Wednesday, November 25, 2009

An Angry God?

This is probably the longest post I've ever written. It would lose much of it's substance if I posted it in 2 or 3 parts. I encourage you to take the time and read it because it really does make for a fascinating read. Please join the conversation by leaving a comment when you're done reading.

Is God mad at non-Christians, or do Christians often simply misrepresent His heart and passion for the irreligious and the hurting?

A few days ago I received an e-mail invitation from my new friend Rob Curry, to attend a Q&A session hosted by the Atheists of Florida (you heard me!). So yesterday I made the seventy-odd mile trek down to Lakeland, FL. I’d never been to Lakeland (only driven past it on my way to Tampa) and I must confess that the lake around which the public library is located is absolutely breathtaking…but I digress.

I had no expectations of the meeting other than to hear Rob explain what the Atheists are all about, and what, if any, is their agenda. There were no more than fifty people in attendance (and that’s a generous estimate), and I certainly didn’t realize that so many other Christians would show up. A number of them walked in just before the meeting began, and strategically seated themselves together in a group… which happened to be right beside me. One of the men leaned over to me and in a rich, somewhat ‘threatening’ baritone intoned, “Are you a believer or a non-believer?” Realizing where I was, and not wanting to take anything for granted, I replied, “A believer in what?” “A believer in Jesus,” he responded. I responded in the affirmative, whereupon his friend, seated directly beside me, patted me jovially on the arm and said, “Don’t worry, you’re not alone.” As the meeting began, I discovered to my complete and utter surprise, that Atheists are more like Christians than we would care to admit.

It would be fair to say that there were different “denominations” of Atheists represented and they were all over the place in their beliefs and their expression of those beliefs. Let me say for the record that I really like Rob Curry, the President of Atheists of Florida. Sans his non-belief in the existence of God, he would be quintessentially what the Bible calls us to be as Christ-followers. He was gracious, friendly, funny, and accommodating. The panel of ‘experts’ (my word), that had been assembled to answer the myriad questions burning in the hearts of the people in attendance, ran the gamut of characters.

There was the very forgettable intellectual scientist with his tired old arguments about how science provides real answers while religion speaks from the emotions through a process of deductive rationalization. There was the freethinker who wasn’t entirely sure what she believed or why, but knew that she was on a progressive journey to discovering more knowledge. Then there was the emotionally wounded and defensive ex-Jew (though she clarified that she was still culturally Jewish) who had “tried so hard to believe in God” for much of her life but had finally settled the issue that there was no God, and incidentally, no soul or spirit either.

There was the belligerent, arrogant, and slightly insulting academic who clearly prided himself in his ability to unapologetically debate and debunk the “myths” of religion. He would be the equivalent of your hard-nosed Christian who aggressively pickets abortion clinics in an effort to make a statement about his worldview while using language that is clearly offensive to everyone that doesn’t believe the way he does. I was amused by the fact that he had kept count of how many thousand times his daughter had recited the Pledge of Allegiance declaring America to be “one nation under God…” and how infuriating that fact was to him since neither he nor his daughter believed that. I was even more amused by the fact that, as a conscientious objector to all things God, he had made a stamp declaring God to be a myth, which, according to his story, he stamped on all his money (I imagine he must have a lot of spare time or very little money). In addition to his stamp, on the phrase “In God We Trust” he would draw a red circle around the word “God” and put a diagonal line through it so that it read as “In no God We Trust.”

Then there was the social activist who volunteers his skill and time as a pilot to transport sick kids to the Shriner’s Hospital at University of South Florida amongst other such laudable acts of kindness. He, not surprisingly, is quite up-to-date on the plight of nations like Rwanda, Senegal, and other impoverished places around the globe. Finally there was the soft-spoken Englishman who is a member of just about any science group you can think of, has clearly thought through his belief system (or non-belief system as the case may be) and settled in his heart that there is no evidence of the existence of a God. He communicates this succinctly and without any sense of superiority or aggression.

And then there were the Christians. If there was ever a time when I wanted to hang my head in shame, it was last night among my Christ-following ‘brethren.’ The air of superiority was palpable and as soon as they were given the opportunity to turn in questions on 3 X 5 cards or talk from the mic, they pounced, hungry for blood. One person wanted to know the Atheists’ position on war, abortion, capital punishment…what!? Are you serious? Even among Christians, you’ll find a variety of expressions on these issues. Did we really expect that Atheists would have a Biblical worldview on these issues? It quickly became apparent that the Christians had come to let the Atheists know how wrong they were in their beliefs and how right we were.

