According to some Christian outlooks we were made for another world. Perhaps, rather, we were made for
this world to recreate, reclaim, and renew unto God's future aspiration by the power of His Spirit. - R.E. Slater
Secularization theory has been massively falsified. We don't live in an age of secularity. We live in an age of
explosive, pervasive religiosity... an age of religious pluralism. - Peter L. Berger
Exploring the edge of life and faith in a post-everything world. - Todd Littleton
I don't need another reason to believe, your love is all around for me to see. - anon
Thou art our need; and in giving us more of thyself thou givest us all. - Khalil Gibran, Prayer XXIII
Be careful what you pretend to be. You become what you pretend to be. - Kurt Vonnegut
Religious beliefs, far from being primary, are often shaped and adjusted by our social goals. - Jim Forest
People, even more than things, need to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone. - anon
... Certainly God's love has made fools of us all. - R.E. Slater
An apocalyptic Christian faith doesn't wait for Jesus to come, but for Jesus to become in our midst. - R.E. Slater
Christian belief in God begins with the cross and resurrection of Jesus, not with rational apologetics. - Eberhard Jüngel, Jürgen Moltmann
Our knowledge of God is through the 'I-Thou' encounter, not in finding God at the end of a syllogism or argument.
There is a grave danger in any Christian treatment of God as an object. The God of Jesus Christ and Scripture is
irreducibly subject and never made as an object, a force, a
power, or a principle that can be manipulated. - Emil Brunner
Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh means "I will be that who I have yet to become." - God (Ex 3.14)
Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. - Thomas Merton
The church is God's world-changing social experiment of bringing unlikes and differents to the Eucharist/Communion table
to share life with one another as a new kind of family. When this happens we show to the world what love, justice, peace,
reconciliation, and life together is designed by God to be. The church is God's show-and-tell for the world to see how God wants
us to live as a blended, global, polypluralistic family united with one will, by one Lord, and baptized by one Spirit. - anon
The cross that is planted at the heart of the history of the world cannot be uprooted. - Jacques Ellul
The Unity in whose loving presence the universe unfolds is inside each person as a call to welcome the stranger, protect animals
and the earth, respect the dignity of each person, think new thoughts, and help bring about ecological civilizations. - John Cobb & Farhan A. Shah
If you board the wrong train it is of no use running along the corridors of the train in the other direction. - Dietrich Bonhoeffer
God's justice is restorative rather than punitive; His discipline is merciful rather than punishing; His power
is made perfect in weakness; and His grace is sufficient for all. - anon

Friday, July 8, 2011

How to hide a lie in the truth (via the Marx Brothers)

http://peterrollins.net/?p=2899

by Peter Rollins
posted July 4, 2011

While exploring the inner workings of language the theorist Lacan once offered a fascinating and deep reflection on the tracks left by different animals. He noted that most animals simply leave tracks in their wake; tracks that can act as a sign that they have passed that way. As such a hunter can look at these traces and work out where the prey will be.

There are however a few animals that cover up their tracks in an effort to efface the sign that would point to their location. In these situations a hunter must look very carefully to try and find the effects of this erasure.

And then there are a select few that make false tracks. Tracks designed to fool a hunter into going the wrong direction. Here only a hunter with a specific knowledge of the prey will know that the tracks they see are a sign that the animal did not pass that way.

However there is another, even more sophisticated, level than this. One in which the real tracks are intended to signal that the animal has not gone in the direction they suggest (a strategy that perhaps only animals of language – e.g. humans – can enact).

These different levels can be listed as such,

- The tracks are real and accurately direct the hunter (erased tracks fall into this category as long as there is some evidence of the erasure)

- The tracks are unreal and attempt to misdirect the hunter

- The tracks are real and attempt to misdirect the hunter

In short the third level refers to the possibility of employing the blatant truth in order to mislead the one looking at the sign.

To understand how this works take the example of a religious leader who is part of a community that actively holds repressive/naive views regarding such things as gender roles, gay and lesbian rights, biblical interpretation and scientific reflection. If the religious leader actually holds such views themselves they will quickly attempt to justify the churches position in a variety of (often contradictory) ways. However there is a more interesting phenomenon whereby the leader fully and freely acknowledges the repressive positions held by their community.

What is interesting about this position is how their willingness to admit that they materially participate in a repressive community operates. For when one speaks to such a person one is generally led to think that they are not what they fully claim to be. The honesty causes one to think that they are other than what they are. We are led to think that their intelligence and ability to admit the dark underbelly of their community means that they are better than the community they are part of, that they should not to be overly identified with that community and perhaps even that they must be trying to influence it for the better.

In such situations we would do well to take Slavoj Žižek’s advice and hold tight to the wisdom of the Marx brothers when they say,

This guy may act like an idiot and look like an idiot, but don’t be fooled; he really is an idiot


God Wins: Heaven, Hell and Why the Good News is Better than Love Wins

Mark Galli - Response to "Love Wins"
July 7, 2011

A publisher recently sent me an advance copy of what I take to be the first full book length response to Love Wins by Rob Bell and asked me to review it here. I’m happy to do that.

The book is entitled God Wins: Heaven, Hell and Why the Good News is Better than Love Wins. The author is Mark Galli, senior managing editor of Christianity Today magazine. The book is published by Tyndale House Publishers.

