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Rev. D r. C he ri D iN o vo
As a United Church Minister involved over the years in both rural, suburban and inner city Ministries I found I lacked one significant tool. That tool was a readable introduction to Christianity designed for someone new to the faith or someone who had for various reasons, turned away from faith. Of course there are dozens of books (apologetics) produced but none designed for the ‘seekers’ we were seeing, educated, savvy, suspicious, that walk into main line denominational Churches every year and usually after short order, walk out again. I knew the numbers of Christians in the western world had stagnated even though there are always Churches that thrive. I also knew that the questions seekers ask tend to cluster around a few key areas. I needed, as did other clergy, a book that would identify the questions and attempt answers. Yes answers! One of the problems with introductory books I found was that they either said very little which was unsatisfying to the folk we saw or were dogmatic. Both failed the people we met. Obviously this represents my answers and thus is open to debate. They are however answers that come from years of theological training and are grounded in classical Christian thought and scripture. They are answers that will coincidently ii
both horrify and confound others who feel their version of Christianity is the true orthodoxy. This is a good thing. That’s why I call myself ‘The Fundamentalist Radical’. I hope with this little book to unsettle both conservative and liberal. This book isn’t designed for those who consider themselves ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’ Christians anyway. It is very consciously written for those who consider themselves atheists or agnostics or seekers. I remember what they ask because I came to the Church as one myself and asked those very questions. These are the answers I wish I’d heard back then. These are, in my experience of conversion, and in witnessing the conversions of others, the seven very uneasy steps to becoming Christian. I hope they make the reader extremely uncomfortable. I hope they produce a rift in the armor of reason and allow the Holy Spirit in.
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Table of Contents
Humans Will Never Know Everything ............................................... 1
We’re All Going To Die ................................................................. 9
At Least Prayer Might Lower My Stress Levels .................................. 15
All The Gods I Don’t Believe In ...................................................... 20
Even Though They’re Just Stories ................................................... 26
The Church is Full of Hypocrites ..................................................... 33
Do Good Anyway ........................................................................ 40
Humans Will Never Know Everything
…do you have an arm like God, And can you thunder with a voice like His? Adorn yourself with eminence and dignity, And clothe yourself with honour and majesty, Pour out the outflowings of your anger, And look on everyone who is proud and make him low. Look on everyone who is proud and humble him. (Job 40:9-12)
This is undoubtedly the first uneasy step to becoming Christian. As an atheist, I believed there was an explanation to every occurrence in the universe and that, even if we didn’t understand that explanation or had the wrong one or hadn’t discovered the right one yet, such an explanation did exist. I saw human evolution as a progressive march from infancy to maturity. Maturity was marked by logic and reason. Infancy was characterized by superstition, including religion, and ignorance. We used to believe the world was flat, now we know it to be round. We used to believe in a world run by Gods and spirits, now we understand a world run by
natural forces, discernible by our mind. I may not know how my computer operates but someone does. I may not understand how galaxies are born and die but someone will. This is the ‘faith’ if I may call it that of an atheist. That faith began to unravel in my own mind after awhile and I took to calling myself an agnostic, since as I said; “Atheism is too religious for me!” I came to decide that humans may not ever be able to understand everything. I determined that mysteries might in fact exist and always would but that even if they did, there was still no necessity or even real option for God. Part of my own development was a growing awareness that there was something profoundly racist, yes racist, about the idea of ‘progress’ seen in such a light. It pitted the scientist, usually white and male and ‘first world’ against the ‘primitive’ the developing world human, a person of colour who’d never had the experience of a university (as if there’s anything universal about a university!). Science is progress personified. With the advent of the ‘Observer Phenomenon’ we discovered that we do in fact impact that which we are investigating, that there is no ‘us’ and ‘it’ outside the bounds of common sense and engineering. Even if the scientific method wasn’t really all that scientific (do we really test every available hypothesis or just those dictated by ‘common sense’) surely a look at science itself is also a part of the enquiry process? Even if the nuclear physicist sounded like a philosophy professor, they were both ‘reasonable’? They were, whether Heisenberg or Heidegger, both products of western reason. Both white, male and as civilized as it gets. But what if reason itself might be viewed as unreasonable? What if we looked askance at our reflected images and saw the proverbial monkey scratching its head instead of the end result of millennia of evolution? I remembered an old Hindu adage about blind men describing an elephant. No one had ever ‘seen’ one and they were all standing at a different part of the elephant. One described the elephant as a large tree trunk, holding and patting its leg. The other blind man described the elephant as a snake like creature, holding its tail. The third described the elephant as a sort of mollusk with his hand on the elephant’s
tongue. All were right, all were reasonable, all were as scientific as they could be. All were absolutely wrong. What if no matter how intelligent, diligent, educated, reasonable we are, we might be absolutely wrong? I had to hypothesize that the possibility existed that we might be wrong, even if the computer works and the galaxies are born and die, even if reason works so seemingly well, reason might be wrong about much of everything? After all, we don’t have to abase ourselves to admit that we are animals, creatures, and that our senses including our brains, are fallible, limited, profoundly inadequate implements. Humility is one of the most important steps to faith for this very reason. This ‘answer’, humans will never know everything, is critical to prying open the armor of reason. Martin Luther called it “whore reason”. Reason is usually for sale to someone or something temporal. Scientifically speaking, we know that Galileo was discredited in his time because of the power of the Catholic Church just as we know, less confidently so, that large vested interests fund much of the ‘research’ that goes on and that means some discoveries happen whereas others are never funded and rarely do. The harmful effects of tobacco took decades to be acknowledged, for example. Reason also tends to tell me that I’m right and you’re wrong. This makes changing one’s views about anything extremely difficult. We tend to believe what our parents, teachers and media tell us. Once we believe something, we see it as rational, logical and reasonable. We are, as one seminary student described it, ‘ants trying to describe a human’ when it comes to those enquiries that involve anything outside our immediate ‘common sense’, like God for example. Maybe, just maybe, ‘primitives’, ‘savages’ less ‘developed’ societies may be, just maybe, more advanced than we are? After all, if a sure test of intelligence is survival, our western civilization in its development of the means of mass destruction and its decimation of the planet, could be considered, even by scientists, very ignorant indeed. Whereas, tribal societies, ecologically more resilient and incapable and unwilling to commit global suicide, may be in an evolutionary sense, brilliant by comparison.
