Archives For New Atheists

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.

pastedGraphic.pdf

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?

pastedGraphic_1.pdf

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.

pastedGraphic_2.pdf

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

IMG_1342

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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?

How Can We Trust the Gospels?

Jason Micheli —  September 16, 2013 — 2 Comments

zealot_reza_aslanThis Sunday we continued our sermon series reflecting on the arguments in Reza Aslan’s bestseller Zealot. For my sermon, rather than a single sermon or a 3-Point Sermon, I preached 3 separate sermons spaced throughout the worship service.

I’ll post the audio here soon.

Trusting the Gospels Historically: Philippians 2.5-11

Twenty years ago, my mother uttered those words that have since gone on to become synonymous with American Exceptionalism:

‘Let’s go to Costco.’ 

Actually, my mother said ‘Let’s go to the Price Club’ because that’s what it was called back then.

We’d never been to the Costco before and if my mom was prepared for what we found inside, I sure wasn’t.

It was like a shopping mall for the apocalypse.

“No wonder all my Mormon friends’ parents shop here” I remember thinking.

It’s been 20 years, but I can still remember how that day, in addition to a tub of frozen Pork BBQ and a gallon of black olives, I talked my mom into buying me a copy of the Stephen King novel, Gerald’s Game, a book which in hindsight should’ve been titled 69 Shades of Grey and should never have been allowed into the hands or the mind of 15 year old me.

It’s been 20 years, but I can still remember like it was yesterday how that day at Costco my mom bought herself a compact disk- they were called ‘CD’s’ back then. It was the soundtrack to the major motion picture, The Bodyguard.

In case you don’t remember, The Bodyguard was the ’90’s version of the Twilight movies, except instead of werewolves and vampires it starred a balding, swollen Kevin Costner as the eponymous hero and Whitney Houston as a pop star whose troubled personal life echoed Houston’s own.

The movie was typical for both stars. Whitney Houston sang as she always did on stage and Kevin Costner attempted to act as he always does on screen.

Giddy with romantic projection, my mom laid the CD into the shopping cart and headed to the register.

As you no doubt remember, The Bodyguard lasted longer in the daydreams of suburban women than it did at the box office, but the theme song from the film became a sensation.

It sold a million albums in its first week. It won a Grammy. In the 20 years since, it’s sold 45 million copies and it remains the bestselling movie soundtrack of all time.

It was 20 years ago.

But I remember how when we go to my mother’s Honda Accord, she frantically ripped the CD from its packaging with her teeth, like a solider trying to staunch a comrade’s bleeding.

She turned the key in the ignition, slid the CD into the mouth of the console, and then, like a desert wanderer reaching out towards a mirage that’s too good to be true, she pressed the Play button: ‘I Will Always Love…”

After a few moments, she pressed Pause and looked over at me and in complete seriousness said: ‘Isn’t this great?v‘Kevin Costner’s just so…’

She sighed like Maggie the Cat and her mind wandered and I tried to keep my mind from following wherever hers was going.

Since we didn’t live far from Costco, we sat there in the car, in the parking lot, in the afternoon rain, listening to the next 3 tracks of The Bodyguard soundtrack.

It was 20 years ago.

So I’m sure some of the details of my memory are off.

I’m sure if you asked my mother or my sister, who was also there, they’d recall the details of that day a bit differently.

Because, after all, they’d viewed that day through their own eyes and so would remember it from their own perspective.

Their takeaway from our Costco trip might not be the same as mine.

And none of us knew that, one day, there’d be a reason, I’d be trying to commit those moments of memory to paper.

But once you allowed for variations in detail and changes in emphasis and shifts in perspective, our story would be the same but different.

And each of us would be telling the truth.

20 years, after all, isn’t that long ago.

I’d never tell my mother this but I can still sing all the words to ‘I Will Always Love You’ which I do in the shower.

And I still remember that the next 3 tracks of that album, in order, are: ‘I Have Nothing,’ ‘I’m Every Woman,’ ‘Run to You,’ and ‘Queen of the Night.’

20 years isn’t that much time.

20 years is a short enough amount of time that if I lied or embellished too much or made things up, my mom and my sister would know.

And after just 20 years, you would know what was true and what was not true.

For example, if I told you The Bodyguard was a good movie, you would know that was wrong.

Its only been 20 years- that’s not enough time for you to forget the truth of how awful it really was.

