“I Only Do This in Two Places: the Church and the Bar”

imagesThis past Sunday it hit home to me again.

I’ve said it for years, but it hit home for me again.  In church we do this absolutely counter-cultural thing.  This thing that, really, we only do in two places: the church and the bar.


Now, some might also do it at other, in-frequent places, like sports arenas or concert halls.  And you might do it with professional organizations, if you’re the kind of person who digs it more than the hoi polloi.

But I’m going to guess that this activity is one that, for most people, only occurs in two places, namely the church and the bar: communal singing.

Well, and probably confession, but we’re going to stick with singing in this blog post…

Yes, you probably sing in the shower, but not in community (though, that would be funny to hear that coming from the gym locker room at the local YMCA).

Yes, you sing in your car, but probably only by yourself or one other trusted person who won’t make fun of your mis-remembered lyrics and off-key high note to a-ha‘s Take On Me.

I’ve known atheists who were the most active church attenders simply for the music.  It’s that powerful of a movement within humanity.  It just wells up inside us, and has to have an out.

Here’s an out.

You might think this is a poor reason to go to church, but there are much poorer ones that motivate the supposedly pious…

If you want to talk about having a reason to check out a church, especially if you’re not particularly religious, this is one of the most practical reasons: to sing with other people.

The need is there within you.  Indulge it.  It’s human.

And probably Divine.

And probably (in the right community) a healthier habit than the bar.


Zeus is Alive and Well in the Church


What’s the difference between this portrayal of Zeus and most common portrayals of God?

“Tell me about your Sky Wizard,” they said to me with a smirk.

They were referring to God, of course.  A God they didn’t ascribe to.

I think there was a time in my life where hearing that phrase would have offended me, but it certainly doesn’t anymore.

Because they’re right.  The God that many Christians subscribe to is exactly like some sort of “Sky Wizard.”

They’re granting wishes (though usually people call them prayers).

They’re in control of everything: the weather, your fate, every single outcome of every single instance, pulling levers like some busy 1940’s phone operator.

They’re a trickster: Zeus was known for tricking people.  He was fair and just, but also would throw obstacles in people’s way. In the same way we have people say, “God is testing me!”

I hear it all the time, as if God has nothing better to do than mess with your life.

Blessing people who do the right thing: “God is so good.”  I don’t want to deride people for saying this, but we have to make a distinction between getting what we want and getting something from God. A lot of times I find that God calls me to do exactly what I don’t want to do.

For Christians, God is most clearly seen in the person of Jesus.

Jesus: who would give up everything for the people he loved.

Jesus: who, especially in the Gospel of Mark, doesn’t need to be in control of everything, but remained steady and dedicated to love no matter what happened.

Jesus: who didn’t grant wishes as much as responded to the needs of the world with healing and hope…and called others to do the same.

Jesus: who is not interested in blessing people with things, but forming them into blessings for the world.

Zeus is alive and well in the Christian church.  He spends his days occupied with you in so many ways.

But Jesus?  Well, Jesus is dead.

And resurrected.

And asking you to be focused more on others.

And I sometimes have trouble finding him in places where people of faith dwell.

Seriously. I find this to be a problem.

Why I Just Can’t…

5079516280_dd8c5d1fe2Folks, I can’t.

I try as much as possible to “live and let live,” but I just can’t do this anymore.

When a televangelist says that “You don’t need a flu shot if you have Jesus,” I just can’t.

I can’t let it go without saying something.

Jesus may be called “The Great Physician,” but good golly, get a flu shot. Kids are dying.

When a popular Christian website run by neo-Calvinist author (and, in my opinion, Biblical hack) John Piper tweets “We will find mental health when we stop staring in the mirror, and fix our eyes on the strength and beauty of God,” implying that somehow people who have mental illness are just “looking at things in the wrong way,” I just can’t.

I can’t let it go without saying something, because people are dying from mental illness and it’s not that they’re spiritually deficient.  This is ignorance on fire, a charge too many people are already giving to Christians…thanks for proving them correct.

And when we start walking lock-step in line with political candidates, of whatever party, and claim such obviously blasphemous statements like “God has put them in charge,” I just can’t anymore.

Vote for who you vote for and don’t try to blame the outcome on God, regardless of who you wanted to win.  You break the Second Commandment when you do so, by the way.

Did God put Hitler in charge of Germany?  What about Pol Pot in Cambodia?  No?  It’s only in the US that God puts people in charge? Well, then God must have it out for the Native Americans to put Andrew Jackson in charge.  Or for the Japanese Americans to put FDR in charge (we kindly forget about those prisons, don’t we?).

I just can’t, folks.

The church is wonderful and beautiful. We take care of one another and do good by the world.  We can change the world for good, too, by God.

But boy oh boy, when we are silent in the face of such ignorance. When we just say, “Well, we’re not like those Christians…” to the rest of the world without providing the counter argument, without calling those voices to be silent, by God…

And even more problematically, when we continue to go to these churches, buy their spiritual wares, and don’t confront our friends and relatives (and even those shadow places inside ourselves) who buy into all of this, we are just sending invitations to the spiritually-seeking-but-religion-skeptical friends to not bother with the Jesus story altogether.

