Teaching Doubt

I am a big fan of doubt—- because, in part, I am a big fan of faith. I believe faith is empowered by doubt. As such, faith is damaged by dogma— not in the sense of holding onto core beliefs, but dogma in terms of training people to conform to beliefs without allowing them the right to (public) struggle with their beliefs.

I have written a lot on doubt in many of its forms. I certainly would encourage you to read some of these posts if you wish. However, I will link to just five:

Belief Versus Doubt Versus Disbelief.  Part I

Belief Versus Doubt Versus Disbelief.  Part II

Belief Versus Doubt Versus Disbelief. Part III

Belief Versus Doubt Versus Disbelief. Part IV

Leading Cause of Atheism?

The last article is a short post that links to a longer article by Jackson Wu who says that religious groups not allowing dialogue and disagreement is a leading cause of people moving to atheism.

I teach in a seminary. Most seminaries embrace a certain amount of freedom of thought… at least within some bounds. But not all. Some teach doctrine and seek to crush thoughtful questions and disagreements.  Needless to say, I hope, one should avoid that type of seminary. Some schools purport to be open, but are closed-minded simply in a different direction than the seminaries that they seek to distance themselves from.

The seminary I teach at comes from a denominational and faith tradition and we hold to basic religious faith statements in line with these traditions. That being said, there still is quite a bit of room for different views.

I like to say that my favorite answer in class to any question given to me is “I don’t know.”

I like to give such a statement because:

  1.  It is honest. My knowledge and wisdom is pretty limited. Even if I believe that I know the answer, I may not KNOW that I know the answer.
  2. It is dialogic. I don’t stop at “I don’t know” but try to give some thoughts on the issue. I try to encourage others to proffer responses as well. Sometimes I am successful at this and sometimes not.
  3. It is explorational. Seminarians are seekers of God. They are explorers of the great existential mysteries of life. They are moving forward into a world that is ever-changing, and ultimately unknown. They need to have the tools to do this exploration. They need the wisdom of the past and the tools of the present, but also an openness to the new.

Of course, doubt in itself is not a total good either. As I noted in a prior post, doubt can be pathological. It can be nihilistic. Doubt, in its best form, says “I don’t know everything that is out there. If I want to know, I must explore.”

Faith, to me, then gives us the tools (compass, sextant, timepiece, chart) to use to help us not simply getting lost and going in circles.

The Christian life is meant to be an adventure.

Fair Winds and Following Seas…

3 H’s of Persuasion

I have been going over different Asian religions in my Dialogue in Asian Religions course. I started with Judaism in Western Asia and worked my way across to Shinto in the East. Now I am looking at Atheism. Atheism has deep roots in Asia. Some forms of Buddhism and Hinduism could be described as Atheistic, as can some modern political movements in Asia such as Bolshevism and Maoism. Of course, Atheism is so diverse that it is hard to find commonalities between many atheistic perspectives. That, however, is the point. One doesn’t truly know what another person believes simply by knowing the label they use to self-describe. One must talk with them.

Image result for captain disillusion

I decided to use some comments from my favorite “skeptic” online. His name is Alan Melikdjanian. He is more commonly known as “Captain Disillusion” on Youtube. He is a debunker— particularly of videos that seem to show the impossible. He shows how many of these are made through special video “tricks.” Very interesting. However, I am bringing him up for a talk he gave at Skepticon Australia (2018 I think). The title of his talk to a group of skeptics was “The Unbearable Loneliness of Being Right on the Internet.” While he doesn’t say it directly, the talk is essentially a critique of the “New Atheism” movement that developed in the early 2000s. I really don’t think the movement truly exists. Rather, it was a term coined by a journalist around 2003 (I forgot the journalist’s name) to refer to a rather aggressive evangelistic form of atheism that often shows itself in seeing belief in God or in a religious belief system as a sign of mental deficiency or delusion.

Melikdjanian does not seem to have problems with the evangelistic fervor of these people, but rather that their method often has the opposite effect of what they are seeking. The aggressive negative stance of the “new atheists” tended to lead to pushback seeing these skeptics as jerks (or as Melikdjanian said, falling into the “black hole of assholery”).

He suggested three H’s to describe how skeptics (a term that itself is generally understood as rather negative) can be more persuasive.

H is for Humor. Melikdjanian commonly uses humor to entertain and to educate. Good humor builds bridges between people. Bad humor such as sarcasm (“cutting of the flesh”) drives a wedge. Humor also makes one’s message more interesting, grabbing the attention and sympathy of the respondent. Such humor must be humor that resonates with people outside of the echo chamber of the skeptic community. When humor is used in a self-deprecating fashion (pointing out one’s own weaknesses or mistakes), it can lead into the second H.

H is for Humility. In theory a skeptic is a doubter (even though it has often been used to describe those who are rather uncritical of a naturalist worldview). As a doubter, one should be ready to admit one’s mistakes, and express uncertainty and a willingness to learn. Skeptics too often have been known for embracing a certain “know-it-all” attitude with an associated condescension of other’s views. This seeming lack of humility is not a popular attitude, and even less so in a time being dominated by post-modern thought.

H is for Hope. Melikdjanian notes this is very important. Many people hold to faith beliefs that are out of line with the beliefs of skeptics. Many such believers do so, in part, because it provides a source of hope for them. For a skeptic to encourage a person of faith to leave that faith, the hope lost must be replaced with a new hope. The goal should never be to replace hope with hopelessness.

