Walk Humbly: Final Thoughts

All posts in this series refer back to the conversation found here.

I’m wrapping things up and putting a lid on the episode with Damon.  It’s been a lot of things going back over the exchange these past couple weeks: funny, depressing, infuriating, informative.

I started this project with the intention to examine the assumptions that Damon brought to our conversation as a fundamentalist.  As angry as he made me, I really wanted to treat him fairly, because I believe in the importance of meeting offense with gentleness.  In some ways I feel like I’ve failed in that aspiration, especially as I’ve been working to conclude the series this week.  Much of the anger I’ve expressed in my last few posts has been tied very closely to the fiasco surrounding World Vision’s announcement that they were expanding their hiring practices to include married gay people and the backlash from that announcement that left them not only reversing their decision within 48 hours but also apologizing to the evangelicals who bullied them into changing their position in the first place (here are several links to the coverage of the event from various bloggers for anyone not already familiar with what’s been going on).  Damon and I didn’t argue about the inclusion of LGBTQ people in the Church, but his repeated attempts to declare me an apostate and a heretic over other theological disagreements left a bad taste in my mouth that’s highly reminiscent of the way gay Christians have been treated by evangelicals.  Through my interactions with Damon I got a very small taste of what I imagine gay Christians face on a regular basis in their interactions with evangelicals at large.  My experience really stung, and I honestly don’t think I can fully appreciate how they are treated on a regular basis, but it has to be horrendous.  So that’s where a lot of my anger was coming from recently.

Despite all that, I think I did accomplish some good things with this series.  Damon is obviously only one person, and it’s not fair to make him stand in as the representative of all fundamentalists, but he did confirm that he adheres to the doctrines that Samantha Field listed in her post from a few weeks ago “fundamentalists, evangelicals, and certainty.” I think my interactions with him, though he’s probably on the extreme end of the spectrum, can provide some instructive insights into how the fundamentalist mindset operates.  The Bible must be trusted above all else, and the justification for that is the fact that the Bible says so.  If you don’t make an argument using Bible verses, you must not take the Bible seriously.  Jesus saved us from hell, and if hell’s not a possibility, then why be a Christian at all?  Evangelism is about being right in your propositions, not about being hospitable or loving.  Anyone who doesn’t agree with them about their assumptions must not really be a Christian, no matter what they say or how much they profess love of Christ.

That’s a difficult set of assumptions to deal with.  They strike me as very closed off and hostile to outside opinions, which I suppose is what makes the dominant narrative of persecution among fundamentalists so potent.  Unfortunately, I think it’s also a toxic mindset.  I don’t know how to try to reach people who are caught up in this kind of thinking, and it’s difficult to watch, because they’re not only lashing out at outsiders, but also exerting immense internal pressure on themselves.  When I cautioned Damon that his way of thinking was likely to result in him either becoming disillusioned and completely losing his faith or regressing into a type of paranoia that can’t love or trust anyone except those just like him, I was being sincere in my concern.  People who leave fundamentalism are almost universally damaged by the experience, and that’s the mark of a bad ideology.  True expressions of Christ’s love shouldn’t leave people wary of dealing with Christians.

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
    And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
    and to walk humbly[a] with your God. (Micah 6:8)

Walk Humbly: Heresies, Damn Heresies, and Universalism

All posts in this series refer back to the conversation found here.

I seriously have a difficult time believing that you are a saved believer with the way you speak about God and His Word.

That’s Damon (as usual).  Following the head explodey moment that I discussed last time, things do begin to get really nasty.  I think this is the first time Damon says explicitly that he doubts my status as a Christian, and for anyone who’s been reading along, it’s definitely not the last.

The issue here, as far as I can tell, seems to be that Damon believes my position on the nature of Jesus’ ministry (that Jesus, as one part of the Trinity, had full authority to ignore portions of the Law as necessary to better fulfill its central purpose as he laid it out in Matthew 22:37-40) and of the Bible (that it is divinely inspired, but it is not inerrant) are heretical and actually dangerous to the spiritual well being of other Christians (“[T]he Bible warns about continued interaction with people who teach such outright lies and blasphemy in the name of Christ.“).

