What are the six questions?
- Why does God seem to be against gay people?
- Why should I believe in miracles in an age of science?
- Why should I worship a God who commanded genocide?
- How can there possibly be only one way to God?
- If God is good, why is there so much evil in the world?
- How can a loving God send people to hell
Nothing new here, these six questions or iterations of them are precisely the ones that keep cranking out people who identify as “formerly Christian.”
Below are some of the helpful bits that I want to remember from Barton Priebe’s valiant effort to plug the six holes that seem to be sinking Christian ships everywhere.
- Gay: When it comes to the gay question, the author gives us a timely reminder in our polarizing and increasingly toxic culture that to disagree is not to hate. Human sexuality is a mighty big topic, and there must be room for differences of opinion.
- Science: Science cannot answer our most basic questions, it can do a great job with the “how” questions of life, but it is useless to answer the “why” questions, which are the most important ones. Science is no saviour, and we shouldn’t pretend that it is.
- Desire: Priebe was of great assistance in confirming my contention that desire shapes our belief’s more than reason or facts ever could. Priebe quotes Thomas Nagel “I want atheism to be true…It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God…I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.” and C.S. Lewis (before he became a Christian): “I had always wanted, above all things, not to be ‘interfered with.’ The real work of helping people change, I believe, comes with a confrontation of desire more than a confrontation of fact.
- Violent God: Regarding the violence of God in the Bible, the author attempts to smooth out the rough edges by displaying God as exceedingly patient. For example, our God who is such a fan of justice managed to patiently wait for 700 years before dropping the hammer of judgment on the Canaanites. Indeed, it is a good thing that the Biblical God doesn’t fly off the handle like other gods. I can also appreciate a God concerned about justice and even invoking at times harsh penalties for disobedience. What I can not appreciate, and what Priebe doesn’t wrestle with is that God would deputize humans to carry out his divine wrath as the genocide passages reveal. A mass slaughter of one people group by another people group from a human point of view must always wrong. The sincere cry “My God who is committed to justice told me to do it” as the blood flows freely in the streets will never work for me. Even a hint of this must be removed from the human playbook in my estimation.
Another attempt to smooth things over that fails to land is his observation that Jericho and Ai were only military installations. That means Israel would have inflicted casualties on military personnel and not civilians. The analogy given is that of tearing down the great wall of China but leaving Beijing undisturbed. This is bilge. The walled cities were places of refuge that civilian populations would have naturally run to for protection in the face of invasion. The Bible is clear that the Canaanite people were under God’s judgement not just their armies.
What I think is right and well stated was that Israel was not the big oppressor coming in, they were a ragtag bunch of former slaves who were complete underdogs. The real miracle is how these desert wanderers managed to avoid there own annihilation! Against all the odds, they carved out a tiny existence for themselves on a perpetually violent piece of real estate that sat at the crossroads of 3 continents. Also, I agree with Priebe that it’s important to realize the hyperbole in play. The great defeat and consequent slaughter of the Canaanites were markedly less impressive than some of the bravado indicates.
The Canaanites were really bad, I get that, and the book points this out with disgusting particularity. Which brings out the question at what point does one nation interfere with another nation that is really nasty. I believe, at some point, justice must trump sovereignty. Good countries must say to bad countries “stop it or else” — Is that what happened so long ago in Canaan? Perhaps at least partly, but the point is complicated to maneuver correctly in our world. Would anyone agree if a pro-life army was mobilized in the States to go to war against the great wickedness of the pro-choicers? Somehow we’ve managed to leave that judgement in God’s hands and have, I think, rightly, stuck to non-violent protests. Those who follow Jesus happily leave off any violent judgements on people to God. Ultimately what we find in the book of Joshua sits in uncomfortable tension with the teachings of Jesus. What I don’t understand, is how any ardent atheist can in good faith criticize the actions of the Jewish people so long ago. They don’t have the moral high ground to do it. Which brings me to Priebe’s strongest point in the book, and what I believe to be the most persuasive argument for continuing in the faith.
- The Moral Argument: Dawkins is amazed that molecules that make up rocks would gather themselves into chunks of rock sized matter capable of feeling, thinking and falling in love with other chunks of complex matter. To which Priebe says:
“If we are nothing more than complicated chunks of rock, it is difficult to see how our actions can be morally right or wrong. No one holds a boulder morally accountable for falling on and crushing another boulder. But we don’t believe that a man abusing a girl is simply a collision of rocks… We hold such a man to be morally accountable and yet if we live in an impersonal material universe, it is hard to see why the actions of complex rocks should be considered morally good and evil… Ultimately if there is nothing higher than human beings, than morality can only at most be a matter of opinion…Atheism, when followed to its logical end, has no categories for absolute good and evil… Atheists want to use Christian categories of universal absolutes and yet at the same time they deny that those absolutes exist.”
- Hell: This is a tough one it’s such an immensely unpopular topic. He quotes Ingersoll a 19th-century atheist.
“It there is a God who will damn his children forever, I would rather go to hell than to go to heaven and keep the society of such an infamous tyrant…I do not believe this doctrine; neither do you. If you did, you could not sleep one moment. Any man who believes it, and has within his breast a decent, throbbing heart, will go insane. A man who believes that doctrine and does not go insane has the heart of a snake and the conscience of a hyena.”
Priebe argues that the opposite of love is indifference and because God is love it is then impossible for him to be indifferent to evil and injustice, he will always be outraged and active against all wickedness. A God who cares deeply enough to be outraged about injustice is much better than one who is indifferent to it. He also leans heavy on Lewis: “Hell is locked from the inside.”
