Last week Joe shaped his message dissecting the phrase “there is probably no God, so stop worrying and enjoy your life.” He dissected the quote a little bit and helped us see what was wrong with this statement, and what was right with it. Now here is why I think teaching in team is one of the best things we can do. If I was to go through the same statement, I would have done it a completely different way. I see things differently than Joe and it can be helpful sometimes to look at things from two different perspectives. So this morning I want to go through the same quote, from the point of view of the Atheist, and talk about the quote from their point of view. What would cause them to write something like this? Who exactly are the people that are paying money to get this message into the world? Is it a good message or a harmful one? How long have people believed in this message? What do we do with people who hold such a message?
“There is probably no God”
I am greatly interested in this statement. I think it actually one of my favourite statements of any atheist. The world probably adds doubt into the mix of the statement. Any true atheist, must admit, that they can’t prove to you logically that there is in fact without any doubt certainly no God. They have to make room for chance. This is where I think the Christian can learn from the atheist. Christians have this ability to have unmoved certainty in things, things that we are unable to have that kind of certainty in. For as certain as they are that God absolutely does exist no matter what, the atheist is certain in the opposite. However, both sides have to agree, that neither of them can know 100% for sure. If we are being honest with ourselves, the best we can ever say is that “there probably is a God.” Our proofs of intelligent design, experience and our stories are easily matched by their proofs of evolution, experience and their stories.
The whole bus campaign actually started from a comedian named Ariane Sherine and she was walking home from work one day and saw a bus ad. The bus ad said “When the son of man comes will he find faith on the earth?” Luke 18:8, and pointed to jesussaid.org. So she went to the site and instantly clicked on the part about God’s wrath against sin and read that all non-christians were going to burn in hell for all eternity. She didn’t think that was very cheery. She eventually wrote a blog post which over time turned into their own campaign. It was never intended to be hostile, but simply an honest statement of what an atheists believe. The idea of the word probably actually arose because she remembered the Carlsberg beer company, and their slogan is “probably the best lager in the world” and since she knew that she couldn’t say for sure that God existed, that adding the world probably would be a perfect fit.
In the firm beliefs, there has to be room for doubt. The same is true for us. We need to make room for doubt in our Christian faith. Doubt means you are not standing still. It means you are asking questions and being stretched. The Bible shows example after example of doubters who God lives and communes with closely. Look at Thomas, Job, David, Jacob or Jonah, they all doubt and God used their doubt to accomplish great things. Doubt is crucial to growing as a Christian and in your faith.
“Whether your faith is that there is a God or that there is not a God, if you don’t have any doubts you are either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.”
“The only appropriate attitude for man to have about the ‘big questions’ is not the arrogant certitude that is the hallmark of religion, but doubt. Doubt is humble. And that’s what man needs to be, considering human history is just a litany of getting shit dead wrong!”
– Bill Maher Religulous
We typically run from doubt. We mock it. We tell people to keep their doubts to themselves and deal with it internally. We are afraid of where our doubts might lead, so we become naive instead and stay numb, unchanging. This of course is the complete opposite of how we’ve seen it exampled before. Jesus embraced the doubters. God challenges them back. The only people who mock doubt are those who are insecure in their own beliefs. Doubt proves that you are being stretched. It shows that you are truly engaged in what you believe. Leech I think puts it beautifully this way.
“The essential difference between orthodox Christianity and the various heretical systems is that orthodoxy is rooted in paradox. Heretics, as Irenaeus saw, reject paradox in favour of a false clarity and precision. But true faith can only grown and mature if it includes the elements of paradox and creative doubt. Hence the insistence of orthodoxy that God cannot be known by the mind, but is known in the obscurity of faith, in the way of ignorance, in the darkness. Such doubt is not he enemy of faith but an essential element within it. For faith in God does not bring the false peace of answered questions and resolved paradoxes. Rather, it can be seen as a process of ‘unceasing interrogation.’…The spirit enters into our lives and puts disturbing questions. Without such creative doubt, religion becomes hard and cruel, degenerating into the spurious security which breeds intolerance and persecution. Without doubt, there is loss of inner reality and of inspirational power to religious language. The whole of spiritual life must suffer form, and be seriously harmed by, the repression of doubt.”
