A Christian Pastor Responds (Part 6)

Pastor Mike Clawson responds to your questions. This is the last of the series, so thanks to Pastor Mike for offering to answer so many of the questions (and thank you for asking them)! I wonder what else we can do like this…

You can also read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5.

Okay, this is my last post. These have turned out to be a lot tiring and time consuming than I expected, but I appreciate all of you who have contributed to the conversation.

Pedro said:

You don’t demonize atheists. You don’t believe in biblical inerrancy, nor in passing laws just because “the Bible says so.” You really seem to want to make the world a better place, instead of, as many Christians do, simply “save as many souls as possible”, because the world is the devil’s, it doesn’t matter, and Jesus is coming to end this “experiment” in a decade or so anyway.

My question, then — and please treat it not as criticism of any kind, but simply as honest curiosity –, is this: why still believe? What reasons do you have to believe, when neither most Christians nor the Bible itself seem to agree with you, and you end up having to reject a lot from both? And have you never wondered if, somehow, the world doesn’t make more sense from a naturalistic point of view?

Excellent question! I wonder myself sometime. 😉 But when it comes right down to it there is still something about God that I can’t let go of (or maybe it’s that he won’t let go of me :) ). There are so many reasons – both philosophical and experiential – for why I still believe and I really can’t go into all of them in detail here (Hemant asked me to keep these replies to just a few paragraphs!) Let me see if instead I can just paint with a broad brush some of the big reasons that keep me coming back to God.

On a philosophical level when I look at the world around me, with it’s beauty and complexity and appearance of having been designed, it still just makes sense to me to think that it was in fact designed by someone. Naturalism (i.e. the belief that there was no designer, no creative force behind existence) is indeed a possibility, but it seems less likely to me than belief in a Creator. On another level I look at life and human history and it seems as if things do work together for some kind of larger purpose – that there is some bigger story at work, a story about love and justice and ultimate joy. Again, this could all be illusion or wishful thinking, but it seems to me that another possible explanation is that there really is a larger purpose to existence.

On a more personal level, there are just too many “spiritual” experiences that I’ve had throughout my entire life to just suddenly explain them away by some other means – whether answers to prayer, experiences of transcendence in response to nature or relationships or times of worship, or just those times when I’ve sensed the immediate presence of God and been overwhelmed by his reality. As I said in a comment on another of my replies – theism provides me a bigger tent that allows me to affirm the authenticity of spiritual experiences like these while also appreciating things like science as well. In atheism by contrast I’m forced to reject the one in order to embrace the other. Just speaking personally, I prefer a philosophy that allows me to keep my options open and doesn’t require me to reinterpret all my former experiences to mean something other than what they appeared to mean at the time.

Ultimately I’d echo the words of C.S. Lewis, “I believe in Christianity as I believe the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” Christianity is the lens through which I make sense of the world – and it does make sense to me. Things about life, my daily experienes and big events, as well as the experiences of people around me start to make sense in a new way when viewed through this lens. I’m not saying that I couldn’t trade in this set of lenses for a different one, but so far I haven’t found another set that works as well for me.

As for why Christianity specifically – there is just something about the person of Jesus Christ and his way of justice, mercy and self-sacrificial love that appeals to me. The more I study his message and way of life, the more I’m challenged by it, and the more I become convinced that it is not only the best possible way to live personally but is also ultimately the only hope for our self-destructive race.

BTW, I know all this is very vague. Again, these aren’t intended as throroughgoing arguments for why any of you should believe in God. I’m mainly just explaining my personal, “existential” reasons for continuing in my beliefs.

I do want to explain however that I don’t feel as if I have to “reject” a lot from the Bible or Christianity to maintain my faith. My journey has not really been about throwing out the parts of either that I don’t like. Rather, it has been a re-discovery of what I think was there all along and just got buried by our theological systems. For instance, I resist the suggestion that fundamentalists are the ones who really get the Bible right and the rest of us have to reinterpret everything to make it fit our own preferences. What if this other approach has been the right one all along and it is the fundamentalists who have been misunderstanding and re-interpreting what the Bible is really about? The truth is that the more I study historic Christian theology, the more I find that my views are really not that uncommon among Christians throughout the centuries (only somewhat uncommon among one particular conservative wing of the church in the past century or two). My experience has been similar to that of G.K. Chesterton, who said:

“I did try to found a heresy of my own, and when I had put the last touches to it, I discovered it was orthodoxy…”

Anyhow, thanks again for the great questions!

[tags]atheist, atheism, Pastor, Mike Clawson, Christian, God, Naturalism, C.S. Lewis, Bible, G.K. Chesterton[/tags]

A Christian Pastor Responds (Part 5)

Pastor Mike Clawson responds to your questions.

