little boys like playing with guns and cars, and that a remarkable number of little girls like playing with dolls, dressing them up and nursing them.”

“The trouble is that the modern world, like much of the ancient one, has come to regard what is sometimes called an active sex life as not only the norm but something nobody in his or her right mind does without.”

However, for all these missteps, Wright does do justice to his explanation of the Bible and its composition. His conservative conclusions regarding authorship and historicity are fully on display, but his summary of the “Book God Breathed” is a fair account that is likely to surprise with new information the average “pew potato” Christian who only follows along with her pastor during the Sunday sermon. Likewise, his distinction between inerrancy and infallibility is made with a subtle yet careful assuredness that would likely assuage the most conservative and the most liberal readers, alike.

Where Wright succeeds best is in making plain the contrast between three different forms of god-belief, and how they might lead to different interpretations of Christian history. These are Pantheism, the belief in a god which is unified with the Cosmos throughout the fabric of space-time; Deism, the belief in a god which is separated from the Cosmos (though the Creator of it) and does not operate in space-time; and Theism, the belief in a god which intersects with the Cosmos at various points in space-time. Christianity, as a form of Theism, is put forward by Wright as the most satisfying explanation for various phenomena, such as the complex beauty of nature, as well as the particular themes and implications of Biblical stories.

This is a significant success for Wright because the popularity of Theism is on the wane, even among some Christians. The implications of a personal deity, as well as of the theological, behavioral, and cultural implications of Christianity’s truth are dulled significantly if God is not personally present and active in our world. A Pantheistic or Deistic interpretation of Christianity helps avoid some of the most troubling issues with their faith with which many Christians simply don’t want to engage. An absentee god cannot condemn, cannot distinguish between believer and heathen, and thus must provide for some kind of universal salvation or risk moral irrelevancy. An impersonal god cannot intervene to save a baby from being drowned in a flash flood, cannot stand between a young child and a diagnosis of terminal cancer. It is important for Wright to make the case that to be a consistent Christian requires a clear acceptance of Theism, and I believe that he manages this task.

Yet for all his promotion of Christianity, Bishop Wright takes an opportunity to criticize the modern church as someplace that for many “carr[ies] the overtones of large, dark buildings, pompous religious pronouncements, false solemnity, and rank hypocrisy.” And in his description of the best aspects of church, I feel that we can find some agreement:

“It’s a place of welcome and laughter, of healing and hope, of friends and family and justice and new life. It’s where the homeless drop in for a bowl of soup and the elderly stop by for a chat. It’s where one group is working to help drug addicts and another is campaigning for global justice.”

I’ll see you in that church on Sunday, Bishop.

The Missing Apostates

The “New Atheism” is a phenomenon that confuses and confounds, that is both over- and underplayed, and that represents one of the most significant threats to the modern American Church aside from its own shallowness and self-absorption. As such, it fascinates me to no end when I see Christians speaking authoritatively about the New Atheist phenomenon, which is usually an occurrence that sparks as much befuddlement and unintentional hilarity as I might imagine if Richard Dawkins were to deliver a lecture on systematic theology.

That being said, one of the most cogent and authentic attempts to communicate the phenomenon of the New Atheists was recently accomplished by Drs. Doug Blount and Glenn Kreider, with assistance from Dr. Darrell Bock in a chapel discussion at Dallas Theological Seminary:

 

 

I take it as no small point of pride that I had met and spoken with Drs. Blount and Bock previously to this discussion, and hopefully provided them with some amount of personal perspective, as someone who lived through the New Atheism phenomenon as a New Atheist himself.

But there are a few criticisms I have with this discussion, as fair as I thought it was.

Firstly, New Atheism is a much broader phenomenon than just a handful of popular authors. One could convert the remaining Horsemen (Harris, Dawkins, and Dennett) to orthodox Christianity today and it would make little difference to the trajectory of the New Atheist movement. The mainstream American Church needs this clarification made as soon as possible: the Horsemen are not the cause of the New Atheism, they are themselves a product of the same influences which brought it about. Christians who attempt to rebut the Horsemen and consider their assessment of and defense against New Atheism complete are woefully under-informed.

Similarly, this discussion presented an over-emphasis on so-called “militant” atheism. While people like David Silverman and Annie Laurie Gaylor are often the most publicly recognizable (and FOX News friendly), they (and the organizations they represent) are now a fraction of the New Atheist movement. Secular social groups and congregations (like the Fellowship of Freethought in Dallas, the Houston Oasis, and the Community Mission Chapel in Lake Charles) are much more indicative of the direction New Atheism is going.

Of course, any time that Stalin is mentioned when Christians talk about atheism, I die a little inside. That Dr. Blount here characterized Stalin’s acts as occurring “in the name of atheism” docks a great many fairness points from the final tally. Though morally repugnant, neither Stalin nor any similarly-cited tyrants engaged in acts of wickedness “in the name of atheism.” Their philosophies may have been incidentally atheistic, but they were not crusaders of nonbelief in the same way that David Silverman is, and certainly not in the same way that Jerry DeWitt is. By contrast, it is trivially easy to identify many acts of wickedness throughout history that were committed “in the name of” many different religions, including Christianity. I’m afraid Dr. Blount makes a category error when he suggests that Stalin and the New Atheism have any kind of equivalence.

However, one of the BIGGEST gaps in the discussion is any recognition at all that the New Atheists are overwhelmingly old theists. That is to say, 4 out of 5 organized atheists (at least here in Dallas–Fort Worth) are former Christians. Most of us apostatized because we took our Christianity seriously enough to question it without a safety net. Indeed, many of us took Christianity seriously enough to pursue apologetics, lead Bible studies, and even to attend seminaries (including Dallas Theological Seminary). This is not to ignore the fact that there are many incidental atheists (and even some philosophically sophisticated explicit atheists) who convert to various forms of theism, but consider the mathematics of the phenomenon. I would venture to say that there is at least an order of magnitude of difference between the percentage of explicit atheists who have rejected Christianity (and other religions) compared to the percentage of religious people who have rejected explicit atheism. At least, that has been my experience.

