Interview with Rolling Stone‘s Matt Taibbi

A lot of you may have already read the excerpt from Matt Taibbi‘s new book The Great Derangement in the current issue of Rolling Stone or throughout the atheist blogosphere.

If not, you at least owe it to yourself to read a couple of his Campaign 2008 articles for RS.

Taibbi is also a frequent correspondent on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher.

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He recently spoke to me about his new book, religion and politics, and the New Atheists.

Hemant Mehta: In your book, you go undercover to a Christian church retreat and share anecdotes of the people who attended; you say they’re “beyond suggestible” when it comes to thinking differently from what their pastor tells them. Do you think there is any “cure” for them? Is there any way to teach them to think critically at that stage in their life?

Matt Taibbi: The reason many of these people turned to this kind of religion in the first place is because critical thinking turned out to be not such a positive experience for them. The very appeal of the religion is the surrender of that tiresome responsibility. The only way these people are going to reject that lifestyle is if it turns out to be ineffective in helping them negotiate the logistical problems of their lives. It’s similar to being a drug addict — until you run out of money/come down with AIDS or liver problems/develop too high of a tolerance, why stop taking the drug? But generally speaking I think the way to approach the problem is to get to people before they join these churches. These pastors find people who are miserable and lost and alone and get them to join their ranks; if there were more opportunities for people, or if people had more of a say in running their lives, I think they wouldn’t turn to these religions so much. One of the premises of the book I just wrote is that people have so little input into our national politics — a system that really only works for the monied insider class — that people have become alienated from the secular/political world and have retreated into various conspiratorial doctrines, on both the left and the right. We fix that, and maybe this goes away a little.

HM: Are there any Christian churches that support the notion of questioning what is said by the pastor?

MT: Well, there are certainly some religions that encourage intellectual curiosity more than others. Catholics are at least encouraged to be educated, to read books other than the Bible. You don’t see that in these fundamentalist churches.

HM: Do you think that pastors like John Hagee and the late Jerry Falwell are rising in popularity or are even Christians getting sick and tired of them?

MT: I think there are a few things at work. Overall, young people are less and less religious every year. The numbers for 16-29 year-olds go something like this: about 60 percent now call themselves Christian, and that compares to about 78 percent of Americans over 60 who call themselves Christian. But I’d bet that of those who are religious, relatively large numbers of them are going to megachurches of this sort and foreswearing the less extreme forms of the religion. I remember visiting southern Ohio on a story about the congressional race between Jean Schmidt and Victoria Wulsin and finding most of the small protestant churches in the district — a district that had a booming population thanks to high numbers of carpet bagging out-of-towners flocking to new corporate campuses — rapidly losing parishioners to the giant, McDonald’s style megachurches newly erected in the area. The population is now increasingly suburban and you have more people moving from place to place to chase jobs. For those people, it’s easier to just slide into a generic giganto-church with a big local TV presence than it is to root out some smaller church. It’s like anything else — if you’re in a strange place, are you going to shop at Home Depot, or will you take the time to find the mom-and-pop hardware store? And the megachurches are built around charismatic leaders of this sort. So I’d say it’s half-and-half — they’re losing popularity as a share of the whole population, gaining as a share of the religious demographic.

HM: What role should religion play in the political arena?

MT: Well, I’m an atheist/agnostic, so I would say none. People should stick to solving the problems they have the tools to solve. If you have a budget crisis, well, human beings can do the math, work out a new tax/spending strategy, and fix that. But we don’t have any tools for [divining] the will of God as it relates to, say, a new problem like high school shootings, the Iraq war, or the AIDS virus. All we have are the opinions of religious leaders whose motives may or may not be pure, and whose grasp of logic may or may not be of the highest quality. If you inject religion into the equation, the debate is necessarily going to be subjective, emotional, and inconclusive. It’s also very easy for unscrupulous people to use religion to further various ends for other reasons. Hagee’s humping of Israel is a great example. How do you get fundamentalist Christians to support the financial subsidy of/military aid to a Jewish state? Easy; you convince them the world is going to end soon, and that we’re going to be on the wrong side of Armageddon unless we support Israel.

HM: How strong will the Christian support be for John McCain in the upcoming election?

MT: Yeah, I don’t know. I’ve heard some ugly stuff about McCain in those circles. Then again, Hillary isn’t too popular either. In my church they taught us that Hillary’s first act as president would be to tax the churches. So McCain may get some support by default. As for his relationship to Hagee — that’s purely an AIPAC (Israeli lobby) relationship. Both are heavy AIPAC guys. It has nothing to do with religion.

HM: If McCain won the presidency in 2008, what sort of role would the Religious Right play in the next administration? Would it be any different from its current role in the Bush administration?

MT: I suspect it would be greatly reduced. McCain isn’t a true believer like Bush. McCain can barely conceal his annoyance at certain concessions he has to make to political reality, and religion is one of the things that seems to annoy him. I can’t imagine him having prayer breakfasts and that sort of thing a la Bush.

HM: Following up on that, if either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama won the presidency, what role would religion play (politically) over the next several years?

MT: Let me put it this way — I doubt Jeremiah Wright will have much of a role. If Obama gets in, one of his first actions will be to get NASA to shoot Wright into space. Hillary will believe whatever the polls tell her to believe. Her real religion will be the church of the Pew/Gallup survey.

HM: What comes to mind when your read each of the following?

The “New Atheism”

MT: I used to agree with it wholeheartedly. The idea of making belief in God socially unacceptable made sense to me. Now I’m not so sure. The real crime of religions, it seems to me, is the arrogance religious leaders display in being so confident about the nature of the universe. Atheists can display the same arrogance about their beliefs. When people ask me what I believe about God, I tell them the truth, which is that I have no fucking idea. Obviously there are aspects to the human experience that are beyond our comprehension. Otherwise we wouldn’t all be so miserable/ridiculous all the time. I think the best thing to shoot for is a situation in which people are simply comfortable with the fact that life is a great and endlessly confounding, often very (painfully) funny mystery. The New Atheism sometimes seems to me to reject the idea that anything is unknowable — which, to me, if it were true, would be very sad.

HM: The Bible

MT: A hilarious and deeply twisted book, which in parts is poetic and in other parts so disturbed as to be almost incredible. The first time I read about those guys knocking on Lot’s door and demanding sex with those angels — and Lot offering his virgin daughter to them in their place — I wondered if the people who wrote this stuff were sane at all. Some of that stuff is pure comedy and it’s amazing to me that people don’t see through it. For instance, the subsequent scene where Lot is in the cave, and his daughters get him drunk and bang him in order to (they think) propagate the species — how can you read that and not see it as some elaborate story cooked up by Lot later on? “Well, we were in this cave and we thought the whole world had ended and I was the last man on earth, and I was drunk… It’s not like I was molesting my daughters or anything! After all, they came on to me!” I wonder even more about the people who read, say, the story of Abraham and Isaac and commend Abraham for being willing to sacrifice Isaac. What sane person doesn’t read this and wonder why anyone would worship a God who pulled such vicious and sadistic stunts? That stuff flips me out.

HM: Richard Dawkins

MT: Yeah, see above about the New Atheism. I get what he’s saying. I’m just not sure about the tone.

HM: Intelligent Design

MT: An intellectual absurdity. What’s odd to me about Intelligent design is that belief in it requires Christians to accept so much science that they might as well just accept the theory of evolution as a whole. I never understood the hostility toward evolution — except insofar as religious leaders always condemn anything they can’t really understand.

HM: The Pope

MT: Can’t stand it when the Pope comes to America and everyone goes gaga over him. Last week they preempted a Lakers game in my area to cover his sermon in Yankee stadium. That was enough for me to hate him forever.

HM: Ben Stein

MT: A paranoiac and a yahoo. Calling evolution an inspiration for Nazism is like calling physics an inspiration for Charles Whitman’s campus shootings.

HM: How soon will it be until we see more openly non-theistic people (such as Rep. Pete Stark (D-CA)) get elected to higher public office?

MT: I’m not holding my breath. Atheism is the last taboo in American politics. I’m not saying it can’t happen, but it probably won’t be soon.

HM: What should atheists groups (like the Secular Coalition for America lobbying group) be doing to get a seat at the table in American politics?

MT: Hard to say. The problem atheists have is the same problem everyone has — there’s a monopoly on power held by the Republican/Democrat clan, and it’s been hard for any outside group to break that cycle. I think atheists probably need to work on the concept of dissenting parties getting a voice before they can get their specific agenda on the table.

HM: Should atheists be respectful, if not accepting, of Christian beliefs?

MT: That’s a good and difficult question. In the end, I think the answer is no. You can be kind to a person who, say, reaches forty and still believes in Santa Claus. But you don’t have to respect his beliefs. Religion for quite a long time has benefited by the respectful acquiescence of nonbelievers. I know I’m getting close to the views of the New Atheists I just criticized, but I think it might help if religion were made more generally ridiculous.

HM: What would Jesus do?

MT: He would puke into his cloak if he could see how things turned out.

The Great Derangement comes out on May 6th.


[tags]atheist, atheism[/tags]

  • http://www.skepchick.org writerdd

    Excellent interview, thanks!

  • Erik

    Thanks for the interview, Hemant. I think I’d agree with Mr. Taibbi on a good chunk of what he said despite the fact that I’m Christian…I especially got a good laught out of Hillary’s “Church of the Gallup Poll”!

    It’s worth noting that his book describes fundementalist Christians and not ALL Christians. I can promise you that people like myself and contributor Mike Clawson would not be caught dead at such a church retreat unless we were trying to turn them away from their fundementalism as well. Anyways, I just wanted to reiterate that there is a broad spectrum of Christians and many denominations (Episcopal for one, Catholic for another) encourage critical thought and questioning. While my church doesn’t belong to a denomination, we’re encouraged to actively question the pastor during the middle of his sermon…something I’ve never seen anywhere else.

  • Spurs Fan

    Erik,

    I’m sure you had this question posed to you before, but I have always wondered what “emerging church”-type Christians think of the afterlife. For a couple of years I would have considered myself one, but I just wasn’t convinced, mainly because those Christians seemed to dance around the “Hell” issue (well, maybe hell is this, or maybe it isn’t). I would read Brian McClaren or some other author and be inspired, but would also get the feeling that they were holding on to their faith by justifying everything in a less-critical manner or just attempting to “nice” everything up.

    Again, I’m sure you and Mike are tired of hearing this, but what do you really think? Am I, an ex-Christian Atheist, going to hell?

  • stogoe

    I get what he’s saying. I’m just not sure about the tone.

    More standard concern troll twaddle. I might be able to take him more seriously if he weren’t clucking his tongue at the impropriety of atheists actually stating that they think god is a myth.

  • Adrian

    Great interview.

    As positive as it is to read about people asking questions in church, I’m highly dubious about what sort of questions are “allowed” and what the answers will be like. Not saying that some questions aren’t allowed, but that self-censorship and peer pressure will effectively prevent the important questions, and it will prevent challenging inadequate answers.

    Is this better than nothing, or is it enough of a fig-leaf to present the illusion of scepticism? But perhaps even the illusion is enough…

    Anyway, really looking forward to reading Tabbi’s book. Sounds like he’ll offer some new perspectives which I always like.

  • http://www.skepchick.org writerdd

    For all except the most fundy cult-church I attended, there were always weekly Bible studies where people could ask whatever questions they wanted to. I’m sure most of the answers were regurgitated from Sunday sermons, etc., but there was an opportunity to discuss and no-one (as I recall) was ever shut down for having bad questions or wrong answers.

    I think an open Q&A at the end of a Sunday sermon is a good idea, but I imagine that these side study groups would be even more fruitful because many people would be afraid to ask a question in front of a large congregation, if for no other reason than the pervasive fear of public speaking.

  • http://splendidelles.wordpress.com/ Elles

    The idea of making belief in God socially unacceptable made sense to me.

    Oh… so that’s what the New Atheists are trying to do… now I know.

    Otherwise, a great interview.

  • Adrian

    writerdd,

    What sort of questions are typically asked? I remember attending a youth group where they did some bible study, but everything started from the position that the bible was divinely inspired so questions were typically not challenges, but rather pleas to help “align” (read: “contort”) the text with their understanding. I wonder if this is common or unusual.

