Authenticity, Christianity and Atheism

imagesCAX5FCAVChris Stedman, a “former Christian” and now an atheist and Chaplain at the Harvard humanist community wrote the following in an article posted on Q, Ideas for the Common Good. [Click here to read the full article]

“Recently, I participated in an interfaith dialogue with someone who responded to my bristling at evangelizing by saying:
But, Chris, it strikes me that the problem there is with the definition of evangelization. If we think of that word as a synonym of hectoring and finger wagging and a holier than thou attitude, I completely agree with you. But what if evangelization is itself a mutually enriching dialogue in which the promises of the Church (that is, of Christ) are put forward as proposals, as encounters, not as edicts? Then we are taking about the manner, not the fact, of evangelization, aren’t we?

He is absolutely right. This is a distinction that I am hearing articulated more and more often by members of religious communities that see evangelizing as central to their faith—and it is one I welcome with gratitude. Maintaining a general orientation toward encountering diversity with inquiry and empathy, rather than lecturing at it, can facilitate a more productive dialogue. That will require listening from both sides and recognizing  we have much to learn from one another. For starters, perhaps we can learn how to talk to, and listen to, one another in a more constructive and friendly manner.

The divide between Christians and atheists is deep. As an atheist, I’m dedicated to bridging that divide—to working with other atheists, Christians, and people of all different beliefs and backgrounds on building a more cooperative world. We have a lot of work to do. I’m excited by the growth of the interfaith movement—but still, in many ways, we have our work cut out for us. My hope is that these tips can help foster better dialogue between Christians and atheists and that, together, we can work to see a world in which people are able to have honest, challenging, and loving conversations across lines of difference.”

Facing one’s opponent

Let me preface my comments by saying that I believe in conversation and not convincing when it comes to discussions between Christians and non-Christians, including atheists. That is one of Chris Stedman’s 6 major points: “Don’t try to “win” the argument.” But, as a matter of fact, there is a chasm between Christian and Atheist beliefs that cannot be bridged. Every person ultimately chooses to be on one one side of the chasm or the other; there is no middle ground. For a Christian, the conversation with an atheist is a matter of life or death. For the Atheist, it’s a matter of getting along and finding common ground so that together we can advance human good. I’m not opposed to that goal; in fact if you read my blog, you’ll know I support finding ways to work with everyone of good will for the common good of humanity.  But I also feel that many Christians don’t make clear distinctions about the consequences of belief and non-belief.

Be clear about this: Christians and Atheists (and atheistic humanists for that matter) are opponents in the realm of belief. If we say that God came to save us from our fate, atheists say that there is no fate to be saved from. They say that we humans are the creators and masters of our fate and that’s that. Of course, that quickly leads to the question of what happens after death. Atheists say nothing happens after death; we say eternal life happens after death. That’s why Christians see conversations with Atheists as a matter of life and death. God gave every person complete freedom to determine their personal eternal future. So, if a brother or sister says that nothing exists after death, that is the future that they may be creating for themself. [I say ‘may’ because we can’t understand the extent of God’s mercy.] Atheists need to understand that if we Christians become excited and argue it’s because we fear for their future. Not a pretty sight in many cases but certainly an honest concern.

To me the question boils down to authenticity. At our deepest level of awareness, we know whether we are being authentic or not. Both Charles Taylor and Bernard Lonergan have written about this, and see authenticity as a fundamental drive of being human. “Authenticity for Taylor and Lonergan is the experience of a profound transfiguration in one’s being and doing. ‘It is a transformation of our stance towards the world and self, rather than simply the registering of external reality.’” [1] Seen in this way, Atheists take the position that any transformation we might experience in life will be solely our own doing, and will arise out of human understanding of external reality, period. But they have put a boundary around reality and excluded God! The question is, are they making an authentic choice? Whether they are or not is beyond any other person’s knowledge — or power to change. “As for inauthenticity, no amount of dialogue can change those who are irresponsible, unreasonable, inattentive, and obtuse.” [2] So, I can agree with Chris Stedman when he says “Don’t try to “win” the argument.”

So, what can we Christians do? Only this. Understand that when we pray “Thy kingdom come” in the Lord’s Prayer, we are petitioning God to send the power of his kingdom, which is the Holy Spirit, into the situations of our life — including conversations with Atheists or other non-believers. We are literally helpless until God does that. We can train ourselves, pray for people and do everything we might imagine would ‘convert’ some person — but we must let God be God. In the depths of the human soul is where God encounters each person and each person, if they pay attention, knows authentically when something is moving or stirring inside them. That ‘still small voice’ is what we all respond to, believers and non-believers alike. As Chris Stedman also points out in his article, Christians must not get in God’s way.  “For starters, perhaps we can learn how to talk to, and listen to, one another in a more constructive and friendly manner.”

Read my next post “Authenticity and Transformation”

[1]Braman, Brian J. (2012-05-23). Meaning and Authenticity: Bernard Lonergan and Charles Taylor on the Drama of Authentic Human Existence (Lonergan Studies) (Kindle Locations 2233-2235). University of Toronto Press. Kindle Edition.

[2] Braham, Ibid.