And if I told you that Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner had good chemistry in the movie, then you could think back and know that that doesn’t jive with your own memory, which tells you that marionettes would have been more believable.

It’s only been 20 years.

If I told you that Kevin Costner is a good actor, you’d know that’s a lie.

20 years isn’t enough time to invent a myth that contradicts everything we know to be true about Kevin Costner.

It’s only been 20 years.

I can’t lie and tell you Kevin Costner’s a good actor when there’s too many people still alive, people who were there to see for themselves, movies like Waterworld, The Postman, and 3000 Miles to Graceland

There’s too many people still around who know the true story on Kevin Costner; 20 years just isn’t enough time to change the story.

It’s not enough time to take the once-promising but ultimately-disappointing actor we know as Kevin Costner and reinvent him as a god of stage and screen.

But that’s exactly what popular books like Reza Aslan’s Zealot and even Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code would have you believe.

The assumption behind popular books like Zealot is that we could take an ordinary, flawed actor like Kevin Costner and in no more than 20 years convince everyone who’s seen his movies that he’s really an actor on par with Daniel Day Lewis.

You see the popular skepticism about the trustworthiness of the Gospels is the assumption that the real Jesus of history was not the Jesus we find in the Gospels, but was instead probably either a great, inspiring human teacher or a great inspiring human revolutionary who either died a tragic death (in the case of the former) or died a symbolic death (in the case of the latter).

Therefore…

The assumption goes, Jesus’ followers attributed myths to him, myths like his divinity and his resurrection, only much, much later.

Making claims about Jesus neither Jesus nor his first disciples made about him.

The problem with that assumption is that it has no answer for the scripture you heard today from Paul’s letter to the Philippians.

What you heard read- it’s actually a song, a Christian hymn, that was popular enough for Paul to quote it and assume his audience would know it.

This song that speaks of Jesus being the eternal God made flesh in the form of a humble slave.

This song that alludes to God raising Jesus up from the dead.

This song that climaxes with echoes of Daniel 7 where every tongue confesses and every knee bows down in worship.

Of Jesus.

This song, according to scholarly consensus- Christian and non-Christian scholarly consensus- originates at the latest to 20 years after the crucifixion.

And probably more like 15.

      Think about that.

This song is closer to eyewitnesses’ own experience of Jesus than we are to Whitney Houston’s ‘I Will Always Love You.’

This song which speaks of Jesus in some of the most sophisticated theological language in the entire New Testament was sung by people who had actually known Jesus.

Think about that.

At the same time the first Christians were proclaiming in oral form what we know as the Gospels, they were already putting that proclamation into praise songs and prayers.

Think about that.

Among a Jewish People that had for hundreds of years suffered persecutions and executions for refusing to worship anyone else but the God of Israel, we have proof that in just 15-20 years thousands of them were worshipping Jesus.

Which broke the first and most precious commandment and was the worst of sins.

Unless it were true.

20 years is not a lot of time.

If it’s true that I can still remember all the words to ‘I Will Always Love You,’ then there’s a good chance that this song (from Philippians) is based not on myth but on memory.

Trusting the Gospels Politically: Mark 1.9-11

 

10 Years ago I was at a funeral home in Lexington, Virginia for the visitation hours of a funeral I would celebrate the next day.

As I usually do at funeral homes, I wore my clergy collar, which costumes me, to Christians and non-Christians alike, as a Catholic priest.

When you’re a pastor, visiting hours at a funeral home are nearly as painful as parties or wedding receptions.

There you are, trapped in a room full of strangers who desperately do not want to talk to a professional Christian.

Even worse are the people who do, and you’re forced to plaster a fake smile on your face as someone tells you about the latest Joel Osteen book.

So there I was, making the rounds, making small talk, when this middle-aged man in a too-tight polo shirt and a Dale Earnhardt belt buckle, shook my hand, called me ‘Padre’ and then proceeded to ask me if I had read Dan Brown’s latest bestseller, The Da Vinci Code.

“No, I haven’t read it” I lied. “What’s it about?”

He went on to tell me in breathless tones the now familiar fantasy that “the real Gospel message” was politically subversive and had been suppressed by the Church and by Caesar, that the Gospels as we know them are redactions, edited to support the status quo and consolidate the authority of the Empire.

“Sounds fascinating” I lied.

