Finding Faith/Losing Faith 3

Finding Faith/Losing Faith 3 August 14, 2007

A letter from a former Christian who now is atheistic or agnostic, used with permission and now also leading to some observations about our study on the “anatomy of apostasy.”
Hi Scot,
….
I was really surprised that I could deconstruct my own faith away. I sort of fell into it, like you pull the thread that you know has to be dealt with – and next thing you know, half the garment is unraveled already.
Anyway, if I may ask – how do you think about people like Templeton (or whoever you’ve read about who you’re convinced had true faith at some point)? Is he in heaven, embarrassed but glad he made it? Is he in hell? Is there another option? Do you choose not to take a position on this (just like I choose not to take a position on God’s existence)?

I’m not sure how much commentary you’re putting in your book – maybe it’s mostly stories without interpretation (like the Old Testament). But I’m very curious about your personal take on these stories. (Even though I suppose I might not like it.)
I’ve noticed that a lot of Christians find deconversion very unnerving – it personally threatens them: what if it could happen to them? My sense is that you’re not that way – otherwise I wouldn’t be asking about your reaction. I’d know and I’d not want to read your book because I’d know that you’d have to reassure yourself by forcing some sort of framing on deconversion which ‘explains’ it as something that couldn’t happen to you. At the expense of accuracy.
Maybe you don’t have time to answer these questions…but if you do, I’m interested.
[Name]

Dear [name],
At the heart of your letter, so it seems to me, is a question that nags the emerging movement and it nags at the heart of lots of Christians who are afraid to let the question come to the surface for fear of what they might come to think and believe. And this question, so it seems to me, is one of the most pressing questions that needs to be asked and I wish more would ask it and answer it. It’s a question dying at the hands of a thousand qualifications. It’s a question that a pluralistic world feasts on and drives deep into the heart of the convinced believer.
Here it is:
Does faith in — or discipleship to — Jesus Christ really matter in the end? Not only does it matter now — that’s a pragmatic question. But does it matter eternally?
And how do we answer such a profound question? I could give you my opinion — which I’ll admit is that I hope Templeton and others like him had a change of mind. Or I could be political and ride the fence — and say that it is not up for me to decide or that God is the judge and I’ll let him judge.
The first shouldn’t matter to you; it shouldn’t matter to anyone. My opinion doesn’t count when we raise the issue of eternity. The second way of answering this question is nice and it can sound very theological actually — we’ll let God decide. But I find a cop out on this one to be irresponsible. Why? Because those of us who say we follow Jesus means we follow what he said. Which leads me to my third way of answering.
We can only answer this question as responsible Christians by asking (1) if Jesus thought there was an afterlife and (2) if he thought believing in him or following him mattered for that afterlife. And then we have to ask if we have the pluck to own up to what he said.
On #1: Yes, Jesus believed in the afterlife, a very typical belief at the time of Jesus.
Mark 12:24-27 Jesus said to them, “Is not this why you are wrong, that you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God? For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. And as for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the passage about the bush, how God said to him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living; you are quite wrong.”
On #2: Yes, Jesus believed confessing him in public, which means owning up to an attachment to him as well as following him in public, determined whether or not someone would be welcomed by God.
Mat 10:32-33 So every one who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven; but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.
We might call this the Synoptic Gospel version of John 14:6 — “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through me.”
Now, there are lots of issues involved in your question — questions about those who have never heard (and this has all kinds of nuances) and questions about the nature of eternity and separation from God and annihiliationism etc and I don’t want to pretend that these two points addresses those questions.
But, I do believe this is what Jesus taught and I do my best to follow him and teach what he says. The issue for me is this: Do you agree with Jesus? Forget what you think of me or anyone else. The question is this: Are these teachings of Jesus worthy of belief or not? I’d be interested in what you think of Jesus on this one.
On the stories of leaving the faith … no, I won’t be evaluating the stories. I admit that some of them are hard for me to read. But I’m committed to describing what goes on … the apologetics comes in a different setting.
Blessings,
Scot

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  • In attempting to respond to the writer’s questions, I think I would start with the “I” in the first paragraph and challenge it’s authority and reliability. Then move on to the world in which we live as it pertains to this “I” and then on to the Creator and then on to Jesus and the issue of destiny, which Scot’s response and counter questions deal with admirably.

  • Good answers, Scot. In a time when we hear and are influenced in directions that really don’t follow Jesus. Thanks.

  • I would like to add that in my case I see it only as grace that keeps me in Jesus and in the Christian faith. It is something beyond me, yet something I participate in.
    We don’t know what really happens inside those who leave the faith, but can only go on what Scripture tells us in warnings, etc. But I have to go back to grace, and along with the disciples who often didn’t understand, the question of, “To whom shall we go. For you have the words (we believe) of eternal life.”

  • Greg, have you found atheists/agnostics respond well when you challenge the authority and reliability of their “I”?
    Do you realize that to them, nothing you say has any more authority than their “I”? I expect you believe your words carry weight because you believe God said them. But to an atheist/agnostic they are simply your words and your own “I” with the word “God” tagged on.
    In my opinion, anyone who quickly caves when a Christian says “That’s just your opinion. God says…” isn’t a true atheist/agnostic.

  • joe

    Scot,
    I appreciate the fact that you are dealing with the question. It is the question we fear dealing with. I guess it is a matter of what God’s grace looks like. There are strong warnings in scripture.
    Yet, does God’s grace have the power to let us go as we choose or does His grace drag us in even kicking and screaming.
    Is it grace if it can be taken away?

  • joe,
    I do think God in his grace has granted humans freedom of choice. And, yes, Israel’s history and the book of Hebrews reveal that grace, if spurned, can be forfeited.

  • Joe wrote: Yet, does God’s grace have the power to let us go as we choose or does His grace drag us in even kicking and screaming.
    I’ve never heard anyone seriously suggest the second alternative (although I have heard Christians mischaracterize the beliefs of other Christians that way)
    Rightly understood, it is that God’s grace enables people to freely choose him.
    The question that raises is: if God does that for some, why not all? And I have never been able to come up with a satisfactory answer to that.

  • Scot,
    I really appreciate your treatment of this question. Two comments, for what they are worth. First, I am one of those on the fringe of emerging that takes some and leaves some. I think one of the best aspects of emerging is the relentless nagging of your question, “Do we have the pluck to own up to what [Jesus] said?”
    Second, there is an element of truth to what the author said; many Christians are afraid of deconversion stories. Something that rattles me a little bit is how often I hear people say something like, “When I let go of belief x and grabbed onto belief y, it was so freeing – I felt liberated.” I grew up a Truman Christian and heard that verbiage all the time. The problem is, people say it just as easily when moving away from atheism to Christianity or the other way around, or away from liberalism to conservative Calvinism, or away from patriarchalism to egalitarianism, or… Many people use this “freeing” experience as evidence that they have found the real deal. Yet, I think that experience alone is either partially or completely suspect, at least in terms of evidence of truth. But here is what scares me: how many people use that experience, whether they admit it or not, as a significant portion of their assurance of salvation or right doctrine?