I know Mark Galli and respect him highly. I led a church-based discussion group in reading and discussing his book Jesus Mean and Wild. We found it a bracingly helpful corrective to overly sentimental ideas of Jesus in much contemporary Christianity and folk religion.

Mark is a serious evangelical scholar with an irenic approach to controversial material. While he takes on Love Wins with vigorous criticism, he is careful to give the author, Rob Bell, the benefit of the doubt as to his intentions. In almost every chapter Mark says he thinks Bell does not intend errors he inadvertently promotes.

Before I interact with Mark’s book, let me say that you should read the book for yourself and not take my word for anything–except that it is a serious book deserving thoughtful consideration by both Bell’s critics and admirers. (Here by “Bell’s” I mean Love Wins’.)

God Wins goes to great lengths to express agreement with much of Love Wins. Mark does not sweepingly condemn the book or dismiss it as unworthy of consideration. He has clearly taken the time to read it carefully and try to understand it fairly before expressing disagreement with it. And his criticisms are, for the most part, generous toward the author.

However, God Wins pulls no punches. Mark clearly considers it a dangerous book that will probably lead many readers astray–not from Christianity into atheism or anything like that but from a better focused and truer picture of God to a fuzzier and largely erroneous one.

Chapter 1 is entitled The Really Important Question. There Mark argues that Bell misses the mark by raising too many questions about God that imply an attempt to interrogate God. Mark says “as the Cross demonstrates, God takes us seriously. He takes our sin seriously. But he continues to show relative indifference to our questions. He does not answer them to our intellectual satisfaction; he refuses to submit himself to our interrogations.” (14)

I wonder, however, whether Mark (I am not calling him “Galli” out of disrespect but because I know him personally and it would be awkward to call him by his last name when we are on a first name basis) is confusing interrogation of ideas about God with interrogation of God. When I read Love Wins I did not sense Bell intending to interrogate God. His questions, I thought, were aimed at traditional notions about God.

This first point gives me opportunity to say something about different interpretations of the same book. Sometimes when I am reading Mark’s account of Bell’s book I feel like he read a different book than I did! I get the sense that Mark felt things that I did not feel and that I felt things Mark (and others) did not feel. I’m not trying to reduce interpretation to feelings. I’m just saying that people often get a different sense about a book.

I thought Bell was reacting to what he perceived to be an overly harsh picture of God as a distant judge delighting in sending people to hell and to an all-too-common attitude among some Christians that hell is a good thing–as if we should celebrate every time we think someone goes there because it reinforces our sense of retributive justice. So I filled in some gaps as I read, giving Bell the benefit of the doubt and taking for granted that he was trying to correct those images and was not trying to say everything one could say about the subjects.

I think Mark read the book differently–as Bell being seduced by a liberal approach to life and the world and God that places man at the center and God at the periphery. One reason I didn’t think that is because almost everything Bell says about God and heaven and hell can be found in well-respected evangelical theologians or theologians most evangelicals respect like C. S. Lewis. (Okay, I know Lewis wasn’t technically a theologian, but he wrote theology better than many professional theologians do!)

But my point is that I get it–Mark “sees” a gestalt, a pattern in Bell’s book I didn’t see. We read the same book but saw it “as” different things. I think that may be because Mark is a member of a denomination struggling with rampant liberalism in which conservatives (by which here I mean people who value traditional, orthodox, biblical Christianity) feel embattled. I, on the other hand, have been beset by fundamentalists and aggressive neo-fundamentalist heresy-hunters. So I read Bell as a fellow questioner of that kind of ultra-conservative Christianity whereas Mark read him, I suspect, as an unintentional ally giving aid and comfort to the liberals destroying his denomination. Well, all that is surmise and guess work. I just don’t know how else to make sense of how Mark and I read the same book and came away with such radically different interpretations.

So, where Mark saw Love Wins reveling in unaswered questions that attempt to put God in the dock, so to speak, I saw the book as simply challenging certain cherished but often unreflective assumptions about God among conservative Christians.

Chapter 2 is entitled Who Is This God? The chapter’s thesis is that “Love Wins tends to come across as beautiful and exciting–but ultimately thin and sentimental. It does not communicate the gravity, the thickness, the mystery of God.” There I began to suspect that we are dealing with two different visions of God–one the hidden, mysterious, awesome and transcendent God of Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Edwards and Spurgeon (Mark quotes the latter two) and the other the very personal, intimate, loving and profoundly caring (for his creatures) God of the Greek fathers, Wesley and Moltmann.

