Archives For Atheism

Holy Thursday is often called ‘Maundy Thursday’ from the Latin word ‘mandatum.’

Thought most Christians mark the day by recalling the Passover meal Christ celebrated with his disciples, ‘Maundy’ instead recalls John’s scene of Christ washing his friends’ feet and then giving them the ‘mandate’ to wash one another’s feet as a sign of love.

Consequently, Maundy Thursday is a day when Christians give a lot of lip service to the word ‘love.’ However Christians often exhibit little awareness of how impossible love is- especially when we speak of God’s love for us.

The late Dominican philosopher Herbert McCabe wrote much on the impossibility of God’s love. Taking Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity with the seriousness it deserves, McCabe works out a response that mines the riches of the ancient Christian tradition.

I’m marking this Holy Week by again reading through some of McCabe’s relevant work:

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“From one point of view, the cross is the sacrament of the sin of the world- it is the ultimate sin that was made inevitable by the kind of world we have made.

From another point of view, it is the sacrament of our forgiveness, because it is the ultimate sign of God’s love for us.

Love requires a relationship of equals.

To love is to give to another not possessions or any such good thing. It is to give yourself to another, but this other must share equality with you (or, as in the case of parents and children, the potential for equality) or it is not really love you share…

You will, I know, recognize immediately that this presents a problem about God.

God is evidently incapable of loving us simply because there cannot be this relationship of equality between God and his creatures.

In one very important sense then the Father can only love the Son because only in the Son does he find an equal to love.

The Father can be kind and considerate to his creatures as such, he can shower gifts and blessings upon them, but in so far as they are simply his creatures he cannot give himself, abandon himself to them in love.

That is why any unitarian theory, or any Arian theory that diminishes the divinity of Christ, leaves us as our only image of God that of the supreme boss.

It leaves us, in the end, with a kind of master/slave relationship between God and his creatures. In a sense, it leaves us with an infantile God who has not grown up enough to have learnt to lose himself in love. Such a god may be a kind and indulgent boss, but he remains a master of slaves- even if they are well-treated slaves.

This is exactly the idea behind the rejection of Christianity made (rightly) by Nietzsche.

If, however, with traditional Christianity, we take the Trinity seriously, we too have to join Nietzsche in rejecting the idea.

For the Christian tradition, the deepest truth about people is that they are loved.

But that is only possible because we have been taken up into the love that God has for his Son.

It is into this eternal exchange of love between Jesus and the Father that we are taken up, this exchange of love we call the ‘Holy Spirit.’

God loves us because we are in Christ and share in his Spirit. We have been taken up to share in the life of love between equals, which is the Godhead.

Nietzsche was absolutely right. God could not love creatures; he still can’t love creatures as such, it would make no sense.

But Nietzsche omitted to notice that we are no longer just creatures: by being taken up into Christ- whom the Father can and does love- we are raised to share in divinity, we live by the Holy Spirit.

To trace the line of the argument again:

 

  1. God the Creator cannot love creatures as such. To think he could is not to take love seriously. It is like speaking of someone loving his cat- except even more so.
  2. But God, as the Gospels continually affirm, loves Jesus. Therefore Jesus must share equality with God. There cannot be two individual Gods any more than one individual God.
  3. Jesus came forth from the Father as it is said in the New Testament: ‘the Father is greater than I.’ He is sent from the Father both in his mission in history and in the eternal procession that that mission reflects.
  4. We can say this only because we have been taken up into the mystery itself, taken up into the Holy Spirit, the eternal love between the Father and the Son.

Or have we?

If we have not, we have no right to say any of this, no right to say that God is love.”

God Matters

 

39164Facebook alerted me that this post has its 2 Year Anniversary today.

It’s important to note what I failed to note previously.

The question is posed not to me, but to Francis Spufford, the author of the dynamite book, Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense, who gives what I think is a terrific response to the question regarding his writing style:

“Why do I swear so much?

To make a tonal point: to suggest that religious sensibilities are not made of glass, do not need to hide themselves nervously from whole dimensions of human experience. To express a serious and appropriate judgment on human destructiveness, in the natural language of that destructiveness.

But most of all, in order to help me nerve myself up for the foolishness, in my own setting, of what I am doing. To relieve my feelings as I inflict on myself an undignified self-ejection from the protections of irony.

I am an Englishman writing about religion. Naturally I’m f@#$%^& embarrassed.”

I am an Englishman writing about religion. Naturally I’m offing embarrassed. Perfect answer.

Perhaps more revealing about the above quote is that while swearing makes few appearances in Church, irony abounds. But truth- emotional truth- more reliably resides with the former than the latter.

Spufford’s Unapologetic is that on two counts. It’s an unapologetic defense that Christianity entails a good deal more than believing in fairies. It’s not even- primarily- about belief Spufford argues. It’s also not a traditional work of apologetics- the rational defense of Christian doctrines. Beliefs. Ideas.

More like compass and map, Spufford thinks that Christianity gives us the tools to name truthfully our emotional experience in the world– tools, he points out convincingly, atheism lacks wholesale. Secular materialism, after all, can offer a rival explanation for the origins creation, but what it absolutely cannot do is offer any sort of hope.

The fallacy at the heart of new atheism, Spufford observes, is the assumption that if we could just do away with God, Christianity and the Church- accept that there’s probably no God- then we could all just get on with enjoying our lives.

But, Spufford counters, enjoyment is just one of many emotions.

“The only things in the world that are designed to elicit enjoyment and only enjoyment are products, and your life is not a product…to say that life is to be enjoyed (just enjoyed) is like saying mountains should only have summits…This really is a bizarre category error…What it means, if it’s true, is that anyone who isn’t enjoying themselves is entirely on their own. It amounts to a denial of hope of consolation, on any but the most chirpy, squeaky, bubble-gummy reading of the human situation. St Augustine called this kind of thing ‘cruel optimism’ 1500 years ago and it’s still cruel.”

Unapologetic is bracingly honest and laugh-out loud funny and I couldn’t commend it enough. In chapter 1 he deconstructs John Lennon’s utopian song, Imagine (‘the My Little Pony of philosophy’).

And in chapter 2 gives a clear-eyed acronym for what Christians mean by that freighted word Sin:

HPtFtU:

The Human Propensity to F Things Up.

Neither Thomas Aquinas nor Richard Dawkins have anything as simple and jarringly true as HPtFtU.

