The Undiscovered Country


I’m often reminded of a Zen Buddhist parable.

As the story goes, there was a man being chased by a hungry tiger through a forest. As fast as he was able to run, the tiger was faster. It was only a matter of time before the beast caught and devoured the man, but he kept running, desperate for some means of escape.

Suddenly, the forest came to an end, and the man burst out of the trees to find himself on the edge of a cliff. The tiger roared behind him, and without thinking he leaped over the edge. His hand caught hold of a thick branch protruding from the cliff, and he grasped it tightly, clinging to the rock face. Looking down, he saw a sheer drop, with no chance of climbing down safely. One move to the right, or to the left, and he would surely fall to his death. Discouraged, he looked back up to see the tiger’s face looming down at him, its lips curled back in a snarl, teeth bright and shining.

The man closed his eyes, and when he opened them he discovered that there was a single strawberry plant growing out of the cliff just above him. Not more than a few feet away from his face hung a single plump, red strawberry. Moved as if by instinct, he shifted his weight on the branch to reach up, pluck the berry, and place it in his mouth. As his eyes closed again for the last time, the juices ran over his tongue and into his throat.

It was the single greatest experience of his life.

Living here in the Cosmos is an exercise in balance between the existential horror of our own mortality, and the sweetness of the meaning we find and make in it. We know that the very fact of our existence is the culmination of a genetic lottery won before our parents’ parents’ parents’ were born. Why us, why here, why now? We don’t know the answer.

What we do know is that we are all born to challenge. Our first breaths are forced on us unanticipated and unwanted, as we are pushed or pulled from the safety of the womb. We leave our warm home, the only home we’ve ever known, to enter the cold, bright chaos of the world. The boundary has been crossed, the hero has been chosen, and the adventure has begun.

This is an adventure tale that has been told and retold for thousands of years. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, we find death and grief encountered with bracing honesty. The god-man Gilgamesh finds his wild-man friend Enkidu facing death because of the whims of the gods. Distraught, Gilgamesh cannot understand why he should be spared while Enkidu is condemned to death. He begs the gods to spare his friend, he promises to spare no expense in making sacrifice. But there is nothing he can do. Linked together in life, they cannot stop the separation at death. Both friends rail at the injustice and futility of death, and Enkidu wishes aloud that he had never been born, that he had never been introduced to the world. But then he reconsiders. If he had never come to be, he realizes, he would not have experienced the joy and love that he treasured in life. His bitterness washes away, and he blesses those who were his friends in life. In the final irony of the story, though Enkidu thinks that he dies in solitude, in reality his friend Gilgamesh is by his side, weeping.

It is this connection we seek, as we journey through life. Leaving our mother’s womb means losing the connection of blood, but it is exchanged for the connection of spirit. To the ancient Greeks, the word pneuma meant “spirit,” but it also meant “breath.” Thus, the first breath of a newborn baby is also its first spiritual act, establishing its connection with the world beyond the mother and father that birthed it. Sitting here, breathing together, we are participating in the same spiritual act. We are compelled to do so. We cannot help doing otherwise. As a species, we share this connection which runs so deeply, so strongly into the past that to inhale now is for us each to take into ourselves a molecule of air that was exhaled by Julius Caesar as he was being assassinated, or that was laughed by Alexander the Great in India as he contemplated his empire, or that was inhaled by Siddhartha Gautama as he sat underneath the bodhi tree and achieved enlightenment. As surely as we breathe, we are all connected.

We are connected to each other as fellow human beings, all of us the children of a common mother and common father, separated by continents and millennia. The blood that courses in my veins courses as well in yours. We are also connected to all manifestations of life, existing as but one of endless forms most beautiful on the branching and tangled tree of life. All of nature opens out before us, acknowledging us as family by virtue of our biology. We are also connected to the Earth itself, a rotating rock in space that provides our chemical identity, the very literal bonds of our existence. And finally, we are connected to the Cosmos that envelops and supports us, that birthed our Sun with billions of its stellar siblings, the cosmic foundry of our base substance. We are not just animated clay, we are sentient starstuff; we are the Cosmos made aware. We are atoms that feel love, and loss. We are remarkable.

