Category Archives: The Church

Atheists Among Us

Atheists Among Us.

What follows is the text from the above link. Enjoy! (This explains – partly – why I, an agnostic, go to church. And why you should like having me at your church!)

April 9, 2014

Molly Baskette

“For the rest of you who are in mixed marriages—Christian married to non-Christian—we have no explicit command from the Master. So this is what you must do. If you are a man with a wife who is not a believer but who still wants to live with you, hold on to her. If you are a woman with a husband who is not a believer but he wants to live with you, hold on to him. The unbelieving husband shares to an extent in the holiness of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is likewise touched by the holiness of her husband.” – 1Corinthians 7:12-14

There’s a bumper sticker on a car in my neighborhood that never fails to chap my hide. “God is just pretend,” it gloats.

It angers me because the driver of that car is not just trying to state their (non-) belief. They are trying to undermine the belief of others.

But not all atheists are like that, and we shouldn’t tar them with the same brush.

There’s an atheist who comes to our church regularly. He’s married to a committed Christian. I often see him in the kitchen, doing dishes at coffee hour. When his wife joined the church, she said at one of our new members’ classes, “Steven just can’t believe that you accept him for who he is—even though he doesn’t believe in God. You even let him do the dishes.”

Uh, yeah. We’re really liberal that way. We will let absolutely anybody do our dishes.

Some positive psychology research suggests that churchgoing makes people happier, and more generous. Even the atheists report higher satisfaction with life as a result of regular engagement with a community of faith. (Tell that to your 14-year-old when he sulkily insists he shouldn’t have to go to church anymore because he doesn’t believe in God.)

I don’t have stats on it, but anecdotal evidence says the reverse is true too: the atheists and agnostics in our churches make our life together better. When they ask challenging questions, they make believers examine their faith and throw out the fluff. And when the people who say they “don’t believe all that much” pray out loud: well, I feel the power of those prayers more than the pretty words of those to whom prayer is as natural as breathing.

And then: there are those dirty dishes. They won’t do themselves.

Sometimes, our scriptures seem a little incomplete, like this bit from Corinthians. Because holiness flows, not just from the believer to the unbeliever, but in both directions.

Prayer

O Lord, I believe. Help thou my unbelievers—and not by making them just like me. Amen.

Chat with a Pastor

So I’m a guy.

I’ve probably done a poor job hiding that through these posts, but that knowledge is going to be essential for what follows, so, let all doubt be removed: I have X and Y chromosomes (or so I’m told).

In former work I’ve been asked to do “hot” (immediate) feedback and then “cold” (24-hours-later) feedback regarding events I had planned. I’m going to do that now; this post being the hot feedback and either a comment or post to follow being cold feedback.

Today I talked about my faith issues with a pastor I had had while an undergraduate. My first reaction after our conversation was “Wow – that’s kind of trippy”. Indulge me to explain.

I told him my faith story, focusing on what has led up to my current place. Then he shared about crises of faith he had had at nearly the same stage of life. This part of his history, these crises, were why I had contacted him in the first place. Sometimes I want to return to faith; sometimes I don’t. I thought the most meritorious thing for me to do in the circumstances was contact someone who had been in similar circumstances himself.

So, towards the end of our conversation, he, as would be expected from a pastor, urges me to get involved in a vibrant church. I have heard this advice before, from other pastor-ish people. As a cynic I would say “Of course, you’re going to “find God” if you surround yourself with people saying they have “found God””. But at the same time, we often fail in our pursuits (whatever they are) when we go them alone, and as he said trying to find God outside of Church would be like “trying to study the stars without a telescope”: if God exists, and God chose a group of people to proclaim God and God’s messages on earth, that group of people might be the only way I can learn of God.

At this point the conversation took a strange turn. Porn. Masturbation. The presence of these things in my life had come up earlier. I had mentioned I had had difficulty reconciling my being a Christian, supposedly having God at work in my life, and these things being a consistent presence. This disconnect was one thing leading up to my agnosticism.