    Are you familliar with Chomksky & Herman’s work on the media and self-censorship? (I wonder how many of their ideas are applicable here.)

  • http://www.otmatheist.com hoverFrog

    Excellent interview, good answers to good questions. I especially like the penultimate one: “Should atheists be respectful, if not accepting, of Christian beliefs?”. That deserves a chapter in a book all to itself.

  • http://groundedinreality.blogspot.com Bruce

    In the end, I think the answer is no. You can be kind to a person who, say, reaches forty and still believes in Santa Claus. But you don’t have to respect his beliefs.

    This has been my pet peeve for years now. I’m tired of people saying that we need to be “respectful of people’s beliefs”. No, we don’t. We need to be respectful toward people in general, but their beliefs are fair game. Granted, we can be “disrespectful” tactfully, but just because someone is religious doesn’t mean their religious beliefs deserve any type of respect merely for the sake of being religious.

  • Siamang

    The idea of making belief in God socially unacceptable made sense to me.

    Here I thought the idea was to make atheism socially acceptable.

  • Siamang

    BTW Hemant,

    Any update on when and if we might get Lee Strobel’s responses to our questions?

  • http://formerlyaprildawn.blogspot.com April

    I seriously love Matt Taibbi. Perfect? Probably not. But close enough for me! Thank you so much for the interview!

  • Erik

    Spurs,

    I think the reluctance on most emergent type people to answer that question lies in the fact that some of us aren’t really sure. One of the main functions of the emergant church is to provide a place where people can explore beliefs about Jesus and the Bible without having to commit to anything but mutual love and respect.

    That being said, I don’t have a solid construction of what I believe happens in the here-after, but I don’t believe in the traditional hell. I believe that heaven and hell are the same place…it’s all in what you make of it. I also don’t believe that death ends our ability to decide between God or no God…I don’t think God would create an arbitrary barrier like death for such an important decision.

    Anyways, flame away everyone. My comments were only directed at Spurs, but I’m sure others will want to have their say.

    Thanks,
    Erik

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Hemant Mehta

    Any update on when and if we might get Lee Strobel’s responses to our questions?

    We’re in contact. He said he would answer the questions, but it may still take some time. He’s very busy, so the explanation makes sense. I’m confident he’ll respond to them soon enough :)

  • http://emergingpensees.com MikeClawson

    “The idea of making belief in God socially unacceptable made sense to me.”

    Here I thought the idea was to make atheism socially acceptable.

    Maybe that’s the difference between a “New Athiest” and a “friendly atheist”?

  • http://emergingpensees.com MikeClawson

    I can promise you that people like myself and contributor Mike Clawson would not be caught dead at such a church retreat unless we were trying to turn them away from their fundementalism as well.

    a-yup

    and I should also point out that he paints megachurches with too broad of a brush as well. There’s quite a difference between the Hagee type churches, and the ones led by guys like Rick Warren, Bill Hybels, or especially Rob Bell. All three of those guys are far more concerned with fighting poverty and AIDS in Africa than they are with supporting Israel or controlling American politics.

  • http://emergingpensees.com MikeClawson

    Again, I’m sure you and Mike are tired of hearing this, but what do you really think? Am I, an ex-Christian Atheist, going to hell?

    I don’t know and it’s not my job to decide.

    Also, I pretty much agree with Erik on this:

    I don’t have a solid construction of what I believe happens in the here-after, but I don’t believe in the traditional hell. I believe that heaven and hell are the same place…it’s all in what you make of it. I also don’t believe that death ends our ability to decide between God or no God…I don’t think God would create an arbitrary barrier like death for such an important decision.

    BTW, this view of heaven and hell as simply the same thing experienced differently, goes back all the way to the early church (i.e. it’s not a new, “liberal” view) and is still the official view of the Eastern Orthodox branch of the church.

  • Spurs Fan

    Mike and Erik,

    Thanks for the answers. I kind of got that idea of that view of the afterlife in my in-between stage of “deconversion”. I guess the issue was that if that was the case (heaven/hell are subjective/depend on what you make of it, etc.), then I saw no reasons to call myself a “Christian” and to not branch out to other beliefs or possibilities. It makes much more sense to me now to say I’m an atheist who definitely admires many of the teachings of Jesus, while desping some of his other teachings, and at the same time, discounting his miracles (I could see them as metaphorical, but again, not enough meat there to make a distinction between that and Greek mythology, or some other fiction with good life lessons or commentary).

    Now this one:

    I don’t know and it’s not my job to decide.

    Mike, I know you don’t mean it like this, but I’ve always seen this one as a complete cop-out because it’s what I used to cop-out with. When I really was certain someone wasn’t “saved” in the traditional sense, I would say this very quote. It sort of took the burden off of me (and actually made my God look like the real evil one). Now, when people say it, I feel like they are just being nice. Part of me actually has some respect for the person who would tell me that, yes, I am going to hell, because I felt it was more honest. After all, if you believe you’ve been “redeemed”, then surely, you must have a decent idea whether I am or not. (I have a friend who tells me this, even though she knows I’m an Atheist and actually believes in the traditional “hell as a bad place where those who lack a profession in Christ go”)

    The Eastern Orthodox church, while interesting, would not be seen as infallible by most Christians in the West, because they see the New Testament, where heaven and hell do seem to be two very different places , as older and more authoritative than church tradition.

    Pehaps I deal too much in absolutes. Like if the Spurs can get their post defense going, they will, in fact, finish off the Phoenix Suns tonight. Nothing metaphorical about that!

    Go Spurs!

  • Adrian

    Mike, I know you don’t mean it like this, but I’ve always seen this one as a complete cop-out because it’s what I used to cop-out with.

    Yeah, I’m with you on this one. And maybe Mike is the exception, but in my experience with Christians, the certainty about God seems to depend upon just how nasty God is.

    For instance, many things are asserted with absolute certainty:

    Does God love me? YES!
    Is God good? You bet!
    Does God work through those that help the poor? Of course!

    Some issues touch on unpleasant facts and so we no longer get certainty, but rather “belief” and “trust”:

    Does prayer heal the sick? I believe that God can work miracles.
    Nothing good happens to me, why won’t God help? God loves you and if you trust in him, your life will turn around.

    Some issues deal directly with the dark side of the bible and reality and now we get waffling and evasion:

    If God works miracles, why does he allow so much evil? God has a plan.
    Does X really deserve to go to Hell? It’s not for me to know the mind of God.

    In a way I appreciate the honesty and consistency of some of the fundamentalists. They don’t say one thing in public and another in private, they let it all hang out. With many liberals, you hear the soft-sell and evasion yet behind church doors everything changes; you get all the good and puffy bits, but everything unpleasant gets waved away. If a Christian can’t speak for God about Hell and evil, then they can’t speak for God about anything. Frankly, I think that no one can speak for God about anything, not what God loves or doesn’t, not what God wants or doesn’t want, not anything. This middle-of-the-road approach fails on all measures.

  • http://emergingpensees.com MikeClawson

    Hey Spurs Fan,

    Mike, I know you don’t mean it like this, but I’ve always seen this one as a complete cop-out because it’s what I used to cop-out with. When I really was certain someone wasn’t “saved” in the traditional sense, I would say this very quote.

    You’re right, I don’t mean it like that at all. I’m not just trying to be nice; I honestly don’t know whether you’re “going to hell” or not. I say this because I just don’t think that’s how it works in the first place. I don’t think you go to hell for choosing the wrong religion (or no religion), and I don’t think a “profession of Christ” is the magic formula by which God decides who’s in or out. The gospel as I understand it just seems to be about something completely different and much bigger than merely where we go when we die, or what religion (if any) is the “right” one. So in one sense I say “I don’t know” because I’m not sure the question is all that important anyway.

    The Eastern Orthodox church, while interesting, would not be seen as infallible by most Christians in the West, because they see the New Testament, where heaven and hell do seem to be two very different places , as older and more authoritative than church tradition.

    So? Why privilege the Western view?

    Besides which, Pope John Paul II also made several statements in which he seemed to affirm something very similar to the Orthodox conception of Hell as well. And other “Western” thinkers, from Tertullian to C.S. Lewis have also expressed variations of this theme throughout the centuries. My point is that while there have always been competing ideas about what Hell is and is like, this idea, far from being new or un-Christian, is actually one of the oldest Christian ideas about Hell and has resurfaced quite regularly within Christian thought, East and West.

    As for the New Testament, I think Christians should be aware of the fact that the word “Hell” only occurs around a dozen times (depending on the version and removing parallel passages), and is actually a translation of three different Greek words. And of these references, it’s not entirely clear that they’re always referring to an afterlife destination, and not simply to more immediate, temporal consequences.

    Bottom line, the Bible doesn’t talk all that much about Hell, so I don’t see why we should either.

  • Elsin Ann Perry

    I ordered Matt Taibbi’s book—can’t wait to read it! AND it’s #574 in sales on Amazon.com already, even though it won’t be released for a week or so! (It’s #22 in “political books.”)

  • http://www.skepchick.org writerdd

    Adrian, sorry I don’t remember any specifics. I’m sure we were self censoring since we were voluntarily brainwashing ourselves on a weekly and sometimes daily basis. But if visitors came, they could also ask and discuss whatever they wanted. I just remember it being an open discussion forum with no judgmentalism or anything like that. This was in the 70s and 80s, so the details have faded from my memory.

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike Clawson

    I just remember it being an open discussion forum with no judgmentalism or anything like that.

    As Hemant can confirm, that is what we strive to do at our church too, and what we tried to do with the youth group small groups back when I was a youth pastor. We had quite a few kids who were not Christians, and plenty of thoughtful and questioning Christian kids too, and as far as I know everyone felt the freedom to ask whatever they wanted and disagree whenever they needed to without fear of exclusion or rebuke.

  • MTran

    adrian asked: “I remember attending a youth group where they did some bible study, but everything started from the position that the bible was divinely inspired so questions were typically not challenges, but rather pleas to help “align” (read: “contort”) the text with their understanding. I wonder if this is common or unusual.

    Anyone who knows me knows that I have been an unapologetic atheist for over 30 years and am convinced that an atheistic culture would be superior to a theistic one. But I want to give some support to writerdd’s comments.

    Not once, in any of the (mainstream Protestant) churches I attended when I was young, was any question or challenge treated with anything other than respect and encouragement to further inquiry, including inquiry beyond the Bible. And no, there was no “self censorship” unless you call basic civility “self censorship.”

    My most difficult questions would get a response along the lines of “We don’t know the answers to that question, or many others. People have been asking these questions throughout the history of faith. One day you might find ‘the’ answer and when you do, please share it with us, just as you have shared these questions. But so far, we have developed a number of interpretations that have been succesfully used by others who share our understandings of faith, morality, and our place in the universe. They are not the only answers, but they are our best working hypotheses until something better is found. But that doesn’t mean you should stop looking or questioning.”

    The people and discussions I encountered in those churches were so reasonable and tolerant I would have had little reason to “rebel” from their belief system — except that I found it to be more honest to acknowledge that I was, indeed, an atheist who shared ethics with those believers, but not a faith in the existence of any god or supernatural entity/force.

    The theocratic, Biblical “literalist,” fundie whackjobs who spout their toxic faiths, though, need to be slammed down in no uncertain terms, preferrably by other theists. (Atheist complaints are ignored or welcomed by the whackaloons.)

  • Sudo

    Can anyone point me towards specific sources that encourage critical thinking in Catholics? This is the same church that forbids contraception, right? The one that still has official exorcism teams? The one who thinks the Pope is the Mouthpiece of God and is INFALLIBLE when he speaks ex cathedra from the chair of the Pope? The one that teaches the little wafer is REALLY the body, I mean the REAL flesh and blood of Jesus Christ, and the wine, literally, his blood?

    Just because the Catholic church has accepted evolution doesn’t mean they’re thinking clearly.

    As to those who are Christians but have vague notions about the afterlife, heaven and hell, God, etc, on what do your base your beliefs? The Bible? Just what seems right or something else?

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike Clawson

    As to those who are Christians but have vague notions about the afterlife, heaven and hell, God, etc, on what do your base your beliefs? The Bible? Just what seems right or something else?

    Yes, Sudo, on the Bible. Like I said above, the Bible seems pretty vague on the topic of the afterlife, so I necessarily am too. I just don’t think “afterlife” is really the main point of the Bible anyway.