“Oh, it is- and the truth is kept from people today by a secret group called Opus Dei, ever heard of them?”

“Heard of them?” I whispered. “Don’t tell anyone, but I’m actually a member.”

“Well, then you should definitely read it” he said without a trace of irony.

“Tell me,” I asked, “have you actually read the Gospels?”

He didn’t blush.

He just said: “I’ve seen the Mel Gibson movie.”

Reza Aslan’s bestselling book, Zealot, is a slightly less fantastical version of Dan Brown’s own.

Reza Aslan’s central thesis is that the one verifiable, historical FACT of the Gospels is what we recite in the Creed: that Jesus of Nazareth “was crucified by Pontius Pilate.”

Crucifixion, Aslan notes correctly, was a punishment reserved exclusively for crimes of sedition against the state.

Therefore, Aslan speculates, the “real” Jesus was not the Jesus we find in the Gospels.

If we know Jesus was crucified then the “real” Jesus must have been a zealot, a member of a 1st century Jewish movement, which agitated for the violent overthrow of Rome.

     If Jesus died on a cross by definition he was a revolutionary.

After his death, Aslan argues, the politically subversive message of Jesus was expunged from the record.

The once politically-charged Gospels were spiritualized to make them amenable to the Empire in which Christians lived.

Now, Reza Aslan’s thesis is half-right, and he gets right something a lot of Christians miss.

 

     Jesus was/is political. Jesus was/is subversive. Jesus was/is revolutionary.

     Reza Aslan is right about all of that.

     You don’t get sent to the electric chair for being a spiritual teacher or saving souls for eternal life.

But Reza Aslan is wrong about the manner in which Jesus was a political revolutionary, and he’s wrong to imagine this subversive message is not to be found in the Gospels.

It’s all over the Gospels, from beginning to end. That’s why Christians were persecuted for hundreds of years.

For example-

Take the passage you heard from Mark 1, Jesus’ baptism.

As Jesus comes up out of the water, Mark says the sky tears violently apart and the Holy Spirit appears as a dove and descends into Jesus.

Now remember, Mark’s writing to people who knew their scripture by memory. And so when Mark identifies the Holy Spirit as a dove, he expects you to know that no where in the Old Testament is the Spirit ever depicted as such.

Instead Mark expects you to remember that the image of a dove is from the Book of Genesis, where God promises never to redeem his creation through violence.

Mark expects you to know that applying the image of a dove to the Holy Spirit means something new and different.

And keep in mind, Mark’s Gospel wasn’t composed for us but for the first Christians, still living right after Jesus’ death in the Empire.

So when Mark depicts the Holy Spirit as a dove, he expects those first Christians to think immediately of another, different bird.

The Romans, Mark assumes you know, symbolized the strength and ferocity of their Kingdom with the King of the birds: the eagle.

     It’s right there: Dove vs Eagle. A collision of kingdoms- that’s what Mark wants you to see.

And that’s not all.

Because the very next verse has God declaring: ‘You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well-pleased.’

That’s a direct quotation from Psalm 2, a psalm that looks forward to the coming of God’s Messiah, who would topple rulers from their thrones and be enthroned himself over all the kingdoms of this world.

Mark expects you to know Psalm 2.

Just as Mark assumes you know that the prophet Isaiah quotes it too when God reveals to him that the Messiah will upend kingdoms not through violence but through self-giving love.

     Mark shows you a Dove.

And Mark tells you Beloved Son.

And then after his baptism, the very first words out of Jesus’ mouth are about the arrival of a new kingdom, God’s Kingdom.

And next, the very first thing Jesus does is what any revolutionary does, he enlists followers to that Kingdom. Not soldiers but the poor.

Reza Aslan argues that you can’t trust the Gospels.

You can’t trust them because the radical, revolutionary message of the “historical” Jesus isn’t there, that it’s been expunged. That the Gospels you have have been rendered safe and sanitized for the status quo.

But from the very first chapter of Mark all the way through to the first Christian confession of faith- ‘Jesus Christ is Lord (and Caesar is not)-’ the Gospel is politically subversive from beginning to end.

As Paul says, Jesus’ obedience to God’s Kingdom, all the way to a cross, unmasked the kingdoms of this world for what they really are and, in so doing, Christ disarmed them.

Reza Aslan is correct: only political revolutionaries wound up on Rome’s crosses.