If all we need is a teacher of enlightenment, the Buddha will do; if all we need is a collection of gods for every occasion and need, and hope, Hinduism will do; if all we need is a tribal deity, any tribal deity will do’ if all we need is a lawgiver, Moses will do; if all we need is a set of rules and a way of devotion, Muhammad or Joesph Smith will do; if all we need is inspiration and insight into the sovereign self, Oprah will do; but if we need a saviour only Jesus will do.
— Al Mohler
All of us are exclusivists — it is impossible not to be. Every time we claim something is true, we are, by definition, claiming that its opposite is false. — Don’t feel bad next time someone rips on you for being an exclusivist. We all are.
The religious renegades and spiritual misfits contained in this book have been steadily subverting modernism and reorienting people back to a more inclusive and liberating Christian vision of reality. An unfortunate truth for me is that I knew virtually nothing about most of these people. Another sad testimony to the narrow silos we Christians tend to disappear into.
William Blake (1757-1827 Poet/Painter): A prophet of doom in an age of fashionable rationalism. Science dismisses the inner life, closes off the imagination. In this world, all that matters is objective truth and instrumental reason. Feeling and belief are shut out. Even Christians with their “rational theologies” were falling in step with this new world order to the disgust of Blake. “Human reason and modern science make us both more powerful and less alive at the same time….A person who is not an artist cannot be a Christian.”
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832 Writer, statesman): The promise of the Enlightenment was a morally unencumbered life with happiness guaranteed through technological progress. Traditional virtues and a robust internal life mattered little in this new way. Goethe masterfully exposes these false promises in all his novels. The inner life is real, attending to it is vital for human flourishing. “Our dreams can never be fulfilled because they are a symptom of a deeper longing not of this world.”
Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855 Philosopher) Looking to the crowd is no place to find answers, true spiritual solitude is needed to find ones way. Deep internal reflection reveals fundamental brokenness in all of us, we must accept this as real, rather than defiantly persist in ignorant despair. Repentance and submission to true existence in God is the right path. “This perpetual rechoosing of Christ is the great paradox and challenge of the Christian faith…(without it) one falls back into formulas, inauthenticity, and a dependence on the crowd.”
GK Chesterton (1874 – June 1936 Writer, poet, philosopher) The shining lights of Chesterton’s time lived primarily according to Christian principles while at the same pushing decidedly non-Christian ideas such as moral relativity. Chesterton shined a significant spotlight on these contradictions. As for the young bullies who picked on ancient ways he had this to say: “We often read nowadays of the valour or audacity with which some rebels attack a hoary tyranny or an antiquated superstition. There is not really any courage at all in attacking hoary or antiquated things, any more than in offering to fight one’s grandmother. The really courageous man is he who defies tyrannies young as the morning and superstitions fresh as the first flowers. The only true free-thinker is he whose intellect is as free from the future as from the past. He cares as little for what will be as for what has been; he cares only for what ought to be.” Chesterton believed that spiritual corruption was at the heart of all the problems rolling into the 20th century and technique, money, and power would never resolve the source of man-kinds issues.
Nikolai Berdyaev (1874-1948 Philosopher) – The cultural ideals of the knight, the monk, the philosopher and the poet have all been superseded but the cultural ideal of the businessman. Personal success, security, and happiness are the ultimate goals now, and making money is the way to achieve those goals. The god’s of progress and commerce turn people into things, life is reduced to techniques, the free soul of man must be found again in God through the acknowledgement of our sinful nature and the welcoming in of God’s grace.
A word about the novel — “Novelists may be our truest theologians of the modern — the first and finest flowering of the Christian orthodox avant-garde.” How so? “It is true that storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it.” A story is a story and not bound by rules. We are allowed to think of higher things when we steal away with a novel. Without them, our world is just materialistic forces, techniques and meaninglessness. Only through poetry and story can we penetrate our data-drenched materialistic society. Only through story can existential reality come alive. Sadly theologians have tried to become scientists with the Bible, “proving” it, learning techniques from it, and making it a tool. Its purpose has always been for spiritual reflection. The Bible was not intended to be a machine that spits out facts. Who are the great novelists, whose stories move us into the realm of transcendent reality?
- Dostoyevsky — “His works are an expression of his own struggle to realize the true meaning of his faith, a working through — not philosophically or logically but imaginatively of what it means to practice active love, what it means to turn suffering into happiness and what it means to die so that you may be reborn.”
- Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn & Boris Pasternak — They brought into the Communist world new expressions of moral presence and transcendent hope.
- Jack Kerouac — “The true work is our belief: true belief in immortal good; the continual human struggle against linguistic abstraction: recognition of the soul beneath everything, and humour.”
- Walker Percy — For thousands of years, myth enabled us to find ourselves in a world, to know who we were, and what our lives meant. The twentieth century, with its metaphysical skepticism and reductionist science, severed that connection, so now mankind according to Pearcy is “lost in the cosmos.” Man is more than an organism in an environment, more than an integrated personality, more even than a mature and creative individual, as the phrase goes. He is a wayfarer and a pilgrim..a seeker of meanings, a metaphysical bridge builder, a self.
Dorothy Day (1897-1980 Journalist, social activist)— Large-scale industrial economies work against human happiness by making everyone economically dependent on people and forces they don’t know and forces they can’t control. Day wanted workers to own their own businesses and land. She wanted to abolish the assembly line and restore work as a craft. She envisioned monastery-like communities of like-minded families and friends: living together, off the land, producing goods and services that help to build the city of God within the city of man. She was over the course of her life outspoken against the dark side of communism, industrial capitalism, violence, & poverty.
