Me, Being Ornery

I usually try not to get dragged into Web-based theological discussions, because they don’t seem to accomplish much and take time away from more enjoyable (and more productive) pursuits, but this week I slipped. I found myself embroiled in a thread on The Ornery American which linked to a video of Richard Dawkins on Bill Maher’s television show. I don’t have QuickTime on my computer, so I haven’t watched the video, but someone posted an excerpt from Dawkins’ book that I found interesting.

In his book, Dawkins printed a letter sent to Albert Einstein by the president of a New Jersey-based historical society. Dawkins wrote that the letter “damningly exposes the weakness of the religious mind,” and that, “Every sentence drips with intellectual and moral cowardice.” (Note that you can find all this on the thread on The Ornery American site. But keep in mind that while this post itself is longer than usual, since I quote so much of the thread, the entire thread spans 3 web pages now.)

I quoted that intellectual cowardice bit and wrote, “I reckon I’m not intellectual enough to understand this…”, and the fun began. A couple of people tried to explain it, but frankly I didn’t find their explanations illuminating. So I wrote back,

I think for many of the faithful it’s easier to understand our own struggles with the truth as we know it — through which we continue to believe despite the doubts that may nag us — than to understand the choice to utterly reject it.

We … would do well to remember that “many are called, but few are chosen.” Flannery O’Connor* summed up why: in many cases, “it’s harder to believe than not to.”

I’m only familiar with the Flannery O’Connor quote because it became a Steve Taylor song, but oh, did I get a response:

“Many are called but few are chosen”? If that don’t sound elitist I don’t know what does. I didn’t even get a call much less chosen.

And not just “harder” to believe, but “impossible” to believe. I’ve tried, and how anybody with a brain can “believe” is beyond me. And I know a lot of people that I consider to be very intelligent that claim to believe.

(And in a subsequent post, the same person wrote,)

It’s crazy but people think better of you for having blind unquestioning belief in a being that nobody has ever seen and for which there is not one shred of evidence exists!

Here’s my reply (“KE” and “OR” are shorthand for the handles of two Ornery members):

KE wrote, “for which there is not one shred of evidence.” I disagree. But just as two eyewitnesses can see the same event and report it differently, I do not expect KE or anyone else to draw the same conclusions I have. As for “many are called, but few are chosen” being elitist, I suppose it can be seen that way … though in practice it usually works out as “many are called, but few answer the call,” which seems to be shown in KE’s own experience: he may not feel as if he was called, but from my perspective if he wasn’t called he wouldn’t have tried to believe in anything, at anytime.

OR is right that the excellent observation that “The real test of atheism is ‘do you alter the way you live your life because you think a god exists'” applies equally as a test of whether those of us who profess to be Christians are indeed living the life. For some people, this lies at the root of why they choose not to believe: because believing would require altering the way they live their lives.

This raised the ire of yet another forum member, TomD, who wrote (emphasis in original), “You think so? Can you provide me an example of such a person — someone who would believe, but who doesn’t want to change his lifestyle and thus chooses not to?”

I wrote back,

… I think one example might be the rich young ruler with whom Jesus talked (q.v. Gospel of Mark, chapter 10). He asked Jesus what he had to do, Jesus told him, and he went away sad. Jesus asked him to make a drastic change to his lifestyle, and he wasn’t prepared to do so. (This may not be the best example since he ostensibly believed, but was not willing to put his belief into action.)

Jesus said it was hard to enter the kingdom of God. In many ways I think we make it harder than it has to be.

TomD then wrote, “I should have clarified: can you provide me examples of non-allegorical people?” So I replied,

… I disagree that the rich young ruler is allegorical.

That being said, I’ll offer a more contemporary example: me. When I was young, I rejected everything about the church. I agreed completely with an older friend who, in his first year of college, was asked, “Are you saved?” and responded, “No, I’ve got better things to do with my time.” Accepting what the church taught would have required me to moderate my behavior, and that wasn’t something I was willing to do. (For reference, I took my first drink at 13 and was well into weekend binges by 16.) For me, claiming to be an atheist (which I did, to my mom) was not an intellectual exercise — I don’t have that much intellect to exercise — but outright rebellion.

I am a different person now than I was then. Not perfect, but I think quite a bit better.

