Thursday, July 13, 2006

hey, this is a long post, but for those of you who care about things like this, it is awesome.
it's from a pastor at a church in austin texas who let an athiest join his church, there is also a blog on the same site from the athiest, talking about why he joined the church.



After years of advocacy for progressive causes, I am used to angry mail -- often from fellow Christians -- when I take a political or theological position that challenges conservative or fundamentalist views.

So, I wasn't surprised when many were unhappy about the decision of St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church in Austin, TX, where I am the pastor, to let a self-professed atheist become a member. But the intensity and tone of the condemnations were surprising; this wave of mail feels different, more desperate, like people have been backed against a wall.

Ironically, the new member, a longtime leftist political activist and professor in Austin, has been getting mail from fellow atheists skeptical of his decision.

"How can you do this?" both sides are asking. To me they ask, "How can you let someone join the church who cannot affirm the divinity of Christ? Does nothing matter to you liberals?" To Robert Jensen they ask, "How, as an atheist, can you surrender your mind to a superstitious institution that birthed the inquisition and the crusades?"

Neither the church nor Jensen views his membership as surrendering anything, but instead as an attempt to build connections. Such efforts are crucial in a world where there seems not to be a lot of wood to build the bridges we need. And the shame is, while we fight among ourselves, the world is burning.

In my ministry, I have had to live in two worlds. I have spiritual friends who are trying to celebrate the mystery of life, and activist friends who are trying to change the world. Somehow these two enterprises have been separated, but I don't believe either option represents a complete life. Apolitical spirituality runs the danger of giving charity instead of justice, while atheistic humanism runs the danger of offering facts instead of meaning. This divide between spirituality and activism is a betrayal of the deeper roots of both.

The Book of James argues that merely believing in the existence of God means nothing; he jokes that even the demons believe that. Some of the meanest people I have ever met believed in God. The Nazis marched across Europe with belts reading "God is with us," singing some of the same hymns and reciting some of the same creeds that the church uses today. With a few notable exceptions, the German church hid in liturgy and theology while their brothers and sisters burned. Surely, the holocaust is a permanent rebuttal of that kind of detached creedal Christianity.

It's been interesting to see that atheists can be just as narrow-minded as believers. Some of Jensen's critics expressed an infallible belief that religious people like me are idiots by definition. Inflexible beliefs on matters where one has no experience is superstition whether one is a believer or in an atheist.

Atheism can become self-parody when it forms a rigid belief system about religion. There is a difference between true atheism and anti-theism. Atheism can be the naked pursuit of truth, but anti-theism is more often the adolescent joy of upsetting and mocking religious people.

I can understand the urge to make fun of religious people; many of the voices which speak for religion make me want to crawl under the table. But we also must remember that Stalinists -- claiming to be atheistic materialists -- were as savage and superstitious as the inquisitors.

Without religion we would eliminate some of the worst chapters in human history brought on by the religious inquisitors and religious terrorists. But we would also eliminate some of history's best chapters. Imagine a world with no Gandhi, no Martin Luther King, and no Dorothy Day.

Some people argue that evolution disproves religion. I would say that evolution helps us understand why religion is inevitable in human beings. Our upper brain functions are built on top of a marshy swamp of animal instincts, and we are rational only in spurts. Much of our most important processes are irrational, even more are unconscious altogether. To say we will be purely scientific and objective is an act of imaginary dissociation from the liquid core of our own being. In Sartre's words it is "bad faith".

Advertisers know this swampy core and sell to it. Televangelists know this swampy core and manipulate it. Politicians know this swampy core and appeal to it. While progressives are trying to be purely logical, propagandists are playing that irrational core like a drum.

If there's hope of saving the world from the clutches of propaganda it will not be because we refute it rationally. If we save our world it will be because we learned how to speak about personal meaning in a way that is adaptive to natural processes and compatible with universal human rights. Nothing else will do.

Hegel defined religion as putting philosophy into pictures. Strange and foreboding topics like hermeneutics and metaphysics can be taught to almost anyone if they are put in story form. While it is important not to accept these images literally, it is just as important not to reject them literally.

Because life is an ineffable mystery, religion speaks in pictures and symbols. To accept or reject the symbols literally is to miss the point from two different sides. Those who fight over whether God exists are like foolish pedestrians who praise or curse a red light as they step into oncoming traffic. The question isn't whether God exists like a brick exists, but rather "what part of our experience does the symbol 'God' reveal and what parts does it obscure?"

The problem with most religious discussions is that we are usually swimming in a sea of undefined terms. What sense does it make to ask whether God exists if we don't define what we mean by the term "God." For some it's easier to reconcile themselves to the universe by picturing a large person overseeing the process, while others reconcile themselves to the ground by using impersonal elemental images. These approaches are in conflict only when we forget what we are trying to do in the first place, which is to harmonize with the ground of our being.

