The truth about the New Atheism: an interview with David Marshall

I had the immense privilege to interview historian, sociologist and Christian apologist David Marshall on militant atheists and their arguments. I truly hope you’ll appreciate it!

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Lotharson: Hello David, thank you very much for having accepted my invitation. Could you please sum up your background for my readers?
David Marshall: Sure. I am from a Christian background, and grew up in Seattle. My academic background involves a lot of study of languages and research in history and Asian cultures, culminating in a PhD for which I offered what I believe is the best Christian model of religions, which I call “Fulfillment Theology.” I’ve written five books, edited another, and contributed to others, my most popular so far being “True Son of Heaven: How Jesus Fulfills the Chinese Culture” and “The Truth Behind the New Atheism.” (But the meatiest is Jesus and the Religions of Man.) I am presently writing two other books actively, and three more passively. Each is on a very big subject; I will try not to be glib. :- )
Lotharson: So, you seem to have quite a large field of interest 🙂 What rose your passion for the intellectual arguments between Christians and atheists?
David Marshall: I was going to blame C. S. Lewis, in my misbegotten youth, but then a line from a country music song came to mind, “Heck it could be my fault.” There’s a little atheist inside of me, and it’s easiest to squelch him when the big atheists outside of me throw up such softball challenges to my Christian faith. Also I agree with Clement of Alexandria, who perceived that there was some truth in almost every school of thought — truth that is fulfilled best by Christ.

 

On militant atheism and religious fundamentalism

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Lotharson: Your fascinating views on the relationship between God’s revelation in Christ and other religions will (hopefully) be the topic of a future interview. Right now, I’m interested by what you wrote on the New Atheists. Could you summarize what the “New Atheism” is? Is it (more or less) a synonym for “anti-theism” or “militant atheism”?
David Marshall: Atheists themselves differ on whether or not to accept or even glory in the term “The New Atheism.” Some say there’s nothing new about their views, and in a sense, I agree: the tone adopted by Richard Dawkins is very like that of the Left Hegelians in your own native Germany back in the mid-19th Century, culimating with Karl Marx. But I see four factors as distinguishing this wave: (1) Reaction to 9/11, along the lines of “That nasty Taliban! Now how can we use revulsion against radical Islam to dump on Christianity as well? I know! We’ll lump them all in the same bag!” (2) Particular concern over the supposed threat American Christian poses to democracy. (3) Focus on or exageration of the dark side of Christian history, “Hitler’s Pope,” that kind of thing. (4) Drawing on radical “historical Jesus” material, from the Jesus Seminar and Bart Ehrman, to more fringe characters like Hector Avalos, Robert Price and Richard Carrier.

 

Lotharson: A small correction: I’m a Germanic Frenchman from a historically German-speaking French region 🙂

So, is it fair to say that the New Atheism (or anti-theism) can be summed up by the two following sentences:

1) Religious beliefs are false
2) Religious beliefs are bad and ought to disappear?

David Marshall: Quite so.

 

Belligerent secularism and nasty rhetoric

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Lotharson: Okay. How does this play out in terms of rhetoric?
David Marshall: I am trying to think of a prominent atheist who identifies with that movement, who is polite, and really listens to the other side. Is that what you’re wondering?
Lotharson: Yeah kind of 🙂 Do you know striking examples of rude and bullying behavior which are characteristic of the whole movement?
Or examples of famous New Atheists calling their followers to use an aggressive and nasty rhetoric?
David Marshall: Sheesh. Read my blog post, “PZ Myers, Guru of Hate,” if you can stomach that sort of thing. That charts one internal conflict on their side — I take out all the swear words. It is tacitly assumed in many quarters that the real problem with such nastiness is that it is directed at fellow unbelievers, rather than the real enemy, us.
Lotharson: And by “us”, they mean ALL religious believers, right? Even progressive Christians opposing the Religious Right are viewed as their enemies, am I correct?
David Marshall: Of course “Gnus” are a diverse lot, and not all are as vitriolic as Dr. Myers’ followers tend to be. But yes, Richard Dawkins, in his (relatively) more civilized way, goes out of the way to emphasize that liberal Christians are also a serious problem, as do such people as Greta Christiana.

Lotharson: Yeah, they argue that the existence of moderate and peaceful religious believers NECESSARILY cause the existence of nasty fundamentalists and Islamists.

So, according to them the evil has to be cut at the root.

Do they have strong historical and sociological arguments for backing up this claim?
David Marshall: Well, of course not. The best they do is vaguely cite sociologist Phil Zuckerman, who is fond of Denmark, as who isn’t besides Hamlet? But Zuckerman himself is more careful, and shows (without meaning to) that a lot of the success of the societies he deems as most successful, derives historically from their Christian roots. (I challenged him on this in person, and he did not deny it, being an honest scholar.)
Lotharson: And there is one thing they don’t take into consideration: the greater happiness of Denmark in comparison to religious America might very well be due to factors unrelated to religion and atheism, such as their much more SOCIALIST economy and social system.

Is it fair to say so?
David Marshall: I wrote an article some years ago in which I gave some 20-25 problems with such arguments. They are multiply flawed in too many ways to give a simple summation: the popular versions of such arguments are junk scholarship. As a Burkean conservative with a father who owned an apartment with welfare Moms, though, you’ll have to torture me to confess the superior merits of the Welfare State. :- )

Lotharson: Okay, I won’t insist then 🙂

On sociological studies on the benefits of “Religion”.

Benefits of atheism and religions

I generally find it pretty frustrating that in most sociological and historical studies comparing religion with lack of faith, religion (as a whole) is directly compared with atheism (as a whole).

Given the HUGE diversity of atheists and religious believers out there, I view these studies as providing us with very few useful information.
I think that a good study would compare a lot of groups of different believers with different atheists, such as:

1) Conservative Catholics

2) Liberal Catholics

3) Calvinists

4) Charismatic Christians

5) Mystical Muslims.

6) Godless communists

7) Secular Capitalists

8) Buddhists

and so on and so forth.

This would really allow us to learn more about the subject, and I’m sure that we could find out that certain religious groups fare much better than others, and that the same thing holds for the very diverse atheistic groups present in our world.

So the question should not be: “Is religion (ON AVERAGE) better than atheism (ON AVERAGE) in terms of societal happiness, but rather “What are the impacts of the many specific worldviews out there?”

Do you agree?
David Marshall: Yeah. I also dispute the usual definition of “religion.” Peter Berger pointed out that the term is defined in functional as well as substantive ways: what Paul Tillich called an “ultimate concern” being to me the best definition. Everyone has an ultimate concern. And no, a few decades after the Marxist holocaust, we can’t just sweep those crimes under the rug, either. Nor do they seem to have been total aberrations.I also like the definition of Christianity as meaning, “We’re all bastards, but God loves us anyway.” Christianity PREDICTS evil by its followers. But I argue historically that the Gospel has in fact utterly transformed the world for the better — and the Bible predicts that, too.