I’m all for big tent Christianity, but I just can’t anymore.  I don’t know if I’m in a totally different tent, or no longer find myself in that tent, or am just making my own campsite…I can’t think that’s the case, but perhaps it is.

But what I do know is that will not be quiet about it, and I don’t want you to be, either.

Because people are dying.  Because the cross cannot be confused with Caesar and still be the cross we see on Golgotha, the cross we find in scripture.

Because Christianity cannot be a religion where “ignorance is on fire and intelligence is on ice” as author Brian McLaren so rightly says (The Great Spiritual Migration, pg 7).

And we can’t let it become that.

You can’t.

And I can’t.

There Aren’t Just Six Types of Atheists

CNN had a story yesterday entitled, “Behold, the Six Types of Atheists.”images

Where do I start?

I think it’s fine to have a story on atheism. It’s good, even. I do think it’s telling that, by and large, their atheist choices come predictably from Hollywood, academia, or the loud cast of militant atheism characters (with a notable exception being the Humanist chaplain who has a really wonderful book; I highly recommend it).  God forbid (a little pun there) we pull from atheist business owners, politicians, world leaders, or even regular every day people.

I think that, whether intentionally done or not, touting the usual atheist bastions of Hollywood and academia just reinforces this idea of liberalism going hand-in-hand with atheism.

And it doesn’t.  What about the thinking Christians out there? Or Hollywood theists? There are some, you know.  And they’re not all anti-intellectual and annoying (looking at you Stephen Baldwin and the faculty of Liberty University).

And I’m not saying that we now need a “Behold, the Six Types of Believers” or anything like that, but the closest thing I found on CNN to that story was a similar story pertaining to pics of “born again” celebrities who were either a) annoying about their beliefs or b) hyper fundamentalists.

What about folks like me?  I had a good long while of unbelief.  I came back to the faith quietly, without a lot of fanfare.  I practice my faith with, what I hope is, some humility and thought and a healthy dose of consideration.

What I’m trying to say, I guess, is that there aren’t just six types of atheism.  There are probably 600,000 types.  Because it’s not just enough to say you don’t believe in the reality of a God…we add all sorts of asterisks and appendices to the things we trust all the time.

Likewise, there aren’t just six types of theism or deism or any belief system you might want to name.  There are 6 million types.  Maybe 6 billion…as many as there are people who ascribe to faith in the world.

We don’t configure our worlds the same way.  I’m not talking about relativism here, I’m talking about reality.  If given a survey, I doubt we’d all come up with the same checked boxes within any camp: Christian, Buddhist, Atheist, or Zoroastrian.

And I guess I don’t like CNN trying to play as if there are six types of atheism, whether they’re just “painting with a wide brush” or actually trying to do some reporting (a first).

Because painting with such a wide brush allows authors like Hitchens and Dawkins to paint me into the canvas with people who claim to “believe” and claim the name “Christian” but look nothing like me.  Wide-brush painting might help us say something, but as Richard Yates sagely points out, “Never say anything that doesn’t improve on silence.”

And perhaps our world would be better without half the words in it.  My own words, included.

So, I’m a reluctant Christian; this is true.  But for all my atheist readers, I would encourage you to also be a reluctant atheist in light of CNN’s stereotyping of you yesterday.  After-all, do you want to be pigeonholed somewhere between Keira Knightley and Richard Branson, or would you rather land somewhere between Richard Dawkins and Kurt Vonnegut?

To be fair, I find those characters much less annoying and much more insightful than Kirk Cameron or Joel Osteen…

But I still wouldn’t feel good just being stuck on their continuum.

And as long as we keep imagining that everyone fits in a nice little box, it makes it a lot easier to just dismiss people who don’t think and behave and love and believe like us…and then we can all just make our little camps and never have meaningful interaction again.


Natural Disasters and Prayers and Anger and Ricky Gervais…

A CNN story today made me pause a minute.prayer-hands_2134432b

It notes that many in the Twitterverse were using the hashtag “prayersforOklahoma” to respond to the natural disasters there, and that this rubs some prominent atheists the wrong way.

Ricky Gervais, an outspoken critic of any religion that presents itself in public, tweeted in response, “I feel like an idiot now … I only sent money.”

He’s what Al Franken calls “joking on the square.”  That is, he’s joking.  But not really.

And he’s hilarious.  And that’s a smart retort. And I wish I had thought of it.

It appears he’s slightly miffed at these tweet-prayers, and I have to say that if all people are doing is praying, then Gervais is right.

He’s right to be miffed if that’s the case.

Because prayer must always lead to action, and all your prayers won’t give blood to the injured, security to the now homeless, or tools for rebuilding.

But what Gervais doesn’t take seriously, and perhaps he should, is that prayer for the religious individual is akin to cursing.

Well, I curse as well as pray…some of us do.

