Archive for Atheism

On Attracting Seekers

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 22, 2015 by timtrue

John 12:20-33; Jeremiah 31:31-34

The church growth movement, which gained a lot of momentum in the ’90s, focuses its attention on how to draw seekers into church. “There are cultural trends that people naturally gravitate towards,” they reason; “so we ought to offer the products and ideologies that people want.  People flock to Starbucks; so let’s offer them a place to gather, drink fair-trade coffee, and fellowship over fresh bagels.  That ought to bring ’em to church!”

Out of this movement arose the so-called mega-churches—churches like Willow Creek Community Church, which in 2013 boasted a Sunday attendance of 24,000 and an annual budget of $36 million; and Saddleback Community Church, with a Sunday attendance of 22,500 and an annual budget of $31 million.[i]

So, arguably, the church growth movement has done great work.  Just look at these results!

But why isn’t this movement—this apparent recipe for success—working on today’s 20-somethings, a segment of our culture that is noticeably sparse in mega-churches?

20-somethings are a very me-oriented group.  We are probably all familiar with the image of several young people sitting around together—in a restaurant, at someone’s home, wherever—yet they are not talking, joking, or otherwise interacting with each other; rather, every single person is absorbed in his or her own world, a world in the shape of some gadget.

According to the church growth movement, then, the church should be able to reach these 20-somethings simply by tapping into their world of technology.  Questions surface along the lines of: what kind of app can we create that will attract these young people?  How can we go viral?  To tweet or not to tweet?  (That is the question!)

Mega-churches are asking these questions, don’t misunderstand me; and they are trying to reach this subculture.  But their efforts just don’t seem to be working: this segment of society is noticeably missing from the pews.

In fact, according to recent Barna Group statistics I read recently in Christianity Today, more than 8 million 20-somethings in our country have walked away from church; they’ve given up on Christianity.

So, where are they going?  And why?

The answers may surprise you.  By and large, 20-somethings are turning from Christianity to Atheism.[ii]  Why?  Authenticity, they say.

Churches are trying to imitate popular culture, the argument goes; and this imitation strikes 20-somethings as second-rate at best, more likely as hypocritical.  Pandering to the culture is seen as inauthentic, disingenuous, and therefore not worth their time, talents, or treasure.

Atheism, on the other hand, though pessimistic is also genuine.  Atheism is asking the deeper questions that 20-somethings seem to crave.  Atheism offers a reality that few other ideologies, including today’s version of Christianity, want to touch.

Critics of the church growth movement conclude, therefore, that the church ought to be counter-cultural, not pandering.

And so goes the church growth debate.

But what does Jesus have to say about it?

“Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks.”

Greeks, the Bible says.  Non-Jews!  Who went up to worship at the Passover—a distinctively Jewish—festival!

What were these Greeks but seekers of the way, the truth, and the life?

Here is a tremendous opportunity for church growth.  Both Philip and Andrew recognize it.  Some Greeks have come to the festival, they tell Jesus.  Some seekers have come to church!  What an awesome opportunity!

So what does Jesus do?  He summarizes the entire Gospel, the good news about himself, in a short parable about agriculture:

“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.  Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.  Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.”

Or, to summarize, Jesus proclaims that his disciples must:

  1. Embrace death;
  2. Hate life;
  3. And follow him through death to life.

Well, that’s an attractive message for seekers!

But that’s exactly what’s going on here!  These are Greeks he’s talking to.  They’re seekers, born and raised under the ideological umbrella of Hellenism—the pop culture of their day!  And yet, Jesus does not try to meet them where they are.  Jesus does not try to attract them to his cause by offering a trendy message or an attractive object.

In fact, his message is death and his object is the cross—a symbol of execution!  His message to seekers—to those wanting to become his disciples—is crucifixion!  Granted, it’s also resurrection.

Here is genuine, authentic Christianity: Christ was crucified, died, and rose again; so we were crucified with Christ, have died to our own sin, and are now risen to new life. This is the message we need to take seriously today—whether or not it includes fair-trade coffee and fresh bagels!  This is the message the world needs to hear.

So, how do we do this?  As individual disciples and as a church body, how do we take Christ’s message of crucifixion and resurrection seriously?