Atheists may have a rival explanation for the universe’s origins. What they do not have is language to reveal how it is that very often our lives are not what we want them to be while nevertheless being the product of all the wants we chose along the way.

A better Christian blogger would bite his virtual tongue and remain diffident. After all, beating up on American Atheists Dot Org is like making fun of Joel Osteen’s teeth or pointing out that Ted Cruz is a McCarthy-esque a@#-clown.

It’s just too easy to ridicule a group that takes itself even more seriously than the evangelicals they’re wont to battle.

Sure enough it’s Advent and American Atheists Dot Org are putting up their annual craptastic ‘War on Christmas’ billboards all over the Bible Belt.

That American Atheists Dot Org apply the same obtuse, tone-deaf literalism to the Christmas story as do the conservative Christians with whom they’re supposedly locked in pitched rhetorical battle makes me suspect their ‘War on Christmas’ is just a franchise of Bill O’Reilly’s ‘War on Christmas.’

If not, it at least provides bipartisan consensus that unimaginative killjoys exist in both fundamentalisms, Christian and None.

At the very least, it proves that fundamentalism itself- with literalism as one of its dominant motifs- is itself the product of modern liberalism.

Here’s their 2014 billboard:

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Don’t even get me started on their (false) assumption that the absence of Christian mythology equates to freedom from any and all other mythology (Secularism, Freedom, America, Racism, Capitalism, Individualism).

With tones of self-congratulatory enlightenment, American Atheists Dot Org’s website etc enumerates in sensationalist fashion the ‘fairy tales’ from which they would have us closeted non-believers rise up in erudite opposition.

You know the ‘secrets’ that the leaders of ORGANIZED RELIGION like me hide from the poor ignorant bastards who comprise their faithful flock.

Among these church-shattering revelations:

1. The bible does not say what year Jesus was born (gasp!).

2. The bible does not say Jesus was born on December 25, originally a Roman holiday (what? no!)

3. The bible doesn’t say there was an ox and an ass in the manger (how dare artists elaborate the story for the sake art!).

4. There are extra-canonical gospels that include other details about Jesus’ birth and childhood (No! It can’t be! Didn’t the ancient Christians know this?).

5. The bible doesn’t say there was 3 wise men (see #3).

6. Only 2 of the 4 Gospels have nativity stories (really? I never noticed that, damn).

7. Matthew’s Nativity story is different and, chronologically, irreconcilable with Luke’s Nativity story (how did I miss that?).

The membership of American Atheists Dot Org boasts some pretty impressive names so one can presume they’re not all stupid or intentionally dense, yet their craptastic billboards are a breathtaking exercise in missing the point.

It just goes to show that one can be smart yet have no imaginative, poetic sense of how narrative functions to tell ‘truth,’ convict, shape faith and elicit transformation.

It also goes to show, I’d wager in many of their cases, how destructive it can be to raise your kids in an idiot Christianity (Fundamentalism) that they then react against with their own version of black/white, overly rationalistic, idiot Fundamentalism.

American Atheists Dot Org brand of muckraking billboards never lets on that all of these supposed ‘secrets’ and ‘fairy tales’ have been known and accepted by the Church for centuries.

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For the Church catholic these revelations are a snore and for that reason their billboards should provoke a pitying ‘there, there’ chuckle.

For example, Christians only began celebrating Christmas in the 4th century. Meaning: it’s possible to worship God-in-Christ without the nativity stories (Mark and John obviously thought so); therefore, none of these breathless ‘fairy tales’ drive the dagger into the heart of Christianity as AA imply.

Yes, Matthew and Luke tell different stories. That’s the freaking point. They tell the stories they do the way they do NOT because they’re attempting to construct the sort of biography AA apparently expects. They tell the stories the way they do to make a particular confession about who Jesus is.

Matthew tells his story through Joseph and by way of Egypt to profess that Jesus is the New Moses for a New Israel through whom God is working deliverance.

Luke tells his story the way he does to make the oldest of Christian claims: Jesus (ie, not Caesar) is Lord.

And yes, I know Luke and Matthew didn’t actually write those Gospels. They were attributed to them later in a honorific gesture. But guess what? St Augustine beat American Atheists Dot Org to that newsflash by about 1600 years.

What American Atheists Dot Org gets right is that there’s not much first century documentation about Jesus.

Which the Church has always known.

And never been bothered by.

Because the point isn’t that Jesus lived.

It’s that he’s alive.

Skeptical BelieverWe continue our Skeptical Believer sermon series this weekend with the theme: ‘Questions Don’t Hurt God’s Feelings.’

At least, fingers-crossed, we’re hoping they don’t hurt God’s feelings.

Just kidding.

As part of the series, I solicited questions and arguments from you all. Here’s one insisting the challenge go the other way:

“I believe in God and I ‘follow’ Jesus and I even believe he was resurrected, but I have hard time believing that Jesus is God.

I think that makes everything more confusing than is necessary (Trinity) when there’s probably another explanation. Isn’t there?”

Despite, what many people assume Resurrection doesn’t reveal Jesus’ divinity. Nor even is it meant, primarily, to secure or signal our life after death.

Resurrection is vindication.

There’s a story in 2 Maccabees that’s unknown to most Christians today but would’ve been formative for all the Jews of Christ’s day.

Antiochus IV Epiphanes is persecuting the people of Israel. But the problems aren’t all from outside Israel. A Hellenizing movement has developed and lured God’s people away from the Torah, erasing the distinctions that mark them out as the people of God.

In the story, Antiochus attempts to force seven brothers and their mother, by suffering severe torture, to eat pig.

After the first brother is killed, the others encourage each other to entrust themselves to the God who judges justly: “God will have compassion on his servants.”

Maimed and tortured, what possible deliverance can these brothers hope for? There’s personal vindication:

“You, who are marked out for vengeance, may take our present life, but the king of the universe for whose laws we die will resurrect us again to eternal life.” (2 Macc 7:9).

Just as with Easter, Resurrection here equals God’s vindication of God’s suffering faithful–and the evidence that God is a greater, more powerful King than the kings of the earth who torture and take a life.

The fourth brother professes to the king:

“Death at the hands of humans is preferable, since we look forward to the hope that God gives of being raised by him. But for you there will be no resurrection to life.” (2 Macc 7:14). 

Yet it’s more than personal vindication; it’s corporate too.