In fact, I’d wager that there was most likely a current or future New Atheist in the audience during this very chapel discussion (and I’d bet $20 that he was one of the questioners as well).

So I find it to be a real pity that whenever Christians gather to discuss (and question) the New Atheism, the one person whose opinion is most relevant is missing. I call it the Problem of the Missing Apostates. With the possible exception of myself, the apostates of Christianity disappear from the pews, vanish from Bible studies, and slip out the back door of seminaries. The apostate is no longer a questioning believer, no longer a brother or sister in the body of Christ, and no longer present in the life of the Church. There is, quite simply, no room in the Church, no opportunity for fellowship within the Church, and no possibility of understanding within the Church when it comes to the Missing Apostate.

I am perhaps one of the exceptions to this phenomenon. Though I went missing not long after my own apostasy, I’ve returned to the Church often, motivated in part by a hunger to realize Acts 13:15. I’ve since been invited to speak to Sunday School classes, Wednesday night meetings, and even entire congregations, all of which I thoroughly enjoy. Of course, I fully recognize that allowing an atheist into the sanctuary can be troublesome, especially for those at the top levels. But the Church is losing ground in popular culture, and it quite simply can’t compete. Much like the invention of the printing press gave the Protestant Reformation an informational edge against the traditions of the Catholic Church, the writings and activism of the New Atheism are spreading at the speed of the Internet beyond what the modern American Church can hope to contain.

In order to meet these challenges, the Church needs to seek first to understand the New Atheism, even better than was represented here in this discussion, and I submit that the key to this understanding remains in the experiences and perspectives of the Missing Apostates.

The Virtue of Doubt

Doubt walks a fine line between en vogue provocation, and faith-undermining parasite. Requiring little to no accountability, doubt darts in and out of the margins of belief, highlighting opinions from those we trust to turn precious beliefs into yesterday’s mental blunder. Doubt creeps in, or acts as a battering ram. It shakes the firmest of foundations, and paves over freshly broken ground to build the intellectual structures of each tomorrow.

Doubt smothers the winds of hope, leaving one in the cold, still air of crisis. It beads away the quenching waters of faith, keeping alive the glowing ember of torment and anxiety to press on the heart and sear the conscience. A branding to associate one with the cornered flock that huddles away from certainty and comfort.

For many Christians, doubt comes as an enemy to tear down our faith and push us into skepticism. We fear doubt because it threatens to rob us of that precious connection between ourselves and the God of the universe. The bulwarks of faith give greater comfort when mortared with certitude. Apologetics gives the young intellectual Christian a feeling of validity, an empowerment to not only feel that she is certain, but to engage others in debate to prove that her certainty is warranted.

Doubt is both poison and medicine. Unchecked, it wreaks havoc on systems and can spiral into incredulity toward any statement aimed at controlling the boundaries of inquiry. Checked, it can bear the sweetest intellectual fruit. Doubt should not cause fear; it should effect action. Its medicine is a powerful antidote against simple answers—the answers that shut down further development of inquiry and stem the tide of mature thought.

In order for doubt to become a virtue for the Christian, she must recognize the moments when doubt swells. She must prod it for confession: why is it here? What does it want? The Christian must keep reason firmly in her grasp, asking whether the doubt has a purpose—and if not, she must give it one. Why do I doubt this or that aspect of my faith? Did this doubt arise from informed critique of the positions I hold? Am I fighting doubt because I fear losing my faith, or because I cannot imagine my faith without this doctrine? If I remove this doctrine, will the entirety of my faith shatter, or will I move into the ever-scary “liberal” camp?

What does it matter?

The move from one set of beliefs to another does not, in fact, change who God is. When I became a Calvinist, it did not change how God actually operates in the world. When I became an Annihilationist, it did not affect what will happen at Judgement Day. We do not fear change because it changes God; we fear change because it changes us. More importantly, we fear change because it changes how others see us. For many of us, vocational ministry precludes disinterested scholarship. We have a doctrinal statement to uphold, a church declaration of faith on which to sign our names. Jobs are at stake. Reputations fall prey to the intellectually honest Christian’s desire to really “just read the Bible.” The situation becomes much worse once the intellectually honest Christian enters seminary, and learns not simply what to think, but how to think. My most sweeping theological changes came first, after completing a degree in Philosophy, then again after I completed six years of New Testament Greek training and seminary. The standard, apologetical answers did not suffice any more.

This does not mean, of course, that all who hold theological or pastoral vocations do not read honestly, or somehow delude themselves into their beliefs. On the contrary: many, if not most, took these positions because they became convinced of the beliefs they hold, and are compelled to shepherd others along this same path.

We have been narrowing down the candidates for whom doubt can truly install itself as a virtue: Those at whom doubt gnaws. Those for whom no theology is safe from the onslaught of inquiry. Those who collapse from the pain and overwhelming exhaustion of feeling their faith torn away. Those for whom indwelling sin raises the question: why would God allow me to continue in this, to be tempted beyond what I can bear? Why does God not step in and help those who are weak, abused, powerless, hungry? Many have fallen by these arrows, learning how to creatively re-engineer their faith to support what they find within the context of theology; but not knowing how to hold onto their faith when the doubt overwhelms. I cannot help but find in many stories of de-conversion a lack of creativity. By “creativity” I do not refer to a willingness to gerrymander the texts, engaging in theological-exegetical-hermeneutical gymnastics for the sake of apologetical gamesmanship. I mean a courage, a bravery, to see beyond the simple answers that either side offers.

