The Reluctant Convert

February 14, 2013
Rosaria Champagne Butterfield

Rosaria Champagne Butterfield

I saw a recent biographical article in Christianity Today regarding the conversion of a former left-wing lesbian professor to Christianity. Such a story is rife with implications about many of the issues concerning the gay rights debate today – whether sexuality can change, whether it is hateful or hurtful to question sexual identities, how Christians should view homosexuality and vice versa. But that is not what interested me as much as the fact that the author was a reluctant convert. Such people fascinate me in part because I was such a convert – I was a happy person, intellectually settled and spiritually uninterested – not at all what is now defined as a ‘seeker’. Though I had a passing familiarity with what church entailed I was not at all raised in a Christian home. Yet God gripped my life and I could not shake Him. I never felt like I pursued God so much as I was doggedly pursued. Rosaria Champagne Butterfield explains in a similar fashion how she fought against the power that compelled her:

I started reading the Bible. I read the way a glutton devours. I read it many times that first year in multiple translations. At a dinner gathering my partner and I were hosting, my transgendered friend J cornered me in the kitchen. She put her large hand over mine. “This Bible reading is changing you, Rosaria,” she warned.

With tremors, I whispered, “J, what if it is true? What if Jesus is a real and risen Lord? What if we are all in trouble?”

J exhaled deeply. “Rosaria,” she said, “I was a Presbyterian minister for 15 years. I prayed that God would heal me, but he didn’t. If you want, I will pray for you.”

I continued reading the Bible, all the while fighting the idea that it was inspired. But the Bible got to be bigger inside me than I. It overflowed into my world. I fought against it with all my might. Then, one Sunday morning, I rose from the bed of my lesbian lover, and an hour later sat in a pew at the Syracuse Reformed Presbyterian Church. Conspicuous with my butch haircut, I reminded myself that I came to meet God, not fit in. The image that came in like waves, of me and everyone I loved suffering in hell, vomited into my consciousness and gripped me in its teeth.

I fought with everything I had.

I did not want this.

I did not ask for this.

I counted the costs. And I did not like the math on the other side of the equal sign.

Of course such an incident is not uncommon in Christianity; one of the earliest and most notable converts was the apostle Paul, who as Saul was literally knocked down blind and upbraided by the person of Christ whom he despised up until that point. C.S. Lewis, and G. K. Chesterton had similar experiences. It seems such folks are amongst the most insistent Christians with regard to the verifiable truth of their faiths – perhaps because they must wrestle with the inevitability of their own experiences.

Either way I think the very fact that such folks exist is contrary to the way believers are often portrayed by skeptics. Rather than hopeless and desperate people clinging to religion as the last chance for happiness, many believers were in fact convinced and content skeptics who were run to ground by a living and insistent God who would not give up on them.

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Observations – MLK Day Version

January 21, 2013

You see, the founding fathers were really influenced by the Bible. “The whole concept of the imago Dei, as it is expressed in Latin, the ‘image of God,’ is the idea that all men have something within them that God injected. Not that they have substantial unity with God, but that every man has a capacity to have fellowship with God. And this gives him a uniqueness, it gives him worth, it gives him dignity. And we must never forget this as a nation: there are not gradations in the image of God… We will know one day that God made us to live together as brothers and to respect the dignity and worth of every man.”

– Martin Luther King, from his speech, “The American Dream” Delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, Georgia, on 4 July 1965.