Damon doesn’t cite a specific text here to back up his assertion, but I’m guessing that he’s thinking of 2 Peter 2.  It’s quite a chapter.  Peter pretty much lays out a heap of condemnation on what the NIV calls “false teachers.”  These false teachers “in their greed […] will exploit you with fabricated stories” and “they mouth empty, boastful words” (2 Peter 2:3, 18).  There’s more than that, so here’s the chapter for anyone who’s curious about all the awful things Peter has to say about false teachers.  Damon may also be considering 2 Timothy 2:14-19 or 2 Corinthians 11:1-15, though I don’t know his mind.  The point seems pretty clear that there are always people who will aim to lead us from the path of Christ.

As I’ve said, I’m not a fan of proof texting, so instead of whipping out a counter verse that contradicts this stuff, I’m going to point toward a passage that I think helps refine the meaning here.

19 This is how we know that we belong to the truth and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence: 20 If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. 21 Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God 22 and receive from him anything we ask, because we keep his commands and do what pleases him. 23 And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. 24 The one who keeps God’s commands lives in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us. (1 John 3:19-24)

That whole chapter’s actually fantastic if you’d like to go give it a once over.  False teachers miss the point that the writer of 1 John makes about declaring Christ and demonstrating love.  Defining love is a complicated thing, but I think here the definition that Paul puts forward in 1 Corinthians 13 (that most ubiquitous of passages) will suffice.  All I have been arguing from the beginning of this conversation is that the gospel is founded on the commandment to love.

In writing to Damon, I don’t make reference to many passages from the Bible, but that’s largely because I’m arguing about an interpretation that’s looking at the broad trends of Scripture.  Honestly, pointing out all these passages feels a little uncomfortable after my last rant about proof texting, but I think at this point it’s important for the sake of flashing my Christian credentials to the fundamentalists who would deny that I have a right to that identity (since that’s what people like Damon want: evidence that I can make an argument based on the Bible).

Of course, that’s not the biggest ‘heresy’ that I’m espousing.  I happen to be a universalist, which completely blows Damon’s Calvinist paradigm.  The thought that a Christian might not believe that God intends to damn people to eternal torment is apparently anathema, since when I brought this up in passing, it was pretty much the end of the conversation.  As Damon put it after I finally got fed up and wrote my spiritual history for him,

“Nearly every paragraph leads me to believe that you are not part of the Body of Christ, culminating in your universalist claim, which is, and I cannot say this strongly enough, ABSOLUTELY heretical and completely not in line with the Gospel or any other Biblical teaching. Simply put, I cannot fathom how anyone can read the same words I do and come to such a conclusion.”

And you know what I gather from this reaction?  Damon, and fundamentalists like him, can’t stand the fact that God’s big enough for people who understand him differently.  It’s the only explanation I can come up with to explain being so resistant to the idea that other Christians may disagree with them on a variety of theological points that are all debatable.  Then again, I doubt many fundamentalists of this stripe are comfortable with allowing anyone besides themselves to own the Christian label.

Let’s back up for a second, though, and consider why Damon says that universalism is heresy.  Now, to start off, I should clarify that when I identify myself as a universalist, I’m doing so with a hopeful stance.  I can’t be dogmatic about the existence or nonexistence of hell (the Bible gives conflicting evidence), but based on how I understand God’s character, I find the nonexistence of hell more morally consistent.  I hope it is the case.

As for why Damon thinks this is such a bad thing to believe and counter to the gospel, I suppose it goes something like this.  Many people are familiar with the famous video from Penn Jillette where he discusses what kind of mindset a Christian who believes in hell must have to be so persistent in trying to convert others who really don’t want to be converted.  If you believe in eternal conscious torment, and you believe Jesus is the way to avoid it, then it is not in line with a gospel of love to fail to tell people about that.