— Kenneth Leech
I think it’s crucial for a community like ours to have a strong theology of doubt. Doubt needs to be allowed. We need to journey alongside of those that are doubting and embrace it. It keeps us honest. So the athiest here can teach us something about this idea of doubt. It isn’t something that we have to be afraid of. If an atheist can make room for doubt in their beliefs then we can make room for it in ours without making it weaker.
We already read through most of this chapter last week with Joe, so let’s just point out one part here and take a look at it when he faced into opposition to his strongly held religious belief in Acts 17.
Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: To an Unknown God. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you. “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’ “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone-an image made by man’s design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.”
Paul, without any reservation walked into the midst of some deep discussions about the meaning of life. Athens was unlike anything we have experience in out culture. The best example I could give you to explain it would be online forums. People with all sorts of differing beliefs would dialogue all day long about everything and anything. Athens was seen as an intellectual giant, priding themselves with great philosophers like Plato and Aristotle. When Paul walks into Athens, he engages their debates and their people with an understanding, with an education and even embraces their misgivings and what he deems and misunderstandings about God. He points them out, he uses them as analogy and he engages them where they are at. It says that he studied the idols and objects carefully. He isn’t kidding around, he truly wants to know these people he will be dialoguing with.
So let’s imagine for a moment that we are in Athens, and that we walk into the room and here is is what we hear. Here is an audio clip from one of the public service announcements that Ariane Sherine gives.
“We live in a beautiful, fascinating, complex world and we’re all trying to make sense of it the best we can. There are 6.7 billion of us living on this planet belonging to hundreds of different belief systems. Most of us want to live peacefully, yet we also want to think that are own personal beliefs are the right ones. And if we are right, whatever we believe, that means millions or possibly billions people must be wrong. As a world full of individuals, we are never going to think the same way. What we can do is accept that we hold many different beliefs and focus instead on what unites us as human beings because we are truly similar in so many ways. We all want to feel loved, and to give love freely. We all want to love long, enjoyable lives, free from fear and pain. We’re all muddling through life the best way we know how. What’s important are not the beliefs we hold, but that we are free to hold them and that we always express them peacefully.”
– Ariane Sherine
What do you like about this clip? What don’t you like? Does it make you uncomfortable that you have such similar beliefs to an atheist? Are you able to engage this belief without judging or condemning them like Paul did?
Paul engages the atheist, the Stoics and the Epicureans on a level that they understand. He isn’t afraid to use their imagery. He isn’t afraid to show them where he believes they are right. He adds his little bit to the conversation. He engages them on a level of where they are at, instead of bashing them over their heads with a bunch of useless cliches about where they are going to go when they die and about Jesus being the only way.
Epicureans would have been a major group of thinkers that existed in Athens and this time, they are one of the two groups that is pointed out in Acts who Paul would have engaged in. They believed that rather than resort to the internal motions of the mind and the cogitations of experts in the field of science, medicine and theology, to instead advocate a practical, common sense reading of the world. They believed in the five senses being the only thing that could lead us to truth. They believed that there could very well be gods but they were indifferent to what happened here on earth. In their belief, everything is determined by a fateful creation of compounds and atoms and that it is not moving in a direction that has been previously willed or planned by the gods. This means that death to them is just another ancient myth that torments the ignorant.
Sound familiar? This belief and way of looking at the world is still very prevalent. The bus ads that we were reading are coming from this point of view. Why would you worry when you can’t control it? Why would you worry when there is no one out there to please, disappoint or satisfy? This belief existed thousands of years ago and in many ways is a reaction to the constant sacrificing and attempts to please the “gods” through history. There were thousands of gods, and all of them were assumed to have different expectations. You didn’t want to piss off the gods, so you lived your life in a way to make them happy. You thanked them with sacrifices when they blessed you and you petitioned with sacrifices when they cursed you. It was a never ending battle of trying to please them and make sure they keep happy. An Epicurean in Paul’s time would have said the same thing or something along the lines of “even if there is a god, he doesn’t care about you and can’t affect you, so stop worrying and enjoy your life.”