 

The intellectual depth of anti-theism

NewAtheismLotharson: The New Atheists also pretend we can know beyond any reasonable doubt that God does not exist, and most of them seem to also believe that we can be pretty sure that matter is the ultimate reality. What do you think of the intellectual depth of the arguments they deploy for showing this?
David Marshall: Miracles happen. God works in the world. Deal with it.
Lotharson: Okay, so are they as mighty as a fundamentalist proclaiming these three sentences without any evidence? 🙂
David Marshall: Well, of course it’s hard to come up with evidence for a negative. And SOME New Atheists try fitfully to deal with the positive evidence for Christian miracles and God’s work in the world. (John Loftus‘ friends are examples.) But they tend to stay near the shallow end of the pool, and don’t seem to know much about that evidence, really. I’ve never seen one analyze Craig Keener‘s massive study of miracles around the world, for instance — not that it isn’t vulnerable in spots. Some do try to undermine the Gospel narrative, and arguments for the resurrection — though the more serious arguers seem to mostly predate the New Atheist movement, and don’t seem often to identify with it. Richard Carrier has just published a book trying to prove Jesus never lived — he wishes to make that position intellectually respectable. He does at least have a PhD in Roman history — the history of science — from Columbia, and reads a lot, even if he doesn’t always report what he reads very circumspectly.

Lotharson: Of course, this raises a lot of questions about miracles we don’t have the time to go into here.

The nature of “faith”.

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But I think this leads us to wonder about how the New Atheists view “faith”. What are your own experiences with this and how does it relate to the way you (and most of your Christian friends) understand “faith”?
David Marshall: They universally misunderstand it. Even those who know better. It’s a fascinating sociological phenomena. The most recent best-seller that does this is Peter Boghossian’s A Manual for Creating Atheists — the whole ingenious work is based on the patently absurd notion that by “faith,” Christians mean “believing without any evidence.”
Lotharson: And why do you view this notion as “patently absurd”?
David Marshall: Of course they don’t have any evidence for that, because they haven’t bothered to do any research. I have. (See our recent book, True Reason, including one chapter with Dr. Timothy McGrew, also the relevant chapter in The Truth Behind the New Atheism.)

It’s the height of irony — every single New Atheist bases his critique of Christianity on the objection that Christians demand faith without checking the facts first — but none of them bothers to check the facts about THAT first. Alister McGrath and I both highlighted this irony already in our books on the New Atheism, which were among the first to come out, but our objections haven’t stopped the flood or even quelled it a little.
Lotharson: How do you personally see “faith”?
David Marshall: Christian faith means “Believing and acting upon what you have good reason to think is true, in the face of existential difficulties.”
Lotharson: It goes without saying it is a lot harder to argue against this than against the straw man they attack. Is it fair to say that the New Atheists PICK AND CHOOSE the worst and weakest examples of religious believers and describe them as if they were characteristic of religion AS A WHOLE?
David Marshall: Dawkins is famous for this. Like the Pharisee Jesus spoke about who seeks the world for a convert, he flies across continents looking for the kookiest Christians he can find – founders of hell houses, terrorist wannabees, semi-literate spokepersons for obscure political fronts — then reports them as typical cases of the species. For a zoologist, he’s empirically lazy to a remarkable degree.

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On Anti-theism and atrocities.

Lotharson: Lol. I think this should lead us to wonder whether HIS PARTICULAR brand of atheism is as harmless as he professes.

I don’t think that atheism (understood as the belief there is no supernatural world) has caused atrocities, in the same way I don’t believe that theism (the belief there is a God) has caused atrocities in and of itself.

BUT I do believe that anti-theism (the belief that all religions OUGHT to disappear) has plaid a major role in atrocities committed by secularist regimes in Russia and in China against religious people and clergy persons.

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Do you think it is a balanced consideration of the situation?
David Marshall:It’s a very complex question. I have a chapter giving my own analysis of “Why Marx went wrong” in Jesus and the Religions of Man. I think his rejection of Christianity and of God was very important, and it impacted his morals in complex ways — I argue that communists had THREE moral systems, for different sets of people. But I also argue that the most deadly facet of Marxism-Leninism was the god it worshiped — the self — even more than its rejection of God, perhaps. Though of course the two go together. As someone said of Tolstoy, I think, he and God in the same heart were like two bears in the same cave. Marx wanted the cave for himself, and so did his chief followers.
The best work on this subject is David Aikman’s Atheism in the Marxist Tradition. Unfortunately it is an unpublished doctoral dissertation, but can be obtained by interlibrary loan.
Lotharson: When I present anti-theism in this way, some of its proponents get completely infuriated.

They say that the New Atheism does not seek to destroy religious beliefs but only to put an end to “religious privileges”.

Could it be really the case?

David Marshall: Again, I fundamentally disagree with the assumed definition of “religion” here. But many New Atheists are quite outspoken in saying they want to rid the world of religion — though not violently, through “education” in various senses. I could give numerous quotes, especially if I were in my library in the US, rather than in central China, right now.

But no doubt many atheists hold more modest ambitions. They however tend not to identify themselves as Gnus (New Atheists).

 

John Loftus and The Outsider Test of Faith

Lotharson: Okay. What else is there to be said about the New Atheism?
David Marshall: I’m glad for the challenge. Anything they say that is true, is useful. I am presently writing a book entitled, “How Christianity passes the Outsider Test,” turning a popular Gnu argument — promoted by John Loftus — on its head, to offer four more or less new arguments for the Christian faith, some of which I think have a great deal of force. I’m so glad John brought the subject up again.

Besides which, we need our critics. Hug a New Atheist, but also figure out why he’s wrong and tell him. (Most Gnus are men, sorry.)
Lotharson: Before I’ll stop stealing away your precious time 🙂 could you please briefly explain what the Outsider Test of Faith is and what is your own personal take on it?
David Marshall: Oh, Gee, that’s the book! But you can get an abridged version in a chapter of True Reason.

The basic idea is, we should look at Christianity from an objective, outside perspective and stop being hoodwinked by our (assumed) Christian conditioning.

The truth — the real, “inside” story of Christianity — is amazing, and I don’t think has ever been told quite like this. To put it in the vernacular, I am totally pumped about this book.

Lotharson: Thanks for this and for everything David! I wish you all the best for your next endeavors and am looking forward to your new book.

 

 

Something to meditate upon

 

Foto: Si les ĂȘtres humains se prĂ©occupaient de cette boule (le terre) de la mĂȘme maniĂšre qu'ils se prĂ©occupent de celle-lĂ  (ballon de foot), alors tous ces problĂšmes n'existeraient plus.

 

If human beings were to care for this ball like they care for this ball…then we wouldn’t have any longer all these problems.

 

(I’m not sure how this sounds in English but I think you’ve gotten the message…)

 

 

Should an inerrant Bible be the very foundation of Christianity?

Eric Reitan, a progressive Christian philosopher (having written an excellent book on the New Atheism and one defending universal salvation) gave several arguments against the central place of the Bible for our faith.

 

How Does God Reveal? Five Christian Reasons to Doubt Biblical Inerrancy

 
The Patheos website is currently hosting a multi-blog conversation about progressive Christianity and Scripture which has generated numerous engaging and thoughtful contributions–such as this one by James McGrath. Because the relationship between progressive Christian faith and the Bible is one of my enduring interests, the sudden flood of interesting essays on the topic has inspired me to take a few minutes to reflect on the issue myself. 