I think there is a lot of wisdom here, and I believe it applies as much to Christians as anyone else. Christians need to be able to express their faith in a manner that is humorous… entertaining, and enlivening the interest of those who are not Christians. Far too much Christian media is designed to be consumed only by Christians or those who are fully immersed in a Christian worldview. Much of it is boring or nonsensical to those outside of the subculture. It is maddening at times the Christian productions out there. Much of it is low quality. That is worthy of complaint. Worse, however, is that it is often marketed as Evangelistic, and yet uses language and cultural references that are only meaningful to insiders. To insiders, it may be seen as simplistic and boring… but to outsiders, the reaction can be far worse. The Gospel poorly presented CAN be do worse than the Gospel not (yet) presented.

As Christians, we recognize that God knows all things, and that we are not God. As such, we have every reason to be humble and joyously embrace our own ignorance. This should not mean that we revel in ignorance (it is good to study and try to understand), but we should not assume that we know it all and that we are always right about everything. Christians are supposed to be humble, so why not embrace that role? We also should avoid espousing the lie (or at least mistaken belief) that doubt is the opposite of, or contradiction of, faith.

As Christians, we need to help others know that we offer a message of hope. Often we do the opposite, spending more time on judgment than on hope. Why? I think there is still a part of us that think that the Medieval practice of the Morality Play (scaring people into formal adherence) is still a good method today. I am not sure it ever was. We must realize that the Gospel message is an offense to some and foolishness to others. It also undermines much of what others base their lives on. Therefore, when we express the Gospel message, the focus should be more on hope.



Responding to Doubters Inside and Outside of the Church


There have been some recently-in-the-news people who are famous for being Christian, who have “left the faith.” One of these is Josh Harris. When I was dating age (decades ago), he wrote a book called, “I Kissed Dating Goodbye.” I never read it. Marty Sampson, a member of Hillsong, also publicly announced his loss of faith. I avoid Hillsong as much as I can while still attending an Evangelical church.  So I don’t know much about either one in terms of who they were or who they are. So I won’t deal with them directly here.

I have read a few responses to these announcements. Some call them guilty of Apostasy (perhaps a bit premature). Some Christians appear to be genuinely angry. Not really sure why. Perhaps they are wrestling with theological issues surrounding eternal security. Perhaps there are some who have emotionally invested themselves in these people and now feel betrayed. Others were bothered, seemingly, that they chose to express their rejection of faith so publicly. But if they weren’t given a forum in church to express their doubts, it is hardly surprising that they chose a medium outside of the church. I think I would argue that it is quite refreshing that they had the confidence to share their struggles with others. I wish all of us in the church had such openness.

A more constructive response I have seen is the note that apologetics is important. One of them, Marty I think, had mentioned that a lot of the questions he had were not being dealt with in church. People have honest questions and Evangelical churches often pride themselves (“hubris themselves”?) in an anti-intellectual perspective. I remember when a Mormon roommate of mine hit me with the old classic, “If God can do all things, can He create a rock too big for Him to lift.” That did not bother me very much because even back then when I was something like 22 years old I already knew enough Christian theology to be aware that Christians believe that God is unlimited in power, and that is very different from believing that “God can do all things.” That old chestnut that my roommate shared falls apart if one understands this difference. (Of course, it is also damaged a bit if one rejects the “anthropomorphized” god of Mormonism.) But I can understand its effectiveness in dealing with Christians. That is because the phrase “God can do all things” and its ilk are so commonly used in churches, and these commonly go unchallenged and unreflected upon. I mean, if “God is good all the time, and all the time, God is good,” how does one reconcile that with experiences that show that God does not respond in a manner that you and I would consider normal for a “good God”?

Good theology and good apologetics can help. Some think that apologetics is a primary tool of evangelism. I don’t think so generally. Few come to Christ by being intellectually overwhelmed by Christian apologists. More modest goals are that apologists:

  1. Demonstrate that Christianity is a safe place to be for the rational seeker.
  2. Demonstrate that Christianity is a safe place for the doubter to remain faithful.

This leads to the second point— Churches are NOT generally a safe place to be a doubter.

Consider the following experiment:  Go to your church some day and when people are sharing struggles speak up and share something to the effect,

“My family has been struggling both financially and with health. This has led me to struggle with the idea that God is good. In fact, often I wonder if there is no God out there or maybe I am just praying into empty space.”

There may not be an immediate response by the group… but keep track of the different responses you get afterward.

  • How many play the apologist and try to “prove” to you that God exists and is good, showing that your reflections on your situation are invalid? (I have had friends put on FB things that essentially say that if you doubt God due to circumstances your faith is based on feelings rather than on truth… so it you YOUR FAULT. In my mind that is both wrong, and unhelpful. If the church doesn’t helps a person reconcile God’s truths with the truths of human experience, it is the church’s fault as much or more than the one who is struggling.)
  • How many will seek to pray with you that your doubts about God will disappear (without addressing the underlying concerns)?
  • How many will express their concerns, either to you directly or indirectly to others, about the validity of your salvation? (How many will suggest you need a real salvation experience, or a new baptism, or a new second blessing, or a new exorcism, or something else new that demonstrates that you have a problem that the rest of the church lacks?)
  • How many will appear to avoid you as if you have a disease that must be quarantined?
  • How many will come up to you after and say something like, “I often struggle with doubts about God as well so I appreciate you sharing this with us. Maybe sometime when you have time we can sit down and you can share with me more about this struggle.”?

My feeling is that the last one will be pretty rare… yet I think we all struggle with doubts at times— Faith is not the absence of doubt, but a matter of trust that acknowledges uncertainty.

