An interview with progressive Methodist minister Roger Wolsey

I had recently the immense privilege to interview Roger Wolsey who is a fascinating man in many respects.

Hi Roger, thank you very much for having accepted my invitation. Could you please tell us what your background is?
Sure. It’s an honor. I’m a 46 year old “Gen X” American. I was born and raised in Minnesota. I’m a Christian and grew up in the United Methodist Church. I originally thought I’d pursue a career either in politics or in conflict resolution/mediation – yet felt a call from God to become a pastor 2 years after I graduated from college. I earned a Masters of Divinity degree from the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, CO and am an ordained United Methodist pastor. I currently serve as the director of the Wesley Foundation campus ministry at the University of Colorado in Boulder. I am an advocate for progressive Christianity and have written a book called “Kissing Fish: christianity for people who don’t like christianity” – which is an introduction to progressive Christianity. I also blog for Pathos, Elephant Journal, and The Huffington Post.
a typo up there, should be Patheos.
Alright! And you owe your own existence to this methodist congregation, am I correct? 😉
Indeed. In fact, my parents met each other when they were grad students at the Wesley Foundation at the University of Kansas at Lawrence. : )
I was born in 1968, the year that the UMC became a new denomination – and was likely one of the first people baptized in that new denomination. (along with my twin sister)

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That’s truly a cute tale 🙂 You obviously believe one can honor God by being a passionate trumpet player, don’t you?
Well, yes. For me, playing my trumpet is one of the ways that I pray and commune with God. Music inspires others in ways that spoken word can’t always do.
Do you identify yourself as a progressive or as an emergent Christian?
Progressive. I understand progressive Christianity as being the post-modern influenced evolution of mainline liberal Christianity.
What’s the main difference between progressive and liberal Christianity?
Well, there are several. Progressive Christianity is less colonial and less patriarchal. And, while progressive Christianity fully embraces the insights of contemporary science, including the theory of evolution, it is less overly enamored with science and less willing to cede everything to science. It’s less needing to find scientific explanations of various miracle stories in the Biblical text, and more willing to simply receive the text as it is – as story. Progressive Christianity is less modern and more post-modern – willing to accept that God’s fully at work in all other world religions. Finally, progressive Christianity has more consensus that homosexuality isn’t a sin.
Re: science, progressive Christianity is more willing to embrace paradox and mystery than liberal Christianity was.
Finally, it’s more passionate than liberal Christianity and more embracing of poetry and the arts. Oh, it’s also more eclectic and willing to draw insights, prayers, and practices from the entirety of the Christian – and even non-Christian- traditions.
I wholeheartedly agree with the bit about homosexuality. Theologian Roger Olson once defined liberal Christianity as the rejection of anything supernatural (at least in our world). Do you think it’s a good summary?
Answer: Perhaps. That certainly rings true for me. However, another progressive Christian writer, Roger Lee Ray, also fully rejects the supernatural. He and I disagree on that. That said, I embrace panentheism instead of supernatural theism. However, for me, there really is some portion of God that is transcendent and “relatable as a person.” I don’t pray to myself.
I pray to God.
That’s truly fascinating. Could you (shortly) explain what you mean by this panentheistic personhood?
It’s a bit hard to do justice to that question in a Skype interview. I describe that in full in the chapter about God in my book Kissing Fish. However, in the panentheist view, God is fully immanent within all of Creation – and – fully transcendent from the Created order. Both aspects are ways for various people to connect and relate to God. Some can commune with God simply by being in nature, others do so in a more private inner prayer life that can take place just as readily in an ornate gothic cathedral as in a plastic booth at McDonalds. That’s the more transcendent aspect IMO. Though — as with a circle, if you go far enough in either direction – you reach the same point. Paradox.
That said, as a Christian, I believe that the qualities and characteristics of God are well conveyed in the person of Jesus – including God’s passions and emotions. However, I don’t pray to Jesus, I pray to the God that Jesus prayed to.
Okay, thanks..
For most (albeit not all) Conservative Evangelicals, the Gospel might be summarized as follows:
1) God created Adam and Eve in a state of moral perfection
2) they ate the wrong fruit
3) consequently God cursed their billions of descendants with a sinful nature
4) everyone deserves an eternal stay in God’s torture chamber due to an imperfection the Almighty Himself made inevitable
5) Therefore people can only avoid this fate by believing in Jesus
6) All people dying as non-Christian will agonize during billions, billions and billions of years…
Can one call this a “good new”?


I suppose that view may work for some. But it’s clearly circular reasoning, clearly triumphalisitic and exlusiveistic, and clearly dysfunctional.
Those premises and ways of viewing the faith don’t work for many people today. Hence, the rise of progressive and emerging Christianity.
That view, to my mind, isn’t truly a robust faith in God, but instead, merely “fire insurance” — believing because you have to. : P
Would you be able to put your own view of the Gospel in a nutshell?
Hmm. Let me give a crack at it.
God created the world and the people in it. Life has the potential for real joy and beauty, but due to our free will, humans have a tendency to not act wisely or in our truest best interest. We abuse our free will and oppress and limit ourselves and others. Through the life, teachings, and example of Jesus, God has provided a way for humans to transform from a more reptilian – fear based – way of living, toward a more trusting, just, and compassionate way of relating to ourselves and others. To the extent that we follow the Way of Jesus, we can know and experience salvation/wholeness. And the good new is that we don’t do it all on our own. God’s grace provides when our efforts can’t — but again to the extent that we allow and receive it.
I’d also say that the good news is that each day is a new day, a fresh start, and we aren’t defined by or limited by our past.
Thanks 🙂 You obviously don’t believe in inerrancy. Is there a sense in which one can say that the Bible is inspired?
True, I don’t believe that the Bible is without fault. That said, I’d contend that everything that I just stated is amply supported by the Biblical texts. I’d say that everything that humans create is in some way inspired by God. Part of how we are created “in God’s image” is our creativity. We’re co-creators with God. I believe that some of our creations are more blessed and condoned by God than others, and that those things that are truly blessed and condoned by God are especially inspired. Many poets, artists, musicians, song-writers, etc. tap in to “the muse” – which is a metaphor for the Holy Spirit – and the people who wrote the texts in the Bible were especially seeking to tap into God’s inspiration and co-create with God. To the extent that they got it right – it’s notable. As are the glaring instances when they were off the mark.
Amen to that! What’s your take on how to approach social justice issues?
Well, again, I devote a chapter to that in my book. Here’s a link to a sermon that I wrote that explains it pretty well. “Band-aids aren’t enough” http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rogerwolsey/2012/08/band-aids-arent-enough-progressive-christian-social-justice
Essentially, I’d say that as a prophet, Jesus and his message were as political as they are spiritual. The top two subjects that Jesus spoke about were politics (proclaiming and describing the kingdom/empire of God which is subversive to worldly powers) and economics – money and our relationship to it.
Authentic Christianity comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. It soothes our souls and lights a fire under our butts to effect social change.
To your mind, why are so many American Christians convinced that they ought to be Republicans in order to follow Christ?
I think that’s less the case than it used to be. That notion arose in about 1980 with the wedding of the election of Ronald Reagan with the creation of the so-called “Moral Majority” – which essentially turned the Grand Old Party into “God’s Own Party.” That was the same time that the Southern Baptist Convention was hijacked by fundamentalists. Since they are the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S., that set the tone for popular American Christianity for many years. Thankfully, that era is waning and more and more younger American evangelicals are overtly seeking to distance themselves from the Republican party. Indeed, more and more Americans are “coming out” as Christian Liberals. Check out the massive growth of “The Christian Left” Facebook page!