Anonymous Christians

“You aren’t a Christian but you are the most Christian person I know.” I hear this statement occasionally and it always makes me pause. I wonder what the person saying it means — and how the person being referred to feels. There are lots of possibilities.

Then I realize that the person I need to question is myself. Why do I care if a good person is a Christian or not? More importantly, does God care? Depending on your brand of Christianity, you may have clear answers for these two questions. How another Christian answers these questions probably determines, in your mind, if that person is really a Christian.

How would God answer these questions?

It isn’t absolutely clear how God views these questions. On the one hand we have a very clear statement about how God will judge all people at the end of time in the story about “sheep and goats.’ God values our behaviors, it seems, rather than our beliefs. On the other hand, Jesus said, “The work of God is this; to believe in the one that he has sent.” [John 6:29] Perhaps, then, these questions are more about God’s mercy than about understanding what’s in God’s mind. Should we be so confident about our understanding of God’s mind?  Job learned that understanding God’s mind was completely beyond him, saying after his dialogue with God, “Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know.” [Job 42:3b] We do not understand and cannot define boundaries for God, or say with certainty, “That person is (or is not) pleasing to God.” Perhaps we should place all our confidence in God’s mercy, and not try to divide the world up into Christians and non-Christians.

So why be a Christian?

All this leads me to my basic point. What is my motivation for being a Christian? Is it about being  more confident that I’ll get to heaven? Like a spiritual insurance policy? Or is it my response to grace? The gift of faith and the gift of knowing Jesus. My life-long journey has led me to see that my reasons for being a Christian are more about being in relationship — with Jesus and with fellow Christians — than any other factor. And that is what I seek in my local church — ways to deepen these relationships.

A. Why Change? — “I’m spiritual but I don’t go to church.”

I don’t know how many people I have talked to that told me they don’t go to church but they are spiritual. In fact many Christians I know take essentially the same stance when they see church as a place to go to (occasionally) and not something that is central in their lives.

I recently read an excellent book called UnChristian that is quite revealing. Click here to visit the author’s website. It describes Christianity and church as people outside our communities perceive us. In a way, this book presents a ‘Voice of the Customer’ for Christians since one of our fundamental purposes is to announce the Good news to people outside the church — and so many people are turned off when we do this. We could say, ‘not our fault’ or point to other Christians who we feel  give the church a bad name. Isn’t that playing the victim and denying our own responsibility for this situation? For me the book UnChristian was a strong wake-up call to look at my own local church and see how we might be responsible for this sorry state of affairs.Essential【中古】
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Three Cheers for Empathy AND Religion!

In a recent Sydney Morning Herald essay entitled Evil lives when empathy dies, Simon Baron-Cohen wrote “Unlike religion, empathy cannot, by definition, oppress anyone.” I applaud his praise of empathy but, intentionally or not, the author has reinforced a stereotype — Religion equates to oppression. Christians need to understand that such statements represent the conventional wisdom of our culture and how many people typically see religion, including Christianity. If you ask the average man on the street to do a word association test, when you say ‘religion,’ I wager you will get mainly negative responses, all centered around religion limiting human freedom, historically and in the present.

Empathy accepts  the situation of another person, just as it is. We show genuine concern for another human being. What does religion do? Does it accept people empathically and show concern for them, or something else? To answer this, we need to look at the human situation as God sees it. Only then can we understand what we humans are attempting to do — and how well we have succeeded — when we create an organised way to relate to God, otherwise called religion.

A fundamental axiom of Judiasm and Christianity is that God created men and women to be free, like He is free. “When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God.” [Genesis 5:1] So, a key purpose of any religion ought to be to assist men and women in recognising that we are like God and meant to be free. It is evident that historically, all religions, not just Christianity have gone astray from this purpose. So, ought we now decide to ‘throw the baby out with the bath water’ and eliminate all religions?

If one doesn’t believe in God, then religion is extraneous. But if you do believe,  then Religion is essential to discovering our true freedom and our likeness to God. We learn about God from others. Human beings can have some contact with God in a spiritual sense without religion. But we can never know God as God is because God is essentially unknowable unless He communicates with us. All the major religions — Judiasm, Christianity, Islam — base their authority on God speaking to us and revealing who He is. The Christian religion claims that God Himself, in the person of Jesus Christ is the full and final revelation of who God is. Making such a claim, Christians perhaps have more to answer for, beacsue so many men now conclude based on the historical evidence that man now longer needs religion!

Bernard Cooke sums up the Christian religion’s responsibility like this: “Christianity’s relevance is directly proportionate to the extent to which it can make the presence of Christ effective in the lives of men.” [in Christian Community: Response to Reality] If men do not encounter Jesus when they encounter the Christian religion, then we must change whatever has created that situation! That is the most fundamental “burning platform” for transforming local churches!

Reading the Bible, it is clear that people experienced Jesus through his empathy! The parable of the Good Samaritan makes that abundantly clear — and its message to  Christians is also clear: “Go and do likewise.” If men experience Christianity as rules and judgment and limitation of freedom, and do not experience empathy, then we have to expect that they will not see Jesus in our actions. Christianity without empathy is a false religion!