  • Kate

    Haha Spurs – if Erik thinks you’re going to hell…when then he’s in some SERIOUS doghouse trouble because his girlfriend for 2+ years (me) is an atheist. ;)

  • Spurs Fan

    Haha Spurs – if Erik thinks you’re going to hell…when then he’s in some SERIOUS doghouse trouble because his girlfriend for 2+ years (me) is an atheist.

    That’s right. You guys were a post a while back. Oddly enough, my wife is a Christian who thinks I’m “seperated from God” (she refuses to define that). But, she’s in love with me anyway and respects me enough to allow me to have those beliefs without trying to change them. It seems that you guys have an equal amount of love and respect in your relationship.

    So? Why privilege the Western view?

    Well, it seems to be more predominant, even in Africa and East Asia. Not that makes it the “correct” view.

    As for the New Testament, I think Christians should be aware of the fact that the word “Hell” only occurs around a dozen times (depending on the version and removing parallel passages), and is actually a translation of three different Greek words. And of these references, it’s not entirely clear that they’re always referring to an afterlife destination, and not simply to more immediate, temporal consequences.

    True. When I was a liberal Christian I would point this out to my fundamentalist friends. And I also realize that the Old Testament “Sheol” was a different concept as well. Yet, by taking this view, it led me to Atheism (not that that’s a bad thing). It went from absolute to vague (well, what is hell, really? do I speak greek? even if I could, could I figure out this meaning, etc.). Once I got into those waters, being called a Christian seemed to not exist for me. It would be the same thing to call me a Gandhian or an Obamaian, simply because I was an admire of those people.

    So, I guess the real question I’m interested in (mostly to Erik and Mike) is Why do call yourself a Christian? What does that label mean to you and how is it distinct? For the record, I’m truly interested in this concept, not just trying to hammer you as the minority on this site. (Believe me as a liberal atheist in rural Texas and even a former liberal Christian in rural Texas, I can understand the hassles of that).

    Also, Mike, I enjoyed your pictures and links from your liberal, hippy Christian friends a few days back! :)

  • Spurs Fan

    By the way…the Spurs have moved into the “heaven” of the 2nd round of the playoffs and they are the responsible party for sending the Phoenix Suns to the “hell” of waiting until next season to play another game.

    It’s the Revival time of year for me!

    Go Spurs!

  • cipher

    Mike said,

    I’m not just trying to be nice; I honestly don’t know whether you’re “going to hell” or not. I say this because I just don’t think that’s how it works in the first place. I don’t think you go to hell for choosing the wrong religion (or no religion), and I don’t think a “profession of Christ” is the magic formula by which God decides who’s in or out.

    So, Mike – the logical follow-through to what you’re saying is that we have to muddle through this life as best we can, never really knowing until the end what our final destination will be. As a Christian, you believe yourself (I assume) obligated to believe in hell, and you have to spend your entire life worrying about whether or not you’ll end up there. Under these circumstances, I can understand why fundamentalists opt for certainty.

    I agree with the others; I said this to you in that thread with Abraham Piper some weeks ago. One of my problems with Emergent and Sojourners types is that they won’t commit on this issue – “Maybe yes, maybe no, we don’t know, we can only hope for the best…” Salvific exclusivism is the line of demarcation for me; before I’ll even converse with a Christian, I want this out in the open. Am I going to hell? If the answer is yes – the exchange ends there. If the answer is no, we can talk.

  • http://www.sunclipse.org Blake Stacey

    When people ask me what I believe about God, I tell them the truth, which is that I have no fucking idea. Obviously there are aspects to the human experience that are beyond our comprehension. Otherwise we wouldn’t all be so miserable/ridiculous all the time. I think the best thing to shoot for is a situation in which people are simply comfortable with the fact that life is a great and endlessly confounding, often very (painfully) funny mystery. The New Atheism sometimes seems to me to reject the idea that anything is unknowable — which, to me, if it were true, would be very sad.

    There’s something about this whole area which is not conducive to clear thinking. What part of atheism, “New” or otherwise, demands that everything be knowable? None. The claim we’re really making is that science might never discover the answers to some mysteries — why the Universe has the particular set of physical laws that it does, for example — but that even if science doesn’t have any luck getting those answers, the mythologies our species developed when we knew a whole lot less won’t help either. It’s like a detective story, with an vast and indeterminate number of suspects, many of whom we haven’t even met yet: we might never know whodunit, but we’ve already found out that the butler didn’t.

    Dawkins has said this, in about as many words. Intellectually, it’s a modest position; of course, whether a person displays intellectual modesty is a separate question from whether they exhibit personal arrogance. On that charge, the evidence is subjective, and the arguments already quite tired.

    On a separate note, I must confess myself perplexed by this “aspects of the human experience” talk, which seems to conflate cosmological questions with social and psychological ones. (If it’s arrogance you want, I find the idea that the way we feel when we are lonely or conscious of our mortality has anything to do with the mass of the electron or the strength of gravity to be insufferably vain.) And what is so “beyond our comprehension” about the way people are miserable so much of the time? We’re hungry and scared and desperate for love and a good many other things, none of which beg for supernatural clarification.

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike Clawson

    So, Mike – the logical follow-through to what you’re saying is that we have to muddle through this life as best we can, never really knowing until the end what our final destination will be. As a Christian, you believe yourself (I assume) obligated to believe in hell, and you have to spend your entire life worrying about whether or not you’ll end up there. Under these circumstances, I can understand why fundamentalists opt for certainty.

    I agree with the others; I said this to you in that thread with Abraham Piper some weeks ago. One of my problems with Emergent and Sojourners types is that they won’t commit on this issue – “Maybe yes, maybe no, we don’t know, we can only hope for the best…” Salvific exclusivism is the line of demarcation for me; before I’ll even converse with a Christian, I want this out in the open. Am I going to hell? If the answer is yes – the exchange ends there. If the answer is no, we can talk.

    cipher, I guess I’m just a little more comfortable with ambiguity than you seem to be. I’m fine just saying “I don’t know and it doesn’t matter that much to me because it’s not really the point anyway.” I just don’t think the main point of Christianity is figuring out your “final destination”. That kind of thinking tends to undermine everything Jesus came to do IMHO.

    I think you’ll find, cipher, that us emerging/postmodern types are simply too suspicious of those display an excessive confidence in their opinions. After a century and more of holocausts, pogroms, religious wars, and fundamentalist terrorism perpetrated by those who were deadly certain of their beliefs, we’ve come to agree with Elie Wiesel who said that we should “Always question those who are certain of what they are saying.”

    Personally I’d rather live in the gray areas and in a world of complex but beautiful colors, than in harsh and oppressive world of absolute, black and white certainties (and yes, I include both religious and non-religious certainties in that statement).

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike Clawson

    So, I guess the real question I’m interested in (mostly to Erik and Mike) is Why do call yourself a Christian? What does that label mean to you and how is it distinct?

    Because I’m a passionate follower of the way of Jesus. Because I believe in and try to live by his vision of the kingdom of God. And because I think that he does in fact, in some mysterious way, incarnate God in the flesh.

    Is that enough to still call myself a Christian?

  • Kate

    Mike Clawson – why is Erik posting under your name??? ;) Seriously…you two are one in the same!! I agree with it all. And yes, I’d call you a Christian…the kind I wish we had MORE of.

  • cipher

    cipher, I guess I’m just a little more comfortable with ambiguity than you seem to be. I’m fine just saying “I don’t know and it doesn’t matter that much to me because it’s not really the point anyway.” I just don’t think the main point of Christianity is figuring out your “final destination”. That kind of thinking tends to undermine everything Jesus came to do IMHO.

    Well – of course I’m uncomfortable with it! Mike, I am a 51 year old secular Jew. I’ve spent my entire life listening to Christians telling me that I’m headed for hell because I don’t believe something that I seem to be inherently incapable of believing, and which I think is monstrous, in any case. Now, you Emergent folks show up on the scene to tell me that yes, there’s a hell, and yes, it’s eternal – but that I shouldn’t worry about it, because it isn’t the point? I mean – what?

    And, let me understand this – are you really saying that taking the position “I don’t believe in hell” is as absolutist as saying “There’s a hell and you’re going there”? That living with the idea of hell hanging over your head for seventy, eighty years is somehow better than “absolute, black and white ” certainty?

    If you really believe this, then honestly, I have to tell you – it just confirms my opinion that it’s better to simply dismiss the whole business. You really aren’t making it any more palatable for me than the fundamentalists are – you’re just saying it in a more pleasant tone of voice.

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike Clawson

    Now, you Emergent folks show up on the scene to tell me that yes, there’s a hell, and yes, it’s eternal – but that I shouldn’t worry about it, because it isn’t the point?

    I don’t recall saying that cipher.

    Is there a hell? I don’t know… I think it is possible to reject love and to refuse to live in the way of love, and if that is the case then I think it has to be possible to be in “heaven” (i.e. in the presence of absolute love) and yet not have it feel like heaven to you (i.e. it would feel like hell). And I do think that denying the possibility of rejecting love is absolutist in that it effectively denies human beings any free will or any meaningful purpose to our lives.

    Is that state of having rejected love “eternal”? Again, I don’t know. But I tend to think not. Like Erik said, I don’t see any reason to think that one couldn’t “repent” and embrace love after death as well as before.

    Are you going to hell for being a secular Jew? No, not in my opinion. Again, picking the right religion or metaphysical philosophy just doesn’t seem like it’s at all the point. I don’t think God “sends people to hell” for being an atheist or a Jew or whatever. (Actually I don’t think God “sends” people to hell, period.)

    So what is the point? Living in the way of love and justice. Becoming the kind of person in the here and now who, if you do come into the presence of absolute love, will be able to embrace and enjoy that love rather than being repulsed by it or resentful of it. The point is living as part of the solution, not as part of the problems. What happens in the hereafter is necessarily vague and fuzzy, even in scripture. But as far as I can tell what happens then will simply be the logical extension of what has happened here and now. And it’s the here and now which is the main point of Jesus message. The gospel message of Jesus is not “choose the right religion so you can go to heaven and not hell when you die”, it was “repent (i.e. turn your life around and live differently) for the kingdom of God is now here”. And he further elaborated this message in Luke 4 when he said:

    “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor.
    He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released,
    that the blind will see,
    that the oppressed will be set free,
    and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come.”

    If I say that is the point of Jesus’ message, then can you see why I’d say that all that “afterlife” stuff really isn’t?

  • Karen

    Not once, in any of the (mainstream Protestant) churches I attended when I was young, was any question or challenge treated with anything other than respect and encouragement to further inquiry, including inquiry beyond the Bible. And no, there was no “self censorship” unless you call basic civility “self censorship.”

    Hey, MTran! Nice to see you posting again. Been a long time. Hope you are okay.

    I’m glad that you experienced such openness and respect from the mainstream Protestant churches you grew up in.

    Just to give the other side of the coin, I would definitely say that in the fundamentalist and evangelical churches I attended for 30 years, there was a virtual gag on questions that might be deemed “heretical” i.e., anything that challenged a narrow, literalist, conservative interpretation of the bible.

    If I were to go to my old bible study group, for instance, and start asking “in your face” questions about the inconsistencies in the scriptures, or the basic disconnect between the OT and the NT portrayals of god, or the clash between science and the literal reading of Genesis – it would not be good. My questions might be entertained for some time and certain standard answers provided, but if I were to push the envelope or point out how the accepted answers didn’t do it for me, there would be definite condemnation and disapproval from the group.

    I doubt they would kick me out, but they would be deeply concerned, praying for me and dubious about my salvation.

  • cipher

    If I say that is the point of Jesus’ message, then can you see why I’d say that all that “afterlife” stuff really isn’t?

    But you realize, of course, that your more conservative co-religionists (and not merely the fundamentalists) would deny this vehemently. They’d probably go so far as to declare you not to be a Christian at all. You said earlier that Jesus only mentioned hell about a dozen times. I haven’t counted, but, as you know, one of the most oft-repeated statements in that world is “Jesus spoke about hell more often than he did about heaven” (of course, they’re probably also counting references in the rest of the NT). By most estimates, there are between 75 and 100 million people in this country who identify as evangelicals. I would hazard a guess that you are to the left, theologically, of the vast majority of them.

