On Not Believing Impossible Things and How Religion Doesn’t Help

“Alice laughed: “There’s no use trying,” she said; “one can’t believe impossible things.” “I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” (Lewis Carroll, _Alice Adventure’s in Wonderland_)

To believe in “impossible things” is quite human, I think. There is a sense of hopefulness, a kind of counter-balance to our fear instincts, that lives strong in our brain chemistry.

But even within the realm of believing in “impossible things” there are some categories. Like, it’s one thing to believe that there is a Divine Being in the universe, and quite another thing to believe that someone gravely ill with little medical probability to recover will, somehow, do so.

The first, a belief in a Divine Being, is a kind of life-assent to some sort of higher power’s existence. The second is trusting that a miracle (which, by definition, means it doesn’t happen except so rarely it can barely be documented and is taken out of statistical probabilities) will happen.

The first kind of belief is existential.

The second kind of belief is banking on the improbable at best, and impossible when it comes right down to it.

Religion has played fast and loose with these kinds of ideas over the years. As recently as last year the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod reaffirmed the Doctrine of Creation which pushes the idea that, due to the Genesis account, the world was created in six, literal, days.

The President of the denomination, Matthew Harrison, wrote in defense of the affirmation, concluding that he is compelled to believe in the doctrine of creation because, in his words, “I believe in Jesus Christ as my Savior. And I hear in the words of Jesus that He himself believes the creation accounts are historical. (See MATT. 19:3–9.) I hear in the words of Scripture, both Old and New Testaments, the voice of my Savior. And both He and the Scriptures bear witness to their absolute inerrancy and infallibility.” (The Lutheran Witness, January 3rd, 2018)

Not only do I find his position theologically lazy, but I find it utterly senseless! As in, it makes absolutely no rational sense. And I get that his big thing is that faith trumps rationality in all things, but that position is dangerous when it comes to matters of science and life and death.

This is but one example of denominations who still hold and teach this “impossible belief” that flies in the face of so many branches of science and so many years of dedicated scholarly inquiry that I can’t even name all the branches, lest I leave any out.

Add to this the idea that there was a world-wide flood and Noah’s ark somehow preserved creation, that there were giants like Goliath in the ancient world, and that Joshua’s horns fell the walls of Jericho…I mean, you can name six impossible things before getting through the first chapter of Genesis if we’re talking literally.

I remember being in a Bible study once and explaining to the class that the particular book we were reading was an example of “Biblical story,” a tale meant to teach the lesson. It contained many truths, but did not actually, factually happen. And I remember a few souls in there widening their eyes in disbelief at my statement. Their dismay was palpable.

The story was an impossible tale, by the way. A great tale, a truthful tale, but not a factual tale. And were it to be read outside of the religious context, it’d clearly be identified in that way.

One person raised their hand, “But,” they said, “if God can do anything, then I’ll just believe it happened, OK?”

“One can certainly take that approach,” I said, “but it opens up the doors for a lot of problems if you do. Because we live in a world of norms, by and large. And if we give God the big ‘anything is possible’ card, then we might start to disregard the norms that govern our world and society, norms like science, witness, and historical precedence.”

I don’t know if that was the right answer. I don’t know that there is one.

But I bring this all up because we are certainly, as a people and as a society, moving away from a culture of fact and truth and increasingly becoming a culture that “believes impossible things” because they’re convenient.

Like, it’s convenient to believe that mask-wearing is all about control and this pandemic virus is a hoax and, if God can do anything, then we don’t need to fear it because God can protect us.

It’s convenient because it let’s you live in a world where you don’t have to take responsibility for the safety of others, let alone yourself, because you can live in your delusion without question.

But it’s also very dangerous.

And I worry, in the deep parts of my heart, that religion that pushes a literal Noah’s ark has enabled this type of thinking.

Blind optimism has allowed people to believe that, contrary to every authority, the 2020 vote was rigged and stolen. Authority is not held in esteem anymore, but rather is subject to desires and wishes, it seems.

I worry that blind optimism pushed by so much religion, with the “pie in the sky” escapism, has laid the neural irrigation ditches for this kind of thinking to be possible.

What culpability does religion have in the impossible thinking going on in our world today?

I’m not sure, but I’m wrestling with it.

Because while I do believe it is possible to have a critically-thinking faith, I also know (from experience) that it’s more difficult. The easy way out, in many ways, is to not think about it at all and take religious texts, doctrines, and dogmas as gospel truth (pun intended).

