Christianity, Faith & Atheism: A mega-post on The Fate of “Eternal Consequences”

eternal consequencesMy good friend Nate posted a couple comments as a reaction to my recent post “Is Progressive Christianity a Slow Path to Atheism?” (follow the link here)

I told him I was going to answer him in a separate post so we can have a broader discussion among some of you fellow readers. Here’s the comment thread and my answer below:

NATE: This is an issue I’ve thought about a lot, and I suppose it’s one of the reasons that I’m an atheist. I don’t think that progressive Christianity necessarily leads one to atheism, of course, but I definitely see how it serves as a path for some. For me, as I began peeling back those layers that McLaren mentioned, I simply saw no reason to continue believing in the Judeo-Christian god. How could I trust anything the Bible told me when the evidence kept piling up that the Bible was just a collection of commentaries by people who lived a long time ago?

 ME: You said, “How could I trust anything the Bible told me when the evidence kept piling up that the Bible was just a collection of commentaries by people who lived a long time ago?”, which is a great question. What if you were to assume for a moment the reality of a God, and yet held separate the various (human) commentaries, past or present, on Him or His works? Then, piece by piece, you began to put a faith back together (“Oh, this fits here. I see how this fits in. I don’t get this…yet, etc, etc) Why I ask is, the more I read, and learn, of scripture, the more I’m coming to understand the allegorical and “larger picture” teachings that a lot of  primarily the old testament was written to put forth. Obviously I don’t get it all, and quite possibly never will. But I’m coming to understand a greater depth of what all the Bible was MEANT to be, rather than what too many of us, as 21st century Westerners, are trying to make it into. This is in no way meant to say that anything in the bible is not relevant to us in today’s society, but that a lot of what we’ve tried to make of scripture, throughout recent history, simply doesn’t say what we’ve tried to form it into. Your experiences with the CoC is ample evidence of this, IMHO.

 NATE: I think I understand what you’re saying. I don’t see it that way, especially if there really is any kind of eternal stakes involved. But I do understand why some people hold the view you’re suggesting, and I think it’s a far preferable view to fundamentalism.

MY LONGER ANSWER: Hmmm…I’m not sure you quite do understand what I’m saying, and I’m certainly not trying to be flippant here, but let me clarify…

To me, belief is a heart issue, not a knowledge issue. You can’t “knowledge” your way into anything without the heart to back it up. I know of several people who could run circles around me with their biblical knowledge yet I see little evidence that any of it has entered their heart in any meaningful way.

I kinda hate to keep coming back to this, buuuuuuuttttt, this too is one of the fundamental differences between the Eastern and Western mindset: when you’re talking about biblical scripture, you need to understand it from within the context and cultural for which it was written.

As I always say when I mention this Western/Eastern thing, trying to understand it within the context/culture/history of 1st century Jews does not in any way diminish the relevancy to us today in a 21st century Western culture…in fact, most often it enhances it.

And I know you’re probably going to ask why, in the 21st century, we have not been given the tools to understand scripture within the 1st century context and if these tools haven’t been passed down how are we to believe the bible is in any way “inspired”?

Well, I see the answer as something like this: There’s a marked difference, at least to me, between “inspiration” and “legacy”. We have been given an overall crappy legacy by our religious forefathers, with a scant few exceptions. Faith is not difficult. Belief is not difficult.

Religion is hard!

Jesus says, “Believe in me. Believe also in the one who sent me.”

Then came the disciples.

Then came Paul.

Then came the Catholic Church.

Then came the Inquisitions.

Then came the Reformation.

Then came the Protestants.

Then came the Calvinists.

Then came the Hobbesists.

Then came Uncle Jimmy’s First Cousin Bubba’s Best Friend Leon’s………….

Ad infinitum. Ad nauseam.

All of a sudden we’re many, many steps removed from the simplicity of what Jesus originally called us to do: Love God. Love others. Tell the “good news”. Make disciples.

And you can’t “knowledge” someone into discipleship either. You can only do this by giving them—showing them—something that they feel compelled to emulate, something they may or may not already have, something they simply may or may not have yet discovered within themselves.

We rush so quickly to glean the “knowledge” of a thing—in this case scriptural understanding—we miss the deeper subtleties that often lead to a deeper faith.

Take the missive, “love your neighbor as yourself.” Seems simple enough, but there are layers and layers of subtlety within those five words. What is love? How do I show love? Who do I show it to? Who is my neighbor? “What does it mean to love myself?

Discussion. Tension. Wrestling. Ultimately…growth.  Faith and belief are not static entities. They change, they grow, they refine.

The problem this represents for the Western mindset is that we are creatures of habit: we glean knowledge, we master it, we feel we “get” it, and therefore it can never change from what we’ve understood it to be. Ever!