You can also read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.

The final part will come tomorrow!

miller asked me to comment on “What I think the atheist movement gets wrong?”

My first response was to say “Yikes! This looks like a potential landmine if I ever saw one.” I don’t think I want to get into criticizing you guys or telling you everything that I disagree with. So instead I’ll just offer some advice that I think applies not just to atheists, but to Christians as well, and to anyone who desires genuine and constructive dialogue with others while still holding true to their own views.

Basically there are two ways to hold to one’s beliefs (again whether atheist or Christian or something else):

1) You can say “This is what I believe and it is the only valid/rational/intelligent/moral belief that a person could hold.”


2) You could say: “This is what I believe, but I can see that there are other possible valid/rational/intelligent/moral options out there. This just happens to be the option that makes the most sense to me right now.”

I hope you all have noticed that I obviously try to take the latter approach. I have my own beliefs – what makes the most sense to me – but I want to remain open to the possibility that I could be wrong so that I can continue to dialogue and learn from others who think differently from me.

This approach also has the added benefit of improving the public perception of one’s views. If some of you really are concerned about changing the public perception that atheists are arrogant or rude then it might really help to start learning how to frame your beliefs in terms of the second approach. I can guarantee that more people will be inclined to seriously consider your views if you give them the space to not have to automatically agree with you to avoid being called irrational, stupid or whatever. (BTW, I’d most certainly give this advice to Christians as well. We obviously don’t usually do a very good job of following the second approach either.)

Of course, to take the second approach with any degree of authenticity one would actually have to agree that your own views are not the only valid option. It won’t do any good to only pretend to respect other views. To do this requires a certain degree of what I call epistemic humility. We have to come to the realization that despite all of our intelligence, when it comes right down to it, we human beings don’t really know that much. We have to come back to what Socrates told us so many millenia ago: “He is wise who knows that he is not wise.” In other words, we need to recognize the limits of our own reason and admit that while we have many possibilities with varying degrees of probability, very often we are faced with two or more possibilities which we have no conclusive way to decide between.

In my opinion theism and atheism are two such possibilities since ultimately we are talking about the existence or non-existence of entities beyond the bounds of the observable universe. There is no final proof one way or the other, and most of the arguments basically come down to how one interprets the facts at hand. In other words, we just don’t know for sure one way or the other and each of us simply chooses the way that seems best to us, so in my opinion a little more humility on both sides is in order.

And ultimately I think we’ll all be better off if we realize that agreement on ethical issues (e.g. justice, peace, diversity, compassion, etc.) are far more important than agreement on metaphysical issues. There is far too much suffering and injustice in the world for those of us who are concerned about such things to go on demonizing each other based on whether or not we happen to believe in God. It’s time for us to start working together on those things we share in common.

[tags]atheist, atheism, Pastor, Mike Clawson, Christian, Socrates, God[/tags]

A Christian Pastor Responds (Part 4)

Pastor Mike Clawson responds to your questions.

You can also read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

writerdd asks:

Do you believe that we atheists are going to burn in hell forever? Or, as Hemant asks in his book, do you believe that we are “lost” souls that need to be “saved”?

I guess I should start by explaining that I don’t believe in the “traditional” (i.e. fundamentalist) conceptions of Hell in the first place, nor do I believe in their particular brand of theology that makes “salvation” all about getting into Heaven and avoiding Hell after we die. That’s just not what I think Jesus’s message was all about. Honestly, the Bible doesn’t really even tell us that much about Hell. The word is only used 14 times, and that’s in our English translations. In the original lanaugages there are actually three different words (Gehenna, Hades and Tartarus) that are translated “Hell” and it’s not clear to me that these three words are referring to the same thing, or that all three of them are referring to a literal place in the afterlife. The first seems to be a metaphor for divine judgment (though not necessarily after death), the second seems to just be a generic word for “death” or “the grave” (like the Hebrew word “sheol”), and the third is a weird borrowing of Greek mythology and conflating it with something about fallen angels. So yeah, I think the traditional doctrines of Hell are not particularly well founded when it comes to what the Bible actually tells us about it.

What we are told is that God has called all people to follow Christ’s radical way of love (for God and especially for others), and that failure to do so has grave consequences. However, I most emphatically do not think this means that God is threatening to punish us for our disobedience (or disbelief). Rather, Jesus simply warns us that the natural result of a life lived apart from love is “hellish”. “Hell”, in one sense, is a symbolic description of what it is like to live a life filled with bitterness instead of forgiveness, with bigotry instead of acceptance, with the pursuit of power and wealth rather than generosity and self-sacrifice, and with hatred (or mere self-centered apathy) instead of love.

