July 29, 2008

Office Politics

In lieu of an actual post, I refer to the Onion once again. Let's ask ourselves: is the Church like this as well? I'm thinking yes, given that it's final paper week at my desk, and paper #1 is twenty pages about church history. Anyway, I'll be back again soon enough. [The Management]

July 26, 2008


Make your own mosaic. Here's how it works:
a. Type your answer to each of the questions below into
Flickr Search.
b. Using only the first page, pick an image.
c. Copy and paste each of the URLs for the images into
fd’s mosaic maker.

The questions:

1. What is your first name?
2. What is your favorite food?
3. What high school did you go to?
4. What is your favorite color?
5. Who is your celebrity crush?
6. Favorite drink?
7. Dream vacation?
8. Favorite dessert?
9. What you want to be when you grow up?
10. What do you love most in life?
11. One Word to describe you.
12. Your flickr name.

July 25, 2008

Stomach Trouble

Sometimes we use labels for ourselves to help make up for shortcomings. I'm an agnostic Christian because I have to be. I'm too naive, too trusting of people, when I should be more skeptical. I think I'm a skeptic, but then something like this happens to make me question every assumption all over again.

The world is a dangerous and uncertain place.

People are not always like you think, and they're not always like you. Not everybody has good intentions, and not everybody holds other people with high esteem. Some people think other people are there to be used. I guess we must all feel that, to some degree, but the best of us learn to deal with that inside ourselves better than the rest.

I've had a lot of thoughts popping around my head the last twelve hours ever since I found out. I'm not one hudred percent certain yet, but the evidence is mounting up. Before things happen to us we think we know how everything works, but we don't. We think we're smart enough, that we can spot the inconsistencies, but that's not really true. We don't tend to think about what we didn't do, we think about what we did, we think about the experiences we've had that make us good people, not the experiences we haven't had that make us ignorant.

We're biased.

When I first hung up the phone I thought I was going to be sick. How could I have been so blind? So stupid? I handed it all over on a silver platter and paid them for the experience. I know this all sounds very dramatic, but for someone who tends to think the best of people (despite his claims to be a real skeptic), it's a very shocking experience. Let me start back a little ways.

My wife is computer-phobic, sort of. It's not that she hates using computers, but she's convinced that they hate her. But I figured that what that really meant was that she just wanted them to do different things than they did, or at least, if they did those things, do them in a different way. PCs have a way of freezing up or not working when she uses them. It's not really that the PC is bad, just that she didn't know what to do with them. So one day I had an idea and brought her to the store and she tried an Apple iMac.

Worked like a charm.

But how to afford this little wonder? Enter craigslist and the two laptops we had, one sitting around, the other in use but potentially replaceable. The first, the older of the two, I sold in two days, to a guy here in Lexington who met me at a Starbucks. No problems, really nice guy, bought it for his kid friend to write out some "tracks" (which I found is slang for "music"). For the other laptop, the newer and far more pricey of the two, I got several offers, all of which offered to pay with paypal. I chose the buyer who offered the most (from California) and who was willing to work with my timeframe (I had to get the mac first to transfer data) and went from there. I sent her a bill using paypal, and received an email from paypal telling me that her payment had passed but would not be posted to my account until I sent confirmation tracking numbers for shipment.

To Nigeria.

What I was thinking at this point, I don't know. Hindsight is a lot better, I'm finding out, because at the time, I was quite certain that the whole thing was legit - after all, Paypal had confirmed the payment which included shipping. So I mailed it, and started getting emails from paypal about how there was a glitch with posting the money. Then one saying that the glitch had been fixed, but that she had paid too much for shipping, and that I should send the extra to her via a banking transaction service. That's when it stopped making sense to me, and I contacted paypal directly, by phone. They'd never emailed me confirmation of the payment, nor had they ever had a glitch.

I'd been had.

Now, I'm not 100% certain of this yet, and I keep hoping it's some sort of horrible mistake. But I'm more and more figuring out that it's a mistake on my part for being so naive, so blind, so stupid, and so horribly ignorant of the way the real world of the internet works. I let my own anxiousness to get that new computer for my wife blind what little street-sense I have, those little warning bells in my head - oh, and a warning from a friend at school about using craiglist - they all got covered over by my impatience.

