Sign of spittle and grace

I had someone ask me recently how they should talk to an atheist who insists on saying things meant to provoke or insult.

My initial response was something like this: You are asking me what to say when that person says something insulting to faith or about your belief. How about, “I love you”?

I knew that was easier to offer as advice than to do, but I went on to say that I have always found it interesting how strongly some people feel compelled to react to the presence of faith around them. Based on my own pre-Christian experiences, I believe that in many cases the person is reacting defensively against the grace of God. Acting out in anger might just be the sign that God is getting a foothold and they are lashing out to try to drive grace away.

Paul writes in Romans 8 about the groaning of creation as it awaits the liberation from death and decay. Commenting on this passage, John Wesley’s Notes on the New Testament observe the following:

Upright heathens are by no means to be excluded from this earnest expectation: nay, perhaps something of it may at some times be found even in the vainest of men; who (although in the hurry of life they mistake vanity for liberty, and partly stifle, partly dissemble, their groans, yet) in their sober, quiet, sleepless, afflicted hours, pour forth many sighs in the ear of God.

Some of our sighs to God can look a lot spitting in God’s face.

It is not easy to be on the receiving end of these things, but I do think Christians should view vocal atheism as a sign of God’s grace at work stirring up souls.

Many atheists, of course, would reject what I just wrote. I understand that. I was once among their tribe. Part of being a Christian, though, is learning to tell the story of the world around us in terms of grace and God’s activity.

So maybe in addition to suggesting that my friend say “I love you” in the face of atheist insults, I should have added “God loves you, too.”

Why bone cancer does not shake my faith

British actor and comedian Stephen Fry caused a bit of a storm in some sectors of the Internet recently. In an interview he was asked what he would say to God if he met him at the pearly gates:

His language is powerful. He delivers his message well. I can see why it has stirred up people.

Of course, it is not original. Humans have been angry about suffering and death from the first. Job, Ecclesiastes, the Psalms, and Lamentations all give voice to the range of despair and anger that both atheists and the faithful have raised for as long as humans have drawn breath.

Fry suggests that bone cancer and other afflictions reveal God’s character — if he exists — as a cruel, selfish, and insane god not worthy of worship. What person who has lived any life at all does not understand the pain and anger expressed by such accusations?

I am writing this post on Ash Wednesday, when many Christians gather in worship to be reminded that from dust we have come and to dust we will return. It is a day we remember and are reminded that we will all one day die.

If faith is only possible to us in a world without suffering or pain, then faith will be impossible for us until the end of all days.

Of course, if a man is determined to face mortality and suffering by spitting in the eye of God, we cannot reason him out of his plan. We certainly don’t do any honor to God by getting angry at him or posting nasty things about him on the Internet.

If Fry professed to be a Christian and said such things, it would be cause for some church teaching and perhaps discipline. But he is not of our tribe. We can and should be ready to explain the hope that is in us. We should be ready to offer him Christ. We should pray for God to bless him. But we should not be surprised by his outrage.

Our Bible speaks of the same kind of anger and fear. We know suffering and pain. Ashes and dust await us all. And yet God is God.

Atheists, deists, and sleepers

John Wesley writes about the person he describes as spiritually dead or asleep in his sermon “The Spirit of Bondage and Adoption.”

The darkness which covers him on every side, keeps him in a kind of peace; so far as peace can consist with the works of the devil, and with an earthly, devilish mind. He sees not that he stands on the edge of the pit, therefore he fears it not. He cannot tremble at the danger he does not know. He has not understanding enough to fear. Why is it that he is in no dread of God? Because he is totally ignorant of him: If not saying in his heart, “There is no God;” or, that “he sitteth on the circle of the heavens, and humbleth” not “himself to behold the things which are done on earth:” yet satisfying himself as well to all Epicurean intents and purposes, by saying, “God is merciful;” confounding and swallowing up all at once in that unwieldy idea of mercy, all his holiness and essential hatred of sin; all his justice, wisdom, and truth. He is in no dread of the vengeance denounced against those who obey not the blessed law of God, because he understands it not.

When I read this, I am struck by how many people fit the descriptions here. You have atheists and deists here. You also have a vast number of people who say something to the effect of “God is too merciful to allow people to go to hell.” You have, in other words, me before my conversion to Christianity.

There is nothing new here. We have all these people with us today.