TomD wrote in again (emphasis in original), “I’m curious what your response to that question would have been.” So I answered,

My answer to, “Are you saved?” was, “No.” If pressed, I usually followed up with some variant of “And I don’t want to be” or “Leave me alone.”

If you are asking whether I would have said at the time that I was rejecting salvation because I refused to moderate my behavior, I probably wouldn’t have admitted it. I don’t recall ever being asked that question. But if pressed on the point, I imagine I would’ve tried to present any number of arguments to avoid admitting any personal moral shortcomings. Like a criminal faced with the consequences of his crimes, I would have pleaded not guilty even though I was.

Later, I pleaded guilty and threw myself on the mercy of the court. And as I said: I am a different person now than I was then.

That’s where I last left things. I suppose the conversation will continue, but we’ll see.

___
* Spelling corrected in this quote.

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Following as the Spirit Leads

For the last four days I puzzled over what song to sing in church today.* By this morning I’d narrowed it down to four choices:

– “Big Enough” by Chris Rice — “I hope you don’t mind me asking the questions”
– “Trinity” by Jennifer Knapp — “Where do I stand, on the rock or in the sand?”
– “Pray Where You Are” by the Lost Dogs — “In our hopes and fears and struggles, great or small”
– “Beautiful Scandalous Night” by the Lost Dogs — “At the wonderful, tragic, mysterious tree”

I like each one for different reasons; they all speak to me, but I wasn’t sure which one to do. I was leaning away from “Big Enough” because it’s the hardest to play; I need to practice a lot more to get the chord changes. And I wasn’t sure how many people would appreciate the whole of “Pray Where You Are.”

Then, stopped at a traffic light on my way to church this morning, I thought, “I’m a little hungry” … whereupon the song “Hungry” popped into my head: “Hungry I come to you for I know you satisfy.”

I thought, No way. (I didn’t even remember what chords it had in it.)

But when I got to church I figured I had to at least try it, so back in the music room I found it in my notebook and gave it a go. It was rough, and awkward, and I still thought hard about doing “Beautiful Scandalous Night,” but in the end I went through with it and nobody threw anything at me. It helped a lot that Pastor Mark played along on the piano (without any music, of course, the show-off πŸ˜‰ ).

And all the time I think God was chuckling, pointing at me and saying to the angels, “Look what I made him do.”

___
* I wasn’t asked to sing until Tuesday evening, after choir practice.

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More Books I Want to Read

“So many books, so little time” has been a refrain in my life for years. My Christmas list is full of books, and I barely get through the ones I receive one year before the next set of gift books arrives. (I’d do better if I didn’t go to the library and pick up books from time to time.)

This evening I had a nice chat with John, a friend from church, and he told me about two books from the Barna Group that I added to my “want to read” list. The first is unChristian, and it presents “research into the perceptions of sixteen- to twenty-nine-year-olds” that “reveals that Christians have taken several giant steps backward” in terms of how we come across to nonbelievers. The second is Pagan Christianity, which traces the historical development of the church structure and service to see how different the current church is from the original church. Both of them sound fascinating to me.

In Heaven, after the feast is over, you can find me in the library. πŸ˜‰

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A Visit to Whateverville

My writing friend James Maxey put up an interesting post on his blog entitled, “Why I’m not afraid of Muslims (or Christians, or Atheists, for that matter).” He uses some interesting statistics to make the point that we need not lose much sleep worrying if the Islamofascist bogeyman is going to strike us in our particular, individual situations.

However, he seems to discount the existence of Islamofascist bogeymen who, I believe, surely intend to strike somewhere, sometime. He admits that

when Muslim fundamentalists get thier fingers into the governance of a country, that country is pretty much screwed. Stonings, beheadings, hand-choppings, and the horrible [degradation] of women become the law of the land … trust me, I don’t want fundamentalist Islam holding any power at all in American politics. I’m deeply grateful for a Constitution that prevents this.

and does a good job of explaining his position vis-a-vis what he perceives as fear-mongering. But I submit that we need to remain vigilant against those whose stated aim is to attack us, and I sleep better knowing the U.S. military is on the alert and on the prowl for, as Jethro Tull put it, “folk out there who’ll do you harm.”