The pastor said something weird to me. He said “You know why men are so obsessed with breasts?” It got weirder. “Because they represent the maternal!” What? He explained that, by his reckoning, men need the maternal, and even more, “the Feminine”, in their lives and this is what drives them to porn. They get some pleasure out of porn itself, but even more what they desire is connection to the Feminine. In his understanding, a healthy desire for the maternal and the Feminine (however these terms relate…) gets twisted into an eroticised obsession with breasts.

I’m pretty sure this all comes from his study of Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body. I don’t know much of that theology or its strengths and weaknesses. But I want to share a paraphrase from John Paul II he shared with me: “The problem with pornography is not that it shows too much, but too little.” The idea here is that what men are seeking is a fulfilling of their need for the Feminine, but porn only offers the tiniest slice of what true feminine-ness is. And I think that’s right: when I’m reflective I realize the sensuality of porn and masturbation is all well and good, fun, but what I am really looking for is a woman, a wife, someone to share life with. Lewis says something to this effect in Surprised By Joy: that as a young atheist he enjoyed the pleasures of sex but found them to be missing the point; what he was looking for was joy, what he was finding in sex was momentary delight. (To be sure, for Lewis dabbling in sensual pleasures demonstrated desire for a transcendent joy found only in God rather than “a need for the Feminine”.) I imagine this goes both ways: women, too, might go to porn but looking for the Masculine? I have no idea how this works for gays, lesbians, bis or others (and I just read Hays’ chapter on homosexuality in The Moral Vision today so I won’t even begin to try to work on that).

What does finding a vibrant Church community have to do with this? And where am I going with all this? For this pastor the Church, “Holy Church” as he called it, is the maternal, the Feminine. Thus, what I have been seeking will be found in the Church. Do I buy this? I don’t know. He said this was true in his own life, that as he got more involved in church and received the laying on of hands and prayer he found some healing and relief from his sexual struggles, without even directly confronting them. I don’t think “church” is the answer for me or even an answer book or guide to the answers. I have come to dislike and distrust all notions of “answers” to philosophical, psychological, theological problems. (What a good little post-modern I am!) But to be fair I will have to take him at his word and give his advice a shot. After all, that’s why I went to him: to seek advice. If I don’t take it, why did I ask in the first place?

It gets trippier. Without his knowing, his words mesh with the experiences of my last 18 hours. Last night, I was partying. All I wanted was to make-out with some girl, or kiss some girl. I had someone in mind. Nothing really came of it. Afterwards, going to bed, I was feeling sexually frustrated, sad, alone (as I imagine many do after they party: It’s fun while it’s happening but only serves to underscore your emptiness, singleness, alone-ness when it’s all over).

That night I dreamt of my Grammaw. She died several years ago. I miss her. The dream was her and me riding in a car somewhere, and during the drive I opened up to her about my agnosticism. She took it very calmly. No judgement. In fact, nearly no words. I could tell she still accepted me but she wanted us to be silent and not cheapen the exchange with tawdry words. I could not tell exactly what was coming next. Soon we arrived at a building, a kind of barn or something that may have had other people but if they were there I didn’t really notice. I gather that we were there to build something, a kind of chair, from pieces of burning wood that were lying around inside this barn. I don’t know why they were burning or why we were building the chair or what it was for. We just worked in silence. I would go around collecting pieces of wood and bring them to Grammaw and she would position them until we had our chair. I handled the wood with tongs, but Grammaw used her bare hands. I don’t know why, or how she could bear it. And I had the sense that Grammaw was using even this silent process of chair-building to teach me something, to show me something, but I don’t know what.

I woke up today and talked about this dream with a housemate. I think, like myself, he felt lonely and empty after the night. Possibly we had had similar hopes and desires for the previous evening; possibly not. Anyway, he asked me what the dream meant. “Hell if I know!” I thought. “I don’t know” I told him.