As a philosopher of religion, the way I approach this topic is in terms of a philosophical question: What theory of revelation fits best with the Christian view of God? Put another way, if there is a God that fits the broadly Christian description, how would we expect such a God to reveal the divine nature and will to the world?

Many conservative Christians take it for granted that God has revealed the divine nature and will in and through a specific book. More precisely (although they aren’t usually this precise), they believe that God inspired certain human authors at various times in history to write texts that inerrantly express divine truths–and then inspired other human beings to correctly recognize these texts and include all and only them in the comprehensive collection of Scriptures we call the Bible.

Let’s call this the theory of biblical inerrancy.

Does this theory fit well with broader Christian beliefs? Is this a good Christian theory about divine revelation, culminating in a good Christian theory about what the Bible is and what sort of authority we should attach to it? I think there are a number of reasons to be skeptical.

Put more narrowly, I think there are a number of reasons why Christians should be skeptical, given their Christian starting points. Let’s consider at least some of these reasons.

1. Christianity holds that Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God

Traditional Christian teaching holds that Jesus is the Word made Flesh, the incarnation of God in history. And this means that for Christians, the primary and monumental revelation of God is in the person of Jesus, not in any book (however inspired). It is this fact which motivated George MacDonald to say of the Bible,

It nowhere lays claim to be regarded as the Word, the Way, the Truth. The Bible leads us to Jesus, the inexhaustible, the ever unfolding Revelation of God. It is Christ “in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge,” not the Bible, save as leading to him.

Biblical inerrantists might argue that nothing precludes God from both revealing the divine nature primarily in Jesus and authoring an inerrant book as a secondary revelation. This is true as far as it goes. But there are reasons for concern.

First, there’s a difference between the kind of revelation that Jesus represents, and the kind that a book represents. A person and a book are different things, and we learn from them in different ways. Consider the difference between having a mentor in the project of becoming a better person, and reading self-help books.

Doesn’t Christianity teach that God’s preferred way of disclosing the divine nature and will is through personal, living relationship rather than fixed words? The problem with throwing in an inerrant book as a “supplemental” revelation is that it can lead to Bible-worship. Given human psychology, there is something alluring about having a book with all the answers. But if God primarily wants us to find the answers through personal engagement with the living God, as discovered in Jesus, isn’t there a real danger that fixation on the Bible will distract the faithful from God’s primary mode of self-disclosure?

None of this is to say that human stories–witness accounts of divine revelation in history–aren’t important. They can motivate a desire to seek out the one whom the stories are about, and they can offer tools for discerning whether you’ve found the one you seek or an imposter. But once they are seen as secondary, as valuable as a means to an end, the need for inerrancy dissipates. If what really matters is my friendship with Joe, and if I sought out and formed a friendship with him because lots of people told me stories about him that revealed him as an awesome guy I wanted to meet, do I really need to insist that those storytellers were inerrant? Why?

2. The Jesus of Scripture was not an inerrantist

In John 8:1-11, we have the story of the teachers of the law coming to Jesus with an adulteress, and asking Him whether they ought to stone her to death as the Scriptures prescribe. The passage itself declares that this was a trap: If Jesus came out and directly told them not to stone her, He would be defying a direct scriptural injunction.

He avoided the trap: He didn’t directly telling them to act contrary to Scripture. Instead, He told them that the one without sin should cast the first stone.

It is a stunning and powerful story (no wonder someone decided to write it into the Gospel of John, even though it didn’t appear in the earliest versions). But notice that Jesus didn’t tell them to do what Scripture prescribed. Instead, He found a powerful way to drive home exactly what was wrong with following that scriptural injunction–in a way that avoided their trap.

In short, Jesus disagreed with some of the teachings in the Scriptures of His day. In the Sermon on the Mount, he offered gentle correctives to earlier teachings–teachings which started in a direction but didn’t go far enough. The lex talionis command to punish evildoers eye for eye and tooth for tooth may, at the time, have served as a restraint on retributive impulses: don’t punish beyond the severity of the crime. But for Jesus, that level of restrain was insufficient. It was a start on a path, perhaps, but only that. Jesus followed the trajectory of that path to its conclusion, and enjoined His listeners to turn the other cheek.

In short, it’s clear Jesus didn’t have the inerrantist view towards the Scriptures of His day that conservative Christians have towards the Christian Scriptures of today. Conservatives might argue that Jesus would view the modern Bible–or maybe just the New Testament?–in the way they favor, even if the approach to Scripture that He actually modeled is at odds with their approach.

Allow me to treat such a speculative claim with suspicion. If Jesus is the primary revelation of God in history, then it strikes me as appropriate to follow His model for approaching Scripture, and respectfully look beyond the letters on the page to the deeper intentions that finite human authors might have missed, noticing trajectories and exploring where they might lead.

3. In the New Testament, Paul distinguished between his views and the Lord’s

 In 1 Corinthians 7:10-12, Paul says the following:

To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife. To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her…

I’ve talked about this passage before, so I won’t go into details. What interests me is the distinction Paul makes between his own views and those of the Lord. In this passage, it’s clear that Paul did not see Himself as taking dictation from God. He made a clear distinction between his own opinions and those of the Lord, and by making the distinction explicit was signaling to his readers that they should treat the injunctions differently–as if he didn’t want to claim for himself the kind of authority that he took to accompany Jesus’ explicit teachings.

But if inerrantism is true, then Paul’s teachings are the inerrant word of God, and so have the same kind of authority as Jesus’ words. In other words, if inerrantism is true, then Paul was wrong to make the distinction he made. But that distinction is made by Paul in a letter that’s in the Bible. And if inerrantism is true, a distinction made in a letter that’s in the Bible has to be accurate. But if it’s accurate, inerrantism isn’t true. Zounds!

An exercise in creative interpretation might offer the inerrantist the wiggle room to escape this logical trap, but inerrantists are routinely skeptical of such creative interpretation of Scripture. At best, then, this amounts to a difficulty for inerrantism, the sort of difficulty one often sees when trying to force a theory onto subject matter that doesn’t quite suit it. Theories can perhaps weather some such difficulties, but if they become too common it is hard to reasonably persist in endorsing the theory.

4. Efforts to overcome apparent contradictions in Scripture lead to a false view of Scripture

Speaking of difficulties of this sort, the Bible isn’t a neat, orderly, systematically consistent treatise. The Gospel narratives, for example, aren’t identical. They tell the stories of Jesus’ life in different ways. Details differ–for example, in accounts of the resurrection. Bart Ehrman does a fine job of cataloguing  many of these in Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible.

Mostly, these tensions aren’t explicit contradictions but rather what might be called apparent ones: they don’t seem as if they can go together, because you’d need to tell a rather convoluted story to make them fit.

Inerrantists have not been remiss in offering such convoluted stories. But if you need to tell enough of them in order to make your theory map onto what it’s supposed to explain, the theory becomes increasingly implausible.