    This wasn’t part of my original question, but I’ll bring it up anyway. If the point is living in the way of love and justice, and not Christ balancing the scale so that we can escape going to hell, then why do we need Christianity, specifically? In terms of love, justice, compassion, it doesn’t teach anything that isn’t to be found in any of the other world religions, and I would argue that one doesn’t need a faith-based belief system or an external authority to define these as virtues, anyway. The idea that a personal God loves us? You can find it in the other theistic religions, and Sufism arguably takes it even farther than Christianity does; it’s their primary theme.

    I suppose one could say that, from a Christian perspective, God has revealed himself most fully in the person of Jesus, and has thereby made it possible for humans to have “personal relationships” with him, but not everyone is mystically inclined or has a talent for that sort of thing (accepting for the moment that it’s even true in the first place). So, not to be confrontational, but, from the perspective of an outsider looking in (an outsider who has spent five decades being outraged and offended and is not favorably disposed to Christianity to begin with) – why would I want to be a Christian, especially as I’m now being told that I don’t have to become one in order to escape eternal damnation?

  • Spurs Fan

    Because I’m a passionate follower of the way of Jesus. Because I believe in and try to live by his vision of the kingdom of God. And because I think that he does in fact, in some mysterious way, incarnate God in the flesh.

    Is that enough to still call myself a Christian?

    Maybe. If you can make the claim that somehow Jesus is perceived as being higher than others who have practiced the same love, compassion, mercy, and justice. Take Gandhi. He lived out everything Christ taught and more. Many Christians admire him (some shockingly don’t). So, why don’t they call themselves Gandhians? Because most would tell you that they believe Jesus performed miracles and literally rose from the dead. And if you don’t accept that, then your bound to lose connection with God. Does anyone else incarnate God in your view? If not, what exactly is it that makes Jesus the only one?

    Is there a hell? I don’t know… I think it is possible to reject love and to refuse to live in the way of love, and if that is the case then I think it has to be possible to be in “heaven” (i.e. in the presence of absolute love) and yet not have it feel like heaven to you (i.e. it would feel like hell). And I do think that denying the possibility of rejecting love is absolutist in that it effectively denies human beings any free will or any meaningful purpose to our lives.

    But why would someone have to only focus on Christ to do that? We both know many non-believers who experience this somehwat now. They would be perfectly happy in this “heaven” and it would not feel like hell to them. Are you saying that fundamentalist believers are more “lost” than some atheists who could truly relate to this universal message (of Jesus and others)?

    This seems to be the argument that Brian McClaren makes in “A New Kind of Christian”. I can’t help but think of Jesus’ description of hell as “weeping and nashing of teeth” and realize that maybe McClaren was just sugar-coating it. Christ seems to make clear (as he said long before George Bush) that you are with him or against him — this doesn’t sound like the tip-toeing message coming across from the emergent church.

    So what is the point? Living in the way of love and justice. Becoming the kind of person in the here and now who, if you do come into the presence of absolute love, will be able to embrace and enjoy that love rather than being repulsed by it or resentful of it.

    This I can fully agree with. I just don’t understand why is it’s exclusive to Christ.

  • MTran

    Karen,

    Thanks for the welcome. It’s always helpful to hear your view on these things.

    It wasn’t until I was surrounded by Roman Catholics (I’ve attended and taught at RC universities) that I learned that the crazy literalist end of Protestantism was the image that most Catholic, Orthodox Christian, and recent European immigrants had of American Protestants in general. As a young person, I didn’t meet many fundies, and they were generally considered to be more than a bit kooky. But when I look at the sheer numbers in the fundie pepulation, well, it looks as if the reasonable, mainstreamers I knew so well are quite a minority!

    All that causes me to think that there are countless “Fundamentally” wounded people out there who don’t even realize –or care– how damaged their thinking processes are. Or how much compassion and empathy they have lost because of the twisty thinking. I don’t know what to do about it, though.

  • cipher

    Yeah – in addition to what I just said, I have to agree with Spurs Fan as well.

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike Clawson

    But you realize, of course, that your more conservative co-religionists (and not merely the fundamentalists) would deny this vehemently.

    Yeah. So? I’m not a conservative.

    You said earlier that Jesus only mentioned hell about a dozen times. I haven’t counted, but, as you know, one of the most oft-repeated statements in that world is “Jesus spoke about hell more often than he did about heaven” (of course, they’re probably also counting references in the rest of the NT).

    No, they’re just wrong – either outright lying, or just repeating what they’ve been told without checking for themselves.

    It’s easy to check. Just go to biblegateway.com, search on the word “hell” and see what comes up. In the NIV (the most popular evangelical translation) it occurs 14 times (the results are here). That’s it. I guess one could also start counting passages about “judgment” and the like, but I think it’s even more dubious whether most of those have anything to do with an “afterlife” and not simply temporal judgment (especially the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70).

    This wasn’t part of my original question, but I’ll bring it up anyway. If the point is living in the way of love and justice, and not Christ balancing the scale so that we can escape going to hell, then why do we need Christianity, specifically? In terms of love, justice, compassion, it doesn’t teach anything that isn’t to be found in any of the other world religions, and I would argue that one doesn’t need a faith-based belief system or an external authority to define these as virtues, anyway. The idea that a personal God loves us? You can find it in the other theistic religions, and Sufism arguably takes it even farther than Christianity does; it’s their primary theme.

    Again, so? Believing that Jesus is true doesn’t mean that I have to believe everyone else is completely wrong. All truth is God’s truth IMHO, so if it’s true, I don’t care which group said it.

    from the perspective of an outsider looking in (an outsider who has spent five decades being outraged and offended and is not favorably disposed to Christianity to begin with) – why would I want to be a Christian, especially as I’m now being told that I don’t have to become one in order to escape eternal damnation?

    I’m not necessarily saying you should become a Christian. Depends on what you mean by “Christian”. I do want everyone to follow the way of Christ, and I think it’s valuable to do so within a community of fellow travelers who can help you along the way, but that may or may not involve converting to a different religion or altering your metaphysical beliefs. I don’t think it’s always necessary for people to “believe in Jesus” (i.e. believe certain Christian doctrines about him) in order to follow him.

    Escaping eternal damnation seems like a pretty piss poor reason to follow someone in the first place. If the way of Jesus is true and good, then one should follow it simply for that reason, first and foremost. Not because you’re worried about divine punishment. And if you find a way of life that is better than Jesus’, then go follow that instead. (Though, just speaking personally, I’d tend to guess that that better way is included in the way of Christ, not excluded by it, since again, IMHO, all truth is God’s truth.)

  • Adrian

    Karen,

    It’s great to hear that some churches do accept questions on some level. I have strong reservations about how to interpret this data.

    As a socially aware human being (as virtually all humans are), I’m likely to avoid rocking the boat, upsetting people, or ostracising myself. When I walk into a church, I know what sort of questions are encouraged/rewarded/accepted and which are not and I’ll adjust accordingly. Even in schools and Universities, students do this and will avoid many questions. I know that in some classes (Economics and some literature classes, for example), I started by asking questions and then saw how unreceptive people were and then just shut up, figuring there wasn’t any point in rocking the boat.

    It’s one thing to say that questions are welcome, and it’s another to genuinely reward difficult questions. Even if a pastor encourages questions, it doesn’t take more than one or two “I don’t know” or “it’s a mystery” or “it’s the Lord’s will” or similar incurious brush-offs before people get the hint that the pastor has no interest.

    Don’t underestimate how significant these can be.

    Of course, this is mild compared to your examples of the overt hostility in some fundamentalist churches. I know which ones I’d rather be in my community, but I don’t think that should give the liberal churches a free pass.

  • Adrian

    Mike,

    It’s easy to check. Just go to biblegateway.com, search on the word “hell” and see what comes up. In the NIV (the most popular evangelical translation) it occurs 14 times (the results are here).

    I think this understates the importance of these references. The Sermon on the Mount, for instance, mentions Hell several times and seems to be intended as a guide for how to avoid punishment in Hell and achieve salvation in Heaven. It may be that the number of references may be low (if 14 is low), but their significance seems high.

    I don’t know much about your beliefs, but I understand that the Sermon on the Mount is supposed to be one of the speeches of the NT. How do you explain this?

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike Clawson

    I don’t know much about your beliefs, but I understand that the Sermon on the Mount is supposed to be one of the speeches of the NT. How do you explain this?

    What is there to explain? I never said it wasn’t in the bible. I just don’t think it means what a lot of conservatives think it means.

  • Adrian

    Mike,

    I don’t want to put words into your mouth. What do you think the references to Hell in the Sermon on the Mount mean?

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike Clawson

    Maybe. If you can make the claim that somehow Jesus is perceived as being higher than others who have practiced the same love, compassion, mercy, and justice. Take Gandhi. He lived out everything Christ taught and more. Many Christians admire him (some shockingly don’t). So, why don’t they call themselves Gandhians? Because most would tell you that they believe Jesus performed miracles and literally rose from the dead. And if you don’t accept that, then your bound to lose connection with God. Does anyone else incarnate God in your view? If not, what exactly is it that makes Jesus the only one?

    I guess I wasn’t clear enough Spurs Fan. When I said that I believe Jesus incarnated God in the flesh, I did mean that I believe Jesus is God. And yes, I mean this in a way that is different than the way in which we all (including Gandhi) reflect God’s image. Jesus was God living among us as one of us IMHO.

    And yes, I also believe in his miracles and his Resurrection. Is that enough yet to call myself a Christian in your book?

    But why would someone have to only focus on Christ to do that?

    I never said they did. As I told cipher, the way of Jesus is inclusive not exclusive. I don’t need to say that everyone else is wrong to say that the way of Jesus is good.

    Are you saying that fundamentalist believers are more “lost” than some atheists who could truly relate to this universal message (of Jesus and others)?

    Yes indeed, I think some very likely are. I know plenty of atheists who I think do a better job of following the way of Christ (without even calling it that) than many fundamentalists I know.

    I can’t help but think of Jesus’ description of hell as “weeping and nashing of teeth” and realize that maybe McClaren was just sugar-coating it. Christ seems to make clear (as he said long before George Bush) that you are with him or against him — this doesn’t sound like the tip-toeing message coming across from the emergent church.

    Don’t get me wrong, I do still believe in hell. I just think a lot of people are going to be surprised at who is there and why. I know Brian personally, and while I can’t speak for him, I think he’d agree that it is still quite possible for people to choose to reject the way of love and justice, and that for such people the appropriate response is “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (which are images of grief and loss… which I think is exactly how God and all of us should feel when people choose to turn away from love and justice).

    “So what is the point? Living in the way of love and justice. Becoming the kind of person in the here and now who, if you do come into the presence of absolute love, will be able to embrace and enjoy that love rather than being repulsed by it or resentful of it.”

    This I can fully agree with. I just don’t understand why is it’s exclusive to Christ.

    Again, I never said it was. If the way of Christ is the way of love and justice, then those are necessarily inclusive, not exclusive.

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike Clawson

    I don’t want to put words into your mouth. What do you think the references to Hell in the Sermon on the Mount mean?

    That the ways of justice and love are serious business and not just fluffy ideas to be taken lightly. As we see constantly in our world around us even today, the consequences of failing to be peacemakers, of letting hatred fester rather than being reconciled to others, of sexually exploiting others (which is the context in which the “hell” reference occurs), etc. are horrific. The few verses in this passage where Jesus uses the hell word, he basically seems to be saying “do whatever it takes to avoid these kind of destructive behaviors because the consequences of living this way are severe.”

    Whether that warning has anything to do with consequences after death, or whether he’s simply speaking metaphorically about the natural consequences of destructive behaviors in the here and now, I’m not sure. I’d tend to lean towards the latter, since the literal word for “hell” there is “gehenna” which refers to a literal real world place – a burning garbage dump outside of Jerusalem – and thus it seems likely that he’s using this as a word picture for the destructive effects of living unlovingly and exploitatively towards others. I don’t see any evidence that he’s primarily talking about something that happens after we die.

    But that’s just an off-the-cuff exegesis based on my previous study. I’d have to look into it more specifically to say for sure.