Okay, so far that makes sense, but if you throw in the monkey wrench of hell not really being something that’s hanging over everyone’s head, then what happens?  Where is the motivation to continue telling everyone about Jesus?  Heck, what did Jesus do if he didn’t save us from hell?  This problem goes back a ways to what Damon said about substitutionary atonement as the explanation for the Crucifixion:

“If the death of Christ is not the complete substitutionary atonement for all sins of all believers across all time, then what is our faith in at all? […] To what end do we believe?”

Without hell, what was the point of Jesus dying?  I don’t know.  It’s a mystery.  At best, I can say that he died as a means of saving us from our sins.  That doesn’t necessarily mean that we were hellbound before the Crucifixion, because sin is pretty destructive all on its own.  Nonetheless, the gospel isn’t about avoiding hell.  It’s about loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself.  I don’t see anything about a particular doctrine of hell that impacts that message.

I find Damon’s assertion that the nonexistence of hell is heretical troubling, not only because it denies my identity, but because it suggests that at the core of his understanding of the gospel is fear.

“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” (1 John 4:18)

I am only trying to drive out fear, so all this ‘heretic’ crap needs to stop.

Denying people’s identities is one of the most debasing things you can do to them psychologically, and it infuriates me to see evangelical fundamentalists (which seems to be more and more the primary group within evangelicalism at large) doing this very thing in such a shamelessly hostile way.  All it does is circumscribe the tribe and insulate the people on the inside of that group so they can believe that they are a persecuted minority while the rest of the Church is just trying to get on with doing good work in the world.

God is for everyone who wants him, and I’ll be damned if someone else is going to tell me I’m not a Christian.

Walk Humbly: The Center Will Not Hold

All posts in this series refer back to the conversation found here.

“There is literally so much in that that I disagree with, I neither know how to nor will begin to respond. All I can say is that I got whiplash when I got to the last paragraph. I literally have no idea how you made that connection. I liked the paragraph before it, but then something exploded…or something.”

This is where things fall apart.  Following a great deal of discussion regarding whether Jesus was legally bound to uphold the letter of the Law in addition to the spirit of it, I finally reached the point where I made Damon’s head explode (that wasn’t intentional at all, and I apologize to anyone whose head has been exploded because of my writing; clearly I am a danger to people and need to stop publishing things if that’s the case).  It’s rather unfortunate that we got here, because up until this point I honestly felt like the conversation was going somewhere, even though we still hadn’t found a whole lot to agree on.

Not so much anymore.

From this point forward in the conversation, things get a lot more heated, and I’m still trying to make sense of how it happened.  In my response prior to the one from Damon that I quoted up at the top here, I tried to tie together the idea of Jesus’ ministry being about moral obligation trumping apparent legalities with why I am not an inerrantist.  Then I pointed out that I think it’s sinful and immoral (which are equivalent terms in my mind) to try to spread information that I don’t believe is true, hence my support of evolution as the best available explanation for the ascendancy of life.

Perhaps I didn’t make a strong enough link in my original writing to explain that train of thought.  I’m certainly not immune to making logical leaps on the page without explaining how I got there in my mind.

Nonetheless, I feel like Damon’s response is unwarranted and ungracious here.  He writes,

“I hold the Bible, all of it, as my top authority in every realm it touches. You do not. I can explain why my perspective is not only viable but the best approach, but you won’t accept it, likely rejecting it with non-Biblical reasoning, which I simply don’t care about. Much of what you say is flat-out heretical to what the Bible expressly states, but that’s fine to you because you don’t care about the Bible.”

This kind of accusation hurts deeply, and I’d be lying if I didn’t say that these words and many more that came from Damon afterwards distressed me.  Anyone who’s been following my blog since its inception should understand (I hope) that though I don’t identify as evangelical anymore, I still take my faith as a Christian very seriously.  I treat the Bible differently from most evangelicals (it’s one of the main reasons I don’t identify as such anymore), but that doesn’t mean I don’t care about it.  I certainly care enough to be cautious in making absolute statements about what it does and does not declare heretical.  I also care enough to explore and understand as best as I can what foundation lies underneath my faith in the gospel (rather than zooming around a Mobius strip of “the Bible is reliable because the Bible says it’s reliable because the Bible says it’s reliable because the Bible…”).  I’m not going to disrespect Scripture by making it look like a holy hamster wheel.