Of course that’s a simplistic dualism. But so is Mark’s. In this chapter Mark posits two accounts of God–one is “God as agent” (bad, wrong) and the other is “God the Lover” (good, right). The picture of God as agent puts humans at the center and views God primarily as existing to serve us and our needs. The picture of God as lover puts the Trinity at the center and views God primarily as existing in and for himself as inner-trinitarian love that then overflows in grace to creatures. Mark says “…only when we see God as Lover can we understand how God is more than mere Agent. As wonderful as it is to experience the benefits of his grace and mercy, they should never be the focal point. The minute they become the focus, they disappear. It’s like happiness–make it your goal, and you’ll never reach it. The blessings of life in Christ, like happiness, are the result of something else, something that has objectively happened–Christ’s death and resurrection.” (32)

I can’t imagine that Bell would disagree with that! And my reaction to the dualism between “God as Agent” and “God as the Lover” is to ask why these have to be in conflict with each other? I guess Mark is arguing it is a matter of which comes first. Giving Bell the benefit of the doubt, I would say he would also put God as the Lover before God as Agent. Perhaps he could have made that clearer in Love Wins. Mark sees Bell as inadvertently making our experience of God’s blessings THE central feature of the gospel rather than secondary to God’s glorious nature and sacrifice for us in Jesus Christ. In other words, Mark thinks Bell puts the accent on the subjective too much whereas the accent ought to be on the objective content of what God has done for us out of the inner resources of his own being in Jesus Christ.

Is this a case of wanting a book to be and do something it wasn’t designed to be and do? In other words, might it be that Bell ASSUMES things Mark thinks he should STATE explicitly? Every book begins with certain assumptions. As an author I can testify to that. I have often been criticized for not highlighting or underscoring something I THOUGHT I could take for granted and assume as common ground with my readers.

Mark ends chapter 2 with this summary statement of its point: “As great as forgiveness is, it is not our exceeding joy. As wonderful as are the blessings of salvation, they are not our exceeding joy. Our exceeding joy is God, the God who has brought us into his very presence through Jesus Christ.” (33) Would Bell disagree with that? I doubt it. But I can’t be sure. Maybe that’s Mark’s point–one can’t be sure, so Bell should have been more clear and explicit IF that’s what he believes. On the other hand, perhaps Bell would argue (with some right, I think) that these two things should not be prioritized. IF God withheld the blessings of salvation from us, we would have no reason to have exceeding joy in God. We have exceeding joy in God for who he is and what he has done for us in Jesus Christ BECAUSE he has extended the benefits of his grace and mercy to us for our salvation. Is there something wrong with looking at it that way? Well, I suspect Jonathan Edwards and John Piper would think there is. But does Mark? I don’t know. I can only hope not.

Chapter 3 is entitled Becoming One Again and is about God’s highest aim. At least that’s what I think it is about. It’s about several things. But before I interact with the chapter’s content I have to comment on the “hook” at its beginning. (Every chapter begins with a story which authors call a “hook”–something to lure readers further in.) Mark confesses that when he was in college he went to see the movie The Summer of ‘42. I guess we’re about the same age! (I thought so, but this pretty much proves it.) That was the first movie I ever saw in a movie theater. I snuck into it just to find out what was so awful and evil about movies in movie theaters. (The church I grew up in wouldn’t even take our youth group to see a Billy Graham film shown in a secular movie theater! We were taught that if Jesus returned while we were in a movie theater it wouldn’t matter what movie we were watching, we’d be left behind!) You have to remember movies back then didn’t have ratings. I remember watching some of the scenes through my fingers and fearing God was going to strike me dead just for seeing parts of them and hearing them! Well, Mark’s story and mine are quite different, but I thought it was interesting that we both went to see The Summer of ‘42 while in college! Shame on him! :)

Back to the book. In this chapter (Becoming One Again) Mark rakes Love Wins over the coals (gently, of course) for neglecting (not completely denying) the substitutionary atonement model in favor of Christus Victor (which is not false but by itself inadequate) and for implying (not outrightly stating) that the main purpose of the life, death and resurrection of Christ was to maximize our fulfillment as persons through an experience of wholeness. Mark says “…one cannot help but notice how relentlessly human centered these descriptions [of the cross and atonement] are. The Cross becomes about our getting inspired and being sustained. Salvation becomes about something that satisfies our deepest longings.” (52) Then, “It’s not just about what we experience but about what God has done.”

Mark’s point seems to be that Love Wins neglects the objective dimension of the cross in favor of the subjective dimension. Toward the end of the chapter Mark accuses Love Wins of downplaying God’s justice in the cross. “The book is so anxious to show that love wins, it fails to appreciate how important it is that justice also wins.” (57) There may be some truth to that. But, again, I wonder how much of this is due to Bell’s tendency to react to overly harsh, one-sided depictions of God’s wrath in some fundamentalist circles. Nowhere does he deny that the cross displays God’s justice or wrath. I guess Mark wants that highlighted more and perhaps Bell should have done that. I admit that when I read Love Wins I took some things for granted. I took it for granted that Bell believes the cross was God’s judgment on sin as well as the ultimate expression of God’s love. How could the cross BE an expression of God’s love if it isn’t also a display of God’s justice?

Mark’s major point in this chapter is, I think, that Bell’s book simply doesn’t do justice to the fullness of the cross and resurrection event. He reads Love Wins as implicitly if not explicitly playing up the benefits of the cross and resurrection for our human fulfillment and downplaying (not explicitly denying) the propitiatory aspect of the satisfaction of God’s righteousness by the substitutionary sacrifice of Christ on the cross. But perhaps one could point to many conservative treatments of the cross event and say that they leave out entirely God’s concern for our well-being because he loves us. Some theologians and pastors have said recently that Christ died “for God” and not for us. Was Bell perhaps reacting to that kind of one-sided treatment of the cross? Could Mark give Bell credit for wanting to balance such popular treatments of the atonement with an emphasis on God’s real care and concern for our fulfillment because he loves us?