  • Matthew,
    As you may know, this post interests me in part because I’m doing a study of “apostasy as a form of conversion” right now. Of the six dimensions of conversion I trace in Turning to Jesus, one of those has to do with the “consequences” in one’s life of a conversion. If apostasy is a form of conversion (I don’t like the term “deconversion”), then one would expect typical elements of the consequence — and one of those is “affective.” In other words, many feel a sense of relief when they convert. It witnesses to a resolution in the heart and soul of a person; it never proves the truth of what one is converting to.

  • Scot, I would agree that coming to a resolution brings a sense of relief; however, I would say it is only freeing when a person also perceives himself/herself to be set free from something.
    For example, a person who becomes a Christian considers himself/herself set free from the consequences and power of sin. A person who converts out of Christianity considers himself/herself set free from such things as the burden of discerning the will of God for his/her life and the obligation to evangelize.
    And I would like to think neither is ever free from the responsibility of being human and what that entails.

  • Scott,
    I love the way that you as a christian are willing to … embrace and talk about the totally outrageous things that Jesus said, and yet still be willing and able to engage with those of us “on the outside” who find those same things untenable. You rock!
    couldn’t the whole “acknowledge/deny before men” thing have more to do with the *commands* of Jesus, and how we relate to those, than some kind of “conversion experience” or verbal acquiesence? I mean didn’t Jesus himself say things along these lines?

  • Diane

    “just like I choose not to take a position on God’s existence:” I am interested in this formulation, as I’ve been hearing it more and more in the past year or so. It’s a shift from “I don’t believe in God.” It’s the nontheist position. I’ve also heard it as “I don’t believe in the concept of God I’ve been taught” or “I can’t know what God is.” It appears to come from a Buddhist formulation: “Buddha had no concept of God. That doesn’t mean God doesn’t exist. Buddha just didn’t have the concept.” A Buddhist told me that this rhetoric comes from Buddhist fears of Christian persecution if Buddhists say flatly that Buddha didn’t believe in God. I’ve followed (lurked) on a couple of nontheist blog threads to try to get a handle on nontheism because I am always curious when a new word comes up. My tentative conclusion, based on what the bloggers say, is that they are in fact atheists, usually. What they don’t say but what I think drives them: They don’t want to say they don’t believe in God because they don’t want to be clobbered with Christian arguments or get into a contrived debate on turf set up by Christians. In other words, they don’t want to be maneuvered, manipulated or coerced by series of questions that will back them squirming into a corner. I can understand this. We all want space to deal with these issues. It sounds as if this person wants that space, and I can respect that.
    I read the letter over three times to really understand the question and the question is, I believe, “do earnest, good people go to heaven if they are not professing Christians?” Scot, you reformulated it very gracefully. The reformulation was crucial because the question, as it stood, could fall into the category of a “bash back question.” “How can you believe in a faith that says that good people go to hell because they didn’t follow Jesus” is a classic “entrapment” question forcing an either/or choice in which either answer is unsatisfactory. This questioner offered a third option, indicating that he/she understood how the question could be perceived. The third option could also could be seen as a way to demonstrate to Scot how someone could end up in the non-theist position: if you, Scot, can’t know if someone’s going to heaven, it’s OK if I can’t know if there’s a God. And I think it’s valid and worthy in a culture obsessed with documentary/dissection “knowing” to have that space where we say we don’t know things that way. We don’t know God that way and we don’t know heaven that way. I believe in an afterlife not because someone has brought back a videotape but because I trust Jesus and I trust Jesus because everytime I’ve tried it his way, it’s been the right way. He saw things we don’t see and didn’t lie about them. However, I’m sharing my thoughts, and so I’ll ask the writer what I kept pondering as I read and reread the letter: why the question about the afterlife? Is that the question that got you started on deconstructing (I’d be curious to know what you mean by deconstructing) your faith? Was Scot’s answer helpful? I agree that this is a difficult issue and one to be approached with great humility.

  • Scott M

    Helen, being set free from the consequences and power of sin was hardly on my radar when I found myself a Christian in spite of the tradition within which I became Christian. I know that was just an example, but I think even for those who do match your example more closely the reality of the experience is much different. I have friends who found they simply did not believe and who still do not believe. One of them was actually a Roman Catholic seminarian when he reached that point. They have a difficult time understanding how I could believe.
    It’s a real-life example of the truth Tom Wright nailed in a parable he wrote using the road to Emmaus story as his inspiration. This bit nails the crux of it:

    The sea of faith, having retreated with the outgoing tide of modernism, was full again as the incoming tide of postmodernism proved the truth of Chesterton’s dictum that when people stop believing in God, they do not believe in nothing, they believe in anything. On the shore there stood a vast, hungry crowd. They had cast their bread upon the retreating waters of modernism, and now they discover that the incoming tide of postmodernism is bringing them bricks and centipedes instead.

    My friend’s faith was swept away by the gods (though he would not see them as such) of modern rationalism and secularism. I was shaped by the incoming tide and had tried on belief after belief, eventually constructing my own cobbled together understanding of what it meant to be a human being. I could never imagine believing nothing, but found it difficult to find any belief which could withstand the whirlwind forces of my experience. That is, until I gave this Jesus of Nazareth another look. If you can get past those of us who follow him, Jesus is compelling in a way other figures are not.
    For me the central questions at first were: Was this Jesus trustworthy? And was his radical prescription for life and what it meant to be human the actual path toward true humanity? It’s less that Christianity excludes other paths in some exclusive club membership sort of way, but rather that the way of Jesus is such a different way of being human that if you follow it your path will diverge from all the other paths.
    Sorry Scot. I’ve meandered. I did like your response. Though I think the quote from Jesus on the afterlife reveals more what Tom Wright calls “life after ‘life after death'” 😉

  • I tell my close brothers and sisters in Christ that if I jump off the deep end some day in the future – divorcing my wife, leaving my family, moving to Vegas, and live an ongoing immoral life or if I un-confess (deconversion) Christ – then they should assume (no matter what I say) that I never had genuine faith in the first place, and that everything I did was a good show and a farce. I believe that we must come to the conclusion that those who do not persevere are not the genuine article. I think that un-acknowledging Jesus is the same as never truly acknowledging in the first place. This is not a good place to be and thus we have the many warnings and encouragements found in Hebrews.
    Hebrews 3:14 For we have become companions of the Messiah if we hold firmly until the end the reality that we had at the start.

  • Scott M, I did experience that particular freedom at conversion – but I respect that the experience of other Christians may vary. I apologize if I implied otherwise.

  • Scot,
    I appreciate your Jesus-centered, Jesus Creed answer to the questioner. This series actually is a piece of the whole cloth of that calls us to rethink anthropology (as you suggested in the NPP discussion).
    I think the very real human stories of “conversion” from the Christian faith to another faith or to atheism or nontheism will press the issue of concrete human freedom. By concrete human freedom I mean we humans are not seemingly free or virtually free as we make decisions, but were created by God to make free decisions that are neither decreed nor foreknown. Why is this important to believe? Because it is the only context for true perichoretic Trinitarian love to be received, enjoyed and responded to.