Okay, thanks for this summary. What are you up to now?
I’m going to be taking a sabbatical the first half of 2015 in order to write a new book – and collaborate with two other writers on another book yet.
The working title for my upcoming book is “Orange Duct Tape Jesus.” Stay tuned for developments!
That will most likely be truly stunning! 😉 I thank you very much for all the time you granted me.

The ordeal of progressive Christianity in America

I recently had the immense privilege to interview the fantastic progressive Christian blogger Michelle Morr Krabill, author of the blog WordOfaWoman.

She confessed me she also has a chaotic mind so that our mutual dialog won’t necessarily be always well structured 🙂

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Hi Michelle, thank you so much for having joined me! Could you please tell us more about your background?
Good afternoon! Thanks for inviting me. I have a long and interesting background but I will try to give you the shortened version. When I was a very young girl my family was involved in the Methodist church. However when I was about 5 my parents became involved with The Way International. After I got married, my husband and I left the Way and kind of were on our own, occasionally meeting with other people who had left that ministry. After a few years we began attending a non-denominational evangelical church. About 5 years ago we started our own community, Novitas Church.
There is really so much more to the story.
Did you start your journey with Conservative views regarding the Bible?

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Yes and no. The Way had very diverse views, on the one hand they believed in the inerrancy of the Scriptures and on the other they were non-trinitarian, believed in the gifts of the spirit, the concept of soul sleep and the law of believing. However, as an adult I became an evangelical and bought into most of the standard doctrines and practices of the evangelical church.
My views have definitely evolved over the years.
That is to say there was a time where you held fast to the Chicago statement on inerrancy, according to which everything a Biblical writer intended to convey is true, right?
Yes. I was definitely taught that the Bible in its original state was without error and was “the Word and Will of God”.
What called this conviction into question?
As with so many things it is a build up I think of many things over many years, but I think the turning point for me personally was a book called The Blue Parakeet by Scot McKnight.
What is this book about?
Blue Parakeet is a book about how we read and relate to the Bible. It talks about how the Bible is actually more of a library of books that contain the stories of how people throughout time have related to God.
But Scot himself holds fast on inerrancy, doesn’t he?
It suggests that we should flip the book over as it were and picture Jesus as the spine and read both the Old and New Testaments through the lens of Jesus’ life.
You know, I am not 100% sure where Scot stands on inerrancy.
I just know that for me, looking at the Scriptures in a new way, does not detract from them at all but rather it allows me to reinterpret them in light of the life of Jesus.
Where people related to God as judgmental and honestly a little genocidal in the old testament, we see through the life of Jesus, that that was simply the way the people of that time understood God.
Frank Schaeffer was just here with us last weekend and he puts it in a really great way…
He likes to say that Jesus came to edit our views about who God is. In fact the way Jesus dealt with the Torah (the only Scriptures he had access to) was to question it at every turn. He would often say, it says this but I say this in direct contradiction to the law.
My own journey has led me to view Scriptures as people reporting their own experience with God in the same way many of them did outside the Protestant Canon. I, for example, don’t view the author of Hebrews as necessarily more inspired than C.S. Lewis. But I do believe that both men have had terrific experiences with the Almighty.
Is it something you might be sympathetic to?
I wholeheartedly agree. I believe God spoke through the scriptures but he is still speaking today and I can learn just as much from you as I can from Paul. Blasphemy, I know. 🙂
(I return you the blasphemous compliment 🙂 )
I think that historical critical scholarship makes it extremely hard to maintain the notion that God speaks through a limited set of ancient books.
I do as well and I think that everyday life bears this out as well.
And, as I said before, I think Jesus himself proves this to be true.
He was decidedly not a “man of the book” in the sense that he was constantly running afoul of Levitical rules.
Touching the leper
Touching dead bodies
Letting a bleeding woman touch him
Calling the women out of the kitchen to come and talk to him
Talking to the Samaritan woman
Working on the Sabbath
Not picking up a stone to kill the woman caught in adultery.

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What is your response to Conservative Evangelicals saying that Jesus DID believe these laws to be inerrant BUT also temporarily limited?
So you say. Were you there to ask him?
How do you know?
We have no evidence, written or otherwise that would indicate that.
In my opinion they find that kind of freedom unnerving.
Yeah, but they might say we have no evidence either that he did not approve of these laws.
It is much harder to control people if my way is correct.
Actually we do, his own words and actions.
To my mind, it’s clear that Christ viewed these laws as a hindrance against charity.
Jesus had but one law. The law of love.
He said EVERYTHING depended on it
Precisely! This is the very basis of my argument for Gay marriage. All things forbidden are forbidden because they run against Love and are harmful.
Agreed.
But homosexuality isn’t harmful and doesn’t go against Love therefore Gay marriage should not be forbidden
I did a whole series on the so called “clobber passages” the verses used to condemn homosexuality.
Many of these verses are far more ambiguous than many people think, even if one accepts inerrancy.
People can find the series here.
Thanks!
I think people are often surprised when they learn how few verses actually talk about the subject in the scriptures and how misinterpreted they often are. The link is for the conclusion post but has links to all the previous posts in the series.
It is also stunning that “sodomy” can be better interpreted as gluttony and lack of charity according to several Biblical writers
Indeed!
Is it fair to say that caring for the poor is in the Bible (as far as the volume is concerned) 2000 more important than same-sex relationships?
Not sure how many times exactly, but for sure far far more verses on caring for the poor and yet most of the western Christians I know are more concerned with stopping gay marriage than they are with feeding the poor, especially if the government has anything to do about it. The gospel of Jesus is all too often replaced with the gospel of Ayn Rand and the Christian Coalition.
What is the Gospel of the Christian Coalition?