The critic of that statement would claim that it’s harder because so much of the texts, doctrines, and dogmas fly in the face of scientific discoveries, sociological progress, and philosophical thought.

“Exactly,” is my response. “So why believe it?”

It’s believed because it’s convenient to do so, and immediately beneficial: you don’t have to wrestle out the truth because it’s given to you.

But our world is not one to give gifts like that. Truth has never been served on a silver platter, but rather wrestled out, verified, re-verified, put to the test, and eventually come out on top.

A religious system that encourages wrestling is sorely needed in this world today, but I fear it may be too late. As the pockets of society that embrace science and those that reject it retreat to their different corners, we’re forced to look at the wasteland gap in-between us all and wonder how the ways we’ve taught faith, spoken about “truth,” and pushed impossible beliefs has led to this in America.

What Christians in Indiana Should Do in Response to the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act”

You’ve all heard the hubbabaloo by now going on in Indiana where Governor Mike Pence signed-in private I might add-the9740026677_b5c818f328_o Religious Freedom Restoration Act which effectively allows businesses and vendors to not serve people if it violates their…<cough>…religious convictions.

Great.  Because we have so many examples in the Scriptures of Jesus not serving people because of their sexual orientation, occupation, reputation, and (insert favorite reason to dislike people here).

So many examples.

So many, that I’m not sure how to choose from the examples.

Like that woman at the well who had so many husb…oh wait, scratch that.

Like that woman about to get stoned because she was adulter…oh wait, not that one.

Like that man, the short tax collector who was cheating people, his name started with a Z…oh wait, nope.

Well, at least there is that traitor Judas, right?  At least Jesus puts him in his place, right?

Except that right before Judas betrays Jesus, Jesus kneels before him and washes his feet.  Right before he sells Jesus for profit, Jesus lovingly takes his heel, douses him with water, and scrubs the dirt right off his sole.

…see what I did there?

Lexicon it.  Jesus doesn’t refuse service.  Even the Gentile woman in Mark’s gospel gets a piece of Jesus’ love, despite Jesus’ initial protests.

So tell me, Indiana legislators, lobbyists, and general public who might support such drivel, where you get the idea that this somehow restores religious freedom.  Because I don’t think you’ve read your Bibles.

I really don’t.

Because if you read your Bibles, if you read the story of Jesus instead of the soundbites of crazy, profit-hungry, TV preachers, and bigoted, rapture-awaiting, crazy folks who pretend to be pastors/messiahs/prophets, but are nothing more than charlatans or hustlers, you might realize that to Jesus religious freedom actually means that you are not free to do whatever you want.

My patron saint (no, not Jimmy Buffett…he’s my muse), the Blessed Martin Luther says it this way, “A Christian is absolutely free; subject to no one.  A Christian is absolutely bound, servant of all.”

Another way to think about that is to recall Jesus’ call for us to be yoked to God.  That yoke is “light.”  When we bind ourselves to God, our yoked-ness is light.


Because being yoked to God actually takes away your choice.

This was something that Christopher Hitchens actually got right in his books.  He took umbrage with the idea that we must, as Christ followers (and Torah followers), love our enemies.  It was the height of forced-abuse, he thought (for more on this read his God is Not Great).

So I call on all Christians in Indiana to actually do what this bill, in title at least, claims to do: restore your religious freedom.  Restore the yoke of God to yourself, because if you refuse service to someone for any reason that may be part of an “ism,” you’ve sloughed off the yoke.

But woe to you liberals, too (no one gets out of this one unmarked).

I hear your calls to boycott legislators from your businesses.  I hear your cries of anger, and your threats to not serve supporters of this act in your establishments.

To you, again, I encourage a close reading of Scripture.  Because Jesus actually has said something about this.  In Matthew 18 Jesus instructs Christians on how to deal with those who sin.

And I gotta tell you, I think this law is an example of sin in this world.

What do you do?  You talk to them.  I know many have done that already.

And if they don’t listen, you take another with you so there is a witness.

I think we’ve all witnessed this step…

And if they still don’t listen, you bring in the church leaders.  And for us in the ELCA, this has already happened, too.

And if they still won’t listen, you “treat them as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.”

And this is the moment when you think you’re given permission to stick it to The Man.