The fifth of the seven brothers:

While looking at the king he said, “You, though human, have power among human beings and do what you want. But don’t think that God has abandoned our people.” (2 Macc 7:16). 

You see, this brother connects their suffering with the people’s sins: the brothers are faithful, yet they are suffering for the sins of the people.

And they have faith that their suffering won’t be the last word:

“Don’t deceive yourself in vain. We suffer these things because of our own sins against our God. Things worthy of wonder have happened. But don’t think you will escape unpunished after trying to fight against God.” (2 Macc 7:18).

It’s in the long monologue of the seventh brother that the atoning significance of their death becomes central:

“We are suffering because of our own sins. If our living Lord is angry for a short time in order to rebuke and discipline us, he will again be reconciled with his own servants. But you, unholy man, the most bloodstained of all people, don’t be so proud without having cause. Bloated by futile hope, you raise up your hand against the children of heaven. You haven’t at all escaped the judgment of the almighty God, who oversees all. Now our brothers, who endured pain for a short time, have been given eternal life under God’s covenant, but you will suffer the penalty of your arrogance by the righteous judgment of God. Just like my brothers, I give up both body and life for the ancestral laws. I call upon God to be merciful to the nation without delay, and to make you confess, after you suffer trials and diseases, that only he is God. Also I hope through me and my brothers to stop the anger of the almighty, who is justly punishing our entire nation.” (2 Macc 7:32-28).

The suffering of the brothers in 2 Macc is:

Because of the people’s sins

Which in turn has provoked the just wrath of God.

Their own suffering, however, is due to a faithful obedience to God’s law.

And this should have the effect of abating God’s anger and inclining God to mercy.

To recap, in a nutshell:

A righteous one is martyred precisely because of this faithfulness.

The obedience of the martyr turns God’s anger to mercy, and the people are delivered.

Despite their faithfulness, the martyr receives another’s just penalty.

God vindicates the obedience of the faithful one by raising him from the dead.

So, to return to the question:

It’s quite possible to retain a belief in the resurrection of Jesus that does not require a corollary belief in his divinity.

Jesus, then, is the Righteous One, the Faithful One, whose obedient life lived for God all the way to the Cross, God vindicates by raising him from the dead.

Incidentally, the ‘Righteous One’ is exactly what Paul calls Jesus in Romans 1, and this story from 2 Macc is what Paul has in mind when he writes that it’s the ‘faith of Jesus Christ’ which justifies us.

Obviously someone determined towards cynicism could argue that 1st century disciples, knowing this story from 2 Macc, applied posthumously to Jesus, but even some cynicism is a bridge too far for me.

To so suggest, after all, flies in the face of 2 Macc’ logic and the rest of the tale which concludes with the formerly oppressed Jews, with God’s mercy now on their side, meting out ass-wooping violence upon their enemies.

“They called on the Lord to listen to the shed blood of those who had appealed to God for help” (2 Macc 8:3).

“Once he organized his army, the Maccabee couldn’t be stopped by the Gentiles, because the lord’s wrath had turned into mercy (2 Macc 8:5).

NOT a Jesus story.

 

Skeptical BelieverWe’re approaching the hump day for our latest sermon series, The Skeptical Believer: Making Peace with Your Inner Atheist.

Two weeks ago I asked for folks to give me some skeptical grist for reflection and you’ve not disappointed.

Here’s one question cum critique that has more philosophic pedigree than the sender probably realizes:

“If God is Absolute Being, completely transcendent (‘amness’ as you said in your sermon) then isn’t it silly and maybe egotistical too to think that God loves us?

How can BEING ITSELF love beings?”

Friedrich Nietzsche couldn’t have put it better.

Actually, Nietzsche put it pretty much exactly that way, only it probably sounded a lot more impressive delivered in guttural Deutsch.

Though he wrote in the 19th century, Nietzsche’s aggressive and passionate atheist philosophy makes today’s New Atheists like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett look like luddites.

Nietzsche challenged the general profession of Christians that ‘God loves us.’ Nietzsche did not instead believe the Christian God was cruel or capricious; rather he questioned the assumption that God was capable of loving us.

As strange a pushback as that may sound to Christians, Nietzsche’s is a clever critique.

Inherent to any concept of love, Nietzsche argues is the profound sense of equality it implies between lovers. Indeed, as any married couple can attest, a large part of love is  the recognition of this equality, seeing the other’s existence as valid in its own, recognizing that the other is there equally before you and does not exist simply as function for you. Even in a parent-child relationship, Nietzsche would argue that love there is premised upon the growing equality between elder and younger.

Now if we see equality as a central and necessary attribute to any definition of love, then you can begin to see how whatever we might say about the relationship between Creator and creature, we cannot say it’s one of love.

The relationship is too unequal for love and irretrievably so.

We might say God is caring and compassionate and just and wise towards his creatures but we cannot, because of the infinite, unequal ontological gulf between us, say ‘God loves us.’

For Nietzsche the problem isn’t that God is a wicked boss, the problem is that he will always be a boss- a kind and compassionate slave master nonetheless remains a slave master.

(Never mind for the moment that such an image of God is still fraught with the assumption that God is just another little ‘b’ being in the universe- slave master, after all, is still a creature not a Creator).

Nietzsche’s use of a term like slave master can be distracting but it’s important. Nietzsche understood well what many Christians do not: the distance between God and creation is infinite.

God is not one of us.

And what Nietzsche understood about this infinite led him to loathe God.

Interestingly, Nietzsche’s critique hits upon an insight the Eastern Orthodox have long realized: the gulf between God and humanity isn’t simply a moral one, in the sense that we’re sinners and God is holy.

Even more so, the gulf is metaphysical.

I’ll save a reply to Nietzsche for another day.

But it’s interesting to point out how Friedrich reveals how the incarnation is logically necessary apart from the atonement.

What If There Is No God?

Jason Micheli —  October 9, 2013 — 1 Comment

Skeptical BelieverWe continue our Skeptical Believer series this weekend with the theme: ‘Questions Don’t Hurt God’s Feelings.’

And here’s Woody Allen asking the biggest question of all:

I’m an Atheist Too

Jason Micheli —  October 7, 2013 — 8 Comments

Skeptical BelieverWe kicked off a new sermon series this weekend: The Skeptical Believer: Making Peace with Your Inner Atheist. To bring home a Medieval, metaphysical point, my dog Clara made an appearance in worship and- thanks be to God- behaved herself.
The scripture was John 1.43-51.
I’ll load the audio onto the blog and in iTunes when I have it. In the meantime, here’s the text.