The Necessity of Meaning

January 15, 2013

The Atlantic recently featured an article called the There’s More to Life Than Being Happy which considers the difference between mere happiness and having purpose. The piece outlines the difference between the fleeting and selfish desire to be happy versus the lasting value of outward focused meaning which can endure even the greatest suffering. The article highlights the life of Viktor Frankl, a prominent 20th century Jewish psychiatrist and neurologist who wrote a seminal book on meaning inspired by his time spent in a Nazi concentration camp called, Man’s Search for Meaning. The article explains the essence of the Frankl’s understanding of what lay at the core of those who survived the horrors of the concentration camps:

In September 1942, Viktor Frankl, a prominent Jewish psychiatrist and neurologist in Vienna, was arrested and transported to a Nazi concentration camp with his wife and parents. Three years later, when his camp was liberated, most of his family, including his pregnant wife, had perished — but he, prisoner number 119104, had lived. In his bestselling 1946 book, Man’s Search for Meaning, which he wrote in nine days about his experiences in the camps, Frankl concluded that the difference between those who had lived and those who had died came down to one thing: Meaning, an insight he came to early in life. When he was a high school student, one of his science teachers declared to the class, “Life is nothing more than a combustion process, a process of oxidation.” Frankl jumped out of his chair and responded, “Sir, if this is so, then what can be the meaning of life?”

In reading this I couldn’t help but be reminded of the many conversations I have had with atheists, particularly those of the New Atheist variety concerning the importance of meaning. Whenever I point out (as I often have) that the materialism and naturalism upon which New Atheism is derived essentially renders human life without purpose, atheists begin by pooh-poohing the importance of meaning and then blithely claim that meaning can be created for oneself. Frankl’s witness seems to undermine that proposition; it’s not so easy to lie to oneself when circumstances dictate otherwise. In a concentration camp either one has intrinsic purpose beyond the experience or one succumbs to the suffering.

But the absence of meaning doesn’t just weaken our ability to face suffering; it also corrupts us and increases our tendency to cause others to suffer. In his examination of the motivations of the Nazi regime, Frankl came to this conclusion:

If we present man with a concept of man which is not true, we may well corrupt him. When we present him as an automation of reflexes, as a mind-machine, as a bundle of instincts, as a pawn of drives and reactions, as a mere product of instincts, heredity, and environment, we feed the despair to which man is, in any case, already prone.

I became acquainted with the last stages of corruption in my second concentration camp in Auschwitz. The gas chambers of Auschwitz were the ultimate consequence of the theory that man is nothing but the product of heredity and environment—or, as the Nazis liked to say, of ‘Blood and Soil.’ I am absolutely convinced that the gas chambers of Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Maidanek were ultimately prepared not in some Ministry or other in Berlin, but rather at the desks and in the lecture halls of nihilistic scientists and philosophers.

Viktor E. Frankl, The Doctor and the Soul: Introduction to Logotherapy, 1982, p. xxi)

This captures as much as anything why as a Christian I see it as critically important to argue against the materialism and naturalism of New Atheism; it is damaging to the well-being of individuals and it is ultimately damaging to society as a whole. Apart from seeing in men the image of God and believing that He has a plan and purpose for our lives we have no substantive basis for hope and meaning.


Observations

January 14, 2013

And occasionally one finds an atheist like British atheist and philosopher Tim Crane who makes sense:

“But what is undeniable is that we cannot understand our own culture unless we recognise that it was formed, for good or bad, as a Christian culture. It’s an illusion that we could somehow recover a human essence which is independent of the way it was created by culture. And the way western European culture was created was as a Christian culture, whether we like this or not. So to understand our own culture we must take into account its Christian roots, which may well be deeper than many atheists would like to acknowledge. Should religions be given special privileges? In the abstract, the answer to this question must be yes. If an atheist society (and I am assuming that the UK, at least, is an atheist society) is going to tolerate religions, then it is hard to imagine how this toleration would not result in special privileges. Orthodox Jews may not work on Saturdays or Friday evenings, Muslims and Jews may kill animals for food in a certain way, many religions will have the privilege to educate their children in their own way, and so on.”

Cambridge Philosopher Tim Crane in a recent interview at 3ammagazine


The Blessing of Suffering

January 8, 2013

I was thinking recently about two articles in the New York Times about two very different approaches to the reality of human suffering. In each case individuals viewed the suffering of others and made a choice about what it says about the existence of God and the nature of human experience.