I didn't think. And I paid dearly for the experience.

The helplessness of the whole situation is what kills me the most. I can't do a think to get the money or the laptop back. Fortunately the laptop was completely wiped of everything before I sent it, but still - a silver platter in the form of USPS International Mail, who can't recall the shipment since it's left US borders. Fedex or UPS could've, I've just learned, but the buyer specifically requested USPS. I've gone back and looked through all the emails and all the little inconsistencies are starting to add up, to fit together into a new bigger picture. And it's not pretty.

And yet I keep hearing that little voice in my head. Two of them actually; one that tells me how horribly naive and worthless I am, how I should've seen it, and the other that says "give them your coat too." One says "they hurt you, get even," the other says "love and pray for those who persecute you." I believe very strongly in free will - we choose to do what we do. Sometimes other free agents distract us as we choose, but ultimately our actions are our responsibility. But I also believe that God has plans too. I don't know how, but somehow He manages to direct all of this towards good ends. I worry about what that laptop will be used for (hopefully the worst it could be is more spam in my inbox about Nigerian fortunes just waiting to make their way into US bank accounts), but maybe some good will come of it, even if it's that I've learned something the hard way. But it'll stick, and when my stomach stops being queasy, I'll be stronger for it. I'm naive, but I do learn quickly.

Nigeria, I'm trying to forgive you, and I'm trying to pray for you. Maybe one day I'll even hand you my shirt too.

But my stomach still hurts.

July 21, 2008

Chrisitan Agnostic, part VII: Disciple

By now I hope that it makes at least a little sense how a person could start as an agnostic and end up a Christian. Perhaps Thomas' example even helps us see that it's possible to be an agnostic and still place one's faith in Christ. But - and this is directed particularly at any reader who calls him or herself a Christian - why is it important to maintain one's skepticism? Why must a person remain a Christian Agnostic once he has stepped out in faith, instead of simply a "Christian"?

The first thought that comes to mind is that it is towards our own benefit. Skeptics are ever-learning. They do not live under the illusion that they have everything together, that all the answers that are worth having have already been discovered. A skeptic is ever probing, on a journey into the mountains, its view growing ever wider, more beautiful, more complete; a skeptic begins to see connections and the bigger pictures because he has stopped dissecting the world and started building it back together. The questions asked by skeptics - disciples, really - probe ever-deeper, ever-refining the broader picture. When I said this is to "our" own benefit, I meant the plural - this is not just an individual thing, although it is that. The questions asked by the skeptic impact everyone around him, like a pebble thrown into a pond, its ripples caressing the furthest shores.

Agnosticism is really a tool, a method. It is a way of seeking answers, but realizing that those answers can never be complete. The skeptic realizes that answers only generate more question marks, not periods, produce more new subjects to investigate, new applications. How many times did Jesus answer a question with another question? To know that you don't really know, not really, is a humbling experience; when we remain skeptical, we maintain our humility towards our own abilities. We take the focus off of ourselves and begin placing it elsewhere, on the investigation of Truth. And that's what a skeptic is after: Truth. In short, a skeptic is a disciple.

A disciple does not want half-answers, to behave only a little bit like the Master; the disciple wants it just right. Skepticism not only aids us in our humility, but it also aids us in excellence. We are ever-improving, ever-growing because we see that the painting is never quite finished; we could always get the colors just a little clearer, or play with the clay just a little more, play the music just a bit better, if only we'd try one more time. It moves us forward; it does not allow stagnance or decay. We maintain awareness of our humanity, rather than becoming shells of people that find dispute with one another over the small answers. It's remarkable how often Christians proved the necessity of Christ's death and resurrection simply out of their petty disputes over a single word. Instead of acknowledging their inability to find The Answer, they allowed their own arrogance to blind them, as if God is an equation to be solved rather than a beautiful mystery that beckons to us yet is big enough that we cannot ever get to its end. That's why relationships are such an amazing image - there are always new things to learn about a person, and it takes a lifetime to learn them. Every time the world around me changes, I get to know God a little better in new circumstances.

