Tag Archives: Truth

Dear Atheist

“I have never seen much point in getting heavy with stupid people or Jesus freaks, just as long as they don’t bother me. In a world as weird and cruel as this one we have made for ourselves, I figure anybody who can find peace and personal happiness without ripping off somebody else deserves to be left alone… And I have learned to live, as it were, with the idea that I will never find peace and happiness, either. But as long as I know there’s a pretty good chance I can get my hands on either one of them every once in a while, I do the best I can between high spots.” — Hunter S. Thompson

“Don’t you love Jesus?’ Well, I thought an’ I thought an’ finally I says, ‘No, I don’t know nobody name’ Jesus. I know a bunch of stories, but I only love people.”  — John Steinbeck

There is something really appealing about discarding religion. What, after all, is the point of orienting your life, limiting your choices, around a fairy tale? And what could it be but a fairy tale, all this talk of gods and heaven? Haven’t people spun a thousand deities to explain the inexplicable? A god for blazing comets, for the rare and creepy eclipse, a god for messy birth and haunting death and crack of lightning? You could sit up late night after night, drive yourself mad with The Big Questions, prod into suffering and origins and eternal destiny, and not answer any of it to your satisfaction.

Or you could flip a switch, turn it off. Live, instead, for today, for pleasures that can be physically felt and successes that can be financially measured. Love the people you love and be done with the ones you don’t. Be practical. Be down to earth. Be free.

But the questions still nag, if you are a thinking sort of person. How did we get here and where are we going? What tripped the trigger that ignited the Big Bang, and how can biology explain laughter, or love? So once in a while, maybe after a few glasses of wine or when the power goes out, you ponder. You pull out the biographies of great people and consider what pushed them, what claims they made of Truth and Beauty.

Maybe, like Holden Caulfield, you wish, just sometimes, that you could pray.

“I felt like praying or something, when I was in bed, but I couldn’t do it. I can’t always pray when I feel like it. In the first place, I’m sort of an atheist. I like Jesus and all, but I don’t care too much for most of the other stuff in the Bible.”  — J.D. Salinger

It’s tough to pray when you’re pretty sure nobody’s listening. But if nobody is listening, if we’re floating in the void? Then it’s hard to sleep at all.

So maybe your thoughts turn to that rare handful of people who claimed a corner on truth, claimed to know the ways of God. What did they really know? There’s Buddha, Mohammed, Moses with his burning bush. There’s even a handful of nutjobs who thought they were God. Take Jesus. What can you make of him?

“Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne, and I have founded empires. But on what did we rest the creations of our genius? Upon force. Jesus Christ founded his empire upon love; and at this hour millions of men would die for him.” — Napoléon Bonaparte

“If what Jesus said was good, what can it matter whether he was God or not?” — Kurt Vonnegut

“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell.” — C.S. Lewis

Screen Shot 2018-02-08 at 8.49.31 PMYou’d like to say with Vonnegut that it doesn’t really matter whether he was divine, but  if he wasn’t, then he’s nuts, and if he was, well, then you’d have to deal with that. So you play with the idea. If God did come down to walk among us, what would that look like? What would you expect? Probably some pomp and circumstance, right? Some bling, mind-bending miracles? And you’d look for wisdom, of course, for justice, for kindness. The world wouldn’t just keep spinning, oblivious, would it? Wouldn’t there be judgment and power and Kingdom Come?

Jesus? Well, you can see the wisdom, the kindness, and if tales are true, a sprinkling of miracles. But no power to speak of. No grand entrance. Kind of a lowly fellow for a god.