To promote this new sermon series, last week on my blog I asked for people to send me their strongest arguments or questions about God.

Here’s the best (and worst one) I received:

“Jason, there are a lot of questions I could submit to you, but in my opinion, given what science teaches us about the world’s origins, all those questions boil down to the biggest question of all: Is there a God?” 

Back in the summer, when we initially planned this Skeptical Believer series, our goal was to encourage you to question God, to question your faith.

Back in the summer, we hoped this sermon series would give you permission to acknowledge and explore and wrestle with your doubts.

That was back in the summer. But then came September.

In September I preached two sermons: the first on how the Gospels can be trusted as true, and the second on how the Resurrection of Jesus can be trusted as true.

Given the reaction to those sermons, I’m now convinced that this Skeptical Believer sermon series was a terrible idea.

Because you don’t need any encouragement to question the faith.

For some of you, that’s all you do. Question and doubt whatever the Church has taught.

Now I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with questioning; I’m not suggesting there’s anything wrong with doubt.

After all, by definition the very concept of faith requires doubt.

You can only have faith in what is not certain.

For example, I have faith that my wife will always love me, but that my wife will always love me can never be a certainty.

And if something is not certain then it is not immune to doubt.

There’s nothing wrong with questioning.

Jesus himself in the middle of today’s scripture passage chastises Nathaniel for believing too quickly, too blindly.

The problem is-

I don’t know many people who are like the Nathaniel in the middle of today’s story, believing quickly and without question.

Instead I know a lot more people who are like the pre-Christian Nathaniel at the beginning of today’s story, the Nathaniel who rolls his eyes dismissively at the notion that any wisdom could ever come from a backward, ignorant, archaic place like Nazareth.

I know a lot more people who are like that Nathaniel, who think all religion is, in a sense, “from Nazareth.”

I mean-

If you think you have to choose between intellectual honesty and belief in God, then you’ve simply not understood what Christians mean by the word ‘God.’

If you think empirical science could ever disprove God, then you’ve only proven that you forgot to investigate the ancient meaning of the word ‘God.’

If you think the biggest question boils down to ‘Is there a God?’ then you don’t realize what Christians- and Jews and Muslims and Hindus and even some Buddhists- mean when we say the word ‘God.’

So what I want to do today is actually the opposite of what we’d planned for this series back in the summer.

I don’t want to encourage you to question your faith.

Or rather, instead, I want to encourage you to question your faith in the assumptions the modern world has given you:

The assumption that the 21st century raises questions to which the ancient faith has no answers.

The assumption that Christianity is not as intellectually rigorous as any other discipline.

The assumption that we as modern people know a great many things the ancient Christians did not know- and that may be true, but it’s also true that the ancient Christians knew a few things very well that very few of you know at all.

Namely, philosophy and logic.

So what I want to do today is the opposite of what we had planned and something different from what I normally do.

I don’t want to encourage you to question God.

Instead I want to make an argument, for God-

I want to make a philosophic argument, one that comes out of the ancient Christian tradition, from Thomas Aquinas, who was probably the greatest thinker in the history of the Church.

I want to take you through Thomas’ argument because if you understand his logic then you will understand what Christians mean, fundamentally, by the word ‘God.’

And if you understand that-

Then you will understand why ‘Is there a God?’ is not, in fact, the biggest question.

Rather, God is the answer to the biggest, most obvious question of all.

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imagesSo you’re going to have put on your thinking caps…or just go to sleep and you can read it on my blog on Monday.

Now first, Thomas would say that not only is the question ‘Is there a God?’ not the biggest question of all; it’s not even a good question.

It’s a bad question.

Why?

It’s a bad question because its premise is wrong.

As soon as you ask ‘Is there a God?’ you’ve fallen onto the wrong track because you’re assuming that for God to be he must be an object to which we can apply the adverb ‘there.’

What do adverbs do? They designate place and location. We use adverbs to speak of objects that have a ‘thereness’ to them.

And so we could say there is a cup of water of there, a hymnal over there, someone sleeping in the pew over there.

Or, we could expand it and say there is a building in Paris, France called the Eiffel Tower. Or there is a planet called Saturn; it’s there on the other side of Jupiter.

But in that sense, ‘there’ is no God.

Because God is not an object in the universe.

And it doesn’t matter how many universes there are, or even if they ceased to be, because God is not an object in any of them either.

You can’t find God like a astronomer would discover a new galaxy or a chemist would discover a new element. God is not object that can be found that way.

In fact, in all the great theistic traditions, an object is the one thing God cannot be.

Even though we speak of God as having human and material attributes- because it’s impossible to pray to an abstraction- God is not an object in the universe like you or me, like the moon or a molecule or a cup of coffee.

Just think of the most important story in scripture for understanding who God is:

Moses at the Burning Bush.

Having grown up pagan, Moses assumes this God he’s encountered is just another object, just another little ‘g’ god, in the universe.

So what does Moses do? He asks for God’s name.

By asking for God’s name, Moses is trying to attach a ‘thereness’ to God: Are you the god of this place or that nation? Are you the god of these people or those people? Are you the god of the soil or the sea or sex?

And what name does God give Moses?

‘I am who I am.’

Or, it can be translated: ‘I will be who I will be.’

In other words, God is Amness itself. God is Being itself. God is Existence itself.

It’s what St Paul says in Acts: ‘God is the one in whom we live and move and have our being.’ 

It’s what St Augustine said: ‘God is beyond our utmost heights but more inward to us than inner most depths.” 

Or, to put it in the words of the most famous rabbi of all:

It’s not a perfect analogy, but it’s pretty damn good. Like the force, God is transcendent: God is beyond everything that is.

But because God is Being itself, God is within everything that is.

That’s why Thomas would say the only good answer to the bad question “Is there a God?” is to say:

‘No, God…is.’

I know at some point this gets so abstract it can make your brain hurt.

But look, I barely understand how my microwave works so why would we ever assume that God is simpler?

Any God who is easily comprehended is not worthy of worship.

Even still, I want to make this as clear as I can.

Thomas says ‘Is there a God?’ is not a good question, and it’s definitely not the biggest question.