The text gives us three suggestions:

First, Jesus says: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”  Disciples of Jesus must embrace death.  And the kind of death we’re talking about here is death to self.  Discipleship leaves no room for narcissism, or self-absorption.

Many of the 20-somethings in the article I mentioned above readily admit that their generation is self-absorbed.  They regularly take selfies; post about themselves on social media—both the good and the bad; and are generally apathetic or even indifferent to the world around them.  Their generation both breeds and nurtures narcissism.

It might seem counter-intuitive, then, when a church that fosters narcissism is seen by them as second-rate or hypocritical.  But in interviews, the 20-somethings said things like:

  • The church should be engaging the world, not retreating from it.
  • We definitely want to see Jesus at the center because the rest of the world keeps shouting that we are the center.  We don’t need the church to echo the world.
  • We long for authenticity, and we’ve failed to find it in our churches.   So we’ve settled for a non-belief that, while less grand in its promises, feels more genuine and attainable.[iii]

Narcissism is a retreat from the world.  When church leaders appeal to it by offering products and ideologies aimed at attracting the people who engage in them, such attractive packaging backfires.  It negates the message of Jesus Christ.  And perceptive 20-somethings see right through it.  They would rather learn how to die to oneself.

A second suggestion; Jesus says: “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”  Disciples of Jesus must hate life.

But what does hating life mean?  I remember using this as a catch phrase when I was a kid.  It usually involved some kind of physical activity—surfing or motorcycling or playing football.  Someone would wipe out or high-side or get tackled by the entire opposing defensive line, and I’d say, “Oh, he’s hating life right now.”  Ever hear that?

Well, that’s not what Jesus means here.  Instead, it’s about hating the things in our culture that can entangle and ensnare us.

Things like money; things like ideologies, like narcissism; even things like unhealthy relationships.  These entangling things are here, all around us, confronting us every day.  We can’t ignore them.  We have to live with them; face them; deal with them.

Authentic Christianity is not afraid to do this—to wrestle through such things.  If there are people you know struggling with Atheism, narcissism, paying their bills, or even with each other, don’t be afraid to talk about it.  And—this is important!—don’t feel like you have to come up with a solution to the problem right now: it’s okay to live with tension for a while.

So: embrace death, hate life, and, thirdly, follow Jesus through death into life.

Jesus says it this way: “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.”

But we also heard it said another way this morning, from the Prophet Jeremiah.  There will come a time when laws will no longer have to be written down, for everyone will have the law of God written on his or her heart.

And what is the law of God?  Love!  Love the Lord your God with all your being!  And love your neighbor as yourself!

We think long and hard about this law of God in this church.  So I’m not going to tell you anything new about it.  Instead, I’m going to ask you to imagine with me for a moment what it should look like.  What would it look like—close your eyes if it helps—if everyone everywhere abided by this unwritten law called love?

Would we need to worry anymore about gun control, open-carry laws, or terrorism?  Would we turn on the local news and be sickened by all the criminal behavior going on right around the corner from our homes?  Would there be anymore greed, corruption, or injustice?

Hmm, a place where everyone lives in harmony according to an unwritten law of love?  Sounds like heaven!

Well, it is.

It’s also new life, a life gotten to only after passing through death to self.  This is the life Christ calls his disciples to live now, here, in this culture, in this world.  This is authentic Christianity.

And if we model such authenticity to seekers—whether Greeks, 20-somethings, Generation Xers, Baby Boomers, or any other demographic we want to name—they will come and see.

There really is no recipe for successful church growth other than authentic, genuine faith in Jesus Christ.

[i]               Cf. http://www.onlinechristiancolleges.com/megachurches/.

[ii]               Cf. http://www.christianitytoday.com/women/2013/august/how-seeker-sensitive-consumer-church-is-failing-generation.html?paging=off.

[iii]              Ibid.

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2015 Lent 23

Posted in Lent 2015 with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 16, 2015 by timtrue

drought

Jeremiah 14:1-9, 17-22

Well, I don’t know if it was calling them tighty-whities or what, but today, finally, the people of Israel begin to turn back to God.

Actually, according to this chapter, it was a drought; parched, dry, cracked land was the catalyst.  And this wasn’t just any drought.  This one was so severe that does (a deer, a female deer) were abandoning their own fawns; donkeys were sniffing the wind in an effort to draw some kind of moisture from the air, like jackals do, it says.