Could it be that as Shakespeare said, ‘There are more things in heaven and on earth than are dreamt of in our philosophies’? For example, anyone who has ever struggled with an addiction issue and they are legion knows that one of the steps of recovery is to deal with our own ‘stinkin’ thinkin’, our own arrogant assumption that we know what is best for ourselves. Part of the process of recovery is also the realization that we do not have the capability to heal ourselves. Whether a spiritual or emotional or physical sickness, all demand other’s participation. They all demand ceding our will to the will of someone or something else. Just as its difficult to find an atheist in the trenches so is it difficult to find an atheist in addiction recovery. They’re there of course but in fewer numbers. Trauma of any kind tends to create chinks in the armour of reason. If addiction is self imposed trauma, death, disease, war, natural catastrophe and simple injustice all challenge our ‘reason’. The question “Why me?” when trauma occurs, often to the best, nicest, strongest, least deserving individuals has an atheist answer. The answer is, “There is no reason; just bad luck.” It may be absolutely true but then what? “Too bad, tough break” when your child dies of cancer. “Too bad, so sad,” when your village is consumed in an earthquake. One can listen compassionately but there is no solace to dispense because there is no good news. It’s cold comfort to see good news in simply ‘witnessing’ or ‘caring’. This begs another atheist question, the age old retort to people of faith: “If there’s a God, why is there so much suffering?” We’ll deal with that in its own chapter but suffice to say here, even for the atheist, the question exists, “Why is there so much suffering?” The difference is the only answer without faith is, “Suck it up, it’s the way of the world.” Or, “We haven’t discovered the cure, or the alternative to war, or …” In other words, humans will eventually, overcome suffering. Really? If past performance is a good, scientific predictor of future performance – not ‘bloody’ likely! Particularly galling for the social activist and many atheists are social activists, is the realization that none of your work may ever be realized and that the humans you worked so hard for (or animals or environment) don’t seem to care. The discovery that those with you in the struggle for justice are fallible, often deceitful creatures in it
for their own aggrandizement doesn’t help either. Every story of revolution no matter how noble the aims ends with the tale of a Stalin or a Robespierre. In the world the good often do die young or fighting for a cause, die first. The bureaucrats and opportunists inherit the earth. Every Pastor has also listened to tales of the horror of the workplace, the everyday trauma, from their parishioners, whether on the line or in the boardroom. Those who try to lead ethical, righteous lives are trampled by those who don’t care, who lie and cheat and often win because of it. “Tough luck that’s life,” is the reasonable answer. It is tough luck and it is life. In a world without faith it is the only honest answer. Having spoken to atheists and having been an atheist I’m always impressed by how optimistic about the human condition atheists can be. Any scientific analysis shows there’s no cause for optimism whatsoever. Even Marx, profoundly western and religious in some ways, stated that if not socialism then barbarism. Certainly examining the world almost a hundred years since his death, barbarism seems to be the odds on favourite. It’s in fact a minor miracle we haven’t ignited a world wide nuclear war. Most environmentalists will tell you we’re already doomed, the only question is how far off we can push doomsday. That’s ultimately another problem with reason. It not only isn’t very reasonable, is often profoundly racist and sexist and egotistic but there is no hope with reason. Of course, atheists will, being profoundly optimistic and egotistical about our human abilities, promise otherwise. Science will produce an answer to ecological devastation. Science will counter weapons of mass destruction with defensive strategies (Star Wars). Logic and reason are our only hope they’ll wager. The problem is, it doesn’t take an Einstein to see that exactly the opposite has happened. Science has delivered high tech death and a polluted planet. Our tribes’ people shake their head in disbelief at the idiocy of such smart mainly white, mainly men. As Heidegger, as smart and as white as it gets, said, “Only a God can save us now!” Rather than rosy- eyed optimists, people of faith are as pessimistic as it gets about the human condition – that is the human condition without God. If humans are all I can count on, then count me out. Save me from humanism. Look at the world humans, and humans of the very best of intentions, have wrought. The introspective will want to
add, look at me, look at me in my woeful inadequacy. As contrasted with the, “I’m OK, You’re OK” of the boomer generation, folk of faith would want to say, “I’m doomed and so are you.” That is if it’s up to us to save ourselves. Now of course there is a certain strand of Christianity that would make us mini-Christs, both conservatives and liberals are guilty of this. Conservatives who see some of us as spiritually purer than others and liberals who don’t really believe there is a power greater than ours so that it’s still all up to us (we are the hands and feet of Christ). Jesus is pretty clear on the topic however. Remember the ‘he who is without sin cast the first stone.’ No one stepped forward. Not that we aren’t called to try to do better. As a sign said outside a store, ‘Sin, Repent, Repeat’. Or as Martin Luther said (you get by now I’m a big fan) ‘Sin boldly and love Christ more boldly still’ Ethics are important, profoundly so for a person of faith but not because we dreamt up a better world and they’re the path to it but because ethical action is the call upon us from God. Ethics, to the person of faith, is obedience. How’s that for a radical statement? Bet that makes you uneasy? To the atheist, ethics is a reasonable discipline. It makes sense they say to be good and do good because everything runs much smoother that way and fewer folk get hurt. However as every scientific dictator the world over has ever displayed; a much better way to make your way in the world as far as ‘you’ are concerned is un-ethical. Kill your enemies, steal their land and possessions, reign supreme. is a pretty reasonable, if not the most reasonable, path for a would be leader and the one route historically popular. The reasonable might say, ‘dictatorships never last’ but the reasonable might also answer, ‘who cares?’ neither does life. “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor, and rich is much better,” states a popular eighties poster. Psychopaths sleep soundly. In boardrooms or staterooms psychopaths have proven that lack of ethics is a good way of getting what you want in life. They point to the poor as losers and in a reasonable world, they’re very correct. Depressed yet? Certainly in our secular world, depression and its cures, is the most popular answer to the reality in which we find ourselves. Our atheist options are to reiterate: to put our trust in the power of our own minds to come up with solutions to the myriad problems for the first time in history. We can believe in ‘progress’ even though
all evidence points to the contrary. At this I can hear the atheist interject: ‘What about longevity rates? Rights of women? Trips to the Moon?’ Upon momentary reflection the truly scientific will counter: ‘Poverty is as widespread as ever, for most death comes early still, most women have no rights, trips to the moon won’t save our planet. ’ One could counter arguably we would be better off in terms of survival as a species were ‘science’ never to have existed. So if we can’t save ourselves, is there no salvation? That is the reasonable conclusion: hence depression is the reasonable reaction to this reasonable conclusion. What sane person could react differently? If I witness my children and believe, reasonably, that it is unlikely their children will enjoy breathable air, drinkable water or peace, why wouldn’t I be depressed? Prozac may assist but it won’t eliminate the obvious. Yes, people of faith and reasonable atheists who actually take clinical cold hard looks at the world tend to the misanthropic. As Oscar Wilde once said however: “We’re all lying in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars.” Don’t roll over and look up yet however. To be fair, one could point out that I’m trying to use reason to defeat reason here and to that I do plead ‘guilty’. For one, I’m a creature like you and reason is what I do. For another, this is only Chapter One so we haven’t looked at the alternatives to ‘man as the centre of all things’ model of reality yet. Finally, there’s nothing wrong with reason such as it is. For Christians, reason is a gift from God, the gift that makes us human. One could say scripturally, the gift that creates us in the image of God. Scripture is crystal clear however, we are not God and never will be. Humility then is the word for this step in classic apologetics. One progresses from atheism to agnosticism, from knowing for sure to being genuinely unsure, through reason. Reason when pursued then and this is its greatest gift, takes us beyond reason, to profound doubt. Liberating doubt is that which challenges our most closely held ‘idol’ belief in reason itself. All one needs to admit is that simply, humans can never know everything. This is the first uneasy step toward becoming Christian.
Study Guide: 1) Has trauma changed the way you see reality? 2) Are you sure you’re sure about anything? What is it? 3) What made you pick up this book? 4) Are you feeling angry with me? With God? With yourself? 5) Where are you at in terms of describing yourself as Christian? Atheist? Agnostic? Defend yourself.