Thomas Merton (1915-1968 Writer, mystic) — Capitalism, mass media, Movies & T.V. disorient and distract us. Society is in a constant rush towards technological determinism (if its possible it must be done) Our societies desperate attempt to keep up with the latest news to “not fall behind” was repugnant to him. To fall behind was to “get out of the big cloud of dust that everybody is kicking up, to breathe and to see a little more clearly” He advocated prayer, silence, solitude, and recollection as medicines against modernity.
Martin Luther King — (1929-1968 Baptist minister & activist) Personal faith, must lead to public, non-violent action on behalf of marginalized and disenfranchised people. For all people especially the downtrodden we must see ourselves as receptacles of God’s love. This truth if believed will fill up every human with dignity and self-respect which will change the world for the better.
E.F. Schumacher (1911–1977 Statistician and economist)— First there was primitive religiosity, which was cast aside by scientific realism, however, the third stage in human development is the awareness that there is something beyond fact and science. The trouble is those staunchly grounded in the 2nd stage see very little difference between stage one and stage three. Anti-metaphysical claims that save us from our superstitions don’t actually provide us with creative solutions to all our problems. Turns out the lab coat as God doesn’t actually help and might, in fact, make things worse!
Wendell Berry (1934- Poet, farmer) — The exploitation of colonialism has just shifted to the exploitation of global corporations. What’s the solution? Everyone needs to go back to farming! In Wendell’s estimation Industrialization is no friend to humanity. Globalism is a myth of progress which will just end in war – back to the farm’s everyone!!!.
Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980 Professor, philosopher) — Instantaneous mass media through video and audio has created a less literate world that is controlled more by the right brain of experience than the left brain of logic and reason. With this total brain shift, he predicted the growth of violent political and religious extremism. He nailed that one! The change will pit an ageing literate, educated, reasonable class against a new orally oriented techno-peasantry of mass media who are emotional, confused, reactionary, violent, aural, and mystical. This age will be punctuated by momentary passions, improvised collectives and spur of the moment convictions followed by spur of the moment retractions. Attention spans will become short, and the power of retention will be weakened. What does this all mean for the church? Old ways will not work, people will be drawn into more experiential forms of Christianity. A prayer retreat will be more popular than a sermon. Doctrinal debates and denominationalism will cease to be important factors, supernatural possibilities will be more readily accepted. For McLuhan, this media apocalypse wasn’t the end though you might think it after reading him! He reminds us “The church is not an intellectual institution anyway.” The medium (the Christian life lived out) is the message.
Northrop Frye (1912-1991 Literary critic) — Myth: a structure of ideas, beliefs, assumptions, anxieties and hopes which express the view of man’s situation and destiny. Mythology is a product of human concern, and it’s built upon literature; folk tales, metaphor, narrative, and poetry. Over time they become for a people group the informing principles of historical and philosophical thought. Mythological thinkers are never overcome by science, history, philosophy or theology. A Myth is neither historical or anti-historical it is counter-historical. Is there a historical Jesus or not is the wrong question to ask according to Frye. What matters is we have his story in myth and metaphor. It is to capture our imagination and shape the direction of our lives. Myth is the more profound truth. When the Christian faith is understood as having it’s informing principles sourced in myth the efforts on both sides to expose or defend scientific and historical strengths and weaknesses can stop, and Christians can also relax some of the ossified dogmas and doctrines.
Jaques Ellul — (1912-1994 Philosopher) — We worship method and technique as the answer to all the World’s problems. A paradox happens when we bow to this god. We become less free at the very moment we become more powerful. Our minds are cluttered with untruths. We live in an environment where non-thought is continuously received, we’ve created vehicles to spread stupidity at an alarming pace (This was well before Facebook, what Ellul would have said if he could have seen today!) For Ellul hope was the actual reality to hang on to. Hope not grounded in technology, but rather in God.
Ivan Illich (1926-2002 Philosopher) — Words are no longer a medium for fresh and original communication instead they are just tools to be manipulated for selfish ends. We have never been more confused and certain at the same time! We have seen the demise of contemplative culture. There can never be any “dead air” no matter what. This is a colossal mistake because silence is necessary for the emergence of persons.
Rene Girard (1923-2015 Historian, Literary Critic) — Humans are never satisfied, we always feel a sense of lack which feeds our desire for what others have. Humans created “the Scapegoat” as a way to manage these feelings. An individual or group is blamed and punished, and thus social cohesion is achieved through the destruction of the projected evil. It’s how we justify violence. Jesus comes along and blows up the whole system because God turns out to be on the side of the victim and not the self-righteous community. Atonement theories that embrace Jesus as the “scapegoat” are actually against the play of the story. Jesus died to save the world from the lie it believes that it’s ok to crush someone for self-advancement. It’s not ok, it’s never ok. God is always on the side of the scapegoat. Girard defends Christianity through anthropology and also reverses more violent understandings of God.