“The world takes us to a silver screen on which flickering images of passion and romance play, and as we watch, the world says, “This is love.” God takes us to the foot of a tree on which a naked and bloodied man hangs and says, “This is love.”  — Joshua Harris

“I want neither a terrorist spirituality that keeps me in a perpetual state of fright about being in right relationship with my heavenly Father nor a sappy spirituality that portrays God as such a benign teddy bear that there is no aberrant behavior or desire of mine that he will not condone. I want a relationship with the Abba of Jesus, who is infinitely compassionate with my brokenness and at the same time an awesome, incomprehensible, and unwieldy Mystery.” — Brennan Manning

If Jesus was a god, if he was God Himself, he certainly had a strange way of showing it. No big shazam. No thunderbolts of doom. And you have to admit, that kind of love, if that’s what it was, is almost incomprehensible. From creator to crucified? From all-powerful to penniless? The whole story is epic and haunting and strange.

In point of fact, you don’t like to think about it, and if the power would just come back on, you’d watch Netflix instead. But sometimes you wonder.

einstein-albert-classroom-blackboard-professor“I couldn’t get Him out of my head. Still can’t. I spent three solid days thinking about Him. The more He bothered me, the less I could forget Him. And the more I learned about Him, the less I wanted to leave Him.” — Yann Martel

“I am a Jew, but I am enthralled by the luminous figure of the Nazarene….No one can read the Gospels without feeling the actual presence of Jesus.” — Albert Einstein

There’s something appealing about that man, something that all the other morally upright and mystical people just don’t have. You don’t get the sense that he’d rather hang out on a mountaintop all day, unhinged from reality. You don’t get the sense that if he could he’d smite his enemies and laugh like a lunatic. If there is a God, holding power that loosely? Inviting worship without compelling it? Well, that’s the kind of god you’d like to have.

“The irony is that while God doesn’t need us but still wants us, we desperately need God but don’t really want Him most of the time.” — Francis Chan

And so you swill that last bit of cabernet and stare into the fireplace. The godless life works fine, mostly, and no doubt you can do what you want when you want to. But it surely would be something to know real love. It would be nice to grapple with a truth that’s big enough for all of the questions you throw at it. And if there is an answer to all the hows and whys, it would be better to know than not to… wouldn’t it?

“I came to Him because I did not know which way to turn. I remained with Him because there is no other way I wish to turn. I came to Him longing for something I did not have. I remain with Him because I have something I will not trade. I came to Him as a stranger. I remain with Him in the most intimate of friendships. I came to Him unsure about the future. I remain with Him certain about my destiny. I came amid the thunderous cries of a culture that has 330 million deities. I remain with Him knowing that truth cannot be all-inclusive.” — Ravi Zacharias

“The gospel is this: We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope.” — Timothy J. Keller

“It is Jesus that you seek when you dream of happiness; He is waiting for you when nothing else you find satisfies you; He is the beauty to which you are so attracted; it is He who provoked you with that thirst for fullness that will not let you settle for compromise; it is He who urges you to shed the masks of a false life…” — John Paul II

“Turn around and believe that the good news that we are loved is better than we ever dared hope, and that to believe in that good news, to live out of it and toward it, to be in love with that good news, is of all glad things in this world the gladdest thing of all. Amen, and come Lord Jesus.” — Frederick Buechner

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Let’s take a whack at sin.

This week, Matt Lauer was the most recent cultural icon to tumble at the revelation that he had offensively coerced women into sexual situations against their will.  Lauer, unlike some of the politicians, musicians, and comedians who’ve been accused of similar sins in recent days, was widely perceived as a good guy — upstanding, smart, and friendly.  Not the kind of sleaze ball you’d expect to grope a gal in the back room.

The headline has people reeling.  What is going on with our culture when one after another of our idols falls?  When #MeToo has been retweeted half a million times?  Women, so long powerless against this kind of abuse, have linked arms.  Revolution is brewing.

A quick scan of the Yahoo news feed reads like a chapter of Judges.  Among the first 15 headlines today, there are reports of a 10-year-old’s suicide, a grown man sucker-punching a guy with cerebral palsy, a missing teen who’s run off with her gym coach, and two gruesome murders.  That’s not to mention the sex assault stories.

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We have a problem.  Yes, it’s a sin problem.  But it’s also a vocabulary problem.  We have no words for this.