If the church is an unsafe place for doubters, and

If most Christians doubt (whether they admit it or not), and

If most Christians pretend to live a doubtless faith (whether or not such a faith exists)

Then, church is an unsafe place for Christians

I would recommend:

  • Normalize doubt. We don’t believe in God because it is impossible to rationally believe otherwise. We respond to doubt with faith, NOT negate doubt with faith.
  • Treat doubt as a healthy thing to address in church. Don’t destroy it, or quarantine it, or shame it (or the doubter). Doubt is a part of the human experience— and we are all humans.
  • Delve into tough questions in church— fairly and without bumper sticker “Gotcha” one-liners or ad hominem attacks.  (No “People who think like that are a bunch of liberals/apostates/sinners/etc.”) Babylon Bee has a great satirical take on this. You can click HERE.
  • Don’t stifle doubters and minority opinions. In practice, one may have to decide which person is honestly struggling with doubt and which are actually proselytizers of a different belief system. I have met a few people who act like they doubt, but in actuality use every opportunity to evangelize their the new belief that they lack doubt in. There is a need for boundaries there. But people who honestly struggle with their faith should always be honored in church. Church should not a a place of “Groupthink” where people espouse the same aphorisms while hiding their real thoughts.

I don’t pretend to be perfect, or even good, in this area. Back a few decades ago I was in the Navy and my roommate had two friends visiting. Both of them were raised in church and both expressed to us that they they struggled with doubt about God and the Christian faith. My response was that I had no such doubt. They both expressed the desire to have no such doubt. In practice, however, it was a dead end for this part of the conversation. They opened up to me, and I responded essentially that I cannot relate to their experience. They expressed a desire to be like me in this situation, but that was impossible, since they DID have doubts. Desire does not change things. And if I was more honest with myself back then, I would have to admit that my faith was on choosing to trust in the God of the Holy Bible, rather than a certainty that I could not possibly be wrong.

A Leading Cause of Atheism? Not Allowing Dialogue and Disagreements | Jackson Wu

Please click on the link at the bottom of this post for an article from Jackson Wu that then links to the related article in Relevant Magazine. It is an interesting case study of a Christian who gradually moved to atheism. The seeming cause was a lack of openness in his church to dialogue and range of thought.

You can decide for yourself. But as for me, I think it is on the mark. A lack of dialogue, and the lack of freedom to disagree leads to FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt). I will leave uncertainty and doubt to Wu’s posting, but let me give an example of fear.

Fear.  Consider this story– Years ago I was leading a Bible study, and some of the members wanted to study the Book of Revelation. Sure. Why not. But one of the members was very nervous about it. I asked him why. He stated that there were so many different viewpoints out there that he was worried about the group breaking down into a big fight. He was also afraid that the group may push only one orthodox view. (More recently I was in a group discussing prophecy and when I expressed my doubt, not rejection, of the future narrative provided in the materials, I was offered yet more materials to “help me.”) Anyway, I told my friend that when we go through Revelation, we will focus on what we can say with confidence (it is a book of comfort, hope, and warnings after all) and then give freedom  for diverse opinions on the rest. It was good I did this. One family, who were American missions who serve in Africa expressed belief in the interpretation of a Kenyan Theologian regarding Revelation that is rather allegorical and places the United States as the Antichrist. I was wondering at the time whether I had made a mistake in establishing such a “freedom of thought” zone. Looking back, I was glad I did. And surprisingly, although I still do not think that Kenyan Theologian is correct, I do rather see the interpretation as probably being stronger than the “Left Behind” narrative.

Being in a church environment where a forced orthodoxy does not allow for honest questions and disagreements creates an atmosphere of fear. That certainly does not aid faith.

via A Leading Cause of Atheism? Not Allowing Dialogue and Disagreements | Jackson Wu

A Paradoxical Faith

One of my favorite verses in the Bible to meditate on is Mark 9:24.

Immediately the father of the boy cried out, “I do believe; help my unbelief!”

The context is a father of a boy who is described as demon-possessed. The disciples of Jesus have been unable to provide help. Jesus questions the father, who then asks Jesus to heal his son “if He is able.” Jesus notes that “Everything is possible for the one who believes.” 330px-healing_of_the_demon-possessed

The father’s response to this, “I do believe; help my unbelief!” may sound wishy-washy. In fact, I have seen commentaries that look down on this response as weak compared to the wholehearted confidence of some others in the Bible. The response was viewed as poor… but just good enough for Jesus to respond.

The commentaries could be correct, but I guess I just really don’t see it that way.

There is an honesty to his response. He is struggling with doubt, and that is really okay. Some see the essence of faith being an absence of doubt. However, when one gets to Hebrews 11,  we find the paragons of faith as those who acted with firm resolve. That resolve doesn’t necessarily suggest ZERO doubt. In fact, Moses and Gideon showed signs of considerable doubt. Yet in the end, they resolved to obey God. James also describes faith in a similar manner. Faith is evidenced by its expression of will not cognitive certainty.

The father came to Jesus. If he could fully express his thoughts, it could be something like this:

“I believe you, Jesus, have the ability to save my son. But I also know that I could be wrong. I do have doubts… but I refuse to act on those doubts. I will act on what I believe and what I hope. I come to you, Jesus, to save my son.”

Jesus seemed satisfied with the response, and healed the son. It is as if He was saying, “That’s really all I ask.”  Much of the Bible shows faith in this way… trust me in your doubts, and you will be rescued–

Taste and see that the Lord is good;
    blessed is the one who takes refuge in him.” 

Psalm 34:8

This seems to be a paradox in faith that we need to get comfortable with. Many of the best examples of faith, have a paradoxical twist built into them.

  1.  An example of faith that caused Jesus to marvel was the centurion in Matthew 8.  

    Jesus said to him, “Shall I come and heal him?”