But prayer is that response that happens when you have no control over a situation and you must move it from being an internal response to outside of yourself lest it eat you alive.

Or eat a community alive.

Or eat a nation alive.

So while prayer doesn’t give tools, it is a tool that can be used to share burdens, clarify desires, wants, and things we’re thankful for,  and release those things that we have no control over.

And, to be honest, I wonder if Gervais might not need a bit of that release in his life.  Don’t call it prayer; fine.  Call it what you will: meditation, a “time-out,” therapy, external processing.

But prayer is the lifting up of communal and individual need in such a way that real desire is acknowledged, and hopefully, heard.

Now it is true that Gervais doesn’t believe such prayers are heard by God.  But I wonder if Gervais would hear himself better if he prayed.

Look, prayer is not some sort of password that gets God to do what you want.  But prayers of thanksgiving and lament often clarify what it is that we want, and is a way to enact change both in ourselves, and hopefully, the world.  Communally lifting up people, places, situations, things, graces, disasters…it is important and healthy and necessary.

And the religious individual believes this act builds relationship between the human and the Divine.

And the religious individual, I think, can also agree that prayer helps them to know themselves better, too.  It strengthens our relationship with ourselves.

But where we, as a religious community, screw it up is when we respond as this commenter within the CNN article did with this little diddy, “God is still in control!” said Wilbur Dugger, a commenter on CNN’s Facebook page. “Everything (God) does is to get our attention. … My sympathy and prayers go out to those who get caught up in his demonstrations of (God) ruling the world.”

Oh, please.  Do we believe this is helpful?

Hell, I don’t even believe what the man wrote is true, let alone helpful.  And those are not always mutually exclusive in people’s minds.

Natural disasters happen.  Winds whip around. Tragedy strikes.  I don’t think God needs a tornado to get the attention of humanity.  If anything, the Christian should assert that that’s what Jesus was for…

That kind of response comes from a messed up idea about prayer, and God, and…well, makes me a reluctant Christian sometimes.

And in the face of that response, I’d stand with Gervais and shake my head.

And then I’d probably turn to Gervais and say, “You know Gervais, instead of getting ticked at him, why don’t you externalize it a bit? I call it prayer, but you call it whatever you want…”

And then Gervais might know himself a bit better and not get angry at other people’s issues.

And believe it or not, that changes things.

**By the way, if you’re like me and you pray and curse and it moves you to action, 100% of all donations to ELCA Disaster Response go directly to on the ground work through this link.**

“Atheist Churches” or “It’s Really Just Church…”

The Huffington Post recently had an article about an “atheist Church” that has begun to meet in the morning on Sundays.601751a-question-mark-on-stained-glass-posters

The 80 or so people that show up come seeking, as the article’s author says, “a sense of community, an uplifting message that will help them tackle the challenges of the upcoming week, and, maybe, the rest of their lives.”  They claim that there is no formal doctrine, dogma, operating theology, formal symbols, or identified sacred texts in this church.

Whether they are called “humanist communities,” “atheist churches,” or “nontheist gatherings,” this is not a new phenomena.  The hype is interesting and growing, for sure, but it is not new.

There have been atheists meeting in church since…churches began.

In fact, the sense of community and uplifting message that these atheists seek is probably, I would guess, what a number of people sitting in the pews seek on a regular Sunday morning.

The difference, of course, is that at this particular gathering in Houston, you don’t actually have to believe anything to show up or belong.

Wait a second…what’s the difference again?

I tell my ministry staff all the time, “People in church pews will put up with a whole bunch of crappy theology for good church programming and entertainment. They will disagree with the pastors and the theology privately as long as the people are nice and the kids programs and small groups are strong.”

I think that’s largely true.  I think at most thriving churches you have about 20% who agree doctrinally with the church, 60% that agree marginally, and 20% that like the music, the lights, the inspirational message, and that their kids feel safe and have a good time.

And I might be being generous toward the marginal percentage there.

I think atheists gather every Sunday at churches around the country, churches known as “Catholic,” “Evangelical,” “Methodist,” “Lutheran,” and even so-called “Bible” churches.  And for much the same reason the people in this article show up: they want inspiration and community.

And this has happened, I think, because churches have largely become another 7-11 for the soul.  It’s a place to get your spiritual Slurpee for the week.

And this is not necessarily bad, mind you.

But if that’s all church is, it’s a waste.

Because a church gathering, and a series of church gatherings over time, shouldn’t only be about you and your spiritual fix.  And it isn’t really only about “us,” either.

It is about a holistic reshaping of the gathered, of humanity, toward the Divine.

I think we’ve taught atheism…and continue to teach atheism…in churches through either tightening the dogma we teach or simply feeding the ego-beast that longs for the spiritual Slurpee.  We haven’t taught it through questioning the virgin birth or the divinity of Christ.  We haven’t taught it through encouraging free thinking or welcoming minority groups.

We’ve taught it by changing the shape of our gatherings to model the ego, rather than allow the shape of our gatherings to mold the ego.