We’re All Going To Die
“…Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…” (Psalm 23)
It just keeps getting worse, this nasty human condition. Once we begin the discipline of doubt, once reason takes us beyond the efficacy of reason, then we humble ourselves indeed. Then it dawns on us, not only are we doomed as a species, we are individually doomed. What good does our greatest discovery do? What gain do our own personal achievements give us, no matter how great? Even the love and existence of grandchildren and family and community surrounding us as we lay dying, does not change one iota of our own death. If I am not there to witness the world, the world might as well not exist either. Even our family will forget our existence in a few generations. The greatest Hollywood celebrity will be forgotten in less than a generation. I remember talking to a young exercise trainer in the 90’s and mentioned, ‘Jane Fonda’ and her exercise tapes. “Jane Fonda?”, he said “Who’s she?” Jane Fonda, one of the biggest stars of my generation and still very much alive, meant nothing to the twenty-something. Quite frankly even if one is remembered for more than a few generations, what good does it do you – you’re dead! No more thought. No more dreams. No more love. No more experience. No more possibility. No more you. No more world. Even the
psychopath finds the prospect of his own death jarring. Those that say they don’t fear death are either very depressed or deluded, at least if they are atheists. I have accompanied a few atheists to their death in palliative care wards. There is precious little comfort to offer. One friend told me; “What did I do to deserve this? Here I am covered in bedsores, always in pain, losing my marbles, I must have done something really awful?” It was a pretty religious statement for an atheist. The answer and he gave it himself a moment later was; “I’m just unlucky. The lucky ones go fast. I guess it just sucks because it’s happening to me. I wish it was happening to you instead!” Of course he laughed at that. It was his last joke but it was completely honest and correct. Most of us, for most of our lives, treat death as something that only happens to other people and we view death as always accidental. There is nothing in our culture that describes or lives – a good and timely death. Death is the great mistake. The hospital makes the mistake, or we make the mistake. We didn’t eat well enough, or we drank or smoked too much. We die in car accidents and other more natural mishaps, all mistakes. No one ever, or at least very rarely, dies at the right moment, neither too late nor too early, anymore. Concurrent to the belief that death is always a mistake, is the widely held belief that it can be prevented. One can prevent death by exercise, or diet, or living in the mountains in a small village in the Caucasus, or meditation. If you listen at enough funerals you hear a litany of cruel and kind attempts to explain away the reality of death. Post death we rationalize the death as timely, mainly because it’s someone else’s death. “She lived a long, good, life.” This may sound reasonable to a twenty something but trust me, whether she was 68 or 86, it’s not comforting to the 68 or 86 year olds in the assembly. What we really mean is that her death was okay but when we’re 86 or 68 it will very definitely not be okay. We believe that somehow death will never “kindly stop for me” as Emily Dickinson described it. Let’s admit it: if we are atheists we hope to live forever and our scientific community is feverishly at work trying to bring that about. We can replace parts, ingest substances, even freeze ourselves but we’re not there yet. Believers in progress though, the day
will surely come when we do live forever we assure each other. Again, we secretly hope, at least for me and mine, if not for you and yours. Some victims of trauma react differently to death. In my experience as one myself, but also as counselor to those who have been victims of severe trauma, death does become real. If you expect to die every day you live, you live a little differently. You may become obsessive/compulsive, dangerously self destructive (you’re going to die anyway) or hedonistic. You may begin to explore other possibilities, not because you’re terrified of death but because you’re comfortable enough with it that you know its real. Of course you don’t have to have experienced trauma to learn that death is real but it helps. Many who work in the field of death, undertakers, funeral directors, forensic scientists, crime scene investigators etc. know the reality of death, although even there an immense defensive psychology usually shields them from identification with the bodies they manipulate and their own bodies. Like the trenches, however, few atheists exist in the death professions. One thing you learn around dead bodies is that the person has vacated. I, and people of faith would want to describe the process by which the soul leaves the body in some way, shape or form, but even a child knows instinctively that a body is not the same as a person. They are not sleeping. They are dead and ‘they’ are gone. I remember my own children at their father’s funeral, nine and fourteen at the time, looking with a kind of horror and fascination at his dead body. My son, the nine year -old said, “That’s not daddy!” He was emphatic. To my son, the presence of the body showed there was some kind of hoax being perpetrated. The body he witnessed seemed like a wax statue in Madame Tussaud’s. It was a likeness but far from the real thing. Here’s reality: we are all going to die. No, not just me and everyone else, you are going to die too. There is absolutely nothing you can do about it. Let’s repeat that: there is absolutely nothing you can do about it. If you run marathons and live on brown rice/ green vegetables and fish, you will still die. If you never drink, never smoke, smoke too much and drink too much, you’ll still all die. The date you die is as far as any of us know, a complete crapshoot. You may have a heart attack in an 11
hour. You may live another fifty years. No one knows and even if you have a terminal diagnosis hanging over your head, you still don’t know for sure. At least then though, you have to admit it’s a possibility! A friend told me her sister had just finished a cardiac work up, stress test, EKG, everything. The cardiologist said she had the heart of a mule and she’d live a good long life. She died getting dressed in the change room of his office that very day. One of my congregants had a terminal cancer diagnosis. Her oncologist gave her six months. He died in an accident a few months later and she’s still alive. I saw her the other week and it’s been ten years of remission. All we have are odds as to when we lose but unlike any other lottery none of us ever win. Our collective focus on gaining just another day of sometimes not –so- very satisfying life is very tragic-comic. I’m thinking of Howard Hughes here and others like him; Michael Jackson who wore masks to keep himself safe from viruses and died from self inflicted drug use. We fear planes, trains, automobiles, edges, heights, disease, terrorists and then overdose on prescription drugs. Or we just die anyway from some mundane cause we never gave much thought to. Here’s an interesting exercise to try and that is to write your own funeral. What would be said about you and by whom? What readings would be done? Where would it be held, etc.? I’ve often been amazed at how some sort of religious observance creeps into the most secular funeral. We instinctively know just like my son, that there’s something weird happening when you substitute a body for a loved one. We subconsciously need some sort of attempt at an answer to the fate we all face. We need to have some assurance that what happened to them had some meaning and that it needs to have meaning because, my God, it will also happen to me! My atheist friends will want to chalk that need for comfort as fear, pure and simple, and maybe they’re correct. I would answer however, that genuine fear of death, very real and very human, is a very good thing. Fear of death opens us up to the possibility that not only do we not nor can we know everything but that we have no idea about death. What happens to us at death? That’s a good question. Where do ‘we’ go after death? Are we summed up by the firing of a few neurons that simply
cease firing? Is that what my son witnessed at my husband’s graveside – simply the absence of nerve action? My Tibetan friends have a whole tradition, they would call it a science, to explain what happens to you after you die. Many are familiar with the book, “The Tibetan Book of the Dead”. It contains almost minute to minute explanations of what one experiences when one dies. They’re not alone. Christians have these traditions from explanations of purgatory and on, but we rarely discuss such things anymore. Popular culture has substituted this with ghosts and near death experiences and séances (how nineteenth century). One of my motivators for Church attendance was death. I had experienced a great deal of death growing up and hated sitting through funerals where some hired hack spun platitudes about my mother, father, grandmother and brother. I wanted to make sure the next loved one who died would not only be known by the officiant but that their death would be dealt with. Sounds strange doesn’t it? Isn’t that what funerals are supposed to do, deal with death? Yet most funerals carefully avoid the topic. We ‘celebrate the life’. That’s fine but I wanted and my children needed someone to tell them where daddy was? As a searcher I entered a Church for the first time as an adult in part because I wanted my family ‘known’ by the person who might perform their funerals. I knew death wasn’t an abstract. It wasn’t macabre. It was realistic. I also wanted to hear someone talk about death because I wasn’t aware, outside of places of faith, that anyone did. To be sure, I had no real belief in God at that point but I did believe in death, unlike most of my contemporaries. I needed to explore the topic. Sure enough, some very few years later, my husband died in a traffic accident and the Minister not only knew him but cared for him and us, as did the entire congregation. Not only had we spoken of death many times by then but by then I was a Christian. There’s no need yet to be a Christian or anything else, other then believing in one’s own death to complete this step. Whatever happens on your life journey, as long as you’re humble enough to know you know nothing much, and conscious enough to know that one day you will be unconscious, you’re already two uneasy steps toward faith.
Are we simply neurons firing? Are we only the brain’s electrical activity? Does that explain us or explain ‘us’ away? If we are simply the end or almost end of the evolutionary progressive march, what possible purpose did nature have in mind? If there is absolutely no purpose to existence and only randomness, why do we cling so fiercely to life? Why are we so programmed to survive? What on earth for? I remember a friend arguing as a teenager that the earth would be far better off if we all died or at least most of us. Environmentalists must surely concur. Why then do we find such an option so devastating? Is it simply human vanity? Death and the cognition of our own death force us to confront these questions. Death is an astounding gift in that way. Funerals are my favourite occasions as a clergy person because something spiritual always happens at a funeral, no matter if everyone in attendance is an atheist. Something non-material brings us together. We have to acknowledge ‘that’ which does not (for the atheist) any longer exist. We have to recognize our mutual love, if the departed was loved, another irrational impulse. We have to mourn, even if their death was a ‘good’ thing n our explanations. Death forces us to the edge and beyond of reason: always a positive.