(And I think, do jackals do this?)

Point is, disaster came on the people of Israel and they turned to God in prayer.

That was Jeremiah’s point anyway.  But it brings up other questions.

Like: when bad things happen to us–things beyond our control–does this mean that God is judging us for our immorality?

Job maintained an upright heart throughout his time of trial, even when his wife told him, “Curse God and die!”  Bad things happened to Job.  He lost his property–including his home and numerous animals–to bandits; and all his children to some kind of natural disaster–they all died–every one of them!–all in the same day.

So he wept, fasted, and prayed.  Then his wife said what she did.  And some of his best friends came for a visit, assessed, and judged him.  And they said, “You, Job, obviously, have done some great wrong.  This is why you’re suffering, of course!  Just repent already and God will lighten up.”

But he hadn’t done anything wrong.  We readers learn this at the end of the book–like some macabre punch line.  Forces beyond human vision and understanding had been at work.  Evil was present in the world.  And there was nothing Job could do to prevent it.

So, no, bad things happening to us does not mean God is judging us.

And questions like: so why is there evil in the world at all?  If God created the world–which we Christians believe–and if God is good–which we also believe–and if God is sovereign over all–which some Christians believe (including this author)–then why isn’t the world entirely good?

Theologians call this conundrum theodicy.  I like to call it dicey theology.

But there are answers to this question.  Genesis, the first book of the Bible, offers one answer.

The world was created upright, including Adam and Eve who were created in God’s own image, perfect and upright.  But evil entered the world.  Adam and Eve ate this evil, the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, that forbidden fruit, about which they were told not to.  And then Adam and Eve, who had been created in God’s own image but were now marred, had a son named Seth.  Curiously, the writer of Genesis addresses this: Seth is said to be born in Adam’s image, not God’s (cf. Genesis 5:3); Seth, and all humanity after him (without going into Cain’s line), no longer bears God’s perfect image but Adam’s imperfect one.

To carry this string of logic a little farther, Christ is called the perfect image of God in the New Testament.  We Christians are said to be becoming more and more like Christ throughout our lives.  With this understanding of creation and fall, we could say that we are becoming less like Adam’s imperfect image and more like Christ’s perfect one.  Neat picture, eh?  (Although I must admit I know many people, including many Christians, who fall a lot closer to the imperfect side of the spectrum than to the perfect–or even than to the middle!)

But it still doesn’t answer all the questions.  Why did a perfect God allow evil into the good world in the first place?  Adam and Eve sinned.  But where did the conniving serpent come in?  And why would God have placed a tree with a forbidden fruit in the world in the first place?  Was God just trying to tantalize and tempt his creation to fall?  Was evil inevitable?  And, if so, is this something a truly good God would do?  And, if God is indeed sovereign, did Adam and Eve really have a choice at all?  (The same question has been asked about Judas Iscariot too, by the way: did Judas even have a choice, in the big, cosmic scheme of things, when he betrayed Jesus?)

There are answers to these questions too, if you’re interested.  But, predictably, these answers lead to yet more questions.  A whole lot more!

But enough already!  Now we’re confused, anxious, and maybe even a little stressed over our faith.  Now there’s tension.  (And, like Runt from Chicken Little, tension makes me bloat!)

And we’ve strayed from the point.

The book of Jeremiah is simply pointing out that the people turn to God in prayer during times of hardship.

Isn’t this a natural response?  Perhaps even an innate response, something we’re all born with?

We face challenges beyond our comfort zone.  We need to focus, to face these challenges courageously.  So what do we do?

We pray.  Oh, some may call it focusing, centering, meditating, whatever.  But it’s all just different forms of prayer.  It might not be addressed to the God of the Christians.  And it’s certainly not concerned–in the heat of the moment–with questions about why evil exists, is God sovereign, is God even real, or some other challenge to the Christian faith.  But it’s prayer nonetheless.

And for me it’s a compelling proof of divinity.

2014 Lent 28

Posted in Lent 2014, Reflection with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 6, 2014 by timtrue

NGC6960

I Corinthians 13

Love never ends, says Paul.