And note: the remedy for this isn’t talking more about Jesus, or asking people to make a commitment to Jesus, or asking people to invite Jesus into their hearts (and really mean it this time).

That last phrase usually sends me into apoplexy.

Because more altar calls don’t mean more Christians.  I think many times it means more people assume that Jesus has become their personal talisman, or that they’re “doing the thing that will work” for their lives.

The remedy, I think, is to embrace the diversity of a gathering, and trust that God and God’s Spirit creates unity even in the midst of diversity.

This is why my faith tradition talks about God as a Trinity.  The diversity of the three-in-one.  The unity of the one-known-as-three.

In short, community is not uniformity. And instead of trying to force uniformity through the tightening of doctrine and dogma, or avoid the whole situation altogether through offering inspirational messages that only feed the ego-beast longing to believe that they and they alone are the most important thing in this world and a blessing is just around the corner, lets go back to that ancient understanding of church as a way to enact a counter-cultural gathering that forms a people into a shape more closely related to the Divine.

A shape of support and sacrifice.  A shape that fits into the pain of this world, and accentuates the beauty of God-given life.  A shape of…well…a cross.

Because I have a feeling that these “atheist churches” will soon be voting to excommunicate members who don’t agree with their proposition that “you don’t have to believe.”  This is what happens when you only gather with those who believe the same things you do.  You go solely to get a fix, and when someone seems to get in the way of that fix, you get them out of the way.

Christians do it. Religious people of all stripes do it. Atheists (also, mind-you, a belief system) do it.

Bowling leagues do it.

I’m a reluctant Christian at times because we’ve become either spiritual Slurpee dispensers or a country club for insiders, unremarkable and indistinguishable from other groups who gather around a common mindset or hobby.

And if we continue to do this I think we can clearly see the outcomes: Egoism will become the predominate faith practiced in most churches formerly known as Christian (if it isn’t already), or we’ll just shuffle off into our dwindling camps of uniformity causing the other kids down the block to create their own club house with their own rules, and never the twain shall meet.

All the while the world will continue to turn and it will be worse off  because the churches of consumerism, the cathedrals of militarism, the temple of money, and the gathering of ravenous crowds who believe the new incarnation or product X will save their souls will continue to meet.

And the church, at it’s best, is the counter-cultural movement that can provide a voice against those rising mobs.

See, atheists gathering in churches isn’t really new.  And if that’s surprising to you, then you haven’t had real conversations with your fellow congregation members.

What can be different, though, is how you leave a church.

Do you leave in a different shape?

Yes, you individually.  But more-so you in the plurality.  Because being formed by ancient texts and music and meal and ritual pushes people together so much so that they have to change shape to accommodate the other in their presence, to accommodate the Other in their presence.

And it’s not a uniform shape, and it’s not about getting a spiritual Slurpee that will feed your faith indulgence.

It’s a cruciform shape that changes the way you interact in and with the world.

At least, that’s what it should do.

“An Invitation to Trust” or “An Invitation Not to Believe”

The Script has a song, Breakeven, that starts out,

I’m still alive but I’m barely breathing
Just prayin’ to a God that I don’t believe in

When this song first came out, I had a friend call me up and ask if I’d heard it.  “You’ll like the first two lines,” he said.  I was in seminary at the time, and while this friend would be someone who would probably identify as skeptical, he would always come and hear me when I preached or taught.

He knew my theology, my style, my leanings.

He knew that I think that many people pray to a God that they don’t believe in.  Perhaps he is one of them.

Perhaps we all are at one time or another.

We must remember that the opposite of faith is not doubt.  The opposite of faith is certainty.  Somewhere down the line of history we’ve lost sight of this, to the detriment of those of us who identify as religious and spiritual.

I’m a big proponent of changing the word “believe” into “trust” when we’re reading the scriptures.  Our post-enlightenment habits have tended toward making everything that happens in this world begin in the brain.  We use the words “belief” and “believe” in all ways as if it can be equated to “mental assent.”

But in the ancient world, no such corollary existed.  Diana Butler Bass notes this in her most recent work Christianity After Religion.  She writes,

Although Western Christianity would eventually be defined as a belief system about God, throughout its first five centuries people understood it primarily as spiritual practices that offered a meaningful way of life in this world-not as a neat set of doctrines, an esoteric belief, or the promise of heaven.  By practicing Jesus’s teachings, followers of the way discovered that their lives were made better on a practical spiritual path…members of the community were not held accountable for their opinions about God or Jesus; rather, the community measured faithfulness by how well its members practiced loving God and neighbor. (p 149)

When I was going through my first wrestling period with faith, I felt terrible.  I felt as if I had been fed these lies that I was supposed to mentally assent to and that I was finally coming out of a deep hole…only to find the world around me disordered and frightening.  It felt as if I was breaking a relationship with someone.

It felt as if I couldn’t breathe.

But I still attended services.  I still attended church.  I still contributed in religious discussions.

I still prayed to a God that I didn’t believe in.

And those practices brought me back around to faith.  Those practices, and some meaningful discussions with people who took faith seriously enough to fight with it, brought me back around to a space in this world where I could once again interact with God.