  • Adrian

    Mike,

    I wish I could find some reason to think that the writers intended the references of Hell to mean anything other than a judgement and torment in the afterlife. The text seems pretty clear:

    21″You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder,[a] and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 22But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother[b]will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,[c]‘ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.

    I’ve heard the comment about a garbage dump, but if there is any metaphor, it looks like the literal garbage dump is a metaphor for an afterworld torment, rather than for anything in this life.

    It seems to me that by ignoring the obvious interpretation, you are in danger of hearing Jesus and then turning away from him to follow yourself.

  • Karen

    As a socially aware human being (as virtually all humans are), I’m likely to avoid rocking the boat, upsetting people, or ostracising myself. When I walk into a church, I know what sort of questions are encouraged/rewarded/accepted and which are not and I’ll adjust accordingly.

    Exactly. Which is what happens in bible studies or prayer groups or what have you, at least in the conservative churches. There is not only a “range of acceptable answers” (HT to Helen), but also a “range of acceptable questions” that reflect the evangelical/fundy doctrine and worldview.

    When you get someone new to the group who doesn’t already know the ropes (so to speak) and asks untoward questions, it’s very uncomfortable for everyone involved. There tends to be someone in authority who swoops in to “counsel” (i.e. explicate the unspoken rules) the newcomer, and they either get in line or leave.

    ’s one thing to say that questions are welcome, and it’s another to genuinely reward difficult questions. Even if a pastor encourages questions, it doesn’t take more than one or two “I don’t know” or “it’s a mystery” or “it’s the Lord’s will” or similar incurious brush-offs before people get the hint that the pastor has no interest.

    Don’t underestimate how significant these can be.

    Oh, I’m sure that kind of response is significant. We’re all social beings and nobody likes getting a non-answer (perhaps accompanied by a sigh of frustration). Having that happen once or twice is likely to cure the brash questioner.

    On the other hand, there apparently are religious communities that are liberal enough to truly engage and even encourage the hard questions. I’ve never attended one, and I tend to imagine that even they present “the truth” to wrap things up after the questions are raised, but they do exist. I have to think they’re much rarer than the communities who are more certain about ephemeral issues, however. In general, we humans like certainty and tend to be uncomfortable with uncertainty – so I think the churches that offer certainty are lots more popular.

  • Spurs Fan

    I guess I get what you’re saying Mike. I was there, but I couldn’t hold on to it without feeling like I wasn’t deluding myself. If the early church was “the Way”, I can buy it, but my logic (what little there is) can’t throw in the miracles, ressurection, Jesus is any more “god” than Gandhi, and so forth. But, I can understand your thought process on this subject.

    On one hand, I feel like the fundamentalists are more consistent. With their definition of hell, what it is, and who goes there, things are at least clear. And they might use the parachute argument (ala Ray Comfort — yikes!) to say that fearing hell is a perfectly legitimate reason to come to Christ (hence the term “saved”). With them, I know where I stand. However, with the McClaren line of thinking, I’m not sure what actually leads where. Not that the end is the only goal, but it would helpful. Who is to say that I would be on the right path? As long as you start from the premise that Jesus is God and that Bible holds more significance than any other writings, you will always disagree on this. Sort of seems like a cruel joke on humans.

    All in all however, I still appreciate those Christians like yourself who are willing to be extremely critical of blind doctrine, as well as your ability to blow the mind of long-time atheists (unlike my born-again atheist-self!) who lump all followers of Jesus into one. I salute the McClarens of the world who model that, as well as the Tony Campolo’s who would agree 100% with James Dobson theologically, but see the political implications very differently. I guess being from an evangelical background and living with an intelligent, open-minded Christian of a wife gives me an insight into both worlds, their virtues and their faults.

    Thanks for the dialogue, Mike. And I’m sorry that I didn’t spell “gnashing” correctly (perhaps I’m still reeling from the Spurs’ recent tough opponent Phoenix and their point guard, Steve NASH)

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike Clawson

    I’ve heard the comment about a garbage dump, but if there is any metaphor, it looks like the literal garbage dump is a metaphor for an afterworld torment, rather than for anything in this life.

    If we substitute actual word “Gehenna” in for “hell” in the text you quoted:

    21?You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder,[a] and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 22But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother[b]will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,[c]’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of Gehenna.

    What reason do we have at all to say that this passage has anything to do with the afterlife? I see a lot about judgment, but throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, the prophets predicted this-worldly judgment (e.g. destruction at the hands of Assyria, Babylon, etc.). On what basis would you assume that when Jesus, speaking equally prophetically to the Hebrews of his day, is suddenly and inexplicably talking about judgment after death, and not (as would seem to fit with the norms of Jewish prophetic literature) about temporal judgment and destruction (most likely at the hands of the Romans, as happened only 40 years after his ministry)?

    The only reason I can see for assuming that “Gehenna” has anything to do with the afterlife is because it’s been translated “hell” for so long, and multiple centuries of Christian theologizing has convinced us that “hell” always has to do with a post-mortem destination. What I’m suggesting is that this theologizing is completely off track and the text itself gives us no clues that this has anything to do with what happens when we die.

    But that’s just where I’m at in understanding the text these days. You, of course, are free to interpret it differently.

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike Clawson

    On one hand, I feel like the fundamentalists are more consistent.

    In some ways they are more consistent, until you actually start looking at the Bible in a more educated and contextual way, and then you start to notice that their complex theological schemas don’t really fit what the text actually seems to be about in a lot of cases. Very often their theologies have more to with the debates between Catholics and Protestants 500 years ago, or between Fundamentalists and Modernists 100 years ago, than anything Moses or Isaiah or Jesus or Paul actually taught.

    At any rate, I can see how a black and white view of the world (whether religious or non-religious) would be more comforting and less stressful, but it only keeps working just so long as life stays simple. As soon as life gets a little bit messy, those simplistic philosophies stop working and stop being quite so appealing.

    However, with the McClaren line of thinking, I’m not sure what actually leads where.

    What have you read of McLaren’s? His earlier books do raise many questions without a lot of answers, but in his most recent two books he does start to spell out more clearly where he thinks all this leads. I’d recommend checking out “The Secret Message of Jesus” and “Everything Must Change” if you’re interested. Maybe even pass them along to your wife when you’re done if you really want to shake things up. ;)

    Who is to say that I would be on the right path?

    It’s just something you have to figure out as you go along, just like everyone else. I recommend doing it together with a community of friends.

  • MTran

    Karen responded to these comments but I think some of them are related to my own post, so I thought I’d chime in ;-)

    “I don’t think that should give the liberal churches a free pass.”

    I don’t think anyone here is suggesting that, I certainly didn’t.

    “As a socially aware human being (as virtually all humans are), I’m likely to avoid rocking the boat, upsetting people, or ostracising myself. … Don’t underestimate how significant these can be.”

    I do recognize these issues and have seen up close how heavily they influence the behavior and words of people in both negative and positive ways.

    But I have always found most such social or political pressure to have the paradoxical effect of forcing me to speak against such pressures and the presuppositions and suppression they seem to be packaged with.

    That is just how my personality works; I compulsively rock the boat, though I try to avoid needless insults. And what I have described above is simply my experience. YMMV

  • Darryl

    I know that Mike would disagree with me but from my perspective Mike’s theology is simply a recent American expression of a liberalized, moderated Christianity. While much friendlier and probably more productive than the more conservative kinds, it risks being swept away due to lack of content. If certain doctrines are not amenable to such churches, and they are put aside, then gradually the loss of content may become loss of identity. When is a Christian not a Christian? If one takes Jesus as his master is that all there is to it? One may believe nothing else of the doctrines of the church just so long as they have made Jesus their teacher? When does gradual moderation break the tie with the historical Christian tradition?

    The Apostles Creed says that Christ “descended into Hell.” He also ascended into Heaven, and this primitive duality seems to have been an orthodox understanding of the Church Fathers. It is not up to me to say what is necessary to be believed in order to be a Christian since I no longer believe that, but my understanding has been that in Christendom generally for millenia now Hell is believed to be an ontological reality that damned souls will inhabit, just as heaven is for the saved.

    Even if one does not believe in a literal Hell, I find it impossible to refer to the Bible and not come away with the understanding that Christianity believes in a last judgment, and divine punishment. I once read an Eastern Orthodox theologian who defined hell as “an eternal descent into non-being (I paraphrase).” Whatever that may be, it sounds like a punishment to me. I know Mike would rather talk about the positive aspects of faith, but let’s be honest, there’s a whole lot of nastiness in this theology.

  • Sudo

    21?You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder,[a] and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 22But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother[b]will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,[c]’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.

    I personally see these verses as explaining the difference between temporal judgment, i.e. criminal charges for murder or defamation of character, and psychological judgment, if I can use that term.

    It’s commonly held that those who are angry, bitter, envious, or vengeful are unhappy people. If left unabated, these feelings can get of control and consume the one who feels them. Anger is often described as ‘burning anger.’ Or ‘revenge burned in his heart.’ Fire is an apt metaphor for the psychological state of the one who is consumed with anger, and my view is that Jesus wanted to warn people of this fact. I see Jesus as a spiritual leader, not a religious one, who’s overriding objective was to see people love one another, treat each other justly, and not be consumed with material things. I see many of his warnings and recommendations as advice on how to live a more meaningful life with your fellow man, and from his point of view, with God. If you read the Gospels with this in mind, I think many of these hellfire passages and such like will be much clearer and make more sense. Even to those without a belief in God. :-D

  • Sudo

    21?You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder,[a] and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 22But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother[b]will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,[c]’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.

    I personally see these verses as explaining the difference between temporal judgment, i.e. criminal charges for murder or defamation of character, and psychological judgment, if I can use that term.

    It’s commonly held that those who are angry, bitter, envious, or vengeful are unhappy people. If left unabated, these feelings can get of control and consume the one who feels them. Anger is often described as ‘burning anger.’ Or ‘revenge burned in his heart.’ Fire is an apt metaphor for the psychological state of the one who is consumed with anger, and my view is that Jesus wanted to warn people of this fact. I see Jesus as a spiritual leader, not a religious one, who’s overriding objective was to see people love one another, treat each other justly, and not be consumed with material things. I see many of his warnings and recommendations as advice on how to live a more meaningful life with your fellow man, and from his point of view, with God. If you read the Gospels with this in mind, I think many of these hellfire passages and such like will be much clearer and make more sense. Even to those without a belief in God. :-D

  • Sudo

    Speaking of the Apostle’s Creed and the early church fathers, for the first 400 years after the death of Jesus Christ, the doctrine of universalism, or ‘all will be saved,’ was prevalent in 4 of the 6 major theological schools at that time. But besides that, the Church Fathers had all kinds of ideas about various theological doctrines, like the pre-existence of souls, reincarnation, ‘earth’ spirits, and other ideas that are no longer accepted as part and parcel of ‘normal’ Christianity.

    The way I see it, many of the fundamentalist Christians today are not Christians, but Biblicalists (is that a word?) They put their faith in the Bible, not Jesus Christ. The question a Christian must ask themselves is, do they believe in the Bible because of their faith in Jesus Christ, or do they believe in Jesus Christ because of the Bible?

    In my opinion, it should be possible (theoretically speaking) to believe in the overarching story of Jesus Christ without having to nitpick over every line or verse in the Bible. Here is an analogy: we know that George Washington was the first president of the United States. There is also a story about old George that he chopped down a cherry tree when he was a boy and could not lie about it. Historians believe this story to be false. Does the fact that this story about George and the Cherry Tree is a myth or fable change the fact that Washington was the first president?

    So I personally have no issue with Christian like Mike Clawson and McLaren, et al, calling themselves Christians. I wish more of the rest of the adherents of their religion were cut from the same cloth.

  • cipher

    I salute the McClarens of the world who model that, as well as the Tony Campolo’s who would agree 100% with James Dobson theologically, but see the political implications very differently.

    Spurs Fan, I know that Campolo is still somewhat to the right of Brian McLaren, but I don’t think that he and Dobson would agree 100%!

    Even if one does not believe in a literal Hell, I find it impossible to refer to the Bible and not come away with the understanding that Christianity believes in a last judgment, and divine punishment… I know Mike would rather talk about the positive aspects of faith, but let’s be honest, there’s a whole lot of nastiness in this theology.

    I’m afraid that I have to agree. Mike, some of these others are saying things that I wanted to, but I was reticent.