For Thomas, the biggest, most radical, most obvious and, if you grasp it, the most life-changing question to ask is this:

How come?

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The question ‘How come?’ can have many different meanings and you can ask ‘How come?’ at several levels.

And the deeper the question you ask about an individual thing, the more it becomes a question about the world to which that thing belongs.

Until eventually you get to the deepest question about that thing, which turns out to be a question about everything.

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I know that sounds complicated so let me make it plainer:

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This is Clara. Ali and I got her right after we got married.

Suppose you ask the question: ‘How come Clara?’

If you asked ‘How come Clara?’ I could answer the question by naming Clara’s parents at the horse farm outside Richmond where I bought her 12 years ago.

On that level, I wouldn’t need to say anything more. The question’s been answered on that level.

But suppose then you ask: “How come Clara’s a dog?”

And I could answer: Because Clara’s parents were dogs and dogs are born from other dogs.

You see, you’ve now moved to a deeper level of questioning. You’re asking about what dogs are.

You’re saying for Clara to be is for her to be a dog and Clara’s parents are the sorts of things whose activities result in things being dogs.

So now your original question ‘How come Clara?’ has deepened into a question about the dog species.

Your question ‘How come Clara?’ at this new level is a question ‘How come dogs anyway?’

And of course we could answer that in terms of genetics and natural selection. We could say Clara is an frisbee dog because one or both of her parents were awesome frisbee dogs.

Which is then a new and deeper level of the question.

‘How come Clara?’ is still a question about my particular dog who’s eaten at least 9 of my left shoes, 3 lobsters and 1 pot of gumbo in her lifetime, but it’s also a question that’s answered in terms of how Clara belongs to a wider community- not simply dogs but the whole biological community to which dogs belong.

But then, you can ask the question about Clara at an even deeper level.

When you ask ‘How come the biological community of which Clara is a member?’

I could answer in terms of biochemistry. I mean, I couldn’t actually answer in terms of biochemistry but I could find someone to do it for me.

And then from the level of biochemistry you could take the ‘How come’ question to the level of physics, and every time, at every level you can ask increasingly penetrating questions about Clara.

And each time you go further with the question ‘How come Clara?’ you’re seeing Clara in a wider and expanding context.

To put it another way, each time you ask the question ‘How come Clara?’ you’re asking about Clara over and against some other possibility.

The first question ‘How come Clara?’ simply meant ‘How come Clara is this dog rather than another dog?’

The second level question asked ‘How come Clara is a dog rather than another species, say a newt?’

At the third level question, you’re asking ‘How come Clara’s a living, biological creature and not an inanimate object?’

You see, every ‘How come Clara?’ question is ‘How come this instead of what is not?’

Now, the biggest, most radical question is not ‘How come Clara exists as this dog instead of that dog?’ or ‘How come Clara exists as a dog instead of an elephant?’ or ‘How come Clara exists as a living biological creature instead of as an inanimate object?

No, the biggest, most radical question is this:

How come Clara exists instead of nothing? 

Just as to ask ‘How come Clara exists as a dog?’ is to put Clara in the context of all other dogs, to ask ‘How come Clara exists instead of nothing’ is to put her in the context of everything.

You and me, the world, the universe.

How come you instead of nothing? How come me instead of nothing?

How come the world instead of nothing?

Why is there something instead of nothing?

Whatever the answer is to that question, whatever reality answers that question- Thomas says that’s our starting definition for ‘God.’

You see, Thomas wants you to realize that the mystery is not how is the universe.

The mystery is that the universe is at all.

That Clara is.

That you are. At all.

If you grasp what Thomas is saying, it should knock you over and fill you with wonder over every little stupid detail of your life.

It is

Now, if I haven’t lost you yet then maybe you can see how what’s usually called atheism is not actually a denial of the God that Thomas and the ancient Christians believed in.

Usually someone who calls themselves an atheist is NOT denying the existence of some answer to the question ‘How come there is anything instead of nothing?’

Usually someone who calls themselves an atheist is denying what they THINK religious people believe:

that there is some Great Architect, a little ‘b’ being

called God

who designed and created the world in 7 Days

and now sits up there somewhere in heaven

sending down arbitrary blessings and curses upon the world.

But if denying that makes you an atheist, I’m an atheist too.

And Thomas Aquinas is an atheist too.

And St Augustine is an atheist too.

And most of the entire Christian tradition is atheist too.

 

Most atheists get atheism wrong because they get wrong what we mean by the word ‘God.’

And to be fair, many of them get it wrong because a lot of Christians get it wrong too.

But genuine atheism actually requires more faith.

Genuine atheism refuses to see the mystery Thomas makes so obvious.

Genuine atheism has faith that things just are.

But that’s like saying ‘Dogs just are.’

In the face of all logic and no supporting evidence, genuine atheism insists with certainty that what is, is all there is.

Genuine atheism is content to ask questions within the universe, but cannot see that the existence of the universe itself raises a question that it cannot answer by itself:

How come?

Why is there something-anything- instead of nothing?’

Once you see what Christians mean, fundamentally, by the word ‘God,’ that God is the answer we give to the question ‘How come there’s anything instead of nothing?’ then you can see why it’s stupid for Christians to argue over interpretations of the creation story and why it’s even dumber to suppose science could ever prove or disprove God.

Because what Christians truly mean by calling God Creator has nothing to do with an event called ‘creation’ that occurred at some fixed point in the past.

How the world came to be might be interesting but it’s irrelevant.

Because when we say God is Creator, we mean that God is the Source and Sustainer of Existence itself, now as much as in the beginning and every moment in between.

And God’s the Source and Sustainer not just of the universe but all the scientific laws and mathematical principles within it.

Think about that-

God would still be Creator even if all that existed were scientific laws and quantum states.

Because everything, at every moment, relies upon God for its existence.

That’s why the image of a candle flame is a ubiquitous symbol for God in all the theistic traditions of the world. God’s creative sustaining is like a candle flame in a room at night, and should that flame ever go out, the room would immediately go dark.

 

You could push back on Thomas’ argument.

You could argue that even if its true that ‘God’ is the reason there is something instead of nothing that doesn’t prove that Christianity is true.

And that is the case.

Logically proving that God is rationally plausible does not prove that Christianity is true.

Nonetheless, Thomas would tell you to think about it again.

If everything, as Thomas says, is contingent.