But it wasn’t belief, per se.  It was much more powerful than belief.

It was trust.

This is why, when Rick Warren the pastor of the mega-church Saddleback Church and author of The Purpose Driven Life, writes in an article published early last year that “change always starts in the mind,” and “to help people change, we must change their beliefs,” I think he’s ridiculously lost in the post-enlightenment mindset that has led the church to this place where people are leaving in droves.

He goes on to write that, “trying to change behavior (without) changing belief is a waste of time.”  I couldn’t disagree more.  My story wouldn’t make sense if trying to change behavior without changing beliefs is a waste of time. Warren obviously doesn’t understand lex orandi, lex credendi…

Sometimes I think these pastors that go for the “belief then behavior” theory of Christianity are no more than self-help gurus that insert the word “God” where it’s convenient. “You can change your behavior.  You can do it.  God will help you, if only you believe…”

Take out the God wording in that sentence, and I think it exposes what they’re really saying.

I don’t want to invite people to believe in God.  I want to invite people to trust in God.

We can believe all sorts of things about God, about God’s nature, about God’s action in the world.  We can believe all sorts of things about God’s authority, about what God expects of us.

But if “belief” is equal to “mental assent,” then everything rests on whether or not I believe what you believe about God.

If not, we end up fighting or not talking.

But if we trust God, we can trust enough to ask questions about God, of God, of one another without being threatened.

And then trust enough to invite people into those questions as well.  And trust is, I think, indicated through activities and practices.

I think that as we head into this next phase as people of faith, practices…activities of trust…will become more and more important.

I’m not sure how to invite Jesus into my heart, or even what that phrase means.  But I strive to live as if God is already present inside of me. And you, too.  And in the stranger, regardless of what they believe.

And I find it important to gather with other people who trust in that way, too.  Or who want to trust.  Or who don’t trust but think it’d be interesting to see what it looks like.  We teach one another.

And as someone who has been there in the deep hole of not making sense of whats up or down because not everything that you’ve been taught to believe lines up with reality, it’s really important, when you find yourself barely breathing, to pray to God…even if you don’t believe.

Doing so you’re embodying something more powerful than belief.  You’re trusting.

And trusting can change things.

“Faith and Sex” or “Save Me From Your Concern…”

“Will you please talk to him?  I’m worried about his salvation…”

I hear that a lot.  I hear it from spouses of people who identify as skeptical/unsure/agnostic/atheist.   I hear it from people who have friends who believe or think differently from them.  I hear it from people who are worried about their gay/transgendered/pierced/tattooed/(insert other conventional taboo here) relative.

I hear it a lot.

And, I don’t question their sincerity.  The church has trained people to be concerned about this.  I just want to question that training…and that concern.

We’ve been conditioned to speak about salvation as a product.  It’s gotten, acquired, assured…what have you.

The problem that I have with this line of thinking, indeed with this concern, is that it implies that somehow we have a say in the matter.  And I realize that there are, indeed, some Christian circles that do believe that humanity has a say in the matter of salvation.  I heard a whole sermon by a prominent pastor at a huge church who assured the gathered congregation that they had to say “yes” to the Christ knocking at the door or else their salvation was in jeopardy.

In fact, I’ve heard scores of such sermons.  And, perhaps at one time, shared their thinking and nodded in agreement.

And believing that we must respond to the gracious invitation of God to reap salvation benefits is a stance that can be intellectually defended. It’s transaction based.  We love transaction based models: they’re concrete, every party gets to do something, everyone gets to act.

But I don’t see how you can hold a transaction model stance and then, in the same breath, utter that salvation “can’t be earned.”  Every time I hear someone say that salvation can’t be earned but then say, “and yet you must accept Jesus in your (pick your location: heart, life, worldview, marriage)” my brain starts going crazy.

Cognitive dissonance.

We run into a problem when we try to parse the word “earned,” but in the business of transaction, “earning” something is providing payment or appropriate satiation. I think a person who believes that you can’t earn salvation and yet must say “yes” to have salvation is not being intellectually honest.

Is not even a “yes” payment, in this instance?

Some might affirm that idea; some might reject it.  Frankly, I don’t see how it can not be an instance of payment.  We’re not talking about passivity here; we’re talking about action, the act of saying “yes,” the act of assenting.

Smacks of earning.  I think it is.

And this is where people start to get nervous.  They start saying, “Well, salvation is a free gift from God, but you can choose to accept it or not.”  And, in some ways, that makes sense, right?  If my local coffee store offers free coffee, I can choose to take a coffee or not.  In fact, proponents of the “free but accept” concept love to use examples just like that.

And that works if we’re just talking about coffee, cars, or other goods and commodities.

But are we?  Do we really want to lump salvation into the category of cars and candy bars?  Because, whether or not we want to, I think that we have.  There are many books that point out this fact, Rob Bell’s Love Wins is but the most recent. I think he does a decent job of exposing how we’ve cheapened salvation by using this transaction model, and in the process have actually ended up limiting God’s grace instead of, as the usual argument goes, limiting free will.