The Christian Coalition, is a group started by Pat Robertson to give Christians a voice in government. Their website says: The Coalition is a political organization, made up of pro-family Americans who care deeply about ensuring that government serves to strengthen and preserve, rather than threaten, our families and our values. To that end, we work continuously to identify, educate and mobilize Christians for effective political action.
You can find their agenda here.
It includes, defunding Obamacare, Defending the second amendment, defending traditional marriage, outlawing abortion, defending gun rights, standing with Israel, posing Liberal judicial nominees etc.
yada yada yada
And what about the poorest members of American society?
To hell with them. Sorry. I know that seems a little harsh, but for the most part when it comes to government programs to aid the poor there is little to no compassion to be found.
People often state they think taking care of the poor is the church’s job not the government’s.
But comparisons with Continental Europe aren’t very flattering, right?
The problem with that is if you do a little digging, most churches spend about 3% of their budget on benevolence.
No, in my opinion, they are not very flattering.
I did a piece on this a while back as well. It can be found here.
Is it STILL the case that, in highly modern America, poor children are receiving a terrible and inhumane healthcare?

Children await treatment at a free clinic as part of Operation Lone Star August 4, 2008 in Laredo, Texas. The two-week medical operation, run by the Texas military forces and the Human Services Commission, aims to treat more than 10,000 people along the Texas border with Mexico. Many of the patients are either uninsured or underinsured and cannot afford medical and dental care on their own. Healthcare has become an important issue in this year's U.S. presidential campaign.
It is! Obamacare has actually done a lot to mitigate the problem but there is still a long way to go.
For example, in states like mine (I live in Texas) Governor Perry has refuse to take much of the federal money available for helathcare.
Most Conservatives I know are no moral monsters. But they say that it’s not the job of the STATE to care for poor children, this should be the concern of their family, relatives, communities, Churches and so on.
I totally agree. Most conservatives I know are kind and loving people. But there is this huge disconnect when it comes to the government helping the poor.
What are the shortcomings of their solutions?
There just isn’t enough money in the church coffers to get the job done.
Even if we spent 100% of the money in the church budget.
I outline all of it in the article I posted.
Of course. But what about FREE donations of rich people?
There are a lot of numbers. You would be surprised.
I actually have a huge problem with the whole way we have the church structured. From the pastoral/priest system to the way we do church with big buildings and big congregations, to the seminary system. It seems set up to create Pharisees.
And often cults of personality.
Like that about Mark Driscoll?
Exactly like Mark Driscoll.
Mark is just a man like any other man and the system is set up to elevate men like him to a position they should never be expected to fill. It is set up to become a Machiavellian nightmare.
Make no mistake, he is responsible for his own actions, but they system is set up to feed it.
Could you sum up what you view as his worst sins?
People will go to a church with thousands and a huge light show and a rock climbing wall and a gym over a small church that meets in a bar. Often they choose a show over a community.
I don’t know that rehashing Mark’s sins by me is profitable at this point. He is a sinner in need of grace just like me. However I do think the need for repentance is real and as of yet that seems to be non-existent.
Oh yeah I completely agree we should never see ourselves as morally superior to our enemies but I do think we must sometimes talk about bad things they did…both for their victims and the health of their own soul.
I meant his bullying concerning Gays and women.
I think this needs to be clearly exposed for avoiding history to repeat itself.
Agreed.
Even if Mark might have been disfavored by a bad psychological background, so it’s not about judging ourselves as superior to him.
Mark’s bullying and misogyny are well documented and evil for sure.
Could you perhaps give examples of him or anyone else bullying people in this manner?
I think we begin to heal from this sort of thing when we recognize that often as people we want someone like Mark to tell us what to do. Many people gravitate to a person who will control them because it makes them feel safe. If you tell me what God wants from me and then I do it I can feel like I know that I am okay with God. In my opinion we should never allow anyone the voice or opportunity to decide for us who God is or who is “in” or “out”. When we give people that kind of power we should not be surprised that they abuse that power.
Amen!
The examples of Mark’s bullying and misogyny are all over the internet.
There is a great article about this by John Shore. As he says, you can’t allow people to pee in your pool. lol
There is a growing number of people in America who leave the Church and become resentful anti-theists.
What’s your take on this?
Here is a quote from the post which sums it up quite well for me:
“The idea of letting other people tell me, or in any way decide for me, who God is, or what the nature of God is, is … repelling to me. I mean, I get why eventually any sane person would just go, “Something’s wrong here. Christianity appears to be a solid FAIL. I gave it my all. But enough is enough. I’m out.”
But, for me, screw that. If people keep peeing in my pool, I don’t abandon the pool. I refresh the water, and then build a fence to keep people the freak out. I stop letting strangers in my … pool area. (Um … to be clear: I’m not advocating keeping people away from Christianity–as if anyone in this culture could, given that, you know, it’s everywhere. What I mean is that I have no interest in … letting, well, pee-ers—by which I mean toxic people whom I don’t know or don’t respect—to … sully my waters, pee in my pool, get into my yard, define for me my Christianity–which, for the record, is unimpeachably rational and militantly non-invasive.)”
My faith is my faith no one else’s. It is my responsibility to continuously choose love over judgment, to welcome everyone in the name of Jesus, to choose freedom over bondage.
Amen!
For me the day I trade my doubts and freedom for the certainty of three songs and one man who has “all the answers” is the day I begin to lose my soul.
The irony is, since I have begun to embrace my doubts and the paradox of life, I have never felt closer to God.
I feel delighted for you 🙂 But time is beginning to fly by. Could you, to conclude, talk about the World Vision catastrophe? You know, this Evangelical welfare organization who ended up stopping discriminating Gay people among their employees. Consequently, most Conservative supporters retracted their help. Could you please put this in a nut shell?
It was tragic. I thought their initial decision was good but then when everyone jumped ship and abandoned the kids which was so upsetting. I know they backpedaled because of that. In the end the children were the ones who got hurt. It was just awful. I find it appalling that people would abandon children over the issue of loving all people.
I entirely share your feelings. But in Europe, Conservative Evangelicals are much less focused on homosexuality than in the States. What could one do for fostering the evolution of mentalities in this country of yours?
I think it is currently evolving and at a rather quick pace. The millennials in particular are much more inclusive than previous generations.
But, I think that attunes are changing across all generations. We are in the process of becoming a much more inclusive people and that makes me very happy
As always I think it is a matter of empathy.
🙂 🙂
So I thank you very much for this interview. You’ve been truly wonderful.
Of course! It was my pleasure. I really enjoyed it.

 

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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.

 

 

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?

 

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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.

 

Predestined to eternally suffer? An interview with philosopher Jerry Walls

Note: text like this  means a hyper-link.