Study Questions: 1) Write your own funeral 2) Speak about the deaths of loved ones and the experience 3) Speak about your own death, what do you think might happen to you 4) Are you prepared to die today? If not, why not
At Least Prayer Might Lower My Stress Levels
“And he said to them, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.” (Mark 9:29) So much has been written about the efficacy of prayer and/or meditation in terms of lowering blood pressure, reducing stress levels and mitigating heart disease that I could simply direct the reader to all of that literature. Atheists will point out of course that the same results can be found (in the larger studies) by counting to 10 over and over and sitting still and watching one’s breadth (both interestingly Zen Buddhist practices). God does not have to be the object of prayer to have positive health benefits but no atheist seems to be interested in the fact that prayer and meditation (even counting to 10 and just sitting) are originally religious practices. It seems to me fascinating that religion knew before science figured it out that there was something to ‘prayer’. Every culture prays, even rats when rewarded or punished without logical pattern develop prayer or ritual like behaviour according to a study I recall. Since rewards or punishments not based on merit or fault is the norm in life, atheists will immediately counter that ritual behaviour and prayer is not inspired by a deity but by a random and scary universe. Christians would agree. Yes, most people pray only when they are terrified but sometimes also when they are grateful. Most are aware at some subconscious level 15
that hormones and biochemical changes occur. People feel better when they pray. When people feel better they in turn change their worlds. Even an atheist has to agree that logically prayer then changes reality. People of faith go further of course. Not only do we say that we are called to pray by God but that God listens and responds. However since we haven’t even spoken of God yet lets leave it that we all, atheists and Christians alike, agree that prayer helps. That is why it is most certainly one of the uneasy steps to Christianity. Even the atheist can meditate to lower his blood pressure. When he does meditate by watching his breath or counting to ten or backwards from ten, dramatic changes will ensue. These changes will change him. Here’s a typical meditation story: Ken G. began practicing meditation on his Doctor’s advice. Ken was an atheist but understood enough about biochemistry that it made sense. Sitting still, calming the incessant noise of the mind, could only help lower his stress levels. Lowering his stress levels would lower his heartbeats, giving rest to his cardio vascular system. So Ken G. began to sit looking out his window at the neighbouring park, watching children play, dogs folic, seniors sit. He determined to do this for a half an hour every day. Ken G. also promised himself he would bring his mind back to a particularly beautiful oak tree whenever his mind wandered to work, laundry lists, personal issues etc. Ken G. would bring himself back to contemplating the tree. The first day or so it was far more difficult than he had ever anticipated. He was fidgety, kept thinking about work, kept fighting distractions, phones, noises, his cat’s meowing, but he persisted. After about a week he really could focus for extended periods only on the tree and the park. Then Ken G. began to notice how exquisitely perfect the tree was. Having dabbled in soft drug use as a kid, Ken G. described mediation to a friend at this point as being “a little like being stoned.” Certainly he was experiencing the physical benefits. Ken G. felt less stressed so he continued to be diligent in his practice. Then one day something bizarre happened. Ken G. began to cry. There was no sad memory involved, nothing really other than the oak tree, but tears coursed over his cheeks. It was as if Ken G’s entire life seemed
empty, hollow, senseless and all that he had done, seen or experienced, worthless. Ken G. sat crying for the balance of his half hour. Concerned, Ken G. called his Doctor and his Doctor suggested he might be uncovering an underlying depression, suggested he come back in presumably for a prescription for anti-depressants. Ken G. didn’t say anything but didn’t like the idea of taking medication and besides, meditation had been working so well up to that point, maybe this was a simple blip. He renewed his sitting periods and tried to channel his thoughts to the perfection of the nature before him, the joys of his own life, the warmth of the sun. In other words, Ken G. determined to have happy sitting experiences. Again, no matter what he tried, during his next period of sitting Ken G. seemed to enter a very dark place. He didn’t cry this time but Ken G. did despite the tree, the sun and all of his own willpower, begin a series of introspective journeys. Ken G. realized that he didn’t really enjoy his work, which had been his stock response when asked about work. Ken G.’s work had become compromised. He was on ethically slippery ground and he decided, during his sitting period, that it was time for a change. This decision brought some immediate relief but the darkness continued as he looked at his personal relationships next. Ken G. began to see clearly that he had been harbouring hatred, yes hatred toward his wife. He had blamed her for his own stress, dislike of work, failings. Ken G, recognized that he no longer enjoyed his own children. They had become in his mind part of his stress. “What a despicable idiot I’ve become!”, was a thought almost uttered out loud. Instantly this was followed by a question that formed while examining a fork in the branch of the tree symbolically; “What do I find joy in?” The darkness again seemed overwhelming. Nothing seemed to materialize. Ken G. went back to simple contemplation. At this point Ken G was sorely tempted to stop sitting and start following his doctor’s orders. ‘Maybe he was depressed?’ Ken G. decided logically again to do both. It would be another week before his next visit. He would meditate and be treated for depression. The literature he Googled seemed to indicate both were efficacious and together even better, although as he sat in his customary chair and stared at his
customary park, he did so with some trepidation. What thoughts would emerge that day? That day, Ken G. thought about the ‘whys’. Why had he been born? What was the point of all his own striving? What was the point of anything? Why did the world exist with all its bloodshed and sorrow? What should he do with the rest of his life since he’d wasted so much of it? Few answers came but as he persisted the next few days, another thought took form. Perhaps Ken G.’s purpose was to make the world a better place? Since he clearly hadn’t accomplished that even with his own family, he would pledge to begin immediately. Ken G. left that sitting with the determination to be a better father and husband, search for more meaningful work. Energized and joyous for a change, he left his chair for his life. As early as the next morning though Ken G. went back to sitting having failed already. His son had taken the car without asking and his wife had disagreed with any punishment. Ken G. had lost his temper at both of them. Surely I am clinically depressed he surmised and thankfully his appointment with the GP was the next day. Although Ken G. felt the breakthrough he’d received while meditating was still valid, he was intensely aware of his own incapacity to carry out what he felt was his new calling. Almost immediately as he got comfortable and the tree came into view, the anguish began. To his own shock, Ken G. found himself praying, even though he didn’t know to whom and why, “Dear God, help me.” Was the extent of his silent plea. Strangely he felt better. There is no God he reasoned but if the words comfort me why not use them. He tried another prayer, “God if you’re real show me a sign” and another “I don’t believe in you God, help me anyway.” From then on Ken G. prayed while meditating. He used his sitting time to argue with God, blame God, question God, plead with God, and finally by the time he dared enter my Church, had more of a prayer life and a more profound foundation in faith then many long standing Christians. Such I would say, is the power of the Holy Spirit and the power of prayer.
Ken G was a real congregant and his story is not at all uncommon. Little did he realize he was praying an ancient biblical prayer, “I believe O God, help my unbelief” Little did he realize that the opposite of faith is never doubt but certainty. Little did he realize that meditation and prayer are far, far more potent healing tools than he had hoped. Meditation and prayer heal the mind and heal the soul too. Even if one never has the experience that Ken G. had, if one practices there is no doubt that along the way one will become aware of a higher power than our ‘sturm und drang’, a deeper reality than our mundane melodramatic ‘real’. That is why prayer is the third uneasy step to becoming Christian.
Study Guide 1) Duh! Begin praying or meditating every day for at least 15 minutes. Give this at least a month. Worst that will happen is that your blood pressure will go down. 2) Write down your experiences immediately after. That way you’ll pick up themes that you otherwise may miss. 3) Share your experiences with someone who may pick out themes you don’t.
All The Gods I Don’t Believe In
“God is love and those who abide in love abide in God and God abides in them” (1 John 4:16b)
My husband and I walked into our first Church as atheists, at best ‘searchers’. We joined an ‘Intro to Christianity’ class and when asked where we were at in our faith journeys, my husband shared (as a lapsed Roman Catholic) “I don’t believe in God but I do believe Mary was God’s mother.” I said, loving the stories of Jesus, “I don’t believe in God but I do believe Jesus was God’s son.” Everyone laughed of course but we were being perfectly honest. God, to us, was the Sistine Chapel’s representation. ‘He’ definitely a ‘he’ was an old man with a beard. Whether ‘Father’ or ‘Mother’ (in later feminist interpolations), God was humanoid: humanoid with a difference. God was a super-human, sort of like Superman only way more Super. God controlled everything and was the arch micro-manager. God caused everything to occur and had his own completely weird, sometimes nefarious reasons. My husband and I were Job’s persecutors. We thought that if you were stupid enough to believe in God, then you had to believe if evil befell you, it was your fault and your just punishment. We knew enough Christians to know you could believe in evolution and still see God as ‘first mover’ but He was far more than that, because he still controlled everything that had happened since.