And there’s another problem, one that should be of concern to Christians who care about the Bible. The convoluted tales that you have to tell in order to make disparate biblical narratives fit together end up leading you away from an honest appreciation of the message of the biblical authors. As Ehrman puts it, “To approach the stories in this way is to rob each author of his own integrity as an author and to deprive him of the meaning that he conveys in his story.”

When you do this, you care more about preserving your theory about the Bible than you do about understanding and taking in its message. For me, this is one of the greatest tragedies of an inerrantist approach to Scripture: It makes it difficult for readers to engage with the Bible on its own terms. It’s like someone who is so devoted to a false image of their spouse that they can’t see their spouse for the person they really are. Likewise, the steps that need to be taken in order to preserve the doctrine of inerrancy in the face of the Bible’s actual content means that it becomes impossible to have an intimate relationship with the Bible as it really is. This is not taking the Bible seriously. It is taking the doctrine of inerrancy seriously at the expense of the Bible.  

5. God is love

Christianity teaches that God is love. In fact, it is the closest thing Christians have to a scriptural definition of God:  “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” (1 John 4:7-8).

If God is love, then we experience God when we love. If God is love, then the primary way we can encounter God is through loving and being loved–that is, through cultivating loving relationships with persons. This may help to explain the Christian view that a person–Jesus–served in history as God’s fundamental revelation, rather than a book. Books can’t love you. And you can’t love a book in the sense of “love” that Christians (and the author of 1 John) have in mind when we say God is love.

When we feel the profound presence of the divine showering love upon us–or when we feel the joy of being loved by others–we are encountering the divine nature as something coming to us from the outside. But when we love our neighbors as ourselves, we are channeling divine love, and experiencing it “from within” (so to speak). The divine nature is moving within us, more intimately connected to us than any mere object of experience. I think this is what the author of 1 John means when he says that whoever does not love does not know God. To love others is to be filled with the spirit of God. It is to let God in.

If any of that is true, then it is by encouraging us to love one another that God makes possible the most profound revelation of the divine nature and will. And while the Bible does encourage us to love one another, the theory about the Bible which takes it to be the inerrant revelation of God may actually be an impediment to love.

We end up focusing more attention on the Bible than on our neighbors. We are more committed to “doing what the Bible says” than we are to loving those around us. Out of a desire to be connected with God, we insist that homosexuality is always and everywhere sinful–and when the gay and lesbian neighbors we are supposed to love cry out in despair, their lives crushed by these teachings, we stifle our compassion, shutting out love in fear that loving them as ourselves might lead us to question the inerrancy of the Bible.

If God is love, then any theory of revelation that tells us to find God by burying our noses in a book is a problematic theory. If God is love, we must look for God in the love we see in the world. The Bible, understood as a flawed and finite human testament to the God of love working in history, can be a deeply meaningful partner in our quest to encounter God and live in the light of divine goodness. But as soon as it is treated as inerrant, it is in danger of becoming a bludgeon used to silence those neighbors who want to share experiences that don’t quite fit with this or that verse.

The Bible points away from itself. Respect for it demands that we look up from the page and engage with our neighbors and the creation. God is alive in the world. The Bible tells us that God is alive in the world. In so doing, the book is telling us that if we want to find God, we need to look into our neighbor’s face with love, and at the natural world and all its creatures with love.

Because God is there. God is there, revealing Himself in the vibrancy of life and the child’s laugh and the mother’s tender kiss. God is there, in the gay man who sits by his longtime partner’s hospital bedside, gently stroking his brow. God is there, in the joyous wedding vows of the lesbian couple that can finally get a legal marriage after years together.

And any time a too-literal allegiance to the letter of the biblical text causes someone not to see the face of God in that tenderness and joy, the doctrine of biblical inerrancy has blocked divine revelation, impeding God’s effort to self-disclose to the world.

 

 

Here follows my own response.

 

Dear Eric,

it would be a terrible understatement to say that this post of yours was extraordinarily amazing 🙂

Here is a major problem for the Conservative Protestant position: it cannot merely be that their Bible is inerrant, but also that people who first recognized it that way were as well. If they weren’t, what give us the guarantee that their decision was correct?

Therefore, I view the doctrine of Solo Scriptura as rationally extremely problematic.


I also agree that God’s revelation was the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth and that it is not propositional knowledge, even if it logically entails affirming certain truths.

I think that Biblical inerrancy is IMPOSSIBLE in the first place, due to the presence of many conflicting voices in the collection of books having been gathered under that name.

Therefore, ironically enough, inerrantists themselves have constantly to pick and choose which texts they take at face values and which they necessarily have to distort because they contradict the former.

The real danger here is that according to the doctrine of inerrancy, if you find some Biblical verses describing God as commanding moral atrocities, you HAVE to conclude that the God experienced by ALL other Biblical writers endorsed them as well.

Tragically, nasty fundamentalists considerably water down Christ’s call to love our enemies to make it match the theology of the imprecatory psalms.

And many of them will give up Christianity altogether, become bitter anti-atheists while keeping the same fundamentalistic mindset.
So a New Atheist recently wrote he wants to burn the whole Bible because of the presence of atrocities within it, ignoring the obvious fact there are many other Biblical authors who did not approve at all of them.

As you expressed it so well, the priority of Conservative Evangelicals is NOT to become more loving persons and turn the world into a better place BUT to combat heresies and frenetically defend particular verses having been empirically refuted.

This explains rather well why they’re so obsessed with homosexuality while utterly ignoring (or even upholding) crying social inequalities.
I have come to see books within the Biblical Canon in the same way I view other Jewish and Christian books, and offered a parallel between C.S. Lewis and the apostle Paul writing down their experiences with God.

I think that the basis of a progressive Christian theology should be the idea that as a perfect being, God has necessarily to be much more loving and just than any (purely) human being could ever be.

Thus, if your theology teaches that God predetermined countless babies to grow up for being damned and eternally suffer, you’ve made a reductio-ad absurdum of it.

I think you’re an incredibly bright person and defender of our faith, and I wish much more people would read your writings instead of those of William Lane Craig.
His evil view of God is one of the main reasons why Conservative Evangelicalism is increasingly collapsing.
https://lotharlorraine.files.wordpress.com/2013/09/armenian-genocide-02-jpg.jpeg
Keep the good work!

 

 

 

 

Renewing the Evangelical mind: an interview with Peter Enns

Renewing the Evangelical mind: an interview with Peter Enns

 

In what follows, I had the immense privilege to interview Peter Enns (links), who is undoubtedly the leading progressive Evangelical theologian in the whole world.

Here are the topics we touched upon, albeit not necessarily in a chronological order.

 

1) Where Peter Enns comes from and how his thoughts evolved with time

2) How is evolution currently perceived among American Evangelicals?

a) Young Earth Creationism

b) Old Earth Creationism and Concordism

c) His own approach

3) What were likely the intentions of the original authors as they wrote the text?

4) One of the very foundation of Evangelicalism is the idea that God cursed us with a sinful nature, making misdeeds deserving an eternal punishment inevitable.
Can we find this concept in the very text of Genesis?

5) If Paul thought it was the case but the authors of Genesis 2 and 3 didn’t hold this view, what should we believe as modern Christians?