 

Calvinism (also known as reformed theology) is on the rise in the Conservative Protestant world and I am not the only one who finds that deeply preoccupying. In what follows, I had the immense privilege to interview Dr. Jerry Walls, who is an outstanding philosopher of religion defending a view called Arminianism.

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Lotharson: Thank you Jerry for having accepting my interview. Could you please sum up your personal background for my readers?
Jerry Walls: I was born and raised in Knockemstiff, a small village in southern Ohio. I attended a small revivalist church where I accepted Jesus as my savior in a revival when I was 11 years old. I preached my first sermon at age 13. After high school, I attended a Wesleyan Bible college for a couple years, where I seriously engaged Wesleyan theology. I graduated from Houghton College, also a Wesleyan school before attending Princeton theological seminary. I also took a degree from Yale divinity school and then pastored a church for three years. Then I went to Notre Dame where I did a PhD in philosophy, writing a dissertation defending the doctrine of hell. So I have a pretty diverse educational background.Bild
Lotharson: Yep! What version of hell did you defense back then?
Jerry Walls: I defended the view that hell is eternal because some people freely choose to remain there forever. I also pointed out that universalism and Calvinism share the assumption that God can save anyone he will. The difference is that for Calvinism, God does not choose to save everyone, whereas for the universalists he does. I argue that God truly desires to save all, but some are lost because we are free and some choose to reject God forever.

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Lotharson: Thanks, this is truly fascinating 🙂 Would you say that annihilationism (the destruction of the lost) is perpendicular to the debates between Calvinists and free-will Arminians such as yourself?

A calvinist and an Arminian can (possibly) be either an annhilationist or believe in eternal torment. Do you think this is the case?
Jerry Walls: Yes, those are views that can be combined. But either way, whether God determines people to eternal misery or (mere!) annihilation, either way the Calvinist God does not truly love all persons.

Lotharson: I agree with this! Why do you believe that your view of hell is the right one as opposed to other options? Could you please put it in a nutshell?
Jerry Walls: Well, God’s very nature is love and he created us in his image for relationships of love, both with himself and other persons. For us to truly love God, we have to be free. If God determined our “love” for himself, he would be loving himself rather than receiving genuine love from us. So for genuine love and worship to be possible, it must be possible that we can refuse to love God, to worship and obey him and so on. If that happens, we are necessarily unhappy for we are missing out on the very thing for which we were created–loving relationship with God and other persons. Hell is the natural misery that results when we choose not to love and obey God.

Lotharson: I largely agree with this though I think it begs some questions concerning eternal torment. But right now, I’d like to talk about reformed theology. What is, to your mind, the most concise way for summing up Calvinism?

Jerry Walls: Well, the famous TULIP, particular what I call “ULI in the middle.” God unconditionally chooses to save some, but not all, Christ died only for the elect that God unconditionally chooses to save, and God gives irresistible grace to the fortunate elect.
Jerry Walls: Particularly…

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Lotharson: And what about four-point Calvinists rejecting limited atonement?
Jerry Walls: That is only because it is rather embarrassing to admit you don’t really believe “God so loved the (whole) world” and gave his Son for all. But that is only a feeble attempt to mask the hard reality that the Calvinist God does not truly love all persons. So long as you have unconditional election and irresistible grace only for the elect, it does not help to play down limited atonement. You still have limited salvation. It is limited strictly to the elect God unconditionally chooses to save, but no one else.

Lotharson: Yeah, I also think that this distinction between single and double predestination is an illusion. What are now your main arguments against reformed theology?

Jerry Walls: Well, the heart of the issue is the character of God. Is he truly a God of love who is perfectly good? You cannot claim this with any plausibility if you believe God determines people to damnation, people he could just as easily determine to salvation. He could determine all persons FREELY to accept the Gospel (as Calvinists define freedom) but choose not to. God is more glorified by unconditionally choosing to save some and damning others than he would be by determining all to accept salvation. Such claims make shambles of the claim that God is love.
Jerry Walls: Calvinists are skillful at employing the rhetoric of love and most people do not really understand what Calvinists are saying. So Calvinism maintains credibility by way of misleading rhetoric about the love of God that their theology does not really support.

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Lotharson: Many Calvinists I told that answered me that God is a JUST judge. We are not free to chose good, but when we sin we are freely sinning, so that we deserve a punishment. What’s your take on this?
Jerry Walls: Freely only means doing “willingly” what God has determined you to do. He determines your will in such a way that you “willingly” choose sin. However, you cannot do otherwise. That flies in the face of how we understand justice. A person is considered culpable only for things over which he has control. And what would we think of a judge who determined a criminal to “willingly” murder someone and then sentenced him to death for murder? We would hardly think such a judge was just. Yet, that is just how Calvinists see God.

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Lotharson: Precisely. But then Calvinists say that we have NO RIGHT to judge God’s morality. He is the potter, we are the clay and we have to abide by HIS rules, however repugnant they might seem us to be. Do you often have heard such a reply in your own debates with Calvinists?
Jerry Walls: Well, that is a very compliacated question. Can God make anything right, just by willing it? Can he make lying right? Blasphemy? I believe whatever God wills is right, but I DO NOT think it follows that God can will just anything and make it right. He is necessarily good and loving in his nature, and can only will things that are compatible with his perfect goodness. So it is not a matter of us judging God by OUR standards, but rather that our moral intuitions are part of the image of God in us. To judge the Calvinist account of God to be morally abhorrent is not to judge God, but only the Calvinist account of him. For a fuller discussion of the relationship between God and morality, see the book David Baggett and I co-authored, “Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality” that was published in 2011.

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Lotharson: Thanks for the link! What I don’t understand is how Calvinists manage to live. They profess that God predetermined Hitler, the Shoah and predetermined most victims to eternally suffer. How is it possible to keep living without sinking into a dark depression?

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Jerry Walls: Great question! I think the answer again goes back to the inconsistency of Calvinism. They affirm the love of God for all persons, that he is perfectly good, and so on, but fail to see how these claims are utterly incompatible with their theology. They do not consistently work out the implications of determinism and compatibilism, and often think and say things that only make sense on a libertarian view of freedom. And of course, they often resort to “mystery” under the guise that it is true piety to believe things they do not understand or that do not make rational sense. But again, if people really understood compatibilism and the true implications of Calvinism, many could not believe it.
Many however, do sink into depression if they really understand Calvinism and its implications. I recently got an email from a guy who had been watching my videos and said he was moving to embrace Arminianism after being a Calvinist his whole life. He admitted the Calvinist view of God was at odds with the biblical picture of Jesus, and that he had little joy in his Christian life. The strain between what Calvinism teaches and what he truly believed was too great, and he finally realized he needed to give up Calvinism.