The relationship between Jesus and God was like Superman and his father. Superman was the guy who rescued you from a burning building but God was on another planet somewhere watching on with pride. Needless to say, we didn’t invent this God imagery but were fed it by much of Christian representation. Listening to some Christians didn’t contradict this impression in our minds but instead, affirmed it. We concluded as do most atheists that therefore, Christians were idiots. An old man reclining on a cloud watching Jesus in a toga instead of a cape, running around performing the impossible, not only asked of us that we suspend our intelligence, it asked us to deny our experience. After all, like all those in search of faith over the eons, we witnessed good people (children some) who were undeserving victims of horror and tragedy and creeps who were rich and successful. We saw natural disasters destroy whole communities. We concluded as have our brothers and sisters for time immemorial, that if God is a micromanaging, super humanoid, God is either incompetent, not all powerful, irrelevant, perhaps non existent or worse that God is not our friend but indeed, our enemy – God hates us. Sadly, there is enough toxic religious experience around that the two camps: monster God and impotent God were well represented in Christians we read and met. Our uninformed forays into biblical literature didn’t help us here. We could (we thought) find both Gods in biblical lore. God was either smiting the Egyptians (good for the Jews bad for the Egyptians) sentencing His own son to death or watching idly as His prophets perished and His chosen people were enslaved. Christians who were more liberal described a God who had ‘no hands but ours’. We figured if that’s the case God has no hands at all. Who needs Him? Or, Christians who were more conservative, lived under the weight of an oppressive super-ego God who berated them at every turn for their litany of sins and transgressions. Christ’s death hadn’t done them much good it seemed to us. Later as a clergy person myself I described our journey as being pretty typical of those new to faith. I called it ‘All the Gods I don’t believe in’ because my conversation with newbies to Church seemed to take the same path. They would describe who God was and why they didn’t believe in Him and I would concur, ‘I 21
don’t believe in that God either’. In fact I’ve never had a conversation with an atheist where I didn’t agree with them that the God they described was not only not worthy of ‘belief’ but certainly not worthy of adoration and love. I once appeared on a national television program that pitted believers against atheists. The arch-atheist Richard Dawkins was the principal guest. I suggested that the Gods described by atheists were not the God of the Bible. I quoted the passage that began this Chapter from First John, ‘God is love and whoever lives in love lives in God and God lives in them’. In the most patronizing tones possible Dawkins dismissed this as saying love means ‘nothing’. If God is love, then there is no real God, he seemed to say. As is often the case with television there was no time for real conversation or debate just sound bytes. Let’s examine this though. What if the Bible is correct? What if God is not a super humanoid monster incompetent? What if God = love? Is Dawkins correct? Is ‘love’ nothing? Here, both intelligence and experience can be trusted, at least a little bit, fallible though they are. True enough, difficult to measure love scientifically but we know scientifically monkeys die without it, at the very least. Those famous experiments where monkeys were given everything they needed and denied cuddle time and died anyway, come to mind. We know our own lives are lost without human love. We know, even if it is biologically driven, our love for our children drives us to do almost anything, die perhaps or at least lend them the car. We know, as thinking beings, that there is ‘something’ that seems to impel the universe forward, from simplicity to complexity (as my science teacher once said) and that despite biological imperatives, allows some of us to give up our lives to higher causes. Intuitively, we seem to sense that love is better than hate. We might even say this is a universal absolute. Why? Good question. One that atheists like Dawkins seem to have no answer for other than evolutionary progress, smoother running human systems etc. Hate after all has been pretty successful for some, in the short term. Suffice to say if we take the Bible at its literal presentation, if we, just for the sake of argument, think of God as love, it does change a great deal.
If God is love and not an old man, we might even begin to think of God as more than one noun for example? In classic Trinitarian formulations this is explicit: God as Holy Spirit – mover, shaker, changer. Or we might begin to image God as force, creative force, rather than anthropocentric? We might avoid the binary arguments of monster/incompetent and be able to return to all powerful/all knowing, not because God is Superman’s father but because God is omnipresent. Remember the blind men with the elephant from Chapter One? All we need to know is that love potential, if you will, is in the room, to know that the presence of God is with us, even though we will never in this life, really understand God or what God means. First John defines God as love not to limit God but to give us, idiotic humans, an entry point to faith. All faiths wrestle with the impossibility for fallible creatures to understand or define the infallible (if the infallible is at all). The very first Commandment that proscribes ‘imaging’ God speaks directly to this. “You shall not make for yourself an idol” Exodus 20:4 If we create pictures of God inevitably we end up worshipping our own pictures more than we worship God. Jews speak to this by not speaking the name of God but in a sense ‘around’ the name of God G-D. Muslims know this by speaking of the thousand names of God. Hindus and Sikhs know this by speaking of the manifestations of God, Buddhists know this by not speaking of God except through the enlightened ones, at all. Here we have an entry point to speak to those we are called to speak to, those without faith, because we have to admit, we will never ever have the definitive answer to what or even who God is or does, but I believe, 1 John does as well as can be done in simply say “God is love…” This helps us contend with all those ultimately unanswerable (by humans) questions about the incompetence or belligerence of experiences of God=love. If God=love then tragedy occurs because suffering is part of life on this planet but wherever suffering does occurs God=love is also real and present. Using an old, fallible (as all descriptors will be) image of God as loving parent let us imagine what a truly loving parent of a child would create. Would it be a world where we controlled every aspect of their lives and the world so as to keep them safe? Would we create a world where there was no freedom of will they were allowed to exert? Would we create a world they could not be co creators in? Even if this meant they might suffer and 23
experience tragedy, would we as God=love offer them anything less than the full range of human experience? Keeping in mind that this life is a grain of sand in the cosmos of possibility, perhaps what God=love (parent) might do is like some real parents do, be there when we stumble, love us through our tragedies, give us hope. The Fall from the garden of Eden is inevitable, biblically speaking. Were it not for the Fall there would be nothing, no Exodus, no Jerusalem, no Christ, no humanity. The Fall is what growing up is, a hurtling into harsh reality but also colourful, vibrant, fantastic, joyful, tragic, human reality. God=love does not sit back in the garden watching but clothes us (quite literally Biblically speaking) feeds us, talks with us, advises us, chastises us, guides us, argues with us…love does that. Parenting at its best is often the closest we humans get to completely unselfish love so we get that if we truly love our children we don’t want to either control or manipulate their lives, but we will never abandon them either. When I was a little girl and like all children came to know of death ( my grandmother died) I imagined that heaven looked very much like the downtown core where I lived. I didn’t want a heaven without loved ones, my dog, bustle and noise. Grandmother, I decided, had just moved into another room in another city somewhere, a better city. Interesting how close children intuitively can come to the Bible where Heaven is just that – the new Jerusalem and Jesus said, “In my Father’s mansion there are many room… I go to prepare a place for you…” John 14:2 Heaven, even, is not without challenge. So we can biblically speaking say at least this much about God, all powerful, all knowing, just; because God=love. The benediction I’ve come to use over the years is: “Go forth from this place with the sure and certain knowledge that God the source of all love, Jesus Christ, love incarnate and the Holy Spirit, love’s power goes with you now and goes with you always.” You can’t get more fundamentally Christian than that.
Study Questions 1) What has you image of God been? Why? 2) What makes you uncomfortable or comfortable using the God=love definition? 3) If God=love, where have you experienced God in your own life?
Even Though They’re Just Stories
When asked if he had to sum up all the multiple volumes of his theological work in a sentence the great theologian Karl Barth said, “Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so.” “The Bible is the swaddling cloth in which I find my Christ.” Martin Luther
How can any intelligent person believe for a moment anything the Bible says? After all, whales swallow and spit up humans; arks are built and have two of everything on them; men rise from death? So think most atheists and so thought I. The Bible is an incredible multi-thousand year collection of stories by humans about their experiences with the one they called God, Yahweh, G-d or in the New Testament, Christ. No Christian I’ve met claims that the Bible was dropped from the lap of God. Most claim the stories were inspired, informed, some claim dictated, by God. Most Christians today allow that there may be nuances, some passages that are closer to God than others, some oral histories that have changed over time and quite frankly even some books that should be in and others out. Martin Luther called the epistle of James an ‘epistle of straw’ because he didn’t like its’ works rather than faith based focus. In so doing, Luther did what theologians before and since have always done, picked and chosen the passages and even entire
testaments that they consider more closely follow God’s will. Libraries exist of theology texts that argue over one point or another based on different readings and different emphases in the biblical corpus. Quite frankly, multiple translations of the Bible exist, with some often glaring differences. ‘Proof texting’ is the business of taking one or more phrases or passages out of context and using them to make a theological point that might not fit when the larger Biblical canon is considered. We, as fallible humans, rarely use the Bible in any other way. There are obvious contradictions on first reading and we, as theologians, exist in part to explain them or explain them away. ‘Thou shalt not kill’ is preceded by the slaughter of thousands? God asks Abraham to kill his first born child? This is one of many examples that strike the reader. Councils have been convened about not only theological views but also biblical renditions and readings. Our present Bible whether St. James or Revised Standard Version is always the result of a group of humans sitting in a room arguing and eventually (sometimes involving bloodshed) coming to a consensus. It would be well near impossible to refute the hand of the human in our word of God. This is true from the goatherds sitting around fires trading stories in ancient Palestine to today’s editorial boards. The Bible is the result of humans’ experiences with God and/or Christ. IT IS NOT GOD OR CHRIST. I hate bold letters because they make one sound insane but I used them here for a particular reason. I used them because it is a common error to believe that God or Christ is bound and restricted by a book. Any thinking and faithful Christian would have to admit that God and/or Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit is first and foremost ‘alive’ and second far greater and more powerful than human words can ever capture, even inspired words. Jesus did not write the New Testament, his followers did. Even by conservative estimates, the New Testament was written decades after the events themselves mainly because Jesus’ followers believed in his imminent return, and that their words could never completely capture the enormity of their experiences. They wrote out of the desperation of the oppressed just in case Jesus did not arrive as soon as they hoped. We do not worship the Bible, we worship God.
