Monday, November 25, 2013

Pastors Saving Faith

Over the last year, I’ve had the unexpected pleasure of becoming acquainted with a number of excellent pastors.  This might be a strange thing to say, since I don’t believe in the foundation of what they preach.  But these people have redeemed pastors for me, and by contrast, shown me where things went wrong for the pastors I grew up with, none of whom would have dreamed I’d say goodbye to faith.

Like a lot of young evangelicals, I experienced my “on fire for Jesus”  phase during middle school.  Puberty brings about lots of emotions, and among them, an emotional connection to the faith I’d been taught from birth.  Apologetics were the norm for me, and my youth pastor, a drop-out from Multnomah Bible College, fed those flames with a lot of skill.  People like me were his dream; We were young, outspoken, confident Christians who wanted nothing more than to set the world on fire for Christ.  If youth group had been held every night, I would have been there.  Retreats were the highlight of the season, and summer camp couldn’t come soon enough.  Looking back, the best (and in retrospect, the worst) parts of my childhood involved that youth group, and that youth pastor.

Like most things that begin with an emphasis on emotion over intellect, eventually the zeal simmered down, and the focus on apologetics increased.  Entering high school, and with it, the high school youth pastor (my church had different pastors for middle and high school), my zeal for my faith lessened as I realized that the pastor couldn’t handle the questions I was asking.  It wasn’t that he didn’t want to.  He just hadn’t been trained on things outside the very narrow scope of evangelicalism.  So many times, the answer to a question was, “We’re humans.  We’re not capable of understanding everything.  We just have to have faith.”  At 12, this was sufficient.  At 16, it was not.  Josh McDowell books were passed around, and some of the staff that were attending seminary would try their best to answer all the questions, but evangelicalism wasn’t built for doubt, and it showed.  Doubt was a sign of spiritual weakness.  Faith was the starting point, not the conclusion.  While each point of doctrine had been arrived at somehow, now that those items have been decided upon, it was apparently not necessary to explain how or why they became known to be true.

My mom thinks if I had attended Portland State, I would have remained a Christian.  It’s her belief that my atheism is some kind of rebellion against authority.  For her, it can’t be real.  Surely it’s just a phase, a sad detour on the road back to Jesus.  While I can’t say what would have happened if I hadn’t gone to a Christian college, where I finally lost all my faith, I do think that if my upbringing had been in a more flexible environment, things might be different.  As I said in my sermon a few weeks ago, faith is tenuous.  It comes and it goes, and it does this without our permission.  I firmly believe this. But I also believe there is value in community, and a community that can handle a divergence of opinion is a community that can keep its members while they sway wildly back and forth in the ideology.

Tonight I was reading from the blog of Eric Muhr, a youth pastor at Newberg Friends Church.  I’ve never met Eric.  I hear you want to avoid his van on a road trip.  In any event, in reading his blog, I felt really sad.  After thinking on it for awhile, I think what’s so sad about Eric’s blog is that he is the kind of pastor that might have saved Christianity for me.

In an entry from November of 2012, Eric writes:

“I want to normalize doubt for those who might otherwise feel abandoned by God and by their community.  I want to encourage serious questions that challenge our thinking and open up opportunities for growth.  I want to be part of a community that used faith as a tool (never as a weapon).

And I hope.
That 20 years from now.
Some former student.
Watching graduation reruns.
Might ask herself why she’s still at church.
And think of people who weren’t afraid of her questions, people who loved her because of (not in spite of), people who inspired and encouraged and modeled for and listened to and learned from…
That should would think of so many people
And that one of them might be me.”

A professor at George Fox recently commented on something Eric wrote, saying, “I’m so grateful that you’re involved in the religious development of my children.”

At the meeting we attend as a family, Taylor’s youth pastor, Mark, is the kind of person that I believe will preserve the option of faith for her.  It won’t be ruined with too much certainty, and it won’t be made silly with too much subjectivity.  Mark once told me that over half of his high school students don’t believe in God.  And yet, they show up.  They think together, learn together, and form a community together.  This is a pastor I would trust my child with.  Faith will be presented in its best light, and when they’re old enough, my kids will decide for themselves.