And because I do believe that death is not the end, I think it is possible that how we choose to live in this life can have ramifications for what our existence will be like in the next life. However, I don’t think that even then God will exclude anyone from his love. He still invites everyone to the celebration feast of heaven. But consider this: if you lived your whole life as a hate-filled bigot and then you are asked to sit down at the feast table in heaven next to someone you spent your life excluding and despising, will it feel like heaven to you, or would it be more like hell? And supposing you are unwilling to let go of these attitudes and unwilling to accept God’s unconditional love for you if it means you would have to learn how to likewise love others unconditionally, then would God’s love feel like heaven to you, or might not his love actually feel like the “burning coals” St. Paul said your enemies would feel when you respond to their hatred with love? (cf. Romans 12:17-21) Again, all of this is speculation, since as I said, the Bible doesn’t actually tell us a lot about the afterlife – but it’s bascially what I think it was what Jesus was getting at when he warned us about being “judged” by the way that we lived (cf. Matthew 25:31-46).

So, looking at heaven and hell this way, it’s not really my place to say whether anyone, atheist or Christian or whatever else, is going to heaven or hell. I don’t know if, in your life, you are pursuing a way of love and reconciliation or not. I do think that all people ought to be called and encouraged to follow this way of Jesus – even if they don’t choose to believe in Jesus in a religious sense – not necessarily so that they can avoid “Hell” when they die, but simply because Christ’s way of love is the best possible way to live. And to be honest, as I told Hemant once when he visited our church, there are some atheists I think who do a better job of following the way of Christ than a lot of Christians I know.

(BTW, I hope this mostly answers Bjorn’s question too.)

[tags]atheist, atheism, Pastor, Mike Clawson, writerdd, Hell, Heaven, Gehenna, Hades, Tartarus, Bible, God, Christian[/tags]

A Christian Pastor Responds (Part 3)

Pastor Mike Clawson responds to your questions.

You can also read Part 1 and Part 2.

Several of you wanted to know about how I interpret the Bible if not “literally”.

Miko asked:

If the Bible shouldn’t be read literally, then how should it be read? If the literal Bible isn’t the underpinning of the Christian faith, then what is?

And yinyang wanted to know:

If the Bible isn’t the literal word of God, do you believe it was inspired by God? If so, are there any parts you believe weren’t? Which ones, and how can you tell?

And EnoNomi had an even more radical suggestion:

Do you think the Bible could stand to be re-edited to reflect the more humanist and modern beliefs held by many Christians (such as yourself?)

Now, I’ve actually already addressed these questions in some detail in this post on my blog, but I’ll do my best to provide a more concise answer here. The short answer is that I read the Bible narratively and contextually. In other words, I view the Bible not as a static document of timeless truths and absolute, unchanging commands, but as a (yes) divinely inspired (not dictated) yet complex compilation of diverse genres (e.g. history, poetry, mythic narratives, prophecy, etc.) that tell a dynamic, unfolding story of God’s interactions with humanity. Thus to actually read the Bible as the kind of book it was always intended to be, we have to read it with an eye to the symbolisms, the metaphors, the literary genre, the historical/cultural context, and the ways God accommodated his revelation to the limited understandings or peculiar worldview of his original audience – realizing that what God revealed to “them, then” is not necessarily what he would reveal to “us, now”.

So, for example, when I read the creation accounts in Genesis 1 & 2, I don’t need to read it as if it was ever intended to be literal scientific account. The poetic structure, the genre similarities with other ancient near eastern creation myths, the symbolic langauge, etc. instead tell me that it is meant to be read as mythic narrative that conveys deeper theological truths.

But don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t mean that I want to read every part of the bible “symbolically” or “metaphorically”. There are other parts (the OT histories or the synoptic gospels for example) that perhaps are meant to be read as “literal” history. Though even here we need to be careful, because “history” as it was written in the ancient world is not the same as what we think of as history in our Modern sense. Even in these histories we need to keep an eye out for symbolisms and narrative editing intended to convey a theological point (for example, the way several gospel accounts are deliberately arranged and edited to parallel Old Testament narratives, so as to convey the theological message that Jesus is a new Moses leading his people out of slavery). However, to identify this kind of editing is not to say that I think the gospels are complete fabrications or myths that grew up around some charismatic Jewish preacher. One of the things that distinguishes me from Modern liberal Christianity is my skepticism of their attempts to extract a pared down “historical Jesus” from the gospel texts. Not that I think historical study of Jesus and his context is a bad thing at all, but I do think some of their redactive methodology and a priori philosophical assumptions are suspect. My own study of the historical context of Jesus is more in line with scholars like NT Wright who, like myself, tends to step on the toes of both liberals and evangelicals.