But the mistake Reza Aslan makes is in assuming that the only revolution with the power to threaten the status quo and change the world is a violent one.

      Reza Aslan assumes the only effective revolution is a violent one.

 

     And so,  Reza Aslan completely misses just how politically-charged and radical the Gospels are because he doesn’t believe that any Kingdom can defeat its enemies by loving them.

And to the extent that you miss how politically-charged and radical the Gospels are, perhaps its because you don’t believe it either.

But just remember, it’s 2,000 years later and there’s a whole lot of us who believe that Jesus is Lord.

And Caesar? He just has a salad named after him.

Trusting the Bible Personally: John 21.2-20-25

I got this Bible as a gift from Woodlake United Methodist Church when I confirmed, back when I was 17 or 18 years old.

Truth be told, I didn’t actually open this Bible until I went to college; in fact, I didn’t read a single word of the Bible at all until after I was confirmed- that is, until after I became a Christian.

In other words, I became a Christian without the Bible.

Or rather, I didn’t need to believe in the Bible to believe in Jesus because, when I was a teenager, through the mediation and witness of my church, I met the Risen Christ.

Or, to be grammatically correct, thanks to the mediation and witness of other Christians in my church community, I was encountered by the Risen Christ.

John concludes his Gospel with the cliffhanger that he’s just scratched the surface of what Jesus said and did.

     Which, on the one hand, means John thinks he’s told you enough; John thinks he’s told you all you everything you need to know this Jesus.

But on the other hand, it also means John doesn’t think the Gospel’s about proving the case for Jesus beyond a shadow of a doubt.

If that’s what the Gospel was about then surely John would include every possible piece of evidence, leaving no stone or story unturned.

Not to mention, if the Gospel was meant to prove the case for Jesus then you can bet that Matthew, Mark and Luke probably would’ve gotten their stories straight.

And you can be damn sure the ancient Church would’ve allowed only 1 Gospel into your bibles.

But they didn’t. The ancient Church included all 4 Gospels, and they did so knowing those 4 Gospels were filled with all the chronological inconsistencies and internal contradictions that folks like Reza Aslan want you to get hot and bothered over.

     The Gospels aren’t trying to prove anything about Jesus because that would imply you can know Jesus by reading a book about Jesus.

     And you can’t.

     You can’t know Jesus by reading a book about Jesus.

The Gospels don’t try to prove; they bear witness to something that only be known by experience and encounter.

When we say the Gospels are trustworthy, we don’t mean they’re objectively provable.

When we say scripture’s the word of God we mean not that its the literal word of God but that its a trustworthy pointer to Jesus Christ, the one-capital-W- Wrod of God.

     When we say the Gospels are trustworthy, we mean they’re more like windows.

     And the purpose of a window is not for you believe in the window.

The purpose of a window is to help you see what exists outside the window. Beyond the window. Independent of the window.

When I say I believe the Gospels are trustworthy, I mean that- like windows- in them and through them, I see the Jesus I’ve already met.

I know the Gospels are trustworthy because I know Jesus Christ.

 

     You see,

I don’t believe in Jesus because I believe in the Bible.

I believe in Jesus because I’ve met him.

 

I don’t believe in the the resurrection because I believe in the Bible.

I believe in the resurrection because I know Jesus Christ is alive and so God must have raised him from the dead.

 

I don’t believe in the virgin birth because I believe in the Bible.

I believe in the virgin birth because I know the Risen Christ and if Jesus is resurrected then that’s the start of a whole New Creation and virgin birth sounds like a good way to describe how it must’ve all began.

 

I don’t believe Jesus loves me because the Bible tells me so.

I believe Jesus loves me because Jesus told me so.

And tells me so.

And what I find in the Gospels is confirmation of the Jesus I already know.

 

And therefore I trust them.

 

Can I prove that?

Of course not.

Neither can I prove that I love my wife.

All I can do is bear witness. Like those Christians at Woodlake UMC bore witness to me; so that, one day I might be encountered by Christ myself.

The Gospels are like windows.

And some Christians spend their whole lives at distance, debating the merits and measurements of the window.

But I can promise you that just looking through the window to see what it’ll show you is a much more interesting way to live.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

help_my_unbelief-1Not long ago a parent in my congregation expressed concern, as well as a sense of failure, that their graduating child confessed that they no longer believed.