    So I personally have no issue with Christian like Mike Clawson and McLaren, et al, calling themselves Christians. I wish more of the rest of the adherents of their religion were cut from the same cloth.

    I agree, but, as I’m not a Christian, it isn’t my place to say who does or doesn’t get to use the label.

    I do think that the liberalizing trends are outgrowths of modernity. What the fundamentalists believe is what most Christians have believed for most of the past two thousand years. I’m aware that universalism was a belief of some early Christians (I didn’t think it was as long as four centuries), but the Church killed it off as soon as it could. If God was behind the whole thing – not to be flippant, but it seems like very poor planning. He must have known that it would devolve into a belief system that would be used to dominate and terrorize for centuries.

  • Sudo

    If God was behind the whole thing – not to be flippant, but it seems like very poor planning. He must have known that it would devolve into a belief system that would be used to dominate and terrorize for centuries.

    If you accept the blueprint view of Augustine, sure. This is primarily a Westernized view of Christianity, not necessarily a worldwide view. There are other views out there.

    The history of the Catholic Church in the west is not synonymous with Christianity. Orthodox and Coptic churches do not accept all the creeds and doctrines of Rome, but no one says they are not Christians, either. Besides, the history of European Christianity is full of dissenting opinions down through the ages. Of course, I see the point that if it was the true church of God, how could this be? But many people have answers to those and this probably isn’t the place to go into a debate on the topic – especially between two atheists. ;-)

    On a side note, would you say that a Sufi is not a genuine Muslim? Or if a Muslim insists that jihad does not mean killing innocent people (and cites Sura and verse in the Koran to prove it,) would you tell him he is not a true Muslim? (Some of his co-religionists might though, lol.)

  • Adrian

    Sudo,

    In my opinion, it should be possible (theoretically speaking) to believe in the overarching story of Jesus Christ without having to nitpick over every line or verse in the Bible.

    Except the bible is the only way to know anything about Jesus. If you dismiss attention to the bible as “nitpicking”, what do you propose to replace it with?

    You can cherry pick “good” verses and ignore “bad” ones, but then you’ve traded worshipping the bible for worshipping your own values. You no longer follow Jesus, you presume to lead him. If you’re willing to set aside the bible and follow what you believe to be true, you can arrive anywhere, even at Phelps and his brand of selective reading. If you want to learn from Jesus, shouldn’t you set aside your own preconceptions and follow what he actually said, rather than what you think he should have said?

  • Sudo

    cipher said:

    I’m not a Christian, it isn’t my place to say who does or doesn’t get to use the label.

    If I may, it does seem though that you are saying just that to Mike and McLaren, et al, that they aren’t Christians because they don’t subscribe to the Apostle’s Creed and other traditional Christian views. I’m sorry if I’m misrepresenting your position or suggesting something that you do not mean to say. It’s just how I’m interpreting your comment. (Please see this comment said with the nicest tone possible. I’m not trying to pick a fight. :-)

  • cipher

    Sudo,

    The history of the Catholic Church in the west is not synonymous with Christianity. Orthodox and Coptic churches do not accept all the creeds and doctrines of Rome, but no one says they are not Christians, either.

    Sure – but they all have the concept of final judgment and eternal damnation, and they were all calling each other heretics back in the day.

    On a side note, would you say that a Sufi is not a genuine Muslim?

    I wouldn’t, but, as I said a moment ago – I’m not a member of the team, so it isn’t up to me to determine who does and who doesn’t get to use the label. My understanding is that the early Sufis began to depart radically from normative Islam in terms of their theology, but Al Ghazali brought them back to a more centrist position. I think they were still, from time to time, denounced as heretics, though.

  • Sudo

    Adrian,
    Obviously, millions of people over the past 2000 years have spent their lifetimes trying to decipher out what Jesus said or didn’t say, what he meant, trying to discover if he was even a real person, etc. I agree with the statement that, if you throw out the Bible entirely (as in from existence), you have no way of knowing about Jesus (good Christian people would say that God will reveal himself to people regardless, but I digress.)

    Just my opinion, but you don’t have to believe every line or verse of the Bible to be factually accurate to believe that Jesus Christ existed. You don’t have to make every line fit together like some gigantic puzzle. This is Bibliolatry. The idea that every line of every book has to be accurate or the whole thing is false is a fallacy.

    Nor do you have to accept one person’s reading or interpretation of every word. By the time any of us sit down to read the Bible, we come to it with a host of preconceived ideas and notions about what we will find there. We read into the text the meanings and ideology we already have in our minds. I don’t think it’s possible for a person to just ‘read it’ without these biases shaping their perception of what they read.

    Having said that, a panoramic view of the history of ‘salvation’ if you will, can be had by reading the Bible as a story, from beginning to end. Basically, it goes something like this – God makes everything, man alienates himself from God, God becomes man to restore fellowship with himself, and everybody lives happily ever after. Obviously, we can’t go into a full description of this theologically (I don’t care to, at least) but this is my view of one way that it works without having to view every single verse of the Bible literally, as interpreted by the reader or some other ‘church father’ eons past.

  • cipher

    If I may, it does seem though that you are saying just that to Mike and McLaren, et al, that they aren’t Christians because they don’t subscribe to the Apostle’s Creed and other traditional Christian views.

    No, I was agreeing with you when you said, “So I personally have no issue with Christian like Mike Clawson and McLaren, et al, calling themselves Christians. ” As I said above, I do think that what the fundies believe is what most Christians have believed for most of the past two millennia – but I’m a Jew, and an unbelieving one at that. I have no investment in the franchise, so whether or not I think they’re Christians is irrelevant.

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike Clawson

    The Apostles Creed says that Christ “descended into Hell.” He also ascended into Heaven, and this primitive duality seems to have been an orthodox understanding of the Church Fathers. It is not up to me to say what is necessary to be believed in order to be a Christian since I no longer believe that, but my understanding has been that in Christendom generally for millenia now Hell is believed to be an ontological reality that damned souls will inhabit, just as heaven is for the saved.

    Just for the record, my church affirms the Apostles Creed.

    Though the original version is that Christ “descended to Hades“, which is not necessarily the same thing as “Hell”. Rather it is the closest Greek equivalent of the Hebrew “sheol” which essentially means “the grave” or simply “death”. Which is why the English version we use simply says “He descended into death”. That paints a slight different picture I think.

    I should also reiterate that this view that Hell is not a separate “place” but simply heaven as it is experienced by those who turn their back on love is not a new view. Rather it was a view expressed by many of the early church fathers, and is still the official doctrine of the Eastern half of the church, which IMHO can claim the most authentic direct connection with the early church (for goodness sakes, they’ve even been doing exactly the same liturgy every Sunday for the past 1600 years!)

    Even if one does not believe in a literal Hell, I find it impossible to refer to the Bible and not come away with the understanding that Christianity believes in a last judgment, and divine punishment.

    As far as I’m concerned, turning one’s back on love and refusing to live justly is punishment enough on it’s own. We do a good enough job of creating our own Hell, I don’t see why God would need to add any further punishment to it.

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike Clawson

    I personally see these verses as explaining the difference between temporal judgment, i.e. criminal charges for murder or defamation of character, and psychological judgment, if I can use that term.

    It’s commonly held that those who are angry, bitter, envious, or vengeful are unhappy people. If left unabated, these feelings can get of control and consume the one who feels them. Anger is often described as ‘burning anger.’ Or ‘revenge burned in his heart.’ Fire is an apt metaphor for the psychological state of the one who is consumed with anger, and my view is that Jesus wanted to warn people of this fact. I see Jesus as a spiritual leader, not a religious one, who’s overriding objective was to see people love one another, treat each other justly, and not be consumed with material things. I see many of his warnings and recommendations as advice on how to live a more meaningful life with your fellow man, and from his point of view, with God. If you read the Gospels with this in mind, I think many of these hellfire passages and such like will be much clearer and make more sense. Even to those without a belief in God. :-D

    Excellent insights Sudo. I like your explication of that passage. Mind if I quote you? :)

    The way I see it, many of the fundamentalist Christians today are not Christians, but Biblicalists (is that a word?) They put their faith in the Bible, not Jesus Christ. The question a Christian must ask themselves is, do they believe in the Bible because of their faith in Jesus Christ, or do they believe in Jesus Christ because of the Bible?

    I very much agree with this Sudo. It was a reaction against “biblicism” that partially drove me to the emerging church, and it was in asking myself exactly that question about whether the Bible or Jesus was more foundational to my faith that helped me clarify a lot of my own beliefs (and incidentally led to my getting resigned from the conservative Baptist church where I youth pastored). :)

    In my opinion, it should be possible (theoretically speaking) to believe in the overarching story of Jesus Christ without having to nitpick over every line or verse in the Bible…

    Just my opinion, but you don’t have to believe every line or verse of the Bible to be factually accurate to believe that Jesus Christ existed. You don’t have to make every line fit together like some gigantic puzzle. This is Bibliolatry. The idea that every line of every book has to be accurate or the whole thing is false is a fallacy.

    Nor do you have to accept one person’s reading or interpretation of every word. By the time any of us sit down to read the Bible, we come to it with a host of preconceived ideas and notions about what we will find there. We read into the text the meanings and ideology we already have in our minds. I don’t think it’s possible for a person to just ‘read it’ without these biases shaping their perception of what they read.

    I completely agree with you on this as well. Very well said.

    BTW, what’s your story? You sound very much like a postmodern/emerging church person, but you say you’re an atheist. Do you have some prior experience with the emerging church?

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike Clawson

    What the fundamentalists believe is what most Christians have believed for most of the past two thousand years.

    Not really. Fundamentalism is a distortion of historic Christian orthodoxy and orthopraxy IMHO, and is just as much a bastard child of Modernism as is classic liberal theology. Both are based on Western individualism and epistemic foundationalism, and both attempt to make Christianity primarily about ideas or about spiritual experiences, and not primarily a way of life.

  • Sudo

    Mike Clawson asks:

    BTW, what’s your story? You sound very much like a postmodern/emerging church person, but you say you’re an atheist. Do you have some prior experience with the emerging church?

    Mike,
    If it’s okay with you, I will email you from your blog tomorrow. I think this article will fall off the main page here at Friendly Atheist, and I’m not sure how much interest my story will have for the other comment readers here anyway. But I’ll share it with you, if you like.

  • http://ohthethinksyoucanthink.blogspot.com Linda

    Sudo,

    I’m not sure how much interest my story will have for the other comment readers here anyway.

    I am extremely interested. You speak so much truth, yet you also say you are an atheist. It’s quite puzzling to me as well. Is it fair that Mike is the only one who gets to hear your story? :-(

  • cipher

    Fundamentalism is a distortion of historic Christian orthodoxy and orthopraxy IMHO, and is just as much a bastard child of Modernism as is classic liberal theology.

    Mike, I’m sorry, but I don’t agree. Of course, Fundamentalism as a movement is only about a century old. And I’ll grant you that the Catholic Church has an interpretive tradition, but that was, IMO, for purposes of control (and today’s liberals go far beyond what the Church has historically been willing to accommodate). The core beliefs, however – fall from grace, substitutionary atonement, eternal damnation for unbelievers – have always been there (yes, I know about Anselm, but the foundation for substitutionary atonement was already there; he just codified it and placed it within a feudal framework).

  • Spurs Fan

    Mike,
    If it’s okay with you, I will email you from your blog tomorrow. I think this article will fall off the main page here at Friendly Atheist, and I’m not sure how much interest my story will have for the other comment readers here anyway. But I’ll share it with you, if you like.

    This topic interests me very much, Sudo. I’ll keep checking when it falls off of the main page if you want to copy and paste here.

    What have you read of McLaren’s?

    Just “a New Kind of Christian”. I began to read more, but then my atheist self kicked in and I lost interest, for reasons already mentioned above and below.

    It’s just something you have to figure out as you go along, just like everyone else. I recommend doing it together with a community of friends.

    Why would I need a group of friends? So they could tell me where I’m falling out of line? That can be helpful, but why necessary? There are many examples in the Bible of God doing one-on-one. Why couldn’t that happen now?