But we exist not only in space, but time as well. And our time is limited. Thus we all have to learn to say good-bye, not just to the people who we mourn today, but to everyone we will ever know. How can we accomplish this impossible task?

The honest answer: I don’t know.

But here’s how we can try. Every person begins making connections the moment they’re born. Those connections do not simply end when they leave us, just as the air they breathed does not  simply disappear. They may stop breathing, but we continue to breathe the air that they shared with us. We continue to value the connections, the secrets, and the memories that they gifted to us during their time alive. Of course we do. All of life is a complicated tapestry of connections made between us and our friends and family, and their friends and family, going back through the generations. Every step we take is one that was prepared for us by those who came before, and is made by us to prepare the way for those who will come after. The gods may be fickle, but we don’t have to be. We can honor the memory of those we love by revisiting our connection with them, here today and tomorrow, and then the next day and the next. Eventually that connection won’t be something we have to consciously touch on, it will be something that flows through us, just as we breathe while sleeping.

The great naturalist John Muir found great solace in the beautiful connections modeled by the natural world. His solution to the “impossible task” of confronting mortality was simple: “Let children walk with nature, let them see the beautiful blendings and communions of death and life, their joyous inseparable unity, as taught in woods and meadows, plains and mountains and streams of our blessed start, and they will learn that death is stingless indeed, and as beautiful as life, and that the grave has no victory, for it never fights. All is divine harmony.”

And perhaps that is the answer. Yes, the gods are capricious. Yes, our mortality is inevitable. Yes, we mourn the ones we lose. We are supposed to. Just as we are supposed to reach out, pluck the strawberry, and enjoy it.

Dear God

adamDear God,

I raised my arms for you to pick me up,
Naked and unafraid.
Hold me, daddy.
Love me.

You let me go.
And then you were gone.

You had the keys to my heart. You knew
Whispered secrets.
Hidden hopes.
Adolescent desperations,
Shouted into the wind.

I crawled back to the Garden, God.
Broken and trembling, I
Collapsed at Eve’s feet.

I don’t know if she ever truly loved you, God.
But she loved me.

The apple pie cooled on her table.
Adam cut a piece for himself, and for me.
It tasted like love.

Adam had his faults, God, but he worked hard.
He fashioned me out of his clay.
He taught me everything he knew.

His back never broke,
But his heart did, God.

Together, their minds broke too.

As little children,
they returned to the dust
And left me to tend the Garden.

I went and sat at Mother Mary’s side.
Blessed was she among all women,
And blessed was the fruit of her womb.

But she had pain unimagined, God.

Slowly it grew,
A choking cough.
From a serpent coiled
Round her neck.

I wanted to chase it away, God.
Run away with her through golden fields.
But instead you squeezed her life out
Like toothpaste.

Mary’s eyes were calm as you did it, God.
She smiled and died.
I smiled and cried.

Jesus came to me with soothing words,
A stepfather’s son with a stepfather’s promises.

He had been forsaken too, God.
He was unreliable.

In the end, he was a
Scriptural suicide.
And I sympathized.

Weakness coursed through my veins, God.
My bones dripped out my shoes, God.

But I learned.
To be strong,
To be quick,
To be quiet.

And then I heard the most amazing thing, God.

I heard people, laughing and crying.
Jumping and flying.
Living and dying.

I heard myself, God.

I heard my heart, and it beat in another’s chest.
Naked and unafraid.
Hold me, daddy.
Love me.

And I did, God.

Dear God, I did.

The Humanist

for Ann Druyan
with apologies to John Piper

See her in the night,
Watching stars shine bright.
Furnace of the suns,
Place from whence she comes.

See her stoke the fire,
Safety her desire,
Round the hearth, a home,
Nevermore to roam.

See her with her love,
No one else above.
Lives intercalate:
Freely procreate.

See her with her child;
Mother meek and mild.
Strong and supple too:
Guide to all that’s true.