- We are not quite what we imagine ourselves to be, nor are we quite as in control of our beliefs as we think, nor quite so essential as we imagine. (Inchausti)
- Everybody is an unbeliever more or less! Only when this fact is fully experienced, accepted, and lived with, does one become fit to hear the simple message of the Gospel. (Merton)
- Modern civilization is producing things faster than we can think or give thanks. (Chesterton)
- To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair. (Percy)
- Christians aren’t better than other people, but their worldview encourages them to recognizes that fact. (Inchausti)
- Christianity teaches that the purpose of life and thought is love, not power. (Inchausti)
“God is Love” is always a much more interesting topic than “God is Trinity” however, Reeves contends that we can appreciate God as love only because God is Trinity. As Reeves made pains to prove his thesis, I did not feel like I was reading another theological treatise on the unassailable doctrine of the Trinity, rather it read like a friendly invitation to discover and love the triune God. Also I found salient, humorous, and fascinating little historical gems scattered throughout the book, which made the read even better.
Reeves asks the question; “What was God doing for all eternity?” His answer: loving the son. (John 17:24-26) The trinity gives us a completely unique vision of an eternally loving God. Love happens in the context of a relationship. The trinity makes it possible for there to be a divine relationship. Drawing this connection between trinity and true love is not a new concept, Richard of St. Victor centuries ago understood the triune love with the term “sharing”. “Its not that God becomes sharing he’s always been sharing, he is Triune. If God were just one person he could not be intrinsically loving.”
The Trinity and Apologetics — The concept of the Trinity is so good in Reeves mind that it makes other religions look, well, not so good. Islam in particular, is a target: Love demands a relationship or it doesn’t exist. The Quran teaches that Allah is loving which means, he must be dependent upon his creation in order for that to be true. But the Quran also teaches that Allah is dependent on no one. This creates a conundrum with no way out, but not if one believes in a non-solitary God as Trinitarians do.
The Trinity and the submission of women to men? — For many I Cor 11:3 3 But there is one thing I want you to know: The head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. has long been a verse used to teach submission, and in particular at it most practical level the need for women to submit to men. Since Jesus submits to the Father so to should women submit to men. Reeves doesn’t take that approach. He see’s this passage as “A gracious cascade, a waterfall of love” For Reeves the focus is not on submission rather love. he doesn’t deny headship, but he doesn’t describe it either, he sidesteps it.
“For eternity, the Father so loves the Son that he excites the Son’s eternal love in response; Christ so loves the church that he excites our love in response; the husband so loves his wife that he excites her to love him back. Such is the spreading goodness that rolls out of the very being of this God.”
To me the passage and it’s context is still confusing, but I like Reeves generous attempt to infuse the entire passage with love, even though I don’t quite see it in the text like he does.
Does everything hang on the trinity? I’m wondering if perhaps he attributes a little to much to the triune God. Good can’t exist without the Trinity. Evil has no real explanation with out the Trinity. Love appears to be void of meaning without the Trinity, God becomes an empty word without the Trinity etc. etc. I get it, he is making the case for loving the Trinity. I think Trinitarians have probably not done enough to imagine and appreciate the implications of a robust acceptance of the doctrine, so I’m inclined to give Reeves an “At a Boy” and not an “Easy Tiger” on this.
The best way to understand God. God is not an abstract quality he is a loving father. The Scripture doesn’t suggest that God becomes a father at some point, rather he always was a father. That is how he is known. God is a father by virtue of his relationship with his son. God should not be viewed primarily as creator or ruler, but instead as a loving Father. Humans are the creative result of an overflow of love. Reeves describes the human originating from “The overflowing joy of the heavenly harmony bursting out!” Who doesn’t like that? But you only get to that vision of humanity if you have a non-solitary God who is truly love.
The whole “Solitary God” thing just isn’t cool
From Reeves’ pen straight up…
For strip down God and make him lean and you must strip down his salvation and make it mean. Instead of a life bursting with love, joy and fellowship, all you will be left with is the watery gruel of religion. Instead of a loving father, a distant potentate; instead of fellowship, contract. No security in the beloved Son, no heart change, no joy in God that the Spirit brings
Reeves is not kidding around here
If he is not essentially triune then he is not essentially loving and it’s a real reason why Atheists would prefer no God over this grizzly image of the single person loner ruler God.
I was really captured by this book. It didn’t help me understand the Trinity any more but it helped me appreciate the Trinity way more. The Trinity is not an insignificant doctrine that demarcates Christianity from everyone else, its the diamond in the crown of Christianity.
The Trinity of God is the secret of his beauty — Karl Barth
If we try to think about God without thinking about the Father, Son & Spirit, then only the bare and empty name of God flits about in our brains, to the exclusion of the true God — John Calvin
What’s this book about?
Andy Bannister attempts to use good natured humour to point out the logical fallacies and poor reasoning of modern atheist superstars like Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens. In a way as I read this book I felt a striking parallel to the Donald Trump political saga that we are enduring. The popular atheists of our day are functioning like the Donald Trumps of philosophy. Man handling, bullying, and belittling anyone who might disagree with the obvious conclusion that matter is all there is, and the the idea of God is on par with the idea Santa Claus. But like the political Trump, when searching for content amidst all the bluster, you find that there is not much there to back up these supremely confident conclusions.
Atheism is actually a belief system like all the rest. It doesn’t work to say “Our belief is not a belief” Not all God’s are the same, Atheists can’t simply dismiss all by “saying same crap different pile”. Religion doesn’t poison everything. When Dawkins suggested that he thought getting a Catholic education is actually worse than sexual abuse, I wonder if he would be willing to put that assertion to the test with his own daughter, not likely. Science can’t explain everything. Scientism is a dead end street that kills ones ability to reason. In all Bannister looks at 11 really bad arguments put forth by atheists to debunk God.