Chapter 4 is entitled The Wonder of Faith. Here is where I almost stumbled. By that I mean I almost slapped the book shut and put it down thinking I couldn’t say anything kind about it. But I’m glad I persevered and even read it twice. In the end I still struggle with it, but I think Mark is trying to give a balanced account of God’s sovereignty and human freedom. I’m not sure he succeeds, but few do!

Mark accuses Love Wins of focusing too much on human freedom as free choice. Interpreting [accusing - s.h.] Bell’s book as semi-Pelagian, Mark says “This is precisely the problem with Love Wins and with any belief system that ultimately says that faith is left completely in the hands of sinful and fickle people. That is not good news.” (66-67)

He’s right about that–except that I’m not entirely convinced Love Wins intends that. Where I think Mark may be interpreting Love Wins too harshly is when he writes that “What is assumed in this entire discussion in Love Wins is that the human will is free, autonomous, and able to choose between alternatives. The discussion assumes that the will is not fallen, that it needs no salvation, that it doesn’t even need help. It assumes that human beings are unbiased moral agents who stand above the fray and make independent decisions about the most important matters.” (71)

Wow. If that’s true, then Love Wins is heretical! But I’m not convinced it’s true. Now I’m going to have to go back and re-read Love Wins in this light to find out. This is certainly not how I read the book. But, again, maybe I was giving Bell the benefit of the doubt and reading prevenient grace into his discussions of free will (e.g., where he talks about God giving us what we want–even hell).

I thought Mark was going off on a Calvinist rant against anything that smacks of Arminianism until I came to this paragraph: “And that’s the gospel. Not that we have an innate free will, but that God in his freedom came to us to rescue us from spiritual slavery. Through the work of Jesus on the cross, and through the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit, our wills are liberated. Then and only then can we actually recognize Christ, his love, his forgiveness, his grace. Then and only then can we finally respond in faith.” (72)

I can only say “Amen!” to that. And I say amen as an Arminian. That expresses perfectly what Arminians believe. My question is whether Bell would disagree with that paragraph. I hope not and I think not. But clearly Mark, an astute reading with profound acumen, thinks so. I hope he’s wrong.

But here and there throughout this chapter there are hints of something more than classical Arminianism. Mark says on page 65 that God sometimes makes it impossible for people to believe. And he leaves open the question of whether God withholds himself from some people (reprobation?). But if it is Calvinism it’s soft compared to Piper or Sproul. I can agree with at least ninety percent of this chapter, but I wonder if Bell would disagree with any of it?

Again, is this a case of an author taking something for granted, knowing his readers are evangelicals and therefore probably already conditioned to believe that God is sovereign in salvation (at least to the extent that salvation is God’s initiative and not ours)? Clearly Mark thinks Bell shouldn’t take that for granted and maybe that he doesn’t even believe it himself. When I read Love Wins I took for granted that Bell believes our ability to accept God’s gracious offer of salvation in Jesus Christ is grace-enabled. Perhaps I was wrong. But is it wrong to give an author the benefit of the doubt?

Chapter 5 is entitled The Point of Heaven. There Mark repeats his concern that Love Wins’ main emphasis is on human fulfillment and enjoyment rather than on God. He criticizes Bell for neglecting the biblical dimension of worship in heaven in favor of emphasis on humanization. Again, when I read Love Wins I took for granted that Bell believes we will worship God in heaven and was simply trying to open some new possibilities about our continuing spiritual growth in heaven. And that he was trying to overcome the all too common folk religious idea that in heaven we will be something other than human because humanness is intrinsically evil. (As a professor of theology for almost 30 years I can tell you that is a common belief among young evangelicals!)

Chapter 6 is entitled Hell and Judgment. There, among other criticisms, Mark accuses Love Wins of implying, if not outrightly saying, that people in hell may have a chance to leave and go to heaven. I did think Bell was suggesting that in Love Wins. But so was C. S. Lewis in The Great Divorce. In fact, I read Love Wins as simply restating much of what is in that book so beloved by many even conservative evangelicals! Mark doesn’t see any biblical warrant for that and neither do I. It is sheer speculation based on the character of God. But Bell would simply ask if God is love and “love” means anything similar to what our highest ideas of love based on Scripture itself (e.g., 1 Cor. 13) how could God ever completely give up on anyone? Mark raises some valid questions and concerns about that speculation. But I’m not with him in his criticism that if people can go from hell to heaven it is necessarily the case that people could go from heaven to hell. That overlooks deification–not just an Eastern Orthodox idea. Wesley believed in it and used it as the reason why the redeemed will not be able to sin in heaven even though they will still have free will.

Chapter 7 is entitled The Bad News: Universalism. That’s an intriguing title and you should get the book and read the chapter for yourself. I’ll just say that I agree that universalism is bad news. But perhaps not for the same reason Mark thinks it is. But my main concern with this chapter is that Mark, like many serious theologians in the Reformed tradition, seems to confuse freedom with free will in non-Reformed theologies. What I mean is, he/they think we non-Reformed evangelicals (Arminians, Anabaptists) identify freedom with free will. We don’t. I don’t know about Bell. Perhaps he does confuse or identify them. I hope not.