I e-mailed someone from Sarnia that I have been corresponding with over the past year about God non-God and other religious topics. He goes by the name Sarnia Skeptic. He says some harsh things online about religion and really calls people on their crap. I wanted to get this guys perspective on the bus ads, and the underlying message of it and what he thought they meant. I wanted to do this because I think there is a lot of validity in what he would say and also there is a lot we can learn from him. So here is some quotes from an e-mail he sent me about this topic.
1.) Many people are brought up with the threat of eternal punishment/damnation – and it has proven psychological effects on children (and adults). “Stop worrying” would be in response to that.
2.) As there is no afterlife, many “believers” feel that life is meaningless and feel that people who accept that there is ‘nothing more’ than this life must be distraught, the “enjoy your life” is an encouragement to make the best of your only chance at this.
3.) Associating a positive message with “there probably is no god” is re-affirming to those who have questioned their faith.
4.) Simply making the statement (advertising as they have), gives support to those who do not believe in a god and have felt isolated (or unaware that others shared that non-belief).
5.) “probably” was necessary to be intellectually honest. Unlike most believers, most non-believers would be willing to accept the existence of a god with the presentation of real evidence to support such. (Oddly, honesty is one of the commandments, right? Just not practiced often?)
6.) To prove how easily offended “believers” are – simply putting up a contrary advertisement (that is hardly inflammatory) has irked a great number.
7.) To spark discussion. Many people avoid the conversation and religion is given a level of respect that it is certainly not due.
8) The “enjoy your life” provided us with an opportunity to explain that what we have is awesome enough without supposing an afterlife or an intervening/caring god.
9) It is possible to be good without god, millions of people are good without any gods – billions are good without YOUR god. Our world, our existence and our opportunity to ever live is beautiful and awesome enough. Knowledge is empowering, awe-inspiring and liberating. False knowledge is harmful to society as it creates false boundaries and groups – each with their own (false) claim to Truth (capital T).
If I’m going to be honest. This bus ad is mostly a correct and honest critique of Christian culture. It rips apart all sorts of the culture we’ve been taught and live with. Just look at this.
God probably. Atheists have an easier time with the honesty of uncertainty than Christians do. We talked about this already, but its crucial that we allow doubt and honesty to be part of our expression as Christians. God probably does exist is much better than God exists no matter what you say and I’m not even interested in what you have to say.
Stop worrying. Christians have for a long time used fear tactics and played on people’s worry to control them, this should have been the case, so what should be the appropriate christian response? Jesus commands not to worry. Worrying is not a Christian response to anything. It is a tactic to bring control. This is a great line.
Enjoy your life. Christians have been so focused on the eternal, the afterlife and heaven/hell that we are no longer interested in the present. If we are honest about the language in scripture than we know that the Kingdom of God, salvation and eternal life are mostly present realities. Enjoy them now. Enjoy your life.
The Sarnia Skeptic makes no hesitation to point these out. We need to learn to embrace the conversation and perspective from the skeptic to better seek truth. In a small sentence, just look at how much we can learn about our own failures and misgivings. On top of that, we build a relationship with the people we disagree with, learn from them and come out learning to love rather than to win.
From our stories that we know of God in the Bible, God has a way of journey with people where they are at. He doesn’t force the right beliefs on them. In fact he entertains a lot people’s misunderstandings and wrong views of him while they figure it out. Here is one of my favourite examples of God doing this.
Now Naaman was commander of the army of the king of Aram. He was a great man in the sight of his master and highly regarded, because through him the LORD had given victory to Aram. He was a valiant soldier, but he had leprosy.
Now bands from Aram had gone out and had taken captive a young girl from Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. She said to her mistress, “If only my master would see the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.”