EVEREVEREVER!!!

Any kind of change in perspective, especially when it comes with something involving “eternal consequences”, freaks us out!  (THOSE PEOPLE are not my neighbor!!)

Yet this often continual change of perspective is at the very heart of what the original writers of biblical texts were trying to accomplish. When you have someone, anyone, on either side of the discussion who refuses to budge in their perspective because they’re simply, “right, dammit!”, where is the growth? Where is the opportunity for true discussion? For the airing of differences?

For the gratitude of diversity?

Knowledge means nothing to God without the leading of the heart.

I originally typed “following of the heart” but that didn’t ring true to me. The heart needs to lead the knowledge. This is the beginning of discernment, and everything stems from an acceptance that there is, in fact, a God.

The path of understanding shouldn’t lead to God.

God should lead you on the path of understanding.

THIS is what I was saying.

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7 thoughts on “Christianity, Faith & Atheism: A mega-post on The Fate of “Eternal Consequences””

  1. Thanks for the much-more-detailed version of your answer! 🙂

    In your opinion, what is it about Christianity that would draw in someone from a very different tradition? This is something I’m working on in an up-coming post — to me, it seems that evidence is a key component of generating faith. In Acts 2, Peter took what the Jews already knew about Jesus and tied it to OT passages to make a connection that resounded with some of them. Other places in the Bible seem to put an emphasis on miracles as evidence that caused people to believe Jesus and the disciples. So if love and belief make up the basis of Christianity, what brings people in? Is it not the intellectual?

    Also, if the additional writings of the disciples added on layers that have largely led to divisions and confusion, should they be ignored? And if not ignored, then what’s the middle ground? I guess I’m saying that your outlook sounds pretty good in theory, but how do you implement it practically?

    And finally, if the focus really is on love and belief — or even our relationship with God / Christ — why do they seem so distant? Why isn’t this relationship more personal and demonstrative?

    1. to me, it seems that evidence is a key component of generating faith.
      That may very well be, Nate, I would tend to agree with you here. There does have to be a certainty to the ‘knowledge’ if you will to sway anyone’s views. But often times the evidence, the knowledge, doesn’t remain sufficient. And I know that sounds harsh, but I feel that whatever knowledge you glean needs to be either put into practice or shown, through works, to be true. I think this is what James meant with, “faith without works is dead”, and where your own experience with the church emphasis on certain ‘works’ and ‘truths’ was no longer sufficient. And those works don’t have to be yours, truth can be shown (or misused) by the people surrounding you, as I’m sure you feel with the bloggers you’ve connected with through Finding Truth…these connections have bolstered your ‘belief’. I, too, can say the same thing of my faith by what I’ve seen in my own life, and the lives of the people around me, and that’s hard to use as evidence…I have the knowledge of how I’ve seen God work, but I can’t tell you that He’ll work that way in your life, or the lives of your family. All I can tell you is that, given a chance, He would work; whatever that may ultimately look like in your life.

      Not very convincing, though, is it?

      Peter took what the Jews already knew about Jesus and tied it to OT passages to make a connection that resounded with some of them.
      Because, IMHO, they (the Jews) already assumed the existence of God and were looking for a Messiah. Peter reminded them of this and reiterated to them what he felt they had missed.

      So if love and belief make up the basis of Christianity, what brings people in? Is it not the intellectual? Also, if the additional writings of the disciples added on layers that have largely led to divisions and confusion, should they be ignored? And if not ignored, then what’s the middle ground?
      Second question first: I don’t feel that the writings of the disciples themselves led to division and confusion, but more like what readers have (mis)interpreted and dissected…in other words, the intellectual application, or over-application, of those writings. “What did they mean?” too easily leads to “How can this benefit me?” rather than “How can this benefit all?” We, as 21st century ‘Muricans, have a hard time seeing thing through the perspective of betterment of the community overall rather than, and sometimes to the temporary detriment, to the betterment of ourselves. If ALL people did this, or at least those we’ve chosen to surround ourselves with, WE would be in enough others’ community that EVERYONE’S needs would be much more closely met, don’t you think? At least this is how I’VE chosen to “implement this practically”, and would be a lot more evidence of the manifestation of God in our (all of our) lives, thus bringing Him both “closer”, and “more personal and demonstrative”. Great post of your own today, BTW.

      1. Thanks for the props on my post! It came from another discussion I’ve been having, and it’s not the one that I mentioned yesterday — I’m still working on that one.