On the other hand, the Bible is our portal to the Divine experience. How would we know of Christ’s existence or the odyssey of the chosen people, the Jews, without it? Yet there is a clear need for interpretation. Jews have written Midrash. Christians have written theology. Every preacher on Sunday morning engages in this ancient practice: the practice of telling us what the Bible really means from her or his point of view. Consider this: if the Bible was clear in its meaning why interpret it at all? An atheist might challenge: why read it at all when it’s so clearly a work with such a questionable past and present? People of faith would answer: because it’s all that we Christians have of the written history of God’s activity throughout history as recorded by humans. ‘Something Happened’ is a Joseph Heller book of many hundred pages that at its heart speaks of a moment when the protagonist was really truly alive. ‘Something happened’ could easily describe the biblical scribes’ history of the Exodus, the era of Israel, the disciples walk with Christ. The moments described were when the human race, so the Bible says, were most in sync with God, when God was close. So close, Christians might say, that we could touch Him. It was a book written by the marginalized, the hunted, the oppressed who usually died defending their experiences to an unbelieving world. ‘I know this to be true’ wrote the authors. ‘You can torture me, kill me, but this I know to be true.’ It has been passed through those thousand of years because the book itself tells us to do just that. The Bible in a sense, says “read me” to each new generation because of the actions of the last generation. The Bible is written in the blood of martyrs; people who died for their belief in their own experience of God. Say what you will about their recording capability but no one can deny their beliefs. They died for them. It was said that in Nero’s time the great road to Rome was lined with the crucified in various stages of suffering and death, many of them Christians. Whatever gave them the strength to refuse to denounce Christ as Lord and refuse to bow down to Nero as Lord was profound indeed. Delusional or not, even atheists need to see the Bible for the important historical document that it is and read it. Any ‘Law and Order’ fan knows that the witness of eye witnesses is always suspect but that the victims of crime are still asked to identify the suspects. It is never the only
evidence needed but it’s critical evidence nonetheless. The Bible gives us a purported eyewitness account of the activities of God on and with the human creature, told from the perspective of the human creature. Like the eyewitness in a crime, it is not ever the entire story, but it is an essential part of the case. The judge and jury are left with the charge of interpretation, meaning, relevance. So we, as readers of the stories of eyewitnesses in the Bible are left with the responsibility of interpretation, meaning and relevance. It is the work of faith. Followed by of course, the question, so now what should I do, if anything, with it? The stories frustrate, challenge, bore, anger and inspire. I set about reading the Bible from cover to cover, a common pursuit, and like most, became bogged down at the ‘begats’ describing lineage. In a sense though, the lineage is critical. The lineage says, ‘this is legitimate’, ‘these are the legitimate heirs of this story’ and by inference, ‘you are possibly the legitimate heir to this story’. The stories inform our western civilization from art and culture to legislative and judicial pursuits. Our grandmothers and grandfathers proven by lineage wanted us as their heirs to know their teachings. The most read book deserves to be read if only to know where the influences behind culture came from. My decision to have my children know the stories behind Shakespeare was, I believe, a reasonable reason to walk into a Church. Even if they are just stories, these stories helped invent our world. They are a language passed through the generations. Christians of course believe there’s more to it than simply an historical document, even if a formative one. We actually believe ‘something happened’. We actually believe something happened that had to be told, that had to be heard. Then of course the theological fun begins. Whether Jonah was literally swallowed by a whale or not, the story of Jonah imparts some wisdom, the book insists we take seriously. Of course one can never read this book without the caveat of Chapter One: we are human and fallible. They were humans and fallible. The Bible is a perfect history of human fallibility, from the fallibility of the sinning Prophets, to the uncomprehending disciples, to the trial and crucifixion of Christ. This is then compounded by the lost documents, the added or subtracted documents, and the editorial decisions. Finally,
fallibility haunts any possible reading, interpretation or conclusion. It’s a fallibility fest par excellence. To believe anything else, is to confine the greatness of God, the living aspect of Christ, to pages and our own ability to understand. To believe anything less than that this is in some part the word of God, is to deny thousands of years of divine and lived experience. Whatever you may think about it this is one of the most important books ever written, so it behooves us to become biblically literate to some degree. There’s a reason why we read the Bible in Churches. It is to keep it breathing in our midst. We read to keep it alive for another generation. We do this because it tells us to. We should do this in humility before the great gift that God and our ancestors bequeathed us. The act of reading it aloud, an ancient act and discussing what it might mean, links us to the great tradition of wrestling with the question of what God wants, is and does. We then write the next testament with our lives, the book challenges. As in any other discipline, whether science or art, we learn what went before and then hopefully add to that knowledge. If we really want to grapple with God questions the Bible insists we start with it. It is arguably a dangerous journey. Like any other discipline you need others to help guide and instruct. Everyone knows the story of the person who said he would do anything the Bible told him and opened it randomly and the words he read were, “Go out and hang yourself” If one actually lived a literally biblical life, one would have little time for anything else and be performing acts, like live sacrifices, that would get us in trouble with the neighbours. Clearly guidance is called for. Uninformed readings of the Bible have produced mass death and bloodshed. Misinterpretation can be fatal. Lest we forget, the Bible has been used as an excuse for slavery, the burning of women, the beating of children. It is time as we repent for those sins in our Churches, that we also analyze their cause, biblical illiteracy. The preacher of the Word is charged with a sacred responsibility. This is why preachers pray before sermons, go to school for many years, make oaths and promises and are or should always be under someone else’s supervision.
Churches are schools for the potentially Christian seekers of God. Yet they will probably humbly insist all they do is pass on the legacy of the Book. If only to arm themselves with a new arsenal of arguments against the religious, atheists should study the Bible. They need to do so however with those who’ve spent some time with it. Find good teachers. I had wonderful teachers in literature and boring teachers in math. It was only as a young adult, dating a math major, that I discovered the astounding, artistic joy of math and by then I was behind the pack. Luckily as an atheist walking into Church I found good, inspiring teachers and hence am writing this. Just as in math though, the good teachers, taught the history of the tradition but in a way that brought the past to life. One of the sad realities is that there is a climate of ‘toxic religion’; teachers who manage to make out of the book of life a book of death, or simply are mind numbingly boring, stunt and do not nurture interest in biblical literacy. Most Christians don’t actually read their Bibles apart from a passage they may hear in Churches. Most don’t confront the contradictions and questions the text presents. Most don’t, like Jacob, wrestle with the angel of scripture until they find any resolution. Yet this is what Church should do and be, a place where even though we’re fallible humans reading a book by some fallible humans about fallible humans, we are intrigued and challenged. If we aren’t Biblically based as Christians we forget we’re fallible humans and invent God for ourselves, a God that often ends up suiting us perfectly of course, with no contradictions, no messiness, no challenges. A God we call on in trenches, at football games, but have no sense of history with. A God that calms us in yoga but is forgotten in the boardroom. Another sad reality is that in ignoring our own history of God search, we make the same mistakes the humans in the Bible do. We set up idols, hate and not love our neighbour and covet wealth rather than wisdom. Just like ‘All the Gods I Don’t Believe In’ I would advise seekers and atheists to read the Bible with a good teacher so that, if nothing else, you come to know the God you don’t believe in. My bet however is that in the pages of this magnificent odyssey you will find something that will be life changing. I did, reading the words of Jesus to one
of the thieves dying next to him, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” I was thunderstruck. They were the most beautiful words I had ever read. Even if they were lies and as an atheist I believed they were lies, what form of human could utter them to someone in the moments of their own death. If they were invented by some author, what kind of author could invent such words? Those words changed my life. Biblical study is a critical if uneasy step in becoming Christian.