    I must say that I find myself agreeing with many of Cipher’s above comments (although can’t relate to being a secular jew). If you hold the Bible and Jesus to a higher standard, it still seems like a bunch of cherry-picking all around. Many Christians today are actively seeking God, feel that they are indwelled with the holy spirit, etc. Yet, many of them would disagree with heavily with the emergent church members’ (who also claim holy spirit indwelling) assumptions. Somewhere, the Holy Spirit is not communicating very clearly.

    For the record, I think atheism is not at the opposite end of fundamentalism regarding black and white. It’s the most gray freedom I can imagine.

  • http://ohthethinksyoucanthink.blogspot.com Linda

    Spus Fan,

    Many Christians today are actively seeking God, feel that they are indwelled with the holy spirit, etc. Yet, many of them would disagree with heavily with the emergent church members’ (who also claim holy spirit indwelling) assumptions. Somewhere, the Holy Spirit is not communicating very clearly.

    Who says that every Christian with “indwelling Holy Spirit” has to think alike? If we are spiritually alive in Christ, does that mean that we all have to behave the same way for it to be true?

    We agree that we all are physically alive. Yet each of us are very unique.

    Perhaps our spiritual identities are just as unique as our phsycial ones. I am wondering if the problems in religion are caused by the belief that we all should be the same. As a matter of fact, that belief extends to other issues as well, don’t you think?

    For the record, I think atheism is not at the opposite end of fundamentalism regarding black and white. It’s the most beautiful, gray thing I can imagine.

    Yes, I agree. …and each very different and unique shade of grey. ;-)

  • cipher

    Who says that every Christian with “indwelling Holy Spirit” has to think alike? If we are spiritually alive in Christ, does that mean that we all have to behave the same way for it to be true?

    Linda, I think what Spurs Fan is saying is that each camp has radically different core beliefs. A conservative prays, experiences himself as being in a state of communion with God, and comes away believing that God has told him that all other religions are lies, and that their followers are going to hell. A liberal Christian has the same sort of experience, and comes away believing that all religions are equally valid paths to God. They can’t both be right.

  • http://ohthethinksyoucanthink.blogspot.com Linda

    Cipher,

    They can’t both be right.

    Firstly, I was not challenging Spurs Fan. I was just wondering out loud. Those thoughts were directed more towards myself and the religious people.

    Why does someone always have to be “right?” And since the assumption is that all others must be wrong in order for one to be right, we spend all of our energy and time trying to prove them all wrong.

    I can guess what you will say next. But if you think about it, didn’t all those problems stem from someone somewhere trying to be “right?”

  • cipher

    I didn’t mean to imply that you were challenging Spurs Fan.

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike Clawson

    Mike, I’m sorry, but I don’t agree. Of course, Fundamentalism as a movement is only about a century old. And I’ll grant you that the Catholic Church has an interpretive tradition, but that was, IMO, for purposes of control (and today’s liberals go far beyond what the Church has historically been willing to accommodate). The core beliefs, however – fall from grace, substitutionary atonement, eternal damnation for unbelievers – have always been there (yes, I know about Anselm, but the foundation for substitutionary atonement was already there; he just codified it and placed it within a feudal framework).

    cipher, I could go back and forth with you with examples about how the history of theology (a subject which I’ve studied quite a bit and am actually going back to get a PhD in soon) is quite a bit more complex and diversified than that. However, it’s probably not a conversation worth having since we’d just end up trading examples back and forth with no real conclusion. If I could however, just make one small point, which is that none of the ancient creeds (i.e. Apostles, Nicene, Chalcedonian), which most would consider the “core beliefs” of Christianity, say anything about any of those topics you mentioned.

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike Clawson

    Why would I need a group of friends? So they could tell me where I’m falling out of line? That can be helpful, but why necessary?

    Because I’m discovering that living justly and genuinely loving others is actually really hard, and it’s a lot easier to do it in a community of friends who are trying to figure out how to do it as well.

    For instance, for the past few years my wife and I have been trying to change our consumption habits to be more environmentally friendly, and fairer economically to the people who grow our food, make our clothes, etc. However, there is just so much that needs to be done differently and it’s hard to learn it all and change all of your habits all at once. It becomes a lot easier when there’s a group of us all trying to do the same thing together.

    Besides which, I would think that deeper relationship with others wouldn’t just be a means to an end, but would be part of the end itself. How will we ever develop an ethic of love and justice and compassion and peacemaking if we don’t bother to know each other, if we just stick to our Western “rugged individualism” and “I am an island” philosophies?

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike Clawson

    I must say that I find myself agreeing with many of Cipher’s above comments (although can’t relate to being a secular jew). If you hold the Bible and Jesus to a higher standard, it still seems like a bunch of cherry-picking all around.

    I guess I just have a different view of what the Bible is. I view it less as a puzzle where all the pieces have to fit perfectly, and more as an unfolding and sometimes contradictory narrative of people struggling to make sense of their experiences of God and the world around them. It’s a conversation, not a monologue IMHO. An anthology, not a technical manual.

    For the record, I think atheism is not at the opposite end of fundamentalism regarding black and white. It’s the most gray freedom I can imagine.

    I would think that would be agnosticism, not atheism.

  • Darryl

    I agree with cipher and Adrian. Mike is picking and choosing, and that is his right, but do not represent that as orthodox theology. I have not ax to grind with anyone who wants to fashion their own designer faith, but please do not insult my intelligence by trying to validate those choices with the claim that they are the mainstream historical view–I’m not buying it.

    Mike wants to keep things nice and positive–speak about love rather than punishment. Well, one doesn’t have to be a scholar to peruse the history of Israel and of the church and read the Bible to notice that there is there a clear duality of reward vs. punishment, salvation vs. damnation, God vs. Satan, Heaven vs. Hell. Taking the punch out of the cosmological drama of sin and redemption just makes it a boring story, doesn’t it. If one is not saved from something very awful, then salvation is not very awsome.

  • cipher

    If I could however, just make one small point, which is that none of the ancient creeds (i.e. Apostles, Nicene, Chalcedonian), which most would consider the “core beliefs” of Christianity, say anything about any of those topics you mentioned.

    But they all three mention sin and salvation, in which these ideas are implicit, no?

  • Sudo

    Wow, lots of interesting comments today. Thank you to those of you who are interested in my story. The nutshell version is the typical ‘fall from grace’ of a once-upon-a-time Born Again believer to atheism. Along the way, I studied church history and theology, studying the Bible with fundies and sects like JW’s and Mormons. I read the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita, parts of Buddhist scripture, fluffy Wiccan stuff as well as theosophy and Thelemite books, etc. I left pretty much no stone unturned, or page unturned, as it were. I didn’t just read, I got involved. I went to Muslim prayers, practiced Buddhism, meditated, etc. In the end I felt like they were all just the same – one could be cruel and say completely imaginary and made-up, or be kind and say ‘man’s search for God or meaning outside of his own existence.’ I thought Deism might be the default position for me, but what’s the point in Deism anyway? A God who made everything but isn’t interested or involved is no fun. :D

    On to the comments. I will limit my remarks to Darryl’s most recent post because he seems to summarize the thinking of others here on this thread. It is very easy to read the Bible and come up with different interpretations about Satan v God, Heaven and Hell, reward v punishment, etc. I’ve read the Bible in it’s entirety more than once, and was somewhat of what I call a ‘doctrinal lawyer’ at one time. I knew all the proof texts for various theological positions and would debate you regardless of what your view was. It is easy to stake out a position outside of what you consider ‘mainstream’ Christianity. If this duality is as clear as you say, why is Christianity so divided? Even in it’s infancy, there were schisms brewing between the church in Jerusalem made of primarily Jewish believers, and the Gentile churches that were popping up everywhere else.

    And I think you are making a tragic mistake if you think being ‘saved’ from Hell is the only reason a person might need ‘salvation.’ Tell that to the junkie, the child prostitute, and the alcoholic; the one racked with guilt, self-loathing, and remorse. The idea that you are forgiven, even if it is only in your mind, is powerfully capable of helping people clean up their lives. In fact, the main thrust of the Gospels and the NT isn’t that Jesus came to save people from Hell, it was that he came to save them from their sins.

  • http://ohthethinksyoucanthink.blogspot.com Linda

    Sudo,

    Thank you for your “nutshell” story. :)

    In fact, the main thrust of the Gospels and the NT isn’t that Jesus came to save people from Hell, it was that he came to save them from their sins.

    Consider this definition of the word sin – off the mark or off target.

    I believe what we consider sins are just the results or the natural consequences of being off the mark.

    Also consider the meaning of the words love and hate as aligned or misaligned… connected or separated.

    and… Jesus did not come to make bad people good. He came to make dead people alive (spiritually speaking).

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike Clawson

    But they all three mention sin and salvation, in which these ideas are implicit, no?

    Yeah, so? I mention those things too but that doesn’t necessarily make me a fundamentalist. They don’t exclusively own those words or what they mean.

  • Sudo

    hey Linda,
    I know, a big nutshell, right? Trust me, I left a lot out! lol

    I would ask you though, if sin is ‘off the mark’ or ‘off target,’ what is the mark or target we’re aiming for? Is it the same or different for everyone? Is it something we know innately (conscience?) or something that has to be revealed by God Himself (the Ten Commandments?)

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike Clawson

    I agree with cipher and Adrian. Mike is picking and choosing, and that is his right, but do not represent that as orthodox theology. I have not ax to grind with anyone who wants to fashion their own designer faith, but please do not insult my intelligence by trying to validate those choices with the claim that they are the mainstream historical view–I’m not buying it.

    Mike wants to keep things nice and positive–speak about love rather than punishment. Well, one doesn’t have to be a scholar to peruse the history of Israel and of the church and read the Bible to notice that there is there a clear duality of reward vs. punishment, salvation vs. damnation, God vs. Satan, Heaven vs. Hell. Taking the punch out of the cosmological drama of sin and redemption just makes it a boring story, doesn’t it. If one is not saved from something very awful, then salvation is not very awsome.

    Yes, yes, we’ve been all over this before Darryl. You think the fundies are right in their understanding of scripture, and those of us who actually study history and literature and cultural context are somehow less able to interpret it correctly. That opinion doesn’t make any sense to me, but hey, whatever.

    At any rate, you’re completely misrepresenting my theology if you think I don’t believe in things like sin and even judgment. I just think those things are a lot more immediate and significant than just something that happens after we die. As Sudo said, Jesus didn’t just come to save people from “Hell”, he came to save us from our sins – i.e. our failure to love, our injustices, our violence, our oppressive systems, our self-loathing, etc.

    But I suppose it’s probably my fault that you’ve misunderstood me, since I guess I don’t talk a lot about sin or judgment here. Tell you what, get me going about modern day slavery, or sex trafficking, or American imperialism, or domestic abuse, or prosperity gospel preachers and then you’ll start to see my “hellfire and brimstone” side.

  • sabrina

    Tell you what, get me going about modern day slavery, or sex trafficking, or American imperialism, or domestic abuse, or prosperity gospel preachers and then you’ll start to see my “hellfire and brimstone” side.

    Hmmm, mine too. I guess as much as an atheist has a “hellfire and brimstone” side :)

  • Sudo

    But they all three mention sin and salvation, in which these ideas are implicit, no?

    What do these things mean? And what did they mean to the men who composed the creeds, compared to what they meant to the people who wrote the letters and books of the Bible?

    Is sin a quality that all people have, since birth, a propensity to work evil? (I know, then we must define evil…) Is sin disobeying a commandment that God revealed to you or someone else? Is sin the word used to describe those actions that cause you personal physical or, more likely, spiritual harm?

    For the word salvation to mean anything, we have to know from what it is that we are saved. Is it hell like the fundie Christians and fundie atheists think it is? Is it salvation from pain? Suffering? Death? Spiritual death? Spiritual angst? Guilt? Or even government tyranny? Or even salvation from the Wrath of God Himself? :P

    The original definition of the word Christian was ‘follower (or disciple) of Christ.’ It’s hard to say they believed that people would go to Hell (a place they had never heard of), or that God was a Trinity because that doctrine wasn’t established until about 300 years after the date of the Christ’s purported death on the cross. Some fundamentalist churches today consider the doctrine of the Trinity ‘essential’ to the Christian faith, i.e. you are not a Christian unless you accept this doctrine. Does this mean that all of the people who called themselves Christians who lived between AD 33 and AD 325 are all going to Hell because they never heard of this strange doctrine?