Most importantly, skepticism helps us maintain connections with those who do not believe as we do. If Jesus was serious when he said "go make disciples of all nations," then how are we to communicate the good news and help make disciples if we do not speak the language of those we seek to help? Without a healthy sense of skepticism about our own beliefs, how are we to answer when our faith is challenged?

I've been reading Wesley this week for my Christian History class, and his answer was one of incredulity; he couldn't fathom why anyone would deny Christ, or deny God, or deny sin. Could not fathom
it. It bothered him that somebody would even consider denying what was, to him, obvious. And yet he acknowledged that people still denied his message no matter how well he spoke. See, Wesley lived in an age when he could rightly assume that those things were givens, assumptions built in the very fabric of common society. Though many rebelled against it, it was still anchored within their culture to know "right" from "wrong"; a solid, universal morality still was assumed to exist, even if its finer points were debated.

But we no longer live in that time.

As Christians, if we do not understand those that we seek to help, even slightly, then any actions we take are fruitless. Skepticism of one's own position helps him see the places where the non-believer might take issue. It gives us the ability to say "well, I can see why you might think that, and this is how I've worked through the issue," or perhaps "sure, I get what you're saying, and it's hard for me too, and here's why ... but I'm still working on it." We become more real, human beings with flesh and blood and even doubts and misgivings. We remind ourselves that we are still like everybody else, that we might be wrong, and that it's not worth shedding blood over our beliefs when it's entirely possible that the other guy might be right. But it's also not an excuse to just allow them the comfort of thinking that their beliefs are just fine as they are. The Christian Agnostic does the world a favor by asking the hard questions; through the questions, everybody begins to understand reality better. If we can inspire the world to once again seek
the Truth, humbly and honestly and openly, we would be in a very good place indeed. To seek is to find, and once the door has opened ... well, the story doesn't really end there, does it?

N.T. Wright

July 18, 2008

Christian Agnostic, part VI: Doubt

Sometimes I wonder if everything that will ever be thought has already been written down somewhere; we can always find precedents. For example, I just found the evolution debate in a text by Athanasius from the early fourth century. The worldview of the Christian Agnostic is not totally unprecidented. There was a man even among Jesus' disciples that was a skeptic, that was willing to voice his doubts when others were not.

His name was Thomas.

But contrary to popular belief, Thomas was not the only one who doubted. In fact, both Mark and Luke's accounts record that though the disciples are told by both Mary Magdeline and several travellers that Jesus is alive, they didn't believe it (Mark 16:9-11, Luke 24:9-12). In fact, in Luke's account, it took Jesus eating and allowing them to touch his scars to convince ALL the disciples, not just Thomas (v.36ff).

But this is not about the other disciples. Peter and John ran to the tomb and were amazed, according to John's account. Jesus appeared to the disciples and they believed. But Thomas is, for some reason, away from the other disciples on this particular day.

People give Thomas a hard time, I think, because he had to ask for proof. But this sort of condemnation misses something: the other disciples already had it. Proof, I mean. They'd already seen the indirect evidence: the empty tomb, the stone rolled away, the strips of linnen laying empty on a stone slab. They'd heard the stories told by the women of an Angel and of meeting a mysterious Gardener, and of a pair of disciples on the road to Emmaus encountering a wise stranger. But Thomas missed all this. Why, we don't know, it doesn't say. But he's not there. The disciples tell him all this stuff, but Thomas is a skeptic, a true agnostic: "Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side," he said, "I will not believe."

I think we often misinterpret this skepticism. Thomas doesn't want to just be told about the whole event by others - he wants to experience Jesus himself, to feel the wounds and touch the hole in Jesus' side where the Centaurian's spear broke open his heart after death. For Thomas, someone who seems used to getting the proof he needs in a world FULL of decievers, the experience is necessary. And I think the story of the Gospel would be less without Thomas' doubt. Because Thomas asked for proof, Jesus gave it to him - he actually appeared to him and let him touch the nail marks in his wrists, the scars on his forehead, the hole in his side. He ate bread and drank wine to show the disciples that he wasn't just some apparition, some mass hallucination, but a living, breathing, back-from-the-dead guy who was who he claimed to be.

But Thomas was the one who was honest and asked.