Except, when you look at how Jesus treated Gentiles and tax collectors (see references above), you realize that, unfortunately for our egos and sense of justice, we are servant here, too.  We do not boycott them from our eateries and services.  We do not block them off from our handshakes and welcome.  We may not re-elect some of the legislators, but we in no way get to marginalize them.

See, this following Jesus thing is pretty tough.  This yoke is light in that it takes away my choice.  But it is pretty heavy on my ego and my own sense of retaliation…

Ugh.  This mess in Indiana makes me a reluctant Christian.  And then Jesus’ own advice on what I’m supposed to do makes me reluctant, too, because it’s not what I want to do.

So, what should Christians in Indiana do in response to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act?  Speak out; yes.  Be active; sure.

But also eat with those who you consider your enemies.  Bless those who persecute, because in doing so you show them a love that they are unwilling to give and to receive.

Your anger is justified.  But your discrimination is not.  None is.

What We Lose When We Exorcise Mystery from Religion

So, this Sunday falls directly on Candlemas, and for dorks like me that’s a bit of a big deal.index

For those of you not in the “know,” Candlemas is that time in the church year (for some of us) where we haul out all the candles in the church (or at least a representative sampling) and bless them.  My colleague calls it a “hinge day,” marking the midpoint between the Winter’s Solstice and the Spring Equinox.

So we haul out the candles and we bless them to acknowledge the Christ as being the “light of the world.”  And I’ve never met anyone who didn’t sit in solemn silence in the presence of a candle illuminating a darkened room.  There’s something deeply True about doing that.

It’s kind of like how many of us will burn greens right after Christmas, pray late into the night on the Winter’s Solstice, and bless houses at Epiphany.

All of these rites, these rituals, help us to breathe deeply  with history, with the Earth’s movement, and with the mystery that connects us to one another and to the Divine.  It’s why I bow toward the cross as it comes into my midst: I want to honor in my body the mystery of salvation.

But a lot of places don’t do this.  Won’t do this.  Indeed, a lot of places think these acts are superfluous at best and superstitious at worst.

I don’t bless candles because I think they must be blessed.  I bless them because, in doing so, I acknowledge that light will overcome darkness. Always. And that deserves blessing.

I don’t pray late into the night on the Winter’s Solstice because I think that evil resides in the shadows and I must pray it away.  No. I know evil resides in the shadows.  Hence why we don’t tell our secrets…many times they’re too full of evil, guilt, or shame to expose to the light.  So I pray late into the night to acknowledge that, from that point on, it will get lighter and lighter each day as we lean toward Spring.

And then, perhaps, I can allow a little light to shine more and more on my secrets.

And all of these practices help to connect me with a mystery of life and salvation greater than myself.  It’s kind of like our big harvest festival, Thanksgiving.  Ever since our forbears figured out that a dead seed will spring from the Earth, a mix between careful tending and damn luck, they’ve acknowledged that to live, and to breathe, and to eat is a gift.

All of it, gift.

And part of living into that gift is acknowledging that there are moments in life that are just bigger than us…and that should be ritualized. Communally ritualized.

But so much of modern faith is all brain or all heart and no mystery (unless we’re expected to believe that Jonah mysteriously wasn’t dissolved by stomach acid).

We just feel it’s true.  We assent to mental tenets (or reject them).

And yet, deep love is neither mental nor emotional.  It doesn’t make sense to the brain, and is often too fleeting with the heart.

No. Deep love is a mix of the head and the heart and the guts and…and that’s where I find true faith to reside, too.

Timothy Keller and Christopher Hitchens attempt to rationalize everything (they are in good company).  They are the different sides of the same coin. Not everything has an answer.

Likewise, the absolute emotionalism of charismatic and ecstatic communities miss the mark, too, I think.  Things aren’t true because they move our emotions; emotions are fleeting.  “Mystery” doesn’t mean believing just anything.

No. Things are true because they connect us deeply in the past and far into the future.

Hence why myth is True in a deeper sense then pure history.  Hence why rituals are True in a sense deeper than mindless monotony.

A belief system (and, remember, even atheism is a belief system) that attempts to exorcise mystery by finding a formula for everything and explaining everything or, conversely, by necessitating a constant emotional response is a faith that has lost something.

I think it’s lost depth.  My atheism was shallow.  As was my previous faith.  And while I don’t claim that I’ve reached some sort of amazing depth in my faith life now, it’s certainly more connected then anything I’ve practiced before.

Rituals don’t “save” me.