If everything, at every moment, relies upon God for its existence.

If everything in your life, at every second of your life, is a something that could be nothing. Without God.

Then everything, everything in your life, every moment of your life- existence itself- is completely gratuitous.

It doesn’t have to be. It’s not necessary.

Everything, in other words, is gift.

Which is just another word for grace.

And if everything in existence is grace, then God, at an Absolute level, is Love.

I don’t mean God is loving.

I mean God is Love.

And if God is Love, then the universe’s blueprint, its design, its grain, its logic is Love.

Then whatever it means to say a religion is ‘true’ it means that the religion corresponds to the logic of the universe. To the logic of God.

And maybe that’s why, just a few verses before today’s scripture, the Gospel of John calls Jesus just that, God’s logos.

Made flesh.

God’s logic.

 

 

 

 

 

Skeptical BelieverThis weekend we begin a short sermon series entitled the Skeptical Believer: Making Peace with Your Inner Atheist. 

Here’s a quick little film from Mr Deity in which a prominent atheist mocks religion. It’s funny but as so often happens with popular atheism and its resultant satire, the ‘god’ in question isn’t God- at least not how the Christian tradition has conceived of God.

I guess I should point out that the bearded guy is meant to be God, Jesse = Jesus and Larry, the syncophant, is the Holy Spirit. ‘Lucy’ referred to in the sketch is…Lucifer.

Skeptical BelieverDavid Bentley Hart likes to quip:

‘An atheist is someone who has failed to notice something very obvious.

Or rather, failed to notice a great many obvious things.’

He also amusingly condescends that pure atheism, which asserts the impossibility anything beyond the material, natural world, is an absurdity such that it can be likened to ‘magical thinking.’

When it comes to arguments for and against God, Hart knows his stuff; that is, he knows the ancient Christian and classical tradition. So it shouldn’t be surprising that Hart, an Eastern Orthodox Christian, can muster a balls-to-the-wall indictment of God that no unbeliever could possibly approximate.

In his little pastoral book, The Doors of the Sea, itself a continuation to a Wall Street Journal article he wrote, David Hart recalls reading an article in the NY Times shortly after the tsunami in South Asia in 2005. The article highlighted a Sri Lankan father, who, in spite of his frantic efforts, which included swimming in the roiling sea with his wife  and mother-in-law on his back, was unable to prevent any of his four children or his wife from being swept to their deaths.

In the article, the father recounted the names of his four children and then, overcome with grief, sobbed to the reporter that “My wife and children must have thought, ‘Father is here….he will save us’ but I couldn’t do it.”

In the Doors of the Sea, Hart wonders: If you had the chance to speak to this father, in the moment of his deepest grief, what should one say? 

Hart argues that only a ‘moral cretin’ would have approached that father with abstract theological explanation:

“Sir, your children’s deaths are a part of God’s eternal but mysterious counsels” or “Your children’s deaths, tragic as they may seem, in the larger sense serve God’s complex design for creation” or “It’s all part of God’s plan.”

Or “It’s okay, God is mourning too” which is only a more sensitive-sounding but equally deficient explanation precisely because it still attempts an explanation.

Hart says that most of us would have the good sense and empathy to talk like that to the father (though my experience tells me Hart would be surprised how many people in fact would say something like it).

This is the point at which Hart takes it to the next level and says something profound and, I think, true:

“And this should tell us something. For if we think it shamefully foolish and cruel to say such things in the moment when another’s sorrow is most real and irresistibly painful, then we ought never to say them.”

Silence is the best thing to (not) say when there’s nothing to say.

Hart goes on to reflect on The Brothers Karamazov. In it, Dostoyevsky, in the character of Ivan, rages against explanation to his devout brother and gives the best reason I’ve ever encountered for not believing in God.

Better than anything in philosophy. Better than anything science can dredge up. Better than any hypocrisy or tragedy I’ve encountered in ministry. Better, it goes without saying, than anything the ‘New Atheists’ delude themselves into thinking is a compelling argument.

Ivan first recounts, one after another, horrific stories of tortures suffered by children- stories Dostoyevsky ripped from the pages of newspapers- and then asks his pious brother if anything could ever justify the suffering of a single, innocent child.

What makes Ivan’s argument so challenging and unique is that he doesn’t, as you might expect, accuse God for failing to save children like those from suffering.

He doesn’t argue as many atheists blandly do that if a good God existed then God would do something to prevent such evil.

Instead Ivan rejects salvation itself; namely, he rejects any salvation, any providence, any cosmic ‘plan’ that would necessitate such suffering.

Ivan admits there very well could be ‘a reason for everything’ that happens under the sun.

Ivan even believes that in the fullness of time we will be able to see for ourselves why everything on Earth unfolded as it did, that, as Joseph in Genesis confesses, God can use even evil for his good ends.

Ivan doesn’t disbelieve.

Ivan just refuses to have anything to do with such a God.

So, Ivan doesn’t so much doubt God as he rejects God, no matter what consequences such rejection might have for Ivan.

He turns in his ticket to God’s Kingdom because he wants no part of the cost at which this Kingdom comes. It is, ironically, a thoroughly Christian rejection in the sense it’s a rejection born of very Christ-centered sensibilities.

What Dostoyevsky understood is that most compelling arguments against God are not philosophical or scientific ones. They’re moral ones.

Atheism, as popularly understood, is an absurdity. I’m with Hart on that. Properly understood, ‘God’ is the most obvious thing of all.

So arguments against God’s existence ultimately crash against the rocks of logic.

But arguments against God’s goodness? That’s another matter.

When I first read the Brothers K, Ivan’s argument, which is followed by the poem ‘The Grand Inquisitor, took my breath away. I had no answer or reply to Ivan.

I was convinced he was right. I still am convinced by him.

Of course, Ivan’s argument doesn’t disprove God. It only rejects the god ‘who has a plan for everything.’ I also reject that god.

Skeptical BelieverLast week I solicited responses from you, asking you to give me your best case for NOT believing in God.

One of the responses I received was brief but cutting:

“Rather than insisting (with no evidence to support it) that God exists, doesn’t it seem much more reasonable that humans simply needed a ‘god’ to give their lives meaning and morality?

And doesn’t it make sense that as society increasingly needs ‘god’ less for meaning and morality that people would believe in him less?

And isn’t that exactly what we see happening in modern, scientific cultures?”

