Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Exploring Atheism

In 2014 Seventh Day Adventist pastor Ryan Bell embarked on a personal experiment to try on atheism for a year see if it fit. He announced in a Huffington Post blog: "For the next 12 months I will live as if there is no God. I will not pray, read the Bible for inspiration, refer to God as the cause of things or hope that God might intervene and change my own or someone else's circumstances."

During that year he regularly wrote a blog entitled “Year Without God,” which I read religiously. The end result of his “year off” from God was that he rejected any religious faith and fully embraced atheism. He now has a new blog and podcast "Life After God."

My experience has been longer, less radical, and the end result is different. For the past seven years I have been studying the New Atheism. Atheism is not new to me. I was a teenage atheist. During my high school years I considered myself an existentialist in the spirit of Camus and Sartre.

Then I experienced a religious conversion in my twenties and have considered myself a Christian ever since. My Christianity went through various stages over the years, from evangelical to progressive to conservative again. But my skeptical spirit remained intact throughout it all.

Then came the New Atheism. I mark the beginning of this movement a decade ago with Richard Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion, in 2006. I did not read this bestseller when it was first published. I was too immersed in my increasingly Calvinistic Christianity at that time. But I read it in late 2009, and I kept reading everything that this new breed of atheists published.

The result of my seven years in the Land of Skepticism is my recently published book entitled, Thank God for Atheists: What Christians Can Learn from the New Atheism. I rediscovered the skeptical spirit, and found that it is also the Christian spirit. As the apostle Paul put it, “Examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good.” (I Thessalonians 5:21 NASB)

My observation is that most Christians have not critically examined their faith. They certainly have not tested it in the fiery furnace of agnosticism. Christians reflexively defend, coddle and protect their faith, as if it were too delicate to endure intense scrutiny. Too many Christians accept their religion as the “one true faith” without really examining if this is true.

I examined my faith and religion as thoroughly and critically as I could for the past seven years. I came out the other side of this process still a Christian, but a much more rational and skeptical one. You might call me a Christian skeptic or a skeptical Christian. My Christianity morphed into a worldview much more in keeping with the realities of science and history. 

Gone is the supernaturalism and anthropomorphism of traditional theism. My faith is based on the scientific method, historical criticism and my personal experience of God. During these seven years my awareness of the Presence of God has increased even as my skepticism of traditional theism has also increased.

I never would have expected that. Yet that is the mystery of the spiritual life. Skepticism has made me a stronger Christian, even though my more conservative and traditional brethren and sistren may look askance at my present theology. Some may think I have abandoned “the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3) I have not. I have rediscovered it.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

I Wish Reincarnation Were True

I have been retired from full-time Christian ministry for nine months. People still ask me if I miss it. I respond honestly, “Not at all!” It is strange to feel this way. When I took a one year hiatus from ministry in 2010, I was not ready to retire. This time I am.

Whereas I do not miss being a pastor, I do miss all the other careers I could have had. I miss the “roads not taken.” The other day I remarked to my wife that I wish I had several more lifetimes. There are so many things I could do. 

I could have a career in science. That was my original plan when I entered college. Oceanography was my chosen field. I scuba dived and read Jacques Cousteau. By the time I was eighteen I had already narrowed down my career to geological oceanographer. 

I loved science, and I still do. But it was not to be. The spiritual quest captivated me, and I dove headfirst into the religious life instead.

I am glad I did. I have no regrets. I made a living at exploring spiritual truth full-time. I have spent my life seeking the ultimate truths of human existence. I was paid to ponder the deep philosophical and spiritual questions of life. I read many books and wrote a few.

And I helped some people along the way (I hope.) All that time, study, and effort paid off. I am more confident of my spiritual stance than at any other time in my life. But I still wonder who Marshall Davis, the scientist, would have been. 

Then there are other possibilities, such as teaching. That was my second career choice after science. In seminary my plan was to teach religion at the college or seminary level. I entered a PhD program with that in mind. But the pastorate called, and I answered.

I also imagine myself as a professional photographer. That was my dream in high school. I was photography editor of my school newspaper and yearbook. I was even offered a job on my hometown newspaper when I was a teenager. Now I enjoy that life vicariously through the beautiful photography of my wife, Jude.

There are a dozen more career paths I could mention. So many possibilities! That is why I wish reincarnation were true. Then I could do it all!

But, of course, reincarnation is not real. There is no evidence for it, in spite of the beliefs of billions of Hindus and Buddhists and the anecdotal accounts of past life regression. I need evidence, not faith, when it comes to afterlives.