But now I wonder if there is a strange connection underlying the partying, my frustration, the dream of Grammaw and the conversation with my former pastor about doubt, porn, the Feminine, and the Church.

Am I reading too much into these events and today’s conversation? Is this merely a coincidence: everyday sexual desires brought front and center in a discussion of “mother Church”? Does this all predicate on an erroneous theology of sexuality? Has the pastor cleverly spun my words and experiences as “signposts to God”? What more would you point out to me about my dream? Is God speaking?

I really appreciated the pastor’s time and concern. He was also wonderfully frank. I will continue to mull his words but wanted to quickly record my positive reaction to his words and affirmation of both my past Christian experiences and my present agnosticism or doubt, a tension many Christians deal with by either denying the former or negating the latter.

Welcome to our church!

People are awkward.

Several weeks back I saw someone at the church I’ve been attending who I wanted to get to know better (read, was physically attracted to said person). We’ll call this person Jordan. At a church social I introduced myself, got talking with Jordan and their friends, and before I knew it was scheduled to go get coffee with Jordan and some friends of theirs. The day of the coffee outing came, we went and I had a great time. I got to ride there and back with Jordan and found they have some personality/character traits I really appreciate/connect with, we have some things in common, and Jordan still floors me physically.

Naturally I Facebook friend Jordan and others I went with, writing a short sincere message in friending Jordan.

Immediately Jordan’s friends accept my request and write back. Jordan has yet to accept the request or respond. It’s been a month, and I can tell Jordan’s been active on Facebook. If that were the only thing that’d be fine. And to be fair, I’ve only been to church/outings with Jordan’s friends two/three times since the coffee outing. But Jordan also has not approached me in church during passing the peace and hasn’t made it easy to say hi before or after the service. People can converse with friends in such a way that they are ready to expand their conversational circle, or they can stand pretty closed-off-like which is mostly what I’ve seen. I haven’t really heard anything back from Jordan’s friends since then either.

Well, this hurts. I get it that Jordan is not interested. That’s been made painfully clear. Was it necessary to go so far as to just reject me as a person? I am the new person at the church, I reached out and then I got shunned. Or at least that’s how it feels on a rainy day like today.

Giving the benefit of the doubt, I know interacting with people you have recently met or hardly know can be awkward and difficult. Perhaps no one is really to blame here. Or perhaps it’s all my fault. Perhaps I shouldn’t be so shy and should just try a little harder to include myself in that chatty circle of friends after the service? Perhaps I should not care about how the situation feels and just make sure to say hi to Jordan and chat if we can? Or perhaps I should never have introduced myself, should have known they have a significant other (which I still don’t know), should have known they aren’t into people of my sex (which I don’t know)?

You can probably tell I’m a verbal processor (hmm, not a computer processor: I am a processor of words… I weigh them, spit them out, receive feedback and repeat). My hope is that through writing about this, and getting responses, I can understand the situation better and more clearly discern what I should do now and should anticipate in similar future circumstances. Do you know what I mean?

Self-loathing, suicide, seminary

People hate, hurt, and kill themselves at seminary. I’m not writing this to attack seminaries, but to dispel notions that seminarians have their shit together more than anyone else. We’re broken people, too.

A friend told me last week that she had been considering suicide. Not all the time, but occasionally. She might still be. I love her a lot, she has good friends, and she’s doing better in her classes this semester than last. But all the same emptiness and self-hate surge through her life. She made relationship decisions she wasn’t proud of last semester, ones that reverberate still. Family hasn’t been very supportive. Thoughts of finding work and paying off her amassed debt after graduating are depressing.

A recent study conducted by Duke showed that ministers are twice as likely to suffer from depression than the general population (Clergy More Likely to Suffer from Depression, Anxiety). The reasons for this are many and I don’t really want to get into them all here. I think a lot of it though comes from unreal expectations/thoughts that laypeople have of their “Christian leaders”. And I hope to disabuse them of some of these beliefs.