On another note, I was amused to learn that I drive James bonkers. He wrote (emphasis his),

I would much rather live in a nation that’s 50% Christian than 50% Muslim. I’m not trying to make the argument above that [Christians] are dangerous; 39,999 out of 40,000 of them aren’t murderers, after all. I work side by side with Christians. My whole family is Christian other than myself. I like Christians! It’s just thier beliefs that drive me bonkers.

I sent him an e-mail to let him know that my Christian beliefs drive me bonkers sometimes, too. πŸ˜€

James is an excellent writer (I highly recommend his novel Bitterwood and look forward to the sequel, Dragonforge), and I appreciate that he’s also a straight shooter. He followed up the passage quoted above with,

But, the beliefs of many of my fellow atheists drive me bonkers as well. Christopher Hitchens, after all, believes in the Muslim threat and supports the Iraq war. A whole lot of atheists I know are also liberals, and seem to drink the kool-aid on every liberal cause that comes down the pike. I know so many who call themselves “freethinkers” who are anything but.

I think the problem a lot of us have is our tendency to adhere to our beliefs and positions without thinking critically about them. And with respect to my beliefs that drive James bonkers, I probably have deeper doubts and ask more questions than is spiritually healthy. But I figure it this way: If faith can’t stand up to scrutiny, and can’t weather the storms of doubt, then what good is it?

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Hello, my name is Gandalf

Elliott, one of our church friends, has taken to calling me Gandalf: as in Gandalf the Grey (or, if you will, the Gray). This morning, Brian, our piano player, followed suit and called me Gandalf also. It amuses me.

I really appreciate the fact that so many of our church friends are science fiction & fantasy fans. (Maybe not to the point of being fen, but fans nonetheless.) My Star Trek tie was a big hit, for instance, and one of the girls drew the U.S.S. Enterprise on a star-strewn curtain that was put up for decoration. Pastor Mark has even used Star Trek references in his sermons.

So if you’re a fan of SF&F, and find yourself in Cary on a Sunday morning wondering where you’d be welcomed in church, come on by North Cary Baptist Church. You might be surprised at how well you fit in.

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Rev. Wright and the Imams

Beneath the kerfuffle over the incendiary statements Rev. Jeremiah Wright made during sermons at Trinity United Church of Christ, the episode illustrates our very human tendency not to confront those in whom we have vested authority. It’s true in most places, of most people, that we rarely confront those whom we have accepted as leaders and especially those who represent to us some legitimate authority.

Where, for instance, are the moderate Muslims who disagree with and disapprove of the fatwas issued by radical clerics? They exist, and remain silent.

Where are the moderate members of Rev. Wright’s parish who disagree with and disapprove of his comments? They exist, and remain silent.

We are far more apt to challenge those whose authority and legitimacy we don’t recognize or to whom we have few ties; thus, in politics in our free country, we have no shortage of critics no matter who is in power. It’s very difficult, however, to stand up against a legitimate authority figure — one whom we have ample reason to respect and follow under normal circumstances — and say, “No, that’s wrong.” It takes courage; and when we are faced with difficult pronouncements from religious leaders that kind of courage is particularly hard to come by.

It would have been nice to hear the story of a courageous Senator Obama calling his spiritual advisor on the carpet for denigrating the United States of America (especially after his swearing-in as a Senator). In the same way, it would be wonderful to hear about courageous Muslims calling their imams and mullahs and clerics on the carpet for the heinous pronouncements they make. The latter requires more courage, however, since the potential penalty could be much more severe than the former; that in itself tells us something about the Islamofascists in authority in radical Islam, and why the civilized world should extirpate them.

I remember hearing Larry Crabb quote Pascal to the effect that when the whole world is moving in the same direction (e.g., toward depravity), it only takes one person who decides to stand still to show the wrong movement for what it is.* But that one person has to “be strong and courageous,” as the Scripture says. Which is why it doesn’t happen quite as often as it should.

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*He used the illustration in his address to the 1994 National Youthworker’s Convention in San Diego.

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Happy Easter

The sun rose this morning while I walked the dog past the Presbyterian church on the corner, where they were having a sunrise service outside. I could hear some of the music, but couldn’t quite make out the song, so I sang “Celebrate Jesus” and had my own personal service as I walked.

Then it was home to breakfast casserole, and soon I’ll be off to church to sing in our Easter cantata.

Whatever you find to do this Easter, I wish you the best: Happy Easter to one and all!

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