Lotharson: I am glad to hear about this happy ending 🙂

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Jeremiah 32:35 is extremely embarrassing for all divine determinists holding fast to Biblical inerrancy.
“35 They built high places for Baal in the Valley of Ben Hinnom to sacrifice their sons and daughters to Molek, though I never commanded—nor did it enter my mind—that they should do such a detestable thing and so make Judah sin.”
How do Calvinists interpret this passage?

Jerry Walls: I’m not sure, but this may be good candidate for the infamous distinction between the revealed and the decretive will of God. He reveals one thing to be his will, and commands it, but decrees something altogther different! Talk about internal conflict!

Lotharson: If a human being spoke and acted in this way, would we not universally call him or her an infamous deceiver?
Jerry Walls: Or worse. For the Calvinist, God’s ways that are “higher” than ours are actually lower than the standards we expect for a decent human being.

Lotharson: Yeah, and this is truly frightening. Is Neo-Calvinism on the rise in modern Evangelicalism?
Jerry Walls: Well, if you mean by Neo-Calvinism, just classic Calvinism, then yes, very much so.
Lotharson: Are there countless Arminian Churches who are being taken over?

Jerry Walls: I’m not sure of the number, but yes, some Arminian churches are being taken over by Calvinists.
Lotharson: Does it have regrettable consequences, especially in the way non-Christians view the Church?
Jerry Walls: I doubt that non-Christians know the difference. But it does cause conflict and division in some churches.
Jerry Walls: And again, Calvinists are not usually forthright in their views to unbelievers. Calvinists often say God loves everyone.

Lotharson: Is it morally praiseworthy to worship a deity having condemned one’s own son to an eternity of suffering BEFORE he was ever born? (I’m thinking on John Piper)

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Jerry Walls: The idea of unconditional election to salvation and damnation is morally abhorrent, and applying it to your own children only makes it more graphic. But that is Calvinist piety at its best. You sacrifice not only your child but also your moral intuitions in the name of worshiping a God whose “goodness” is utterly at odds with the normal meaning of that term.

Lotharson: I wholeheartedly agree with you! But it seems to me that Conservative Arminians have also many troubles.
For (the overwhelming majority of) Conservative Evangelical Arminians, if a non-Christian goes onto the other side of the grave, he can AUTOMATICALLY count on an eternity of terrifying distress. Do you agree with this?

Jerry Walls: I believe God’s mercy endures forever and his nature of perfect love does not change the minute we die. I agree with CS Lewis that the doors of hell are locked on the inside and that God is always willing to welcome the prodigal home.

Lotharson: So, do you expect post-mortem conversions?
Jerry Walls: Yes. I believe God truly desires to save all persons, and that many persons have not had a full opportunity to hear and respond to the gospel in this life. You do not go to hell for lack of opportunity to be saved, but for steadfastly resisting the opportunity to do so. If this is true, it makes sense that persons who have not had opportunity to receive the gospel in this life will do so after death.

Could you put your views on purgatory in a nutshell and mention useful resources?

Jerry Walls: Well, in a nutshell, purgatory is about completing the sanctification process begun in this life. For a full defense of this claim, see my book “Purgatory: The Logic of Total Transformation.” For a shorter account see my article “Purgatory for Everyone” that appeared in “First Things” several years ago. I also have a couple of videos on You Tube. One is CS Lewis on Why our Souls Demand Purgatory and the other is CS Lewis and Mere Purgatory. Thanks for the interview.

Lotharson: I was delighted to have had you!

 

Intelligent design, eternal torment and the restoration of everything: an interview with Kevin Miller

I had the immense privilege to interview the great and incredibly gifted movie maker Kevin Miller. He is a unique person in many respects and an outstanding Christian having left behind a great part of his conservative Evangelical baggage.

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Leaving Conservative Evangelicalism

Lotharson: Hello Kevin, I’m very glad you accepted to give me this interview. Could you please sum up your personal and religious background for the benefit of our readers?

Kevin Miller: I was raised in a theologically liberal but morally conservative home. My grandfather was actually a minister in the United Church of Canada, which is probably one of the most liberal Christian denominations in the country. However, at age 9, I had a “born again” experience at an evangelical Christian Bible camp. I pretty much kept that experience a secret though b/c my parents were pretty antagonistic toward that way of thinking. In my teens though, both of my parents underwent a similar experience, and we wound up attending an evangelical Mennonite Church. From there, I attended a Bible College, eventually earning a degree in youth ministry. After college, I spent 8 months in Kenya doing missionary work. Then I came back to Canada and went to university. That’s when my life and faith sort of imploded. I didn’t have any real Christian community around me, and all of the stuff I had been suppressing all those years came out. So I spent a few years wrestling with a lot of demons before finally emerging from the wilderness due to a reencounter with some friend from Bible college–and also a powerful reencounter with God. I felt like the prodigal son who had finally come home. But I still only had one foot inside the circle, so to speak, b/c I felt that somehow I’d been brainwashed or indoctrinated during my time spent in the evangelical world, and I didn’t know how to move forward. Thankfully, some good mentors came into my life around that time and started to provide me with a framework in which to analyze my experience.
Kevin Miller: I’ve always been a pretty analytical person, constantly questioning things. It’s probably some sort of unhealthy coping mechanism, b/c it makes it pretty difficult to buy into a particular theological system or faith community. I always tend to find myself on the boundary. I think that’s where I feel most comfortable.

Academic persecutions against intelligent design?

Lotharson: This is quite a fascinating story and helps better understanding your works and creations. My next question would be about your thoughts on intelligent design (ID). You wrote the script for the movie “Expelled” describing the academic intolerance towards ID. What did motivate you to do this?

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Kevin Miller: I was recruited for that project following the release of my first film, “After…,” a psychological thriller that takes place in the subterranean world beneath Moscow. How that goes together with the battle between Darwinian evolution and Intelligent Design I’ll never know. Originally, I was called in to attend some development meetings about what was then a hypothetical film about Intelligent design starring Ben Stein. I was really passionate about the topic (it appeals to the frustrated academic in me). But I actually told the producers not to hire me, b/c I didn’t think I had the sense of humor the project required. However, a few days later I got the call, and I was on the job. I had never worked on a documentary before and I had no idea what I was doing. Thankfully some of the other people around me did. So what motivated me? An intense interest in the topic as well as the opportunity to work on another film and to stretch myself creatively. Oddly enough, that set me on a path I had never anticipated in terms of documentary films, to the point where that’s what I’m best known for now.

Lotharson: Okay. Do you personally believe there’s a real academic persecution against ID?