We have one life to live. I still have years of my present life (I hope) to explore new things. And I plan to. But I am expecting no “midlife career change.” (To be in “midlife” would mean I would live to be 132.)

The truth is that I have not finished exploring this life path yet. I have more books to write and truths to uncover! I am just glad I have been granted the incredible blessing of this one human life. 

Friday, May 5, 2017

Outsider Test for Faith

One of the most helpful techniques for spiritual insight is John Loftus’ “Outsider Test for Faith”  explained in his book by that name. Loftus is an ex-pastor who encourages Christians to examine their own faith by the same standards that they would judge other faiths. In other words, evaluate your beliefs as if you were an outsider to your religion. 

This is the test in his own words: “The only way to rationally test one’s culturally adopted religious faith is from the perspective of an outsider, a nonbeliever, with the same level of reasonable skepticism believers already use when examining the other religious faiths they reject. This expresses the Outsider Test for Faith.” He describes it as a variation on the Golden Rule: "Do unto your own faith what you would do to other faiths.” 

This simple exercise opened my eyes. It was relatively easy for me to do intellectually, but very difficult for me to process emotionally. For much of my Christian ministry I have been a Christian apologist. I have debated Muslims, Buddhists, and Baha’is on live radio. I gave lectures and taught classes examining Mormonism, Transcendental Meditation, Scientology, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. I found it easy to identify the inconsistencies and fallacies of these belief systems.

But when it came to my own faith, it was a different matter. Christianity made perfect sense to me. Virgin births, people rising from the dead, axe heads floating, apostles walking on water, the sun standing still, talking animals – they all were completely believable. I was blessed with having the one truth faith!

Then I applied the “outsider test for faith” to my Christianity. I stepped out of my worldview and viewed my own religion from the outside. I mentally put myself in the positon of a non-Christian. I wanted to see what I would think of Christianity if I were not predisposed to accept it as God’s revealed truth. 

I looked at Christianity as if I was a Muslim or Jew. I looked at Evangelical Christianity as if I were a Mormon or a Buddhist. I looked at the Bible as if it were no more inspired than any other ancient book. I looked at the New Testament as if I believed the Quran were infallible. I looked at Christian doctrines like the Virgin Birth, the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the Second Coming as if I were a Taoist or Humanist.

When I looked at my faith as an outsider, what I saw made me very nervous. I was tempted to shut down the whole thought experiment. When viewed objectively Christianity does not look any more credible than any other religion. In fact when viewed from the outside, all religions look rather silly. I found myself laughing aloud at this new perspective. I suddenly understood why atheists think and speak the way they do.  

This doesn’t mean that I no longer hold Christianity to be true. It means that now I realize that I better have very good reasons for believing Christianity is true. I better have more credible reasons for believing that the apostle Paul received the gospel as a revelation directly from the risen Christ (Galatians 1:12) than that Muhammad received the Quran in a cave on Mount Hira, or that Joseph Smith discovered Golden Plates on the Hill Cumorah in upstate New York.  Try this test for yourself and see what happens. 

(This article is adapted from my new book, “Thank God for Atheists: What Christians Can Learn from the New Atheism” available on Amazon)

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Blogless in Sandwich

Twice in the past week people asked me why I have not written a blog post recently. Others have said the same thing in recent months. It is not that I don’t have anything to say. It is just that my thoughts are not publishable.

I have written articles and never posted them. Sometimes they were printed in the local newspaper in the religion column I write for. But hardly anyone reads that, so it is almost the same as not publishing them!

Some of my articles are still sitting in a folder on my laptop. Others I deleted after writing, being too controversial for a small town pastor to voice publicly. Still others disappeared when my hard drive crashed a few months ago. I see that as divine intervention.

I have been thinking a lot about persecution of Christians in the world. The destruction of ancient Christian communities and public executions of Christians have been weighing heavy on my heart. I have been thinking about the rise of Islamic extremism. I have been watching with concern the marginalization of religion and the eroding of religious liberty in our country.

I have been thinking of the growing crop of presidential hopefuls. (Lord, save us from them!)  I have been thinking about the ruling class in America. I am increasingly disgusted with the two main political parties, and I wonder how anyone can believe in them anymore.

I have been increasingly amazed by the senseless tripe that is paraded as news on the major networks. Every channel runs exactly the same stories, with the same footage. They run the same stories night after night. New, unique, and important events are happening every day in the world, and they are ignored by the media.