Here it is in a nutshell:  modern folks can’t abide the idea of sin, and to a point they are quite logical.  We’ve discarded the old-fashioned notion along with the (laughable) authority of sacred texts and the (naïve) concept of God.  How could an ancient document, written in another culture and handicapped by its uninformed viewpoint, possibly speak to the choices of free-spirited, diverse people today?  Absurd!  How could any one group’s religious worldview be allowed to dictate morality for everyone else?  How could we ever know which perspective is “correct” in a competing marketplace of ideas, especially when all cultures and people are equally worthy of dignity, and each viewpoint, it’s assumed, equally valid?

If there is no morality, there must be no God, at least not a good, or potent, or opinionated one.  Those who cling to their deity but dismiss His jurisdiction in our lives play a dangerous game.  A God who bows to the sensibilities of human foibles isn’t much of a god by any stretch.

By the same token, if there is no God, there can be no right and wrong.  Right and wrong by definition flow from a concept of divinity; to sin is to sin against God.  You might protest that still we can sin against one another, but that’s problematic, as we’ll see.  The existence of good and evil depends on a transcendent, authoritative, and absolute set of values that could only exist if there were a transcendent, authoritative, and absolute Intelligence lurking behind the universe.  If not, the closest we can get to “right” is “right for me,” “right at the moment,” or “right on, man.”

So far, so good — the average American (picture a contestant on The Voice) would concur.  Twitter chirps about finding your own truth, and, admirably, living by it.  Whether truth is self-determined or imposed upon us, it would make sense to live according to it; to disregard truth is to live in delusion, to live a lie.  And that is a wrong worth fighting.

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But the next logical leap is not so easily embraced — without an objective right, the closest we can get to “right” is sanctified selfishness.  If there is no absolute morality governing the universe, then the best we can do is seek personal fulfillment on our spin around the sun, a cause which tends to put us at odds with others’ ideas of a good time.  And so a husband, bored with marriage, has a fling with his secretary; a wife, finding love with her best friend, realizes that her truth requires a brave step from the closet and a new identity.  It’s complicated, the carnage that results from broken vows and mangled relationships, but it’s the costly logic of our modern morality.

And to a point, it’s a cohesive morality.  The problem with Facebook philosophers is not that they have abandoned ethics.  Your average secular American will gladly throw down for the right of total strangers to enjoy freedom and pursue happiness.  Attitudes that denigrate others (racism, sexism, homophobia) are the ultimate evils, because they impinge on others’ ability to pursue happiness.  The problem is that this modern morality is unmoored, and will logically self-implode.

When autonomous, liberated people, in pursuit of their personal ideal of happiness, and unencumbered by any external requirements for virtue, run smack up against the contrary opinions or desires of others, we reach an impasse.  Who wins?

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It’s husband versus wife.

Neighbor versus neighbor.

Citizen versus cop.

Politician versus media.

White versus black.

Pick a headline from today’s news, and it will invariably boil down to conflicting visions, the greed or inconsideration or power-grabbing or self-aggrandizement of happiness-seekers.  But lacking the vocabulary to call it sin, we run into difficulty.  It’s “inappropriate,” “a flaw,” “behaving badly.”  The same behaviors that have been tolerated, even laughingly encouraged, for decades, have been unmasked for what they really are — hurtful, even devastating, selfish, lustful, cruel.

And so we lambast the Matt Lauers and the Bill Cosbys, the rogue policemen and the chanting racists.  We shake our heads, “Thank you, Universe, that I am not as bad as that guy.”  But don’t you see?  We are.

The fact of the matter is, there is most emphatically a deep human consciousness of right and wrong, good and evil.  Rape and murder and manipulation and greed — these things are wicked, and have plagued us time immemorial.  We see the rise of liars to positions of power, see their oppression of the poor and weak, and we know, we know, it’s wrong.  And if we follow the logic, it leads us back, full-circle.

There is a right.  There is a wrong.  It is universal, timeless, and absolute.  It did not evolve in different directions on different continents, or ebb and flow with the centuries.  It must have come from somewhere, from someone.