When Wesley encountered these types of Christians and non-Christians, he understood them to be “natural” men and women, that is people dead to the life of the Holy Spirit and unaware of God. He did not see them as people who just happened to disagree with him, but as people who were spiritually dead and in need of supernatural intervention.

I gather that in spite of the fact that Wesley’s sermons are supposed to be doctrinal standards for United Methodists, a great many United Methodists would not embrace Wesley’s description of human nature. We tend to speak of pluralism rather than of people who slumber in spiritual darkness in need of being awakened by God.

But what is the source of our confidence as United Methodists (or Christians) that Wesley did not know what he was talking about? We appear to have largely abandoned the concern that men, women, and children stand under eternal judgment — as our creeds and Bible indicate — and instead seem mostly concerned with what will help people be worldly happy during this brief span of years they have been granted by God.

I don’t understand how we end up that way as Bible reading, creed repeating Christians. But for a large number of us, that appears to be the case.

The church without God

As at least one group of atheists attempts to form a “church,” one planning on planting international franchises in the coming months, it is interesting to read how the group and its supporters think about what a church is:

I did not need to be sold on the idea (explained nicely here by philosopher Alain de Botton). Like the Sunday Assembly’s founders, stand-up comics Pippa Evans and Sanderson Jones, I don’t think religion should have a monopoly on community. I like the idea of a secular temple, where atheists can enjoy the benefits of an idealized, traditional church—a sense of community, a thought-provoking sermon, a scheduled period of respite, easy access to community service opportunities, group singing, an ethos of self-improvement, free food—without the stinging imposition of God Almighty.

A sense of community, a thought-provoking sermon, a regular break from hectic lives, access to service opportunities, group singing, an encouragement to better oneself, and free food. These are what make a church a church, in their mind.

And, I dare say, in the minds of many Christians. Indeed, aren’t these the things we often sell when trying to get people to come to church? Aren’t many of our church marketing plans built around just these elements?

John Wesley called this having the form of religion without the power.

How do we respond to the culture?

My previous post includes a talk by Billy Abraham in which he describes of four changes in Western culture that challenge the church:

  • Changes to the meaning of marriage, which he connects to deeper issues around the praise of sensuality.
  • The decline of Protestantism, which he connects to the failure to pass the faith down from generation to generation.
  • The rise of secularism and aggressive, evangelistic atheism.
  • The growing presence of Islam.

Abraham does not argue these are all arising from the same cause, but does argue that the church needs to have responses to these trends that help people in the pews understand who they are in light of the gospel of Jesus Christ and how they are to preserve that identity in a changing world.

I fully understand that some people will not agree that these four changes are the most important ways the culture is changing. But I do find myself trying to articulate a way that the church can respond to these changes that speaks to all the changes not just one. For instance, how does our response to Islam (and religious pluralism in general?) provide us the tools to respond to secularism and aggressive forms of atheism? Or does our response to Islam leave us less able to respond well to the challenge of growing secularism? How do we recoup from our failures to hand down the faith across generations (see Kenda Creasy Dean’s excellent book for more on this) in ways that give us tools that speak to the other changes in the culture as well?

It does seem as if we tend to respond to various trends and movements in the culture in an ad hoc way. We focus on one or the other presenting problem that the culture throws up for the church. What would a coherent and comprehensive response to the culture in which we are located look like?

Ridicule as the weapon of choice

Scot McKnight shares a post by a friend of his who was distressed by how well atheists do in debates.

A key paragraph:

Bill Maher, Christopher Hitchens, Penn Jillette, Richard Dawkins, etc, specialize—not in philosophical thought—but in ridicule. And that means the new atheists excel on the only evangelistically-effective playing field that matters—that of human emotion and desire. Most Christian apologists conversely seem content to surrender that ground in their preference for mere rationality. This is a tragic mistake and it’s the primary reason Christian belief is diminishing, marginalized and an easy target for nighttime comedians.

The post reminded me of something Allan Bevere posted earlier in the week that quoted Thomas Jefferson saying the only proper response to the doctrine of the Trinity is ridicule.

I am reminded of the drunk rowdies who used to show up where John Wesley preached.

And I am reminded of the mocking Jesus endured at the hands of the Roman soldiers.

Ridicule is the primary tool of those who want to assail belief. It appears it always has been. The only response I know of is that offered by our Lord on the Sermon on the Mount: poverty of spirit, meekness, humility, peaceableness, love. If we live as Christ calls us to live, we can survive people being snarky.