Let me explain. As Mark helpfully points out, true freedom is NOT having free choice. True freedom is being what God intends for us to be–his faithful creatures restored in his image and likeness glorifying him. Arminians agree with that. But we don’t have that right now. What we do have right now is free will–a gift of God’s prevenient grace whose purpose is to be used to cooperate with God’s renewing and redeeming grace to arrive at true freedom–something God wants for us but will not impose on us. So free will is not true freedom. But it is real. True freedom is yet to be even though we may, by God’s grace, taste it here and now.

Mark thinks Bell revels too much in free will and confuses it with true freedom. I hope not. I didn’t get that sense from Love Wins.

The final chapter, Chapter 8, is entitled The Victory of a Personal God and this review is getting too long. I would be surprised if anyone read this far (except Mark)! I hope some will, but I’d better close or nobody, maybe not even Mark (!) will read on.

Let me wrap up. I get the feeling that Mark wants Love Wins to be something that wouldn’t have gotten any attention at all–a rehearsal of traditional evangelical theology. Perhaps he’s right. Perhaps nobody should offer up anything else. (I’m not saying Mark says that, but I wonder how far one could stray from it without being criticized.)

On the other hand, I think Love Wins does push the envelope of evangelical theology. I don’t think it strays into heresy or even flirts with it, but it does intend to shock people out of their dogmatic slumbers into thinking hard about what they believe and it does intend to present them with some possibilities that are outside the evangelical mainstream. How much Bell himself is committed to those possibilities remains something of a mystery, I think.

The strange thing is this. I find myself agreeing with BOTH BOOKS! How can that be? I don’t mean I agree with everything in both books. That would land me in sheer contradiction.

To explain, let me once again appeal to something Karl Barth said. Two of Barth’s interpreters had an argument about Barth’s belief about God in himself versus God for us. Barth said both were right–vis-a-vis the extremes they were using Barth to fight against (one of which was Bultmann and I forget the other one). Both couldn’t be right. But both could be right vis-a-vis the perspectives they were using Barth to contradict. Could it be that Bell is right (not wholly or completely but overall and in general) as an antidote to traditional “Sinners in the hands of an angry God,” hellfire and damnation, “let’s take delight in all those sinners going to hell” fundamentalist folk religion. Could it be that Mark is right (not wholly or completely but overall and in general) as an antidote to serious lacunae in Bell’s theology brought about by his concern to correct extreme views of God’s wrath and hell?

In other words, would Bell perhaps have Mark’s perspective if he were in Mark’s place–trying to preserve biblical faith in a denomination in serious decline due to rampant liberal theology? And would Mark perhaps have Bell’s perspective if he were in Bell’s place–trying to hold out a vision of God’s love in an evangelical world still fraught with hellfire and damnation preachers of God’s arbitrary sovereignty who sends people to hell for his glory?

Well, maybe not. And I suspect both authors will think I’m belittling them which is not my intention. I take them both seriously. I just wonder if they are both right given their [religious] contexts and perspectives?

Ask An Atheist

Ask an Atheist…(Hemant responds)

by Rachel Held Evans
posted July 5, 2011


hemantWe had over 200 questions and comments roll in after I introduced Hemant Mehta, aka “the friendly atheist,” and invited you to ask him your pressing questions. It was tough picking the best ones—(we relied heavily on the “like” feature and questions that appeared to overlap with one another)—but I think these represent a good start to a healthy dialog.

Hemant is the author of I Sold My Soul on eBay. His blog, FriendlyAtheist.com, was the winner of the 2011 Bloggie Award for Best Weblog About Religion. (You can learn more about Hemant here.)

RHE: Thanks for taking the time to participate in this discussion, Hemant! It seems to have attracted quite a bit of interest. So, by way of background, what brought you to become an atheist, and what keeps you as an atheist? (question from Melissa)

HM: I became an atheist (someone who doesn't believe in a god) because I started questioning my parent's faith (Jainism) at 14 and I discovered that there was no proof for a lot of what they believed -- no proof for reincarnation, the existence of karma, heaven or hell, etc. There was really no evidence that anything supernatural ever occurred, period. Turns out that didn't just apply to Jainism -- every major religion believes in something supernatural. So I started calling myself an atheist.

What keeps me an atheist? Continued lack of evidence for the supernatural. Whenever Christians want to convince me god exists, they cite some personal anecdote… as if your cancer went away because God Did It (and not a doctor)… or you met your significant other because of God's Guiding Hand (and not via match.com or through mutual friends or pure coincidence). 

In my experience, Christians tend to be very bad at explaining their reasons for why god exists (and specifically the Christian version of god) in a way that any atheist can take seriously. Usually, we can respond with a perfectly natural explanation for your "miracle." Or, sometimes, I hear a Christian offer their explanation, and I wonder how they would feel if someone from a different faith said the exact same thing. Are they wrong?

What is the biggest misconception that Christians have about atheists? (question from Josh)

The biggest one that comes to my mind: Atheists are immoral because they don't believe in a god.

That's absurd. On the whole, we are highly ethical. The atheists I know donate to charity, volunteer their time, donate their blood, help other people, etc. Why be good? Because it makes the world a better, happier place to live in. Wouldn't you want to live in a world where people were helping each other instead of hurting them?