And if there is such a thing as sin, then it might be smart to figure out what’s in that category.  Not according to whim, not based on my own (“flawed”) logic, but above and beyond me.  And then to track the big ones backwards, find the little pebbles that start the big old rock slide, root those out.  Little ones, acceptable ones, like pride and lust and laziness.  Because nobody sets out to be Harvey Weinstein or for that matter, Idi Amin.

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As Trevin Wax so beautifully put it, “So, the offense of the Christian gospel is twofold. We will seem narrow and strict when we insist on calling out sins. And yet, we will seem too generous when we insist that anyone no matter their past can repent and be restored. Our stark vision of sin is grace to the victim; our call to repentance is grace to the offender.”

Sin, y’all.  Let’s call it what it is.

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Sola Gratia

It is a beautiful phrase, rolls over the tongue like a dessert at Macaroni Grill:  sola gratia.  By grace alone we are saved, undeserving sinners though we are.  By the kindness of God, by the compassion of Jesus.  Grace is our highest doctrine, our most precious inheritance.  For 500 years we have repeated, sola gratia.  And still, we stray.

It’s a very human problem to struggle with grace.  Consider Jesus’ favorite critics, the Pharisees.  More than any other group, those guys got an earful from Jesus.

“They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger,” Jesus lamented in Matthew 23.

“They do all their deeds to be seen by others.”

“They love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues.”

“You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!”

camel-05The Pharisees’ main problem was a problem of grace — receiving it or extending it.  Surely by their diligent effort and hard work they had earned the glowing “well done!” of God, and as His representatives on earth, could advise, discipline, and judge others.  They were the doctrine police, and qualified for the job.  Down to the tiniest speck in someone’s eye they could sniff out sin — or, in Jesus’ case, well, they couldn’t call it sin, exactly.  Rule breaking?  Unorthodoxy?  “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in.”

The evangelical landscape right now is brewing a perfect storm for Pharisees.  On one hand we have a collection of incredible minds, learned scholars, a resurgence in theological conviction even among lay people, and a beautiful commitment to our best roots — “sola gratia” among them.  On the other hand, our culture has all but abandoned truth, goodness, beauty, even decency.  We are nervous.  In the distance we see brooding clouds.  The waves rise higher; we are taking on water.  Batten down the hatches, folks, we are in for rough weather.

Conditions are perfect for us to turn on each other.  One of us defects to culture’s immoral whims?  We do not weep, we hiss.  There is a rampant tone of snarky haughtiness in the blogosphere.  Well, we think, don’t read the comments.  They aren’t representative of our spokespeople.  But aren’t they?  Where else have the commenters imbibed such un-grace?

Where are the weepers?

Tighter and tighter we draw the circle of who’s in — whose theology is tight enough?  Whose lifestyle is above reproach?  Who reads the right books and makes disparaging comments about the wrong ones?  images

Sola gratia is no dry theological exercise (is there any such thing?) We have not understood the gospel grace we’ve been given if we then deny it to others.  At bottom, grace is grace because I do not deserve it, have not earned it, could not merit it now that I’ve got it.  There is no room for smugness.

Jesus Himself modeled for us both lavish grace and impeccable truth.  He did not sacrifice one for the other, but upheld the unwavering, holy Word of God and spoke it boldly, with grace.  He didn’t gossip or mock or belittle people, even when they miserably failed or publicly mis-spoke.  He never gave up on Peter or the Sons of Thunder, even when He must have sighed.

Truth isn’t a stick to beat someone with.  Truth is a person who laid down His life for His ordinary, imperfect friends.

When our friends return from the latest “Christian movie” spouting questionable theology, it is possible to examine those ideas gently.  We can imitate the Bereans, who “were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.”  (Acts 17:11)  When our neighbor enthusiastically endorses a gay evangelical blogger, we can speak the truth in love.  When we come across an article that makes us see red, we can close the laptop and pray instead of firing off an angry, graceless monologue.

We have been saved once and for all by grace alone.  What if we lived by grace alone every day?  It has happened before.  “And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.”  (Acts 2:46-47)