Whether the writer here did so purposefully I don’t know, but he’s channeling Sigmund Freud’s primary critique of religion.

Say what you will about Freud’s bona fides as a psychoanalyst, his analysis of both religion and literature remains incisive and compelling.

I remember the first time I read Freud’s The Future of an Illusion and Moses and Monotheism, both as a second year at UVA. I’d only been a Christian for a few years, and after read those two books I was pissed off for weeks.

On the one hand, Freud’s critiques of religion were wild, sweeping speculations, made with very little ‘hard’ evidence to support them and demanding of readers precisely the very thing he’d set out to dismiss: faith.

On the other hand, I’d been a Christian long enough- and I’d been an atheist long enough before that- to know that Freud’s arguments were not without merit.

Indeed they were true when considered against a great many strains of Christianity and religion in general.

Religion, Freud argued, is, at root, an expression of our underlying psychological neuroses. In the two books I mentioned and in others, Freud asserts that religion is an attempt to control the Oedipal complex, it’s a means of giving structure (meaning moral and ethical boundaries) to social groups, it’s a form of wish fulfillment, it’s an infantile delusion born out of our need for a Father figure, and it’s an attempt to control the outside world.

Dismiss Freud at your peril.

Just think, many fundamentalists, Christian and Muslim, make Freud’s very argument but in reverse: Without God, there’s no moral foundation to the world; there’s no rubric for what constitutes the ‘good.’ Religion is just an artifice then for a certain vision of traditional society.

It’s also true for many Christians ‘Christianity’ is but another label, a way to distinguish us from other tribes. It’s but a baptized form of nationalism.

And we all know that for many religion IS an escape or cover to which people turn to cope with psychological wounds- or, even worse, religion becomes the way people refuse to cope, or even confront, the wounds and painful realities in their life.

And then there’s Freud’s ‘wish fulfillment’ critique. While critiques of certain manifestations of religion are not indictments of religion in sum nor does such a critique even logically approach the existence of a transcendent God, still…there’s enough substance to the argument to give believers pause.

Fact is, Freud is right. A good deal of religion, at least the Christian sphere I know, is actually just human projection and wish fulfillment, reducing the great ‘I AM’ to a god ‘up there’ who answers my prayers, blesses me, and grants my wishes.

Or doesn’t…at which point I get angry and no longer ‘believe’ in him.

The great ‘I Am’ reduced to a magic genie in a celestial lamp.

People often ask me why I have such a problem Joel Osteen.

Honestly, my problems are too many to number, but really they all boil down to this:

Joel Osteen reminds me that Freud was, if not right, not entirely wrong. images

Skeptical BelieverThis weekend we’re kicking off a new sermon series, The Skeptical Believer: Making Peace with Your Inner Atheist.

Last week I solicited best-shot arguments for why we should NOT believe.

I’ll give a free copy of Daniel Taylor’s The Skeptical Believer to what I think is the best argument for doubt/disbelief…there’s still time. Lemme know.

I have received a lot of responses so far, some predictable, some ancient and intractable and others truly, profoundly (dare I say…Christianly?) moral.

Here’s an argument that echoes an experience I had in my first theology class at UVA. It was a small class and our TA had been slicing and dicing Thomas Aquinas’ proof for the existence of God on the chalkboard when a classmate spoke up, like he was talking to himself:

“That all makes sense, logically, but why is it that some people have an actual experience of God but I never have?”

A reader of the blog put a similar point this way:

“I’ve never had an experience that’s even remotely close to anything described by other believers….no miracles, no healings, no “encounters with the risen Christ,” etc. All I’ve had is the vague sense of rightness in the world (this world screams “I love you”) while walking through the woods while the sun is going down. Stuff like that.

Without an experience of God of any kind, how can I believe on the same level that others do?

And why would I be expected to? And why would the God who created the human brain reward me for essentially silencing it?”

It’s a good rebuttal, if not of God then definitely how religious people so often speak of God. If there is a God, then why is it that so many haven’t experienced God’s presence or reality? And why have others?

Does the fact that so many people never experience God for themselves ‘personally’ call those people into question? Or God?

Is it more likely that religious people who claim to have experienced God are actually deluding themselves? Attaching the ‘G’ word to their own psychological experience?

Or does God simply keep his people, actively or passively, from experiencing him?

And thus keep people from believing in him?

And if so, even if God is real is such a God worth believing worshipping?

I suppose you could say its’ their fault, that such people have allowed their doubt or cynicism or rationalism or apathy to close them off to the possibility or presence of God (and I’m sure in some cases that’s exactly the problem).

But then isn’t that not a little like blaming the victim? Is big enough to take the blame?

A Reason to Doubt God

Jason Micheli —  September 30, 2013 — 4 Comments

Skeptical BelieverThis weekend we’re kicking off a new sermon series, The Skeptical Believer: Making Peace with Your Inner Atheist.

Last week I solicited best-shot arguments for why we should NOT believe.

I’ll give a free copy of Daniel Taylor’s The Skeptical Believer to what I think is the best argument for doubt/disbelief…there’s still time. Lemme know.

I have received a lot of responses so far, some predictable, some ancient and intractable and others truly, profoundly (dare I say…Christianly?) moral.

This is an example of the third- and what I take to be the most compelling- kind:

————————————————

“Why someone wouldn’t believe in God?

My sister is profoundly mentally retarded.

She was born with a clef lip and palette.

She is 44 years old and still has trouble walking.

She still wears diapers.

And she is deaf.

And mute.

 

And she gets mad.

When she gets mad, she smashes her head into a corner.

And busts it open.

And it bleeds like mad.

Having known her, I know what I wouldn’t have known otherwise:

That there are multitudes of other people with similar conditions.

Nobody talks about caring for the retarded.

We all have sympathy for the sick child (and with good reason), but people like my sister are forgotten about by the mainstream (by God?).

People like my sister are made into jokes by callous people (“What are you, retarded or something?”).

My sister is cared for by an underpaid, overworked, and understaffed group of huge hearted people.

But, that’s an example, at least in my mind, of why someone would challenge the belief in God.

I’ve gotten over it, but it’s mostly by saying that I simply don’t get it.”

Jason talking:

I wish I didn’t need to make the point, but my time in ministry tells me I can’t repeat it enough:

If you feel the need to ‘explain’ this woman’s disability, ‘justify’ God’s purposes in it or, for that matter, say anything pious at all (eg: ‘God is with her in her suffering’)…

Then you’ve just made this ‘Reason for Doubt’ a ‘Reason for Disbelief.’

