Continued from Chapter 4: A Story of Two Tables
The question was posed: “Is it more important to do the right things, or believe the right things?” Nearly everyone at our table—an atheist, an agnostic, a spiritual-but-not-religious-type with Buddhist leanings, and several folks of varying Christian affiliation—felt that at the end of the day, it is more important to do the right things than to believe the right things. On the one hand, I was not surprised at all. Most people agree that talk is cheap, and that at the end of the day, how you live your life, what you do—is what matters most.
But this is a very materialist view of things. It’s grounded in the physical, the material, the concrete. I thought perhaps I would hear a few of the Christians voice the traditional ‘if you don’t believe the right things you won’t go to heaven’ line. When it didn’t come out, I decided to voice it.
It was countered, by a Christian of all people, with a line from Jesus in Matthew 25: “ ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous (those who did the right things), will go to eternal life.” Murmurs of ‘Wow,’ ‘That’s right,’ and ‘Damn straight!’ were heard around the table. Quoting Jesus always goes a long way, even with atheists.
I noticed someone get up and leave the other table, someone whom I hadn’t seen at any previous Pub Theology gatherings. As far as I could tell, our friend with the books was still holding court and talking. I had a notion that our success was not being replicated in the other group.
The next day someone filled me in on how things went for that group. A good friend of mine noted how he was excited that a friend of his had decided to show up—a professor of humanities at the local college. Conversation began well, and everyone was engaged in the discussion. However, the night quickly changed when someone arrived toting a stack of books, Bibles and pamphlets under his arm. Dropping his load on to the table, the tone of the night for that group’s discussion was suddenly changed.
I asked why that was. “He had arrived to tell us what he knew, not to engage in honest, open conversation.” My friend went on to tell me that the rest of the evening proved that out, as every promising line of discussion was shut down by this well-meaning Christian, who clearly did not come to learn anything, but to teach the group what he knew. Apparently that was quite a lot. To emphasize his authoritative knowledge, he sat with his hand on his stack of books and Bibles, and spoke condescendingly from his throne at the end of the table. My friend was sincerely disappointed in how the evening turned out, and noted that his professor friend had to leave because it was so intolerable. This particular evening happened a couple of years ago, and as far as I know, the professor has never come back. So much for our good night.
When I reflected on the evening, I wondered how my own table could have had such a great evening of conversation, despite the diversity in make-up of the group. Many at our table cited it as “a great experience” and that they were so glad they found such an open and honest group. Two tables, two entirely different experiences.
When such things happen, I wince, because a great opportunity seems to have gone by the wayside. A unique opportunity for the group to learn, to hear a broad variety of perspectives, and to hear some thoughts from a local professor who was present that night. Yet this opportunity evaporated because of one person who felt the need to keep opening his mouth because he had nothing to learn. He felt he already had all the answers. (This is not to pick on a Christian, as we have had an evening with a similarly obnoxious atheist).
This scenario has played out more than once, though overall it has been rare. It is actually surprising to me that this doesn’t happen more often. Where do these folks come from with this kind of attitude? The same place I do. A place where we know we have the answers to all the major questions about God and life, and that the real struggle is not in learning anything new so much as in convincing everyone else how right we are. A place that makes us—let alone the gospel—seem awfully unattractive. We can do better than that. If we want to see more of the kingdom of God unfolding in our midst—it may not be optional.
Bryan Berghoef is a pastor, writer, and pub theologian (meaning his best thoughts occur with pint in hand, or his best pints occur with thought in mind – or something like that). His interests are found at the intersection of theology with history, language, literature, culture, the arts, politics, and music – though he admits his greatest passion is studying the original context of the ancient text of the Bible. You can read more of Bryan’s writings at pubtheologian.com.