Naaman went to his master and told him what the girl from Israel had said. “By all means, go,” the king of Aram replied. “I will send a letter to the king of Israel.” So Naaman left, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold and ten sets of clothing. The letter that he took to the king of Israel read: “With this letter I am sending my servant Naaman to you so that you may cure him of his leprosy.”
As soon as the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his robes and said, “Am I God? Can I kill and bring back to life? Why does this fellow send someone to me to be cured of his leprosy? See how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me!”
This is an intense story. Normally we would read this story to our kids in Sunday school to show them the faith of the Naaman and how awesome God is. But really there is a few things in this story I want to point out to you.
1. Naaman was a man you wouldn’t want at your church. He took captive a young Jewish girl, and when the Hebrew Scriptures say young, they mean real young. This isn’t a lovely situation with rose petals. Naaman’s culture was greatly opposed to Israel and their way of doing things. Aram’s God was Raman. Raman was the thunderer God, he eventually turned into Zeus. The king of Aram’s name was Ben-Hadad, Ben means son, Hadad is another translation of Raman. So the king of this country was named the Son of Raman, or the Son of God. Israel has a different God, kings name is Jehoram, and their God’s name is Yahweh. So we have two neighbouring countries, each with their own king and each with their own God. Raman can’t cure leprosy. So the kidnapped young girl, who has obviously heard the stories of slaves being set free and their God coming to their rescue, speaks out of her natural understanding of what she knew God to be. Why wouldn’t he just go to the prophet and he will be cured? It only seems obvious.
2. So here we have the Israel King and he kind of freaks out a little bit, he tears his cloths and has a little mental breakdown. Yet for some reason, the King of Aram, seems to have a bit more faith in the God of Israel than their own king does. Does this sound familiar? This is what we have been talking about all along. God changes things up big time here. The Israel king is full of doubt and frustration and the King of Aram, who serves an entirely different God, seems to have better faith than him. So the people we normally see as the unfaithful atheists in our god have true faith and the people who are supposed to have true faith are completely freaking out. The story is flipping. God seems to have plans for those that don’t even believe in him.
When Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his robes, he sent him this message: “Why have you torn your robes? Have the man come to me and he will know that there is a prophet in Israel.” So Naaman went with his horses and chariots and stopped at the door of Elisha’s house. Elisha sent a messenger to say to him, “Go, wash yourself seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will be restored and you will be cleansed.”
But Naaman went away angry and said, “I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call on the name of the LORD his God, wave his hand over the spot and cure me of my leprosy. Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than any of the waters of Israel? Couldn’t I wash in them and be cleansed?” So he turned and went off in a rage.
Naaman’s servants went to him and said, “My father, if the prophet had told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more, then, when he tells you, ‘Wash and be cleansed’!” So he went down and dipped himself in the Jordan seven times, as the man of God had told him, and his flesh was restored and became clean like that of a young boy.
3. A small point to make here. Horses and chariots are modern day equivalents of armed guards and tanks. So imagine what is really happening here. A general of an army comes walking up to this little house in the middle of a field and he brings all his defense weapons with him. This huge powerful army and his chariots, and this small little prophet. Not only this, Elisha doesn’t even come out to talk to him, he just sends a message to him. This guy is important and Elisha just sends a servant to go tell him to do something, a ridiculous request at this. Naaman is mad. He doesn’t get a proper welcome, he doesn’t get a proper ritual. He wants something that matches the person he is.
Then Naaman and all his attendants went back to the man of God. He stood before him and said, “Now I know that there is no God in all the world except in Israel. Please accept now a gift from your servant.”
The prophet answered, “As surely as the LORD lives, whom I serve, I will not accept a thing.” And even though Naaman urged him, he refused.
“If you will not,” said Naaman, “please let me, your servant, be given as much earth as a pair of mules can carry, for your servant will never again make burnt offerings and sacrifices to any other god but the LORD. But may the LORD forgive your servant for this one thing: When my master enters the temple of Rimmon to bow down and he is leaning on my arm and I bow there also-when I bow down in the temple of Rimmon, may the LORD forgive your servant for this.”
“Go in peace,” Elisha said.