See her reading books;
Quiet halls and nooks.
Seeking to distill
Scholarship and skill.

See her with her pen:
Challenging all men.
No king could arrest;
Sovereignty transgressed.

See her in the square,
With the poor to share,
Mercy paramount;
Honor: no account.

See her on the street,
Merry and upbeat,
Kind and eager friend:
Constant to the end.

See her in dispute;
Confident refute.
Winsome and with grace;
Rivals learn their place.

See her at her trade.
Woman is self-made.
Purpose she declares;
Slavery foreswears.

See her at her meal,
Eucharist made real
Farmer to the plate,
Linkage celebrate.

See her stray from truth;
Brain’s imperfect sleuth.
Rescued she can be
By humility.

See her in lament
“For what is this meant?”
Substance set to pain:
Even loss is gain.

See her thanksgiving.
Words attempt to bring
Peace to family;
Soothing homily.

See her on the shore:
Our ambassador.
Cosmic signs point out
Starstuff’s final route.

See her now asleep.
Mind swims in the deep,
Future stewards sing;
Wonders they will bring.

See her nearing death.
Slowing, labored breath,
Light leaks out her eyes;
Joins with next sunrise.

Music by: Kai Engel, “Laceration”

The Privilege Paralysis

Zach SadI’ve never felt as small as on that day. Six pairs of eyes stared, angrily fixed on my pale face. I tried my best to maintain my composure and sense of calm as I furtively glanced back around the room, but I couldn’t bring myself to look any of the Black pastors in the eye very long. I sat there for what seemed like an eternity, unmoving, unsure of what to do next.

One thing was clear: I’d screwed up.

As a kid, I never could have guessed that I’d be in the center of such a racially-charged situation. My parents were both the products of a culture that affirmed the superiority of White Americans, but they took great pains to expose me and my brothers to diverse perspectives. Before I ever entered a classroom, I took daily lessons from Gordon, Maria, Susan, and Luis; with Fred Rogers, I enjoyed getting to meet Wynton Marsalis and Yo-Yo Ma; I learned to love reading with LeVar Burton. My father, a public school teacher, felt strongly about the negative impact of White Flight, and enrolled me in a predominantly Black school with an excellent magnet program. One of my first serious crushes there was a cute interracial girl who kissed me back during a movie that was being shown on a substitute day. And when our class gave reports on Black history, I jumped at the chance for extra credit by dressing up (no makeup) as Harriet Tubman to celebrate one of my heroes.

But, of course there was also an overwhelming Whiteness to my experience. In high school, we moved out from the city into a rural town that was so overwhelmingly monochromatic that the handful of Black people in the community were less token than they were sheer novelty. When I returned to the city for university, though the campus was surrounded by people of color, I was steeped in an academic culture that was also overwhelmingly White.

So when I found myself years later at the end of a process of apostasy, and entered the secular community, its Whiteness was not immediately distressing. It was comfortable, and it was forgettable, in the sense that you can lose awareness of the weird fact that you’re swimming in a ocean of (mostly) nitrogen gas. But there were reminders. When I tried to share a quote from Aaron MacGruder’s “The Boondocks,” I got no looks of recognition. When I pointed out that the panel of influential freethinkers on our wall was devoid of diversity, I got little sympathy. And when a young Black woman visited our community to ask if we knew any Black atheist men, I felt convicted.

Because I didn’t.

Several years later, we were interested in advertising our community with a new campaign. We felt strongly that atheist faces should be seen in the public sphere, and the organizers came up with a brilliant design that incorporated several dozen portraits of local members (myself included). Our community had slowly become more diverse in the intervening time, and we also wanted to showcase that, so we made sure to include as many faces of color as possible. We had previously run an advertising campaign using a highway billboard, and now wanted to try something different. One of the organizers suggested advertising on the public buses, where he had seen several religious organizations promote themselves in the past. We ran into some administrative hesitation (almost always the case with advertising atheist messages), but eventually a contract was signed and the campaign was launched.