So why do people believe the opposite? I think a lot of pastors love to demonize atheists because they want you to believe that to be good, you need God… and since atheists don't have god, we can't *possibly* be good. It's just bad reasoning all around.

To paraphrase something I've heard before, if your belief in god is the only reason you're not killing, robbing, or raping others, then maybe you need to see a psychiatrist… (For what it's worth, I'm aware there are good and bad atheists just as there are good and bad Christians.)

What's the single question that you pose that people of faith have the hardest time answering to your satisfaction? And what single question do atheists in general have the most difficult time addressing? (question from Torcon1)

The hardest question for people of faith to answer: Why are all the other religions wrong? To me, they all believe in the same type of nonsense, so the same evidence that you might use to dismiss another faith can probably be used to dismiss your own. (And in case you're thinking "the Bible proves Christianity is true," I assure you all the other faiths think their holy book proves their religion is true, too.)

The hardest question for atheists to answer: You know, I thought about this for a while, and I really can't come up with anything. It's not that atheists know everything; it's just that we're perfectly comfortable saying "We don't know" to questions that no one has the answer to. Why do we exist at all? I don't know. What caused the Big Bang? I don't know. Why do we have consciousness? I don't know. I don't know those things and you don't either.

In my experience, most religious people can't handle that uncertainty. Their religions make up answers to those questions (and others like them) on the basis of no evidence whatsoever and people start believing it after a while. It'd be much more honest of them to admit no one has the answers to those questions and it's possible no one ever will.

What are ways that religion (Christianity specifically, since most readers here come from that faith tradition) crosses over from being something that you simply disagree with to something that you find harmful? (Question from Alise)

Religion is at its worst when people use their beliefs to deny other people equal rights, treat them in some awful way, or cast doubt on otherwise solid ideas.

Because of Christians, there are still laws in several states (though they're unconstitutional) that deny atheists from holding elected office. Because of Christians, in most states, my gay friends in committed relationships can't get married, adopt children, or put their significant other on their insurance plans. Because of Christians, we've become a nation full of evolution-deniers and science-doubters.

Of course, there are individual Christians who don't fall into each of these categories. But the institutional as a whole has done a hell of a lot of damage.

It's not just these "worst case" scenarios, though. Even "good Christians" on the side of proper science education and social justice believe in the supernatural. They believe someone is listening to their prayers and that Jesus rose from the dead, despite there being no evidence for either of those things (no matter what Lee Strobel tells you). Atheists believe in discovering the truth whenever possible, and anything that gets away from that is harmful to some extent.

A lot of folks wanted to know your response to Pascal’s Wager… Has this factored into your thinking at all?

Pascal's Wager essentially says: If you believe in God, you're safe whether he exists or not. If you don't believe in God, you're screwed if he exists. So why not just believe in God and save yourself from possible misery?

Frankly, I'm shocked so many Christians still use this argument. But here are a couple responses…

-- What if we're believing in the wrong God? Then we're all in trouble.

-- Do you really want me to say I believe in your god just to "hedge my bet"… or because I firmly believe your god exists?

Pascal's Wager ends up just asking for lip service, not genuine belief in a god.

On a side note: To everyone who asked about Pascal's Wager, you could've answered your own question by Googling "Pascal's Wager," going to the first link (Wikipedia), and reading the article :) That's the case with a lot of Christian "arguments for god." I wonder why so many Christians don't check with Google first. Or are they the same people who forward those annoying emails without checking Snopes.com first…?

Do you experience discrimination as an atheist? (Question from Jessica)

Yes, but it's not always "in the books."

Most atheists couldn't run for elected office because there's a taboo against people who don't have the "right" religious faith. (The fact that Mitt Romney is the current Republican frontrunner just proves that you don't even need to be a Protestant -- you just have to have faith, period.) Atheists are also the most distrusted religious minority in America as well as the people you'd least like your children to marry. So we're up against all those awful stereotypes.

More specifically, though, I remember applying for my first high school teaching job. Most of my leadership experience to that point had been with atheist organizations. I'd received a number of scholarships because of my activism, started my own successful atheist group on campus, helped run a non-profit group to help college atheists, written a book about atheism… and I had to purge all that from my resume because there was a strong likelihood those things would count against me.

I have no doubt, though, that if my resume said I volunteered with my local church, ran a church youth group, and received scholarships from national evangelical groups, it would've been a boost for me and made me look like a great candidate.

That's the sort of de facto discrimination atheists have to deal with all the time, and it's primarily due to religious leaders spreading misinformation about us. I'm trying to do what I can to reverse that damage.

Several people wanted to know what evidence or experience (if any) would cause you to believe in God?

At this point, I'd have to experience a miracle that had no natural explanation (and couldn't possibly have one). A real miracle, too, not "God opened up this parking spot for me; it's a miracle!" Sometimes, I'll hear about how doctors couldn't cure someone's disease but it "miraculously" went away… and it never takes into account that there could have been a misdiagnosis in the first place or that your body healed in a way we just haven't figured out yet. That's not evidence of god. Give me something irrefutable.

Or maybe god just needs to talk to me. God loooooooves talking to people who are already Christians, but he apparently hates talking to atheists :) I'm always listening. I always hear nothing.