I don’t do them to earn anything.  Rather, they do exactly what “religion” claims to do: they reconnect me.  Re-ligio comes from the same root as “ligament.”  It  reconnects us.

Because we have a way of disconnecting from life.  But, too often, even religion fails to live up to it’s name these days.

So, this Sunday, haul out some candles.  Give thanks for the light.

I Want My Children to Know This About Faith

Having a kid changes your perspective.  I used to roll my eyes when I heard parents say that, but it’s true.Father-Son-Shadow

Like, for instance, how I’m much more willing than I used to be to just drop those last papers and emails and meeting notes to get home before bedtime.  I still work late…but I’m much more willing to let it all go to snuggle a snotty face, read Jimmy Buffett’s “Jolly Mon” storybook, and change a diaper before the little guy goes to sleep.

And as we’re raising this little guy, and as a pastor, there are a few things I want this little guy to know about faith.

First, faith and religion won’t give you self-esteem.  It’s not meant to.  It’s not meant to make you feel good.  It’s purpose is not to get you to love yourself.  Don’t stick with the faith because it makes you feel good.  If you’re doing it to feel good, you’re an addict, not faithful.  Get more vitamin K.


But sometimes the faith can love you when you can’t love yourself.  Sometimes hearing that God chooses you can replace those moments in your life when you feel like you can’t choose yourself, don’t love yourself, can’t believe in yourself.  There have been times in my life where I’ve let the faith believe things about me that I couldn’t muster myself to believe…and it made all the difference in taking the next step the next day.

Secondly, faith isn’t about getting answers.  Faith isn’t about knowing certainty, “figuring it all out,” or attaining a perfect worldview that will put all the pieces together.  If you’re looking for your faith to do that you will be disappointed.


But faith is intended to help you ask better questions about your life.  It is intended to provoke your thoughts about yourself, about purpose, about others around you in such a way that you see the world differently than the world tries to get you to see it.  It is provided to help you celebrate the life of the mind rather than the pursuits of greed, fame, and fortune.  It is the antithesis to a world that says “Success is the mark of a life well lived.”  No. “Pursuit of a purpose bigger than yourself, specifically the purpose shown in the life of the Christ in sacrificial love…that is the mark of a life well lived.”

While we’re on the subject of answers, the Scriptures are not meant to explain everything in this world.  They are not meant to explain how the world came to be, or how sexual orientation should be understood, or how psychology is understood.  No.  Faith is the quest for “why” not “how.” The Scriptures are inspired words by inspired people about the history of the quest for “why.”  Why is there something rather than nothing?  Why am I to love even if I don’t feel like I want to?  Why is humanity connected in such a way that makes me feel responsibility toward someone else?

Faith is meant to help you embrace mystery, hold tension, and walk well in a world that wants to polarize you into this answer vs. that answer.  Your dad is a reluctant Christian because this has been largely lost.  I want you to be a Christian, too (even if you’re reluctant like your old dad…)

Thirdly, faith isn’t supposed to make you feel superior.  There are no “poor souls…”  You are as poor as any soul out there.  And if your job in the world is to “save” someone, you better be a lifeguard.  Only the Divine can save.  All you can do is be Christ’s hands and feet.


Faith is something that I think you should share.  Not in the “I think this and you should, too…” sort of way.  But rather, in the “Here’s something I find really true…” sort of way.  In the “Here is my hope…” sort of way.  In the “Here’s what moves me…” sort of way.  And never be afraid to ask someone else what moves them, either.  Their beliefs do not threaten yours.  There is much to learn from one another.  I want you to have friends who believe and think different things than you do, and I want you to talk to them about it.  Often.

Finally, I want you in a faith community.  Why?  Because I don’t know how else to help make sure that God doesn’t end up looking like you.  And I want you in a multi-generational faith community where you have to interact with lovely old ladies and hold little babies. Hopefully it can be racially and ethnically diverse, too.  I don’t care if it’s big or small, I just want it to be diverse.  I want you to be in a faith community where questions are encouraged, where mystery (specifically in the sacraments) are lifted high (because then maybe you’ll see how the Thanksgiving table in November is like the thanksgiving table on Sunday mornings, and live in response to that bounty).  I want you to remember that you are loved and redeemed and meant to be a light in this world that too often is full of shadows, and the only way I can think that you’ll be reminded of that often enough is when you gather with other people to read and hear ancient words, to shake hands, to eat and wash together, and to drink strong coffee (optional).