But what about its beginnings?

Seriously, this is a question worth pondering.  Has love always existed?  Or is it something that came into being somewhere in time, back in the ancient past, maybe when the first rational animal committed a selfless act?

It seems reasonable to say that love has always existed, doesn’t it?

But be careful.  Especially if you’re an atheist.  For if you want to say that love has always existed, to do so is akin to saying it is not a created concept; or to saying it is eternal, that it has no beginning, regardless of whether there ever was a big bang or not.  That puts love beyond time, and thus likens it to the trans-religion concept of God: existing both within and without the dimensions of space and time.

So if you want to say that love has always existed (as I do), then you’re somehow connecting love to God whether you admit it or not.

Perhaps then the being we call God should instead be named Love.  Not a bad idea.

But there is another way of seeing love; namely, as an attribute of God.  Love never ends, yes.  But love never begins either.  It has always been, is now, and will always be.  And this is because it is a part of who God is.  In this sense love is not a god, but similar to truth, beauty, and goodness, three other eternal attributes of God.

Are you with me?

But here is what makes love different from anything else, including truth, beauty, and goodness: it is outward.

Put yourself in that beyond-time-and-space realm mentioned earlier.  Here is where God alone dwells.  God has always dwelled here; God will always dwell here.  This means that God was here forever in the past, infinitely and eternally, before creation began–sun, moon, stars, planets, supernovae, all of it!

Now, here, in this beyond-time-and-space place, God could possess infinite truth, beauty, and goodness easily enough.  But how could God possess the type of love described in I Corinthians 13?  God could have thought it up, sure.  God could have determined to create a world in which beings existed in God’s own image, male and female, and that these beings would selflessly put one ahead of the other, that they would love one another.

But that would make love a created concept.  And that would mean that love is not really attached to God’s being–unless God took on that attribute after it had been created, which would mean that God was at one time less complete (and thus less perfect) than God is now.  But this is impossible.

No, love has to be an eternal attribute of God.

But, to return to that infinite and eternal beyond-time-and-space place, God could not possess love unless God had some way of expressing love, of putting another first, selflessly.  But God dwells here alone.  So with, for, and to whom can God express love here?

Tricky conundrum, eh?

For the atheist, love has to be a human invention, by definition.  But humans are no more than rational animals that operate by the same Darwinian principles as any other species.  They should be self-centered, not selfless.  Yet agape love, a love humans are capable of showing to one another, puts others first: it defies survival of the fittest.

Love also baffles the concept of a monotheistic God.  The God of the Jews and the God of Islam have always existed, eternally and infinitely in the past.  But they are alone in that beyond-time-and-space place.  So for them love cannot be an eternal and infinite attribute.

Love is indeed a baffler.

Only the Christian God provides an adequate answer.  For only the Christian God is seen as triune, three-in-one, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, existing infinitely and eternally in perfect perichoresis (a kind of divine dance).  Only the Christian God possesses community.  Only the Christian God allows for one person to put another first eternally and infinitely.

Love, then–the kind of love explained in today’s reading anyway–is what convinces me more than anything else that Christianity contains the truest expression of religious faith.

Love never ends.

Is Christian Atheism an Oxymoron?

Posted in Books with tags , , , , , , , on January 3, 2014 by timtrue

Browsing through Amazon’s search engines one day not so very long ago, part of a book title caught my attention: Christian Atheist.  An oxymoron, I wondered?  So I placed the book on my virtual wish list for a closer look later–along with other curiosities like (I just looked up my account and these were on it, in fact) Jupiter’s Travels: Four Years around the World on a Triumph, One Man Caravan, and A Child’s History of the World.  This ever-transitioning wish list, incidentally, gets the occasional makeover, when I delete almost everything for lack of interest (though the history book’s been on it since 2003).  It’s a good tool against impulse buying–whether or not Amazon knows it.

So, not so very long ago, I returned to my wish list after something of a hiatus to find this title still flummoxing me: Christian Atheist: Belonging without Believing, by Brian Mountford.  No one I know had read it, so I couldn’t go on a trustworthy recommendation.  But the Amazonian description said a thing or two about the author being a priest of the Church of England and that he was convinced that this topic needed to become a part of the ongoing conversation on Christianity’s place in society.  Thus, what with that and the relatively small price tag, I bought the book.