Theology nerds out there will want to blame Anselm at this juncture; I would encourage you not to do so.

It’s not Anselm we need to blame.  His atonement theory has not held sway over the Christian story just by luck or chance: it’s the theory that provides Christians with the most control over the field of life.  We should blame ourselves for reducing salvation to the same kind of transaction as buying a dishwasher.

Now, at this point Christians start to wring their hands and say things like, “Wait…then everyone has salvation?  I don’t need to worry about my atheist/agnostic/questioning/tattooed/Mormon/Muslim neighbor?”

I want to point out here in no uncertain terms that I’m not claiming everyone has salvation.  Any sort of claim I might make on the subject wouldn’t use that phrasing, as I don’t think it’s helpful.

But, in response to the question, I’d ask them to define “worry.”  Do I think you need to care for them?  Yes.  Do I think you need to be salt and light for them and for this world?  Yes. Do I think that their lives will/would benefit from being in a relationship with God and others who are asking important questions about life, meaning, love, and purpose through the lens of Jesus?

Yes.  Unequivocally, yes.

Do I think you need to wonder in the late-night-sweating-anxious-pondering way about what will happen to them after they die?

No.  I can’t say that I do.  Because I don’t think there’s anything that you can do about it.

Truly, I don’t think you can.

I think it’s dishonest to worry about people because you want them to adopt your worldview.  I think it’s dishonest to worry about people because you’re unsure of whether they’ll go to heaven, hell, Pluto, or Middle Earth after their last breath.  We should worry about people for the sake of their life now, not after death.  Millions of Christians go without feeding the Christian poor because, well, we care more about their salvation than we do their stomachs.  Likewise, millions are spent on Christian missions where bellies aren’t attended but “souls” are.

Pass out bread and keep the Bible.  Or, better yet, live the scriptures and pass out bread.

So, finally, what do I think about salvation and having/not having it?  I go back to an ancient model, a model of promise.  Christians cling to an eternity spent with God based on a promise.

Nothing more, nothing less.

The Christian doctrine(s) of salvation, heaven, and hell that have cropped up over the last 2000 years have been largely a disservice to the message of Jesus.  People set their eyes on post-life and begin to ignore this life, or people begin to think they have salvation in the bag and then stop engaging or critically thinking.  Or…well, I’ve mentioned some of the other “or’s.”

It’s a travesty.

Part of the benefit of living on a promise is that you take it for granted.  The promise, that is, not the relationship.

I think we need to continually foster a relationship with God, and that we need to foster a relationship with others that asks questions about God, life, and salvation.  And I do so not because I hope to get something, but because I think it is good.

But the promise of salvation?  I leave that up to God.

And with God, nothing more than a promise is needed, actually.  It’s in human transactions where we feel the need to deal with payment and satiation; guarantees and insurance are for human transactions.  God has always operated on promise and covenant.

“But what about them?  What about those that don’t believe or say “yes” to God’s invitation?”

Yes, what about “them?”

Whenever I do pre-marital counseling, I always do the “faith” discussion with the “sex” discussion.  I feel like the attitudes of both our sexuality and our spirituality need to be similar: we invite; we don’t coerce.

We can’t coerce someone into having sex with us.  That is a terrible use of power, and makes the choice ultimately not their own.  “You’ll do it if you love me,” is neither a real invitation nor attractive.  “Believe in Jesus or your salvation is in jeopardy,” doesn’t seem all that different.  It’s not honest or attractive.

And truthfully, when someone says to me, “Please talk to them; I’m worried about their salvation,” I have to wonder what they think I’ll be able to do.

I can only do what they can do: invite.

You can’t argue your way to faith (or out of faith, actually, despite many of the New Atheist writings of today).  It has always happened by invitation, promise, covenant. And to dangle the idea of salvation as a reality or non-reality based off of belief/response seems pretty coercive to me (not to mention intellectually dishonest).

I believe that a life lived in relationship to God is life-giving.  It’s salvatory here and now, in this life.  I believe that salvation after death is real and a mystery; as mysterious as the paradoxical cross I stare at every Sunday that testifies both to humanity’s hate and how God turns humanity’s hate into an act of love.

And, like all mysteries, it’s not to be gained or attained, mastered or bought.  It’s to be held, contemplated, treasured…and in doing so, lives are changed.

I’m a reluctant Christian at times because we’ve turned salvation into a business transaction, and one that’s focused on death rather than life.  It breeds panic, unhealthy evangelistic practices, and pietistic but baseless concern.

So, before we begin to be concerned over someone’s salvation, perhaps we should take a step back and think of our own.  Did our saying “yes” to Christ save us?  If so, then aren’t we what got us our salvation?  Wasn’t it our yes?

And if the thought of that makes your stomach turn, as it does mine, then perhaps we need to lift our salvation up to God and say what I think is the most intellectually honest statement about this subject, “You take care of it.”

And then go back and begin inviting people into a relationship with God that has more to do with the here and now.