Kevin Miller: I would call it more of a bias against Intelligent Design as a viable explanation for the origin, complexity and diversity of life and the origin of the universe. One one level, many people see ID as merely a Trojan Horse for some form of biblical creationism. I disagree. While most proponents of ID are people of faith, the brightest lights amongst them are truly seeking to engage in a scientific enterprise, particularly in the area of information theory, for example. The question is, what is the best explanation for the information we find in DNA? Ideally, scientists will always infer to the best explanation, follow the evidence wherever it leads. However, how do we define “best”? This is where the rule of parsimony kicks in. The best explanation is always the simplest explanation, the one that requires the fewest number of unverifiable assumptions. As Richard Dawkins likes to point out, God is pretty must the most complicated explanation someone can offer, because now you have to explain where God comes from. Even so, as Dawkins admits in the film, the idea that some form of intelligence may be responsible for the universe and everything in it is neither inherently religious nor unscientific, even though it may be friendly to a theistic worldview. But scientists are not philosophers. They are observing, measuring, experimenting, etc. If you watch Sean Carroll ‘s recent debate with William Lane Craig, for example, you can see that many non-scientist ID proponents are simply speaking a completely different language than cosmologists, biologists, and other scientists who are on the front lines running the numbers. They’re trying to solve complex equations, to explain mechanisms according to physical laws, not philosophize about how those mechanisms and laws came to be.
All that to say, I don’t think there is any more persecution against ID than there is against astrology or leprechauns. If anyone from any of these communities came to the table with a viable model to explain a natural phenomenon, people would pay attention.
I remember asking Michael Behe how science would be different if ID was the prevalent theoretical model. He had no answer. That troubled me. No surprise his interview didn’t make it into the film.

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Universal salvation

Lotharson: Thanks! I agree to a large extent with what you’ve said. Ironically enough, you were yourself “expelled” by the same conservative Evangelicals complaining about this alleged state of affairs. Could you please tell us more about this?

Kevin Miller: I wasn’t exactly expelled. I was just prohibited from teaching a course on documentary filmmaking at Trinity Western University (located in Langley, BC, Canada) due to my views on hell. Ironically, I was allowed to screen “Hellbound?” there several months earlier, and a few months after being barred from teaching on campus, I was invited to present a paper at a philosophy event DEFENDING my views on hell. So go figure. It’s a strange world. I will say, however, that my views on many subjects have shifted substantially over the past decade, thanks in large part to my extensive interaction with the atheist community re: “Expelled.”

Lotharson: How did your views evolve?

Kevin Miller: Well, you can’t undergo the sort of scathing criticism I faced as a result of “Expelled” without it affecting you. I made a point of trying to engage our critics in a meaningful way, and I took their criticisms of our film and my own views seriously. Through discussion and debate, you get to see things from a number of different sides. And I came to see many of the things I felt quite certain about didn’t quite merit that level of certainty. I guess you could say that’s when the serious deconstruction of my belief system began, and it’s been an ongoing project ever since. My departure from traditional evangelical beliefs about hell is just a small part of that process.

Culture war and bigotry

Lotharson: I guess that criticism from atheists and other non-Christians can be quite a help for reaching more reasonable views. The problem I have with ANTI-atheists is that they constantly resort to mockery and emotional bullying, in an useless and oftentimes counter-productive way. Did you experience that too?

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Kevin Miller: Mockery and bullying is present on all sides. That’s something that disillusioned me during “Expelled.” I found that many people on all sides were more concerned with scoring points against their opponents than seeking the truth through meaningful dialogue. It’s an understandable occupational hazard though, b/c you can only go around the Mulberry bush so many times before you get frustrated at your opponents’ seeming inability to grasp the obvious truth to which you have committed your life. However, as Jonathan Haidt points out in “The Righteous Mind,” most of us arrive at our philosophical/theological positions via an emotional rather than a rational process. So until we have some kind of transformational emotional experience, we remain rather impervious to rational arguments launched against our views. So we shouldn’t be surprised to see emotions running high. Emotion is at the heart of everything. So is identity. We don’t respond well when our identity is threatened.

Lotharson: Precisely! Jon Haidt is quite an outstanding scholar and I greatly appreciate his efforts to overcome the culture war. Now I’d be interested to know more about your views of hell.
Who were the authors who influenced you the most as you were considering the possibility of universal reconciliation?

Defense of Christian universalism

Kevin Miller: It all started with Brad Jersak, author of “Her Gates Will Never Be Shut: Hope, Hell and the New Jerusalem.” I edited the book for him back in the fall of 2008. That experience is what convinced me I had to make a documentary on this topic, although I wasn’t in a position to begin pursuing it until nearly three years later.

The thing that struck me about Brad’s book was how little what I was taught about hell was actually in the Bible. He also introduced me to the various streams of interpretation regarding final things throughout the history of the church. I should have known this stuff (I’d been to seminary after all) but it was all new to me. I should also note that I was well prepped for this mind-shift due to another book I had edited for Wayne Northey. It’s a novel called “Chrysalis Crucible.” It really got me questioning the connection between God and violence.

Another book, coedited by Brad Jersak and Michael Hardin, called “Stricken by God?” faced this question head-on, arguing that the atonement and nothing to do with God punishing Jesus for our sins. Once you start to think along those lines, the idea of hell as a place of eternal, conscious torment pretty much falls to the wayside. In terms of universalism, some key influences were Thomas Talbott, Robin Parry, Richard Beck, Brian McLaren, Eric Reitan, Sharon Baker and Julie Ferwerda. They showed me that a viable case could be made for a non-retributive view of God and hell. Of course, Michael Hardin is also front and center throughout. So is his “rabbi,” Rene Girard.

Lotharson: The following passage is widely seen as extremely problematic for universal reconciliation. Matthew 25:46 (NET) “And these will depart into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
Most Conservative Evangelicals use the following syllogism:
1. We know that the saved will live eternally in bliss
2. The damned will be punished in the same way the elects are rewarded
3. Thus the damned will suffer eternally.
What’s your take on this text?

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Kevin Miller: This isn’t nearly as problematic as it appears. It all comes down to the word translated as “eternal.” In Greek, the term is “aionios,” an adjective that means “of an age” or “age-long” rather than “never-ending.” So it can be interpreted as either qualitative or quantitative, or perhaps both. At any rate, in this parable, the righteous will receive a reward in keeping with the age to come and the wicked will receive a punishment in keeping with the age to come.

There is no reason to assume the reward or punishment will last forever. Furthermore, the intent of this parable isn’t to provide a systematic theology of the afterlife but to emphasize how strongly Jesus identifies with “the least of these.”