It’s always difficult to know to what extent such declarations are a hasty desire to rebel against or push aside the faith of their childhood or when they are the product of sincere, thoughtful wrestling with God.

For all ages, I usually find it to be the latter rather than the former.

It’s not uncommon for parents to want me to say something to their children that will get them chance their mind back to God, something that will reach out and pull them back into the boat.

I usually have a couple of thoughts about that, understandable, parental desire.

For one, the whole manner of reducing Christianity to a belief that our children have or do not have is part of the problem.

Christians are disciples, apprentices, followers. We’re not believers. It’s not about making up our minds one way or the other but giving to our lives a Christ-like pattern that calls them to sacrificial living.

I’m not suggesting it was true in this particular instance, but I’ve known a whole lot of people who claimed to be rejecting Christianity when what they were rejecting really didn’t resemble authentic Christianity but a lite, gnostic form of civil religion.

For another, I usually tell parents not to freak out, to take the long view. Kids have their entire lives to work through their faith. I think God has shown himself to be sufficiently gracious that we can trust our salvation to him and not frantically try to pull people into the boat as though it might sink any day now. Note: not fretting over their eternal soul is not the same thing as ambivalence.

Finally, I often echo exactly what I tell parents at the beginning of the confirmation year: ‘I can’t make your child a Christian nor is it my role.’ I then go on to explain that limited time with me in church cannot make them into something they’re not formed into being at home all the time.

Parents are the real rabbis of their children.

In an article this week from The Atlantic, Larry Tauton interviewed college students who identify themselves as ‘New Atheists.’ Admittedly these students are outliers among their peers; they’re not the indifferent agnostics, too lazy and blasé about religion to give any compelling reasons for their unbelief. Rather these students are religious about their atheism.

Like something is at stake.

Here are the broad results from the interviews:

They had attended church

Most of our participants had not chosen their worldview from ideologically neutral positions at all, but in reaction to Christianity. Not Islam. Not Buddhism. Christianity.

The mission and message of their churches was vague

These students heard plenty of messages encouraging “social justice,” community involvement, and “being good,” but they seldom saw the relationship between that message, Jesus Christ, and the Bible. Listen to Stephanie, a student at Northwestern: “The connection between Jesus and a person’s life was not clear.” This is an incisive critique. She seems to have intuitively understood that the church does not exist simply to address social ills, but to proclaim the teachings of its founder, Jesus Christ, and their relevance to the world. Since Stephanie did not see that connection, she saw little incentive to stay. We would hear this again.

They felt their churches offered superficial answers to life’s difficult questions

When our participants were asked what they found unconvincing about the Christian faith, they spoke of evolution vs. creation, sexuality, the reliability of the biblical text, Jesus as the only way, etc. Some had gone to church hoping to find answers to these questions. Others hoped to find answers to questions of personal significance, purpose, and ethics. Serious-minded, they often concluded that church services were largely shallow, harmless, and ultimately irrelevant. As Ben, an engineering major at the University of Texas, so bluntly put it: “I really started to get bored with church.”

They expressed their respect for those ministers who took the Bible seriously

Following our 2010 debate in Billings, Montana, I asked Christopher Hitchens why he didn’t try to savage me on stage the way he had so many others. His reply was immediate and emphatic: “Because you believe it.” Without fail, our former church-attending students expressed similar feelings for those Christians who unashamedly embraced biblical teaching. Michael, a political science major at Dartmouth, told us that he is drawn to Christians like that, adding: “I really can’t consider a Christian a good, moral person if he isn’t trying to convert me.” As surprising as it may seem, this sentiment is not as unusual as you might think. It finds resonance in the well-publicized comments of Penn Jillette, the atheist illusionist and comedian: “I don’t respect people who don’t proselytize. I don’t respect that at all. If you believe that there’s a heaven and hell and people could be going to hell or not getting eternal life or whatever, and you think that it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward…. How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?” Comments like these should cause every Christian to examine his conscience to see if he truly believes that Jesus is, as he claimed, “the way, the truth, and the life.”

Ages 14-17 were decisive

One participant told us that she considered herself to be an atheist by the age of eight while another said that it was during his sophomore year of college that he de-converted, but these were the outliers. For most, the high school years were the time when they embraced unbelief.