The response from the Black community was almost immediate, and it took us completely by surprise. A coalition of Black pastors organized themselves from the earliest announcement of the campaign, and used their traditional tools of social justice activism to fight against us. As the media picked up the story, it became apparent that this criticism had a racial component; none of the White pastors who were invited to comment on the story had similar criticisms of our campaign. I was sure that there had to be some misunderstanding, and I was also sure that it wasn’t on our part.

So I called the lead protesting pastor, and asked to meet with him.

I was not expecting to meet his entire coalition, however, which is why I found myself seemingly six inches tall, sitting in his office and surrounded by furious Black faces, myself flustered and paralyzed. I knew in that moment that I had misjudged their response to our campaign, in large part because my privilege had disconnected me from their experience. It simply had not occurred to me (nor to any of the other White organizers) that the bus system primarily serves non-privileged communities, which meant here (as it does in most places) the Black community. And rather than console them, the inclusion of Black faces in our campaign only further antagonized them, and suggested that we were pushing our message specifically at the Black community. And this was not simply a philosophical disagreement: the function of the Black Church is as a supplementary social safety net, and for many the only safety net. Thus, we privileged White atheists who didn’t need the Church to survive, were being seen as using the token Blacks among us to launch a campaign with the goal of stripping a crucial resource away from a community that already lacked social privilege.

This absolutely horrified me. The clear implication, of course, was that I along with the other atheist organizers were acting out of some racist assumption, along the lines of “we White folks are so much better off than you poor Black folks that we don’t need the social support that religion provides, and now we’re going to take that away from you too.” It didn’t matter if we hadn’t intended the message to go over in that way, it was clear from the anger and hurt that was on the faces of the pastors surrounding me that this was the message they received.

I found myself unable to move, stuck between two unassailable convictions: on the one hand, that I was a life-long advocate of equality and opportunity who was disgusted by displays of racism whenever I saw them; on the other hand, that I was in some way, even if unintentionally, responsible for a racist message that had the effect of stigmatizing and offending a non-privileged community. This wasn’t supposed to happen. I was supposed to be one of the good White guys, someone that got it. But I didn’t get it, at least not until it was too late, and now here I was, the White oppressor once again trying to strip the Black community of its meager power, and more importantly, of its identity.

How dare you, their eyes said wordlessly. And they were right.

There is a ripe and necessary discussion that needs to happen in the Black community, that is happening in fact, about the relationship between race and religion and the relevance of the Black Church. There is a rich history of freethought and skepticism within the Black community that is too often overlooked and ignored to the benefit of the appointed clergy-heroes of American civil rights. There are incredibly important Black activists and organizations in the secular movement today who are doing vital work, each with a different story to tell and mission to advance.

But there are also lots of White atheists like me who, well-meaning though we think we’re being, end up on the wrong side of racism. Well-meaning perhaps, but also boneheaded enough to post pictures of shackled slaves on billboards, ignorant enough to publicly ask Black atheist activists why they’re not addressing “black-on-black” crime, and insensitive enough to make jokes about eating fried chicken and watermelon on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

We. Are. Not. Helping.

And our brothers and sisters in the Black secular community have taken notice. At one point there may have been grand designs about how the Big Tent of Atheism was going to be a massive polychromatic kumbaya, but that’s over now. Atheists of color are now finding supportive communities among groups like Black Nonbelievers, Black Skeptics, Black Freethinkers, Black Atheists, and many more. Whereas in the past, mainstream secular organizations could at least take comfort in the knowledge that Black members either had to work with them or not be active in the movement, now there’s real competition. Five years ago, I would hear White atheists ask, “how do we get more Black people to come?” and I would chuckle. Now, I hear them ask it, and I weep.

The sad fact is that the mainstream secular community is paralyzed by its own privilege. We know just enough to suspect that we may have done something racist, or at the very least are perpetuating a racist system. We glance quickly over the atheist conference speaker list, hoping there’s at least one Black face represented, and pat ourselves warmly on the back if there’s two. We listen to talks on molecular genetics, alternative medicine, and the idiocy of the god-concept and don’t notice that there’s no discussion of systemic poverty, educational imbalances, and the school-to-prison pipeline. We might pause to wonder why there are so few Black people in the audience, but then we see someone sporting a cool new T-shirt that says something really snarky about religion, and we hoof it back over to the vendor tables.