Quakers are unique in that the pastor isn’t a dictator.  He or she doesn’t have much executive power.  His/her opinion isn’t the most important opinion.  As I see it, the pastor’s most important contribution is setting the tone for how the meeting will be.  And in that regard, Mike Huber is a helluva pastor.  While listening to Biblical sermons as an atheist can be a challenge, on multiple occasions I’ve been startled by the direction he has taken with verses I’ve heard a million times.  One Sunday I had to bite my lip as he started telling one of my least favorite stories, the story of Abraham and Isaac.  I’d been waiting to be disappointed for a long time, and it had finally come.  But as the sermon turned from the verses into practical application, I was stunned when he said, “God does not ask us to sacrifice our children.  We. Don’t. Sacrifice. Our children.  We don’t sacrifice children in hoodies.  We don’t sacrifice our LGBT children.  We don’t sacrifice…”

What I appreciate most about Mike is that he’s never told me no.  When I’d only been visiting for two months, and asked to give an atheist manifesto from the pulpit, Mike said yes.  3 months later when I wanted to do it again, Mike said yes.  And a month ago, when I asked to give a sermon that included rejection of Biblical infallibility, and rejection of religious dogma, Mike said yes.  With each of those events, I finally got to air my grievances about church, to a church.  And each time, I’ve been swarmed with smiles, hugs, hand shakes, and “Can I get a copy of that?”  I’m in a community that can handle my lack of belief.  And if faith ever comes back, they’ll be able to handle that too.

Pastors are important.  There is nothing more personal than the things we believe about life and death.  And I’m so grateful, after 10 years of myself and the wind, to have people I can trust with these questions, especially when they tell me they can’t answer them.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Dogmatic Certainty

The following was a spoken message at West Hills Friends Church, given on November 10, 2013.

I’d like to open with a quote from the influential evangelical pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, Mark Driscoll:

“There is a strong drift toward the hard theological left.  Some emergent types want to re-caste Jesus as a limp-wrist hippie in a dress with a lot of product in his hair who drank decaf and made pithy zen statements about life while shopping for the perfect pair of shoes.  In Revelation, Jesus is a prize fighter with a tattoo down his leg, a sword in his hand, and the commitment to make someone bleed.  That is a guy I can worship.  I cannot worship the hippie, diaper-wearing, halo Christ because I cannot worship a guy I can beat up.  I fear some are becoming more cultural than Christian, and without a big Jesus who has authority and hates sins as revealed in the Bible, we will have less and less Christians, and more and more confused, spiritually self-righteous blogger critics of Christianity.”

This kind of statement is fairly representative of what I call dogmatic certainty.  I was raised in it.  Maybe you were too.  For the believer who has certainty, there is truth, and there are lies.  There are truth-holders, and there are those who are intentionally trying to squash the truth wherever it’s found.  Certainty allows a person to not only proclaim that something is true, it lets them bellow it with conviction, as if the truth of the statement is so obvious that any doubter must be unintelligent. The person of certainty generally doesn’t care about history, tradition, or scholarly research.  It is from the bowels of certainty, or perhaps to compensate for uncertainty, that fundamentalism emerged, and with it, the unfortunate doctrine of Biblical infallibility.  Biblical infallibilists believe that the entirety of the Bible is true and without contradiction or error.  Largely developed by evangelicals in the 1970s, infallibilists spend enormous amounts of time attempting to show that despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, verse sequences like the following are completely in harmony with each other:

Proverbs 26:4 Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will be like him yourself.
Proverbs 26:5: Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes.
1 Corinthians 14:33a: For God is not the author of confusion

New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman has this to say about the supposed lack of contradictions in the Bible:

“In Matthew, Jesus says, “Whoever is not with me is against me.”  In Mark, he says, “Whoever is not against us is for us.”  Did he say both things? Could he mean both things? How can both be true at once? Or is it possible that one of the gospel writers got things switched around?”

I’ve yet to figure out the purpose of holding a certainty-based doctrine like Biblical inerrancy.  If God is both real and alive, is it worth abandoning one’s intellect to try to make 66 books written over a thousand years by mostly unknown authors line up perfectly?  Is that the point of Christianity?  Are we talking about a faith system or a simple algebraic equation?

Just as religious certainty squashes civil conversation and ruins relationships, so does non-religious certainty.  Consider this quote from atheist biologist Richard Dawkins.  Consider if you, as a theist, would feel comfortable discussing your beliefs with him:

“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all of fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control freak; a vindictive, blood-thirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously  malevolent bully.”

I looked up a few of those words.  Filicidal means someone who kills their own son or daughter. Pestilential means someone who tends to produce pestilence.

By stating his opinion with so much bile, Dawkins eliminates himself as a conversation partner, hurting the listener, and his own cause in the process.  Maybe atheism is true.  Plenty of smart people lean that direction.  But to exhibit so much certainty about a position that is at least a simple lack of belief, and at most an aggressive reliance on an unproven negative, is to place conviction above evidence, and superiority above a relationship.

Very recently an evangelical pastor staged a conference whose goal was to announce that members of the charismatic traditions of Christianity are going to hell because they violate the Bible’s oh-so-clear admonishing that speaking in tongues is the work of the devil, and blasphemes the holy spirit.  Ironically, it was Mark Driscoll, lover of the sword-swinging Jesus, who showed up to conference intending to pull the charismatics out of hell.