The rest of the disciples, I think, don't admit their skepticism. The gospels resonate with their doubt, especially Mark's gospel - he likes to talk about how the disciples just didn't get it, didn't understand. But Thomas goes ahead and voices his concerns, puts himself behind his doubt, and here's the thing:

Jesus actually answered.

Thomas' response? "My Lord and my God!" It's not a question in his mind anymore - he's had the experience, and it was all he needed. He suspended disbelief and lo and behold Jesus really was there. John talks about Thomas a lot, compared to the other gospels. I think it's ironic and somewhat telling that earlier in his gospel (ch. 11), he describes a scene where Jesus is going to go and heal Lazarus in a town where the priests warned him not to return lest he be stoned. Thomas is the one who says "let's go and die with him." Thomas, incidentally, is credited (with minor historical criticism) with the evangelization of India. There are still churches there, in the southern regions, that trace their spiritual heritage to Thomas' missionary journey. The experience of being with Jesus was what Thomas needed and it transformed him into someone with enough faith to travel farther than any of the other disciples ever did to spread the good news.

Jesus goes on to say "Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed." I don't think that this is a condemnation - Jesus doesn't say "you moron, why didn't you believe the others?" He doesn't get angry, doesn't reproach Thomas. Instead, he simply says "you asked and I gave you the proof. But lots of people from here on out won't get that sort of direct proof; and it's to their credit that they believe anyway." It's not foolishness to ask God for the experience - but it requires a suspension of disbelief. We have to actually seek as if God is there for this to make sense. Otherwise, as the scriptures say, it appears as foolishness. But when we have the experience, what else can we do but exclaim "it's True!" and serve Him with the rest of our lives, with the best that we can give.

(to be continued)

July 17, 2008


I've been very busy this past week with schoolwork. I do have another few posts coming for my Christian Agnostic series, but at this point they're still works in progress. Anyway, a video for you in lieu of writing. Cheers! [the management]

July 8, 2008

Christian Agnostic, Part V: Forward

Let's sum up what we've said so far. We can't know everything; there's too much to know and our senses, memories, and in general, our humanity just aren't reliable enough. Because of this, we have to start with the assumption and suspician that we may be wrong. The Bible is not a science text, it is a text written by people with their own cultures and their own languages and motivations that God inspired to write the way they did. And so we read the scriptures with the assumption that our own history and culture and experiences are clouding our vision, and learn to read it from the perspective of those who wrote it, doing our best to push our own culture aside until we come around to applying it.

But apply it we must. How then can we move forward as Christians? If scripture is about a relationship with a non-verifiable being based on non-verifiable history, what's the point?


Faith is the point. As I mentioned in my first post on this, the Christian agnostic is not just an agnostic, he is a person who realizes that he must make a choice, and chooses to believe a certain way. What is agnosticism not? It is not the belief in no God; it cannot be, by definition, because that would mean having drawn a definite conclusion on the subject. To claim to believe no God exists for sure is to claim to be an atheist. While most agnostics really end up as atheists, I think there's another way to put this that might help.

Since we look at the world based on our perspective, which is generated from our history, our culture, our (subjective) experiences, our personalities, etc, it would follow that we are unable to do much about the things we believe. But human beings have proven (within skeptical reason) their ability to freely choose to change. I'm beginning to think that this applies to our cultural lenses as well. Our ability to think creatively, through the lenses of another, change our worldview every time. By inserting ourselves into the story, by placing ourselves in the midst of a worldview and immersing ourselves in a new culture, we become different, we are able to see things we never saw before.

I learned this in Australia. Despite the fact that, to many Americans, the Aussies SEEM mostly like us, they're in fact quite different. Of course there are similarities, but they prove quite effective in masking some much larger differences that run beneath the skin. Australians, for example, do not value work in the same way that Americans do. Americans view work as a way of life; we work ourselves to the bone for the chance to get ahead in a never-ending downward spiral. The Aussies, on the other hand, strongly value relaxation, so much so that their (socialist) society has build-in safeguards, such as 4-weeks vacation to entry-level salaried positions. Americans are lucky to get that, even if they work for twenty years in the same place, and often don't bother to take all four weeks for fear of "under-performing." It took me living among the Aussies to learn to see my own view of work; being confronted with an alternative viewpoint helped me to grow in understanding myself.