  • Scot,
    PS I still think you need to expand into *a book* your analysis of ALL the warnings of the Book of Hebrews.

  • Scott M

    Helen, I went back and read what I wrote and I see that a couple of trains of thought got a little jumbled. For the record, I wasn’t saying that people don’t have the experience you described. I know some do. However, there is a whole type of cultural shaping required for that to be your experience just as there is a cultural shaping which produced mine. And mine did not produce a particular conversion moment or any sense of relief. It was a strange time for me. It eventually led to peace, but that was further down the road. I think I was reinforcing what I understood to be part of Scot’s point, that there are typically affective responses to conversion and that the particular nature is varied. Mine was certainly not relief. It bugged the heck out of me at the time.

  • Peggy

    Scott M–you and C.S. Lewis, eh?
    Scot–wonderful job of getting to the right question. I am learning to really appreciate the ability to hear the question behind the question…and looking to be better at discerning.
    I tend to take the same tack: I cannot know what God will do with what he knows of other human hearts. I can only know and do and teach what Jesus said as the truth. And my experience has been, like others, that his path is the only way to consistently go forward toward being truly human–and, as John suggested, thereby able to enter into the perichoretic dance of Love.
    And that gets to the heart of it for me. The point is the dance…and dancing just doesn’t work well until the dancers want to join in because they WANT to dance THIS dance. And if we are poor dancers, we do not commend it well to those watching….
    The problem comes, as we’ve talked before, when any group of dancers claim that there are proscribed steps or rhythm or music in God’s dance, rather than allowing Jesus and the Holy Spirit to lead. And that is where things divide: doing what we want or following Jesus. Jesus suggests (and Scot and others concur) that his is the only way to get to what we really need–which, of course, if frequently different from what we want. My children want to eat donuts and candy…but I require that they eat healthy food because the donuts and candy please their tongue but will destroy them….

  • Andrew (#14),
    Your remarks seem to be an often repeated non-answer and do not help this conversation. If you now believe that you are the genuine thing–an authentic follower of Jesus–why, if you divorced, moved to Vegas and lived immorally, would that call into question the genuineness of your present “faith”?
    Your answer seems to be a cover for the old saw “Once saved, always saved” and so if you end up not saved, you never were.
    You really have no bomb-proof “assurance” of salvation, then, do you?

  • Winston

    Scot,
    I’ve really enjoyed this series on loosing faith. I think that that is because it touches on lots of aspects of my own spiritual journey. I was raised in a nominally Christian home but by the time I was 16, I would have described myself as an agnostic (as this is the easiest position to defend), however, in college I converted to evangelical Christianity through interaction with various college ministries and through reading Augustine in my classes. However, the faith I developed, which owed more to Calvin than Augustine proved too rigid to answer my questions and seemed to depend on such small details that might be incorrect that it became unbelievable to me.
    Going through both conversion to Christianity and abandoning it left me in a difficult position. I had rejected the vague moral philosophy that guides most people as being senseless before I became a Christian and wasn’t about to take that up again. Nor did I find any other system that provided any kind of guidance (and I spent far too much time looking at various ones). What I did find was the freedom to question and re-examine what I believed. This was good for me. I found that my problem wasn’t that the idea of God is self defeating, or even that the historical evidence for Jesus’ death and resurrection was too poor, but rather that my approach, seeking absolute
    certainty was the wrong one.
    So, I’ve returned to the faith – older, wiser and less dogmatic. My new faith in God and Jesus is both simpler and more robust than it once was. It is a faith that can accommodate doubts and accepts that it might be wrong about some things. I wish that my initial conversion to Christianity had presented me with a broader range of what Christians believe. Knowing that there is disagreement between real, believing, faithful Christians about many issues and that its OK to come to different conclusions would have saved me lots of trouble.

  • BeckyR

    But, what if God doesn’t let go. I’m not sure what real apostasy looks like. If one’s life is not over, if the story has not ended, can we really label it apostasy. I’d think this is a chapter in the book of one’s life. And then the original sentence – one may let go of God, but I wonder if God lets go of us. I’m not sure he gives up that easily, or maybe I should say, lets go that easily.

  • joe

    my comment was more along the line of not as much deconversion i suppose its called, but those whose life slips away into immorallity. maybe we arent talking about that.
    i do believe you can un-accept christ, i was more curious about those don’t un-choose, but those whose life just slips away from them. maybe that question isnt for this thread.

  • Josh

    Scot,
    I think these deconversion stories are worth listening to but the truth is they only give one perspective. Reading these stories, I sometimes wonder how these people were perceived by friends, family, and church members. Were they hard-core dogmatists? Were they judgemental and harsh? Were they wishy washy about their faith? Did they act one way in church and another with their family and friends?
    When I first read that you were doing a book on deconversion I thought the perfect title would be Turning from Jesus. After reading some of these posts, I don’t think that is the case because I don’t think people are turning from Jesus. They are turning from traditions, systematic theologies, personal conceptions, mean-spirited false Christians, etc. All the reasons I have seen given for apostasy are not a part of the orthodox historical faith. The only exception that I have seen is Jesus’ “outrageous” claim to deity. And I think this is where the post on the Historical Jesus Quest is linked to the present post. I truly believe that a lot of the drive in the “quest” is to do away with the deity problem because Jesus is so good and balanced a man that no one wants to criticize him. They just don’t want him as God. That’s absurd says the rational man. You’re absurd says the person of faith. I think I will run with the latter.
    I also want to say something about Jesus’ statement that he is the way, the truth, and the life, especially the life part. In his book The Mission of God in the OT, Christopher Wright points out that the early church proclaimed the gospel to the nations with a message rooted in the Abrahamic promise to bless the nations. Abraham would be a blessing if he “walked before God” and left Babylon. In the context of this promise, God delivers Abraham’s children, Israel, from bondage through signs and miracles and the person of Moses. The people are given the Law and given the choice of choosing life or death, blessing(walking before God like Abraham) or cursing(living life apart from God like the nations). According to Jesus, the only way to continue in God’s mission to bless the nations is to follow Him. He is the only way to the Father.
    Wright critices proclamations of the gospel that take Jesus out of context and out of the historical Abramic background. Maybe a better title would be Jesus Misunderstood: How People Leave the Faith for the Wrong Reasons.

  • Josh,
    Thanks for this. I’m not writing a book just on that topic but that title is a clever one for such a book. My book is four studies: why evangelicals become Catholic, why Jews become Messianic, why catholics become evangelicals, and why orthodox become non-orthodox.

  • Josh

    Hey Scot,
    I really enjoyed your Turning to Jesus. I read it at a very critical time in my faith. I had been raised as a United Methodist but was born again in a revivalistic free church environment. My conversion was tremendously life altering (I was a drug addict) and the consequences of my conversion were manifest in every facet of my life. Because of the big and dramatic changes, I began to wonder if the rest of my family were “real” Christians. I even wondered if my grandmother, the saintliest woman I ever knew and have since known, was the real thing because she never tried to evangelize me growing up. Your book helped me to see that some of us enter violently into to the kingdom of God and others slip quietly through the door. I now see that my grandmother truly “evangelized” me. She defined goodness with her life and gave me the desire to be good. When God manifest himself to me later in life, I knew what true goodness was and recognized it immediately.
    When is the book coming out? The messianic conversions really intrigue me.

