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
Everything.
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.
Unstable.

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 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.]

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.

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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 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.

DoNotThink

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.

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

Apologetics Now, Redux

Two outstanding Texas treasures.

Two outstanding Texas treasures.

As I mentioned last year when I visited an apologetics conference at Watermark Church in Dallas, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life’s report on the rise of the “Nones” in America was just another in a long series of warnings to the American Christian Church. Society, the Church has said for decades, is slouching into secularity; now the data suggest that more and more people are not even interested in the pretense of a religious label.

This pronounced rejection of religious affiliation has a strikingly demographic bent. While 90% of those 65 and older still consider themselves affiliated with a religious organization, only two-thirds of those younger than 30 are similarly labeled. And trends in the data over the past decade indicate that this disparity is only going to grow wider.

Among American Christendom, the hardest hit are Protestant denominations, both evangelical and otherwise. Since the 1970’s, the percentage of American Protestants has declined from almost two-thirds of the population to now just barely half, while the percentage of Catholics has remained the same (presumably due to immigration) and the percentage of “Nones” has more than doubled.

In response to this inevitable sociologic trend, Dallas Theological Seminary has expanded the scope of their Hendricks Center for Christian Leadership which since 1986 has existed to support pastoral leadership development. In December of 2012, DTS announced that Dr. Darrell Bock, a world-class New Testament scholar and expert in the theology of Luke-Acts and the Historical Jesus Quests, would be appointed the new Executive Director of Cultural Engagement at the Hendricks Center alongside Dr. Andy Seidel.

In this new role, Bock has sought to reach out beyond the ivory tower to connect with the public through a series of podcasts. The literally-named “The Table Podcast” features Bock with a rotating selection of Christian guests discussing issues seated around a bare table, adorned only with state-of-the-art recording equipment. Available in both studio quality video and audio versions, the goal of these podcasts is to “help Christians think biblically and theologically about issues and how to engage them in a gracious and forthright manner.”

In this, they succeed amazingly well. Podcasts produced thus far are clear, respectful discussions among people who have interesting things to say about how Christians can interact with homosexuality, the media and the arts, and other religious traditions in the context of a changing American culture. Unfortunately, these discussions have been manifested thus far as mutual confirmation sessions (i.e., Christians agreeing with Christians), designed apparently to provide questions for answers, and not the other way around.

Dr. Bock in his element.

Dr. Bock in his element.

I saw the same phenomenon repeated at the first “Table Conference,” held on a warm spring weekend in Dallas and given the theme, “Presenting God to Those Who See Christianity Differently.” As one of the rapidly growing number of people in Dallas who does, in fact, “see Christianity differently,” I couldn’t keep myself away. Bock, the architect of the conference, had assembled a small number of highly-respected New Testament scholars for the event. These included Dr. Daniel Wallace, a fellow DTS faculty member, one of two worldwide masters of New Testament textual criticism and most likely the world’s foremost expert on Biblical Greek; Dr. Craig Blomberg of Denver Seminary, an expert in parables and Historical Jesus studies; Dr. Charles Hill of Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, who is an expert in John’s Gospel and the early canon; and finally Dr. Michael Svigel also of DTS, a junior faculty member there who specializes in study of the history and theology of the early Christian Church. To open the conference, Bock had invited Lee Strobel to speak, the bestselling author of several pop-apologetics books cast in the same mold as his original “The Case for Christ.”

Though the conference was obviously Bock’s baby, that Strobel had been chosen to set the tone for the weekend spoke volumes; this was not to be an event where Christians could grapple with real-world issues and criticisms, be asked to think critically about their faith, or even to seriously consider a different point of view. Rather than actually “engage” with the perspective of the “Nones,” much less that of the explicit apostates that are also captured in that designation, the only atheism on display were Bock’s recollections of being a (somewhat boring) middle-school agnostic, and Strobel’s dramatic testimony where his life as an atheist included routine inebriation, domestic violence, and self-loathing. Such a caricature is painfully unfamiliar to me in my travels among atheists, and I know of far too many instances of troubled Christians for this emotional appeal to resonate with me. But I can see the value of having Strobel’s participation, aside from his celebrity in the pop-Christian circuit; in addition to his loudly trumpeted intellectual bona fides as a legal journalist, he really does seem to reflect the earnestness that apologetic-minded American Christians routinely demonstrate.