    The centurion replied, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”

    This is an amazing example of faith, understanding something about Jesus’ ability to heal that even His disciples may not have realized. However, there is nothing in the passage that suggests that the centurion knew what Jesus would do. He had great faith in Jesus’ ability to heal if Jesus chose to do so, but expressed no such confidence that Jesus would choose to act.  Is that a problem? I don’t believe so. Certainly Jesus did not think so.

  2. Another example is in Daniel 3 in the story of the fiery furnace. 

    16 Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to him, “King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. 17 If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. 18 But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”  (Daniel 3: 16-18)

    Again, their faith was demonstrated in their decision to obey God, even though they did not know what God would actually do.

  3. The quintessential example of faith in the Bible is Abraham and his willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac at the command of God. The Bible says that Abraham’s faith was counted unto him for righteousness. Paul expands on Abraham’s example to note that no person is declared righteous via the Law, but only through the grace of God that comes from man’s faith in God. The writer of Hebrews expands on this point, but adds an interesting note to it. In chapter 11,

    17 By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had embraced the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, 18 even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” 19 Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death.

    It is interesting that Abraham’s faith in God had a flaw in it. His faith seems to be that God would make him kill his own son, and then God would raise Isaac from the dead. So if Abraham’s faith was in cognitive certainty, then it was certainty in something that wasn’t actually true.

In the above three numbered examples, faith a flaw, or paradoxical twist. For the centurion, there appeared to be uncertainty whether Jesus would respond to his request. For Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, there was uncertainty as to whether God would act to save them or not. In the case of Abraham, his belief as to what God would have him do and what God would do after was mistaken.

What made the faith of the above three marvelous was not their lack of doubt or confusion as to the future, but their commitment to God in the present.

The man in Mark 9 came to Jesus to have his son healed. And despite the fact that Jesus’ disciples utterly failed to heal the child, the father stayed. When Jesus questioned the man as to his belief, the man was honest enough to express the (quite reasonable, under the circumstances) doubts he had, and yet he still believed and would still call on Jesus to save his son. The man did not know for sure, but he was willing to “taste and see that the Lord is good.”

It may seem a bit paradoxical, but that is exactly the faith we need— uncertain of the future, but certain of our intent to come to Jesus for mercy.





How Do We Dialogue Among Faiths?

I will be teaching Inter-religious Dialogue this next semester at seminary. First time I have ever taught such a course. I look forward to it. But it is challenging to find good sources within the Evangelical Realm as far as how to do Interfaith Dialogue.

I think some of this is because there is a basic disrespect, and distrust, of Dialogue. To be fair, some of the concerns have merit. There are genuine concerns regarding the practice of Dialogue. But instead of dealing with that directly here… I would rather look at three basic approaches to Dialogue. Note:  These are my terms. I suppose I could use someone else’s terminology, but I like my own.


The spectrum above is based on how similarities and differences are handled.

  1.  Relativistic Approach.  On one side, people can dialogue where the emphasis is on finding similarities. The interaction seeks to be positive and finding common statements of belief. Although it sounds good, it does have problems from and Evangelical standpoint. First, there is a tendency to whitewash differences with vague terminologies. Second, a “lowest common denominator” is often sought– emphasizing as important the things we share, while trivializing the differences. Third, as the sketch suggests… there is a temptation to relativize belief– suggesting that all belief systems are equally valid and relevant. One might note that emphasizing similarities does not automatically lead to relativism… it seems to commonly happen.
  2. Apologetic Approach. On the other side, dialogue can be focused on differences. This can be problematic since it tends to lead to arguments (thus “apologetic approach.”) Additionally, by deemphasizing similarities, there is a temptation towards stereotyping or exaggerating the differences, and treating similarities as trivial. The apologetic approach often finds a welcome place among Evangelicials since it tends to promote an Exclusivistic (or at most Inclusivistic) view of Salvation. Tied to this, many Evangelicals, valuing evangelism, have the ill-considered notion that focusing on differences and arguments is a good strategy to convert other people. It is hard to imagine where such a notion would come from.
  3. Clarification Approach. Rather than emphasizing one or the other, the goal is to identify similarities and differences. The aim is neither to argue nor to relativize… but to gain mutual understanding. From such mutual understanding, one can lead to finding areas of common ground that could lead to partnerships in some areas (more in line with Relativistic end of the spectrum). On the other hand, it can also lead to finding areas of honest conflict and then develop means to express these differences in ways that can be understood and evaluated by all  (more in line with the Apologetic end of the spectrum).

It is pretty clear from the way I described these, that I primarily value the middle path… of clarification. I believe it is the most:

  • Intellectually honest. It is a bit dishonest to stereotype beliefs to emphasize differences, or to relativize or whitewash beliefs to emphasize similarities.
  • Useful. Evangelicals want to share their faith, but this is done best through open dialogue that compares and contrasts openly the beliefs of two faiths. One extreme (apologetic) makes the other faith irrelevant. The other extreme (relativistic) makes the need for change irrelevant.
  • Respectful. The Apologetic approach tends to disrespect adherents of the opposite side by emphasizes areas of conflict. The Relativistic approach tends to disrespect by trivializing the treasured beliefs of one or both groups.  The middle ground seeks to respect the beliefs (honestly clarifying similarities and differences) and respecting those of other faiths.