Since then, I've often wished that everybody could live in another culture to learn the way I did. While it's obviously impractical and more or less impossible for 350 million Americans to go live abroad for a year, I do think it's possible to recognize that within our own country, there are many cultures, and that it IS possible to learn this way. To move forward, to learn and grow in a new perspective, the Christian Agnostic must grow beyond his self-imposed borders and try something new. Hang out at a bar with some guys playing foosball, go to a football game, spend some time with the poor in the inner city ... just do something you wouldn't normally do, and keep doing it. Put yourself out in the open, at risk, in a foreign place with foreign people - even if it's just down the road.

And this is just like the way the Christian Agnostic learns about God - he suspends disbelief, as it were, and prays. I did this when I was fourteen, and was surprised when I actually got an answer. I was so surprised that I kept on conversing.

See, relationships are about interaction, and when the Agnostic moves beyond his skepticism (though keeping it in the background, an undercurrent in our stream of investigation), he begins to see the world in a new way. By taking leaps of faith into new cultures, new surroundings, new ideas, and new practices, the agnostic begins to uncover truth in a way that, as a pure skeptic, he could not. Now, understand that the skepticism must still be maintained, lest the Chrisitan Agnostic come to believe in everything that feels good. The question "why" is always helpful and should be ever-present. Agnosticism, in other words, is always a starting point. It is a baseline that gives the story authenticity and credibility, rather than a conclusion. To conclude agnosticism is pointless and leads to depression and intellectual death and despair; to begin with agnosticism leads to investigation and discovery. While the Christian Agnostic remains ever-aware that everything he is experiencing, learning, reasoning, feeling, and practicing could turn out to be wrong, this baseline allows the Christian Agnostic to further refine attitudes and claims towards and about the Truth. By ever-questioning, we are looking ever-deeper, and thus constantly growing.

(to be continued)

July 6, 2008

Christian Agnostic, Part IV: Science and the Bible

One of my biggest pet-peeves is when a Christian or a Church says "the Bible is the scientifically-accurate word of God." Now, I do understand the context for such a qualifier - science has challenged a lot of what Christians through history have assumed to be true. Galileo noticed that we're not the center of the universe, and then Einstein showed that we could be, depending on our perspective. Darwin noticed that organisms adapt to their surroundings as they change, challenging the notion that once creation happened, nothing changed afterwards.

But the context doesn't seem to prevent my irritation.

It's ironic that so much of the debate is over a book that isn't actually a science textbook. On what level do we think that Moses was thinking "biology 101" when he compiled the accounts of creation in Genesis? Who writes a science text thousands of years before the idea of sceince even existed? Who, for that matter, would do so in poetry? Poetry is reserved for the things we can't explain, not the things we can!

I also find it ironic that many of the Christian notions challenged by science are actually cultural and not really biblical; many came from medieval notions of truth, which originated in their theology. For example, the medieval notion of the earth as the center of the solar system came from theology, not the theology from the evidence. The idea was that God made man last, therefore humanity is most important (interesting that they didn't extend this to gender). Now, from a certain perspective, no, the earth is not the center. The Earth revolves around the sun - we can look up (and even GO up) and see this to be so. However, Einstein being the genius that he was, changed all that. Because of perspective, we can literally be the center of the universe again; the universe, from a certain perspective (one with its fixed reference on our planet), quite literally revolves around us. But it is ALSO true that, from another perspective (one with its fixed reference outside our planet), the earth rotates and then orbits around the sun along with seven other planets and one planetoid (sorry Pluto), along with countless moons, comets, asteroids, etc. It's not either/or because of perspective. Western culture is actually one of the few cultures concerned with what literally happened in the past; most other cultures are more concerned with how we are to act NOW, and so they tell stories FROM the past in order to instruct the PRESENT.