        I know that the Christianity I was exposed to when I was growing up was not the best implementation. But because of that experience, I’ve soured on the whole “God thing.” It’s not that I refuse to consider any form of Christianity or theism — I just feel like I’ve seen the man behind the curtain and no longer have anything to gain from the smoke and mirrors. I know that’s not how you see it, and I hope that I’m not coming off as offensive — this is just how I personally feel.

        I can actually identify with what you’re saying about feeling God working in your life, but I wouldn’t call it “God.” I feel like my change to atheism has brought me the same kinds of feelings that you describe, which is why I don’t feel any need for theism. I tend to think that these feelings have less to do with what beliefs we ultimately come to and more to do with the process of working through these questions. I think it opens us up to different ways of looking at things, and it helps us connect with one another on a very human level, even when we don’t agree (like you and I have managed to do).

        I could easily be wrong. Maybe God is real, and what you’re experiencing is different from what I’m experiencing. The only thing I can honestly say is that I don’t have a “god-shaped hole” in my heart (to borrow from Pascal). But I can see where others definitely benefit from theism.

        1. I know that the Christianity I was exposed to when I was growing up was not the best implementation. But because of that experience, I’ve soured on the whole “God thing”…
          Yup, I totally get that, and within the community you’ve come to know through Finding Truth you’ve found kindred spirits so to speak. I totally get it.

          I could easily be wrong. Maybe God is real, and what you’re experiencing is different from what I’m experiencing.
          Nope. Sounds pretty much the same. I call it God in my life…I also call it God in yours. So there, pppbbbttt!! 😉

  2. Hi Kent, hi Nate,

    I think we all recognise that people believe, and disbelieve, for many different types of reasons. For most (on both sides) I think it is a “gut feeling”. That feeling is often based intuitively on evidence, but not rigorously. For others, their personal experience (of God or of lack of God) is key. For others, it is the experience or authority of others who have experienced more or know more than they do (this particularly applies to children). For others it is Jesus and history – again believers think the evidence is strong, non-believers think it is weak or anti. Finally there are those, a small minority I believe, for whom science & philosophy are the key. For me it is probably the latter two most of all, but other people’s experiences are important too.

    “Gut feeling” is an interesting one, because if christianity is true, then that could well be the “witness of the Holy Spirit” and very convincing to those who experience it, and somewhat incomprehensible to those who haven’t experienced it, and misunderstood by those who have experienced it but rejected it.

    If a person chooses to think that only certain types of knowledge are possible, and revelation from the Holy Spirit is not one of those types, then they will have cut themselves off from an important source of knowledge. I think this may be one of the keys to the strong differences of opinion between believers and non-believers.

    “In your opinion, what is it about Christianity that would draw in someone from a very different tradition?”

    It seems to be a fact that many Muslims are becoming christians in the Middle East these days – even some Muslim clerics admit this. And they seem mostly to change belief because of either reading the New Testament or having a vision of Jesus. I’ve heard of Hindus & Sikhs experiencing the same. So those seem to be the main things about christianity that draw them – something about Jesus plus personal experience, whether one accepts the supernatural element is real, or not.

    “To me, belief is a heart issue, not a knowledge issue. You can’t “knowledge” your way into anything without the heart to back it up.”

    So I think I mostly agree with you here Kent. Knowledge is important, wherever it comes from, as I’ve outlined above, but it can’t take us all the way. We have to enter the kingdom as a child. If we insist on knowledge and evidence and don’t allow the possibility of revelation of the Spirit, then I think we build a wall between us and God. (I’m not saying this is you Nate, I’m just saying I think it is true generally.)

    Thanks guys.

    1. I think we all recognise that people believe, and disbelieve, for many different types of reasons. For most (on both sides) I think it is a “gut feeling”. That feeling is often based intuitively on evidence, but not rigorously. For others….”
      I would fall squarely in the “gut feeling” crowd, as you’ve put it, based intuitively on evidence, but not rigorously as I pointed out in a follow-up comment to Nate. You’re own comment on this “feeling” being somewhat incomprehensible to those who haven’t experienced it is one of the most frustrating aspects of talking to people who may be a little farther away from God, or on a different faith journey.

      “In your opinion, what is it about Christianity that would draw in someone from a very different tradition?”
      I like your answer, Eric, and would add only what I’ve said in earlier writings: What Jesus did, thought who he was, what he did, and what he said, completely set the religious model on its head. Nobody had ever done this before, or since for that matter. The “salvation” issue, the “works” issue, was taken care of right up front…it became something we no longer have to “do”, because he has already done it on our behalf. The trick then becomes living out the truth of this reality and becoming “light”, or “disciples”, or “salt of the earth”, whatever you choose to call your faith walk. Ultimately, something inside you does change, and the inward change starts to manifest itself outwardly…I guess as “evidence” of that change. 🙂

      Always good to hear from you, Unkle!

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