Now, regarding the moral commands in the Bible, the Levitical Laws for instance, I don’t have to assume that these are God’s unchanging commands for all time. Instead, if the Bible is a dynamically unfolding story of God interacting with humanity at various points in our historical development, then it seems to me that God therefore has to deal with us differently depending on the culture and circumstances we faced at the time in order to move us along to the next step of our moral development. A lot of what he told the Israelites 3500 years ago doesn’t necessarily apply to us today, because frankly, we’re not nomadic pastoralists trying to find land to settle in anymore (at least, most of us aren’t). And we, being much further along (in some ways) in our moral development as a species, shouldn’t be so quick to judge the morality of another era. Parts of it seem barbaric to us, but was actually amazingly progressive for that time period. And perhaps God knew that it was all that they could handle at that point in history. Perhaps we should look not so much for absolute commands, but to the direction of the moral trajectory they are pointing towards (which I believe is towards increasing love and justice in the world).

Anyhow, I hope you can see why, if we read the Bible this way – as an ongoing narrative – it would be misguided to try and rewrite the Bible to fit our Modern sensibilities or to just edit out the parts we don’t like. If the Bible is a story, then to throw out those parts would be like throwing out the first few acts of Hamlet because they’re not as current as the last act! There’s value in the story – in knowing where we’ve been and where the story is headed. Thus my job, as someone who is trying to live my life within this grand drama that God is directing, is to continue the drama as best I can from this point forward, in resonance with what has gone before, but not just slavishly repeating the lines from the first act again either. Rather I have to move the story forward, keep it heading in the direction scripture points us to. If I were to just throw out the first part of the story simply because those people weren’t as far along as we are now, I might lose the sense of moral trajectory and have a harder time figuring out where the story as a whole is headed.

[tags]atheist, atheism, Pastor, Mike Clawson, Bible, Christian, God, Genesis[/tags]

A Christian Pastor Responds (Part 2)

Pastor Mike Clawson responds to your questions.

Part 1 is also available here.

The Unbrainwashed asked me a rather blunt question that I rather liked:

Do you actually believe that a dead Jew came back to life 2000 years ago to save us?

Yes. Next question. :)

Actually, let me be more specific. I don’t just believe a Jew named Jesus came back to life. I believe that God himself became one of us – wrote himself into the story as it were – so that he could show all of us what it means to be truly and wonderfully human. And he came as an impoverished member of a despised and oppressed people to show us how to pursue a way of love and justice in a world of violence and oppression. He died as a demonstration that non-retaliation and self-sacrifical love is the only way that hatred and injustice will ever ultimately be overcome. And he was raised to life as a vindication of this message – to prove that he was not just a naive idealist who got himself killed, but that the God of the universe is actually Lord and victor over the forces oppression and violence, and over death itself (the ultimate tool of the oppressor). The dead Jew, Yeshua Mashiach (Jesus the King), came back to life to show that that power can only be overcome through weakness, violence through peace, and oppression through a willingness to suffer for the sake of others, even for your oppressor.

But there was another similar question by S.G.E.W. that was more to the point that I think Unbrainwashed was really getting at:

Do you believe in the literal, physiological ressurection of Yeshua ben Joseph? Specifically, did he lose all bodily functions (no heartbeat, no neurological activity, etc.) for several days and then regain full functionality?
If so: how can this be rationally explained in any way?
If not: what’s the effective difference between you and an agnostic?

Yes, I do believe in the literal, bodily resurrection of Jesus. How can this be rationally explained? Well, let’s suppose you believe in the existence of an all-powerful God who created this universe and all the natural laws by which it operates. If that is the case, then what is so irrational about believing that this God has the power to sometimes change the normal way that these laws function? Do I know exactly how he did this? No. I suppose if there had been a 21st century scientist with the proper equipment present in the tomb, she might be able to tell us what exactly happened from a physiological standpoint at the moment of resurrection – that is to say, I don’t think it was a completely un-natural event. It could have been observed and studied if we had had the capability back then. But it is a super-natural event in that it is an example of how God is at work to restore and renew his creation. Jesus’s resurrection is simply the first example of what will one day be true for all of us. In that sense you could say that this is a neo-natural event, in that it is the beginning of God creating a new nature out of the old.

At any rate, I see nothing contradictory or irrational about believing that an all-powerful God could do such a thing. Just because something almost never happens doesn’t mean it could never happen. And, just speaking personally, I don’t feel the need to know exactly, scientifically, how it happened in order to believe that it did.

[tags]atheist, atheism, Pastor, Mike Clawson, The Unbrainwashed, Jew, Jesus, God, agnostic[/tags]