Locke and Kant struggled to identify the ultimate categories that shape human perception, which is also the business of religion. We cannot think about being itself because it is too basic. We are like flowers that immerge out of a soil too primordial to be understood in plant terms; we can neither speak about the ground of our being nor ignore it. Religion is a kind of art that reconciles us to the ground out of which we emerge.

As William James pointed out, religion is not merely hypothetical opinion about the world. Religion is most essentially a decision to be engaged in a world that cannot be understood and offers no guarantees. "God" is a symbol of the truth that stands outside our widest context. "God" is a symbol of the reality deeper than our ultimate concern. "God" is a symbol of the mystery that lies between the poles of our clearest rational dichotomy. The point is not to affirm the reality of the symbol itself, but to affirm the reality to which the symbol points.

Part of the apoplexy triggered by Dr. Jensen came from his statement that he was joining our church for "political reasons." If one defines politics as partisan wrangling then Jensen's comments can be seen as calculating and manipulative, but if politics is about how we treat each other, then he is joining the church for the same reason the apostles did -- to help save our world.

The religion of Jesus is both spiritual and political. Jesus said in his first sermon that he had come to preach good news to the poor. He taught that love fulfills the law and the prophets, and spoke of a coming movement of God that would lift up the poor and oppressed. Jesus let a doubter like Thomas serve that cause long before the disciple could affirm any creed. Jesus said that people who blaspheme him or God would be forgiven but those who blaspheme the Spirit (of love) would not be. Religion is not about groveling before a savior, it's joining in the work of saving our world.

One last irony is that early Christians were sometimes accused of being atheists. Like true Muslims and Jews, the early Christians refused to worship human images of God. While I have nothing against the creeds per se, if they do not sing of a love for all humankind they are evil and must be renounced as idolatrous. Surely the essence of Christianity or any religion is not found in dogma but in the life of love of which the creeds sing. If God had wanted us to simply recite creeds, Jesus would have come as a parrot.

Is there still room in the church for Thomas? Doubters are an essential part of the team. The atheism of Ingersoll and Kropotkin is very much like the mysticism of Schweitzer and Dorothy Day. In fact, I cannot help but imagine they would all join in common cause to serve our world had they lived at the same place and time.

"Whoever has love has God." That's what the Bible says. So the question before my church was not whether Dr. Jensen could recite religious syllables like a cockatiel, but whether he would follow the core teachings of Jesus and learn more and grow more into Christ's universal love of which the creeds sing. This he pledged to do.

I repeat: while we are fighting among ourselves, our world is burning. Jim Rigby is pastor of St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church. He can be reached at jrigby0000@aol.com.

13 Comments:

Blogger Matt Strader said...

Hey Zach,
I'm a huge fan of your band. I also am a pastor of Youth in Greenville, OH. Your post strikes some thoughts in my mind. Doesn't James and the rest of Scripture talk about Faith alone that saves? How can an atheist, who has no faith at least that is the case with most, become more like Christ just by loving? I'm not trying to sound prideful that I have faith,but Ephesians talks about by Grace you are saved, throuh faith, and not of works lest any man could boast (Eph. 2:8-9). I'd be interested to hear your thoughts, feel free to comment on my blog if you'd like. I'd be interested to dialogue if you have the time. Thanks for your thoughts.

In Christ,
Matt

8:31 AM

 
Blogger Zach said...

I think the point is to dissolve the exclusive "christian club" nature that (in my opinion) does more to hinder the spread of God's than to preserve it. I believe an atheist can come to know Christ in a different way, I believe he can be introduced to a new idea of God by going to church. I think the main "goal" of christians is to bring a person to a place where his heart opens, and then have faith that God will work in that persons life. What right does the church have to keep people away from God, no matter what the persons stance, idealogy, or beliefs concerning God or Christianity. I agree that merely "loving" can not bring someone salvation through Christ, but the point of the post was to see what people's thoughts were on the topic. But yes, I'm all for starting dialogue. I would love to get into some conversations with you, being that you are a youth pastor.

8:55 AM

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

as a non-member of the "christian club" i can agree with a lot said in this. i even agree with a lot of christian ideals. one thing i have never understood though(and this is partly in response the the other comment and yours), is the idea that God will save even the most wretched if he believes in God but a person who loves and gives and lives his life the best he can wont be? and God is supposed to be loving? it doesnt add up. You would think that a wise, all-knowing, all-powerful, loving God worth worshiping and praying to would take the time to see what is truly in a person's heart before "judging."

one does not need Christ to find love, universal or otherwise.

9:47 AM

 
Blogger Matt Strader said...