For some, when their faith no longer makes sense they manipulate their thought, stuffing down doubt and plodding ahead out of fear. Others possess that enviable faith that presses ahead, never doubts, never fears, and moves them into action. I truly envy those people. For others, when their faith no longer makes sense they punt, giving way to the opinions of those who shame them for bowing to authority. In an ironic turn of events, the shamers succeed in producing sheep of a different sort, only they are satisfied with these sheep precisely because they can brand them and pen them in their own fields.

The virtue-making of doubt requires the exhausting practice of dwelling deeply in tension. Resolving to never stop demanding of doubt what business it has in the believer’s mind; not to shut it down or silence it, but to press it for answers. To doubt one’s faith is not simply—and irresponsibly—to doubt one set of beliefs within our occidental prejudices; but to doubt the entirety of the western mindset we are all subject to. To tear down a structure in this way is to build a support around it, removing what needs to go, keeping what needs to stay. And in the case of the undecided element, to let it alone, unmolested, until its time comes.

Let the atheist speak loudly in your mind. Ponder Nietzsche’s words. Even give Dawkins and Hitchens a few minutes. They do not speak from cold, purely logical minds (which is obvious to anyone who has read them). They speak from pain, from living, from existing alongside us. Do not fight the skeptic’s questioning. Embrace it. Do not fear the loss of faith at difficult questions. Steady it. Your faith is not singular; it is a compilation, an assortment, a tapestry, a stained-glass window. Let your doubt settle in, making good use of it as a friend come to move you into Christian maturity; not so you can pride yourself on having defeated it and finally removed it from your life so your faith is certain. But, so you can continue moving forward, re-working and breathing in the truth that God is there.

Live in faith—yes. But if you are one of the “lucky” ones for whom doubt has made a space in the spare bedroom, make your mind its home. Do not let it trouble your sleep; let it help your faith breathe so you sleep more soundly. Doubt put to service will reward you for the rest of your life.

The Santa Problem

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Santa and Jesus: the solstice season’s chicken-and-egg.

A pastor friend of mine recently shared his thoughts on the so-called “Santa Problem” with his congregation. Some of the faithful, he noted, had expressed some concern about the inclusion of Santa Claus in their Christian Christmas celebration, and wanted to know his opinion of the matter. Many Christians, he said, see the problem as having either one of two possible solutions: either embracing the Santa story completely and encouraging their children to believe in his existence, or completely shutting their family away from the Claus myth cycle and focusing only on the Nativity. Ultimately, he noted that his family uses a compromise position between the two, where their children are taught about Santa Claus as a fictional character, to be categorized along with Cinderella.

He was amused when I told him that a similar question was rampant within the atheist community, but for a much different reason. Where Christians were concerned with Santa overshadowing or even replacing the importance of Jesus’ birth during the Christmas season, many atheists tended to view the Santa myth as being harmful given its supernatural qualities, as well as problematic from the fact of telling a false story to children. However, other atheists like Dale McGowan see the Santa story as an excellent opportunity to teach children about skepticism and critical thinking. “Do you think it’s possible to visit every house in the world in one night?” they ask their kids. “How is it possible for a reindeer to fly?”

I agree with both my pastor friend, as well as Dale. Santa Claus as we know him today is both a fictional literary creation, as well as an object lesson in the value of critical thinking. And yet even as an atheist, I feel that Jesus and the Nativity story should be included in my family’s celebration of the holiday for the very same reason. For both Jesus and Santa have much in common, and have followed similar paths throughout history.

Obscure Historical Origins

Both Santa Claus and Jesus Christ have appellations in modern culture that are far removed from any kind of historical reality. “Santa Claus” as many people know, is an Anglicized version of the Dutch “Sinterklaas,” which itself is derived from “Saint Nicholas.” Likewise, “Jesus Christ” comes to us as name “Yeshua,” filtered through Greek, Latin, and English, combined with the Anglicized version of the Greek title “Christos” meaning “annointed.” The reliable historical information that we have for both come only through devotional sources, with little more than a name and a spatio-temporal location to anchor them in history. For St. Nicholas, the Catholic Encyclopedia tells us that he lived in the Fourth Century in Myra (modern-day Turkey), where he was a bishop in the early Catholic Church. Any more beyond that (including his presence at the Council of Nicea) is pseudo-historical speculation or pure legend. Similarly, the minimal historical certainty with regard to Jesus places him in Palestine in the First Century (although that could even be disputed).

Miracle Claims

The legendarium associated with St. Nicholas is wide, and several tales vie with Jesus’ miracles in terms of quality and quantity. In one such story, the city of Myra was in the midst of a terrible famine, during which a ship entered port with great quantities of grain, bound for the Roman Emperor in Constantinople. Nicholas is said to have asked the ship’s captain to donate a portion of his cargo to the city in its hour of need, but the captain did not want to risk the wrath of Constantine. When Nicholas promised him that he would not suffer adverse consequences as a result of their aid, the captain relented. Miraculously, when the ship made its final delivery in the capital, the missing weight had been restored, and the donated grain was sufficient to last the citizens of Myra for two years. In another such story, Nicholas happened upon a village suffering economic hardship and famine; the local butcher had enticed three boys into his shop, where he killed them and chopped them into pieces to sell as animal meat. Though the butcher tried to hide his misdeed from the Saint, Nicholas saw through to the truth, and resurrected the boys out of the barrels in which their bodies had been stored. Of course, the modern Santa myths imbue him with all sorts of magical powers that one might also find associated with Jesus, such as the ability to pass unhindered into closed rooms, the ability to transcend physical restrictions on travel, and the ability to discern a person’s internal thoughts.

Moral Authority

“You’d better watch out, you’d better not cry,” goes the song. And indeed, the value of Santa Claus as a moral authority seems to have given him significant influence over the centuries. After all, any parent knows that the power to give a gift is reflected in the power to withhold it as well, and parents from medieval to modern times have threatened their children with Santa’s poor graces in response to poor behavior. In the Germanic countries, the moral component of Santa Claus is made explicit, as the figure is divided in two, one benevolent and the other malevolent. The traditional “Bad Santas” take many forms, from the human Belsnickel to the demonic Krampus. Each version reinforces the importance of good and moral behavior. In Protestant Germany, the overlap between Santa and Jesus was so clear (and anti-Catholic sentiment was so high) that the Christ-child himself (in German, kristkindle) stepped in to take over duties for the papish figure of St. Nicholas. In America, both Jesus and Santa are combined as one, as our version of the Santa myth gives him the birth name of “Kris Kringle” (derived from kristkindle).