The decision to embrace unbelief was often an emotional one

With few exceptions, students would begin by telling us that they had become atheists for exclusively rational reasons. But as we listened it became clear that, for most, this was a deeply emotional transition as well. This phenomenon was most powerfully exhibited in Meredith. She explained in detail how her study of anthropology had led her to atheism. When the conversation turned to her family, however, she spoke of an emotionally abusive father:

“It was when he died that I became an atheist,” she said.

I could see no obvious connection between her father’s death and her unbelief. Was it because she loved her abusive father — abused children often do love their parents — and she was angry with God for his death? “No,” Meredith explained. “I was terrified by the thought that he could still be alive somewhere.”

Rebecca, now a student at Clark University in Boston, bore similar childhood scars. When the state intervened and removed her from her home (her mother had attempted suicide), Rebecca prayed that God would let her return to her family. “He didn’t answer,” she said. “So I figured he must not be real.” After a moment’s reflection, she appended her remarks: “Either that, or maybe he is [real] and he’s just trying to teach me something.”

The internet factored heavily into their conversion to atheism

When our participants were asked to cite key influences in their conversion to atheism–people, books, seminars, etc. — we expected to hear frequent references to the names of the “New Atheists.” We did not. Not once. Instead, we heard vague references to videos they had watched on YouTube or website forums.

I’ll again quote Michael because his words are Gospel and they should haunt us with their damning truth:

“Christianity is something that if you really believed it, it would change your life and you would want to change [the lives] of others.

I haven’t seen too much of that.”

 

Religion TodayIt would’ve been easier for Peter to stay in the boat rather than to follow Jesus out onto the water.

Here’s a piece from Megan Hodder that I came across and I think resonates with the point I attempted to preach in my sermon on faith from this past weekend.

Last Easter, when I was just beginning to explore the possibility that, despite what I had previously believed and been brought up to believe, there might be something to the Catholic faith, I read Letters to a Young Catholic by George Weigel. One passage in particular struck me.

Talking of the New Testament miracles and the meaning of faith, Weigel writes: “In the Catholic view of things, walking on water is an entirely sensible thing to do. It’s staying in the boat, hanging tightly to our own sad little securities, that’s rather mad.”

In the following months, that life outside the boat – the life of faith –would come to make increasing sense to me, until eventually I could no longer justify staying put. Last weekend I was baptised and confirmed into the Catholic Church.

Of course, this wasn’t supposed to happen. Faith is something my generation is meant to be casting aside, not taking up. I was raised without any religion and was eight when 9/11 took place. Religion was irrelevant in my personal life and had provided my formative years with a rolling-news backdrop of violence and extremism. I avidly read Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens, whose ideas were sufficiently similar to mine that

I could push any uncertainties I had to the back of my mind. After all, what alternative was there to atheism?..

My friendships with practising Catholics finally convinced me that I had to make a decision. Faith, after all, isn’t merely an intellectual exercise, an assent to certain propositions; it’s a radical act of the will, one that engenders a change of the whole person. Books had taken me to Catholicism as a plausible conjecture, but Catholicism as a living truth I came to understand only through observing those already serving the Church within that life of grace.

I grew up in a culture that has largely turned its back on faith. It’s why I was able to drift through life with my ill-conceived atheism going unchallenged, and at least partially explains the sheer extent of the popular support for the New Atheists: for every considerate and well-informed atheist, there will be others with no personal experience of religion and no interest in the arguments who are simply drifting with the cultural tide.

As the popularity of belligerent, all-the-answers atheism wanes, however, thoughtful Christians able to explain and defend their faith will become an increasingly vital presence in the public square. I hope I, in a small way, am an example of the appeal that Catholicism can still hold in an age that at times appears intractably opposed to it.

swarte-465Here’s a ribbing from the Almighty, courtesy of Jay Martel at the New Yorker, turning the tables on our navel-gazing and self-important doubting…

Here’s my problem: I don’t believe in people. To me, human beings and their world are nothing more than the product of our collective imagination, a sad manifestation of our need to feel important beyond our actual existence. I also can’t help feeling that our lives would be better if no one believed in people; only then would we be able to truly deal with our problems without nursing the delusion of a universe that’s completely dependent on us.

The bottom line is that there are no easy answers to the questions we all have about life. Why are we here? Why are we all-seeing, all-knowing and immortal? How are we able to be everywhere at the same time? I don’t pretend to know. I do know, however, that these questions are not made easier by believing there’s a planet of people somewhere out there who depend on us to land their planes safely.