Then Alice (fictitious name) took the mic, began to speak and removed any doubt as to her agenda. She began by declaring that she saw God in the majesty of the Grand Canyon and the Rocky Mountains and wanted to know what the Atheists saw. When, in response, someone asked her who she saw in the tragedy of Rwanda and the plight of poverty in the slums of Mexico, she had no comeback. Then she probed and prodded them for their answer to the Biblical understanding of the spirit, soul and body. They were bewildered that she would constantly interrupt their attempts at explaining that they didn’t share her biblical worldview. When she finally sat down, she would rudely and loudly interrupt the proceedings from her seat, at every idea, phrase, or expression that she disagreed with. She was belligerent, antagonistic, and dare I say, repulsive. There was nothing about her actions that spoke of love or caring for anyone who believed differently than she did. To observe her, they were the enemy and she was God’s General, fighting His cause in defense of all the things these horrible Atheists were doing to defame His name.

You could hear the audible gasps when I dared to suggest that I was not against their billboard nor was I there to antagonize or harangue them, but simply wanted to find out what common ground we shared so that we could join hands and serve our community. Did I mention that the gasps were not from the Atheists but from the Christians? I imagine I was immediately ostracized to blasphemer’s hell since not one of my Christ-following brethren said a word to me after my decidedly blasphemous performance. But it didn’t stop with Alice. “Brother” Jed (fictitious name) took the mic and explained in his calmly superior voice why Christians were angry about the billboard. I wanted to raise my hand and explain that I was not angry, but the focused and purposeful expression on Jed’s face didn’t make for healthy conversation. “The billboard is offensive to God!” Jed explained. Interesting observation in a gathering that doesn’t even acknowledge the existence of God, I thought.

Jed certainly doesn’t speak on my behalf, and I doubt that he speaks on God’s either. How does Jed presume to know that God is offended by the billboard? Aren’t there billboards advertising hard-core porn stores showing half-naked women, lining our highways? What about the Hooters billboards? Or the billboards advertising one church as being better than all the rest? Would these be any less offensive to God if indeed He was mad at billboards? As an aside, I personally think it would be a brilliant billboard for a church if you traded out the web address. Or isn’t the focus and mission of the Church to reach those who don’t believe in God? Isn’t it true that a sign like that, put up by a church, would definitely invite curiosity from people who were seeking answers? After all, last time I checked, there’s definitely more than one person that doesn’t believe in God, and the Church should be the perfect place to find answers and explore the idea of the existence of God.

Following Jed was a gentleman who appeared to be the primary spokesperson of the group. We’ll call him Dr. Greg (fictitious name). Dr. Greg, was much less antagonistic and superior, but began his presentation by telling the Atheists that when he looks at them, he sees God, to which the arrogant intellectual replied, “When I look at you, I see the evolution of reptiles.”

My point? I’m certain that these fine, upstanding, Christian people meant well, but they obviously had no idea how to go about what they appeared to be trying to accomplish, which I suspect was to get the Atheists to see how wrong they are about their beliefs, recant their godless ways, and take down their billboard. They had no relationship with these people, didn’t appear to care at all about them as individuals, and totally disrupted their meeting and its purpose. Yet they hoped to accomplish the humanly impossible task of convincing them that Christianity was the better option for them?! In my mind’s eye, I began to imagine the shoe on the other foot. I imagined a situation where these fine folks held an open mic Q&A session one Sunday morning in their lovely, quaint church. I imagined a group of Atheists walking in and huddling together in a group waiting for their opportunity to engage in the proceedings and make the Christians see how wrong they were about what they believe. I imagined them hogging the mic for much of the proceedings, and eventually simply ignoring the mic and shouting their disdain and disagreement from the audience at every turn. I can only imagine what the Christians’ reaction would be.

There was absolutely no sense whatsoever that these Christians loved people that believed differently from them, nor indeed did they care to hear what they had to say. They were there for one purpose and one purpose only: to let the Atheists know how wrong they were, and establish their frustration at the Atheists’ efforts to undermine their own evangelistic goals by planting a billboard slap-bang in the middle of their ‘territory.’

So, what do I think was accomplished? Well, I think the atheists breathed a collective sigh of relief that they were Atheists and not Christians (who would want to believe in a God who looked and sounded as angry as these folks?). I think Fox News and ABC News (who recorded the entire proceedings) were thrilled at the footage they got of angry and vitriolic diatribes from Christians who profess to represent a loving God. Aside from this, I sincerely don’t think the cause of Christ was advanced one iota. How do I deduce that, you ask? Well, for one thing, I was there and witnessed the response of the Atheists, but more significantly because Colossians 4: 5-6 says, “Be wise in the way you act with people who are not believers, making the most of every opportunity. When you talk, you should always be kind and pleasant so you will be able to answer everyone in the way you should.” Was this accomplished? You be the judge.