Pagan Parallels

The pagan influence on the stories told about Jesus are under robust debate among theologians and historians, although it cannot be disputed that there are parallel figures in the preceding pagan culture (Osiris, Tammuz, Dionysus), as well as among contemporary tales (Apollonius of Tyana, Honi the Circle-Drawer, Pythagoras). Likewise, although it may not be clear precisely how one influeced the other, there is a clear pagan parallel for Santa Claus in the midwinter visitation of Odin, one of the chief gods of the Norse myth cycle. Though prominent largely due to his role as a warrior, hunter, and master of wisdom, Odin was also said to wander among the mortals in the guise of an old man with a long white beard, cloak, and an eight-footed steed (cross-reference the “eight tiny reindeer” of the modern version of the Santa myth). Odin was said to visit and bring gifts during the midwinter festival of Yule, which even now is made equivalent to our modern Christmas season, and from which we derive the Yule log, feasting and merriment, and remembrance of deceased family members.

Modern Commercialism

Both Jesus and Santa have been affected by the influences of the modern commercial culture. Indeed, as American society grew increasingly secular throughout the 20th century, Christian products and services expanded into a new niche market which has only become more pronounced. Christian bookstores, coffee shops, and clothiers are but a sampling of the ways in which Jesus is both salesman and product. Likewise, the warm embrace of Christmas as a holiday centered on gift-giving personified by the ultimate gift-giver has given us a Santa Claus who now is the star of his own films, television programs, books, and video games, but whose image is put into service to market these and all other products to consumers during the lead-up to the Christmas season. Whereas in his past incarnations, Santa reflected a desire of parents to reward their children for good behavior, he now bestows manufactured goodness on the naughty and nice with equal fervor; to do otherwise would be bad for business.

In the end, of course, Jesus is Jesus and Santa is Santa. But I think that the lessons we learn as we critically examine one can be used to help us better understand the other. And so in my house, at least, both figures are welcome; Christmas is a holiday big enough for all.

The Reason for God

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Skeptics, beware.

It takes a certain kind of apologist to quote the Dark Lord of the Sith extolling the virtues of faith. It also takes a certain kind of apologist to compare the nature of doubt with the protective effect of the immune system. Tim Keller is that kind of apologist.

Though raised in Lutheran and Methodist churches, Keller was drawn to Calvinist theology after college and joined the conservative wing of the Presbyterian church. His Manhattan congregation (a sizable cohort of 5000-odd young Christians) receive from him equal measures of Reformed teachings and pop culture references. Indeed, if William Lane Craig has been relegated to the role of awkward, out-of-touch, and slightly embarrassing uncle of apologetics (especially after this incident), then Keller is the cool, confident, and entertaining uncle of apologetics, equally capable of discussing the finer points of soteriology as well as Star Wars.

In his recent book, “The Reason for God,” Keller engages with seven of the more common skeptical complaints he encounters from his parishioners, and follows them with seven attempts at evangelism. He acknowledges without grumbling that the trend of religious participation in the United States is following the example of Europe (at least with regard to Christianity), and that the demographic shift is heralding a new rise in apathetic irreligion, significant skepticism, and outright atheism.

Keller’s primary apologetic thesis is that doubts advanced by skeptics of Christianity are themselves indicative of an alternative faith-based worldview:

All doubts, however skeptical and cynical them may seem, are really a set of alternate beliefs. You cannot doubt Belief A except from a position of faith in Belief B.

One or more variations of this thesis are both common among traditional apologists who seek either to 1) minimize the role that faith plays in the formulation of their own worldviews, or 2) drag their skeptical opponents down to their own epistemological level, thus offsetting any rhetorical advantage. But in his endnotes, Keller adds a substantial caveat, exempting both self-evident facts and scientifically-determined conclusions from his recontextualization of “doubts.” For good reason too, as these underlie a significant amount of skepticism with regard to Christianity and other religions.

But Keller is less concerned with these, and more concerned with responding to facile complaints, such as the post-modern “there can’t be just one true religion,” or the tedious “Christianity is a straitjacket.” In responding to “the Church is responsible for so much injustice,” Keller employs the No True Christian defense as he neatly divides the history of violence into that committed by other religions, that committed by godless Communists and their ilk, and that committed by Christian fanatics, not proper Christians like Bonhoeffer, Popieluszko, and King. On “science has disproved Christianity,” Keller clings tightly to Gould’s NOMA and leans heavily on metaphorical interpretation; though neither dismissing creationism outright (lest he anger his colleagues at Westminster Theological Seminary), nor embracing modern science, he meekly settles on theistic evolution as a compromise consistent with his faith, and attempts to give his Christian readers sufficient license to follow him to that conclusion. When responding to “you can’t take the Bible literally,” Keller wisely and pointedly avoids any discussion whatsoever of the Old Testament, and makes his best attempt to historicize the Gospels. One wonders how well Keller would fare when confronted by a skeptic who was familiar with ancient Sumerian, Egyptian, and Babylonian history, or especially the archaeological conclusions of Finkelstein and Silberman.

Lastly, Keller splits the Problem of Evil into two sections, one focusing on the Problem of Suffering and the other on the Problem of Hell. Throughout his book, he borrows heavily from C. S. Lewis, but nowhere more heavily (and with more futility) than here. Suffering, Keller tells us, is evidence for God, since the very concept would be meaningless without His existence. But he somehow fails to grasp that there is no moral outrage from atheism at instances of natural evil, and anthropogenic evils are explainable within natural psychological and sociological paradigms. Keller goes on to explain that since Jesus experienced the ultimate suffering, we all can take some measure of comfort by identifying with Him during even our deepest melancholy. However, Keller admits that even this rings a bit hollow, and notes that:

I think we need something more than knowing God is with us in our difficulties. We also need hope that our suffering is “not in vain.”