Study Questions: 1) What are the most troubling aspects of the Bible for you? 2) What are the most moving parts of the Bible for you? 3) Who wrote the Bible? (I suggest you research this) 4) How many different Bibles have there been and why? (Research) 5) What stories appear in some of the New Testament apostles and not in others? Why do you think that is? (Research) 6) How has this exercise and discussion affected your understanding of the Bible and God?
The Church is Full of Hypocrites
“The Church isn’t full of hypocrites there’s always room for more!” Anonymous “We’re all lying in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars.” Oscar Wilde
Atheists have a view of Christians as all Pietists, striving for perfection. The howls of glee from the secular press that accompany every preacher who’s discovered with a prostitute no doubt points to hypocrisy but what does the hypocrisy prove? Does the hypocrisy discount the biblical teaching about human fallibility? No, scripture presents the human creature as always and ever fallible. Does the hypocrisy discount the holiness of God and Christ and our understanding of their presence through the Holy Spirit? No, if anything it pits our fallibility over and against their presence. Let’s just say it straight out. All Christians like everyone else in the world is to some degree or another a hypocrite. Every human is ‘sinful’ which is to say not nasty or lacking in etiquette or evil but separate from God. No human is God. Humans fail, over and over and over. Christianity as does every faith, however, points to the perfect. Faith urges us to seek it, attempt in our own way to try
to model ourselves upon it and to sacrifice for it. We are as Oscar said, all lying in the gutter, but some of us see another reality – the stars. The usual trajectory of a seeker, after deciding to join a Church, is to immerse oneself in some committee or study group or social activity. Inevitably one of the first discoveries is that Christians are ordinary people. That’s usually comforting. Then the ugly truth follows, a truth that isn’t so comforting. Christians can also be venal, vain, liars, manipulative, angry and selfish; in other words, ordinary people. True conversion it seems to me, happens when after discovering the ugly truth, a holy truth emerges. The job of the committee, social group or study session isn’t to paint the sanctuary, have tea or compare gospel language. The job, the real purpose of every Church group is to learn to love our neighbour. In microcosm, we are called to learn to love those who are different, worse or better, richer or poorer, sicker or healthier than we are. We are not asked to ‘like’ our neighbour. We are asked to love them. Just as in marriage (the ultimate social microcosm) Church asks us to vow to build a new community. It must, Christianity tells us, be unlike any other community in the world. It is different because we are called to attempt a society, a world ultimately that was modeled on Christ’s community, where people share what they have, pool their resources, humble themselves before the ‘other’ and learn to love despite everything. I remember a story told by Stephen Covey the author of ‘7 Habits of Highly Successful People’. He told of a Minister meeting with a couple experiencing marital problems. The husband said, “But I just don’t love my wife anymore!” To which the Minister answered, “Well then, love her!” “No”, insisted the perplexed husband, “That’s just what I’m trying to tell you. I ‘don’t’ love her anymore.” Again the Minister responded, “Well then, love her!” Finally the Minister explains the obvious. We live in a culture that thinks love is like a virus. You catch it and very often get over it. Christianity says something very countercultural. Christianity says that love is a choice you make, a vow you swear to. Christianity insists that you uphold your vows, even when you don’t ‘feel’ like it anymore. Even when the enchanted evening turns into a far too real morning, the vow is still valid. Love is also an action. Love does. One models love and one lives
love. There may be days we don’t like our children or our husbands and wives but we vow that even on those days we will love them and we will display and act on that love. Even though we may fail, the charge upon us is to say sorry (repent) make amends and move on. Church groups are places to practice Jesus’ imperative, “To love one another as I have loved you.” In a sense, Churches are places to practice heaven, biblically, the ‘New Jerusalem’ not the one where bombs occasionally explode but the one promised as the new creation. The place where everything is made right can be right here, faith community says. The story of Churches as centres of resistance to the former Soviet Union is a case in point. Churches, ‘almost’ full of hypocrites, can be true sanctuaries. “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” Luther’s hymn paints an image of a building that protects. Even architecturally, Churches symbolize and actualize, protection, sanctuary. There’s a reason for the heavy walls, the firm foundation. The tower of the original Canterbury Cathedral rises still as a testament to the faith and skill of its congregation against Nazi bombardment. That building and others like it around the world are symbolic of the faith community, the other ‘Church’ within; a group of fallible individuals that together constitute an astounding strength beyond their numbers. Their strength is not because individually or collectively they’re anything but human but because they point to the Everlasting and because of the promises they make to God and to each other. Churches that are faithful feed people, clothe people and even house people. They resist tyranny in whatever form it comes and offer safety to those running from danger. They counsel, comfort and reach beyond their walls and even countries, to feed, clothe, house, comfort and counsel. Other charities exist but not with the faith communities’ mandate and not with faith communities’ assurance. The mandate is the great commandment to love our neighbour as ourselves and the assurance is that if we do, even imperfectly or always imperfectly, that act of love and justice and the doer of that act will never be lost. That love, that community. will last and come to fruition and ultimately reach its goal: the heavenly city.
I’ve lost track of the number of burned out social justice activists, the profoundly cynical social servants I’ve met who all started out with such high ideals only to find out that humans are fallible and that progress sometimes isn’t. It’s difficult to continue fighting when the enemy is overpowering and the struggle goes on for generations. It’s even discouraging when one simply desires incremental change to find that the pace is absolutely glacial. Passion and love need nurture and community or they become indifference. Church is the place where passion and love are nurtured and rewarded, that is, if Church is doing its job. We make our vows as congregants before God and then we attempt to live them. Like two year olds, we as individuals and faith communities, stumble, get lost, get up and try again. Our faith tells us we will walk upright some day. Church looks both inward and outward in building heaven. It looks after the vow makers and the vow breakers, both inside and outside. Faithful Church is both concerned with piety and polity. Jesus recognized that His disciples needed sustenance, love and the presence of a slice of Heaven – His presence - to be able to travel from village to village healing and feeding folk. Church needs to speak truth to power and show the power of truth now. “Just imagine if the whole city could be like this?” said a gentleman at our drop in and dinner program. “Just imagine if the whole world could be like this,” replied a woman picking out an almost brand new dress and shoes from the clothing rack. I remember the moment because it implied that they understood the difference between the indifference of the world and the world of Church community. They also understood the need for the world to become more of a community like the one they had learned to live at Church. The world excludes some from the table literally. The Church literally includes at the table. This is what Church is called to do at any rate. The true communism, where all goods were pooled and all took care of each other, that Marx dreamt of, is often quietly lived out in congregations everywhere, modeling faith community on the biblical description. Of course, peace and justice are not truly peace and justice unless everyone shares in them. So the faithful Church carries its’ quite literal good news out into the world. But both ‘pie now’ and ‘pie in the sky’ are necessary to keep everyone fed. 36
Of course this isn’t the faith community everyone experiences. Too often one hears of exclusive communities where anyone ‘different’ is made very unwelcome. Clubs, not Churches, where a small group acts as gatekeepers to new thought, new dreams and new people. Places where those who fail are shunned and those who question are silenced. Too often, toxic religion breeds toxic congregations. Toxic congregations destroy hopes for the New Jerusalem. Again, a biblical story, the one of Jesus driving the money- changers out of the temple, comes to mind. Or congregations aren’t demanding enough. They are environmental groups or Rotary club meetings in disguise. Congregations that forget that people are lost, shattered and suffering not only in far away places but in their own pews. People need hope that is personal, and assistance that is real, in the now. People actually do come to Church hungry, hungry for the word of God and the manna of Heaven, not just strawberry shortcake and weak coffee. They don’t want or need just another meeting. Folk need to pray and be prayed for. They need healing. They need sanctuary not just a pretty edifice. However even if your Church falls short, which needless to say it will, that’s no excuse for ignoring the calling upon you, even as a seeker. If you’re serious the onus then becomes yours to do everything you can to turn the Church of convenience or close mindedness into the Church of Christ. The amazing discovery you’ll make and others before you is that you’re not alone. Others want and need Christ’s community every bit as much as you do and God is with you in your task. Many paths to ordination are created through the less than perfect experiences of congregational life. All clergy I know desire to create the perfect Church, the one that best models Christ and the New Jerusalem. They all fail of course but what beautiful failures some of those congregations are. Surely I’ve been lucky in being part of many far from perfect faith communities that were still centuries ahead in creating compassionate communities than the world around them. I, like many Christians, need Church because we love Church and in Church we learn to love. In this era and as a seeker, there is no need anyway to stay where you’re not welcomed. The Biblical imperative is clear, ‘Shake the dust of your sandals and keep moving…’ Jesus said. That is, until you come to a place that is welcoming and
nurturing enough. You’ll know it because you’ll leave, if not full, at least fed. Then work with it for a while, give as much time talent and treasure as you are able. Decide and then vow to love the others, particularly the ones you really don’t like. Before you hammer your version of the ’95 Theses’ to the door and storm away, remember the vows you made and give all those fallible creatures a chance. The ones that gain the most at Church are, you guessed it, the ones who give the most. Inevitably the ones who turn up and out and really learn to live in a faith community with all its insanity and joy are the ones who gain a ‘chosen’ family. With the family of Christ you can then change the world. After all, a handful of marginalized followers did just that 2000 years ago. I always thought when I was still an atheist that I was way too cool for Church. I pictured Church as a bunch of SNL ‘Church ladies’ gossiping over tea. I thought I’d be judged and excluded on entry. I thought I’d have nothing in common with anyone in there. I thought I’d be silenced and suffocated. None of any of that has ever been true (although a little of all of it has been witnessed). Instead Church has been the place I fit in best, the only place I knew of that didn’t engage in gossip and the home I never had, a home that encouraged discussion and dialogue, welcomed questions and most importantly – loved me. I became willingly one of the ‘beautiful losers’ a Christian, knowing that at best I’d be the thief at Christ’s side but if I have to live and die I’d rather me next to that ‘burning light’ than anywhere else. I as generations have before me, put up with inane arguments about seasonal vestments, fundraising activities and the sermon’s integrity. I, as have generations before me, fought theological wars about angels and heads of pins with folk who are stumbling in the dark along with me. I, like generations before me, have witnessed horrors happen to people and people perpetuate horrors claiming faith all the way. Yet we pray and try to create that world we read about in the Bible and in small but significant ways every Church, even some of the least faithful, do succeed. Lives are changed, modeling heaven works at least for an hour here and there. Hypocrites laugh at their own hypocrisy, rejoice in the ability to laugh, and roll up their sleeves.