It seems the primary belief to address is that Christian leaders are qualitatively different from the rest of us. This explains how they can do so much, and have energy to comfort so many hurting people and effectively minister to believers and non-believers alike while still looking good and raising decent children. If this is what you think, you need to think again. I would say look again, but as argued in my last post (The abuse of sharing “my testimony”), you don’t have a right to your leader’s personal life and depending on the situation and leadership style it’s good for the leader to have some distance from her flock.

Christian leaders are just people. Your favorite one probably verbally abuses his children when parishioners are gone or masturbates over hardcore porn when her husband is out or has trouble mustering the courage to ask his neighbors to put their dog inside when it’s barking like crazy. If you have the opportunity to get to experience the hospitality of Christian leaders, I advise you to take it. I have had this privilege, with some “spiritual giants” of our generation. More beneficial than receiving strings of spiritual pearls of wisdom or fare of godly conversation, I came to see my heroes were just as flawed, backwards, broken and normal as I was.

I heard recently that the two groups CAPS, Duke’s counseling/psychological services center (I’ve found it helpful: http://studentaffairs.duke.edu/caps) sees most are Divinity School students and PhD students. Yes, seminarians are messed-up, perhaps more so than other people. But I like that they know it. And I hope we can grow in that knowledge, and the people we serve can appreciate it.

Accepting homosexuality: Millstone? Freedom?

The issue of homosexuality has been a major stumbling block in my faith since coming here.

I’m coming from a background which has not historically accepted any physical-sexual practice outside of marriage between one man and one woman. I believed that tradition’s teaching and was comfortable with it. (Perhaps I believed it because I was comfortable with it?) I’ve entered a place where some of my peers are homosexual and in homosexual relationships and practicing Christians. Anymore I don’t know what I believe although I have to confess I’m not fully comfortable with Christian homosexuals (or non-Christian homosexuals). (But I still want to be friends!) I’m sure it’s part of my upbringing and preferences, just like I was verbally and non-verbally raised to avoid parts of downtown because there were “blacks” there, probably “with guns”. I won’t even completely pass the buck — I continue to entertain thought and affection patterns which reinforce my biases. If only I didn’t!

I am glad that it’s not up to me to solve this issue for everyone. But, it’s an ambiguity I may need to solve for myself before committing to any philosophy.

Jesus has heavy words for both those who would try to lighten his followers’ loads and those who would try to bog his followers down. Check it:

“… whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.” –Matt. 18.6

“[The religious leaders] tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger…. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces.”  — Matt. 23

Which side is right? Certainly none of us want either option, do we? We don’t want to be condoning something wicked in God’s eyes that could disrupt or jeopardize others’ relationships to God. Nor do we want to force someone to deny themselves in a soul-crushing way. More to the point, we don’t want a millstone tied around our necks and we don’t want the charge of wrongfully morally burdening others.

I hope this post hasn’t been insensitive (though with my luck it probably has). I just want to share one of the hang-ups I have when it comes to faith (or ethics pursued outside of faith). Can anyone relate? What words would you share?

Other questions: To what lengths will we go, and what “biblical/theological” means will we employ, to justify fulfilling our desires or stay in society’s good graces?
It’s been shown, by people like Peter Enns, that Israel’s laws were not particularly unique when compared to those of surrounding Ancient Near East cultures. For example, the Bible speaks to a context in which slavery was accepted; Israelites and early Christians happened to view it as God-ordained. In our world today we reject slavery. Should we also reject “traditional” (heterosexual — etc., etc.) romantic love as the only acceptable kind?

“You are who you hang with”. Must I be?

It would be worthwhile to explore the effect community is having on my beliefs even while it is happening.

I mean this:

I came in as a conservative, inerrantist-leaning believer. Then I found Christian pluralism and the silence of God in my life too hard to reconcile with my presuppositions. So I dropped belief and became a skeptic and agnostic.