6) What is inerrancy and why is it viewed as the very foundation of Christianity by so many people?

7) What about God inerrantly gathering errant texts for His own purposes, as Professor Randal Rauser thinks it’s the case?

8) Many people say that if there is only a small mistake in one obscure book of the Old Testament, we can no longer trust the resurrection. What’s Peter’s response to this?

9) Problem of divine hideness:

Why would God not have given us an inerrant text rather than leaving us stabbing in the dark?

Why did He allow so many people to mistakenly assume its inerrancy?

10) What did God REALLY do during the history of Israel? Did He reveal Himself to a real Abraham and a real Mose?

11) Given the results of modern critical scholarship, what makes the Protestant Canon so special?
What does it mean to say that the imprecatory psalms were more inspired than books of C.S. Lewis on pain and love, and writings of Martin Luther King on non-violence?

12) Currently, there is a massive exodus from young people out of Conservative Christianity?
What are the causes of this?

 

https://i1.wp.com/randalrauser.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Peter-Enns.jpg

 

For those interested by our conversation, I recommend the following resources:

 

Peter’s blog containing many insightful posts and Peter’s website full of great academic writings.

The following books are also worth looking:

The Evolution of Adam : What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins.
Three Views on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Counterpoints: Bible and Theology).
Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament.
Telling God’s Story: A Parents’ Guide to Teaching the Bible (Telling God’s Story).
Ecclesiastes (Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary).

UPCOMING: The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It.

 

Das Bloggen als spirituelle Erfahrung

English version: Blogging as a spiritual experience

 

Ich habe vor mehreren Monaten begonnen, zu bloggen, nachdem mir bewusst war, dass es gut wÀre, manche der vielen durch meinen Geist wandernden Gedanken nieder zu schreiben.

Trotz ihrer vorlĂ€ufigen und sich weiterentwickelnden Natur habe ich die Hoffnung, dass sie fĂŒr andere Menschen nĂŒtzlich sein können, die sich mit Ă€hnlichen Problemen befassen und damit ringen.

Ich werde zutiefst von der Tatsache betrĂŒbt, dass legitime Debatten und Diskussionen zwischen Christen und Atheisten in rhetorische Tricks, Beschimpfungen und Schikanieren entarten.

Seitdem ich mit dem Bloggen und Kommentieren angefangen habe bin ich mit sehr feindlichen Personen aus beiden Extremen der politischen und religiösen Spektren konfrontiert worden, wobei selbstverstÀndlich ihre Feindseligkeit manchmal meinen eigenen Fehlern entstammte.

 

Ich habe nach und nach bemerkt, dass es eine wunderbare Gelegenheit darstellt, eines der schwersten Gebote von Christus zu befolgen, nÀmlich seinen Feind wie sich selbst zu lieben.

 

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Ich habe keine wirkliche Feinde in meinem realen Leben, und ich begegne (zurzeit) kaum Menschen, die mir irgendwelches feindliches Verhalten zeigen. Die Dinge sehen wirklich anders aus im Internetz, wo viele Leute sich erlauben, aggressiv, herab fallend und hasserfĂŒllt zu sein, ohne persönliche Folgen befĂŒrchten zu mĂŒssen, da sie vom Schleier der AnonymitĂ€t beschĂŒtzt werden.

 

An diesem Punkt ist es recht verlockend, darauf mit den selben Methoden zu antworten.

Als Christ ist es lebensnotwendig, sich dann zu fragen, wie man die andere Person lieben kann, ihrem Fehlverhalten zum Trotz, das heisst, wie man nach ihrem Wohl streben kann, obwohl sein inneres Wesen voller Wut ist.

 

Eine Zurechtweisung und die Verwendung von Ironie können manchmal in Ordnung sein aber NIE mit dem Ziel, die Person seelisch zu zerstören.

 

All diese Interneterfahrungen zeigen mir, dass ich in dieser Hinsicht noch viele Fortschritte zu erzielen habe.  Aber es kann ein wundervoller Weg sein, um immer liebender und mitfĂŒhlender zu werden.

Und wie der Apostel Paulus sagen wĂŒrde: “Wenn ich die besten Argumente der Welt besitze aber es mir die Liebe fehlt, dann bin ich nichts…”

 

 

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Is fundamentalism destroying Christianity?

The great liberal Biblical Scholar James McGrath just wrote a nice post about this troubling question.

 

Biblical Literalism’s Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

David Hayward’s cartoon above illustrates the reason why I consider Biblical literalism to be an attack on Christianity, rather than an expression of faithfulness to it. No matter how much they insist otherwise, no one actually takes the Bible literally – not even all the bits that are “clearly” non-poetic.

But that doesn’t stop preachers from telling people they have a stark choice: either accept everything the Bible says, or toss the entire thing aside along with any faith, beliefs, and values they associate with it.

If that were indeed the choice that confronts us, then there would be no alternative to walking away, other than increasingly feigning faithfulness and consistency while hiding one’s hypocrisy.

Both options are detrimental to a healthy spiritual life.

But they aren’t the only options. Christianity flourished before it had a Bible, and when the collections of texts that Christians had could not be read by most of them. And even among those who could study and interpret the texts in question, what we see them doing with those texts is anything but literalism.

It is time to make clear to the world that the situation is not one of faithful Biblical literalists and then others who are compromising “sort of” Christians. If anything, the situation is one of progressives who are seeking to continue the dynamic interplay between tradition and novelty to which the Bible and the entire history of religion (not just Christianity) bears witness, and people who deceive the gullible into first believing, and then pretending, that they are being faithful in ways that they aren’t, at least not consistently.

But the above two options are not the only ones. There is an enormous range of others in between them and beyond them. While there are choices we sometimes need to make between two options, rarely are those two options the only ones.

Despite what fundamentalist preachers will tell you.

 

You can read my response just below.

Dear James,

words almost fail me to express my deep admiration for this wonderful post who expresses so many profound truths at the same time and in a seamless manner 🙂

I am convinced that fundamentalism (and more generally Conservative Evangelicalism) are destroying Christianity by leaving us no other choice than sacrificing our intellectual honesty or giving up our faith in Jesus altogether.

fundamentalist-Bible-david-hayward

I started blogging in order to contribute to show that this is a false dichotomy , that one can be an enlightened religious believer hoping in the God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth.

Conservative Evangelicals (CE) keep saying that progressive Christians pick and choose from the Bible in an irrational manner.

But as I have (hopefully) made it clear, THEY are the very ones who are guilty of this inconsistency.

There is nothing wrong about selectively approving good parts of a book you don’t view as inerrant, everyone (atheists, deists, pantheitst, Marxists…) do that all the time.

On the other hand, Conservative Evangelicals are constantly PLAYING DOWN the conflicting character of the different voices in the Bible and they themselves decide

– which texts they properly interpret
– which texts they necessarily have to distort because they contradict the former ones.

And they delude themselves into thinking that extraordinarily implausible harmonizations are acceptable if they are just logically possible.

I don’t hate or despise Conservative Evangelicals but think it is my duty to strongly oppose their positions, because they are really destroying our faith and are building a house of cards which is all too ready to collapse.