I Wonder if this Elephant is an Atheist…

I love it when people use the phrase, “elephant in the room” to describe that taboo topic that needs addressing in public.  Everytime I hear it I visualize that elephant and just where she might be standing.  I usually imagine her in the middle eating peanuts.

Here’s an elephant in the religious room: there are Biblical inconsistencies.

Not an elephant for you?  Not for me either.  But it is for some people, apparently.  Or at least, was.

Take Bart Ehrman, Professor of Religious Studies at UNC, Chapel Hill (go Tarheels!) for example.  He was trained in a conservative tradition where the Bible is viewed as inerrant.  Going from Moody to Wheaton to Princeton, that view evolved much to his sadness, and he’s written about it.

A lot.

Misquoting Jesus, God’s Problem, Jesus, Interrupted, these are all books which pull back the curtain, as it were, on what he believes people think or have thought about all things Christian, from the words of Jesus to the compilation, contents, and meaning of Scripture.

I was introduced to Jesus, Interrupted by a congregation member. He was reading it, so I figured I should read it.

I found it to be well written, but not particularly instructive.  The congregant, on the other hand, found it to be totally disruptive.  In short: it was faith-shattering.

Ehrman, too, lost faith after studying at Princeton and finding out much of what he has recorded in Jesus, Interrupted.  Apparently finding out that Moses didn’t write the first five books of the Old Testament (surprise surprise, especially considering that if the historical Moses were based off of a real individual he was probably illiterate…and would probably not write in meta-Moses form about his own death) was faith destroying.  Or if not that, perhaps it was learning that the end of the Gospel of Mark was added at a later date because it was just too much to have the “women say nothing to anyone” after the resurrection.  Or perhaps finding out that in the Gospel of John Jesus dies on a Thursday, whereas the synoptics have him dying on a Friday.

Perhaps it was all of these that caused Ehrman to lose faith;  perhaps something else.

My point, though, is that I learned all of this at university, and was taught much of this in seminary.

And here I am, a Christian (reluctantly).

And learning it didn’t destroy my faith at all, it just reconfigured it.

I lost faith in the words, but grew in faith to the story the words pointed to.  I lost faith in the empirical thinking that we for some reason believe must rule our lives, and fostered faith in the storied thinking that truly moves mountains and inspires action.

Dr. Ehrman: in what was your faith?  Was it in the words, or was it in the promise the words pointed to?

In seminary I had a classmate who said boldly, “Even if tomorrow they find the bones of Jesus of Nazareth, I still hold fast to the promise…that is the nature of faith.”

Indeed, it is.

Religion does no good in espousing the inerrancy of its documents, creeds, doctrines, dogmas…whatever.  I have no doubt that people are leaving churches in flocks because they find that their faith in the inerrancy of Scripture cannot stand up to the fact that Paul probably did not write all the letters ascribed to him.

I should also mention that, the early church probably knew this and it didn’t seem to challenge their faith any…

But I do empathize with faith-destruction.  It’s tough.  Even Christopher Hitchens has a touching moment in God is Not Great where he speaks of his disollusionment with Marxism, and likens this to the religious individual losing faith.  He writes,

“Thus, dear reader, if you have come this far and found your own faith undermined-as I hope-I am willing to say that to some extent I know what you are going through.  There are days when I miss my old convictions as if they were an amputated limb.  But in general I feel better, and no less radical, and you will feel better too, I guarantee, once you leave hold of the doctrinaire and allow your chainless mind to do its own thinking.” (God is Not Great, 153)

The rub?  Hitchens and Ehrman point to the same evidence in both of these books.  Sure, Ehrman is less flippant and less inflammatory, but the gist of their arguments are the same.

And their purpose, I think, is probably the same.

And where is the defense of faith?  Usually found in the voice-box of a literalist…and thus the elephant enters back into the room.  Spong and Borg are attempting, Craig and McGrath are making some good noise, but the fact of the matter is this: if we are to defend faith as a life-giving concept, we have to stop teaching ridiculous notions like Biblical inerrancy, which are nothing but death knells waiting to ring.

Where is the emphasis on stories and how story shapes our reality?  Where is the emphasis on promise, beauty, love that defies description?

I read Hitchens and Ehrman, and find myself nodding a lot.  A lot of what the atheist and agnostic says makes sense to me, a reluctant Christian.  But none of it destroys my faith.  So either I’m deceiving myself (the Truth is not in me, I assure you), or my faith is in something other than words on a page or empirical proof.

So now, what are we to do?

Perhaps we can start by ushering the elephant out of the room, and then tell a story.  That’s what this a/theist does.

The Sighs of an Oppressed People

Sisyphus Crossing

I’m not a Marxist.

I do, however, like the t-shirt put out by Threadless.com of the “Communist Party.”  I imagine a Marxist has to drink a lot.

But Marx, in his wisdom (and foolishness…aren’t we all of that same coin currency?) wrote in Contribution to the critique of Hegel’s Philosophyof Right:

“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation.  It is the opium of the people.”

