Response to “Letter From a Concerned Follower and a Frustrated Atheist”

Adam Gohn, an atheist friend of mine, posted a note jointly with a  Christian friend of his on Facebook recently, and I find that I can’t resist responding a bit*.   The original is here, though I suspect you can’t get at it unless you’re friends with Adam.  The gist of it was that Adam finds it dishonest of Christians to play down difficult aspects of their faith in order to try to get along with atheists, while his friend Tye pretty much agrees, that Christians shouldn’t do this.   I’m all for being true to your beliefs, and I applaud the spirit of civil, intellectual discussion between people with serious disagreements, but I had some issues with the assumptions Adam and Tye made in their note.

Adam: “As a Christian, you must accept the truth of several basic propositions, such as; the virgin birth, unrealistic miracles and the bigotry and hatred espoused in the books of Deuteronomy, Leviticus and others.”

Tye: “We should not diminish or conceal or avoid biblical positions that are difficult (like creation, God commanded genocide, virgin birth, miracles and hell).”

Adam is assuming here that a particular variety of evangelical, literalist Christianity is all of Christianity, and Tye seems to be going along with that mistaken view.   What is a Christian?  I’d say it’s someone who follows the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, though it may be possible to define it more broadly still.    What are those teachings?  We might start with what’s recorded in the New Testament.   Although there is no guarantee  that these writings are completely accurate renditions of what was said by a particular Jewish peasant 2000 years ago, they are pretty much all we’ve got**.  But let’s take a favorite of evangelicals:

John 3:16: For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son,
that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have
everlasting life.

This is a cornerstone passage of evangelical Christianity (though it’s not found in any of the other gospels, and is most likely not a direct quote).   It’s noteworthy what it does not say.  It doesn’t say “whosoever believeth that his mother was a virgin,” or “that the world was created in 6 days about 10,000 years ago”, or “that he could physically transform water into wine,” or any of the various difficult beliefs singled out as essential by Adam and Tye.  It’s calling for faith — that is, commitment and trust –  in the Christ, identified at the start of John as the Logos or creative principle underlying the universe.   That’s all.

There are plenty of faithful Christians out there who are fully aware that the stories in the Bible are a mixture of myth, strongly edited history, poetic musings, allegories, and theological speculation.  Most of the so-called “mainline” Protestant faiths (United Methodist, Episcopalian, ELCA Lutheran, Presbyterian, etc.) agree, for instance, that the Genesis account of creation is theological, not scientific in its intent and significance, and in no way incompatible with modern biology.  The Roman Catholic church holds a similar position.

Even the miracles of Jesus and his virgin birth are not essential to the Christian faith, in many Christians’ view.  The late bishop John A.T. Robinson’s sparked controversy in 1963, when his book “Honest to God“  took this position.    It was controversial, though, only because it expressed these ideas plainly for popular consumption — they were and are still commonplace in all major “mainline” Christian seminaries.

For instance, it’s widely accepted by Protestant theologians that the virgin birth is a late addition to the Christian myth.   The earliest New Testament writings are the letters of Paul, and Paul seems never to have heard of the virgin birth.  He’d hardly have failed to mention it if he had.  The earliest gospel, Mark, starts with Jesus’ baptism — no birth account at all.  And the two gospels that do describe Jesus’ birth, Luke and Matthew, agree on practically none of the specifics, other than Mary’s virginity and the location in Bethlehem***.

As for various brutalities and bizarre legalisms of the Hebrew Bible, they are part of a priceless record of the development of a culture over time, and of a people’s efforts to understand their relationship with the world and the Ground of Being underlying it.  Liberal Christians view the Bible as meaningful on a variety of levels, but recognize that it is the product of numerous authors embedded in their cultures and times.

Finally, liberal Christianity is not an effort by Christians to appease non-believers or a cynical ploy to make their faith more attractive to converts.  It’s the product of the application of reason to tradition and scripture — i.e., theology.   Theology is the effort by faithful Christians to understand their faith in the context of their times, and has been going on since the 1st century.   As a poster I once saw in an Episcopal Sunday school says “He came to take away your sins — not your mind”.

*Full disclosure:   I was raised Episcopalian, and somewhere I have an 8-year Sunday School perfect attendance pin.  I’m now a Unitarian Universalist, and although UU is compatible with Christianity, I no longer refer to myself as Christian.  I taught Science and Religion for 17 years, and I’ve therefore done at least some minimal reading of  (Christian, mainly) theology.

**Scholars disagree on the authenticity of various reported sayings of Jesus; The Five Gospels, by the Jesus Seminar, gives one (controversial, of course) account of the reasoning and methods used to try to gauge this.

***Seriously, sit down and read Luke 2:1-40, and Matthew 1:18 – 2:1-23 and compare the stories.  They have his parents coming from different places (Nazareth, in Luke; Bethlehem, in Matthew),  him going different places after his birth (to the temple in Jerusalem in Luke; to Egypt, in Matthew),  him born in different buildings (a house in Matthew, a stable in Luke),and different events around his birth (angels telling shepherds in Luke, a star overhead, with wise men, in Matthew).   The whole story is clearly a later tradition, and the point of it is to say, against the claims of the “adoptionist” heresy, that Jesus was who he was from the start, and didn’t become the Messiah at his baptism.

One Response to “Response to “Letter From a Concerned Follower and a Frustrated Atheist””

  1. John says:

    The first question which comes to mind… Why does the athiest believer have to define what is Christian to the Christian believer? Shouldn’t the Christian have the right to define his/her own beliefs?

    I wish I could count the times when people came up to me and started telling me what I believe. Sometimes they were right. Sometimes, they were wrong. It does make for a difficult debate.

    Fanastic reading. I hope to see more! :O)

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