It is certainly no coincidence that a great number of militant atheist in America are former fundies who have never given up their bigoted mindset.

They have kept (to an important extent) the habit of thinking of the Bible as having ONLY ONE VOICE on moral issues, as the following dialogue with an anti-theist illustrates.

I think that the best apologetic strategy an enlightened Christian should take is :

recognizing that there really are Biblical atrocities attributed to God
showing that the Bible does NOT speak with one voice on most issues
– pointing out that the central message of Jesus was progressive .

I’m really looking forward to reading similar posts of yours 🙂

 

 

Weisen die Fortschritte der Naturwissenschaft auf die Wahrheit des Naturalismus hin?

English version: Does the progress of science vindicate naturalism?

 

Weisen die Fortschritte der Naturwissenschaft auf die Wahrheit des Naturalismus hin?

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Auf dem Secular Outpost bei Patheos schrieb der einsichtsvolle atheistische und naturalistische Philosoph Jeffery Jay Lowder eine interessante Post, wo er theistische ErklÀrungen kritisiert.

Ein Satz gegen das Ende des Texts hat meine Aufmerksamkeit angezogen.

“Soweit ist es sehr schwer, den Naturalisten zu blamieren, die Erfolgsgeschichte von theistischen ErklĂ€rungen mit der von naturalistischen ErklĂ€rungen zu vergleichen.”

Das Problem mit diesem Vergleich besteht darin, dass es einer Art von schwarz-weiß Denken sehr Ă€hnlich ist.

Er stellt dem Naturalismus (A) alles was mit dem Naturalismus inkompatibel ist (B) gegenĂŒber und behauptet, dass wenn durchschnittlich die Naturwissenschaft mit A besser im Einklang als mit B ist, A wahr sein sollte.

Aber es ist eine falsche Dichotomie.

Lasst uns unterschiedliche theoretische ĂŒbernatĂŒrliche Modelle betrachten, deren Existenz als Ideen unabhĂ€ngig von den Zeitpunkten ist, zu denen sie fĂŒr das erste Mal in menschlichen Geistern aufgetreten sind.

B1: Spiritismus: alles, was wir um uns herum sehen, wird von unsichtbaren KrÀften verursacht.

B2: Eingriffstheismus: es gibt einige automatische Prozesse aber Gott muss die ganze Zeit eingreifen, um Sachen festzusetzen.

B3: Fauler Theismus: viele Dinge laufen automatisch gemĂ€ĂŸ von Gott erschaffener Gesetze ab aber er muss fĂŒr wichtige Sachen wie die Erschaffung einer neuen Art eingreifen.

B4: EvolutionÀrer Theismus: Gott erschuf die Naturgesetze auf eine solche Weise, dass er im Universum wirken kann, ohne sie zu verletzen.

B5: Deismus: Gott erschuf unser Universum und kĂŒmmert sich nicht mehr darum, er war von Anfang an ein abwesender Landherr gewesen.

B6: Panentheismus (Phillip Clayton): es gibt starke emergente Eigenschaften und PhĂ€nomene, die nicht auf die Summe ihrer Bestandteile reduziert werden können. Gott ist das grĂ¶ĂŸte Wesen, das diese starke Emergenz erzeugen kann.

Wenn man eine epistemologische Version vom Occams Rasiermesser annimmt (was ich nicht tue, wie ich anderswo erklĂ€rt habe) ist es klar, dass B1 und B2 stĂ€ndig verdrĂ€ngt wurden, als die Naturwissenschaft voran geschritten ist, und seit der Zeit von Darwin ist es auch der Fall fĂŒr B3 trotz der BemĂŒhung von Kreationisten, das Gegenteil zu belegen.

Nun denken viele Atheisten (obgleich vielleicht nicht Jeff selber) folgendermaßen: durchschnittlich wurde B stĂ€ndig vom Fortschritt der Naturwissenschaft weg geschoben, was mit A völlig kompatibel ist, so da B4 und B5 zu B gehören mĂŒssen sie auch weniger wahrscheinlich als A sein.

Dies ist aber ein klares Beispiel von einer fehlerhaften Schlussfolgerung.

Wenn Sie zeigen wollen, dass B5 viel unwahrscheinlicher als A ist, mĂŒssen sie die beiden UNMITTELBAR vergleichen.

Und der außerordentliche Erfolg der Naturwissenschaft, natĂŒrliche und logische ErklĂ€rungen zu finden wĂ€re eine Vorhersage von B5 (und sogar von B4) vor 3000 Jahren gewesen.

Deshalb kann man den Erfolg von natĂŒrlichen ErklĂ€rungen nicht verwenden, um A gegenĂŒber B4, B5 und B6 zu begĂŒnstigen, weil die drei letzten Modelle die selben Dinge vorhersagen.

Alles, was man tun kann, ist den epistemologischen Rasiermesser von Occam aufzurufen:

wenn zwei Theorien die gleichen Daten genauso gut erklÀren, dann ist die einfachste Theorie immer die wahrscheinlichste.

Aber wie ich erklĂ€rt habe ist niemand fĂ€hig gewesen, dieses Prinzip zu beweisen, ohne sich im Kreis zu bewegen und Annahmen ĂŒber die tatsĂ€chliche Einfachheit des Kosmos in die Argumentation hinein zu schmuggeln.

 

 

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Remythologizing Genesis

A review of Genesis and the Rise of Civilization, by J. Snodgrass.

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There can be little doubt that the first book of our Bibles plays a major role in the North-American culture war and the countless bloody battles raging between fundamentalists and secularists.

 

Both camps keep proclaiming ad nausea that the truth of the Christian faith stands and falls with the scientific accuracy of the Biblical text and as a consequence many American young people see themselves confronted with the choice between embracing a pseudo-science made out of thin air and rejecting their faith in Christ altogether.

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This confrontation is gravely compounded by the very entrenched habit of viewing the Bible as an unified whole, which entails that errors in some parts imply errors everywhere.

 

In such a context, this book of J. Snodgrass, a liberal Biblical scholar, preacher and teacher came out as truly refreshing.

Many decades ago, the late German Protestant scholar Rudolf Bultmann set out to “demythologize” the Bible by exposing elements in the New Testament he viewed as utterly at odds with our modern scientific knowledge and replacing them by existential readings.

bultmann2

I think it is fair to say that Snodgrass’ agenda in this outstanding groundwork is not to demythologize the text of Genesis but rather to remythologize it, which basically means two things:
– overcoming the Conservative Christian tendency to misinterpret the text for making it look more rational, more scientific or more consistent with other parts of the Bible- surmounting the pervasive disdain of our Western culture against myths and their equation with worthless untruths.

 

In what follows, I want to explain why I think that this book is an extremely useful resource without betraying too much of its content and without concealing my own areas of disagreement.

 

Old Hebrew tales as parables and allegories

 

According to Snodgrass, many of the elements which have always been historically interpreted as supernatural events (such as the devil masquerading as a snake, God driving out two real persons from a wonderful garden, waters covering the whole world…) might very well have been intended to illustrate quite earthly things.