For atheist journalist and author Susan Jacoby, suffering is an essential motivation for unbelief. Like many (if not all) atheists, In her op-ed The Blessings of Atheism, Jacoby sees suffering as coup de grâce of belief in a beneficent, all-powerful God. She shares with students how observing the suffering of a friend as a child caused her to question the existence of God, and the relief she finds as an atheist in not having to square the pain in the world with the goodness of God:

The first time I told this story to a class, I was deeply gratified when one student confided that his religious doubts arose from the struggles of a severely disabled sibling, and that he had never been able to discuss the subject candidly with his fundamentalist parents. One of the most positive things any atheist can do is provide a willing ear for a doubter — even if the doubter remains a religious believer.

IT is primarily in the face of suffering, whether the tragedy is individual or collective, that I am forcefully reminded of what atheism has to offer. When I try to help a loved one losing his mind to Alzheimer’s, when I see homeless people shivering in the wake of a deadly storm, when the news media bring me almost obscenely close to the raw grief of bereft parents, I do not have to ask, as all people of faith must, why an all-powerful, all-good God allows such things to happen.

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The atheist is free to concentrate on the fate of this world — whether that means visiting a friend in a hospital or advocating for tougher gun control laws — without trying to square things with an unseen overlord in the next. Atheists do not want to deny religious believers the comfort of their faith. We do want our fellow citizens to respect our deeply held conviction that the absence of an afterlife lends a greater, not a lesser, moral importance to our actions on earth.

As I noted in a recent post, atheists do not have much to offer by way of comfort to those who face the bleak realities of human existence. The unavoidable experience of pain and disease, finality of death, and the fact of unchangeable circumstances are not relieved by the atheist’s insistence that they are purposeless, inevitable consequences of an incidental universe grinding along according events set in motion long before humans happened to make an appearance. As critical as atheists are of the supposed contradiction between the goodness of God and the fact of suffering, they seem blind to the fact that atheism can offer no hope whatsoever in the face of greatest pain there is – the death of a loved one.

Atheism may even be more useless when dealing with the case of an incurable condition. While atheism may vaunt its inclination toward pragmatic scientific solutions, it is certain there will always be diseases and disabilities that resist treatments. At that point atheism can only pity the poor sufferer, or in the case of the most pernicious secular solution, suggest the elimination of undesirables as was the case in the early 20th century’s prevalence of eugenics solutions. It is still the case today with selective abortion which has been responsible for the near elimination of some conditions by eliminating in the womb persons who have those conditions.

Thankfully Jacoby’s atheism isn’t the only view we might consider. Another New York Times article, Laws of Physics Can’t Trump the Bonds of Love considers a different approach to humans suffering, one that was highlighted in the award winning documentary short Wright’s Law:

The documentary and the article introduce us to the life of Jeffery Wright, an inspiring high school physics teacher and the father of a child with rare disorder called Joubert syndrome. Unlike the atheist Jacoby, Wright discovered in his son’s suffering a power greater than that of the inevitability of physics:

Mr. Wright starts his lecture by talking about the hopes and dreams he had for Adam and his daughter, Abbie, now 15. He recalls the day Adam was born, and the sadness he felt when he learned of his condition.

“All those dreams about ever watching my son knock a home run over the fence went away,” he tells the class. “The whole thing about where the universe came from? I didn’t care. … I started asking myself, what was the point of it?”

All that changed one day when Mr. Wright saw Abbie, about 4 at the time, playing with dolls on the floor next to Adam. At that moment he realized that his son could see and play — that the little boy had an inner life. He and his wife, Nancy, began teaching Adam simple sign language. One day, his son signed “I love you.”

In the lecture, Mr. Wright signs it for the class: “Daddy, I love you.” “There is nothing more incredible than the day you see this,” he says, and continues: “There is something a lot greater than energy. There’s something a lot greater than entropy. What’s the greatest thing?”

“Love,” his students whisper.

“That’s what makes the ‘why’ we exist,” Mr. Wright tells the spellbound students. “In this great big universe, we have all those stars. Who cares? Well, somebody cares. Somebody cares about you a lot. As long as we care about each other, that’s where we go from here.”