There is no other place on earth that works so hard for so many with so little and succeeds so often as a functioning faith community. It is the place to find, finally, that forgiveness we all crave. The very liturgy walks us through life from a welcome, to repentance, to forgiveness, to the promise of new life, to prayers and work for others. The shared meal binds us together as one people in Christ. It replenishes and renews, as soul food, so that we might survive the week before we need sanctuary once again. Whatever one’s questions or beliefs, becoming part of a faith community is an essential and uneasy step in becoming Christian.
Study Questions: 1) What have your experiences of faith community been? 2) What was the good and the bad in it all? 3) How is your Church a Church of close mindedness or convenience? 4) How is your Church a Church of piety or polity? 5) How is your Church a model of Heaven? 6) What can you do to make it more of a model of Heaven?
Do Good Anyway
People are unreasonable, illogical and selfcentered. Love them anyway If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Do good anyway. If you are successful you win false friends and true enemies. Succeed anyway. The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow. Do good anyway. Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable. Be honest and frank anyway. People favor underdogs, but follow only top dogs. Fight for the underdogs anyway. What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight. Build anyway. Give the best you have and it will never be enough. Give the best you have anyway. In the final analysis it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway. Mother Theresa
Look, the reason apologetics are destined to fail is part of the apologetic process. I can describe my route, my uneasy path to my Christianity but I’m just another traveler. Christians say with reason, conversion is the work of the Holy Spirit. All this little work can hope for is to spar with ‘whore reason’ for a while to allow, hopefully, a little space during which the Holy Spirit can sneak in, while you’re distracted, so to speak. But by all means don’t wait to be ambushed by grace. In the words Mother Theresa made her own, “Do good anyway.” If you’ve come this far and have truly thrown yourself into the search with a faith community then just keep on keeping on. If your life is dedicated to those around you and the world in which you find yourself (and only you can answer truthfully as to whether it is or not) God=love will appear. Knowing of course, full well, that you will fail and falter and miss God’s presence at every opportunity. Most Christians who’ve been living their faith for any length of time find that the question that haunts them is not so much, “God, do you exist?” as it is, “Why me, O God?” In other words, can’t someone else do this, just this once?” This is very biblical. In most discernment encounters the over arching question for the faithful is about vocation or action. “Should I do this? Am I the person for this task? Is it my vanity speaking or the voice of God? Is it my mother’s voice or the Holy Spirit’s?” Atheists are surprised to find out that Christians don’t have certainty (again the opposite of faith is not doubt but certainty) about what to do next. The faith community helps because hearing your struggle amidst other’s struggles helps to put it in focus. Prayer helps because the promise is always kept that some answer will come. The Bible sheds light, because someone has probably had the same issue before. Finally humility before God helps, because guess what, you’re going to die and this moment will cede in importance. All the seven uneasy steps never stop being walked in short. Even when you’ve been baptized, made an altar call, taken your first communion, professed your faith before God and the assembly, tithed every month and joined every committee, you will still walk like a toddler,
uneasily, before your God. The difference is there will be someone there to catch you when you fall. I remember the night I first believed, one of the most depressing nights of my life for a variety of commonplace human reasons. My family had been Churchgoers for many years at that point but it hadn’t become ‘real’ yet. I had a bath and found myself weeping where no one could hear me as the tub filled up. The tears poured out and I’m not a weepy person generally speaking. After my bath, I remember drying myself and in that moment it was as if someone else was swaddling me. ‘Swaddling’ was not a word I believe I ever used before then. I felt ‘swaddled’. It was such an overwhelming sensation of love. A protective, generous, comforting, presence wrapped me in my naked vulnerability, in my old ragtag body. I knew because my tears had been a prayer, that my prayer was answered. The answer was this: emerging from the depths of human experience, from biblical history, from years of Church involvement, from raging against faith and letting faith be, from death and birth, joy and misery, study and prayer and indifference – “I am with; you are mine.” So many moments, so many uneasy steps went into the moment when my response to that ‘call’ was to begin the long new journey to ministry. Now, having done ministry in many contexts I affirm that moment as real. Hindsight is twenty – twenty. The life of faith is an astounding life. Ministry, whether performed in any job, is the best job in the world. I was lost and was found; was blind and can see. I am not alone. Wherever I go, Christ is with me. After leaving full time Church based ministry and being elected to public office (another ministry), a lovely evangelical lady visited me. Used to lobbyists of many stripes, I asked her my standard question, “How can I help you?” “No, no”, she replied, “I’m here for you, to pray with and for you.” It was the best gift of my week. Know that whoever you are, wherever you are, whatever you believe or don’t, someone is praying for you. Isn’t that amazing! Somehow even as an atheist I found it astounding – weird but astounding – that anyone would take the time to pray for me? So ‘do good anyway’. It was never
between you and them or me and you anyway. Live ‘as if’ there is a God of love. Live ‘as if’ Christ walks beside you. Live ‘as if’ the Holy Spirit is a power available to you at any time day or night. You will be gob smacked with the change in the universe ‘as if’ living invokes! Do not be complacent. The joy of searching I hope I never lose is that, being the fallible creature I am, one might actually discover something. Christianity is never a destination, Church is never the end point. Hopefully we are all ‘convertible’ at any moment. Hopefully if Christ returns tomorrow, as we are promised He will, we will recognize Him even if He arrives looking differently from the Sunday school pictures. Pray God, let us all be open for His coming again! Finally thank you to all those other fallible humans who helped me still the nattering of my own mind, find humility occasionally, read the bible wisely, and stay with faith communities despite faith communities. Hopefully this little book will in turn help them.
Study Questions (Hopefully this is done in a celebration somewhere!) 1) Where are you at now in your faith or lack of faith? 2) What is still missing? 3) How does still being open to conversion resonate? 4) How do you ‘do good anyway’? How might you change your life? 5) How do you live ‘as if’? How might you change your life? 6) Have you had a ‘conversion’ moment?
Rev Dr Cheri DiNovo has won awards both for her writing (Lambda Washington DC ) and her advocacy (Ukrainian Award of Merit ). She was elected as the member of Provincial Parliament for Parkdale High Park in the Ontario Legislature in 2006 and was named "Best MPP" by NOW Magazine. She was ordained to the United Church of Canada in 1996. In this introduction to Christian faith for the agnostic, she provides a readable and witty course for those seekers new to faith.
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