The accusation that I don’t care about the Bible is really just a side issue here.  The worse one is how Damon has buried in the midst of his accusations one shining confession: “I simply don’t care.”  I’ve said it before, and I’ll continue saying it.

This is bad evangelism.

Yes, I am quoting Damon out of context here.  There’s a whole lot of sentence before that specially trimmed quotation that sheds light on what he really means by it.  I admit freely and clearly that in this particular instance, I am prooftexting Damon’s words to make a point.  It’s not fair to him, and it’s more than a little disrespectful of me to do it, but that is how I feel about the way he and many other evangelicals approach the Bible.

It is not a book that you should manipulate for the sake of your own opinions and then pass them off as objective truth.

Take more care than that.

Walk Humbly: Your Interpretation is Not My Interpretation (And That’s Okay)

All posts in this series refer to the conversation found here.

“Is there any reason the Bible -cannot- be literally true (where it claims to be) and the infallible message of the Creator to His creation?”

I think Damon gets back to the heart of the conversation here, and helps to refocus what we’re talking about (I’ve gone over the whole conversation multiple times now, and if there’s a common flaw in both of our arguments, it’s that we allow ourselves to get sidetracked by tangents really easily).  My answer to the above question is a rather firm “Yes.”  Earlier in the correspondence, I mentioned the fact that Genesis contains two accounts of creation which contradict each other chronologically.  The first has plant life created before the man, while the second has it created after him.  This is not a minor detail like the discrepancies in the synoptic gospels’ accounts of Jesus’ ministry that can be handwaved away as different recollections of the same events (though that’s not really a strong point in favor of literalism either), but a significant difference in how God went about making the world.  Further, both accounts ostensibly come from the same author under a literalist hermeneutic, so it doesn’t make sense to have that kind of contradiction if we’re intended to read them as accurate history.

Moving along in the conversation, there comes a point where I tell Damon that I disagree with the literalist hermeneutic because the way it’s exercised in America today stems from opposition to the abolitionist movement prior to our Civil War (an excellent, if anecdotal, illustration of this point can be found in the film Twelve Years a Slave where a slave owner quotes from a parable Jesus tells in Luke 12 as justification for beating disobedient slaves).  My understanding on this topic comes from what I’ve read from Fred Clark at Slacktivist (he leans heavily on the book The Civil War as a Theological Crisis by Mark A. Noll, which I haven’t read, but do intend to read soon).

I was really disappointed that Damon didn’t address either of these points as the conversation proceeded.  I think they’re worth exploring.  What Damon did respond to was my point about the contradiction between the accounts in Samuel and Chronicles where one writer attributes David’s decision to hold a census to God, while the other writer attributes that same decision to Satan.  I argued much earlier that both accounts couldn’t simultaneously be true and likely reflect the historians’ differing opinions about the census.  Damon’s response to this assertion isn’t a bad one, but it’s worth analyzing because it demonstrates how we’re interpreting the passages differently based on our own theological assumptions.

Here’s Damon’s response in full:

I really don’t have time to go through everything you’ve said and respond to it, but I did want to respond to your proposed contradiction between Samuel and Chronicles. I refer you to the book of Job. If one is describing the events that happened to Job, who is responsible? Who did those things to him? God, or Satan? God, as the sovereign Ruler, is ultimately responsible for everything that happens ever. That does not mean that He literally, directly -does- them, but He allows them. I have heard a quote that, “Even the devil is God’s devil.” “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28)

Damon uses the story of Job as his cosmological model where Satan is subordinate to God and conducts evil in accordance with God’s ultimately good will (we know his will is good because of the proof text that Damon concludes with).  Under this model, an event may be attributed to both God and Satan simultaneously without contradiction.