When it arrived some days later I picked it up with a casual interest, like I might be thumbing through a magazine I’d never seen before, curious, perhaps hoping for a flavorful mind cocktail, you know, something tasty to loosen me up a bit but pretty much lacking in any nutritional value.  But within a few minutes I found myself more than intrigued.  I was even almost delighted by what Mr. Mountford had to say, persuaded that what he had to say was right, that Christian atheism (as he defines it) does indeed need to become part of the conversation.

That’s because, in part, Mountford has been able to interact with people like Philip Pullman, author of Northern Lights, upon which the controversial film The Golden Compass is based.  Do you remember when that one came out?  American evangelicalism just about blew a fuse!  The film would somehow entice children away from the Christian faith and convince them all that atheism was the Gospel truth, or so it was suggested.  But Pullman himself has this to say: “I am a Christian Atheist; a Church of England Atheist; a Book of Common Prayer Atheist.  You could add a King James Bible Atheist, if you want.  All those things go deep for me; they formed me; that heritage is impossible to disentangle, like a piece of barbed-wire fence embedded in the bark of a tree.  I’ve absorbed the Church’s rituals and enjoy its language, which I knew as a boy, and now that it’s gone I miss it” (p. 1).

For Pullman the terms Christian and atheist are not mutually exclusive, but something that can be shared.  My wife had a professor in college with a similar sort of outlook; he called himself an Episcopal Buddhist because, he said, he practices Buddhism now but absolutely cherishes the traditions with which he was raised.  I didn’t get it then; I still don’t totally get it now.  But here is a book that addresses this apparent oxymoron in an intelligent, serious way.

Mountford himself has difficulty defining Christian atheism.  “The phrase Christian Atheist stayed with me,” he writes, “because it seemed such a good description of all the people I know who value the cultural heritage of Christianity–its language, art, music, moral compass, sense of transcendence–without actually believing in God; or,”–and here’s a key difficulty in my thinking–“at least without believing in God in a way that would satisfy Christian orthodoxy, particularly in the metaphysics department” (p. 1).

What Mountford speaks of here is not quite Christian; but neither it is quite atheism.  But which is emphasized more, Christianity or atheism?  There is a growing number of people in our churches who believe in church–its traditions, aesthetics, morality, and so on–without believing everything the creeds say about Christ.  At the same time they rely on science for their metaphysics; but that does not necessarily mean that God does not exist.

Interestingly, in his conversation with Philip Pullman, Mountford–a priest, remember–described himself as having more of a secular temperament than a religious one, “because I wanted to dissociate myself from the Church’s introspective agenda of gays and women bishops and to make him see me as a man of the world, an open thinker who looks to the concerns of the bustling metropolis rather than the reflections of the cloister” (p. 9).

But Pullman balked at this idea and said that he, a self-proclaimed atheist, in fact possessed a religious temperament, for he has a sense of awe and wonder, he says, and he asks bigger questions–who we are, what is our purpose, why we are here.  Then, tellingly, he adds, “Some people are satisfied with one sort of answer, others want a mythological answer.  Of course you can’t prove that there’s no possibility of God, and in that sense I suppose I ought to call myself an agnostic rather than an atheist, but I see no evidence for a God” (p. 9).

Hmm.  I wonder, then, would Quasi-Christian Agnostic be a better term?  Christian Atheist certainly has a better ring to it.

Anyway, the point in all this is conversation.  Is it too much to “welcome those who want the values of religion without its metaphysics” (p. 129)?  Christians and atheists have not ever really been on speaking terms, at least with respect to religion.  (Sports and politics might be a different matter.)  But what Mountford is exposing here is that they are already sitting in the same religious venues: on the one hand, (at least some) self-proclaimed atheists value Mother Church; and, on the other hand, (some, maybe many) Christians recognize and embrace the contributions science has made to the collective pool of metaphysical wisdom despite whatever conundrums it has stirred up.  Why not then talk?  Otherwise we are very much like middle schoolers at a dance, too preoccupied with our own self-image and too worried that we might be rejected by the other side to walk across the room, introduce ourselves, and seek out common ground whence we can begin to foster and develop a friendship.