You see? That is why I have not written anything. I get upset. I feel like I am in a Wachowski movie. I have chosen the red pill, and sometimes wish I had taken the blue one. Life is so much easier when you believe whatever you want to believe. I have also been reading the novels of Philip K. Dick recently. That does not help.

I am increasingly dismayed at Christian religion in America - mainline Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, and evangelical Christianity. The anti-scientific bias in Christianity – liberal and conservative - astounds me. The narcissistic introversion of popular spirituality amazes me. The cultural captivity and herd mentality of both progressive and evangelical Christianity repulses me. Where is Kierkegaard when you need him?

You see, I am already saying too much. I probably should have kept some of those thoughts in the folder on my laptop. Anyway, this is why I have been blogless. Now you know. But who knows? Perhaps this post will be the beginning of a change.  

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Rise of the Planet of the Nones

New research released a month ago by the Public Religion Research Institute shows that the religiously unaffiliated are now the largest “religious” group in the United States.

Nationally those who respond “None” to religious affiliation surveys are 22%. White evangelical Protestants come in second at 18%. White Mainline Protestants are third at 14%. White Catholics are 13%, followed by Black Protestants and Hispanic Protestants, both at 8%. All the rest are 5% or under.

In thirteen states the “Nones” comprise the largest group, including in New Hampshire. In fact among all fifty states New Hampshire is second only to Oregon in having the highest percentage of “Nones.” 

In the Granite State 35% are unaffiliated, 28% are White Catholic, and 16% are White Mainline Protestant. White Evangelicals come in fourth in New Hampshire at 9%.  All the rest of the groups are 2% or under.

Of course I could argue with the way the groups were divided along racial and ethnic lines. (For example, I don’t see Black or Hispanic Protestants as religiously different than White Protestants!) But no matter how you look at it, I am part of a minority group.

On the world scene the situation is much more serious. It is open hunting season on Christians of all kinds as persecution and destruction of historic Christian communities accelerate.

Back here in the United States, there is no persecution of Christians. Just an ongoing loss of numbers, power, prestige, and influence. And that is alright. Many Christians bemoan the ongoing cultural shift and wring their hands in despair. I kind of like it, as long as it does not turn into intolerance.

To tell the truth I never cared for the so-called “glory days” of American Protestantism, as my church in Lowell, Massachusetts, used to call the 1950’s and 60’s. I grew up in that era. I remember those days well, and I didn't like them. That was the type of Christianity that I, like so many Baby Boomers, rebelled against.

It was the time when pews were filled, and Mainstream Protestantism had power and influence. If you wanted to get ahead in business or society, you had to be a member of a church. That is no longer true. Good riddance. It fostered a hypocritical form of Christianity.

Nowadays it is counter-cultural for a person to be a part of a church. That fits me better. It is now culturally “in” to be a skeptic, agnostic, atheist, or at least “spiritual but not religious.” Although recent studies have shown that this last group is actually better described as “neither spiritual nor religious.”

Christianity has always been at its best when the underdog.  That is why it thrived in the first three hundred years of the Christian Era. Only when the Roman Emperor Constantine decided to make Christianity the official religion of the empire in the fourth century, did the real problems begin. Masses of people joined the church for reasons other than religious conviction.

That was the downfall of the Christianity. Since then believers have always been “a church within a church.” Nowadays people come to church for much better reasons. Sure, there are those who come mostly for the social dimension, and that is fine. We all need community and friends. But there is now a much more sincere search for, and finding, a sense of the Presence of God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit, than ever before.

So I will not complain about the Nones or their growing numbers. It just means there are that many more people to reach with the gospel.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Unloving Wall

I have been following the election in Israel, and it has caused me to think back to the times I have visited the Holy Land. It has been many years now since I traveled to Israel. The last time was in the year 2000. I still have a sun-faded cap with the words “Jerusalem 2000” on it. There are many reasons I have not returned, but now I have one more. It would break my heart to see the wall.

I am referring to the security wall built between Israel and the Occupied Territories. Israel had already built a wall around the Gaza Strip in the 1990’s, but now a wall has been built around the whole West Bank. It is a serpentine scar on the landscape of this beautiful land.

In 2013 a 145 mile fence was constructed at the Egyptian border, and a new fence was built in the Golan Heights at the border with Syria in the same year. Now all that remains is to construct a barricade at the peaceful border with Jordan. Then the Israeli fortress will be complete.