From Liz: Do you say the Pledge of Allegiance? ("one nation under God")

As a high school teacher at a public school, it's said over the intercom in my classroom every day. I never say it, but my students are free to do so.

(For what it's worth, I think it's silly concept to pledge allegiance to any country in the first place. I'm a proud American, but there are a lot of horrible things my country does that I'm not proud of and there may come a time when it makes sense not to pledge allegiance to it. Why should we blindly commit ourselves to supporting our country no matter what? I think that's a bad lesson to teach children.)

From Ben: Who are your favorite living atheist thinkers? Who are your favorite living Christian thinkers?

I like Daniel Dennett, because he demystifies religion from a sociological perspective. His book, Breaking the Spell, is one of my favorites -- he made a lot of arguments against religion I hadn't considered before. I like blogger PZ Myers because he's never afraid to tell you what he thinks, no matter how uncomfortable it might make you feel (e.g. To Catholics: A communion wafer is just a cracker, not Jesus. Get over it). For what it's worth, I don't always agree with him and I sometimes dislike the tone he uses, but I appreciate his dedication in going after religious wrongs and faulty uses of science.

My favorite Christian thinkers? This is tough, because the theologists and apologists never seem to say anything compelling or different. There are brilliant scientists who happen to be Christian, but it's their contributions to science that I'm interested in.

Honestly, the only Christians I read on a regular basis are bloggers/writers who are willing to challenge the orthodoxy, the ones who tell the church it's wrong when it comes to science, homosexuality, its treatment of women, etc. But even *they* tend to cloak everything in the veil of "doubt" out of fear of offending other Christians… so instead of saying "There's no evidence God actually speaks to anyone," they say "I have doubts about whether God is actually speaking to Christians." I really don't think they're all "questioning." I think they've already made up their minds, but they're afraid of saying as much. Why not just tell church leaders how arrogant and misguided and pigheaded and wrong they are (when it's warranted)? It's not just the public Christian figures who don't get well-deserved pushback, though -- how many Christians have told their own pastors they're wrong on a particular issue? I would guess the number is very low.

That's what I love about atheists. We're not afraid to call people out on their crap. We're not afraid to criticize other atheists (public figures and bloggers alike) when we think they're wrong, either. There's just a sense of honesty and accountability in our movement that I don't always see in the Christian world.

From Heidi: When you feel moved to give thanks for something, to whom (or what) do you address your thanks?

To the people who deserve it.

If I got better after a surgery, I would thank the doctors. If I did well in a class, I would thank the teacher… or maybe pat myself on the back for studying so hard.

From April: What are you currently reading?

Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN. And a whole bunch of plays/scripts for the forensics/speech team I coach at my high school... (I read books/blogs about atheism all the time, so when I get a chance, it's nice to read things that are totally different.)

From Christine: What do you love most in life?

My friends. My family. My girlfriend. My job. My Speech Team kids. Reddit.

***

Note: Several atheists have jumped into the comment section to answer your questions from last week, so if you didn't see a response to your question here, check there. Or feel free to pose additional questions after this post.

Poverty Tourism, Poverty Elitism and Grace For All

http://rachelheldevans.com/poverty-tourism-poverty-elitism-grace

by Rachel Held Evans
posted July 6, 2011

When Matthew Paul Turner invited me to be part of World Vision’s Bolivia team this summer, the first thought that went through my mind was, Bolivia’s in South America, right? The second thought that went through my mind was, Why on earth would they need bloggers? What can we possibly do to help?

India - Kids - 092I was concerned because every blogger knows that posts about poverty, justice, and giving tend to result in notoriously low stats—not because people don’t care about poverty, but because it’s hard to say anything new or interesting about it. Furthermore, NGO-sponsored blog tours often produce posts that, as Kari mentioned in a comment last week, can be painfully predictable—you know, “the way that the bloggers are overwhelmed and then uplifted and then come home and, you know, can’t go to Wal-Mart without crying,” that sort of thing. I wasn’t sure I knew how to write about this trip in a creative way that would inspire readers to action.

“People don’t have opinions about poverty,” I told Dan, as I mulled over the trip. “A post about child sponsorship isn’t going to be followed by hundreds of comments and thousands of shares because no one’s going to argue against it. Opinion is the air that a blog breathes, and the only opinion people have about poverty is that it should be eliminated.”

Boy was I wrong about that.

Just a few weeks later, the blogosphere erupted into a heated debate, complete with thousands of comments and shares, about poverty. Well, not about poverty directly, but about how we, the “privileged,” should respond to it.

Poverty Tourism

It all started with an article in The Guardian that examined NGO-sponsored blogging trips from a somewhat critical perspective, questioning the effectiveness of writers “being flown to dirt-poor regions to solemnly observe the impoverished in their natural habitats before returning home with an interesting infection and an exalted sense of enlightenment.” The reporter labeled such trips “poverty tourism” and specifically mentioned a recent trip taken by Heather Armstrong, a wildly popular blogger who travelled to Bangladesh with Every Mother Counts, an organization that addresses maternal mortality.

Well this did not go over well with Heather Armstrong, who took to her blog and twitter account to defend her trip. Her post was followed by hundreds more, from bloggers and aid workers and missionaries alike, including some of our favorites—Nish Weiseth, Elizabeth Esther, Rage Against the Minivan, and Jamie The Very Worst Missionary.