  • RJS

    Scot,
    Interesting post – I would like to reflect briefly on the comment that Matthew (#8) made about fear (?) of conversion stories and the concept of feeling “set free.” This is a common thread in many of these stories, conversion to Christianity, within forms of Christianity and conversion to atheism, agnosticism, nontheism, even when the conversion is accompanied by a degree of regret and pain. I don’t think that the “freeing” experience or liberation comes with an assurance of finding the real deal – but arises from resolution of a conflict between what one “wants” to believe and what one actually already believes deep in the heart.
    In my case I would say that the liberating realization was that the baggage and traditions can be questioned and on occasion jettisoned without a house of cards or domino effect taking over and leading to a total deconstruction. Believing what Jesus taught, confessing him, and doing my best to follow him does not require acceptance, lock, stock, and barrel, of any systematic (or chaotic) theology ever put forth. I can and will question the Westminster Confession (ala NPP), Calvin, Luther, the RCC, and even Augustine. No human has ever gotten it completely right. So maybe what I have done is to convert from a church to the church without being overly concerned with any individual church.
    I too find some of these stories hard to read (especially when the implication is that all smart people – if they are honest – will unavoidably reach the same conclusion). But having read Turning to Jesus and your other articles on the subject – I look forward to the book when it comes out, and to further discussion here.

  • Mariam

    I think the reluctance of some Christians to engage in conversation about the the nature of faith and losing faith is rooted in a little more than just a fear of losing their beliefs. Sometimes Christians are like the 7 year who has a nagging doubt about Santa – so is extra good, goes to bed early and keeps her eyes firmly on Christmas Eve lest she sees anything that she fears might dislodge her faith: and covers her ears when more precocious children tell her Santa is really just her parents. She still wants to believe and the only way she can do that is by shutting her eyes and ears to evidence to the contrary and believing only evidence that fits – Santa answered my letter, there were presents in the morning, my Mom and Dad and my teacher says he exists so it must be true and anyway that Jason is a stupid, bratty boy and who would trust him? But the real fear is not that Santa doesn’t exist – the real fear is that if you don’t believe in Santa there will be no presents; the real fear is that if there is no tangible reward for being good, can you be good; the real fear is that your parents who you love and trust lied to you.
    For thoughtful but orthodox Christians even when they are firm in their faith, this conversation is uncomfortable, because as Peggy has hinted in other posts, they don’t want to damage a tender faith or put a stumbling block in front of someone who is either seeking or falling away from their faith. So it is hard to answer the question “Do you believe that only those who put their faith in Christ’s atoning sacrifice as the only means of salvation (and sometimes with a great many qualifiers than that) are the only souls who will go to heaven and everyone else will go to hell?” When you believe that is, in fact, the case but the person in front of you asking the question is going to be appalled by your answer and that your answer may be the very thing that decides them “Well, if that is what Christianity is I don’t want any part of it” naturally you feel uncomfortable and get all shifty-eyed and vague or avoid the question. The answer given to me by to that question of the afterlife was certainly the string that started the unravelling of the garment for me. Not because the reward of an afterlife was that important to me as a 14 year old (and it still isn’t) but the thinking that the majority of humanity were condemned to hell not because they were evil but because for one reason or another, including ignorance, they didn’t share a certain belief. I couldn’t believe in that God and I still can’t.

  • RJS

    Josh,
    I like your title (Jesus Misunderstood: How People Leave the Faith for the Wrong Reasons)- if not for the book, at least for the chapter on losing faith. On the other hand – maybe it is a good title for an apolegetic rather than this “academic” study. I think that you hit on a key point here.

  • Josh

    Thanks RJS,
    I thought your post (#27) was great too. I am in the same boat. I see some in the emerging movement and other parts of the church reacting to bad theology in evangelicalism and conservative Christianity and throwing the baby out with the bath water. If we really want to know why people from every facet of social life came to claim Christ as Lord in a pluralistic religious society and sometimes give up their very life for their faith then we need to read and understand the texts for themselves.
    Mariam,
    I think in a previous post that I said that some of your comments seemed vague. Now that I see where you are coming from I want to apologize. I too have wrestled with the belief that the majority of humanity would perish unless they “turn or burn.” I think that the central problem with this approach is it’s negative view of the gospel, which simply means “good news.” I commented earlier about the gospel needing to be rooted in the Abrahamic promise by God to bless all the nations that had spurned their Creator (by the way, I think the way people read the first chapter of Romans reveals if someone holds a negative or positive view of the gospel). We Christians bring tidings of great joy to the nations. We just have to accept the reality that not all want reconciliation to God. The message is the smell of new life to those who receive it but the smell of death to those who reject it. It also must be recognized that many have been exposed to a Christian presence and message that is not Christian at all (the Crusades, church-state syncretism, theologies that ignore the nature of God revealed in Christ) and have rightly rejected it thinking it was the real thing. Our God is a just and fair God and will do the right thing in the end. You can count on that.

  • Scott M

    Mariam, I can’t really fault you. I can’t imagine ever choosing to hold, much less sustaining, faith in a god like the one you described. And I’ve also never found concerns about “afterlife” particularly compelling. Prior to Christianity, I was perfectly content with some variation of the transmigration of souls as an answer. The peculiarly Christian understanding that the separation of our souls from our bodies is an aberration that was never meant to be and therefore the full and lasting life Jesus promises means some sort of permanent reunification of body and soul is important, but I’m not sure that it’s a reason to become Christian as much as it touches on all that it means to be Christian.
    The problem is less that we’ve done bad stuff and need to be punished. The problem from a Christian perspective is, I think, that were designed to reflect and worship a particular God and have chosen instead to worship other gods and participated in our own dehumanization. The story of Christianity is a story of a God bent on restoring us to our proper role, making us true human beings again and redeeming all of creation with us. Another option would be to simply eliminate all of creation as a bad job. But he didn’t take that path. And still another would be to force us all to worship him — to “save” us all. And yet again, it would seem that we can be a true eikon of God unless we have the capability to choose to worship other gods. At least, that’s where I end up when I read texts like Genesis 1-3, Romans 1, and the like.