Here Keller hits on the crux of the Christian response to the Problem of Evil: the unflappable conviction that God will make all things right in the end; that the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Christ will restore harmony to the Cosmos. But Dostoyevsky put it perfectly when he wrote:

I don’t want harmony. From love for humanity I don’t want it. I would rather be left with the unavenged suffering. I would rather remain with my unavenged suffering and unsatisfied indignation, even if I were wrong. Besides, too high a price is asked for harmony; it’s beyond our means to pay so much to enter on it. And so I hasten to give back my entrance ticket, and if I am an honest man I am bound to give it back as soon as possible. And that I am doing. It’s not God that I don’t accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return him the ticket.”

In the second half of his book, Keller largely dispenses with apologetics and instead invites his readers to “put on Christianity like a pair of spectacles and look at the world with it. See what power it has to explain what we know and see.” His first step in this direction is an appeal to teleology and aesthetics; a wise move, and indeed I’ve confessed to many Christians that these represent the emotional Achilles heel of atheism. Conceiving of a Cosmos apathetic (and even hostile) to my own existence exposes the raw nerves of my apostasy, even as it fosters and encourages my Humanism. But Keller stumbles hard when he claims that morality without God implies that “whether we are loving or cruel in the end would make no difference at all.” And this is where Christian conceptions of morality always fall short, in linking the concepts of good and evil to some arbitrary cosmic judge, rather than in terms of human suffering and flourishing. Keller (and indeed, nearly every apologist like him) fails to realize that he can’t have his cake and eat it too; if morality is a function of an extra-dimensional intelligence, then “good” and “evil” are still no more than subjective opinions. For morality to be truly objective as he desires, it would have to be completely separate from the mind of God, thus making Him irrelevant to the issue (aside from perhaps acting as a messenger).

Keller finishes the rest of his book with standard conservative preaching about the nature of sin, the message of the Gospel, and the promise of salvation. Throughout he waxes eloquently and enthusiastically; it is clear that this is his element. For example, when discussing the most intellectually problematic concept in all of Christianity:

The doctrine of the Trinity overloads our mental circuits. Despite its cognitive difficulty, however, this astonishing, dynamic conception of the triune God is bristling with profound, wonderful, life-shaping, world-changing implications.

And finally, Keller invites his readers to repent of their skepticism and accept Christ as savior. One wonders if he truly understands what it means to be a “skeptic,” or if he simply has overwhelming confidence in the persuasive power of his writing (or the Gospel message he attempts to convey), but I suspect most self-styled skeptics will chuckle at his earnest if naïve offer.

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Not all that surprising coming from someone who talks about taking a “leap of doubt.”

At the end of it all, I appreciate Keller’s attempt, if not his execution. He is consistently as humble as his theology allows him to be, winsome, and above all else sincere. If Generation X was the generation obsessed with irony, then the Millennials are the generation who desperately seek sincerity. I suspect this is why Keller’s church has been so successful at bringing in new members in their 20s and early 30s; in an environment like Manhattan, where everything is a performance (and indeed some churches have legitimate audiences), I’m sure someplace like Redeemer Presbyterian Church seems like an oasis of candor. Were I still a Christian (and living in NYC), I daresay I’d be calling Tim Keller my pastor. Hell, even as an apostate, I would have a hard time finding someplace else I’d rather be on a Manhattan Sunday than listening to one of his sermons.

Like the New Atheism, Keller’s New Apologetics offers little new from a theological or philosophical context. But I truly do appreciate the difference in tone and approach, and am hopeful that his example is followed by other young apologists seeking to build their own ministries. Even if his reason for God isn’t reason enough to change this skeptical apostate’s mind, I have faith that Keller’s approach will be a positive force for the New Christianity.

The Missing Reason

The other day I ran across a guest-posted article by Linda Kardamis over at Bill Blankshaen’s “Faith Walkers” blog: “Why Do Kids From Good Families Walk Away From The Faith?

In her article, Linda bemoans the steady exodus of Christian teens from the American Church, especially those whose spiritual fortunes seemed so promising, given their privilege of having “good” families and churches to raise them properly and support their spiritual development with Biblical teachings.

As an explanation for this failure, Linda suggests the following reasons:

1. The faith they see isn’t real.

2. They don’t develop their own relationship with God.

3. They get a distorted view of Christianity.

4. They aren’t properly discipled.

5. They fall into the trap of the slow fade.

But as someone who was a Christian teen in a “good family,” I can say that the problem was none of the above. Although there were (and continue to be) many examples of Christian hypocrisy, I saw none in my family, my pastors, or in anyone influential in my faith community. I had what I thought was a great relationship with God, a personal investment in my own faith, and an intellectual grasp of the scriptures. My upbringing was conservative, but not restrictive or fundamentalist in a way that felt constraining or limiting of one aspect of the Gospel. I surrounded myself with strong Christian leaders and willingly took on discipleship, far more than I could see my peers doing. And yet I walked away.

Why? It’s because the missing reason above, the missing #6, is that for many Christian teens, “They learn that Christianity isn’t necessarily the best answer.” I studied the scriptures regularly, and I began to notice the inconsistencies, the verses that aren’t taught from the pulpit and certainly not in Sunday School. I began comparing the Christian scriptures with other sacred texts, and the inescapable conclusion for me (as well as dozens of my peers) is that it is at best a human work, fallible and flawed, containing great goodness and great evil, both wisdom and banality. As long as Christians aren’t willing to admit that one of the reasons that the youth are abandoning the faith is that the faith isn’t good enough, they will never fully understand the phenomenon of apostasy.