Frankly, the extremes are not only less respectful, they can be a bit insulting. I have had people talk to me about their own faith in such vague, generalized terms, to try to give the impression that I should really join their group because “we really believe the same thing, don’t we?” At the other extreme, I have had people from other groups who will throw verses at me from the Bible (like JWs repeating any verse using the term “Jehovah/Yahweh,” Adventists repeating any that mentions the Sabbath, or radical monotheists that refer to God’s “oneness”) as if verse dropping adequately divides the world into two groups… those who are correct and those who are dead wrong. I tend to find it insulting because it seems to me that they assume that I don’t know my own beliefs well enough to understand the complexities that go beyond “proof-texts” or generalizations. Maybe I am too sensitive… but I really doubt that I am alone in this.

Consider looking at an issue through all three approaches of the age-old question:  “Do Jews, Christians, and Muslims worship the same God?”

Relativizing Approach.  Of course we worship the same God. All three groups say that there is only one God. If there is only one God, it is impossible to worship another anyway. But not only that but key aspects of the revelation of the three groups identify the God of each group as being the same. This includes His Transcendance, His intent to interact and reveal Himself in history, and His power and wisdom. Additionally, we share some commonality of prophecy, such as God revealing Himself through Abraham and Moses.

Apologetic Approach. Of course we DON’T worship the same God. Both Muslims and Jews see the Christian God as really being three Gods, and thus not monotheistic. Christians reject the views of Muslims especially that minimize God’s immanance, and reject the Jewish view that does not see prophetic relevance in the teachings and nature of Jesus. In fact, our understanding of who God is, comes primarily from our Sacred Scriptures. Since Christians and Jews both reject the Quran, and Jews reject the New Testament, and Muslim Scripture in many places contradicts Jewish and Christian Scriptures (even while claiming to find value in them), it is ridiculous to think we worship the same God. If the characteristics of God in the three groups is different, and the sacred texts that are suppose to reveal God are different, clearly these are three different “gods.”

<Both of these points have merits. The Relativizing Approach can whitewash differences with common terminology. As I have noted in another post, three people may believe in “the largest animal on earth.” Since they all believe in the same term we might guess they believe in the same thing. However, if one gets past the common terminology, one may discover the person A believes that animal to be a huge fish-like creature that breathes air, person B believes it to be a large gray land animal with big nose and ears, and person C believes it to be a giant winged reptilian-like creature that breathes fire. The terminology disguises the vast differences. On the other hand, the Apologetic Approach may seek to “major on the minor,” focusing on relevant but somewhat minor differences while minimizing the major, and perhaps more important, similarities.?>

Clarification Approach respectfully listens to both sides and tries to understand their beliefs from the other’s perspective. In line with that, try to understand the terminologies so that differences are not hidden by similar terms, and similarities are not hidden by different terms. So if Muslims use the term Allah, Christians use God or Dios, and Jews use the Tetragrammaton, Elohim, or Adonai, the different terms do not necessarily point to worship of different Gods. On the other hand, using a mutually agreed upon term, like “The God of Abraham” does not necessarily mean that each understand the divine being behind the term the same way.


The Hopeful Pessimist

I am a self-described pessimist. Some find this troubling… believing that optimism is healthier, and makes one happier. As a melancholic, I am not all that sure I want to be happier… I want contentment… I want peace,.. I want purpose… I want belongingness.  I think I can generally do with just a small bit of happiness most of the time.Mud Splat.jpg

But as a Christian, I often wonder whether pessimism is wholly consistent with my faith. Additionally, there are people who describe pessimism as another term for “realism.” That sounds more negative than I am, or want to be.

With that in mind, I decided to start reading Jurgen Moltmann’s book “The Theology of Hope.” I still have a long way to go in the book, but it emphasizes eschatology (the “study of last things”) as not so much a field of academic rigor, but a recognized hope that helps us interpret the past and especially the present.

This may sound strange, but one thing I like about this viewpoint is that it leaves room for an element of pessimism. Consider a quote of John Calvin on Hebrew 11:1, referred to by Moltmann:

“To us is given the promise of eternal life– but to us, the dead. A blessed resurrection is proclaimed to us– meantime we are surrounded by decay. We are called righteous– and yet sin lives in us. We hear of ineffable blessedness– but mean time we are here oppressed by infinite misery. We are promised abundance of all good things–yet we are rich only in hunger and thirst. What would become of us if we did not take our stand on hope, and if our heart did not hasten beyond this world through the midst of the darkness upon the path illumined by the word and Spirit of God!”

In other words we live in a world of suffering and injustice. Pessimism, then, is in a sense justifiable, a truly realistic and appropriate viewpoint much of the time. YET… as people of faith in Christ, we also have a divine hope– a hope that starkly contrasts and contests with the world we perceive.

Moltmann also quotes J.G. Hamann rhetorical question, “Who would form proper concepts of the present without knowing the future?” The future hope doesn’t just contrast with the present… It helps us understand the present.The present, likewise, drives us to hope.As a Christian… pessimism, expecting the worst rather than the best in the present and near future, may be well-founded anecdotally– perhaps even empirically… yet it is still not fully realistic. Quoting Moltmann directly this time:

“Hope alone is to be called ‘realistic’, because it alone takes seriously the possibilities with which all reality is fraught. It does not take things as they happen to stand or to lie, but as progressing, moving things with possibilities of change. Only as long as the world and the people in it are in a fragmented and experimental state which is not yet resolved, is there any sense in earthly hopes. The latter anticipate what is possible to reality, historic and moving as it is, and use their influence to decide the process of history. Thus hopes and anticipation of the future are not a transfiguring glow superimposed upon a darkened existence, but are realistic ways of perceiving the scope of our real possibilities, and as such they set everything in motion and keep it in a state of change. Hope and the kind of thinking that goes with it consequently cannot submit to the reproach of being utopian, for they do not strive after things that have ‘no place’, but after things that have ‘no place as yet’ but can acquire one. On the other hand, the celebrated realism of the stark facts, of established objects and laws, the attitude that despairs of its possibilities and clings to reality as it is, is inevitably much more open to the charge of being utopian, for in its eyes there is ‘no place’ for possibilities, for future novelty, and consequently for the historic character of reality. Thus, the despair which imagines it has reached theend of its tether proves to be illusory, as long as nothing has yet come to an end but everything is still full of possibilities. Thus positivistic realism also proves to be illusory, so long as the world is not a fixed body of facts but a network of paths and processes, so long as the world does not only run according to laws but these laws themselves are also flexible, so long as it is a realm in which necessity means the possible, but not the unalterable.”