Thanks for the response. I agree that we shouldn't get in the way of God drawing people to himself...first of all, there is nothing that we can do to save anyone. It is all by God's grace and power. We are all hopeless and fallen without Christ. We are all dead in our Tresspasses and sins. Without Christ redeeming us through his death and ressurection, we have no hope. Having an atheist as a member of your church, if membership merely constitutes attending and listening to the word that is preached, can be a great way to expose them to the truth of the gospel, just make sure brother that you don't water down the truth about God's wrath and justice (which I don't think you are doing) and that we are all sinners and fall short of his glory (Romans 3:23). I'm sorry that this is such a long post, but recently in my youth group we have been addressing the topic of evangelism so I'm totally excited to hear that your church really focuses on exposing people to the truth of the gospel. Just make sure (and this is a message for me as well) that you preach the good news of Christ and not just the love of Christ but how we are saved from sin and death and brought into the kingdom of God through faith. Thanks again for your quick response. I usually write some sort of devotional on my blog...feel free to read and comment there too if you want.

In Christ,
Matt

9:52 AM

 
Blogger Matt Strader said...

in response to Anonymous, to say that God is unloving is unfair. The truth is, we all reject God's love everyday. How good is good enough? That's why Jesus in the gospels talks about how the standard to get into heaven is PERFECTION. Now if someone lived an entire life of perfection, they would be acceptable in God's sight. Otherwise, everyone is doomed to die.
Let me say this friend, God, the creator does not have to justify himself. The truth is, we all deserve to die and he still chooses to save some. The point you brought up about someone living a life of sin and saying there a Christian is definitely hard to deal with. The truth of Scripture talks about how when we trust Christ as our savior, we have a life change. A person who claims to know Christ, yet does not have a life change, probably doesn't know Christ. That is the whole idea of being born again, we must be changed in order to be saved. I'm not trying to confuse you, but in all honsestly, none of us deserve to go to heaven but only because God IS a loving and gracious God do we even have the chance.

Sorry Zach that I'm writing so much on your blog, but these comments are very interesting to me so I just had to speak my mind. Thanks.

9:57 AM

 
Blogger Zach said...

the problem of wrath vs love. how do you seperate the two and justify them both, where does wrath fall into unconditional love? they seem to be opposites...Think about unconditional love, love that extends to ALL people no matter what their practice, or behavior. The every lasting problem of the demand by humans of free will, yet the audacity to complain about a God who doesn't grant everyone entrance into heaven. Love is not something that can be forced, other wise what kind of love would it be? If God were to show himself in an objective way, a "matter of fact" visual representation of his existence, then humans would love him just like they breathe, there would be no loyalty, no true commitment, no sacrifice. And to the anonymous post concerning the wretched one who loves God, I believe that if anyone loves God, truly loves God and seeks God, they can not be wretched. The love of God isn't merely a vocal proclamation, it is a change that infects every cell in your body in resignation, and surrender. I don't know what I really accomlished with this post, but I do wanna know how to define God's wrath vs God's love. Why does God seem to change every week with each new sermon, a God of wrath to a God of love? It seems that god can fit any description people wanna give Him. Since God is so ellusive, the spread of his message seems to be at the mercy of those of us, as matt strader said, who don't deserve to go to heaven, his message is at the mercy of mere man, which is an abomination, although, we are all, at the same time, His creation? Isn't there a paradox here?

11:21 PM

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

ok, so if someone truly loves God, they cannot be wretched BUT then also someone can not be wretched without loving "God." They can live and make their choices because of what is right, what they believe is true, the love of life, love in general, etc and in all likelihood feel the same kind of love and passion one feels for God only doesnt identify that love as God in the Christian sense. (the question of do you know what something is called or do you know what it really is) There are people to DO feel surrender to a love that "infects every cell of their bodies in resignation and surrender" however the NAME they give this love is for life, creation, etc.

in expecting a God that WOULD know the difference, this is not about gain(going to heaven)/not dying. Sure, we are ALL unworthy and God can save who he wants, but i dont think that the idea of God working with a little bit of logic is too far-fetched. God does not have to justify himself- his actions should already be justifyable(that justification not having to be "well hes God he can do what he wants")

going into sort of a tangent on wrath- i believe that wrath can be justified with love in the way that parents must punish their children when they do something wrong. however, the idea of hell for eternity does not fit this. punishment in relation to love is supposed to be provide a learning experience- a want of growth in your children. i would understand if people were sent to hell for a prescribed number of years but hell for ETERNITY from a "loving" God?

7:12 AM

 
Blogger Zach said...