  • BeckyR

    We all have psychological junk we carry whether choosing Jesus or refusing Jesus, so I think it can’t be said that Jesus is rejected because of psychological stuff.
    Years ago I came to terms with that there are content, happy people who don’t consider themselves tied to Jesus. You don’t have to be a christian to have a good life, and I don’t mean it need be self centered to have that good life. There are good people who do not identify themselves as Jesus followers.
    I’m not sure we can say people don’t actually leave the faith but leave unnecessary or miscomceptions or the bad things about christianity. We all have the same limits and I would like to think that the thinking person who decides to no longer call themselves a Jesus follower, do it with the same thought the rest of us are capable of. They just came to different conclusions.
    It would be so interesting to have a conversation spanning years, probing deep into a person and uncovering the why’s of leaving Jesus, themselves learning more of the reasons themself and as a partner on the ride, learn the parts involved in it.
    I have seen people who give the church one last chance or leave the church, but what is really involved is great frustration maybe even anger over hard things imposed on them in the name of christianity. I have seen people hang in there long enough to find the freeing better parts of christianity. But, then again, I can see a thinking person questioning their faith and finding it lacking.
    One thing I haven’t seen mentioned, or maybe it was said in terms I didn’t relate to, is people finding a christianity that addresses the why life has meaning type of questions. Seems to me christianity has to answer those questions or yes, don’t buy into it. And for the apologist, they/we would say people stand on an insufficient base and rather than the Santa analogy, it is the other way around, the unbeliever on the unsufficient base must make Santa’s in order to live in the tension of the insufficient base ala why we are how we are, suffering/evil etc. Not just about heaven or hell.

  • Scott M

    I thought everything I said on this topic revolved around the idea that it is only because of the “life has meaning type of questions” that I ended up and remain a Christian. If it does not speak to the realities of life, if it does not teach us how to be true human beings, then I have no interest in it at all. I recognize that an awful lot of people reduce Christianity to some shallow parody of ‘afterlife’ questions, but none of those would ever or could ever appeal to me. They only have significance in light of what Christianity has to say about life now. And it says an awful lot.

  • BeckyR, thanks – you are absolutely right. Some people leave the faith because they re-evaluate the world they live in and come to different conclusions than they used to. Sort of a like a join-the-dots where you join it one day and assume you came up with the intended picture for years, then one day you go back and say, what if I erase this and join the dots again? Would I still see the same way to join them up as before? Sometimes the answer is no. They used to join to form a picture representing a theistic universe. Now they join to form a universe without God.
    I don’t know why some Christians seem to have such a hard time with the reality that some other former Christians have stopped believing. I don’t know why some Christians feel compelled to try to ‘explain away’ what happened by saying things like
    “They must have believed wrong”
    “They were clearly never saved or they would have persevered”
    “They were mistreated by Christians and it drove them away”
    “They rejected religion, not Jesus”
    “They couldn’t handle being under God’s authority”
    Regardless of these theories, the bottom line of why many Christians left is, they stopped believing. The dots joined up a different way when they went back to square 1 and joined them up again. There are lots of ex-Christian testimonies on the Internet. Anyone who wants can search for them and read them and see that this is so.

  • First, I think it is important to note that the notion of not taking a position on God’s existence (i.e., agnosticism) is theoretical only. Because, ultimately man must act and you can’t choose to live your life on a fence post. You either live as though God exists with the possibility that He might not or you live as though God doesn’t exist with the posibility that He might. But you can’t live a non-position on this issue. But you truly cannot live the agnostic position with any coherence. I don’t mean this as an attack on the author of the letter. Not at all. But I think honesty about the real nature of things is part of what actually allows one to be open to God’s grace and be in a position to consider saying “yes” like Mary did to the angel. So I offer this to the authoer of the letter with the intent to help.
    Second, as much as I agree with Scot’s response on many levels, I can’t help but think that it leaves things at the intellectual level only. And then it becomes too easy for, like the example Mariam gives, our own ideas and images of who God is/must be/would have to be to be worthy of belief/ dominate our thinking. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with Scot’s approach; I’m just not certain how it helps someone in the position like the author of this letter. Is it that they really have confusion about what Jesus taught or said about Himself and the afterlife? I think Scot’s last questions to the letter author hit more at home when he asks “Do you agree with Jesus”. I would put it this way: the question is how I can reach certainty about this man Jesus and who He is. That’s the source of the confusion and tension. And I think it’s that question that needs to be tackled before making a real difference in the life of a person. Because asking whether I agree with Jesus can be so easily a matter of opinion. This isn’t a question of opinion, this is a question of recognition and adhesion. To a Person.
    This is why, for all the risks of subjectivism/relativism that might come from a distorted application of it, examination of experience, it seems to me, is key. Everyone can tell me about this man-God who is Jesus all they want, but ultimately it is a question of whether I have met Him and whether I have recognized in Him my destiny and have responded “yes” to His “come and see”. And this doesn’t deny it is a journey; that I have to renew this “yes” continuously. I might turn away, but I remain free to turn back.
    What moves you? What are you looking for? These are serious questions and not just secular or sentimental questions. In fact, they match Jesus’ first question to his first apostles, Andrew and John. I’m convinced we can’t avoid these questions without turning to despair or numbness. We have to tackle them, because our humanity allows them to keep surfacing. They do not go away. And if we consider them, we must consider them seriously, examine whether what we think is their answer really is.
    It seems to me Christ didn’t fear this freedom when he posed the question to Andrew and John and awaited their answer and then invited them to come and see where he was staying. If Christ didn’t, why should we Christians fear this freedom?
    Long post, but my ultimate point is this: we cannot escape addressing this question about how one reaches certainty about who Christ is. That’s the core question of non-believers and those who doubt. We should tackle that and consider whether there’s evidence in the Scriptures and history of the Church as to whether Jesus had a method for this.

  • Josh

    Helen,
    I think the problem that so many Christians have with leaving the faith is that Christianity cannot be defined as a systematic worldview. If one only casually surveys all the other religions of the world one finds a striking difference in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Our God is real, he acts in concrete ways in real life, he speaks, he listens, and he saves. For me to suddenly stop believing would be synonomous with me suddenly stopping to believe in my wife or my son. It’s impossible because they are real and living.
    Look at the rhetoric found in the prophets. They derided pagans and their own fellow countrymen for worshipping idols because they were not real. YHWH is real. He acts in our time and space. The prophets challenged them; obey him and see if he is not the living God. Jesus did likewise; “if you obey my commands you will know they are from God.”
    The last thing is the life lived after the “deconversion.” A life well lived is the best apologetic for Christian discipleship. The opposite can be said about those that leave the faith. If one turns from God what is there to turn to? I have seen it and I pass.

  • Josh, I’ve never heard anyone say “I believe in the existence of my spouse and children”, because it doesn’t take faith. Believing in God does take faith. So there is a difference.
    Everything you said about God – he is real, he saves etc. – you are expressing beliefs of yours. I don’t have those beliefs.
    You said God speaks but in my experience, he doesn’t do anything remotely so clear as what I define as ‘speaking’. I have never heard an audible voice attributable to God. I have in the past thought perhaps some of my thoughts were influenced by God, that he spoke to me in that way. Now I am unsure if that was God or just me.
    I respect that you have faith in God. You do; I don’t and that’s how it is.

  • Just in case anyone was wondering…
    I did not write the previous comment. In working on our site tonight, and shifting a few items in the Sidebar around, we got some wires crossed and a comment was made by Helen that was sent with my name at the top (for those of you who subscribed to this post).