Room for the Universal

“If others go to Hell, I will go too. But I do not believe that; on the contrary, I believe that all will be saved, myself with them—something which arouses my deepest amazement.”

–Søren Kierkegård

My theological and exegetical training afford me myriad tools with which to address the question of Universal Salvation. The expectation amongst many of my friends is that I will put forth clear, black-and-white interpretations of the Bible, replete with conservatism-friendly apologetical strategies that play properly into our agreed upon dialectic.

A recent gathering of some Houston and Dallas friends for a short summit on the topic of Universal Salvation all but destroyed such a strategy from my plan, and here’s why: we all realized that anyone can play that game. The appropriation of this or that text to suit my theological needs is not going to settle the matter for me or anyone else, because we don’t make theological decisions that way. Certainly, we want to treat the Bible fairly, giving it enough of its own voice as we can, working hard to ensure that our philosophical and theological desires don’t interfere with our interpretations; but how successful are we at doing this?

What highlights this problem very well is asking the question itself: Is Universal Salvation a live option for Christians? The most accommodating response I received thus far has been a smirk, with a head toss, followed by a “I don’t know, man…that’s a tough one.” Other responses range from “Does it really matter? Just follow Jesus.” to “There’s no way, and here are all the reasons John Piper knows that can’t possibly be what God would ever do.” It wasn’t until I visited my summit friends that I heard more than one person admit the possibility. One thing on which we all agreed: you can read nearly any salvation text in a Universalist way, giving a perfectly reasonable interpretation, and being justified in doing so. The summit was set up so that I defended the Universalist view, while a good friend argued against it. He had made up his mind beforehand, but even he admitted that things were not as cut-and-dry as he previously thought. Questions were raised that stumped all of us, and we could not give a good reason why Universalism should not be a live option for any and all Christians.

Indeed, I have yet to hear a good reason why not. Every person who has had a ready-made answer thought they said something novel, made an objection no one had thought of before, and had an emotional reaction to the very idea. But why? What is so objectionable? The problem with deciding beforehand is difficult enough to swallow, but to have such a strong reaction against the idea raises another very troubling issue: why do we seem so opposed to Universal Salvation? It’s one thing to say, “You know, I wish it were true that everyone went to heaven when they died, I just don’t see it in the text; but I’m willing to change my mind in light of better evidence” and another to say, “No way. There’s no way. That’s heresy, and it’s not biblical, and it’s spitting in Jesus’ face.”

So, before we even consider the texts, the philosophical arguments, the theological discursive strategies, we need to decide if we’re willing to have our minds changed. If not, then there’s no point moving forward. If not, I’d really love to hear a good reason why not. What are we so afraid of? What do we really lose if we change our minds? Can we imagine that there might be more to gain than to lose?

The Unexpected Atheist

“The Romans called the Christians atheists. Why? Well, the Christians had a god of sorts, but it wasn’t a real god. They didn’t believe in the divinity of apotheosized emperors or Olympian gods. They had a peculiar, different kind of god. So it was very easy to call people who believed in a different kind of god atheists. And that general sense that an atheist is anybody who doesn’t believe exactly as I do prevails in our own time.”

Carl Sagan, “The Varieties of Scientific Experience”

Several years ago, I received a midday phone call and discovered on the other end a young woman with a troubling story. She had reached out to me in my role as then-director of the North Texas Church of Freethought, an occurrence which wasn’t terribly uncommon, as I found myself frequently the recipient of inquisitions from random members of the public. Still, she was surprised to find a real live atheist to talk with, and after some initial hesitation, shared her conundrum.

Raised a Bible-believing Christian, she had been an enthusiastic disciple and parishioner, who at the time found employment with her hometown church, a pleasant little Methodist congregation in rural Texas. She ministered primarily to the young children of the community, running their Sunday School program and youth activities.

She was also an atheist.

The transition from believer to skeptic had begun slowly for her, motivated by theological curiosity more than anything else, then picked up steam in large part due to the Four Horsemen, and ended in a flurry of critical Bible study. Though she had emerged the process psychologically unscathed and intellectually satisfied, her parochial vocation now concerned her greatly. Although she was still happy working with the church’s youth and they were happy to have her, her apostasy gave her the feeling of being disingenuous. After some reflection, she decided to tell the story of her deconversion to the church’s pastor and await his justice.

He listened patiently to her account, to her references of the Books of Daniel and of Dennett, and to her concerns that she had just disbelieved her way out of a job. In response, he smiled kindly, and said that his advice was the same for her as his bishop’s had been for him when he told a similar story: “It’s okay to have doubts, even if you feel that you can’t believe. You’re doing great work for your church, and I urge you to stay.”

She left her church a few months after our call.

Some time later, I received a distressing email from a Baptist pastor in rural North Carolina. He briefly introduced himself and told me a bit about his background and the makeup of his congregation before laying a stunning confession at my feet.

He was also an atheist.

He’d been so for several months, following a long and torturous journey of theological and philosophical exploration. His wife had been privy to this development, and fortunately was supportive of him. His congregation, he feared, would be much less so, to say nothing of the religiously conservative community around him. Did I, he asked, know of any way that he could find support and community? More importantly, did I know of any way that he could make a living for himself and his family after a lifetime of experience only in ministry?

I offered my sympathies for his plight, but little else aside from the names of some atheist organizations in the nearest city.

Then in 2011, in Houston for the Texas Freethought Convention, I was having drinks with a friend the night before the main session began. We were thrilling in the anticipation that Christopher Hitchens, then being treated for late-stage cancer at M. D. Anderson Cancer Center, might be feeling well enough to attend the event personally. At one point she turned to me and said, “Zach, I just HAVE to introduce you to this guy I met, Jerry DeWitt. He’s absolutely the sweetest guy, and a former pastor who just graduated from The Clergy Project.”