Hey, it’s easier that way. Right?

White atheists are not alone in this paralysis, to be sure. I’ve seen hip, young, White Christian pastors, currently building churches surrounded by trendy, gentrified, urban neighborhoods who are struggling with this as well. They’ve done a good job learning about privilege and power, about the diversity of experience, and about the intersectionality of race and religion. But they’re still limited by well-intentioned tokenism, bolstered by the earnest hope that Christ really can make everyone colorblind, even if he’s two millennia late in doing so. But perhaps they will break through before the mainstream secular community manages to do so, and make the connection with the Black community that we’re too scared, or lazy, or both, to make. Perhaps they’ll even partner with Black Nonbelievers or Black Skeptics on some critical project while the mainstream secular community sits, unmoving. Wouldn’t that be ironic?

Sitting in that room, surrounded by angry Black eyes, I did have a moment of clarity. I recognized my privilege, overcame my paralysis, and apologized profusely to the pastors gathered around me. I acknowledged their perspective, attempted to explain our misguided intentions, and admitted that it was still a mistake to choose this method of advertising without thinking through how it could be seen by others with different experiences. Instantly the mood lifted. We were still at odds philosophically and theologically, but by looking at the situation through their experience I gained some credibility, maybe not as an ally, but at least not as an enemy.

I think the mainstream secular community can do better than I did that day. I think we still have the potential to be allies to our Black brothers and sisters, but it’s going to take work. We can’t just pretend to be colorblind and call it a day. We first have to acknowledge that race plays a critical role in forming different experiences for people, and that these experiences lead to different missions and goals. We also have to give our Black friends the freedom to create the safe spaces for themselves that we, to put it frankly, have not done a great job of cultivating for them. And while they’re doing that important work, let’s listen to them whenever possible, let’s give them a platform (or three) to share their views with us, and let’s look for any opportunity to align our goals with theirs.

Maybe in the end we can’t have a Big Tent after all, but that doesn’t mean we have to be strangers in each others’ homes.

[EDIT: Alix Jules has written a counterpoint to this article, here.]

A New Apologetic

Guest post by Brandon Tejedor

I’m very much convinced that there is a need in the church for Apologetics. I am equally convinced that the field of Apologetics needs major reform. I don’t have it figured out, but here’s a few things:

  1. As Zach has pointed out, there is little-to-no room for doubt in most churches. I believe this is horrible. Doubt is not the bane of faith. My faith was and IS forged by my doubt more often than not. And it doesn’t come from reading catchy phrases that win arguments, but months and years of wrestling with challenges. In this I believe churches have failed me miserably, though great Christian academics and scholars have made up for that failing to some degree.

    A church that can not engage doubt honestly in both intellectual and existential ways is not one likely to flourish, and is simultaneously failing and pushing away today’s intelligentsia.

  2. Christian Orthodoxy needs some serious refocusing. I don’t know how Young Earth Creationism, Capitalist Economics, Plenary Verbal Inspiration, and the right to bear arms all became nearly as important as “Jesus is Lord” but the list of requirements to be a Christian, especially a “good” Christian have grown so long that I’m worried about tying my shoes correctly. Now many of us do have firm conviction on many doctrinal matters, and I think that is no bad thing. But the requirements to get in under that umbrella are in my opinion far greater than need be and it sows unnecessary levels of discord. Augustine and Calvin wrote about non-literal interpretations of Genesis centuries before Darwin wrote about evolutionary theory. C.S. Lewis was most likely an inclusivist (even Billy Graham has made comments before that suggest inclusivism). And those are just a few people that have been hugely influential to historical and modern Christianity.