There are several assumptions implicit in this model with which I disagree, and which need to be examined.  The text of Job is fundamentally an exercise in exploring theodicy, the problem of suffering in a divinely ordered world.  Large portions of it are parodies of contemporary wisdom regarding the responsibility of the victim in any sort of calamity (come to think, Job is an excellent text on how asinine victim-blaming is).  Job is innocent of any wrongdoing, but God allows Satan to torture him.  The only explanation God offers for this is that he’s beyond our understanding, so shut up and deal with it.

Personally, I think that Job ends in a rather unsatisfying way, but I don’t take the fact that God comes off as a jerk in that text to mean that God is actually a jerk (I belong to the school of thought that Job is not a historical book, but a work of fiction that was intended to serve an instructional purpose).  Further, I don’t believe that Satan actually exists, but that he’s a fictional personification of the evil forces at work in the world that drive people to sin.  Under that understanding, it becomes nonsense to say that God authorizes sin in the world when the work of Jesus shows rather clearly (in my mind) that he’s looking to eradicate it.

The point I’m driving at is that Damon and I spend a lot of time talking past each other here, because our interpretations of certain things differ and have rather far reaching effects on how our theology is shaped.  I’m still very firmly convinced that Damon’s literalist reading of the Bible is flawed, but I don’t believe that because his theology contradicts my own he’s somehow outside the realm of God’s grace.  I’ll get more into that problem next time.

Walk Humbly: Power and Presentation

All posts in this series refer to the conversation found here.

“My understanding is also that he would not be so literally offensive (in the sense of attacking, on the offence) when actually talking to a non-believer.”

Damon writes here about the attitude of the speaker, Voddie Baucham, in the video that he shared with me about the trustworthiness of the New Testament (though the video claims to be about why the Bible as a whole is trustworthy, it only really discusses the New Testament in depth).  I previously made the point in our conversation that Baucham has a triumphalist tone when he’s discussing common concerns he encounters from non-Christians when he’s trying to proselytize and how excited he is to catch them in logical fallacies (I think the fallacies he calls them on are rather absurd and deal in false equivocation, but that’s beside the point), and that tone rubs me the wrong way.

To put it another way, I find it dismaying when a Christian says that they like to be in the position of power in relation to a non-Christian (for a fuller exploration of why this kind of eagerness for power is problematic, check out this article by Richard Beck).  That is bald-faced anti-Christ talk right there, and it makes me angry to hear that kind of bullying nonsense promoted by anyone who’s supposed to be a disciple of Jesus.

Damon points out that the attitude Baucham takes in his lecture stems from understanding his audience.  When you speak to your in-group, you are free to use all the jargon and communicative shorthand you like because you can assume your audience’s familiarity with such things.  That’s a reasonable thing to do, and a good rhetorical strategy.  My complaint is that Baucham’s not just dealing in jargon, but that he’s saying that he’s going to treat people not like him differently.  He’s going to argue with them; he’s going to try to catch them in logical pitfalls; he’s going to win.

Say it with me now:

That is bad evangelism.

It’s bad evangelism because, like I said last time, you need to care about the person you’re speaking to.  They need to be viewed as a fellow human being fully deserving of your respect and attention.  You can’t do that if you cultivate an attitude that you’ll be polite to their face, but behind their back you’ll joke with your friends about how you can catch them off guard and gloat about the way you can steer your conversations with them.  That kind of attitude is all about presenting a false face to a target while saving your real face for the in-crowd.  It’s the attitude of a used car salesman.  Nobody likes or trusts used car salesmen.

In fact, now that I think on the used car salesman analogy, it helps throw into better relief that answer I’ve been contemplating to Damon’s question about the purpose of Baucham’s addressing straw men in his lecture (“Why would one waste their time defending against imagined opponents?”).  The obvious answer is because knocking down straw men makes a clever speaker look smarter without putting in any real effort.  The more insidious answer is that Baucham is not a used car salesman intent on fast talking non-Christians into buying a sleek, slightly used Jesus, but the motivational speaker for a group of used car salesmen who is trying to sell them on his methods for selling all the sleek, slightly used Jesuses to non-Christians.  He’s lying to both his in-group and his out-group.