Like most of us, I was raised by parents who believed in the existence of people. Before every meal and every bedtime, we would sit quietly, “listening” to their prayers, and every Sunday morning I was awakened early so we could all go sit on our heavenly thrones for an hour, pretending to be worshipped. How ridiculous that all seems now! At the time, though, I never questioned any of it. In fact, for most of my teens, I spoke to a person named Moses who I believed was completely dependent on my advice. I now realize, of course, that this was nothing more than a delusion I needed in order to break free of my cloying parents and their needs.

As I grew, persistent questions nagged at me. I asked my father: If we have ultimate power over peoples’ lives, why can’t we just make them perfect and alleviate their suffering? That way, they wouldn’t need to pray anymore, and we wouldn’t need to listen! My father shook his head with a long-suffering look as if he’d caught me playing with his best lightning bolts. He explained to me that of course we couldn’t intervene in peoples’ lives like that, because then how would they grow and become purer souls? It’s hard to believe that I actually believed this. Absolutely crazy—the idea that we created people just to torture them!

After rejecting my parents’ faith, I dabbled in different forms of people-belief. For a while, I believed that people became happier when they killed animals for me. Then I believed that I buried a gold tablet for people to find. I even flirted with even flakier religions, believing that the peoples’ sun wouldn’t rise in the morning if I didn’t haul it up with my chariot (I was on anti-depressants at the time). Then, at perhaps my lowest point, I imagined that I had a son who I sent to the people to do with as they wished—some kind of bizarre loaner, I guess.

Then I had a breakthrough: Why did the people I believed in need me so badly? If I truly had dominion over every aspect of their lives, as I was led to believe, why were they so screwed up? I was familiar with the arguments of theologians—that somehow peoples’ sorry existence was further proof of their need for me. But I just couldn’t buy it anymore.

Since throwing off the shackles of believing in people, it hasn’t been easy living in a culture where everyone seems to think they’ve talked to some guy in a desert. When I recently tried to get medical help for my now-senile father—who actually believed that dead people with wings had come to live with him—I was told that my father was “comforted” by this delusion. When will we realize that there is nothing comforting about ignorance?

I’m frequently asked: Don’t you sometimes, late at night, at your lowest moments, wish that you were worshipped? When the chips are down, when you feel completely worthless, don’t you wish you could hear the prayers of billions of people asking you for help and comfort? And I would not be completely truthful if I didn’t say that sometimes, I do. After all, I’m only a god.

Read more: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/shouts/2012/12/atheist-god.html#ixzz2GlohxKR0

For the past decade atheist fundamentalists like Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens have been answering that question with an emphatic, poorly-informed, orchestrated-for-the-media ‘No.’

According these New Atheists (self-proclaimed ‘Brights’) religion is bad for us, leading to ignorance, subservience and conflict. Of course, those charges are not without merit and while they have ample historical evidence to draw from it’s curious how they refuse to level the same charges against a different straw man, say ‘the state.’ There’s ample evidence there too.

Now, according to an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, a group of cross-disciplinary scholars are attempting to shift the debate. Rather than asking ‘Does God exist?’ they’re trying to apply evolutionary theory to answer the question ‘Is it helpful to believe God exists?’ In other words, might there be a good produced by religious belief that would explain how faith evolved as a component to our worldview? Does belief in God lead to stronger or more peaceable societies? Does religion foster stability in families thereby perpetuating the race?

Some of the experiments performed by these scholars yield interesting, if unsurprising and inconclusive results. For example, one study found that the belief that ‘God is watching over you’ tends to make people more generous with their money. Another study suggests religious people may treat strangers more fairly.

All this is good, I think, if it means the debate about God’s existence can shift from the cartoonish broadsides of people like Richard Dawkins.

On the other hand, reading the article in the Chronicle, I can’t help but think what an incredibly modern, American premise lays behind the study. What’s really important here, now, isn’t whether God actually exists or whether what people of faith believe is actually, you know, true. Instead all that matters is religion’s utility. Does it make us happier more productive members of society? In this sense God’s no different than the 3-in-1 kitchen tools I see hawked on television at 3 am.

As interesting as the studies may be, I can’t help thinking, to my chagrin, that even if he’s a jack#$%, at least Richard Dawkins knows the stakes in the debate; that faith matters matter.