  • Josh

    Helen,
    I was only responding to your comment that categorized Christianity as a worldview (maybe I misunderstood you but I think this was your assumption). It is not. There are major distinctives about the Judeo-Christian faith. As a follower of Christ, I try to correct these wrong assumptions.
    You are wrong in your first paragraph by making a difference between the two subjects I mentioned. Reality is reality.
    I don’t mean to badger or insult you. That’s not what disciples of Christ do. My prayer is that you will go outside and address the Lord of the heavens. He hears and he speaks. I hope the best for you.
    When you say that I am only speaking my beliefs you are only partly right. I am also speaking for the multitudes in the past and present who know the living God.

  • RJS

    A royal we again?

  • RJS,
    !!!

  • Peggy

    tee hee 8)

  • My apologies to Scot for accidentally posting comment #37 under his name.
    I changed the name on it right after it went up, when I saw what happened. However as Scot noted, anyone the comment was automatically sent out to would have got one with his name on.
    I’m sorry if I confused anyone and I hope my mistake won’t cause Scot any problems.

  • Josh wrote: “You are wrong in your first paragraph by making a difference between the two subjects I mentioned. Reality is reality.”
    Josh, which thing was I wrong about? Does it require faith for you to believe in your wife’s existence? Or does it require no faith for you to believe in God?
    I’m not trying to badger or insult you either. It’s not what I do :). I’m just trying to understand what “there is no difference” means to you.
    As for asking God to speak, I already did – for 17 years. In that time he never once spoke to me in a way I can prove was not simply me attributing some of my own thoughts to God.
    Please realize I am not dogmatic about this: maybe God did speak to me through my thoughts. Sometimes it seemed like he did. I’m not sure.
    When I realized how unsure I was, after 17 years of being a Christian, I decided “I don’t want to make the mistake of treating something as God’s words when it was only my own thoughts. To be on the safe side I am going to assume everything is my thoughts – therefore possibly fallible, therefore in need of testing, from now on.” I stopped praying that day. I haven’t attempted to talk to God in that way for the last six years or so. Might some of my thoughts come from God? Of course – especially my best ideas. The point is not to arrogantly claim otherwise. It is to get away from trying to figure out if something was from God and if so what does that mean. Maybe that’s simple for the other people reading here but it was too complicated for me.
    Diane I liked your comment. You asked questions about how a person’s faith could get ‘deconstructed’. Of course the story I know best is my own, although I’ve read some others too. In an earlier comment I wrote about going back and finding that for me now, the dots joined up a different way. That’s part of my story. What I just wrote about ceasing to pray is another part. I’ve tried to write my story out a few times – some of my attempts are on my personal blog http://www.mildenhall.net. Hmmmmmm, I think I need to reorganize it so they are easy to find. Anyway if you go to the Changing Faith section and scroll down to Almost an atheist, Why I don’t go to Church anymore, Taking off the duct tape and The questions I couldn’t answer, those all address my change in faith. If it seems that they don’t quite agree, it’s because I am human, I have a fallible memory, I wrote them for different audiences and sometimes my emotions influence what I write.
    JACK wrote: “You either live as though God exists with the possibility that He might not or you live as though God doesn’t exist with the posibility that He might. But you can’t live a non-position on this issue. But you truly cannot live the agnostic position with any coherence.”
    Jack, it’s interesting you should say that because the level of agnosticism in Christianity was one of the biggest things that pushed me away. I realized after a number of years that each Christian I knew had their own idea of what following Jesus meant (and thought they were right, on the whole). I didn’t know who was right. The ones I knew all thought their belief was based on the Bible so “see what the Bible says!” didn’t help. I could have arrogantly assumed I could know what the Bible meant even though they all had different opinions – but I wasn’t interested in being that arrogant.
    I was supposed to do God’s will but I didn’t know what that was.
    I don’t know why other Christians were able to be more confident they had the right answers than I was.
    Since there was so much I didn’t know, I decided to be honest about it and not pretend I did know. I decided to live my life, do the best I could and hope God (if he exists) would understand my motivation is honesty rather than avoiding his authority.
    Many Christians seem to presuppose God is the sort of person who damns people to hell for being honest enough to say “I don’t know if this is God or my emotions”. That doesn’t fit my idea of grace. Yes, my ideas carry no authority – but, please don’t tell me that I as a mere mortal, can envision a higher form of grace than the God of grace embodies. The point is not that I get to define attributes; it is – how can an all-powerful all-good God not be better than the attributes I can imagine? I should not be able to dream up a better version of God than the real God, because God should define ‘best’. (In fact, realizing that I seemed able to was one of my first big problems with the faith I’d held for many years. It happened when I wrote a poem in 2001: the God of my dreams. Many Christians read it and say “that IS who I believe God is” but I think they missed that it implies universalism, which I don’t think any of them believe)

  • Scott M

    Helen, I do agree that many Christians, especially in the West, seem to have a picture of some distant god who is pissed off at everyone and who will send some people to hell while “allowing” others into heaven. It’s a sad place to find ourselves and I’m often at a loss to understand why so many people would ever place their trust and confidence in a god like that. It’s a god you might want to placate if you thought you could, but not one I could ever imagine loving or willingly serving.
    But in the God fully revealed in Jesus of Nazareth, we discover a God who defeats the powers, even the power of death, by submitting to the worst the powers can do. We see a God who is working to restore the whole of creation and who longs to heal and redeem all of his fallen eikons. Apparently, though, there is something about being an eikon of this God which requires that participate with God in that restoration, that we choose to worship him rather than other gods. I’m not going to pretend to be able to explain it. I don’t believe you can. But in order to enable it, a transcendent God entered and became part of his creation in every way in order to defeat the powers which had ravaged it. And he provides us himself, in the Spirit, to enable our restoration.
    The problem with the universalist idea is that it requires a coercive god who will make everyone worship him whether that is their will and desire or not. I believe it is a spiritual truth that we become like what we worship — whatever that may be. And if we were created in the image of this God, then we must learn to worship him alone in order to be truly human. And if that’s the case, as we worship other gods, we participate in our own dehumanization.
    We live in the tension between Isaiah 6 and Isaiah 11. All creation is filled with the glory of the Lord, but one day it will be filled and overflowing with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as all things are made new. Our God will be all in all. That is the Christian vision. I’m not sure I see a place in that vision for a concentration and torture camp in the middle of it where God is somehow not, even though that seems to be the picture many Christians have. After all, everything subsists in Christ now and forever, according to orthodox Christian teaching, does it not?
    I think back to God’s warning to Moses that full exposure to his glory would be too much for him. I remember how the transfiguration overwhelmed the disciples. I look at the pictures in Revelation of the whole of creation suffused with the uncreated light of God. And I wonder what it would be like to exist in that light and undiluted glory if I have chosen to remake myself into the image and likeness of other gods — in other words, if I have chosen to be an ex-human being. Perhaps that picture helps?
    As far as prayer goes, I think a lot of people miss the boat on this one. We are not pagans begging for attention or for favor, though many do seem to treat prayer this way. Studying scripture (old and new testament) it seems that Jewish and Christian prayer is primarily a discipline intended to reshape and redirect who were are. It is about using the rhythms of prayer and meditation on the words we pray to redirect our attention to the God we should worship and form us both as individuals and a community which prays. Within that context, there is certainly a place for intercessions and God may even speak to us, though I would not take that as a given. The Orthodox have a saying: The theologian is the one who prays. I think there’s a lot of truth to that.