Skepticism provides no m.o. so I have defaulted to certain patterns. To name them, I would say I am operating under pragmatism, self-interest, and Christian-informed ethics.

My skepticism allows me both to question the point of divinity school in general if there is no god, but also opens me to the idea that, if there is a right way of believing and practicing, Duke — with its mainstream, sola scriptura sed non nuda scriptura (idea I take from Daniel Treier, that Christians best use Scripture as the only divine authority but not divorced from tradition) approach to scripture and tradition, historical-criticism-informed biblical interpretation, and narrative based ethics — might have it. (I should probably drop the idea there is one right way of doing anything…)

If I do not come into contact with communities I can trust and identify with that hold different belief systems, I will probably eventually accept some version of Ducal Christianity. It would be the only option I have; there is nothing else before me.

In fact, I’m calling it now — I am going to become a Christian believer again. Considering my background and environment, the community of friends I most identify with here, I just see it so plainly before me. And that excites me; I’m happy about it: frankly, agnosticism/skepticism, while eradicating much of my guilt, have a metaphysical emptiness resulting in an existential sadness.

But I’m not at that point yet, and I also find this fated “return to the fold” sad, a failure on my part to push the skeptical envelope.

What could I do to avoid merely “becoming who I hang with” (to paraphrase dear old Mum)?

1) Drop out (problems here — I need a job, I want to teach something in university someday, Mum and Dad would not be happy).

2) Study somewhere else for a semester (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (TEDS), for example – I could be comfortable in that environment if simultaneously frustrated with the foreshortened scholastic inquiry. However, now that I’m in Durham I don’t want to move).

3) Temporarily associate with a church or religion quite foreign to me (I don’t want to do this).

Questions: What other options do I have? Should I reconsider any of the above three?

How can we avoid being conditioned by the ones we most trust into the beliefs we have and hold?

If we can’t, how can we really believe Christianity is truth?

If people’s beliefs are determined by those they most closely associate with and if Christianity is truth, how can people growing up in non-Christian societies be faulted by God, a long-held soteriological position?

The problem of Christian pluralism

Coming to Duke was a weird experience.

I was coming from a quite conservative Protestant background and, not to mention thinking practiced homosexuality was sin, thought even ordaining women was problematic. Funny thing for me to end up at Duke then – a place where both acts receive varying amounts of approval (and disapproval, to be sure). I knew this would be the case however, and came because I was tired of the standard conservative discussions of the Bible I was privy to, discussions which I thought read Jesus into every passage and made conclusions based on doctrine rather than what was present in the text at hand.

Duke has been a change from that. I appreciate the close reading and thoughtful discussions encouraged here. However, being here has taught me that my former “opponents”, “the liberals”, actually do care about and read the Bible (much to the chagrin of conservatives who would say they do not).

This presented a problem: if the people here are trying to take the Bible seriously, why do they come to so many different conclusions? Is there not “one Lord, one faith, one baptism”, to cite Paul? Why is there the plurality of belief and practice?

There are at least two (perhaps a plurality of) perspectives on this question’s answer. One, God somehow inspired the many voices making up the Bible, and loves and guides the various expressions — of diverse peoples, languages, backgrounds, politics, etc. — of the Church (while graciously allowing some errors, explaining discrepancies in doctrine/praxis). Another perspective, there is no god, only clever people trying to patch together a system of belief, which thus explains the inconsistencies within the Bible and within the religion Christianity.

The second perspective appealed more to me after initial consideration though I am currently undecided.

Christians, the plurality within Christianity seems microcosmic of the plurality of world religions – if true, does this complicate claims about the unique truth of Jesus as “the way, the truth and the life”? How do you reconcile this plurality with the singularity of truth that you claim?

Non-/Post-Christians, there seems to be a surprising unity within the Bible considering its drawn-out time and myriad places of composition. What case can be made for the Bible’s origins being solely human?