  3. There needs to be a greater distinction between Christianity and Politics. This goes for both left- and right-leaning Christians. Christ commanding us to take care of the poor does not automatically mean supporting welfare though many make it out to be such. The only thing the New Testament seems to teach about property is that we should be generous with our possessions, yet some treat higher taxes as if they mug God himself. I think it’s great to be politically involved, and I think it’s great to have your politics informed by your religious beliefs. I don’t think that political beliefs are equivalent to religious beliefs though, and many seem to make it out that way.

  4. The discussions we have on these issues, and the “Apologetics arena” in general, need to be infused with a greater abundance of grace. This means not just respect, but genuine care for the fact that many people who disagree with us do so with genuine and non-malicious intent. This means patience needs to be employed, as too many Apologists expect people to immediately change their minds as soon as they hear “good reason.” The fact is that beliefs, save when based solely on demonstrably false information, generally are very complex with countless influential factors informing them, and they rarely change quickly one way or the other save through powerful events (not all that often do lectures and debates count as powerful events, though at times and for some they do). Most idea shifts are gradual, yet all too often there’s this unspoken expectation that an altar call should follow every presentation of the Kalam Cosmological argument.

  5. The greatest Apologetic is love. When speaking specifically of the apologia, we are commanded to gentleness and respect, but as Christians we are commanded to love in all things.

    “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

    –1 Corinthians 13:4–7

    Any Christian apologetic which lacks patience and kindness, which displays envy, boasting, arrogance, or rudeness, irritation or resentfulness, any apologetic which celebrates some wrongdoing in some ends-justify-the-means sort of way, that shuns truth or fails to bear the worst and fails to believe and hope for the best, is a failed apologetic regardless of its intellectual content. This, THIS!, above all else I think is the failure of many of my peers and predecessors in the field of Apologetics. It is a failure I have often been guilty of, but strive to improve in my constant interactions with Christians I don’t agree with (as they make up the majority of my tense relationships), as well as non-Christians.

That’s my thoughts on it at least.

The Misplaced Magi

Photo by Zachary Moore. A typical nativity display.

One of the frequent scenes of the Christmas season is the mounting of nativity displays, both in macro scale out in public (often with live actors and animals), as well as in micro scale in one’s own home. In the United States, such displays on public property have often prompted legal challenges, leading to Supreme Court decisions that restrict such spectacles unless other traditions are given equal time and opportunity in the commons. This has led to various and questionable outcomes, such as the perennial display of the Winter Solstice plaque by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, as well as the “Merry Christmas Bill” which was signed into law here in Texas last year by outgoing Governor Rick Perry.

These nativity scenes are typically popular among Christian congregations; it’s not too difficult to find one or more churches in any neighborhood that have one up on their property. And it’s not difficult to see why; some of the best nativity scenes I’ve ever visited have been like a mini-fair, with hot cocoa and peppermint candies for the kids, lots of live animals to visit and pet, and throngs of the faithful singing Christmas hymns. As a young Christian, this was a wonderful and faith-affirming part of the holiday season, second only to midnight candlelight services on Christmas Eve.

But from the time when I was in high school, it had occurred to me that there was an odd peculiarity about these nativity scenes that I just couldn’t shake.

The concept itself was fundamentally flawed.

That’s not to say that I viewed the entire nativity narrative as false, but as I studied the Bible, I noticed something that had not caught my attention when I was younger. Namely, that the narratives of Jesus’ birth in Matthew and Luke (the only two Gospels that attempt to report on this aspect of his biography) are significantly different. In particular, there was one critical detail that stuck out to me as an irritating inconsistency.

The Magi shouldn’t be there.

In the Gospel attributed to Matthew, the first chapter presents a long genealogy of Jesus, after which follows a short pericope describing his birth, but with virtually no description of the event at all. There is no census, no pregnant woman on a donkey, no overstuffed inn. There’s not even a mention of where this is supposed to be happening. The account simply says that “[Joseph] knew [Mary] not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.”