4. Alright this is the point I want to focus on. So Naaman comes back and actually stands before him and he makes a huge statement. “Now I know that there is no God in all the world except in Israel.” In the ancient near east at this time they believed in localized deities. There would be a god for each area, like God of Aram, Egypt, Israel etc. When you went to a region, you would ask, “who is the God of this country?”, and then you would offer up the proper sacrifices and be on your way. Everybody in the world thought this way. This is the dominant way of understanding things. Then Israel comes out of nowhere, for the first time ever, Israel starts saying that there is only one God and he is God over all the areas and everybody.
So when Naaman says, “now I know,” this is a moment of major spiritual enlightenment. People outside of Israel do not think this way. Now we know that you can worship God anywhere and anytime (ie read the women at the well). The women at the well thinks God is in one place or another. Jesus just says yes, God is in both places, God of all people. Namaan has this moment where he realized, that God is the God of everything. We could almost call this a moment of conversion in understanding God and the world.
Here is the key line. “please let me, your servant, be given as much earth as a pair of mules can carry.” It seems like an odd part of the story. Why in the world would he ask for dirt? It seems nonsensical? It was believed that the soil of a particular land was connected with the deity of a particular area. So if you were in a particular place, the soil there was connected with their God. So Naaman wants to leave now and here is what he’s expecting. He’s going to take the dirt home with him, lay it all out on the ground and when he wants to pray to the LORD he will go and stand on that dirt. So he just finishes saying that there is no God in all the world, and then he asks for dirt because he thinks that that God can only be worshiped if he stands on some dirt. It seems like he doesn’t really get it at all here. He doesn’t get that he doesn’t need to bring dirt with him because God is God of all the land, not just Israel’s.
And then he has the nerve to say “But may the LORD forgive your servant for this one thing: When my master enters the temple of Rimmon to bow down and he is leaning on my arm and I bow there also-when I bow down in the temple of Rimmon, may the LORD forgive your servant for this.” WHAT? How the world can he go back to work, serving unreal gods, and actually bow down to other gods or the king? This is the crazy world he is going back to. Now what does Elisha say? Does he ring off some cliches about standing for something or falling for anything? Does he show him a scenario about possibly dying tonight and masking sure he was true to his convictions? Does he tell him to quit his job that would obviously cause him to stumble? Nothing, Elisha doesn’t say anything about him compromising or not having a spine. He doesn’t even tell him to stay with others that share his belief. Instead Elisha responds with “Go in Peace.”
Did Elisha respond well? How would we have responded?
The Christian faith makes room for doubt. It makes room for the complicated spots in life that we all face into every single day. We are constantly interacting with people that serve different gods and with people that believe in no gods. This is not something to be afraid of. It’s not something to ignore or to postpone. The reality is, that you are on a journey and that they are on a journey and that is OK. God is OK with that. Your belief in God demands that you make room for relationships with people who are unlike you. There is something to learn in your relationships with them. The doubt that they may bring into the relationship is good. It isn’t something God shy’s away from.
These things that we normally run away from; doubt, uncertainty, compromise….maybe they are the things that God is waiting for us to run directly into? Maybe God uses these things and they are actually an important part of our journey. Understanding where the atheist comes from and grasping their perspective, is an important part of that journey. It’s about embracing the other. This is something we are going to do at the end of this month when Joe actually brings in a friend of his who is a confessed atheist. Our goal will not be to convert him, but to learn from him. To embrace his doubt. To understand his questions and his stories. Not to give him answers but to push ourselves to see if we can see it through his eyes. His experiences are just as much proof as our own.
This will be sketchy. There is plenty of warnings out there already for you as you enter into a world full of people who believe nothing of what you do. Yet God seems to be calling us deeper into it; recognizing their struggle as valid and wanting to teach us more about his Kingdom and himself through them. We must learn to be taught from people that are different, from people that we disagree with and by those that are opposed to us. So we enter into a crazy world, a world where we compromise our morals and what we know what is right. So as you enter into this week, into your relationships with those who are nothing like you, I leave you with the same words as Elisha left Naaman, “go in peace.”