Next weekend, we’ll begin a 3 part sermon series called The Skeptical Believer: Making Peace with Your Inner Atheist.

I get to kick-off the series, and I thought I would do so by tackling Doubt and Disbelief as seriously as I possibly can.

And I’d like your help.

What do you think is the best, most compelling reason not to believe in God?

It can be an intellectual argument or it can be a moral argument. Your choice.

If you’re a believer, what’s that nagging doubt in the back of your mind?

If you’re a believer without any nagging doubts, first get real and then put yourself in the shoes of a skeptic and give me a reason not to believe.

If you don’t believe in God at all, give me your best case.

I’ll give/send a free copy of Daniel Taylor’s book, The Skeptical Believer, to the person who gives the best argument.

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david_bentley_hartI’ve just started reading David Bentley Hart’s new book, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness and Bliss.

Let’s just say that had this been written in the 3rd century it would be worth the canon’s consideration. I took a few of DBH’s classes back when I was a lowly freshman at UVA and he was finishing up his PhD. My theological training then was sufficient only to alert me to how very little I understood of what DBH tried to teach us. Dr Hart seemed well aware of our impoverished intellects too, treating us with resigned sarcasm that every now and then was tempered by true Christian charity.

The gentle condescension and humor that comes through in his writing came through loud and clear in his lectures as well, and I loved every moment of it. I had only been a Christian for a few years, and DBH was the most brilliant brother in Christ I had ever encountered. And he remains so today.

Being taught by DBH was perhaps the first time I realized the extraordinary depth and sophistication that is the ancient Christian philosophic tradition.

At a time when my Christian peers were, in predictable if shallow fashion, having their faith challenged by what they learned in their science and biblical studies classes, my faith was being edified at an exponential rate.

If I could understand only 8% of what DBH tried to teach me, I wagered, then the tradition of Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Bonaventure, and Aquinas was secure from anything the Physics or Biology Departments could throw at it.

Anyone who could not accept the philosophical validity of the Christian vision of God, I concluded, simply didn’t understand either the vision or how that vision defines ‘God.’

Ironically, my conclusion is the subject of Hart’s new book. With rhetorical flights and biting condescension, Hart points out the logical sloppiness of pure atheism (calling it ‘magical thinking’ but that’s a post for another day) and skewers the so-called New Atheist Movement for being a rather vulgar misapprehension of what the great theistic traditions of the world mean by the word ‘God.’

Hart rightly points out that pure atheism is only one strand of a fundamentalism common in our unsubtle age, ridiculing biblical literalists for making the same category error.

Hart writes:

“Many [19th century Christians who opposed Darwinism] genuinely believed that there was some sort of logical conflict between the idea that God had created the world and the idea that terrestrial life had evolved over time. This was and is a view held, of course, by any number of atheists as well.”

And then, Hart hit me with a point so obvious I’d never even considered it:

“One assumes that fundamentalist Christians and atheists alike are well aware that Christians believe God is the creator of every person; but presumably none of them would be so foolish as to imagine that this means each person is not also the product of spermatozoon and ovum; surely they grasp that here God’s act of creation is understood as the whole event of nature and existence, not as a distinct causal agency that in some way rivals the natural process of conception.”

Bam.

In other words, not even the most strident biblical literalist would hold their new born baby in their arms and deny that the child is the very obvious fruit of sexual (biological) love. Yet, at the same time, few parents would not also rightly confess that no matter how ‘natural’ this child’s birth was it remains, nonetheless and thoroughly so, a mysterious and gracious gift of God.

Why is it, then, that biblical literalists cannot apply to scripture the same theo-logic with which they read their children?

The most recent NY Times Magazine features a story about Jerry DeWitt, a former Pentecostal Holiness preacher-pastor, who is now one of the few ‘outed’ members of the Clergy Project, an organization for former and current clerics who no longer believe in God. The Clergy Project functions as a support group for such clergy as they undertake the often difficult task of extricating religion from the many parts of their lives. The group has several hundred members and is now branching out beyond their original support role. DeWitt, for example, has taken to ‘evangelizing’ his new found ‘faith’ in atheism.

What’s interesting to me about the article isn’t what the article’s author intended as the hook. I don’t think DeWitt, for example, is an example of a wave of clergy who no longer believe what they preach. The Clergy Project has only a couple hundred members; there are over a thousand Methodist clergy in Virginia alone. And, as Bishop Will Willimon, likes to point out most clergy don’t burnt out on Jesus. Most clergy burn out on Jesus’ friends, ie, church people.

Despite the illusion of novelty the article projects, most of the ‘problems with God’ that contemporary critics can lob at the faith are barbs the ancient Church has already suffered and reconciled. There’s nothing in DeWitt’s testimony, for instance, that even approaches the tortured faith or dark night of the soul of a Church Father like St. John of the Cross.

That’s not to say clergy don’t have dry patches of faith, periods of silence from God and self-doubt, but I’d argue that the deficiency groups like the Clergy Project really point out is the inadequacy of much evangelical Christianity, particularly it’s tendency to define Christianity purely in terms of the felt, emotional experience of the individual and to articulate the faith by means of universal reason.

Experience will always come and go for individuals and there are limits to how far reason can explain a God who is, at root, paradoxical. I wonder, in other words, if DeWitt would still be in the fold if he’d been raised in Mainline Protestantism or Catholicism where he would have learned that Christianity is as much about embodying the life of Christ with others in community, that it’s about cultivating habits and practices and relying on the faith of others when your own wanes.

But what interests me about DeWitt’s experience isn’t what it says about evangelical Christianity but what it says about Christianity in America, in the empire. After DeWitt ‘came out’ as an unbeliever in his little bible belt town, he immediately became an object of scorn and derision. DeWitt’s new ‘faith’ cost him relationships with friends and neighbors, strained his relationships within his family. He was now seen as odd, peculiar, dangerous. The town that used to adore him now hated him for his ‘faith.’

What’s interesting to me then is how it took leaving the faith of Jesus for DeWitt to experience what Jesus himself said it would be like for those who chose to follow him. That DeWitt had to give up God to get a taste of how Jesus described the cost of discipleship is but one indication, I think, of how much we’ve accommodated Jesus to our culture.