And so I ask, must we think that scripture is scientifically accurate? Is the reason for scripture to show HOW things are, or to show WHY things are? Science and scripture are not necessarily incompatable. Science, for example, is quickly concluding that the universe was made out of nothing, that the Big Bang had to create matter from literally nothing in order for it all to work. Christians think that too - we call it "ex nihilio" (the fancy latin term for "out of nothing") except we say that the whole thing had a cause - God. Science is still "agnostic" about the cause. But are the two fundamentally incompatable? No. Scripture never says HOW God did it, only WHY He did it (and that He did it at all). But imagine you're a person ignorant of quantum mechanics and chemical microbiology (just imagine ... it shouldn't be too hard to imagine this) and living after all of this creation stuff has happened, and then think: how do you explain it to future generations? Of course:


And so to extend the argument further, when we say that organisms evolve and change and adapt to their surroundings, is that fundamentally incompatable with God breathing life into Adam? Only if you have a very narrow view of a God who doesn't work with what's present to change it. And if things can't change and adapt to new circumstances, what makes you think that people can change? Why bother with evangelism or mission if we think that people will always stay as they are, born sinful? I think that evolutionary theory is quite compatable with the story of the gospel, when told a certain way:

In the beginning was The Cause, and He created the universe out of nothing. He created it with order and purpose, with complex and intricate governing rules so that the atoms and molecules would know how to interact. The universe expanded to fill the space He had created, and by His hand, the planets took shape around stars, some around several stars. One planet was just right for a particular plan, and so he made it form in a certain way; volcanoes parted the waters and created fertile dry land. The volcanic activity also cleared the poisonous atmosphere, and in a puddle of green goo, God began moving the molecules into proteins, and the proteins into cells, and the cells into all sorts of organisms. God is like a potter, molding and forming a shapeless lump of clay into a masterpiece of artistic harmony, form and function. The animals grew ever complex, until one day, in the sixth age, God's last creation came to the point where He was ready for His best creative act yet: he breathed His own life into men and women. The two enjoyed the paradise of a planet God had created, until one day, something happened that changed all that ...
Is it perfect? Of course not, but like all things, it's open to interpretation, change, and refinement. God is ever creating, building life from chaos and confusion. Retelling it this way is very risky, but in the end, after refining it, I think it will be worth it. We need to retell anew the stories for our culture in a language that makes sense to each generation, lest they become old, stale, irrelevant.

(to be continued)

July 4, 2008

Christian Agnostic, Part III: Scripture

"Is there anyone who ever remembers
changing their mind from the paint on a sign?
Is there anyone who Is there anyone who really recalls
ever breaking rank at all for something someone yelled real loud one time?
Oh everyone believes in how they think it ought to be
Oh everyone believes, and they're not going easily

Belief is a beautiful armor, it makes for the heaviest sword
Like punching underwater, you never can hit who you're tryin' for
Some need the exhibition, some have to know they tried
It's the chemical weapon for the war that's raging on inside
Oh everyone believes from emptiness to everything
Oh everyone believes, and no one's going quietly ...

[John Mayer]

I'm not a huge fan of summer school, and to make matters worse, I'm taking an online class for the first time which is turning out much as I expected it to: there have been some pleasant surprises (it seems I provoke a lot of conversation with controversial opinions), but on the whole, it's a bit rough. Suffice it to say that I'm glad it's the only online class I'll be taking. One of the aforementioned conversations that we've been having (the longest running thread to date, actually) is about scripture. What is it? How do you treat it? Who gets to say how to interpret it?

It's been tense.

And why not? Scripture is the basis for the belief of so many Christians worldwide, and so of course they want to protect it, to make sure that nobody does anything "sacriligious" to it. Truth is truth, they say, and scripture is inerrant in every way. To be clear, I have no problem with saying that - that it's inerrant, I mean. But I do have to ask, what is inerrancy? Scripture might be "inerrant" (not wrong), but what does that tell us, and how does it help?

I think what claims of biblical inerrency usually mean in context are that OUR INTERPRETATIONS of scripture are inerrant. It doesn't matter what the interpretation is, though it is usually a literalist interpretation that has little regard for anything but one's first impressions of the text. "God informs my worldview," it is claimed, "and thus I have no use for human investigation and discovery because God has already told me what it says." Most often what happens is that we start to think that as Christians, we have some sort of monopoly on Truth. And that's simply not true. The next time you go to the doctor, for instance, you're likely to be treated by an agnostic or an atheist. That's not a rule, of course, there are plenty of doctors who are Christians too ... and Hindus and Jews and Sikhs. The point is that they are very, very smart and continually making discoveries about the truths of our bodies, about chemistry and physics; they are investigating truth, and they are using it to better people.