    The same could be said of Biblical inerrancy. The books we have in the Bible weren’t really labeled as canonical til around 200 years after the death of Christ. When Paul said that all Scripture was inspired and profitable for reproof, he couldn’t have meant the NT, because it wasn’t even written yet. So if the belief that the Bible is inerrant is a crucial test of Christian doctrine, what do we say happened to all those who called themselves Christians before the canon was codified so they would know what books they were to believe were inspired?

    Here is another way of looking at this: does the word ‘atheist’ mean a person who does not believe in God, or who does not believe in the supernatural? If I say I am an atheist but believe in ghosts, reincarnation, the Secret, Ascended Masters, or the Force, am I still an atheist? Some atheists would argue that you can’t be a proper ‘atheist’ unless you lack belief in everything supernatural. Others say ‘atheist’ only defines those who have no belief in God(s). It’s interesting to note that atheist used to be an epithet leveled at Christians because they did not worship the state gods of Rome.

    Trying to define an ‘atheist’ is similar in this argument to defining ‘Christian.’ There are people here who would say that a person is not a ‘Christian’ merely because that person does not accept some of the fundamentalist views of Christian theology.

    Here is another example. What is a Jew? A religion, a race, an ethnic group, or a culture? There are some who would argue that you are not Jewish unless you were born of a Jewish mother. There are others who say you are no longer Jewish if you convert to another faith, regardless of ancestry. Are we able to define Jews using the same type of criteria with which you want to define who or who is not a Christian?

    If you have no experience with Christians outside of fundamentalist types, and this is what is shaping your world view of Christianity in general, well.. the world is a big place, and the definition of Christian isn’t defined by Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson.

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike Clawson

    You said much of what I also would have said Sudo, only you said it much better than I could have. Gracias.

  • Sudo

    Mike Clawson said:

    You said much of what I also would have said Sudo, only you said it much better than I could have. Gracias.

    Thanks, Mike. I’ve spent too much time thinking about and discussing these things over the years. Good to see it had some value. Thank you for the compliment, I appreciate it.

  • Spurs Fan

    Because I’m discovering that living justly and genuinely loving others is actually really hard, and it’s a lot easier to do it in a community of friends who are trying to figure out how to do it as well.

    Besides which, I would think that deeper relationship with others wouldn’t just be a means to an end, but would be part of the end itself. How will we ever develop an ethic of love and justice and compassion and peacemaking if we don’t bother to know each other, if we just stick to our Western “rugged individualism” and “I am an island” philosophies?

    Amen to that, Mike. Sorry to misinterpret. I should know that you didn’t mean “accountability groups” or something like that.

    I guess I just have a different view of what the Bible is. I view it less as a puzzle where all the pieces have to fit perfectly, and more as an unfolding and sometimes contradictory narrative of people struggling to make sense of their experiences of God and the world around them. It’s a conversation, not a monologue IMHO. An anthology, not a technical manual.

    Again, I used to subscribe to that philosophy, but now I think, it’s quite the odd conversation — espcially the Numbers/Deuteronomy part. It just makes more sense to me that the authors of the Bible (all 40+?) wrote it to make sense of their world, not what God was actually doing with them (why would God favor one group over another anyway for most of the text anyway?) or their writing was motivated by their attempts to justify their actions. There are some great insights in the Bible, but I would also say that much of it is pointless or abhorent, perhaps like all works of antiquity. So, it comes down to this again — why doesn’t Gandhi get the central focus? I guess it comes down to true faith, that this one guy performed miracles and rose from the dead 2,000 years ago and no one else measures up because of that. That’s an easy sell if you’re going the Fundamentalist route, but a hard sell if you’re going the emergent route. Or so it seems.

    I would think that would be agnosticism, not atheism.

    Many Christians think Atheist means absolutely convinced that there is not god, which it doesn’t (actually some seriously think I worship Satan). Many Christians think Agnostic means “undecided” (and possibly searching!, the Christian might say), which it doesn’t. I choose atheist using the logic of the default position of not believing. I’ve seen no evidence of any divine existence, so until that happens, I’ll default to atheist. If you want to use “agnostic” that’s completely fine with me (How about “emergent skeptic?”).

    Who says that every Christian with “indwelling Holy Spirit” has to think alike? If we are spiritually alive in Christ, does that mean that we all have to behave the same way for it to be true?

    We agree that we all are physically alive. Yet each of us are very unique.

    Perhaps our spiritual identities are just as unique as our phsycial ones. I am wondering if the problems in religion are caused by the belief that we all should be the same. As a matter of fact, that belief extends to other issues as well, don’t you think?

    Linda — Sure we are all unique, but there is a difference between the fact my wife and I (with similar aspirations in life) are unique and different and the fact that Osama Bin Laden (to use a Muslim fundamentalist) and I are different. Osama and I both feel we are striving to make the world a better place according to our beliefs and values, but if we tried to argue that we were guided by the same source, no one would believe us, no matter how liberal their interpretation. So, to say that Mike Clawson and Ray Comfort (to use an extreme example) are just unique even they are both endowed with the same Holy Spirit just doesn’t cut it for me. Similar to the Osama example, if they’re appealing to the same source, one of them is either dead wrong or the source is confusing. Or, more likely, the source doesn’t exist.

    Thanks for the background Sudo. And thanks to all (Mike, Linda, Cipher) for the conversation. I’ll be out of town for a few days and will not be able to continue, but I’ll try to keep reading!

  • MTran

    Sudo mentioned that many of the Fundy types seemed to be more “Biblicists” than Jesus followers. That seems a pretty accurate description to me. The word for that approach to Christianity is faith sola scriptura. The Roman Catholic church considers it to be a mistaken doctrine called Bibliolatry. The Fundy interpretations of scripture are also rather idiosyncratic and hardly the “literal” and clear interpretations they make them out to be.

    Being raised in a mainstream Protestant culture, for a long time I couldn’t imagine why anyone would criticize using the Bible as the sole source of information about Jesus and the Christian religion. But the Bible is not a collection of works in a vacuum. There are non-biblical historical records and writings, tales and fables, dramatic works, songs, poetry, artwork, architecture, linguistics, loads of stuff that can be used to better understand the context of the people and the times covered by the Bible. There is also custom/tradition and ritual, which may be a more fluid source, but useful nonetheless.

    Plenty of believers claim that they look to these other sources for explanations, but most of those who say that simply point to data and interpretations with a confirmation bias, not information that could undermine their “faith” in any real way. At least, that’s what I’ve seen.

  • Darryl

    Yes, Mike, we’ve had this conversation before. I don’t mean to upset you, but you have not convinced me. The fundies aren’t correct in their interpretations, and when it comes to certain doctrines, neither are you. You do what they do–pick and choose to fit your preferences. That’s fine; you have better preferences, I think we can agree on that. But, come one, compare the picture presented of believers in the Bible and history with yourself. They were not like you and you are not like them, not just in behavior, but in mindset and beliefs. Religion is always defined and delimited by culture. There’s been a lot of changes from then till now, and your church wouldn’t be what it is except for those. How then can the Bible or history describe your faith? You can be as liberal and moderate as you like, the more the better for me, but just don’t seek Biblical or historical authority for it.

  • http://ohthethinksyoucanthink.blogspot.com Linda

    Sudo,

    I would ask you though, if sin is ‘off the mark’ or ‘off target,’ what is the mark or target we’re aiming for? Is it the same or different for everyone? Is it something we know innately (conscience?) or something that has to be revealed by God Himself (the Ten Commandments?)

    You’re still looking at it from “works” point of view. This is how I see it:

    The target we’re aiming for is God himself. It has nothing to do with good or bad, right or wrong, or any effort on our part. We’re not setting a goal for ourselves and working toward it. Not at all. Just as a flower turns toward the sun, we turn toward God to receive his light. But is it the sun that turns the flower or does the flower turn itself? I really don’t know. Maybe it’s both.

    You ask is it same for everyone? The fact that we’re struggling for freedom is same. Also the grace and love we receive… It is my belief that you have to know Christ in order to fully understand grace, love, and freedom. …freedom beyond the boundaries of the various boxes that we trap ourselves (and others) in. To me, salvation means being saved from the limitations of my self.

  • http://ohthethinksyoucanthink.blogspot.com Linda

    Spurs Fan,

    Sure we are all unique, but there is a difference between the fact my wife and I (with similar aspirations in life) are unique and different and the fact that Osama Bin Laden (to use a Muslim fundamentalist) and I are different…

    …to say that Mike Clawson and Ray Comfort (to use an extreme example) are just unique even they are both endowed with the same Holy Spirit just doesn’t cut it for me.

    The heart eventually tells on itself. When you see the fruits of a tree, you know what kind of a tree it is. So obviously, Osama Bin Laden’s heart does not come from the same source as yours.

    Mike Clawson and Ray Comfort endowed by the same Holy Spirit? I don’t remember Mike Clawson ever mentioning his experience with the Holy Spirit (maybe it was before I started visiting this site). And I don’t know enough about Ray Comfort to make any assumptions regarding his spirituality. I just know you guys don’t care for him, and I trust your taste on that. ;) Looking at it from a humanitarian perspective, of course you cannot compare him to Mike C.

  • Polly

    @Spurs Fan

    Why might people guided by the same “source” think and behave so differently?

    That reminds me of the matrix. The oracle lied to Neo because that’s what he needed to hear to do what she needed him to do.

    Maybe if there is a god (and I’m convinced there isn’t), He/She/It doesn’t think that there’s just one single way that all humans ought to be.

    Feel free to stop reading. I’m going off on a tangent here:

    Humans are too simplistic. We’re always trying to impose our own ideas on everybody else as if our way is the only way simply because it worked for us for a while.
    Just as a world of clones would be vulnerable to annhilation by a single bug, so, too, I think a single, globally shared and venerated meme (e.g. nations are a good) without competition would make us all myopic, weak and stagnant.
    That’s not to say there aren’t some truly nasty ideologies out there that we’d all be better off without. But, if the conditions necessary to eliminate “bad” thoughts entail brainwashing the world into one monolithic culture, politic, and thought pattern, I’m not 100% sure that’d be preferrable.

  • Sudo

    The fundies aren’t correct in their interpretations, and when it comes to certain doctrines, neither are you. You do what they do–pick and choose to fit your preferences.

    This actually made me laugh out loud.

    There is some irony in an atheist telling a Christian that his doctrine is all wrong. :D

  • http://ohthethinksyoucanthink.blogspot.com Linda

    Polly,

    Good thoughts. I tend to agree with you (mostly) and especially

    if the conditions necessary to eliminate “bad” thoughts entail brainwashing the world into one monolithic culture, politic, and thought pattern, I’m not 100% sure that’d be preferrable.

  • Darryl

    Sudo, you’re right, it is kinda funny. I guess I’m strange like that. I hope Mike knows that it doesn’t change my regard for him. I haven’t met him, but from what I can tell he’s one of the good guys, like most people who blog here.

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike Clawson

    You do what they do–pick and choose to fit your preferences.

    Yes, of course I do. That’s my whole point, that the Bible is a conversation with multiple sides to it, not a monolithic, unified discourse. So of course I have to “pick and choose” which sides of the conversation seem to fit the overall trajectory of the story. The difference is that I recognize that it’s not all of one piece, while the fundies do not recognize this, and apparently neither do the atheists here who accuse me of not dealing with it all as one piece either.

    But, come one, compare the picture presented of believers in the Bible and history with yourself. They were not like you and you are not like them, not just in behavior, but in mindset and beliefs. Religion is always defined and delimited by culture. There’s been a lot of changes from then till now, and your church wouldn’t be what it is except for those.

    Yes of course. But again, my view of the Bible has room for Christianity to always be unfolding and changing and evolving. I see it as the beginning acts of an ongoing drama that I am still contributing to. The difference between me and the fundies is that while this is equally true of their religion, their theology doesn’t have any room to acknowledge that fact.

  • Darryl

    Mike, that’s what I like about you, you’re honest.

    Peace, bro,

    D.

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike Clawson

    BTW, I just posted a quote on my blog from a book I’m reading currently on “biblidolatry” that relates directly to our conversation here about “picking and choosing” from the Bible.

  • Kevin

    Nice interview!