The next chapter begins with a new pericope, placing the birth of Jesus in Bethlemen in the days of Herod the king (information that was omitted previously), and brings “wise men from the east” onto the stage. In the Greek, these are recorded as μάγος ἀπό ἀνατολή (magos apo anatolē), or literally “magicians from the [place of the] rising of the sun.” There is no more information provided about their countries of origin, or indeed if they came from the same or different countries. Surprisingly, there is also no number given to describe how many of these “Magi” arrived in Jerusalem, meaning that the concept that there were three of them is but the first of many unsupported inferences that have been incorporated into their substantial legendarium.

According to later myths and traditions, these three Magi are named: Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar. An interpolation from Psalm 72 suggests that these three originated from Tarshish, Sheba, and Seba (ancient cities whose actual locations are under dispute, but could refer to Southern Arabia, East Africa, or Asia Minor). Some traditions identify Caspar as the oldest and Balthazar as the youngest, while others say that Melchior was the oldest, and Caspar was the youngest. Some traditions have Balthazar originating from Ethiopia, and depict him with black skin. Of course, outside the Western traditions, the names change significantly: the Syriac Church knows them as Larvandad, Hormisdas, and Gushnasaph; the Armenian Church knows them as Kagba, Badadilma, and Badadakharida; the Ethiopian Church knows them as Hor, Karsudan, and Basanater.

With so many names to choose from, why pick just three?

In fact, the number of the Magi in the Western tradition is normally set at three to correspond with the three gifts that are mentioned in Matthew’s Gospel (and referencing in part Isaiah 60): gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But aside from the expediency of myth (and adaptability for religious iconography), there’s no reason to assume that each Magus brought a single gift. And indeed, in the Eastern tradition the number of Magi is held to be twelve, such as in the apocryphal Syriac text “Revelation of the Magi.”

In this version of the Magi myth, they arrive in Jerusalem from the legendary country of “Shir,” transported magically with supernatural speed from one to the other. The “star” they report seeing is no ordinary astronomical body, but is in fact the celestial body of Christ himself in luminous display, a kind of “star-child.” (This astral Christ is also identified by Adam’s son Seth as having been positioned over the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden, which had disappeared once Adam fell into sin.) After arriving in Bethlehem, the Magi find that the star-child descends into a cave, where he blesses them as apostles of the Gospel before sending them magically back to their homeland to evangelize their people.

Needless to say, Matthew’s story is far less exciting; after visiting the child Jesus at home in Bethlehem with his mother Mary, the Magi “departed to their own country,” avoiding Herod’s wrath and exiting the canon altogether.

So why do I say that the Magi have no place in the nativity scene? They’re clearly a part of the narrative, right? Well, they are, but the nativity scene as we know it doesn’t come to us from Matthew’s Gospel, it comes from Luke’s.

Luke’s Gospel has the most to tell us about the circumstances surrounding the birth of Jesus, going as far back as including the nativity of his cousin, John the Baptist. (Though if the other Gospel writers were aware of Jesus’ familial relationship with John, they don’t mention it.) In this story, Mary is visited by an angel (in Matthew’s story it’s Joseph who received an angelic message), a census decree is issued, and the Holy Family packs their things for the town of Bethlehem. In Luke’s account, Joseph and Mary live originally in Nazareth, and are only on their way to Bethlehem because of the requirement of the census (which makes very poor historical sense), rather than in Matthew’s account, in which Jesus is born in Bethlehem apparently because that’s where his parents lived.

This is a crucial point, because in Luke’s Gospel, Mary and Joseph are foreigners to the little town of Bethlehem, which is why they were dependent on hotel accommodations at the end of their journey. It’s precisely because they didn’t have a place of their own, and because there was “no room at the inn,” that Jesus is born in a manger. It’s also in this version of the story that we have the heavenly hosts breaking forth into praise for God, to the fear and amazement of the “shepherds out in the field.” This is where St. Linus finds his monologue to assuage the doubts of Charlie Brown:

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”

Luke 2:8-14, KJV

It’s marvelous stuff, and the shepherds immediately rush into Bethlehem to find this child, bringing us the classic nativity scene of the Holy Family, adoring shepherds, and the announcing angel clustered cozily in a barn-like diorama. But notice what ISN’T present in the scene: any indication of the visit of the Magi. Luke’s story moves immediately to Jesus’ circumcision, his presentation at the Temple in Jerusalem (no concern that he would be discovered by the bloodthirsty Herod, and likewise no terrified sojourn in Egypt!), and then finally a happy return to Nazareth.