How does he do? Pretty well I think, but of course I am a Christian. What I appreciated about the book was it’s decidedly jolly tone, too many of these types of books just read angry. We need less angry.
What did I learn?
Is evil a greater problem for theism or atheism? If I’m a theist than I have to ask the question why does God allow evil? It is a question thats tough to answer. Of course if I am an atheist, I have to ask myself an equally difficult question. Why do I even care about evil in the first place? There is no such thing as evil if the material world is all there is, but yet evil feels real and it bugs us all. Where does the presence of evil point? To something beyond the material world I think.
Without God how to we determine what is good? pragmatism? government? majority rule? whatever gives us pleasure? All of these answers create huge cracks in which people fall and suffer. How do we value human life? Is our value based on our body parts, our ability to produce, our popularity? Science I suppose can tease out answers like this. But they all lead humanity into dark places. Goodness, value, meaning purpose all are answered on the strength of faith alone, science is a tool, and on the big questions of life it’s the wrong tool to use! If we try to squeeze ethics from science we all lose. We cannot live by facts alone!
Truth seems to matter to everyone, but if atheism is true, why should it matter then what someone believes? Why is Dawkins so irate that people might be embracing a comfortable lie instead of a hard truth? In the whole scheme of things if we are just matter dancing to our DNA, why should Dawkins care a lick about truth, it amounts to nothing anyway? His shouting is a subtle tipping of the hat to God the giver of truth.
They agreed that anyone who refused to seek the Lord, the God of Israel, would be put to death—whether young or old male or female — 2 Chron 15:13
Then when the Sacred months have passed, kill the Mushrikun (Idol worshipers including trinitarian Christians) wherever you find them, capture them and besiege them and prepare for them each and every ambush. — Surah At-Tauba 9:5
But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! — Matt 5:44
With the exception of Jesus’ counter cultural words in Matthew 5, the two passages from the Bible and the Quran above are perfect examples of what religion was capable of prior to the Enlightenment.
For some in the religious community the coming of the Enlightenment will be seen as a disaster for faith. I don’t see it that way. Thanks to the enlightenment in the west, Religion was transformed from an involuntary truth to a voluntarily accepted possibility. The movement from involuntary to voluntary transformed how the vast majority of the Western world understands religion today. I believe the shift from involuntary to voluntary is a good one that the entire world should embrace.
As crashing waves slowly erode a shore line, the enlightenments steady pounding of “question everything, believe nothing, human reason above all” began to fracture the steady shorelines of Europe. Nothing could stop this tide. The mantra of “human reason first of all” created healthy (and unhealthy) scepticism which eroded irreversibly so much of what was involuntarily accepted as true in that day, no place was left untouched by this rising tide, most especially religion. The firm shorelines of religion in Europe began to crumble for some very understandable reasons:
There had been a couple hundred years of religious war between Catholics and Protestants which had ended in stailmate with all sides exhausted, and beginning to think “there has to be a better way”. In addition the development of dozens and dozens of denominations since the reformation was enough to cause even the most religious of people that niggling feeling in the back of their mind that the right path to God might be little more than a best guess. Then it happened, science slipped passed theology in the race for supremacy. God no longer informed us about science. Science informed us about God. Eventually, sufficient amounts of doubt took the fight out of religious zealots. Was there really a need to clobber someone over the head just because they didn’t believe as you did? The answer was becoming increasingly clear: No.
If one wished to journey towards God that trip would have to be a voluntary trip based on all sorts of information, evidence, tradition and experience. Before the enlightenment, the idea of voluntary religion was unthinkable. Theology was at the heart of knowing. Ones understanding of God was all that mattered everything else in life was just details. People were born into certain systems of belief and these systems were true and unquestioned. To wander from the truth for any reason was dangerous to the community and damning for the soul. Thus responsible leaders both political, military and religious embraced their duty to stamp out heresy and false belief. The eternal destiny of their people mandated aggressive action. The assumption of meta-physical truth being known conclusively is what the enlightenment destroyed.
Many parts of Islam have not yet gone through any sort of enlightenment. Unlike Western religions, Islam is not a voluntary belief system yet, that means it’s adherents are not free to determine the legitimacy or illegitimacy of their faith. For many Muslim systems, the Quran (and Hadith in some cases) is still the diffinitive truth that must be believed at all costs. Life both now and forever depend on it. Any threat to this belief must be destroyed.
- Ancient Jews were part of an involuntary system of religion. (Hence the verse above)
- Middle age & post reformation Christians were part of an involuntary system of religion, (Hence the religious wars in Europe during that era) — Sadly, Jesus’ call to love those in opposition was pushed aside in this era. The most important thing in order to maintain law and order was to punish someone whose belief system was not in accord with everyone else’s.
- Many modern day Islamists are still a part of an involuntary system of religion. (Hence the never ending gruesome news reports coming from many Muslim countries around the world) as long as a belief system remains a compulsory non optional reality, for it’s followers, there will always be bloodshed. Protecting the absolute truth of ones belief system will always be infinitely more important than the life of ones enemy or even ones own life as the seemingly endless line of suicide bombers testify.
Granted, it’s disconcerting for a faith position to be relegated to optional. Jesus for example, claimed that he was “the truth” such definitive statements don’t leave a whole lot of options on the table. How must a doubt soaked post enlightenment Christian come to grips with this claim? How must he share this claim with others?