 

He begins by reminding us that unlike what many of my readers were taught in Sunday Schools, the book of Genesis is NOT a coherent document composed by a unique author (usually seen as Moses) but a mosaic work by different writers separated by large time spans and not sharing the same agendas.

He did a nice job explicating the scholarly consensus as to why the flood narrative (which leads a great part of the American population to reject significant portions of our scientific knowledge) is actually made up of two different tales clumsily woven together, as can be well visualized on the following page.

He also pointed out that the differences between Genesis 1 and 2 are best interpreted by conceptions of God at odds with each others.

Genesis 1 was all about affirming Israelite religious identity during the Babylonian exile and challenging the surrounding polytheistic creation myths.

cain-and-abel

Genesis 2 and 3 were written much earlier and are generally seen as early Israel’s explanation for its own origin, those of the people around Her and the problem of evil. Many critical scholars think it was written at the time of king Solomon, but Snodgrass call this into question, humorously  writing:

“The question of when and how the Eden stories were formed has been a puzzling one in Biblical scholarship. They are usually said to have
been assembled in the age of Solomon, a thousand years before the common era. But Solomon was a king who valued knowledge, enforced labor, and collected women – why would a story from his court have been so pessimistic about domination? If Solomon had supervised the writing, it would have gone something like this: ‘God made Adam and a thousand Eves, and commanded Adam to enslave the whole world, and kill anyone or anything who got in his way. Which he happily did. The End.”

This is but one of the numerous examples where the author conveys his scholarly thoughts in a remarkably witty way.

 

His intriguing idea is that Genesis 2-3 relates to the emergence of civilization (hence the title of the book) out of a populations of hunters and gatherers, who are themselves the ultimate source of the sacred writing and considered the rise of agriculture as a curse being far worse than only an unwelcome evolution.

He shows how this makes sense of many elements of the text, such as Cain and Abel symbolizing human populations rather than individuals, agriculture going hand in hand with environmental problems and related societal issues, such as a greater subjugation of women which was seen as a curse in Genesis 3, and so on and so forth.

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He then went on offering other interesting historical and natural explanations for the rest of the book of Genesis and other parts of the Hebrew Bible, spending a large amount of time analyzing the stories recounting the life of Abraham as well as those of his children and descendants.

Like the great liberal scholar and movie maker Thom Stark did in his book The Human Faces of God, Snodgrass made it clear that there are different portraits of God found in the Hebrew Bible, and that besides the genocidal imperialistic god of the first part of Joshua, one can also find a God of liberation and revolution at other places.

 

Viewing the Bible as an ancient book among others

 

It is extremely welcome that Snodgrass made an abundant use of the rabbinic Midrash and of Ancient Near Eastern myths throughout the whole book, showing how using the same analysis illuminates many aspects of the Biblical texts.

As I myself argued at other places, I fail to see why books contained within the Protestant Canon have necessarily to be more inspired than books located outside of it, and I am open about God’s actions (including miraculous ones) in extra-Biblical stories as well.

 

The impenetrable shroud of history and speculative assumptions

 

That said, there are some points about which I part company with the author. While I find most of his interpretations quite fascinating, I think they often remain nothing more than speculations: owing to the very few data we dispose about the precise identity of the authors and their motives, there are considerable degrees of uncertainty in any reconstruction one tries to reach.

And it is often possible to interpret the same textual situations in many different ways. While Snodgrass is obviously right that the Biblical writers (like almost everyone at that time) had a much lower of women that modern Westerners, it is debatable whether or not they always likened them to material goods or cattle.
As far as I’m concerned, I find that the Sara of Genesis acted as a pretty emancipated woman, leading several times his husband to comply to her will rather than submitting to him, as (ironically enough) she is described to have done by the authors of Hebrews in the New Testament.

 

Evil and divine hideness

 

One aspect I missed in the book is a wrestling with the problem of evil and divine hideness. Why did God create a world with so much pain, and why did he not inerrantly inspire chosen writers rather than letting them writing down their own fallible theological thoughts?

theologys-toughest-question

I certainly think there are tentative answers to these questions, but they remain the strongest arguments against Christianity, challenging both Conservative and progressive believers at the same time.

I found it great if liberal Christians were to take more time to defend their faith or hope in a good God against such objections, or perhaps honestly and pastorally struggle alongside their readers with these topics.

 

Another problem is that Snodgrass seems to explain human evil purely in terms of psychological and social factors and does not consider a genuinely indeterminate freedom.

 

A worthwhile theologically liberal book

 

These disagreements notwithstanding, I find that Genesis and the Rise of Civilization is really an outstanding scholarly book written for lay persons, and I warmly recommend it to anyone interested in the historical-critical scholarship of the Bible without expecting a patch of easy answers to appease the anguish of his or her soul.

 

 Disclaimer: this book has been granted to me through SpeakEasy so that I might review it impartially. I hereby swear I have striven for objectivity in my entire review.

 

 

 

Can all religions be true?

Chuck Queen, a good progressive Christian writer, posted a very thought-provoking text on religious pluralism.

 

Keeping Jesus, Letting Go of Christian Exceptionalism

The degree to which Christianity will contribute to a more equitable and just world will depend largely, I believe, upon the degree to which Christians can let go of their exclusive claims on God and deepen their actual commitment to the way of Jesus.

This letting go will not come easy for many steeped in traditional forms of Christianity. Christian exceptionalism is deeply entrenched within the general Christian culture—and often feeds upon American exceptionalism, which our political leaders use to justify all sorts of intrusive and unjust polices and actions, such as drone strikes in other countries.

The wave of controversy sparked by a Coca-Cola ad which ran during the Super Bowl is a good example of how embedded in our culture American exceptionalism is. The ad featured diverse voices singing America, the Beautiful in languages other than English. Apparently, some (or perhaps many) Americans believe that true Americans must speak English regardless of what other languages they may know.

Many Christians believe just as strongly that God’s true people must speak the language of Christian faith.

An English teacher once told me that in the original version of the Wizard of Oz, the Emerald City was not any greener than any other city. The wizard had put green spectacles on everyone so that to them everything appeared green.

Many of us were taught to see the world through Christian-colored glasses. Those who taught us were not bad people who were intentionally deceitful. They were simply passing on to us what had been passed on to them.

Surely the time has come in the evolution of our spiritual development to take off our singularly-colored glasses so that we can see the rich colors, textures, and beauty of a diverse world filled with diverse traditions.

Harvard religion professor Diana Eck was once asked by an elderly friend in India: “Do you really believe that God came only once, so very long ago and only to one people?”

Professor Eck said, “This very idea that God could be so stingy as to show up only once, to one people, in one part of the world, exploded my understanding of incarnation.”

Truth is not singular; it is multifaceted, multilayered, and multidimensional.

Truth is truth wherever it is found.

This means that Christians like myself who take the Bible seriously need to evolve in our interpretation of biblical texts once considered pillars of Christian exceptionalism.

Take John 14:6 for example, where Jesus says:

I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me.

How can this text be interpreted by those who relinquish Christian exceptionalism? There are several possibilities:

1. It can be applied to the risen, cosmic Christ who works anonymously through many different mediums and mediators. The Gospels, remember, were written from a post-Easter point of view. What others call by a different name may actually be the cosmic Christ.