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Jerry at the Texas Freethought Convention, October 2011

Indeed he was. From the moment we first shook hands, I found Jerry to be a humble, polite, and unassuming person. A great listener and a great questioner, he possessed none of the self-importance that I typically encounter when journeying through houses of worship. Indeed, such was his modest demeanor that I found it hard to imagine Jerry behind a pulpit, or under a revival tent, or even perched at a church entrance shaking hands and receiving the adoration of the faithful.

That all changed for me the first time I heard him preach.

It was a secular sermon, no doubt. Jerry had traveled to Dallas to speak at the Fellowship of Freethought’s monthly Gathering and promote Recovering from Religion, a new organization that he had taken on as its first Executive Director. Two months after we first met in Houston, many things had changed for Jerry. While initially he had been hopeful that the personal and financial costs of his apostasy would be minimal, during the intervening weeks he had lost his job, had been ostracized by his community, and the strain was beginning to affect his marriage. As he looked ahead to the future, he was worried that he would be struggling to keep a roof over his head and his life from completely derailing.

Still, he was with friends, and he had plenty to say. That day he gave a message that really cut right to the heart of what he had been going through as a Christian pastor slipping into apostasy.

Jerry @ FoFD

Jerry at the Fellowship of Freethought Dallas, December 2011

The face we show in public, Jerry taught, even if done for the most virtuous of reasons, can be used to define us. The traditions that we initiate and continue can be used to restrict us. The expectations that these things create will provide safe passage through the culture that sustains us, but we pay a toll in the loss of freedom and self-identity that can only be recovered by embracing a freethinking life.

This thesis, give or take a few hundred pages, became Jerry’s first book.

Titled, “Hope After Faith,” and subtitled “An Ex-Pastor’s Journey from Belief to Atheism,” it is endorsed by such Hell-bound luminaries as Richard Dawkins and Dan Barker (himself a former pastor as well), and currently enjoys a position of popularity with their books on best-seller lists. At least, among atheists, that is. By contrast, the most popular books out today among Christians are two separate (and contradictory) accounts of near-death experiences told in wildly fantastical (and non-Biblical) prose.

And more’s the pity. Because I think the true audience for “Hope After Faith” is not the atheist unfaithful, but rather the kind of believer whose religious experiences have been so unsatisfying that the active imagination of a four-year-old is preferable to even C. S. Lewis or, Heaven forbid, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Responses to Jerry’s story from Christians who’ve bothered to read it offer only one rejoinder: “You were never truly a Christian.” It’s a common refrain, all too common to those of us who have left the faith of our families.

It’s also a terribly bitter pill to force down someone’s mouth, cutting right to the core of their self-identity, their honest faith, and their cultural context. Perhaps Pentecostalism was the wrong denomination to start in – well, which is the right one? Perhaps Jerry was led to follow flawed leaders with bad theology – who are the right ones? Perhaps he didn’t pray fervently enough, read the Bible enough times, or (most insulting of all) simply wasn’t chosen as one of the Elect? Perhaps there is somewhere a list of confirmed Saints that remains uncontested, but as yet I’ve not seen it.

“We have to recognize, therefore, that even where a single deity is worshiped, the varieties of religious experience represented by the worshipers may differ to such an extent that it is only from the most superficial sociological point of view that they can be said to share the same religion.”

Joseph Campbell, “Masks of God: Primitive Mythology”

In his book, Jerry painstakingly recounts every event of religious significance in his life. It begins with a rock ‘n roll foundation of gospel and revival, prompted by a visit to Jimmy Swaggart’s tent meeting in 1986, that set the course of his religious journey from then on out. An intellectual and inquisitive boy, he more or less taught himself the ministerial trade and showed enough aptitude behind the pulpit to soft-launch himself into a something of a revival preacher. But curiosity and satisfaction are bitter enemies, so his rocky career bounced from church to church, from Brother This to Brother That, as he struggled to pile enough stones in a heap to serve as a witness to God that, yes, he believed in Him and, yes, he trusted in Him and, yes, he sought to do right by Him, as best as he could, as best as any Christian could hope.

In the end, of course, [SPOILER ALERT] Jerry’s heap of stones tumbles, he loses his livelihood, his wife, and his standing in the community.

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The book is divided into five “chapters,” which really only serve to separate the five steps in Jerry’s theology that led to his atheism: God Loves Everyone, God Saves Everyone, God is in Everyone, God is Everyone’s Internal Dialogue, and finally God is a Delusion. The first and longest chapter (taking up more than half of the pages of the book) ends with a personal and spiritual defeat and retreat that culminates years of eking out a living on the revival circuit, trying to please his young wife, and attempting (largely unsuccessfully) to find a satisfying church home. Written with author Ethan Brown, the memoir focuses narrowly on Jerry, which may have been necessary given the manner of its writing, but it unfortunately leaves key figures in Jerry’s life either poorly characterized (e.g., his family), or painfully one-dimensional (e.g., his Pentecostal mentors and friends).

My greatest disappointment with Jerry’s book, however, is that it fails to deliver on the promise of its title. Ending on a grey, lonely Christmas following his bankruptcy, the breakup of his marriage, and the fear of even walking into the local Wal-Mart, Jerry’s hope after faith is a small thing indeed. But perhaps that’s my problem, and not Jerry’s. After all, when he reached out to the atheist community he received plenty of moral support, but not much else. Plenty of people were willing to give him time on their podcast or blog, but who gave him a good-paying job? Who even gave him a “love offering?” Who started a fundraiser to save his house from foreclosure? If Jerry’s hope is malnourished after everything he’s been through, what have his fellow apostates done to feed it?

Many in the atheist community find the idea of an atheist pastor just as distasteful as do many Christians. To be an atheist is to leave all the trappings of religion behind, they say, and revel only in the delight of pure intellectualism. I have found this assumption to be inaccurate, as I have watched communities of freethought and humanism crystalize and grow by leaps and bounds around me, providing the same benefits that churches and temples have known for millennia. But these communities, for all their pluck and hard work, consistently lack something I feel is inescapably necessary, especially at this moment in time: revival.