Let healthy doubt create humility. What would be wrong with saying “Jesus might be the truth, and this is why I think he is”? Nothing in my estimation. We will never go back to involuntary religion, so the verbal bluster that comes from that era should be dropped. I also think we should take seriously, the words that Jesus gave us about loving those who oppose us. In the post enlightenment scientifically based world it will be impossible to know with clinical certainty existential truth based on ancient historical narrative, therefore we simply can’t have an arrogant swagger when it comes to presenting what we believe to be true. Faith is the confidence we have in what we cannot see, but our senses will more easily grasp what cannot be seen, if everything we do is wrapped in love. This is good advice for all the religions of the world.
This less dogmatic, more unsure stance will be completely unpalatable for some strong believers who have managed to avoid the doubt that comes with the enlightenment. For me, letting go of some certainty regarding my faith is a tremendous step forward in developing a world of peaceful coexistence, and even peaceful cooperation. Easing up on personal certitude in order to embrace the free will that comes with voluntary religion is infinitely better than the shallow benefits of confidence, conformity, and security that come with involuntary religion.
Jeffrey Lang grew up in an abusive home, his nominal Catholic faith provided him no solace for the suffering he endured. By his mid teen age years he had become a convinced atheist. In his 20’s a friend handed him a Quran, he started reading, over time he left atheism and embraced the way of Islam. Why?
According to Lang, Islam is better because unlike Christianity, human suffering is not a result of God’s angry judgement. In the beginning according to Lang’s interpretation of the Quran, there is no great sin that brought condemnation to the human race. There was only a little “slip up”. God didn’t get angry or feel threatened by this inconsequential eating of unauthorized fruit.
The big idea of the ancient Adam and Eve narrative is not one of divine judgment and human brokeness, rather divine mercy and human preparation. God does not punish Adam and Eve, rather he blesses them and tells them not to be afraid or sad. The “slip up” was part of their training. Now they must use their reason to choose God in the midst of suffering.
The choice between right and wrong is always a struggle (Jihad), but by using the facility of reason & intellect the right choices can be made and the relationship with God strengthened. Salvation comes through the work of the mind. Lang confesses that the greatest problem with unbelievers (non-muslims) is their inability to think properly “Unbelief in Islam, is an infirmity of the mind” Lang says.
The point of Islam is to have a close relationship with God. Since God is transcendent how is that even possible? The Quran describes God as compassionate, merciful, forgiving, just, protective, wise, generous, truthful, and peaceful. All of these attributes are the seeds of God that reside in every human. When we love God by living out these attributes in the everyday God loves us back. These seeds of divinity grow into full flower as we yield to the will of God and this is how we find ourselves in close relationship with him.
Suffering is good because with out it, we could never learn to use our reason and make the right choices to live out the attributes of God. When we fail to water the seeds of divinity in us, we destroy ourselves, thus sin is simply self destruction. Hell then is not so much a punishment from God, as it is the ultimate self destruction
I’m happy for Lang, in that he certainly seems to have found the solace he was looking for. I think he misunderstands the Christian story and I am not entirely sure he’s got the Muslim story right either. But lets assume for the sake of this article he has the Islamic story correct. What are the big differences?
- Christianity emphasizes human brokeness, Lang’s Islam does not. At first, this dismissal of sin and all of it’s attendant guilt and shame might seem to be a great idea. But for me, it does not ring true. We all swim in oceans of guilt and to shrug off our bad choices as insignificant “slip ups” doesn’t actually help us understand justice or even address what is wrong in our lives. Through the cross we understand clearly both the justice and mercy of God.
- I appreciate Lang’s emphasis on the need for human reason and choice, however, as a Christian I know that even the deep thoughts of my heart are often corrupted. Even my virtue in the blink of an eye can become vice. I need a Saviour to redeem me. In the Christian story it’s not the long hard climb upwards towards God through rational thought that’s beautiful, It’s God’s condescension to me. In my blindness he gives me sight, In my sickness he makes me whole, in my weakness and inability he empowers me. I love the idea of God coming to the rescue, and that’s what happens in the story of Jesus.
A curious observation: I agree with Lang about the need for the human to choose. Islam is the better story to him and he has chosen it, it makes the most sense to his mathematical mind. I respect that choice, even though I don’t agree with it. I wish all Muslim’s would be so generous when it comes to the matter of religious choice. Let’s turn the story around a little bit. Is there any doubt as to what would have happened to Jeffrey Lang, if he had been born Mohammed Al Ghamdi in Saudi Arabia? Let’s imagine, for a moment, that someone gave him a Bible in his mid twenties and through secret study he decided that Christianity was the better story. In his enthusiasm for his new religion he begins to speak out in his home town of Medina that Jesus is his Saviour. I am certain we wouldn’t be listening to his speeches for long, we would be visiting his grave site instead. In our pluralistic world of today, something is wrong when a religion forces it’s adherence to believe on pain of death. I hope Lang’s message of free choice goes a long way in the house of Islam.
Somalia’s civil war, not the place to be if you are white, from the west, and Christian, but that is exactly where Kentucky born, Nik Ripkin found himself in the early 90’s. He wanted to help. The overflow of his love for Jesus made it impossible for him not to try to assist this beleaguered muslim nation.
The light of Jesus must surely overcome the darkness of civil war, violence, radicalism, abuse, starvation, needless death and hopelessness right? His experiences in Somalia left him doubting the answer to that question.
For the love of power and control, feuding tribal warlords and muslim extremist’s continually thwarted anything good for their country. The cost was the death and displacement of millions of their countrymen.