Spencer said...

Incredible. But all too common. When I think about the people who were in attendance, I am thinking they *all* need equal amounts of prayer for their salvation.

Larry C said...

As, Thomas Merton says in "New Seeds of Contemplation," many who call themselves Christians take comfort in believing many other people are going to hell while they will escape that fate. They cannot say exactly how they will manage this escape, they just know.

Love and Mercy are the only true signs of a life dedicated to following Christ.

Patrick Voo said...

my dear friend joseph,

what a brave man you are - to subject yourself to the scrutiny of other Christians!

i think that short of being able to have been present (or to watch the news coverage of the meeting) it strikes me that the discussion/debate focused more on the defensibility of each person's worldview, and less on the kind of world that our respective trajectories are aiming to create.

i commend and encourage you for your efforts to not only engage an authentic and meaningful dialogue with people of varying beliefs, but also your disarming way of holding up a mirror to the Christian/church sub-culture.


Joseph said...

Patrick, your assessment of the focus of the discussion is pretty accurate. As usual, I love your perspective, because when the discussion focuses on the kind of world our respective trajectories are trying to create, we'll tend to be more effective and less combative.

Thanks also for your kind words. I am really committed to trying to make us see what the world sees when they look at us.

pearlie said...

Yup, you certainly had one incredible journey there :)

I come from a multi cultural country and we not only share our space with atheists but Muslims, Buddhists, Taoists, Sikhs and Hindus. I have come to realise that it is better to sit together in a roundtable and talk and see where we can share common grounds than to speak "over" each other. We must understand where they are coming from before we can even try to tell them about our God.

BTW, I got here by way of "next blog" randomly clicking away - glad I did :)

Rob said...

Thank you, Joseph, for making it out to Lakeland on Monday. I really appreciate being able to see how the event looked through your eyes.

The official library count, by the way, was 46 people.

Never having done this before, I kept an open mind on what to expect. My overall impression at the end was that the event turned out to be a remarkable success. Why? Because it produced a real exchange with opportunities to learn something from everyone who spoke up. If it's about something important, then I'd rather have an angry person tell me why she's mad, than just say nothing, leaving me completely in the dark about her motivations, experiences and perceptions.

Every conversation has to start somewhere. What matters more than where it happens to starts is what direction we choose to take it.

Sure, there was a little bit of disorderliness, but no one is perfect. My idea of a disrupted meeting is more like what happened back in July at a conference hosted by the Nigerian Humanist Movement (see What Leo Igwe's group had to cope with was deliberate, premeditated disruption. Compared to that, Lakeland was a walk in the park.

I forgot to bring a gavel. But my only regret is failing to record on tape the woman who walked out, saying she was nauseated while we were in the process of flipping over the reel. Everything else was captured and is now available as a podcast (after cutting out some extraneous material at the beginning and the end, to make it fit).

Joseph said...

Pearlie, thanks for being a part of the conversation. Your insight further buttresses my point about why we need to be as gracious as Rob (the President of Atheists of Florida) was. Glad you found my blog.

Joseph said...

"If it's about something important, then I'd rather have an angry person tell me why she's mad, than just say nothing, leaving me completely in the dark about her motivations, experiences and perceptions.

Every conversation has to start somewhere. What matters more than where it happens to starts is what direction we choose to take it."

Rob, this is the kind of reasoning and graciousness that makes you in danger of becoming well liked by Christians! :)

I appreciate the fact that you invited me and I'm grateful that you choose to interpret the disruptions in such accepting terms.

Ash said...

it saddens me that this is the case, but what's more, is that it does not surprise me.

my dad and i have had lengthy discussions along varying & similar lines: and i truly believe there is now a solid minority in this country, a rumbling beneath the surface, of a generation that has rejected bull-horning God, and that lives to receive and love people the way that Jesus did.

there are those who want to truly be educated about faith in Christ, and are willing to concede that we don't have all the answers (as only He does), as was taught in the Church for so long, and that He is a mystery set for our discovery and fascination...that science, rationale and faith can and do work together w/o prejudice.

i'm grateful that you've made friends w/ Rob. I'm glad that God is offended by our questions, nor angry at those who do not believe in Him.

Ash said...

grammatical error: i'm sure you realize i meant "not offended" at the end there...