Following his testimony, Strobel was interviewed by Bock onstage at the eponymous table. He relayed a story which I found quite fascinating: although his wife’s conversion precipitated his own, neither of them were able to make any headway towards converting her father to Christianity. A lifelong skeptic (presented as a bit of a curmudgeon by Strobel), he was tolerant of their religious revolution but didn’t want any part of it for himself. That is, until the end of his life when, afflicted by multiple strokes, he was virtually on his deathbed, watched over by his son-in-law. Strobel recounted how he hounded and harassed the man to consider converting, a process that took several of his father-in-law’s final hours. At long last, he agreed to accept Jesus as Savior, and the family celebrated until that evening when another stroke occurred, and his wife’s father was whisked away by ambulance to the hospital where he finally passed. His last words to Strobel were given indirectly through his wife, “Tell Lee I said ‘thank you’.”

For Strobel, this was a triumphant vindication of several decades worth of prayer and evangelism. Mere moments from Death’s grasp, he was able to save his father-in-law from eternal torment.

But I wonder.

Told from Strobel’s perspective, to a Christian audience, that’s no doubt the most plausible explanation, but I heard a story about a long-suffering atheist who was able to tolerate and love a son-in-law who went from being a rational thinker to a faith-driven evangelist and apologist, and who spent an entire afternoon pleading with him to accept his worldview under the approaching specter of death. Perhaps Strobel’s father-in-law felt sorry for him and his daughter, knew the pain that they would feel if they thought that he died without Christ. Perhaps he chose to show one more kindness to a man who would soon need it much more than him, and simply pretended to assent. I don’t know. It’s possible, and there are several atheists I know who would do the same in that kind of situation.

Including atheists who’ve been exposed to so-called “faithbuster” classes, as Bock mentioned several times during his tenure at the podium. The unstated thesis of the weekend seemed to be that there is bad information being presented to our culture about religion in general and Christianity specifically, and if Christians simply became better educated with good information (as taught by DTS, natch), they’d be better able to resist the faithbusting influences in their lives, and potentially be able to win over their skeptical family and friends to Christ. This promise was tempting, and as someone whose faith had been “busted” about a decade earlier, in no small measure due to textual and critical analysis of the Bible, I was hopeful that there would be a plethora of new information that would prompt me to rethink at least some of my previous conclusions.

Although the weekend was enjoyable and informational, it was not as educational as I had hoped, at least not for me. Though the gathered scholars were clearly able to expound with much more sophistication and subtlety in other company, the introductory-level material they shared with the lay audience was known already to me. Oddly enough, an ongoing theme became apparent as Bock and his colleagues repeatedly dragged out the still-living ghost of Bart Ehrman, who through archived video clips savaged the worldview of the gathered Christian attendees. Indeed, so often was the straw beaten out of Ehrman over the course of the conference that I wondered eventually whether it should rather have been titled “The Bend Bart Ehrman Over A Table Conference.” I suppose it makes sense to target so much of their criticism towards Ehrman; the books he’s written for a popular audience are seeming to have as much of a cultural impact as Bock’s own. And as a highly-respected New Testament scholar with a deconversion testimony from Christian to agnostic, Ehrman is something of a mirror-image of the scholar archetype that DTS seeks to elevate. An “Antibock,” if you will.

I was of two minds during the lectures: on the one hand, these were the highest-level Bible scholars with which one could hope to spend time, but on the other hand, their presentations were awash with warmed-over apologetic tropes the likes of which had been hammered to death within the first year of my apostasy. Things like Lewis’ Trilemma, the analogy of multiple witnesses at a car wreck, implicit trust of Eusebius, heavy-handed harmonizations, defining early alternative Christianities as deviations, and interpreting possibilities as strong probabilities. In this last instance, Wallace, also Executive Director of the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts (which itself had held its first conference a few weeks earlier and a few miles away, with Bock as a speaker), argued that since there is insufficient evidence to show that Greek was spoken in the region of Galilee during the first century C.E., there is thus insufficient evidence to show that it wasn’t spoken, therefore it probably was! And thus of course we can assume that Jesus himself spoke Greek, and thus of course we can assume that his disciples did as well, and thus of course we can assume that fully half of them could write Greek, and thus of course we can assume they wrote the autographs of the Gospels.