2. The statement “except through me” can be understood to be a reference to the values and virtues Jesus incarnated. In other words, anyone who embraces the values and virtues that Jesus embodied can know God regardless of what their particular beliefs may be.

Acts 10:34 supports this interpretation:

In every nation anyone who fears (reverences) God and does what is right is acceptable to God.

3. Perhaps the best way to understand this verse is in terms of Christian particularism. The phrase “no one” can mean “none of you.”

In other words, “This is not true for everyone, and doesn’t have to be—but it is true for Christians.” John 14:6 says nothing about how those outside of Christianity can know God. This is, however, how Christians know God, namely, by following the way of Jesus into God’s truth and life.

All three of the above readings of John 14:6 are at the heart of the reasoning we find in John Shore’s popular animation below:

On one hand, letting go of Christian exceptionalism means that the God of Jesus is the God of the whole earth. This world and everything in it constitute God’s household. We all belong to one another as sisters and brothers in God’s family. So we must find ways to work together for the common good, and learn how to dialogue about our differences without claiming to have all the truth or seeking to impose our beliefs on others.

On the other hand, deepening our Christian commitment to the actual way of Jesus means taking his life and teachings seriously as “the way” to live, not just a doctrine to be confessed or believed.

Anne Howard of The Beatitude Society shared recently how John 14:6 bothered her as a child. When she was 10 years old, a group of foreign visitors came to her little Minnesota town for a weekend visit on their tour of America. Her family hosted Yuri, a friendly Russian man with a thick accent who went with her family to their Lutheran church on Sunday.

She was sorry when the visit ended, but something Yuri said during the visit really troubled her. She asked her mother about it.

“Yuri said he doesn’t believe in Jesus, or even believe in God,” she said. “I’m afraid he’s not going to go to heaven. What’s going to happen to Yuri when he dies?”

Anne’s mother wisely responded, “Christianity is not a club, Anne. It’s not about who’s in and who’s out. It’s about how we live.”

Yes! A transformative faith is a faith that transforms how we live.

We Christians are not exceptional because we are chosen by God over others, or because we possess the truth while others do not. However, if we truly follow the way of Jesus we should be exceptional

– in the ways we love and forgive others,
– in the way we pursue truth wherever the truth leads us,
– in the ways we care for the suffering, indentify with the marginalized, and engage in social justice,
– in the ways we practice hospitality, generosity, and invest in the common good.

If more Christians could let go of their Christian exceptionalism while deepening their commitment to Jesus, we could lead the way forward in helping to heal and give hope to our world.

 

OneWayToHeaven-300x300

Here was my response to this:

 

Hello Chuck, that’s really a terrific and awesome post you just wrote 🙂

I think there are three things which needs to be distinguished here:

1) Will God only grant everlasting bliss to those dying as Christians?

2) Does God only manifest Himself in the Christian and Jewish religions?

3) Are all religions legitimate ways to get closer to the Almighty?

I passionately reject 1) and do believe there will be many conversions beyond the grave. I find it profoundly blasphemous to assert that the Good Father will eternally torture anyone who perish without believing in Him.

I also find that 2) is utterly wrong.

Conservative Evangelicals like quoting the parable of the sheep of the goats for proving the alleged eternity of torments in hell.

 

grazers

“31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

But they are facing a HUGE PROBLEM.

Taking this parable at face value would lead one to believe that works play an important role in salvation, a doctrine Evangelicals passionately detest.

More importantly perhaps, this parable teaches that people having never heard of Christ were serving Him while doing good deeds and will usher into His holy presence.

Interestingly enough, the apostle Paul himself thought that Pagan poets writing about Zeus could get important things about God right!

However I don’t think that 3) is true. God cannot simultaneously endorse religions whose core messages are contradictory .

If Jesus was really (in some mysterious sense) God’s incarnation whose death and resurrection reconciled us with Him in some way (which is not necessarily the same thing as penal substitution), then it naturally follows that a Muslim does not get to paradise by following the Koran or a Buddhist through the careful use of meditation. I do believe that many will find God on the other side of the grave ( along many noble atheists ) but it will be through Christ rather than through what they subjectively considered true during their earthly life.

Conversely, if Christianity is wrong and Buddhism is true, Christians won’t be saved through Jesus but because they (more or less unconsciously) followed the Eastern path of enlightenment.

I applaud you for wanting to give a more human face to American Christianity, but I don’t believe that the problem lies in the uniqueness of Christ BUT in the widespread conviction that all of those passing away as non-Christians have earned an eternal stay in God’s torture chamber .

HELL-ETERNALLY-104841758075

Once one has dropped away this abhorrent doctrine, one is free to express one’s humanity through art and creativity and by working along Atheists, Budhists, Agnostics, Muslims… of good will to change the world even while thinking that important points of their belief systems are wrong.

Taking an agnostic stance is, of course, another logical possibility, but thinking that all these religions are true at the same time is irrational.

I hope you won’t take this as a personal critique. I really admire your strong willingness to spread God’s radiant love everywhere and I do hope we’ll have opportunities to interact in the future.

Progressively yours, Marc 🙂

 

To which Chuck answered:

 

Marc, you have shared a lot of food for thought here and raised some important issues. Maybe I can comment on what I think are the crucial ones. I would answer “no” to all three questions. What I like about Christian particularism as oppossed to Christian exceptionalism is that I can only say what is true for me as a Christian and my Christian community. I believe God speaks in all sorts of ways and means and there are many other ways of encountering God other than the Christian way. But certainly all religions have their toxic expressions. I like to say that while not all paths lead to God, God will travel down any path to get to us, to make known to us God’s love and grace and vision of human possibility.

I am still growing, evolving, changing with regard to my understanding of the uniqueness of Christ and the ontological relationship between the human Jesus and the living Christ. My thinking recently is that the “the living Christ” is more of an an archetypal symbol of what it means to be truly and fully human. I’m finding it more and more difficult to believe that the human Jesus in a resurrected state actually functions as God functions, though it does seem that the early Christians came to this view fairly early. Maybe I’m getting way too theological here. And I’m not sure what we believe about such things matters much.

What matters for me is “the way” of Jesus as presented in our sacred tradition — that “way” is truly transformative. I’m sure the core elements of the way of Jesus (compassion, love of neighbor, nonviolence, self-surrender, humility, commitment to a just world, etc.) are part of other paths as well, but I am not knowledgable enough about other religions to speak with any authority here. You might note in my comments to Wolf that I refer to myself as a hopeful universalist. I can’t say for sure everyone will eventually choose to face the many ways they have hurt and offended others and choose to love, but I hope that is the case. I don’t believe God ever gives up on a person, however long it takes, though I cannot imagine what that might look like in a different sphere of existence (afterlife).

What I am very confident about is that the way of Jesus as presented in our Christian tradition could change us and our world if we followed it.
I suspect that is what God cares about – that we become mature, loving, good, caring, etc. human beings. I look to Jesus as the definitive image of what that looks like. I’m sure there are other images and “icons” — but Jesus is mine.

 

I think it is vital to have such respectful and friendly discussions about these issues without resorting to rhetoric and loaded words.