There’s more to say this morning to you, buddy, but the freezing temps outside have closed your daycare, which means I’m in charge of lunch.  But this is a good start…

On Why I Will Allow (and Encourage) My Kid(s) to Believe in Santa Claus

Just like the perennial “Waimagesr on Christmas” creeps its Grinch-like head around this time of year, so do the calls for people to abandon Santa Claus, the “Elf on the Shelf,” and other child-pleasing myths that we’ve come to associate with this season.

Apparently because we celebrate the birth of Jesus at this time of year, everything else must come to a halt…lest we overshadow the “reason for the season.”

Well, to be honest, if we’re trying to get back to the “reason for the season” at its roots, we should probably leave Jesus out of the equation, too.  December 25th was not originally known as “Christmas,” and didn’t become so for many years after Christianity had been around.  “The Feast of the Undying Sun” was marked on December 25th, an acknowledgment of the solstice that would now ebb away into increasing daylight.  A nice pagan festival in the dead of winter.

We invited Jesus to the party late.  He wasn’t the original reason for celebrations at this time of year.

Christians now celebrate the “Feast of the Undying Son” (I should trademark that little monicker because I think it’s pretty darn clever), but we should be honest and recognize that it’s not our original festival to claim.  And it certainly wasn’t chosen because it was the date of Jesus’ birth.

Face it, we put the “Christ” in Christmas.  Any attempt to “keep” Christ there are done so because we cemented him there…

But back to Santa and the crazy Elf on the Shelf: I say “do it.”

As a pastor, as a father, as someone who thinks that life is more than water and trace elements forced to eek out an existence, I say “do it.”

As I preached this last Sunday, St. Nicholas can provide a real depth of meaning in this season where we celebrate Jesus’ birth (for Christians) by buying one another a Lexus adorned with a huge bow.

St. Nicholas was known for his giving…not for getting whatever he wanted.  And by keeping St. Nick in this season, we too, can focus our children on the giving of the season, rather than the receiving.

“Keep Christ in Christmas” the bumper sticker reads…on the gas guzzling car.  What about keeping Christ in consumerism? In fact, if you want to eliminate the real issue with this season, it has nothing to do with saying “Happy Holidays” or burning effigies of the jolly fat elf.  It has everything to do with buying and selling and how and why and where we do it.

But I digress.

Even more than the historical St. Nicholas, there is a bit of wonder and awe that is lost from this season if we don’t allow our children (and our adults) to play around in the great mystery that comes from things not being dark forever, from lights that shine out of a tree planted in the living room, from characters that point to good virtues and mischievous glee.

I encourage you to believe in Santa Claus, who is chief giver in a season where our natural inclination is to conserve and save-up to survive the winter.  Likewise, believe in the elf that creates havoc in the middle of the night.  Lord knows we all need another example to follow when our tendency to look out for ourselves butts up against the command to look out for our neighbor’s needs first.  Lord knows we all need a reminder that, though things seem to run havoc in the darkness, a little light can expose the havoc and encourage us to laugh at it all.

Santa and the Elf and the like can encourage our children, and even us, to live deeply in the season, look lightly at ourselves, and look wondrously at life.

The real trouble, I think, happens when we start teaching our children that believing in Santa Claus is analogous to belief in God.  That is the real fear behind inviting these characters into the season: belief and attention to them will point away from “true” belief and attention to Jesus.

But if we start holding Jesus and Santa at the same level, when we teach that belief in the Elf on the Shelf is like belief in God, and that you can’t hold both at the same time, then we do a real disservice.  Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers sing that wonderfully awful song, “I Believe in Santa Claus” where they also claim to believe in magic, in God, and in human destiny…as if it’s all on the same level…and we’ve bought into that perspective.  It doesn’t help the situation.

They are different types of belief.

I don’t trust Santa like I trust God.  Santa is a mental assent I allow myself at certain times with a wink and nod; hopefully a mental assent that points me toward a deeper truth in the world.

But God…I don’t allow myself to mentally assent to God’s existence.  I tried to do that and ended up an atheist for a while.  Rather, I trust God’s existence and lean on it (for more on this line of thinking, see what I wrote here).

Santa, the Elf on the Shelf, it all lends itself to wonder and awe and joy.  I say that you shouldn’t take that away from children.  But also don’t make belief in it all analogous to trust in God.  That’s the real problem with this whole season, I think.  We feel we’re in competition for “belief resources.”