To be a Somalian Christian was not possible. If you were even suspected of following Jesus you were summarily executed. The handful of Christians that Nik got to know while in Somalia were all assassinated while he was there. In part, because they knew Nik. Finally one of Nik’s sons perished from a fully preventable medical emergency had they not been in Africa.
Hearts broken and discouraged, the Ripkins headed back to America. They had so many questions: Can God truly overcome evil? Is love really more powerful than hate? How can a person maintain even a small hope in a dark place? How is it possible for faith to survive in an insane environment like Somaliland’s? Can Christianity work outside of western, dressed-up, well-ordered nations? If so how?
For the next 20 years Nik traveled the globe in search of answers to these questions.
His answer after interviewing over 700 Christian people who come from the worlds most oppressed places is “yes”. In fact, according to Niks research the light of Jesus actually shines brighter in the face of persecution. This book bears out the truth of this claim in one story after another.
- Freedom is not always so good for faith: Nik laments how the Christian Church in Russia has lost more of its fervour and zeal in it’s first 10 years of freedom than it had in nearly 100 years of persecution. It seems as though one of freedom’s unintended consequences is the depreciation of faith. Why is that?
- Persecution is a good thing: No one interviewed asked for an end to persecution, only that their joy in God might be sustained through it. These suffering saints had accepted persecution as almost a gift from God, a welcome cross to bear, in China for example, you were not even considered for a position of spiritual leadership in the house church movement, until you had done at least three years in prison. Prison was the necessary “seminary” training, without it, one’s faith was just viewed as mostly theoretical.
- The incredible power of song: Over and over again, these suffering saints from all over the world, clung to songs of faith that helped sustain them in their difficultly.
- God becomes real: The suffering of Christians Nik uncovers is almost unfathomable from our positions of comfort, ease and freedom in the west, but the dramatic ways God reveals himself to those who suffer for him is also equally unfathomable. The miracles, visions, and direct interventions from God recounted made me feel like I was reading right out of the book of Acts.
Ravi is not a happy camper and it shows. He knows it too, towards the end of his book he says,
“Some might even consider the tone of this book too strong or harsh.. it is hard not to get passionate when you read the bizarre twists of truth offered by the proponents of the New Spirituality.”
What are these “bizarre twist’s of truth” that have managed upset one of Christianity’s foremost apologists?
If truth is solid ground. Then new spirituality, is happy in the clouds. They shake their heads at those below who battle for truth. Their’s is a more noble stance, they think. Theirs which refuses to judge anything or anyone. But in doing that they have eradicated distinctions and words are now used to tell us that there is really no particular meaning to anything. Morality, time, essence, absolutes are all gone by the wayside in the name of spirituality, what is left for those in the clouds is to take pot shots at those below who still holds these distinctions. For Ravi, “Giving yourself the privilege of destroying other positions while parking your own position in an unidentifiable location is a form of linguistic terrorism” (14) Chopra, New Spiritualities most celebrated saint, says flatly there are no answers, and that hope is ultimately a sign of despair (92) Spirituality we are told is really just an expression of a universal hunger rather than an answer to anything. The hunger is satiated temporarily by whatever technique the guru prescribes. Ultimately the goal is self deification. “We will remain unfulfilled unless we nurture the seeds of divinity inside us. In reality, we are divinity in disguise, and the gods and goddesses in embryo that are contained within us seek to be fully materialized” says Chopra. (91) Ravi half jokes when he says he is not surprised that celebrities and spiritual guru’s have joined forces so well. “One thinks they are gods’ and the other tells them they are.”
Ravi is doing his best to catch a greased pig in a way. With N.S. everything is nothing, and nothing is everything, the human is God, and God is the human, there is hope, but there is not hope. There is meaning but no meaning, things are constantly shifting and nothing can be grasped, meaning is cloaked in ponderous terminology and so it is by design. Elkhart Tolle, when talking about suffering for example says, your suffering is good because it forces you to become nothing, to become as God, because God too is nothing” huh?
Ravi tries to lasso the cloud and catch the pig in two primary ways:
- Point out the inconsistencies. In a classic Ravi style assault of this particular belief system he says the following “Once a worldview has been established, it becomes the grid for making particular judgements. To say that there are no moral absolutes and then castigate Christians for being hypocritical assumes that hypocrisy is a moral flaw and a contradictory position and therefore, is to be vilified. To say that there is a spark of divinity in all of us and then treat the lower castes as “less divine” to even create such a system that categorizes people like this — is again to run afoul of reason. (Ravi will not let the new spirituality forget it’s roots in the east) Worldviews begin by definitions. Definitions create boundaries. Violations of those boundaries elicit condemnation. That condemnation itself excludes. It is impossible to sustain truth without excluding falsehood. All religions are exclusive.
- Point to a better story. This, in my opinion, was his most compelling point. Ultimately N.S. is an autonomous spirituality, it is a non personal theology with the individual self being all there is. Heaven is when self is lost in a union with an ultimate impersonal absolute. Heaven is a disconnect from relationship in this system. Christianity, is radically different than this. It teaches that at the heart of every human is a cry to belong. It’s why long lasting relationships are prized above everything today. We all still want “true love” to be true, even though we seem to see it less and less. Such an ultimate belonging is possible through a personal relationship with the God of the universe. Heaven in the Christian system, is when a person is welcomed into the presence of the Ultimate Being. Relationship trumps individual supremacy to me, making Christianity an infinitely better story.
A Child’s History of the World V.M. Hillyer
If it’s not a classic, perhaps it should be. Even my 5 and 6 year olds were drawn into discussion’s around this book. Hillyer clearly made it his expert craft to draw children into a love of learning and it shows. Through Hillyer history exploded off the pages and came alive in the minds of my children (and me).