  • Scott M wrote “The problem with the universalist idea is that it requires a coercive god who will make everyone worship him whether that is their will and desire or not.”
    I disagree – borrowing from reformed thinking, what if God simply shows people enough of his goodness that they all freely choose him?
    Universalism is my favorite form of theism because it is the only one in my opinion which doesn’t portray God who is unkind to some and therefore unfair. I cannot accept a God who watches some? many? people ‘choose’ hell (define hell how you want) and shrugs. I realize other people don’t see it this way and I respect that
    However I am not a universalist since I am not even a theist – since I don’t know if God exists.

  • RJS

    Scot, Sorry I get confused easily especially at midnight after a long day.
    Helen,
    I’ve been trying to respond to your comment from last night for a while but have had rather flaky internet access. Reality is reality – and my beliefs have no impact on this kind of reality. Belief in the existence of my spouse and children requires no more faith than that my “normal,” macroscopic, everyday, senses provide reliable information – because I can touch and talk with them in a macroscopic and reproducible fashion. Belief in the existence of God requires a different element of faith as his existence is not susceptible to the same kind of “every day” verification. But what kind of proof do we really expect? If God is truly God – then he is truly other, and we should not expect the “normal everyday” kind of evidence – any more than we expect electrons to obey Newtonian physics based on “normal everyday” kind of observation (they decidedly do not). But does the nature of reality depend upon knowledge and agreement of people?
    So it seems to me that some piece of your reasoning is essentially – If God exists there will be unanimity and certainty. There is no unanimity and certainty. Therefore God (probably) does not exist. What I do not understand is why we should expect God (if he exists) to conform to human evidence, observation, and expectation – leading to the kind of certainty that we have of ordinary everyday objects and persons? The evidence will never be so concrete.
    Of course this does not address issues of theology such as fairness and universality etc. which lead to an interesting but different set of questions.

  • Scott M

    Helen, the problem from the beginning has been that we have chosen place our confidence in and worship that which is not God. Even the Israelites in the desert, with God visibly and dramatic present and showing his care and provision daily turned to other gods. I find the idea that any god could do anything to convince everyone to “freely” choose to worship that god without overwhelming the will that is supposed to choose … odd.
    In Hinduism, for instance, union with Brahman is considered universal — eventually — whatever path you follow because all is already Brahman, even though Brahman transcends all that is. The material world is maya or illusion. That’s a form of universalism I understand. I’m not sure I can grasp your concept of a deity who is both personal and who loves everyone as a distinct individual separate from himself, but who can then overwhelm and dominate the will of the one beloved. Whether you do it harshly or with kindness, domination of the will remains what it is. If the only choice I can “freely” make is to love this god, then I have no choice at all.
    The non-theistic approach has never made much sense to me, though I know that Buddhists manage fine with it. (They also don’t sweat it if someone follows the path with some theistic notions.) That’s probably why Buddhism never appealed to me as much as other religions.
    But notwithstanding any religious belief, I’ll stick to my guns on this one. If there is ever only one choice I can make, however noble-sounding the justification, then I actually have no choice at all. Let’s call a spade a spade here.

  • Keith

    Josh stated, “When you say that I am only speaking my beliefs you are only partly right. I am also speaking for the multitudes in the past and present who know the living God.”
    Helen quoted a previous decision in her life when sh stated, “I don’t want to make the mistake of treating something as God’s words when it was only my own thoughts. To be on the safe side I am going to assume everything is my thoughts – therefore possibly fallible, therefore in need of testing, from now on.”
    Josh, I have missed a few of the meetings, but as one of that multitude I never requested you as my spokesman.
    Helen, your humility in not wanting to presume to speak for God is admirable. I think the relationship of confidence/humility in conversion & deconversion is important. How do we have confidence in what we believe but maintain humility? How can we be humble without surrendering all able to discern?
    Helen, thank you for posting in this forum. As a fan and friend, I continue to be in awe of your courage and vulnerability. I want to become more like you in many ways. I know many of the responses here are things you have heard before, and I appreciate the depth and patience with which you respond.
    Helen, in someone else’s life in a different situation than what is being discussed here, have you ever seen someone be too humble? … humble to the point that they did not interact, or humble to the point that some other negative resulted? How have you personally been able to find an adequate blend of confidence and humility in your conversion & deconversion (forgive the possibly inadequate terminology), and how would you advise others to do so?
    Thanks as always, all.

  • RJS, thank you for affirming belief in God and one’s spouse are different.
    I don’t demand a certain kind of proof from God; I am simply saying, what I currently have is evidently not working to produce in me a committed faith.
    Scott, I disagree with you about choice. I have the choice to do things I’d never do – like harm people smaller than me, for example. I could, but I never would. By the way, if God knows what you will choose, do you really have a choice, anyway?

  • Scott M

    Yes, Helen. But some people do those things. The choice is real, even if it is unimaginable to those of us who would choose otherwise. I’m saying our choice about what to worship is just as real. Whatever god we choose to worship, even attempting to place ourselves in that central place, we can see the choice is real because others choose differently. The universalism you described removes that choice. Clearly people have not chosen to all worship the same god or gods. So at what juncture is a personal god going to suddenly act in such as way as to overrule that choice? And how is that then a free choice? They have chosen and now they must “freely” change their “choice” to the “right” one.
    And since I’m not a determinist I wouldn’t say God knows what I will choose. I think God knows the outcome of every possible choice every person could ever make and God certainly acts at times to shape outcomes. The Incarnation is the ultimate example of that. It seems to me the determinist picture of God is too small. So your last question passes me by. If I were a determinist, I would probably be a universalist. It’s the only determinist option I see as compatible with a loving and personal God.

  • RJS, a question for you about the nature of faith in God. I agree with you that uncertainty and lack of unanimity characterize faith in God. So if this is the case, how do we affirm specifics related to God (particularly Christian specifics as over and against Hindu specifics or Muslim specifics)?
    And is it reasonable to expect *any* kind of evidence? If not, then on what basis does one have faith? What is the ground of being for faith?

  • RJS

    Julie,
    Interesting questions – I don’t have a good off the cuff answer or even thought. But I do think that we need to divide the question into three pieces (1) Existence of God (naturalism vs theism/deism/supernaturalism), (2) Nature of God – where I would place the Hindu/Muslim/Christian question, (3) Details of Theology.
    Then instead of deconstruction – from fundamentalism to atheism (a common theme in many deconversion stories), we should construct – from consideration of the fundamentals to the consequences of these fundamentals.
    I think that there is substantive evidence (but no proof) for a reality beyond normal rational naturalism. The important questions then deal with 2 and 3.