In fact, the God who invites imagination, who inventively sung creation into being (and sung salvation into being through a lullaby), pulls out of me the desire to embrace these traditions.

They’re not harmless; they’re helpful.

And they’re only hurtful when we put them on par with faith.  And sometimes I’m a reluctant Christian because that’s exactly what Christians have done.

So, Findley will be finding some presents from Santa on Christmas morning (and we’ll probably address some from the cats as well even though they don’t have the opposable thumbs needed to wrap presents).  It won’t be the primary focus of our festival, but it’ll be there. And he’ll squeal with joy and, for a moment, feel the wonder in the magic of the season where a jolly fat guy fits down a non-working fireplace and cats wrap presents to give to their owners.

And while we don’t do the Elf on the Shelf thing (mostly because I find the elf’s proportions creepily elongated) if that’s your bag, go for it.

And if Christmas bells deliver your presents, or if Santa rides a donkey, or if gnomes put presents in stockings…all traditions from around the world…allow yourself the wonder and awe to believe that this world might just be a little bigger than we want to make it.

Perhaps you’ll find yourself caught up in joy that points to Joy greater than itself.  Perhaps you’ll figure out why the ancient church put Jesus’ natal day on December 25th.  In the time of darkness, the lightness that comes from such joy is a welcome guest.

If Church Websites Could Talk

Hi. Welcome to our siindexte. Do you like my stock photos of people who don’t go here representing a diversity that isn’t actually present?

Hi. Welcome to our site. Check out the “Our Beliefs” section where, when you scroll to the bottom, you’ll see that we think people who don’t agree with the tenets above end up in an eternal hell.  It’s at the bottom of the section…because we’re hoping you won’t get there.

Hi. Did you check out the “Our Beliefs” section yet?  Because it gives you the impression that you should believe those things, too.  And if you don’t, we’re going to ask that you start believing them, especially if you want to hold any sort of position in church leadership.

Hi! Did you notice how many exclamation points we use in our text?!  That’s because it’s exciting to be here!  Much like the YMCA!  Or any summer camp!

Hi. Welcome to our website.  It’s true that over half of the buttons on the site are “under construction.”  We just kind of figured that having a site up would be enough.

Hi. Welcome to our church website.  Does it look like we’re selling something?  It’s because we’ve commodified Jesus as something you lack and need, and something we sell.

Hi. Welcome to our website. Did you notice that there are no women in leadership?  Please ignore that…we think women are important, just not authoritative.

Hi. Welcome to our website. You won’t find it said on this page, but if you’re gay we’re not OK with that.

Hi. Welcome to our website.  Do you like the pic of the silhouetted person looking up over the body of water with arms outstretched as if they’re having a spiritual experience at the edge of the ocean?  It’s neat, right?  That’s what every service is like.  Promise.  It’s like standing at the edge of the world reaching up toward God.  Promise.

Hi. Welcome to our website. We’ve decided to use background music on every page.  It’s digitized hymns and not annoying.

Hi. Welcome to our website. We haven’t really updated the announcements since Christmas.  Yes, we know it’s July.  Just think of it as Christmas in July!

Hi. Welcome to our website.  We’ve listed the heads of all the different committees on the “About Us” page.  Because we want to show you all the things we’re going to lobby you to join and/or head up when the person listed there gets burned out.  It’s not confusing or overwhelming, is it?  Don’t you know what the Evangelism Committee does?  They partly designed this website…

Hi. Welcome to our website. We’re going to say that you can believe whatever you want to come here, but really we’re going to insist that we and we alone hold the truths of the world.  And we have answers.  Lots and lots of answers.  In fact, we’ve got it all figured out!  And most of the answers to your problems include the words “Jesus” and the phrase “Have more faith.”

Hi. Welcome to our website.  What makes us different from the other church meeting in that other gym down the street?  What makes us different from that other big-box church the next suburb over?  What makes us different from the other church who uses these same stock images?

Good question.


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.


“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.

“If it’s wrong, I don’t want to be right” or “I don’t want to be right, even if that’s wrong.”

In the July 8th issue of The Guardian, David Hare has an interesting interview with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.

Yes, get your “Mr. Bean” jokes out now.

Williams has been an outspoken critic of the New Atheist movement happening in his backyard, but his critiques have been mostly what I would call a “failure to engage.”  But as I read more and more about Williams, his theology, and his argumentative style, I would classify his critiques less as a failure to engage and more as a choice not to talk over.