I am thankful for the Guardian piece and for the debate that followed it because I believe that poverty tourism is indeed a problem. Churches are notorious for perpetrating it, usually with expensive weeklong missions trips that often inconvenience indigenous missionaries more than help them. We’ve all known…(or perhaps been)… the high school kid who returns from a week in South America with a camera full of photos, a suitcase full of souvenirs, and a heart full of “first-world guilt.”

In these scenarios, the countries visited are presented as one-dimensionally impoverished, its citizens cast as helpless innocents, and middle-class Americans portrayed as the only saviors who can help.

What I liked about the Guardian article was that it included some practical solutions for how bloggers can avoid poverty tourism. This, along with additional resources available to churches and individuals alike, can help those who find themselves experiencing poverty for the first time do so in a way that honors the people and places they encounter.

The truth of the matter is, many long-term missionaries, aid workers, and world-changers were inspired by short trips that changed their perspective forever. The right response to poverty tourism is to educate and reform, not to discourage people from experiencing poverty and reporting on what they learn.

Poverty Elitism

On other side of the coin we have another phenomenon that is just as destructive as poverty tourism. I call it poverty elitism, and it showed up more than a few times in the tone of the Guardian piece and in subsequent blog posts and comments on this topic.

All you need to become a poverty elitist is a little more experience with poverty than the people in your immediate vicinity. So, if you’ve spent six months in an orphanage in Romania and your friend has spent one week painting walls in Thailand, you can take advantage of that and wax eloquent on your poverty expertise while mocking your friend’s pathetic attempt at social justice via “tweets from Thailand.” But if someone in the room has spent 10 years working in refugee camps in Sudan, well then that person trumps you both. If he is a poverty elitist, he will promptly bemoan your pathetic foray into poverty tourism, causally reference all the times he had to carry water for three miles like the women of Darfur, and top it all off with a dismissive comment about Bono.

Poverty elitism is just as exploitive as poverty tourism, for it turns the poor into feathers in our caps and once again presents them as the helpless victims of well-meaning do-gooders.

My concern with poverty elitism is that if we belittle people for caring about poverty, if we make them feel small when they attempt to do something about it (albeit clumsily at times), then there’s a chance they will stop. If we’re serious about ending extreme poverty for good, then this is an all-hands-on-deck situation in which we can’t afford to be snobs. Yes, there will be poverty tourist. Yes, there will tacky t-shrits. Yes, there will be celebrities. Yes, there will be tweets. But this is one scenario in which we cannot allow the “I-thought-it-was-cool-before-everyone-else-thought-it-was cool” phenomenon to get the better of us.

Let’s face it. None of us who have the time and the resources to argue about this online truly understand what it’s like to suffer extreme poverty.

This is not to say that all opinions are equal. It’s important that we learn from those who have extensive experience dealing with government and non-government agencies, and it is absolutely vital that we learn from those who are actually facing the challenges of poverty themselves. The right response to poverty elitism is not to turn around and dismiss those with valuable experience, but rather to cut one another a little slack as we try and figure this out together.

Grace

So I decided to go to Bolivia. I decided to go because I was asked by a reputable organization, because the people at World Vision seem to think I can help, and because I’ll be able to work stories from my trip into my next book. I don’t feel a need to defend that decision any further.

As I consider how to proceed, I am fortunate to have as inspiration my sister, Amanda.

Amanda went on two-week trip to India when she was in college. She went with a group from school, the sort of trip that some might label “poverty tourism." But Amanda really connected with the people and the organizations there, and so she returned a few years later for a six-month stay….and then returned again for two subsequent visits. It seems that the friends she made among the indigenous missionaries and the poor they serve simply can’t get enough of her. They love her like a daughter, beg her to return, even called her on her wedding day.

When I visited Amanda in Hyderabad back in 2006, I had my “poverty tourist” moments—being shocked by the slums, throwing up all the time, taking an absurd amount of photographs, crying like a baby when the rickshaw driver ripped us off—but Amanda never looked down her nose at me or chided my efforts, even though a few weeks before she had held a dying little girl in her arms and a few weeks later she would severely burn her leg on a motorbike.

Amanda could have one-upped me. The missionaries could have one-upped Amanda. And the leprosy patients could have one-upped us all. But that never happened. Instead there was a sense that we shared a common brokenness and a common grace, and that there is no place for judgment or pity among friends.

What I love about the ministry of Jesus is that he identified the poor as blessed and the rich as needy… and then he went and ministered to them both. Poverty tourists need only look to the beatitudes (Luke 6:20-26) to be reminded that the poor are not one-dimensional victims in need of our help. Poverty elitists need only look to the story of the expensive perfume (Mathew 26:6-13) to be reminded that our Lord is more impressed with genuine love than effectiveness.

We cannot buy the lie that there are those who need and those who supply when the frightening and beautiful reality is that we desperately need one another.

That’s what I love about the Kingdom:

For the poor, there is food.
For the rich, there is joy.
For all of us, there is grace.

***

So what's your take on this whole "poverty tourism" debate?

Have ever been a poverty tourist or a poverty elitist?