Now, what am I NOT saying? I'm not saying that the rest of the world has salvation figured out. I'm not saying that Jesus is one among many paths to truth. I'm saying that, while a more holistic truth requires Jesus as its foundation, truth is far bigger than one simple yet necessary statement. Anything that is true must be of God because He is Truth (and that I know it says in
scripture). But so many Christians resist this because it might mean sharing their perceived power over others with salvation language; it can feel very intoxicating to "know" that you are going to pardise while those around you who do not think as you do are going to some place ... else, with pain and suffering and "gnashing of teeth," and potentially, nails on chalkboard. Scripture is accorded a category unto itself; we think that because we're Christian we already know everything there is to know about the human condition because "it says so in the Bible," and all we have to do is find the relevant verse (ah, proof texting).

See, the issue is not whether somebody else is actually wrong or not. The issue is that we Christians want to be right already. We don't want to have to do the research, to go through a process of investigation and positing ideas that could turn out to be wrong ... because that would make US wrong. Furthermore, we don't want to have to rely on so-called "secular" research in the social sciences - sociology, history, archeology, psychology, etc. - because that would mean using something developed without a Christian label. We don't want to be the ones informed or influenced by those "less holy" than we are, the "heathens" who've rejected something we hold very dear (that which defines us as Christians). And so we'd rather simply confirm what we already think is true under the guise of having God "on our side" instead of taking a chance and looking through their lenses once or twice.

Searching for truth is hard; it means doubt, it means risk, it means criticism, and it means failure; it means a lot of things that make us uneasy and distort the image we want to portray of a people who have all the answers. We are uncomfortable with those three little words - "I don't know" - because those words inflict that unfomfortable feeling that we may not yet be perfect. But I have news for the Christians that the rest of the world has already figured out:

You're not.

Deal with it. Admitting this is the first step towards recovery. Or maybe re-recovery. You do not have all the answers yet. You are not yet complete, you do not yet "lack nothing," you are part of a world that is still in rebellion. This world is in the redemptive process. Your refusal to see this is, ironically, confirmation of your status as a sinner. But that's ok, there's still hope for you, you have time yet to grow in understanding and grace.

So is scripture inerrant? I think so, in the "inspired" sense of the word. Yes, God mystically, somehow (I emphasize the "somehow") influenced those who wrote the text, and that makes it good and useful and helpful and something we should preserve to the letter, but what is that to you, a mere human being with a culture and a history and a zip code? You look through a lens like everybody else, and your lens has some smudges on it (perhaps some you drew there with indellible ink) that need to be wiped away. When you read the Bible, you read it as through an opaque window; you can make out some of it, but more likely your culture and history and social influences have grown you into a person that reads things a certain way with certain biases that don't necessarily reflect God's biases.

To read scripture as an agnostic, then, is to read scripture through the lens of one who is starting from scratch, who makes every effort to draw no conclusions from the start because he or she does not live in the illusion that he or she has all the answers. The agnostic Christian reads scripture assuming that God will confront him there, but knows that God worked through particular people in particular cultures in order to create the books we read today. This isn't about taking off our lenses, it's about understanding why we have them and that we CAN'T take them off, and learning to see through them more clearly. And so we start further back than our assumptions and learn about the culture, learn about the literary elements, learn about the psychology, learn about the history ... we take apart the context and reassemble it until we understand how the authors might have thought, why they might have said things the way they did, used the images and metaphors the way they did. Those authors, the ones that God inspired, were human beings with free wills who chose to phrase things in a certain way, chose to speak to a particular people group, who had parents and kids and sore feet and sandles.

To approach it this way is to approach it with humility: you do not assume its agenda for it, but rather you learn how it was read by those who read it first, and then you begin to draw applications for our time and our little corner of the planet. In this way, you honor both the authors and the Inspiration for the scriptures. But when Christians close their minds to the outside world and its ideas, to truth in other corners of humanity, we begin a process that leads inevitably to one end: we will eventually close our minds to God.

And that is the start of our downfall.