That is, after all, what most of these shouting matches between atheists and theists have been: talking over one another.

So when one can boil the Archbishop’s responses down to the simple, awfully British, phrase, “Oh, please…” I now understand better why.  Williams finds the whole process of argumentation to be an exercise in futility.  And one, I might add, that leads to more bitterness and entrenchment than anything else in my experience.

I, too, came to this realization about a year ago.  In my search to mine the depths of my own skepticism, I finally came to much the same conclusion that Williams appears to have known for some time (if only those with ears would hear): argumentation in this arena is a futile attempt at making oneself believe by mind what is only known by heart.  Or, as St. Ambrose reminds us, “It does not suit God to save (God’s) people by arguments.”  Williams apparently often recites this.

This realization is not an escape, mind you.  That’s ultimate Truth.  And if you think you know it, I would question if you do.

Willaims explains this idea much more satisfactorily in the interview:

“Oh, look, argument has the role of damage limitation. The number of people who acquire faith by argument is actually rather small. But if people are saying stupid things about the Christian faith, then it helps just to say, ‘Come on, that won’t work.’ There is a miasma of assumptions: first, that you can’t have a scientific worldview and a religious faith; second, that there is an insoluble problem about God and suffering in the world; and third, that all Christians are neurotic about sex. But the arguments have been recycled and refought more times than we’ve had hot dinners, and I do groan in spirit when I pick up another book about why you shouldn’t believe in God. Oh dear! Bertrand Russell in 1923! And while I think it’s necessary to go on rather wearily putting down markers saying, ‘No, that’s not what Christian theology says’ and, ‘No, that argument doesn’t make sense’, that’s the background noise. What changes people is the extraordinary sense that things come together.

In reading Harris and Hitchens, in reading Craig and McGrath, I’ve come to this conclusion: I enjoy the reading.  On both sides.  I find myself nodding to Hitchens about just as much as I find myself nodding to McGrath.  And I find myself shaking my head in the same places, too: where the argumentation devolves into silly straw-people stereotypes and supercilious name calling.

(Harris and Craig, actually, I find pretty tedious because their anger is not mixed with enough sarcasm.  I prefer my agitants to be laced with humor.  It helps the hate go down better.)

But all in all this interview with the fine Archbishop has helped me to hone in, once again, on what it is that I am giving up in this life constantly, and that is the need to be “right.”  He notes:

Put it this way, if I’m not absolutely paralysed by the question, ‘Am I right? Am I safe?’ then there are more things I can ask of myself. I can afford to be wrong.

My dance with religion has led me to find that I’m not dancing to learn the steps, I’m dancing to dance.  And perfection is not the goal of this endeavor; dancing is.  I’ve given up my need to have the right steps.

But if that’s the case, why are so many Christians concerned with orthodoxy?  In my own church, my own denomination, we’re continuing to struggle with issues over orthodoxy, and yet, if we’ve given up the need to be right as the Christ has freed us to, it appears we haven’t given up the need to fight about it.

It is at this point that many will say, “Sure, but your point certainly doesn’t mean that anything is permissible!”

Quite correct (I’ll refrain from using the word “right”).

But must we argue and divide and split on account of it?  Williams’ own tenure as Archbishop has shown that diverse opinions can be pillars that hold up the same house.  And whether it’s because his eyebrows are too threatening to tussle with, or because he’s actually on to something here, he truly believes in the church in a way that makes me not want to fight him on it.

But I’ll allow his belief to be my own for the present time.  For while I want to believe in the church, the church often makes me a reluctant Christian.  Christians make me a reluctant Christian. While I find myself free from the need to be right, it appears my sisters and brothers throughout the church do not.


And sure, the one last argument the dissenting reader will throw out is true, “But don’t you think you’re “right” in believing its correct to give up being right?!”

Fine.  Incurvatus in se.  I won’t argue with you on that…because arguing will get us no where.  But I don’t believe in the rightness of my belief.  I don’t believe in the rightness of religion; no way.

Instead, I’ll just say that it’s my lens. I lean on it.  I look through it. Or to put it another way, I’ll quote someone else much smarter than me:

“Religion is not primarily a something to be believed…Religion is first and foremost a way of seeing.” (Kushner, Who Needs God)

So, I guess I don’t want to be right, even if that’s wrong.  Because in my reading and my experience, being right or needing to be so, well, it just leads to blindness.

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.