I have been told that this wall adjoins Tantur, the Ecumenical Institute where I and my whole family lived for a semester in 1991.  In those more peaceful times we had only hand-thrown stones, rubber bullets and tear gas to contend with. Yet we were unafraid to walk regularly over the border into Bethlehem.

We used to walk unobstructed from our flat at Tantur into Bethlehem to shop for pita bread and fruit at a nearby market. We would walk past Rachel’s tomb, all the way to Manger Square to visit the Basilica of the Nativity, the traditional site of Jesus’s birth. That experience made such an impression on me that every Christmas Eve I still remember the smell of the incense in that church.

To take that journey into Bethlehem now, one would have to go through a military checkpoint.  My experience contrasts sharply with that of my brother-in-law, who is presently visiting a Jewish settlement on the West Bank. I have urged him repeatedly to visit the site of our Savior’s birth, but it is not as easy as it used to be. Here is a Christian walled out from a holy site.

Robert Frost wrote, “Something there is that doesn't love a wall, That wants it down.” That something that doesn't love a wall lives in me. Part of me want to shout a paraphrase of JFK, “Ich bin ein Bethlehemer” and Ronald Reagan, “Mr. Netanyahu, tear down this wall.”

Robert Frost wrote:
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know

What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.

The stated purpose of the wall is to wall out terrorists. They say it has worked, pointing to the fact that there has not been a suicide bombing since 2009. If I was a Jew in Israel, I might see the wall this way also – as a protection from terror. But I know that something there is that does not love a wall, that wants it down.

I also know that the wall has stopped ordinary commerce and interactions between Palestinians and Israelis. Palestinians are severely restricted in their travel to Israel.  Israelis are banned from entering Palestinian cities in the West Bank. Many young Israelis have never met a Palestinian face to face, and vice versa.

This lack of social contact between the two peoples breeds ignorance, which breeds fear and hatred, which breeds violence. It is easier – on both sides - to dehumanize a faceless, nameless enemy, whose only identity is formed from our own imaginations and government propaganda. Perhaps the wall has decreased one type of violence, but I fear it is also planting the seeds of another type of violence.

Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.

I pray for a ground swell in the Holy Land.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

The Best Christmas Blog Ever

I wrote an interesting post for this blog. I think it might have been my best blog post ever. It was all about Advent and Christmas and how God works in your life. It was called “Planting Grass in Winter.” Too bad you will never read it.

I lost it. No, my dog did not eat my homework. I don’t have a dog. My cat did not eat it either. The hard drive on my laptop crashed, and I lost it. It was a good thing that I had just printed the week’s sermon an hour earlier, or my congregation would have gotten an excuse like this on Sunday morning.

I had backed up most of my important documents, but I lost everything I had been working on that day, including that article and some other things. I also lost all my software because I did not have the good sense to make a recovery disk.

Then I lost a lot of time calling the retail store where I bought the computer (they weren’t any help) and the computer manufacturer, (more helpful). I spent quality time listening to elevator music while on hold waiting to talk with a human. The laptop was only six months old! It should not have failed. I was not a happy preacher. The bad holiday music did not help.

But then I thought: why not make lemonade? You know, when life gives you lemons ….  Life always throws us curves. Things never turn out the way we expect. We are traveling along the road of life, minding our own business, when all of a sudden our hard drive crashes. Or something more serious.

A broken computer is a minor inconvenience compared to other things that come our way. Cancer, Alzheimer's, divorce, family conflict, death, financial problems, etc. But the principle is the same. We can catch the pass we are thrown or fumble the ball. (I’ve been watching the Patriots.)

Personally I believe that God is in control and that all things work out for good, even when I cannot see the good clearly. That goes for holidays. Christmas never turns out exactly like we expect. The Norman Rockwell paintings are not always replicated in our dining rooms.

Even the first Christmas did not turn out the way Mary and Joseph planned. A barn in a strange town was not Mary’s first choice of birthing venues. Fleeing the murderous intentions of King Herod and living as refugees in Egypt was not Joseph’s plan for his son’s early childhood years.

But then there was the good stuff too. Serenaded by angels, the star of Bethlehem, visited by kings – gold, frankincense and myrrh. Pretty cool! God knows how to do it right, even if it is not how we would have done it.

The holidays might not turn out exactly the way we want. That is alright. It is even alright to be sad when things are not the way we want. That is why we have a Blue Christmas service at our church. The holidays don’t have to live up to society’s expectations. God is still in control, just like he was the first Christmas.