The other conference speakers took similar liberties with logic at various points during the weekend. Blomberg had no trouble claiming that since Luke’s version of Jesus’ anointing is so different from the other Gospels’ it’s possible that it happened twice, therefore it must have happened that way. Svigel noted that without a historical resurrection, the Diversity and Conflict model of the early Church development is most likely, but since we all know the resurrection had to happen, it’s not a viable option. And Hill suggested that the early canon was assembled because the early Christians were able to “recognize” authentic books from inauthentic the same way that one might recognize one’s mother in a crowded room.

The best thing by far that I experienced at the conference was the suggestion by Bock that Christians should be seeking out conversations with religious skeptics, approaching these with patience and kindness, and leaving the onus of conversion to the Holy Spirit and the skeptic herself. This was underlined at the end of the conference with a short skit by some of the DTS students helping to run the event. One pretended to be a religious skeptic, while the other acted out the Christian side of the conversation that Bock had earlier recommended. It was a little silly and ham-handed (as skits tend to be), but I couldn’t help but feel the irony of being an atheist seeking conversation with Christians in the middle of a conference where the only example of that on display required a Christian to play-act at being a nonbeliever.

Interestingly enough, this conference was held across the street from the massive Prestonwood Baptist Church where Christopher Hitchens had been invited years ago to provide students there with an actual atheist to listen to and engage with. That event, whatever the motivation of the Prestonwood organizers, presented students with a fair assessment of atheist objections, with Hitchens in his own words and in real-time, able to defend himself and mount his own attacks. Perhaps next year’s Table Conference will take that much-needed step of inviting Ehrman to speak on his own behalf, rather than quoted conveniently to play counterpoint to seminary professors.

Or even better, perhaps the Executive Director for Cultural Engagement would be interested in actually engaging with the cultural force of atheism in his own community that claims more and more Christians like me each year. It’s possible that Bock and his colleagues are still under the impression that the godless among them are little more than village atheists, opposed to Christianity for no better reason than a preacher looked at them crossways. To the contrary, we are more likely to come from Christian backgrounds than ever before, we’ve done our theological homework, and we tend to be better-informed about Christianity and other religions than their own adherents. We are a new breed of atheist, and we aren’t just in need of a kind Christian to patiently talk with us.

Dr. Bock answers questions from Christian students.

Dr. Bock answers questions from Christian students.

I don’t mean to sound too critical of Bock and his inaugural Table Conference; I very much enjoyed the lectures and helping with their photo booth during the breaks. And I agree that far too few Christians are aware of the information about the Bible and the early Church that one might learn at DTS or other seminaries. The weekend was, essentially, a series of 101-level lectures that all Christians (and atheists) should climb over each other to attend. But I do find it problematic that the information is presented with the conclusion already determined. As a Christian seminary, DTS is not actually interested in exploring other religious possibilities, it’s interested in providing intellectual support to a particular set of doctrine. I’ve met several former DTS students who’ve told me that in order to matriculate there, they had to sign assent to the Core Beliefs* of the DTS Doctrinal Statement, and they had to re-sign it in order to graduate. More than one have admitted that it was difficult to sign it a second time, and one individual flat-out refused to sign it, gave up his degree, and transferred to a secular university instead. He noted the irony of having to waive assent to a list of doctrines due to the education he’d received at the very institution which taught them.

If Christians are to remain relevant in American culture, they don’t just need to get smarter about the doctrines their pastors tell them they believe in. They don’t even need to become intellectually confident about their doctrines to the point where they’re comfortable discussing them with other Christians and religious skeptics. It really doesn’t matter how many proof texts you can provide for your belief in dispensationalism or eternal security when you’re talking with an atheist in line at a coffee shop. For both Watermark’s and this conference, I didn’t leave with a sense that my fellow attendees were well-prepared to have a casual conversation with me about the real issues that matter. Nor that they had any sense of what modern religious skeptics’ actual objections are to Christianity and other faiths. Being able to critique a handful of Ehrman sound bytes is a far distance from being able to engage with an real live atheist, especially a well-educated former Christian, right in one’s own hometown.

I’m hopeful that next year’s Table Conference takes its mission to engage with “those who see Christianity differently” a bit more seriously. Otherwise, Bock and his colleagues, for all their best intentions and highest expectations, are just play-acting.

*edited to specify “Core Beliefs of”, 5/8/2013