It was written over 70 years ago, when America was still largely a Christian country so the story of God is woven into the historical narrative of humanity, without ignoring science or mocking the Bible. I found Hillyer’s efforts to allow the peaceful interfacing of God, history and science both refreshing and balanced.
The New Concise History of the Crusades Thomas F. Madden.
Kill people in Jesus name? What were they thinking? Perspective helps a lot in understanding. In this Madden is valuable. In the same way we are shocked that so many people would be willing to do battle for their religion, so to would the people of that era be shocked at us in our willingness to shed blood over political ideology, nationalism, or greed. The only thing worth dying for in that era was your faith. Anything else would have seemed foolish to them. Protecting the holy land was an issue because the powers that be were able to connect it to the faith of the people.
The crusades at first then were little more than misshapen piety. The people who went on them were under prepared, ill equipped, pilgrims determined fight there way into Jerusalem to worship and then go home. So many of these pious ones were slaughtered and most of the lands they gained were quickly lost because the vast majority of crusaders who actually survived the endeavours wanted nothing more than to return home upon completion of their pilgrimage.
Later crusades were definitely more conquest oriented, but in this Madden also does the reader a good service by dispelling the notion that the crusades could ever be reduced to bloodthirsty Christians killing and conquering innocent muslims. There we’re 5 key players in the in the Crusade era: Western Christians, Byzantine Christians, Sunni Muslims, Shia Muslims, and the small branch of Christians that clung to ever shrinking strongholds captured in the holy land. These 5 players were constantly battling each other, in order to gain the upper hand. For example, when the Shia brand of Islam came up from Egypt and threatened the holy land the Sunnis were quick to partner with the Western Christians to beat them back. Also during the 4th Crusade the Western Christians never even made it to the holy land, instead the sacked the Byzantine capital of Constantinople. The blow so weakened the empire of Eastern Christendom, that the Muslim conquest of Constantinople in 1453 can be attributed in part to the devastation brought upon that city by invading Western Christians so many years before. Other examples of this 5 way mess are what the book is all about.
As far as winning goes, there is no question the muslim’s won. That the Christians were able to hang on to some of their holdings in Palestine for as long as they did, was near miraculous.
According to Madden, Muslims only recently embraced the idea of crusades as a rallying cry for revenge and violence upon the west. In their histories, nothing much is recorded, except to view the invaders from the west as just another army among many armies who lost, thanks to Allah and good leaders like Saladin.
The History of the Medieval World Susan Wise Bauer
Susan Wise Bauer takes an ambitious crack at filling the reader in on everything that happened in the world between the conversion of Constantine and the first Crusade. From Krakatoa in Indonesia, to the mysterious dynasties of the Inca people, it’s all here in her book. She manages to avoid the nasty trap of limiting her writing to the spitting out of facts, dates and basic information that some historians get themselves into when having to cover so much stuff. Instead her book reads like a good newspaper — it has the information, but it has the stories that capture the imagination also. Bauer see’s the humour in being human and that is reflected in her writing. Bauer’s book also just drops it down to the reader in plain English. All the messed up stuff that is the human story is served to you on a great big platter. As you chew on it, it becomes easy to get reflective. To wonder how to avoid the mistakes of the past and embrace the successes for our future.
The Church was a mess in the 1400’s, corrupt, lazy, bloated with arrogance and drunk on power. Rumblings were inevitable. Had the Roman Catholic church listened and responded to the complaints history would have told a different story.
Erasmus was disenchanted, but he wanted peace more than anything. To him peace was best obtainable through theological ignorance:
“The sum of our religion is peace and unanimity, but these can scarcely stand unless we define as little as possible”
That was the Catholic churches party line, its just that for Erasmus they needed to clean up their act a lot. This wasn’t good enough for Luther, he fired back at Erasmus:
“You with your peace-loving theology you don’t care about truth”
Luther won the debate and Europe was plunged into about 400 years of bloody religious conflict. Why? The answer is complicated, but the following points offer at least a partial answer:
- Religious upheaval was a prime opportunity for ambitious aristocrats and royals to accrue power. — There is nothing like a religious reason to motivate ones subjects to fight and conquer.
- The reformers were not proponents of individual religious liberty. Dissenting voices must still be crushed whether Reformer or Catholic.
- The accessibility of Scripture to the general public created dissenting voices on a massive scale.
- As the tyranny of the Catholic system was cast off, many marginalized people took this opportunity to cast off any and all authority. Rebellions were always met with brutality in that era.
- Belief is worth dying for. In this era nothing mattered more. But was belief worth killing for? Sadly, many answered that question (contrary to Jesus) in the affirmative.
If God had spoken, and if the human had somehow missed the message or clouded it beyond recognition as the reformers said, then it was necessary to go through this tumult. However, it is regrettable that so much blood had to be shed.
As a way to cope with our differences on the other side of the reformation we embraced individual religious liberty. We made faith a volunteer experience. The upside of this is we don’t battle each other any more. The downside is that confidence in the reality of God has been lost. The thinking goes as follows: If there are so many possibilities of belief, how can we know which one is actually real, we can’t. Therefore it’s all probably just made up stuff anyway. Doubt permeates our thinking, dogmatism must go and with it, in the long run, faith itself — Such seems to be the case in the West. As a matter of survival perhaps, it appears to me that Christianity is becoming more and more like Erasmus’s vision of it and less like Luther’s.