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Christians

A Skeptical Christian

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I’m a skeptic.

When people repost articles on Facebook that sound fishy to me, I check them out on Snopes. I fact check. I look for inconsistencies. I think about what was not said as well as what was. I want to know the author’s agenda. I makes it really hard for me to toe any ideological line. I’m a skeptic and always have been. There are some things I just can’t swallow.

Most skeptics have a hard time believing in God, and I confess I am no exception. But I’ve had an even harder time believing in Nothing, which seems to be the only alternative. When I read a story, I am convinced that someone wrote it. When I see a painting, I am convinced that someone created it. I can’t quite make myself believe that there is no one behind the Universe, that it arose by chance from an instability in an infinitesimal Nothing.

I also can’t quite make myself believe that I’m crazy. Of course, I must be a little crazy, like everyone else, to believe in anything I can’t see or touch or smell or hear or taste. Yet even the staunchest atheist believes in invisible things, whether he admits it or not—things like love, justice, anxiety, freedom, and responsibility. While it’s true that such things are detectable, they are not deducible from sensory evidence. If we treat them as illusory—unreal—we end up with an ethics in which the only right is superior force and the only wrong is weakness. So I admit to the normal, everyday craziness that makes us sane.

I don’t admit to being really crazy, though. I don’t hear voices when no one is speaking. I don’t see things that aren’t there, at least, not while I’m fully awake. I don’t obsess over germs or chemicals or aliens or government spies. But I also can’t deny that I have had spiritual experiences. I have felt myself to be in the presence of Someone who makes me feel both small and capable of daring. I’ve had my thoughts interrupted by an interior Voice speaking things I could not have thought on my own. These experiences have persuaded me that there is an invisible world as real in its way as our visible world. Perhaps even more real.

In addition, of course, I was raised as a Christian, saturated, in fact, in a Christian subculture while the world around me was becoming decidedly more secular. Yet I have met countless others raised in a similar way who nevertheless departed from their faith. It was therefore natural, I suppose, that my fundamental belief in a spiritual world (arising, remember, from a profound skepticism about the physical world) should take on all the trappings and accoutrements of Christian faith. No one can say, however, that I have an unexamined faith or that I believe because it is “easier” than thinking. I can’t even imagine what that means. Nothing in my life has been harder than holding on to my faith. I don’t think my experience is unusual, either. Faith requires active spiritual and intellectual engagement. Faith is a fight. It is not for the fainthearted.

One thing I have learned: that God is love. He commands us to love because he loves, and we are intended to be like him. He even loves his enemies. He even loves skeptics like me. So it saddens me to see Christians engaged in vitriolic arguments, saying hateful and hurtful things in the name of “truth.” Jesus denounced sin but not sinners—with one notable exception. He denounced hypocrites. He called them snakes, whitewashed tombs, play actors, swindlers. Hypocrisy was the one sin the fledgling church could not tolerate. What does love do? “It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.” (1 Corinthians 13:7-8a).

So, fellow Christians, when you disagree with someone, do so in love. Disagree in ways that protect the other person; trust them; show that you have hope for them and that you will not give up on them. That’s what love does.

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All the Saints

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I went to church this morning in Peachtree City, Georgia. The pastor spoke from Ephesians 6 where Paul writes about engaging in a battle against spiritual forces and encourages his readers to stand firm. The sermon contained nothing new. But I noticed something I hadn’t before that got me thinking. Paul concludes his description of the “full armor of God” with an injunction:

And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.

While it’s true that the huge fault lines created by the Great Schism and the Reformation had not yet appeared in the church, still there were divisions. Even from the very beginning there were Grecian Jews who complained that their own widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food (Acts 6). Culture divided the church between Jew and Gentile, slave and free, men and women. Yet Paul’s vision was of a church somehow still united, a church so devoted to following Jesus that it would pray for all the saints.

In our own day the church looks more divided than ever. Not only are there various denominations (and groups refusing to become denominations), the church is also divided between Democrats and Republicans, black and white, those who favor gun control and those who oppose it, pro-gay and pro-marriage, pro-abortion and anti-abortion. All the diversity found in our nation appears also in the church.

Some want to exclude those who differ in matters of politics or social policy by refusing to acknowledge that they are really brothers or sisters. Some want to deny that God’s grace might save a man without making him pro-gay or might deliver a woman without making her anti-abortion. But Paul makes it clear that all the divisions that separate us are nothing compared to the faith that unites us, faith in Jesus Christ the Son of God.

I certainly don’t want to pretend that the issues that divide the church are unimportant. They are not. However, we don’t have to let those divisions keep us from enjoying our unity in Christ. That enjoyment will present a powerful testimony to the world and open our own eyes to the possibility that each of us might be in some measure wrong. We can disagree. We can urge one another to see different points of view. But in all our interactions we must treat each other with love and respect. There should not be any name-calling or sarcastic put-downs. We ought not to mock or deride one another. We gain nothing by regarding one another as wicked or insane.

I confess, I have been guilty. I have joined with those who vilify fellow Christians for religious or political differences. Forgive me. With God’s help I will do so no longer. Instead, I will pray for all the saints.

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Them

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Read and comment on my blog.

Every group has its insider language, its set of assumptions about what insiders know and outsiders do not. For some groups the distinction between insider and outsider is so important that the groups incorporate secret rituals to ensure that outsiders don’t penetrate into the inside without first becoming insiders. Other groups require specialized knowledge, but they make no secret of it, and it is effectively available to all who take an interest in learning it. A few groups, however, actively recruit new members and claim a universal appeal. Such groups require a highly permeable perimeter where the distinction between insider and outsider, between us and them, is essentially fuzzy. The New Testament church is such a group.

In the New Testament, exclusive language occurs almost always in the context of describing heretics or apostates. These are not people who have never been welcomed into the Christian faith; they are people who were welcomed in but turned out to be pursuing their own agenda. They might be the Judaizers  of Paul’s letter to the Galatians or the proto-Gnostics of John’s letters. In nearly every case, though, they are former insiders who left or were forced out because their beliefs or teachings did not match those of the apostles.

Apart from these few, the New Testament church is very inclusive. Paul claims that the Christian faith encompasses every social and economic class and every ethnicity. “Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.” What characterizes a Christian is not circumstances of birth or station in life but rather virtues that Jesus himself embodied: compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forgiveness, forbearance, peace, and love. These are characteristics that are universally admired but not so universally practiced. (In fact, one of the great conundrums of life, effectively answered in Christ, is why people so much admire virtues they themselves do not practice, even to the point of pretending to themselves that they do practice them.*)

Every unbeliever is potentially a believer, and every believer is potentially a fraud. Since we do not know people’s hearts, we need to treat everyone alike with dignity and respect, just as God treats us. He keeps providing opportunities to trust him even to those who have never yet trusted him. We need to rid ourselves of the smug superiority so common among evangelical Christians; it is offensive to everyone. We are none of us so righteous we cannot fall nor so wicked we are past redemption. If we want to persuade anyone that Jesus Christ is worth living for, we must treat everyone with genuine love and kindness, not considering ourselves better but only as recipients of an undeserved pardon. On earth the kingdom of God includes everyone, even those who persecute it. Just ask Paul.

*For more information, see the works of C. S. Lewis, especially The Screwtape Letters and Mere Christianity.

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