The other thing I chuckle at when people try to use this to establish a belief in hell as eternal torment is that the qualification for avoiding hell has nothing to do with faith. In fact, the sheep had no idea they were doing anything that merited a reward. Works is the deciding factor here, in particular how we treat the poor. So if proponents of eternal torment want to use this parable to bolster their case, they’ll also have to concede that faith doesn’t enter the equation.

The only thing that matters is righteous action–at least if you read this parable in isolation. And if you want to combine it with other parables and verses that emphasize faith, you’re sort of stuck in a contradiction. Unless, of course, you want to say the good works are the fruit of faith. But then I’ll remind you that the sheep had no idea they were serving God by helping the poor. So once again, it’s problematic.

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On inerrancy and picking and choosing

Lotharson: These are good points! I also find it quite stunning that Evangelicals PICK and CHOOSE which parts of the passage they take at face value and which parts they allegorize for avoiding “salvation by work”. Do you agree with me that there are conflicting voices in the Bible, so that inerrantists INEVITABLY have to cherry-pick things?

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Kevin Miller: Everyone cherry-picks. You have to. Even Paul and, dare I say it, Jesus cherry-picked! If you look at how Paul uses the Old Testament, for example, he pays virtually no attention to the original context of many of the verses he quotes.

Peter Enns does a great job in “The Evolution of Adam” of explaining how Paul’s view of Adam’s role in human sinfulness is completely absent from the Old Testament. He adapts Scriptures and theological ideas for his own purposes. In doing so, he was merely in keeping with his times. Many of his contemporaries did exactly the same thing. And how often does Jesus pluck a verse here or there and then completely revolutionize the traditional interpretation?

All that to say, circumstances shift constantly. Therefore, so does our perspective on the Bible. All of us suffer from confirmation bias–the tendency or perhaps the temptation to pick and choose passage of Scripture that support what we already believe. That’s the thing that struck me about Jersak’s book when I edited it. Speaking back to the evangelical world in which he had spent most of his career, he said if we are going to be biblical about hell, let’s be biblical.

That is, let’s listen to everything the Bible says about final things, not just the parts that support what we already believe. That’s a highly problematic approach for someone who desires a hermetically sealed theology, but it’s the only approach that is in keeping with integrity. All that to say, we all tend to take parts of the Bible literally and allegorize other parts as it suits us. The key is to be aware of this tendency and to work consciously against it. This is where peer review can play a key role–as long as the entire peer review process isn’t biased in the same direction!
Speaking of which, I have a bit of a pet peeve re: peer review. Academics like to hold it up as the golden standard, an almost infallible means of achieving truth. The thing we often fail to consider is how the entire peer review process can be just as biased–perhaps more heavily invested in a bias–than individual academics. So if the peer review process holds individuals in check, what holds the process in check? I’m sure you wouldn’t put much stock in an astrologist’s insistence that his or her conclusions were correct because they had been peer-reviewed by other astrologists. 🙂

 

Hell and cognitive dissonances

Lotharson: Yeah, this is why Conservative Evangelicals and militant atheists peer-reviewing their own community are truly laughable 🙂
Conservative Evangelicals often argue that atheists cannot live consistently with their assumption that they and their loved ones are insignificant molecular machines. While I largely agree with this, I am convinced that the cognitive dissonances they are facing are FAR WORSE.
For they believe that most people will eternally suffer as a punishment for sins they could not have avoided, having been cursed with a sinful nature by the almighty Himself. Do you agree with this assessment?

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Kevin Miller: Here’s the thing: Theists argue that unless there’s a creator, everything is meaningless, and our attempts to create meaning absurd, because if God or some sort of equivalent being (or race of beings) doesn’t exist, the only determining factors in the universe (or multiverse) are chance and necessity. We are nothing but stardust come to life for a brief moment, so to speak. Atheists counter this assertion by saying we don’t need an ultimate being to give our lives mean. We can assign our own proximate meaning to other people, objects, events, locations, rituals, etc. If theists are completely honest, they’ll have to admit that’s pretty much what they’re doing anyway.

As Richard Dawkins points out, challenge a Christian with horrific commands from the Old Testament (such as the stoning of adulterers), and they’ll say those rules don’t apply anymore. As we noted above, we all pick and choose which parts of the Bible to take literally and which to ignore. So as Dawkins points out, even though people like to say the Bible or God is the ultimate authority, we are still applying some sort of standard that actually supersedes the Bible. In fact, the only reason we believe the Bible has any authority in our lives is because we have become convinced of his validity or inspiration. And even in this case, it’s the arguments in favour of the Bible’s authenticity that are our true authority. So when it comes to ultimate meaning versus proximate meaning, I think the atheists are onto something.
As for cognitive dissonance, this is certainly one of the key problems facing Christians who believe in a God who violently punished his son on the cross and then threatens to punish the wicked forever in hell. This runs smack into cherished beliefs about God loving his enemies, love keeping no record of wrongs, etc.

Think about it: If God is perfectly loving, and if our own love is perfected in heaven, how could we possibly tolerate people suffering forever in hell? Our compassion would grow in proportion to our awareness of their suffering. Therefore, if anyone winds up in hell, I can’t see how we all wouldn’t be there, with the “righteous” ministering to those who are suffering. The only way around this is for God to either render us unaware of the suffering of our loved ones or for God’s love to be revealed as something completely different than what Christ taught.

 

Fundamentalism and child abuse?

Lotharson: I once stated that folks STRESSING the doctrine of eternal torment too much to their kids are abusing them. This made many of my readers angry and I regretted having written the sentence since it gives the impression that all people teaching Eternal Conscious Torment are abusive. This is not what I meant since my secular Catholic parents taught me that (concerning evildoers) and I never felt abused at all.
That said, I still believe that fundamentalists terrorizing their children in the hope they will “make a decision for Christ” are abusing them. Do you think this is the case and that this can really cause them deep psychological wounds?

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Kevin Miller: If it’s abuse, it’s unintentional. I was “saved” through a gospel presentation that included a threat of hell. And I believe it affected me psychologically in such a way that it essentially derailed the next two decades of my life. But the people who presented that version of the gospel to me were some of the most loving people you will ever meet. Years later I was at a function where I witnessed a kindly old Mennonite lady making a similar presentation to my own young children–who had never heard of hell–and I was horrified. I didn’t want to see them inflicted with such a horrific view of God. There’s a meme going around where God or Jesus says, “Let me save you… from what I’m going to do if you don’t let me save you.” I think that gets right to the bedrock on this one. Think of a parent saying that about him or herself to a young child. It would be considered abusive or at the very least highly coercive.