So what does this mean to me? Pessimism can take (at least) two flavors. One flavor is despairing or nihilistic. I remember a quote from the TV Show “Late Night With David Letterman” that stated “Life is a sucking, swirling, eddy of despair, bespeckled with brief glimmers of false hope in an ever-blackening universe.” Some pessimists are disappointed when good comes… They have come to not only expect, but appreciate, bad things occurring.

But another flavor of pessimism is hopeful. Such a person recognizes the failings, the flaws of the NOW, and anticipates these flaws, these ills, are pushing the world towards more misery and pain. Yet, as a Christian one is aware that God is committed to redemption of His children and His world. This commitment gives us hope and helps us to interpret the present from a less myopic perspective. That perspective does not eradicate pessimism… we still see the institutions and powers of this world that perpetuate sin and misery. In fact, a clear-eyed recognition of the NOW can better give us the heart that makes us all the more long for God, and to pray, “Thy Kingdom Come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.”

(By the way, I websearched the term “Hopeful Pessimist” and discovered that I am not alone. Perhaps I should feel good about that.  Or maybe not.)

The Taxidermic Minister


I come from a rural community in upstate New York in the United States. It is not known for its art culture. However, one art form that is quite strong there is taxidermy. I haven’t really seen it practiced here in the Philippines. For those who don’t know, it is the art of making the skins of animals resemble living animals by stuffing them and placing them on a frame. The etymology is from the greek for “Arranged Skins.” Those who are especially adept are able to produce artwork that looks like it is alive. While some simply mount the heads on a wall, many prefer to make the full animal (whether mammal, bird, or other) “come alive.” The true artist (taxidermist) can make the art look:

  • Real
  • Alive
  • With personality
  • In an appropriate setting for the animal

Of course, that is what makes it art, because:

  • It is not real. Underneath the dead hide is wood, foam, stuffing, or other materials.
  • It is not alive, and most of its components were not even part of the animal.
  • It has no personality. It’s eyes and mouth are fake, and its posture is attained through proper framing.
  • The setting (a branch for example) is as fake as the rest… to give the illusion of being in the wild, when it is actually in someone’s house… or perhaps a museum.

This art form can, in fact, be quite beautiful. It can also be comforting. Some people will have their dearly departed pet “stuffed” to keep with them always.

This reminds me of Revelation 3 in the description of the Church of Sardis. Jesus through John states that the church has the “reputation on being alive” but is, in fact, dead. The term “reputation” means “named” or “labelled.” But another way of saying it is that the church  presents all appearances of being alive, and yet isn’t. One might call this a “Taxidemic Church.”

I want to think about Taxidermic Ministers, whether pastors, missionaries, or layministers. Appearing alive, and not dead in ministry is not that hard.

  1.  Anyone raised up in a church culture learns how to behave to be recognized as being alive in that culture. Sometimes we talk about “cultural Christians” as people who describe themselves as Christians, but live on the periphery of the church and (perhaps) lack saving faith. But the second part (living on the periphery of the church) is presumptive. A Christian who lacks saving faith are often deeply embedded in the church. They are connected through decades of habits to the church culture. They can play church as good as, or better, than anyone else.
  2. Seminary indoctrinates the future minister in how to give the appearance of a vibrant spiritual life. What to say in different occasions, the proper theological and biblical lingo, the denominationally appropriate expressions of proclamation, worship, exaltation, and piety— all give false indication of vitality.
  3. The ministry culture establishes fairly clear expectations for the minister. By “listening” to these expectations and carrying them out, a minister learns not only how to “talk the talk” but how to “walk the walk” in the eyes of those around them.

And yet they are dead. They may be dead spiritually… having no faith… or having “lost the faith.” There have been articles of pastors who were, or became atheists. Despite this, they maintained their roles in ministry. Hardly surprising. Most of us, at one time or another, have worked for a company or a person that we don’t respect (or at least don’t believe in their vision). It is highly demotivating. However, a paycheck and other perks can help considerably  Some ministers reach a point in which their relationship to their ministry culture is so enmeshed that employment outside of ministry is unlikely, or at least scary.

Some are not spiritually dead (referring here to faith) but are emotionally dead. This can occur through psychophysical burnout. Elijah (running to Mount Horeb) or Jesus (going to Gethsemene) appear relevant examples. I think it can also happen as one loses “one’s first love” (as mentioned of the Ephesian church). Some have drifted from service as worship to service as duty.

This last one is part of my problem with the common evangelical doctrine of “calling.” People have told me that to go into ministry, one must have a “clear sense of God’s unique calling to professional ministry.” Additionally, if someone is considering getting out of such ministry, others will tell them that they are “rejecting their calling.” I have problems with this for two reasons. First, it is doubtful from a Biblical standpoint. In the Bible, all Christians are called to ministry… and “Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task” (I Timothy 3:1) regardless of whether the church, ultimately calls the person to this role. This common understanding of “calling” seems to have deeper roots in the Catholic sacrament of “Holy Orders” than in the Bible.