For the strident atheist of course such professions are sentimental claptrap. For Jeffery Wright and his son Adam it is a divine credo, the stuff of life.

Viewing suffering through the lens of God’s love turns the sufferer from an object of pity and tragic circumstance to a human being, with inherent value and dignity. And it transforms the observer who is willing to embrace the purpose in the suffering to a different kind of human being, one love knows no bounds and who has the ability to partake in transforming the lives of others. Jeffery Wright is a great teacher because he values the lives of his students – and he values them because he has learned to love what Scripture calls, “the least of these” – those who suffer the most.

In the book of Matthew Jesus taught his disciples a parable meant to help them understand how closely God was associated with the lives of those who suffer:

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

Many Christians see this as a parable about the future rewards believers will receive in heaven, but it is so much more than that. Only in Christ is the suffering person so completely associated with the person of God Himself. Only in this understanding of not only the goodness of God, but the compassion and humility of God is suffering shown not only to be meaningful but essential to our own ability to be good. We see the good through suffering not because it works out well in the end, but because seeing the good through the suffering transforms us into different people, a people we could never be otherwise.

In the light of suffering atheism can only ever offer us a resigned acceptance of unintentional circumstances out of our control in a cold meaningless universe. The knowledge of God can give us the power to see the lives of others, whatever their life experience, as eternally valuable gifts by which we can be transformed and transform others.


Motivation to Care

January 7, 2013

There was an interesting piece in the NYT’s in late Dec. concerning the ‘Humanist’ response or in this case, non-response to the Newtown massacre. It appears to confirm what many Christians have often said – there is no substantive comfort in atheism when faced with grief and loss. Interestingly certain secularists acknowledge this shortcoming:

“It is a failure of community, and that’s where the answer for the future has to lie,” said Greg M. Epstein, 35, the humanist chaplain at Harvard and author of the book “Good Without God.” “What religion has to offer to people at moments like this — more than theology, more than divine presence — is community. And we need to provide an alternative form of community if we’re going to matter for the increasing number of people who say they are not believers.”

Darrel W. Ray, a psychologist in the Kansas City area who runs the Web site The Secular Therapist Project, made a similar point in a recent interview. As someone who was raised as a believing Christian and who holds a master’s degree in theology, he was uniquely able to identify what humanism needs to provide in a time of crisis.

“When people are in a terrible kind of pain — a death that is unexpected, the natural order is taken out of order — you would do anything to take away the pain,” Dr. Ray, 62, said. “And I’m not going to deny that religion does help deal with that first week or two of pain.

“The best we can do as humanists,” he continued, “is to talk about that pain in rational terms with the people who are suffering. We have humanist celebrants, as we call them, but they’re focused on doing weddings. It takes a lot more training to learn how to deal with grief and loss. I don’t see celebrants working in hospice or in hospitals, for example. There are secular people who need pastoral care, but we abdicate it to clergy.”

In an attempt to protect atheism from responsibility for any wrongs committed by atheists, secularists are quick to point out that the term atheism is descriptive, not proscriptive. But when it comes to positive actions like caring for those in need atheists are quick to take credit for ‘being good without God’. This might work when it comes to feeding the hungry or raising money for a charity, but when it comes to offering hope to the bereaved or dying, atheism obviously has nothing to offer. Like it or not, when one faces the finality of death, existence apart from God is always nihilistic; and there is certainly no hope or comfort in nihilism. Of course this is quite different for the Christian who is commanded to “mourn with those who mourn” and who have hope to offer beyond the grave.

That fact that Christianity offers hope to those who have suffered tragic losses doesn’t in and of itself prove Christianity true, but it does demonstrate that the lack of faith represents a significant loss. And given the fact that humans have a universal need for such comfort and hope, it demonstrates that there is a deeper aspect to human life that atheists simply don’t comprehend.


Friday Fun-ness

December 21, 2012

A lovely instumental version of What Child is This? by modern violinist Lindsey Stirling.