Calvinism and predestination to eternal torment

Lotharson: I agree it is almost always unintentional. Calvinists are arguably the most vocal opponents of universalism. They believe that God created evil and caused Adam and Eve to fall because He needs to SHOW OFF his punitive wrath. Without eternal torments, he would be unable to maximize his glory and his undeserved grace. What’s your opinion on this?
Kevin Miller: I have to quote Michael Hardin here and say that Calvinism or Reformed Christianity is nothing but paganism dressed up in Christian clothing. The God who would do such a think in no way resembles the Jesus of the gospels, who was a friend–not an enemy–of sinners.
When I say “paganism,” BTW, I mean no affront to modern day pagans. What I mean is they have basically taken the old, sacrificial view of God of pre-Christian religions and made him the center of the Christian faith–which I see as an apologetic against exactly this sort of God. Jesus never demanded sacrifice. Rather, he sacrificed himself. So I would say Calvinism is 180 degrees away from Christ.
At least my interpretation of Jesus. 🙂

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Lotharson: 🙂 Some Calvinists I talked too agree that (according to all criterion of human justice and love) the god they worship is a fiend. But they went on saying that we cannot judge God by our own morality and that He defines what is good and bad. What is your response to this?
Kevin Miller: I would agree. God does define morality. And, playing by their own rules, if Jesus is God, he defines morality in ways that utterly defy their theological system. So it seems to me they have two choices:

1) admit that Jesus was lying or

2) admit that God has a double standard–one form of morality for humans, another for himself. Either way, the results aren’t pretty. Either love never fails, never keeps a record of wrongs, always hopes, always perseveres (cf. 1 Corinthians 13) or it doesn’t. Calvinists are saying it doesn’t. So not only are they contradicting Jesus’ teaching that what makes us perfect like God is love of enemy (Matthew 5), they are also contradicting the clear teaching of Paul.
Lotharson: Most Calvinists I know are nice people. But what could occur if they began imitating the behavior and attitude of the God they profess to believe and trust upon?
Kevin Miller: Exactly. As Frank Schaeffer likes to point out, most people who believe in such a punitive view of God live above their theology. They’re far nicer than the God they worship. And thank God for that! But on a meta-level, I believe our entire society reflects a version of the Calvinist God, b/c our entire justice system is based primarily on retribution. Not only our justice system but our prison system, our economic system, our theological systems, our war machines, even the way many people discipline their children is a shadow version of the punitive God who demands sacrifice in order to achieve peace. This is one of the key insights of Rene Girard and Michael Hardin, who have had a huge influence on me over the past few years. Our entire society is based on scapegoating and sacrifice. It’s how we create culture. This is why Michael says toward the end of “Hellbound?” that the entire church is missing the gospel. That’s because the gospel isn’t divine sanctification of our sacrificial machinery; it’s the antidote to it, it’s the foundation for a new kind of community–call it he Kingdom of God–based on self-sacrifice instead. In this regard, I think we have completely missed the radically subversive message of Christ. It undercuts everything.

 

Libertarian free will?

Lotharson: It seems to me that you agree with Calvinists that there is no such thing as libertarian free will, am I right? Is everything determined by God?
Kevin Miller: Wrong. I believe we are co-determining–at our core, humans are imitators. We look to others to see what we should desire. And then we compete with each other for these objects of desire or states of being, thinking it will give us the sense of identity or immortality we seek, anything to transcend the fear of death that gnaws at our insides, the feeling that we are insignificant. I tend not to look at people as individuals but as members of a herd. The “self illusion” is one of the most problematic illusions we face right now. Alongside it is the notion of free will. We are pack animals for the most part, and our powers of volition are much weaker than we imagine. I’ll go back to Jonathan Haidt (“The Righteous Mind“) on this one. Also Bruce Hood (“The Self Illusion”), Ernest Becker (“The Denial of Death”), Richard Beck (“The Slaver of Death”) and Rene Girard (“Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World”) on this one. All of these writers and many others point to a similar conclusion.
Lotharson: Okay, thanks for the correction. I didn’t know you believe in libertarian freedom. You once said that freedom is just a mean to the end of our salvation. But what if freedom is an end in itself? What if God’s main purpose in creating us was that we develop a good personality naturally desiring Him, so that those lacking it won’t inherit eternal life but BE NO MORE? Is it not conceivable as well?
Kevin Miller: I would hope the end game is self-actualization, that we all become the ultimate fulfillment of our potential. Exactly how that is achieved doesn’t concern me all that much.

 

Palestine and Christian sionism

Lotharson: Okay. I have a last question. Many Evangelicals support unconditionally the state of Israel. A young pastor once told me that the modern Palestinians are the descendants of a people that Israel refused to annihilate during Joshua’s conquest, and that the struggles of modern Israelis can be traced back to this ancestral “sin”: they should have left nothing which breathes alive. What are your thoughts on this issue?

PalestiniansKids
Kevin Miller: Despite having co-written “With God on Our Side,” which criticizes extreme forms of Christian Zionism, I’m not sure if I know enough about the situation to comment on it. However, I will say this: I don’t believe God ever told the Israelites to annihilate anyone in the Old Testament. Second, many evangelicals fail to distinguish between the Jewish people and the State of Israel. Israel is a secular state created in 1948. Within that state are Jews, Palestinians and all sorts of other people. No Christian should ever support any secular state uncritically. So how the State of Israel treats the Palestinians living within its territory (as well as the Gaza Strip and the West Bank) is a completely separate issue in my mind from historical/theological concerns going back to Joshua’s purported conquests of Canaan.
What we can say for sure is that treating anyone as a second-class citizen is wrong. So are acts of terrorism. Whenever theological ideas are used to justify either action, they go against the clear teachings of Christ.

Lotharson: Okay Kevin, this marks the end of our discussion.Thank you for all the time you’ve granted me! I wish you all the best for your ongoing projects.

 

 

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Genocides in the Bible? An interview with Matt Flannagan.

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Regular readers of my blog know that I’m no big fan of Biblical inerrancy and think that while there is much beauty to admire in the Bible, you’re going to find heinous things too.

 

Still, I want to give a fair hearing to people I disagree with. Therefore I was delighted to have had the opportunity to interview Conservative Evangelical theologian Matt Flannagan from New Zealand about this topic.

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In the following interview, we touched on a number of issues while exploring the morality of the conquest of Canaan as described in the Old Testament.

 

DailyMotion version: Click here.

 

Since this is my very first audio-interview, the quality of the sound is far from being optimal. So I hope you can forgive me that, along my lack of professionalism and terrible accent.

 

If a sufficient number of people find that really unbearable, I’ll start out painstakingly writing down the whole dialog.

You can complain at lotharson57@gmail.com or even write a comment here (if you want to have the satisfaction to publicly humiliate me 🙂   ).

 

A small personal tip: I generally listen such long interviews while having to accomplish repetitive tasks besides.