Secondly, however, this understanding of calling leads to dejection and burnout. A minister is struggling with faith, priorities, vision, burnout, and such, and the “calling” card is tossed on the table essentially saying, “Too late now… you are stuck.” No one should minister because they feel trapped.

How can one identify a “taxidermic minister”? There can be obvious signs of burnout or hypocrisy… but not all may show it. Some people feel that they have special discernment to identify the spiritual strength of another. Usually, I suspect, this is more hubris than anything else. (I recall a lady coming to Baguio claiming the ability to identify the hidden sins of others. I recall her telling a teenage boy that his secret sin had to do with “sex.” Not exactly a difficult guess… and I assume it was a guess, since I can’t see why God would give out such a useless, and a bit pharisaic, gift anyway.) The skill of a minister to have the reputation of being alive, while being dead, is akin to the artistic competence of a taxidermist to make his art to make what is dead appear alive.

However, allowing ministers to “be real” in ministry rather than put on the garb (arranged skins) of culturally mandated piety and unique holiness, could help. Recognizing calling as a path of following Christ that all of us share, not just a unique vocational group, couldn’t hurt either. We are ALL on the same pilgrimage with Christ.

If the church can recognize that every self-reflective, honest person struggles with faith, including ministers, I believe we would do much better in helping all process it. I recall a time years ago when I struggled with my faith. I was able to resolve it by recognizing that faith is NOT blind trust, and that doubt is NOT antithetical to faith. My honest struggling with faith, has greatly strengthened my faith. I am glad I found resources where I could deal with these doubts without castigation.





New Evangelism?

A new evangelism, expressed in terms of contemporary experience, must begin with finding a new motive for mission. The imperatives of earlier centuries, particularly of the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century, are no longer valid or compelling.devil

Dr. Michael Green states (“Evangelism in the Early Church”, 1970) there was a three-fold motive for mission in the early church. First, there was a sense of gratitude for what Christ had done. Second, early Christians were conscious of their responsibility to God to communicate the message they had received. Third, there was a concern, a passion for people.

… Over the years since the first century, the motive for mission has varied. Let us look for a moment at the evangelism of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries. … The driving motive of Christians in these years was a passion for souls. With the vivid belief in the reality of heaven and hell, Christians sought to rescue people from eternal punishment and to open the door to heaven for them before it was too late.

Perhaps the most vivid expression of this type of motive can be heard throbbing in the ministry of Dr. Jonathan Edwards. It is powerfully expressed in his famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Dr. Edwards apparently produced a tremendous impact on the eastern coast of America as he thundered: “God holds you over the pit of hell. You hang by a slender thread with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it. Now harken to the loud call of God’s word and providence. Therefore let everyone who is out of Christ now awake and fly from the wrath to come.”

Nineteenth century motives for mission are no longer viable or credible. Enticement of heaven or the dread of hell no longer possess the power they once did. There are several reasons for this decline. (Alan Walker, “The New Evangelism” (Abingdon Press, 1975), 8-11)

Alan Walker suggest a few reasons:

-Reduction of early morality rates makes death seem less real or pressing. While this feeling is essentially inaccurate (death is still inevitable), death and post-death experience doesn’t connect as viscerally as it may have in the past. I have heard a study that 3% of Americans are afraid of hell. Some perhaps lack fear because they are convinced that they are heaven-bound. Others lack fear because they don’t believe in hell. However, others may be uncertain about the future, and believe in hell… but they don’t feel the fear because there is a perception of “distance” between now and death. This would be pretty similar to a 20 year old eating junk food and being asked to think about its effect on his heart… possibly, eventually, a long time from now.

-Hope of Reward and Fear of Punishment seem like inadequate motives for salvation. Many are uncomfortable with using this methodology to inspire conversion. James Fowler’s faith development stages does point out that doing right because of fear of punishment is a much lower (and not wholly desirable) stage of faith growth. Those who use only fear of hell as their argument to convert can come off more as fire insurance salesmen… rather than bearer’s of good news and Christ’s kingdom.

-Focusing on hell does tend to portray God poorly. The God portrayed by Jonathan Edward seems to have made cultural sense in the time of Jonathan Edward, as well as John Tetzel, but today such a God does not appear to be worthy of worship. Frankly, the God of the Bible generally seems much more compassionate than many more recent evangelistic portrayals.

I would probably add at least one more. Modernism brought doubt about old answers, a faith in certain new answers, and a pluralism based on greater interaction of people of different cultural viewpoints. It also inspired Post-modernism which has doubts regarding modernism, as well as the new answers, but without necessarily embracing the older answers.

Of course, not believing in hell does not make it go away. But over reliance on it as an evangelism strategy seems out of sorts with many modern or post-modern cultures. I have mentioned before the controversy as to whether accepting the Lordship of Christ is necessary for salvation.  We often say that we accept Jesus as Savior and Lord… but some suggest that only one is necessary. I am not competent necessarily to determine if both are necessary, but the bigger question, I believe, is on the other side. It seems pretty obvious from Scripture that calling on the name of the Lord implies a decision to follow Christ… as Lord. The bigger question is whether salvation necessitates recognizing Jesus as Savior. Can a person be saved who accepts Jesus as Lord… before understanding that He is also Savior? Or if a person accepts Jesus as Savior, must he be absolutely aware of what exactly he has been saved from?