So if we shouldn’t display our beliefs with dogmatic certainty, what should we do? After all, for many people, their faith is their most cherished possession.  I’d ask you to consider the times in your life when someone has impacted your life by a display of their faith.  Did they persuade you with logic or reason?  Did they dismantle your doctrine detail by detail, and replace it with their own?  I’m guessing that’s not what happened.  For me personally, my opinions on theology haven’t changed in years.  What has changed is my attitude towards people of faith, and towards certainty.

When OneGeorgeFox hosted a lesbian Christian singer in Newberg last year, I went as a supporter of the effort to influence the school’s policies towards LGBT people. I went in spite of the group’s Christian motivation for wanting the policies changed.  After the show, I ran into a friend I hadn’t seen since graduating from Fox 10 years prior.  She asked how I’d been, and I explained that I hadn’t been back to campus since 2003, and that faith and I parted ways a long time ago.  My friend is a very faithful person.  She might be the most Jesus-centric person I know.  But her response to hearing of my atheism wasn’t to challenge my conclusion.  She simply said, “I’m glad you’re here.”

I didn’t know what to say.  At that time in my life, I wasn’t used to being treated like a person who is separate from my ideas.  What Kim communicated with those four simple words is that I matter more than my doctrine.  What she said was not a logical proof.  It wasn’t a Biblical retort or a defense of her Quaker beliefs.  She was putting her faith into action, omitting the text of her faith in favor of the love that inspires it.  And she didn’t know it, but she crushed the way I viewed religious people.

My view of religious people changed a little more the first time I visited West Hills six months later.  After the awkward hymns and sermon with science fiction references in it, Kathy Edge stood up and expressed a very real sense of doubt.  I don’t remember the details, but at that time, it was possible that aspects her faith system were useless and wrong.  She said it out loud, and she sat down.  No rosy platitudes about how everything happens for a reason.  And nobody rushed over to make sure her doubts weren’t really all that serious.  They were, and that was ok.  Because in this place, faith really is faith.  And with faith comes the possibility that we’re wrong.

By definition, faith goes beyond what we can prove.  By definition, faith is a hope that beyond all the miserable stuff that we can be certain about, there might be something better, and just maybe we’re better off hanging onto that hope than clinging to what little certainty we can justify.  Faith is tenuous.  It comes and it goes, and it does this without our permission.  I hope that those of you who have it can recognize how fortunate that makes you.

When we converse with others, let us speak with curiosity instead of certainty.  Let our actions demonstrate that we might be wrong, and we know it.  Let us put people before doctrine, and love before creeds.  Let us remember that people aren’t changed by challenges to their pyramid of things that are true.  People are changed by being shown, not told, that there’s a better way to be.  And finally, let us seek the truth together, confident that even if we never find it, the search will have made our lives more fulfilling.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

She is my Light

Originally submitted as an entry to Minding The Light, issue 15, which can be found here:

I cried in the car recently.  As everyone knows, cars have a
no-crying-allowed rule. 

My daughter has an ongoing tantrum problem, and we've been at wit's end
trying to figure out how to stop them, or at least shorten them.  So when
Taylor told me she found something that helps her calm down, I was thrilled!
She turned on the Ipad, and played an Alicia Keys song called "Never Felt
This Way".  The song is about someone she loves, and how all she needs is
that person in her life.  Taylor told me the song reminds her that all she
needs are her parents, and that keeps her calm.

I told her that I have a song that reminds me of her as well.  I had the CD
in the car at the time, so I played it for her.  I figured she'd like the
song, but I didn't expect her to ask me to explain why it reminds me of her.
I told her I wasn't sure I could tell her without crying, but I'd give it a

"Taylor, for most people who believe in God, like you do, there are lots of
reasons to have hope.  People who believe in God usually believe that God is
with them all the time, and that someday, after they die, they'll get to
meet God, and talk to God, and ask any kind of question they want to ask.

People like me, we don't have that kind of hope, as nice as it sounds.  And
sometimes, it's hard to find reasons to stay happy about what's going on in
life.  If we're sad about something, we don't have that magical idea to hold
onto, that someday it will all be ok.  For me, when I really need it, the
happiest idea I can turn to is you.  You give me more hope, love, and
encouragement than anyone or anything else in my life."

I Will Not Let Go, by David Bazan

When you get this message
I'll be high above the Earth
Thinking 'bout the promises that I keep
When I touch down in Texas
Land in Dallas/Fort Worth
I will call you up, and wake you from your sleep.
I will not let go of you

Who or what controls the fates of men
I cannot say
But I keep arriving safely home to you
And I humbly acknowledge
That I won't always get my way
But darling, death will have to pry my fingers loose