(to be continued)

July 1, 2008

Not Voting Has Never Been So Easy!

Christian Agnostic, Part II: Verb

What does it mean to call myself a "Christian Agnostic"? On the outset, the term is a loaded one, especially in today's evangelical and fundamentalist circles - agnosticism is looked upon quite disfavorably, as if it's a plague upon our nation, eroding at our values and distorting our destiny as a Christian America.

I'll get to that later in the series and why it irritates me.

For now, let's start with the basic concept of agnosticism, and go from there. To be an agnostic is to be a skeptic, to look at the world and realize that there is no possible way to know with 100% certainty anything that you want to. Our senses are not infallible; they have a remarkable tendency to fail on us from both external and internal causes. For instance, have you ever thought you heard somebody knock at the door, to discover that nobody was there? Or perhaps thought you saw something out of the corner of your eye - or perhaps even right in front of you - that wasn't there? How did you come to decide that those were hallucinations? You verified it with other people's senses that were ostensibly working well.

But why should their senses be any more accurate at that moment than your own?

True agnosticism understands that every act of belief requires a leap of faith, primarily faith that one's own senses are functioning properly and transmitting the information to one's mind in a way that is reliable and accurate. There cannot be certainty of the reliability, only relative certainty. But doubt is there, and so the agnostic is skeptical of any information he or she is given. To "know" for an agnostic, is a relative term, always heavily qualified with a statement such as "but I could be wrong, and so I continue to investigate."

However, if an agnostic was realistic, he or she would realize that taking "no position" is still making a set of belief claims. There is no such thing as a completely unbiased position, no such thing as a person that looks at the world without the influences of others or the influences of faulty equipment. Everyone has social influence, cultural influence, historical influence, and an informing worldview. In fact, to say "I take no solid beliefs" is to unconsciously take a set of beliefs and become a hypocrite! For this reason, the agnostic must still make a decision on what to believe (and a conscious decision is better than an unconscious one), and therefore must use whatever means at his or her disposal - senses (however faulty, they're all he has), experiences, investigation, and ultimately, another leap of faith - to discover the best worldview. The agnostic, though, will not cement in that worldview so strongly that it cannot be reinterpreted with new data, new input. This is not to say that every belief is ejected at the slightest whim, new information is also regarded with skepticism, especially when it conflicts with the worldview. The agnostic, in other words, is ever a seeker, drawing at best temporary conclusions, but remaining skeptical of information that challenges those conclusions.

I have chosen to put my faith in the living Triune God.

It is just as if I were to have decided that there is no God; I just happen to have experiences that testify very strongly to His existence. A Christian Agnostic, then, is one who has made the decision, in light of evidence as well as experience (and experience is a broad term that can include metaphysical realities) to believe in a "biblical" worldview. Now, what that means can be very tricky, and I think I'll wait until the next couple posts to talk about that. But suffice it to say that scripture is important.

I make no apologies for the fact that this is an imperfect worldview because that's the point - there IS no perfect worldview, at least as far as human beings are concerned. Christian Agnosticism is my effort, in a world that is broken and difficult and uncertain, to find a meaningful way of explaining the fact that I still have to live, still have to decide based on some sort of belief system. There is no such thing as "no beliefs", and you're just fooling yourself further to think otherwise. I must choose to place my faith accordingly.

You'll notice that Jesus didn't ask us to go and make believers of all nations - he asked us to make disciples. A disciple is one who follows and asks questions. In other words, Jesus expected us to forever be seekers of truth. "Seek and you shall find," he said. He was confident that our seeking would ultimately lead us to Him, as long as we didn't give up. And then we were to go out and help others begin and continue seeking. The hardest mission field for Christianity is not Islam or Hinduism, it is agnosticism for the simple reason that most agnostics are actually apathetic; they don't care about making a decision any one way and allow the currents of culture to pull them in many directions. Atheists and Muslims are far more likely to convert because they already take for granted that they believe something strongly; agnostics smile, say "that's nice" and ignore you.

It's time we contextualized the faith in a way that agnostics could appreciate. It's time we began inspiring the apathetic agnostics (and apathetic Christians as well!) to once again investigate truth because it IS important, to seek and investigate and discover in the context of a humble community.

(to be continued)