I completely understand what you are saying, and I can not understand that puzzle either, but that is why i'm at the place where I am. My faith in God does not let me leave questions of such importance unasnwered, and I may not ever find the answer, but I'm not going to give up and resign to some "chuch" answer that really holds no weight when challenged. My friend once told me that no one can truly love anyone with out knowing the love of Christ (meaning, being a christian) and I think that is quite arrogant and unfair. I read this book by a guy named Ken Wilber, and he was talking about how objective research of the brain is easy, but subjective research is something that can only be interpreted by talking to the person you are researching, and interpreation is always open to error. So I can tell you all I want about how God has affected my life, but that doenst really prove anything for you, even though I can't deny it. And you can tell me all you can about how your mind works, but all I can do is try my hardest to understand. Subjects like this are never answered on a mass (official) level, because the answers always vary. I think that is a brilliant/detramental aspect of the need for faith in believing in God. The people who do truly love God, love God out of something so incredibly pure and honest, although, so many people just can't give their lives to something (rightfully so) which is so vague and cryptic, and also has such a wretched history when i comes to human rights, wars, equality, etc.

12:49 PM

 
Blogger Matt Strader said...

I know this topic is very difficult to understand, and I went to school for four years trying to figure it out. It comes down to God being able to do what he wants. I know that sounds really simple, but it's true. If God did not display wrath, how could he show his Justice? Yes God is a Gracious and loving God, described in Scripture as a God of Love. Without wrath, without punishment, he cannot show Grace. If God was a pushover, and let us do whatever we wanted, whatever "feels" right to us, where is the justice in that? God is not a God of relativism, he is absolute. He does not change, therefore his standard does not change. It is sad and tragic that people spend eternity in hell, but God has to be just. It is his very nature. He was just when he created the universe, he was just when he created us. To the anonymous, this is more logical than having a God who accepts anyone and anything apart from a standard of good and evil. In fact, God cannot stand sin. A perfect and sinless God detests sin, this is the very reason he sent his son to pay the price for our sin. I hope you don't hear me sounding prideful, because I am still on a journey of knowing God. I'm just thankful that God has revealed himself to me, because otherwise, I'd be spending eternity in hell too.

5:43 PM

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

im a different "anonymous," but read have read all the posts. this is my question...matt says:

"It comes down to God being able to do what he wants."

If God can do whatever he wants why doesnt he reveal himself to everyone?

And, kind of completely off topic but I'm going to ask it...do you guys believe that everything happens for a reason?

And if so, why do terrible things happen to great people? My uncle and cousin drowned in Hawaii a couple years ago and they were the greatest two men I knew. My cousin was a christian and was just 2 months from being named valedictorian at his high school. Then, the tragedy happened. I can't believe everything happens for a reason because of that example and numerous others.

7:01 PM

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

im a different "anonymous," but read have read all the posts. this is my question...matt says:

"It comes down to God being able to do what he wants."

If God can do whatever he wants why doesnt he reveal himself to everyone?

And, kind of completely off topic but I'm going to ask it...do you guys believe that everything happens for a reason?

And if so, why do terrible things happen to great people? My uncle and cousin drowned in Hawaii a couple years ago and they were the greatest two men I knew. My cousin was a christian and was just 2 months from being named valedictorian at his high school. Then, the tragedy happened. I can't believe everything happens for a reason because of that example and numerous others.

7:01 PM

 
Blogger Matt Strader said...

to the last anonymous, this is a very difficult question to answer, however, all I can give you is a verse that says that God's ways are higher than ours. Tragedies do happen. They sadly happen to the most undeserving people. But if your cousin was a Christian, then he is in a much much better place, and trust me, he's not confused about why that happened. He is spending eternity at the foot of God's throne. There is nothing better than that. As for explaining why tragedies happen, I don't have an answer for you. The only thing I can tell you is from Romans 8:28 - And we know that all things work together for good, for those who are called according to HIS purposes. I don't claim to know what God was doing in this situation with your family, and maybe no human mind can grasp it, but God is sovereign and in control of everything. However, he does allow things to happen that some would say seems unfair.

Again I come back to the cross, if he hadn't sent his son to die, none of us would have any hope in the first place.

6:25 AM

 
Blogger spydrwebb said...

What great dialogue! More of the same is really what we need to be focused on because too often people are judged solely on their belief/disbelief in Christ. This post reminds me that some people are still trying to love people through the good/bad/indifferent, regardless of how it relates to their own values.
I have atheist friends and they challenge me all the time, which I view as a blessing because usually people don't ask questions unless they are truly seeking answers. Sure, some people ask rhetorical questions but ones this close to their beliefs and the very existence they hold dear is often too much to simply be coincidence.
Just the existence of communication alone is healthy. Nobody should stand so firm and prideful to make it appear as though they have all the answers and I'm proud that none of you are making that claim.
There are a lot of people out there that don't question and merely go by what The Holy Bible says, word for word, and I actually fear that (maybe my own stuggle) more than I fear somebody who just doesn't believe in God at all. I realize to some that may concern you but I'm just being honest. We should not be called to believe and walk in blind faith, not understand what it is we are being asked to follow in the first place... yet many do and that is frightening.

10:02 AM

 

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