The call to slough off the cubicles of the bourgeoisie, including the cubicle of religion, is the call to get sober, to get organized, to get…to get.

I took an interesting class the final semester of my seminary career.  It was entitled, “Engaging Violence through Theater” or something as equally ambiguous and enticing.  In preparation for our final practicum, the class assembled with some residents of a local retirement community to talk about the nebulous topic of “spirituality” to plumb the depths of using theater as a way to bridge gaps and rips in the societal fabric caused by factious religious tension.

In that circle of chairs were priests, Christians, Jews, agnostics, atheists, all defined broadly. With the exception of the advanced ages of all the attendees (minus the seminary students), there was quite a bit of diversity in the room in general.

Through the course of a mostly civil and enlightening discussion, there were a couple of peaks of agitation.  At one such peak a very irritated woman, a devout atheist, said something to the effect of, “I don’t need a god, and I think the implication that I do is insulting!”

Point well taken.

Directly following her statement, an elderly African American woman with a severe palsy, who had previously spoken of the faith of her parents in slavery, spoke up, “Listen.  From my tradition, we made a god because we needed a god.  If you don’t need him, don’t take him. But, leave our god alone.”

Point well taken.

Religion is the sigh of an oppressed people.

I like this notion of Marx however much I would like to divorce the opiate reference.  After all, if religion is an opiate of sorts, you’d think that “religious people” would be happier…another notch in Hitchens’ belt for pointing out that fact.

But that idea takes for granted that the point of religion, or even faith for that matter, is to impart happiness; a mistaken conclusion, I think.  For while religion or faith (not the same, mind you, but I’m not interested in dissecting each at this junction) might indeed provide for it’s adherents’ happiness, this is not the goal…at least not in the mind of the faith-laden individual writing this blog.

Kiekegaard, in Fear and Trembling, warns against looking at faith lightly.  He writes,

“But what no one has the right to do is let others suppose that faith is something inferior or that it is an easy matter, when in fact it is the greatest and most difficult of all.”

Difficult because, well, our oppressions…in their forms…cause us to scramble for the concrete: beliefs, forms, arguments.  Cause us to scramble for happiness, satiation, comfort.  Cause us to set goals that we can fill ourselves with until we get that “just full enough” feeling.

Yes, full of it.  It’s gotten.  And I do not discount the fact that many people use their beliefs in this way, whether theistic, atheistic, or somewhere in between.  It gets us that “just full enough” feeling.

But the Knight of Faith, a person whom Kierkegaard is admittedly not able to be, knows that, “faith finds its proper expression in (the person) whose life is not only the most paradoxical conceivable, but so paradoxical that it simply cannot be thought.  (They) act on the strength of the absurd.”

The strength of the absurd.

Why do we shy away from this word, “absurd”?

I’d like to think that it is probably the absurd that overcomes oppression in most situations.  In those situations when it appears that power, however its form, should win, we then and there find that power is in fact weakness because in the face of the absurd you are not dealing with elements of the same nature.

Like steel and fire: both powerful, but in different ways…one dissolving the other.

And yet, metaphors only go as far as they do.


Kant, in section III of the Philosophical Doctrine of Reason, relates an interesting bit on the sigh of humanity.  He notes,

“A member of the English Palriament exclaimed in the heat of debate: ‘Every man has his price, for which he sells himself.’ If this is true (and everyone can decide by himself), if nowhere is a virtue which no level of temptation can overthrow, if whether the good or evil spirit wins us over only depends on which bids the most and affords the proptest pay-off, the, what the Apostle says might indeed hold true of human beings universally, ‘There is no distinction here, they are all under sin-there is none righteous (in the spirit of the law), no, not one.”


And were religion, as an institution, meant to address this situation, to answer the moral question, we would end up looking at straw as well.  Indeed, I’m quite convinced that morality is not contingent upon organized religion.  And yet, organized religion is used by many in just this way…another way of getting full of morality, of seeking to point at the moral seed and exclaim, “I’ve found the tree of life.”

And yet.

And yet, we have never arrived at that thing that acknowledges the communal “sigh”.  You see, even with moral and emotional satisfaction being found outside of organized religion (and within), we still, as a whole, as humanity, sigh.

That seems absurd…to sigh even when it seems that all we are needing is at hand with and without systems.

And that absurdity, that, I think, is no drug.  That’s more real than anything I’ve found.  And it hints of faith…the faith that in chaos is indeed order.

Whether we are insulted by the insinuation that somehow God is necessary, or insulted by the fact that God may not be necessary, we fall under the same oppression.  We think we know.  Slavoj Zizek claims that the god we think we understand is like a Tamagotchi toy-our own creation which subsequently makes demands upon us.

Whether it is the god of Reason, like Hitchens, the god of Order, like Marx, or the God of Israel, like Swindol.

Perhaps the sigh, then, is the only appropriate response.  It is not a sigh of despair, nor a sigh of anguish, but a sigh of relief.

Relief in the fact that we don’t understand God.

That’s absurd.  Indeed.