- Special Sections
- Public Notices
My son landed in a college course on Atheism last year. As you would expect, this raised his old man’s eyebrows. Having read my share of stormy essays and sympathetic voices of doubt, I wondered how a preacher’s kid would hear these voices. The good news is that he weathered the hostility of Marx, Freud, and Dawkins and is hopefully a bit more thoughtful about the thought required of faith.
I nabbed his textbook and read it last fall. Reading these sneering prophets led me to an interesting conclusion: I agreed with them. I didn’t agree with their conclusions, obviously, but I had to agree that well-meaning people like me are often their greatest ammunition in an argument against God existing. To be more precise, while we pound the pulpits for faith and love, we often look neither faithful nor loving. Let me share a few of their complaints.
Benedict de Spinoza, excommunicated by both Calvinist and Catholic authorities in the church-battling seventeenth century, wondered how Christians could hold to love, joy, peace, temperance and charity as the centerpiece of faith and yet display outright hatred toward people holding the same faith in God. In fact, he concluded that the religiously faithful and unfaithful were so similar in behavior that the only way to recognize Christians was by respectable clothes, the building they entered on Sundays and their religion-peppered dialogue. He concluded that church was nothing more than “dignities,” not true faith.
That is a challenging idea. Wouldn’t it be nice to say that we do not speak ill of other believers or other churches? And what if we understood “Christian” to extend beyond our own corner? I’m not certain what we gain by penciling some Christian denominations “in” and others “out” when, in fact, we’ve never even sat and prayed with these people. Last time I checked, Jesus sagely offered our love for one another as a sign that we are His disciples (John 13:34-35). Maybe he understood better than anyone that loving someone within the family of faith might be harder than loving those outside it.
Returning to the book, Mark Twain’s criticism was especially grueling. Considering the breadth of suffering in both the centuries-long, paranoid habit of burning women accused of witchcraft and the enslavement of Africans for profit, the pulpit was the last authority to drop the ruse that these executions and indignities were justifiable; in fact, it often took a “godless” government to step in and force us into more Christian conduct. Twain’s complaint was that we seem to be at the tail end of the procession. We were the first to preach the mercy of Christ and the last to show it.
This is a difficult criticism. It is a delicious irony to our critics that while we offer John 3:16 so often, we have a history thin in mercy. We are prone to the same self-interest that holds our culture and time. While we would expect an indwelling Christ to set individuals and congregations apart, our critics may wonder if Jesus is less powerful among us than we confess. Note that those outside the faith do expect us to be different, but they expect this difference to at least be proved in the arena of mercy.
Finally, the writer H.P. Lovecraft impatiently noted in a letter to a friend that his deep divide with belief in God is simple: “it is NOT TRUE.” The simple confusion in his friend’s mind met a concrete explanation. Lovecraft defines it well, actually. He stood in unbelief because he found faith in Christ lacking in truth. If he held it to be without truth, there could be no belief.
Boy do I agree with that. The truthfulness of the gospel is the only reason we can follow Christ in our faltering way. Our faith in God is not true because of the secondary evidence of our unique experience, interest or enjoyment; we only follow because Christ is truly risen. The apostle Paul goes to great lengths to list the witnesses to a resurrected Christ (1 Cor. 15:1-19), and John writes of the Jesus he had heard, seen, observed and touched (1 John 1:1). I can attest from my own life that the truth of God in Christ is the only reason I remain standing, kneeling, singing and trusting God.
I nodded my head through the whole textbook, agreeing with our critics. We have surely failed to reveal Christ in our conduct. But they sadly miss the point of our faith. Or I should say the Person of our faith. Jesus Christ is the reason to stand within the contradictions and learn humbly through the tragedies of our history. We are only here, and only go on, because Jesus Christ is indeed God’s truth. They got a lot right, but they got the heart of our heart wrong.
The Rev. Chris White, D.Min., is pastor of the First Baptist Church in Carrollton, Ky.