I think the note in the quote about the three motivations of the early church for evangelizing is important. The three motivations:

  • Gratitude for the work of Christ in their lives
  • Responsibility before God to share the Good News.
  • Concern or passion for people

These seem like appropriate motives. When I interviewed medical evangelistic ministry workers/organizers, I asked what are their motives for doing the ministry. The top three were:

  • Love of God
  • Love/concern for people
  • Obedience  to the Great Commission

These three are about the same. Unfortunately the motive, “a passion for souls,” has proven inadequate. One might surmise that passion for souls would necessitate love or concern for people. But that has not proven true. We find many who tirelessly share the word of God seeking conversion, who show little to no concern for the social, economic, psycho-emotional, plights of the people they share with. To ignore these other areas may be consistent with a passion for souls, but outrageously dissonant with genuine love or concern for people.




Instilling Healthy Doubt

I saw on FB another bit of foolishness. Okay, there has been a LOT of foolishness on Facebook lately. A recent  post claimed that Satanists utilize “LOL” to mean “Lucifer our Lord.” So if we use “LOL” in our posts, we are endorsing Satan. Let’s have a reality moment here:

  1. I don’t use “LOL,” so if all Christians stopped using the term, it is entirely possible that the world would be a (slightly) better place. Who knows?
  2. It is possible, I suppose, that SOME people who call themselves Satanists do use those letters that way. The last time I had an insightful discussion with a self-described Satanist was 25 years ago. In his case, he did not believe in a literal Satan, but appreciated a “satanic” philosophy… not so far from Hedonism. In his case, and those like him, since he does not believe in Satan per se (ontologically), such a use of “LOL” would be humorous or ironic, rather than worshipful or respectful.

There is some serious foolishness here. It is not about the doubtful use of the term by Satanists. Rather the foolishness springs from:

  1. The thought that the term inherently endorses or empowers Satanism. There may be two different beliefs here. One belief may be that a symbol can only have one meaning. For example, reading comments on FB, there are serious questions regarding the Confederate Battle flag. Two different segments of society argue about what the flag REALLY represents. In fact, it represents two different things to two different groups.  If a symbol means something to Group A and something different to Group B, each can use the symbol as they see fit… without being affected or tainted by another groups use. (I am talking about meaning here… not political affects. Two different meanings can lead to problems, like if a red octagonal road sign means “STOP” to one group of people and “SPEED UP” to another.) . A symbol is always culturally determined. A symbol is not inherently “tainted” by another group. However, the second possible belief is in the power of incantation. That is, that words, if used in the right circumstance in the right order have special magical powers. Even though there are some examples of blessings or curses in the Bible, they appear to be tied to a direct appeal to God to act (relational call) rather than due to the power of formula (incantational or magical call).
  2. Failure to check sources. Frankly, the FB post might have been put up as a joke to test the gullibility of “Christians” or anyone else who would read it. Lot of Gullibility Tests on the Web. Alternatively, it could be “clickbait”… articles that are designed to be provocative and lure people to click on the article to make advertizing money.
  3. Having poor sources of authority.  I read it on the Internet is like saying you heard it on the telephone, or read it spray painted on a wall. It says nothing about its veracity.

Why do Christians fall into such a trap? Of course, we are not alone. Weird reactions appears to be pandemic– a universal sociological phenomenon. But Christians have had their share of such… sociological phenomenon.

  • When I was younger, I was told that one should not say “Good Luck” because “luck” has (supposed) etymological roots to Loki, the Norse God of mischief (perhaps SLIGHTLY similar in very limited ways to the Christian concept of Lucifer, or Satan). So to say, “Good Luck” is a positive Satanic blessing. Ridiculous! No one uses the term that way, and probably never did. Frankly, Christians might prefer to not say “Good luck” because it seems to reference a non-Christian view of providence, although, one would have to define “luck” in context before one could say whether or not it is Christian. But to tie it to an irrelevant reference to the past, and then tying it to an equally pointless cross-religious reference, makes no sense whatsoever.I believe the Luck and Lucifer connection has been made by Kenneth Copeland. I believe Luck and Loki was connected to some statements by Pat Robertson, back when I worked for him. Neither Copeland nor Robertson should be considered competent, reliable sources for… well, much of anything.
  • More recently, people have been trying to pick a date for Christ’s return. It seems to be more a cynical ploy to get people to “choose to follow Christ” or, equally bad, for self-styled “prophets” to gain an audience. But I have to think that more people are turned off by the foolishness of making claims that prove to be ludicrously false. This is done sometimes by “Bible Numerology” (a doubtful practice more in line with the Kabbalah than with Christianity) or by making up false phenomena and that rigging the data (such as the “Blood Moon” thing). Why make up dates anyway. Each of us is a couple of skipped heartbeats from the “abyss.” That is a much more solid prediction.

Why don’t Christians do better? Some argue that it is because Christians (especially Evangelical Christians) have a tendency to be anti-intellectual. But, in truth, I haven’t noticed that intellectuals do any better (or at least not much better). We all, as finite human beings, choose who we hold to be in authority. Intellectuals are as likely to choose poor authorities as non-intellectuals.

I would like to suggest that Christians should Have Faith in God and God’s Word, and Follow Christ. In other things maintain a healthy doubt.

What would be the implications of that. We would doubt authority figures, Christian or otherwise. So…

  • We would separate between God’s Word and human interpretations of God’s Word.(question human wisdom)
  • We would separate between following Christ and following people who claim to follow Christ (question human authority)
  • We would spend less time worrying about the intensity of Christians’ faith, and be more concerned about the true object of their faith.
  • We would spend certain critical moments of our lives doubting ourselves… since each of us are often the most effective in leading ourselves astray.

It matters. We all need healthy doubt.