  • Thanks RJS. I really like the way you’ve broken this down. I also like the idea of “reconstruction” after “deconstruction.” I would argue for an open-handed, self-conscious, deliberate choice to embrace a lens through which we view God rather than asserting absolutes… which is why so many ex-evangelicals feel they must “leave” the faith. They resist those absolutes… absolutely. 🙂
    I’m trying hard not to do that… which is one reason i went to grad school in theology.
    Your outline here is a good one. Thanks.
    Julie

  • Scott, I’ve been thinking about what you said…I can’t get my head around Open Theism, the God Who Doesn’t Know.
    I don’t understand how that God fits with some of what the Bible says but I’m sure Bible believing Open Theists have reconciled him with the Bible, if I took time to look for their writings online – so that’s not necessarily an insurmountable obstacle.
    That God created everything, hoping people would turn to him but not knowing; presumably he hopes for the best. If less people are turning to him than he anticipated then it seems to me he is a tragic figure, someone to feel sorry for, like parents who do their best to raise their children well, yet the children, when coming of age, are eager to get away; they leave and the parents never see them again.
    Or, if he expected lots of people not to turn to him, then I am back at the problem that I can’t relate to this God who would create multitudes to live meaningless lives. Whether he actually knew they would, or just guessed, I don’t get why he did it.
    And so, how does this God respond when you pray for someone’s salvation? Does he say “Hey, we’re both doing our best! But there are no guarantees here”
    I respect that a God Who Doesn’t Know, who lets people freely choose against him, solves some theological dilemmas. But…I find myself wondering what the point is in having a relationship with that God. I can’t get very excited about that. I may as well stick to my human relationships which at least don’t involve huge uncertainty – because I can hear their voice and see their expressions. When I became a Christian I was drawn by thinking God had a wonderful plan for my life. If he in fact doesn’t have control over my life anyway, and if he is telling me what his plan is, I may as well be deaf because I am unable to determine what he says with any clarity) I may as well continue to figure it out with the help of trusted human friends, whose words of advice I cannot confuse with my own desires, because they are outside my thoughts, recordable and verifiable.
    RJS – reconstruction is fine if you can fit the pieces together again. If you can’t, it’s not an option. What if you find you have way too few pieces to make the picture you’re told they make? What if the majority of the pieces are inextricably linked to faith and so they are only present if you have faith? Then you need faith to reconstruct and if you don’t have it, reconstruction is not possible. On the whole Christians do seem to admit that it takes faith to be a Christian. If so then all the evidence and apologetics in the world can only get a person so far. They have to go the rest of the way by faith. Does faith come from God or us? Can we manufacture it at will? It seems to me that we can’t make ourselves believe. I don’t know how belief happens but I don’t think the Christians posting here could make the decision today not to believe in God any more than I could make the decision to believe again in the way I used to believe. Scott – perhaps this means I am at least partly in agreement with you, in fact.

  • Scott M

    To the extent that I understand Open Theism (which is not a great deal), I don’t believe I’m an Open Theist. It’s not that I don’t believe God knows, but rather that God knows every possible outcome from every possible decision or choice and their intricately complex interconnections and effects. But the choice and action itself does not exist until it is made. God certainly intervenes as I mentioned. And he knows us so intimately, I would be shocked if our choices surprised him. Nevertheless, they remain our choices. Abraham is a great example of choice after choice after choice to follow God and continue in his path as well as sometimes making the wrong choice and corrective action needed.
    Anyway, that’s how I resolve that particular question. I was once saw Scot describe something that sounded similar to what I described above. He called it the “middle knowledge”. If I understood what Scot described correctly, that may be where I fit.
    I don’t suppose I’ve ever been interested in a god who had some wonderful plan for my individual life. Actually, I’m not sure I would much care for or even like a god who determined the events of my particular life or of others in my family. I think I would vastly prefer the impersonal Brahman for a god and the “truth” of maya over such a reality.
    I guess what drew me into Christianity and has kept me there is a God with a vision of what it means to be a human being who provides himself to enable us to be a truly human person. I experienced it from some who followed him. And the more I’ve explored, the more captivated I’ve become. Not only does he teach and show us what it means to be a human being, but he gives us the tools, disciplines, community, and even his own Spirit to accomplish it. Wow. The vision is at once both extraordinarily grand and intimately personal.
    I suppose there is a plan for all our lives, but not in the way you seem to mean. The plan is our complete restoration as human beings capable of joining the dance of the Trinity. Our life in Christ is the plan. Redemption and restoration of all creation — the making of all things new — is the plan. The question is not whether or not this God has a plan. The real question is whether or not we will choose to participate in it or not.
    I’m not sure I really understand the almost magical view of faith that some seem to hold. Belief has always been a struggle for me. I “try on” different beliefs easily, but it is not as easy for me to anchor a belief deeply in the torrents of my experience. I found that Jesus of Nazareth wouldn’t budge. And over the years, I’ve found that as a belief melds closely with him, it too tends to survive. I suppose I believe many things lightly and a few things strongly.
    I came into Christianity through a somewhat strange, sometimes sideways journey. As such I don’t believe I really have much that I can say for those who have had vastly different experiences. But given your level of engagement here, I think you still have some interest. If so, I would recommend one thing. Try to forget everything you know or think you know or think you believe or think you don’t believe. Read the Gospels. Do not read them for information or skim them to find answers. Just read them. Slowly. Meditatively. Repeatedly. Fill yourself with the one described in those pages. This is work. It is not easy for us to do. But I do believe that if a spark of faith remains, this will allow it to emerge. The central Christian belief is that the fullness of God is completely revealed and made known to us in Jesus of Nazareth.
    Peace be with you.

  • Thanks Scott. I’ve heard of middle knowledge – I’ve read about it in Dr WL Craig’s writings. I recognized what you said as middle knowledge but I forgot that was what it was called. I won’t try to assert you’re an Open Theist since I don’t have extensive knowledge about Open Theism.
    I’m interested in community. I’m interested in being the best human being I can be; I’m interested in what that looks like. I believe the stories of Jesus can be used to illustrate many aspects of what that looks like. I think I’m interested in Christians because to this extent, there is common ground between me and them.
    What I’m not at all interested in is, for want of a better term, ‘mystical engagement’. Because I’ve tried that and for me, everything became too uncertain and too unknowable down that road for it to be otherwise than stressful and complicated.
    I’m also not interested in trying to determine what is ‘true’ in a theological sense – although I might give my opinion on why I think various doctrines proposed as true seem untenable to me – because I have become convinced it’s impossible to know. The amount of disagreement between evidently smart thoughtful Christians has convinced me of this. If the truth could be determined then it would have been determined already and Christians would agree much more than they do. I realize this is my opinion and belief; it is not authoritative. But something would have to change for me to change my opinion and belief. I have read many books and had many discussions with Christians and nothing different enough has come up to change it so far. But I am trying to be open because I don’t want to get so entrenched that I shut myself off from ‘the truth’, should compelling evidence that it is indeed the truth become available. Again I realize “compelling evidence” is subjective; others are happy that they have such evidence; I am not; I respect the beliefs and experiences of others.
    Scott I don’t envisage us moving closer theologically any time soon but I appreciate the exchange – thanks. Peace be with you also.