Clearly, these two nativity accounts are at odds with each other. Even taken at face value, it seems impossible to reconcile the two: Matthew’s narrative is one of connected prophecies, in which every plot point is referenced back to some part of scripture (e.g., Mary being a virgin, Jesus being born in Bethlehem, the sojourn in Egypt, and the return to Nazareth). But in Luke’s narrative, we have a plot of connected proclamations, beginning with the angelic announcement of John’s birth, Jesus’ birth, the acknowledgement by the fetal John in the womb, followed by the massive celebration of the heavenly host and the modest recognition by the shepherds at the manger. In Matthew’s account, Jesus’ secretive birth echoes that of the Hebrew hero Moses (or possibly the Roman founder Romulus) who is an outlaw from birth, but in Luke’s account, Jesus is publicly acclaimed and comes from a law-abiding family that regularly participates in the religious establishment. In both versions, Jesus is the heir of David (legally or spiritually if not biologically) and a Galilean, born in Bethlehem and raised in Nazareth.

So why, then, does it matter if the nativity scenes we commonly see during the holiday season aren’t faithful to a literal reading of the Christian scriptures?

I would say that it doesn’t.

The nativity scene as we know it is flawed, to be sure. But the flaw itself is part of the beauty of the work, indeed, it’s the flaw that gives it the beauty. Rather than insist upon consistency for its own sake, I quite like the asymmetry of narrative elements from two competing stories crowding together, shoulder-to-shoulder, in a kind of posed, wabi-sabi display. Or, to put it another way, it’s the comfort of rusted gold in a reversal of the intent Chaucer’s parson gives his maxim:

To his sheep did he give this noble example, which he first set into action and afterward taught; these words he took out of the gospel, and this similitude he added also, that if gold will rust, what shall iron do?

Geoffrey Chaucer,  The Canterbury Tales, “The Prologue”


Photo by Paul Stewart.

That the grand and glorious traditions of the Church have managed to harmonize and synthesize two stories which are quite obviously at odds with each other on close inspection is itself a magnificent example of humanity’s capacity to find meaning in the mundane. Passing overhead as I write is the green comet Lovejoy, which will come closest to Earth tomorrow night (January 7th), not to return (if at all) for another 622 years. On the one hand, this is just another of many comets currently orbiting the Sun, a rather routine occurrence in our solar system. And yet this celestial traveller is also a reminder that there is more orbiting our moderately-sized star than just our own little rock, and indeed there is more to the Cosmos than we could ever hope to learn in our short lifetimes.

Like the “star-child” in “Revelation of the Magi,” this is also an ancient decoration on our tree of life, linked to the family of comets which supplied our ancient planet with the water necessary for biological development and evolution. There is magic in this, as what is simply and literally a frozen rock hissing steam into the vacuum becomes an emblem of our Cosmic inheritance pointing ahead into our future. This is not just a story of what has happened in the past, this is a story of what is happening and what will continue to happen to humanity. The Magi, misplaced though they may be in space and time, yet are a valuable reminder that the important events in our lives are all inexorably linked in the mythological tapestry common to all humanity; we look for signs in the stars because we see in them both our past and future.

So of course the Magi had to be there in the humble manger of David’s city; no matter where the individual storyteller places them, the myth demands that they be present to acknowledge the connection between Human and Cosmos. Indeed, the story is not meaningful to us despite the fluid mythology of its telling, it is meaningful to us because of it.

O Star of wonder, star of night
Star with royal beauty bright
Westward leading, still proceeding
Guide us to thy Perfect Light

John Henry Hopkins, Jr. “The Quest of the Magi”

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

n.t. wright

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.


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.