We need to be reminded of the joys of existence, and to be inspired to manage its sufferings as well. We need to be reminded how to show compassion to those who desperately need it, and how to ask for help in times of trouble. In short, we need to have our humanism recharged. We need Jerry, and lots more like him. We need to prepare the way for doubting preachers, youth pastors, and theologians to enter our community, we need to figure out how to support them socially and financially, and we need to do it now. Otherwise our communities will grow like weeds and die off just as quickly, and people like Jerry will find no fertile soil for their talents and their time.

Happily, Jerry’s story is gaining attention, from a New York Times article to appearances on NPR and MSNBC, as well as an ongoing documentary:

Following his sermon in Dallas, I sat down with Jerry and told him that even if nothing else were certain about his life, I was convinced that he was born to be a preacher. One who, ironically enough, found a satisfying gospel to preach only after leaving the church and community he loved. How many other pastors like him put a mask over their inner theological struggles? How many other Christians like him hide their doubts behind the wall of tradition? “Be Brave,” Jerry says often while tweeting from the road, an admonition as much for himself as for those who follow him. It’s advice that I would give to anyone reading his book as well, especially believers; there but for the grace of God could go any of them.

“Mightier than Estë is Nienna, sister of the Fëanturi; she dwells alone. She is acquainted with grief, and mourns for every wound that Arda has suffered in the marring of Melkor. … But she does not weep for herself; and those who hearken to her learn pity, and endurance in hope.”

J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Silmarillion”

A Universal Solution

“And Yahweh restored Job’s condition, while Job was interceding for his friends. More than that, Yahweh gave him double what he had before.”

Job 43:10, NJB

 

“For just as in Adam’s wake all die, so in Christ’s wake shall all be restored to life.”

1 Corinthians 15:22, PNT

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Looking forward to spending eternity with Mormons and dictators? Yeah, me too.

More than anything else, the doctrine of Hell reverberates throughout the Christian cultural experience, destabilizing the foundations of a religion that purportedly seeks to elevate the God of Love. As a young child, the calculus was laughably simple; the worst place and the worst fate imaginable were the inevitable consequence of rejecting the gracious offer of the smiling felt-board Jesus, and so of course anyone would do anything possible to avoid the realm of H-E-double hockeysticks. So obvious, I thought it was, that I truly could not imagine anyone being aware of this situation and not reaching desperately for Christ’s outreached hand.

As I grew older, I became aware of non-Christians around me, and though I could not muster the evangelistic spirit to dialogue with them, it became apparent to me through my understanding of Christian theology that they were bound for a balmy clime. I’ve spoken with other Christians and apostates who reflect back on similar realizations and note their adolescent horror, their growing metaphysical anxiety when the fates of their unbelieving friends and family were made apparent. I felt no such trepidation, although I can recall a deadening of my empathy for those who rejected the Blood of the Lamb. They weren’t deserving of His Grace, I told myself, they were sinners and reprobates who warranted punishment, regardless of my personal esteem. I didn’t feel sorry for them because I couldn’t, and so I couldn’t care less. It wasn’t the first time that my Calvinist upbringing inspired apathy, and it wasn’t the last.

Though my apostasy wasn’t a rebellion against these moral strictures, it did allow me the freedom to reexamine the theological assumptions of my youth. Reading the sacred scriptures now without devotional context was a transformative experience. Suddenly the Fall was evacuated of its moral urgency, and Paul’s insistence of its salvific repercussions seemed like an exercise in analogy-stretching at best. My development as a freethinking atheist since then has led me to make light of this “pernicious doctrine,” to point out the fractures it makes in the foundations of Christian theology, and when necessary, to use it to publicly beat Christians about the head and neck. Some of these are adversaries who, like apologist Matt Slick, are comfortable enough with it that my blows rain down with all the ferocity of styrofoam. Others, like my friend John, live their lives at Peniel, the noise of my criticisms deafened by their own.

Annihilationism is one proposed solution to the problem of Hell, traditionally a minority view although advocated now by liberal Christians like Greg Boyd:

While more attractive than eternal torment (what’s a couple thousand years of excruciating pain between friends?), this solution still insists on punishment for its own sake, without hope of redemption or restoration. I suppose that the saints and angels would be able to take some solace from the expectation that after some undetermined number of aeons the crackling of reprobate skin and sulfurous smoke of imperishable flame will cease to provide a pleasing smell to the heavens, and they can enjoy their Kool-Aid and harp music in peace. But what a waste!

Universalism provides the goal that annihilationism avoids: restoration of the reprobate to full communion with Christ. Though the scriptural support for this position is sufficiently weak (or sufficiently challenges orthodoxy) to bring charges of heresy against Christians like Rob Bell who tread close to its edge (or dip a toe), it should be noted that it largely neuters the criticisms that freethinkers have levied against the doctrine of Hell for centuries. I say “largely” because it does not dismiss this concept altogether, nor does it quench the flames and dull Satan’s trident. Indeed, these tortures now become corrective, instrumental, and necessary for the restoration of the sinners through the Grace of God.

I don’t know how my theology would have developed had I remained a believing Christian. It’s possible that I may have entrenched my traditional Calvinism, smothered my empathy, and focused only on the glory and sovereignty of God. I suppose it’s also possible that I may have moved in the same direction as John, although I hesitate to give myself that much credit; Christianity has not historically been kind to the heterodox. As a freethinking atheist and a Humanist, I’m still confronted by the moral failure of the Abrahamic god, and I don’t know that I could in good conscience accept the offer of Universal salvation even if extended. Despite the lowered gate of Heaven, I would still be one of those that walked away.

“It’s not God that I don’t accept, Alyosha, only that I most respectfully return Him the ticket.”

Dyostoevsky, The Brothers Karamozov