Perhaps that’s going too far in my assessment of Baucham’s intentions; I don’t know anything about the man beyond what I’ve observed in one video, so these suspicions may be unwarranted.  However, I think it betrays a certain naivete on Damon’s part that he wouldn’t question the intentions of someone who makes a living by telling people how they can better sell their product to others.

If I’ve gathered anything from reading that article by Beck that I linked above, it’s that Christians should not be actively seeking power, especially in relation to non-Christians.  If we happen to have power then yes, we need to use it responsibly, but we shouldn’t be looking to impose a hierarchy of “I’m right; you’re wrong” on people who disagree with us (especially when we’re trying to persuade them to see the merits of our position).  We shouldn’t be talking amongst ourselves as though outsiders are less than us, all the while stroking our consciences with fervent reassurances that we’d never be that offensive to their faces, that regardless of what heathens they are we’ll treat them better than that.  That kind of behavior breeds assholes.

And no one wants to listen to an asshole, no matter how polite they may be to your face.

Walk Humbly: Background Reading

All posts in this series refer back to the conversation found here.

“I’m also curious about more of your beliefs, though, too (not so much the history as current perspectives).” -Damon, in response to my question about his background.

Following the discussion of evangelicalism and fundamentalism, I was curious about why Damon wasn’t familiar with those terms, and about his spiritual journey in general.  This is a common consideration in talking with people that when you’re having a conversation about beliefs, you should try to get to know one another a little bit.  Knowing a person’s background can help out immensely in trying to understand them.  It’s also a good way to demonstrate that you care about them; I don’t take the time to ask about the background of people I argue with anonymously on forums (given the medium, I suspect few would be willing to give many details about themselves anyway).  With Damon, because our conversation had been protracted at this point, I felt it was a necessary thing to do; I wanted to better understand where he was coming from, so I flat out asked him where he came from.

I have no criticisms of Damon’s background as he presented it, though in reading over the whole conversation again, it occurs to me that I wish I had done more to point out that his beliefs about the Bible were received from the people with whom he studied it.  I didn’t fall into evangelicalism independently after I decided to become a Christian; heck, I doubt anyone even decides to become a Christian without some communal influence.  I only bring this up because in the subsequent exchanges, I think it becomes more and more apparent that Damon is clinging to the belief that he’s reading the Bible the right way because that’s how the Bible says it should be read.

Setting the tautological problem aside for the moment, I find this line of reasoning concerning because it fails to give credit to all the people who have had a part in a person’s spiritual education.  For my part, I can go back and say that I was heavily influenced in my understanding of Christianity first by my pastor in college, then my in-laws after I got married, then my non-Christian friends when I moved to where I live now.  Along the way I read a lot of different people’s work discussing issues related to Christianity, and that had an impact as well.  Never in my nearly nine years as a Christian have I been learning about God in a vacuum.  I feel like when Damon says “I immediately got to [reading the Bible] and read through it cover to cover (while also attending church and going to a Bible study). […] Over time, I came to understand how several of such beliefs conflicted with my belief in the Bible, and I changed my understandings,” he’s glossing over that very important factor of who his spiritual mentors were.

That’s kind of a big oversight.

It’s especially bad when you consider that within evangelical circles, one of the most common ways that Christians are taught to perform evangelism is to prepare personal testimonies that they can deliver to people.  These testimonies are typically not designed to appeal to objective evidence in trying to persuade others about the value of Christianity; they’re about telling stories to others.  Those stories are almost invariably very personal in nature, because they revolve around telling someone where you’ve been in life, what kind of things you’ve struggled with, and how becoming a Christian has affected you.  It’s a lot to lay out for a stranger.

It’s also a lot to lay out to a stranger, which is why typically you have to earn the right to tell someone else about yourself; the fastest way to do that is to ask after them.  Try to get their story.

And for God’s sake, don’t do it with your fingers in your ears; actually listen to what the other person’s telling you instead of just waiting until it’s your turn to speak.

Besides ignoring the fact of nondivine influences on his own development, I feel like Damon made a much more offensive error in telling me that he wasn’t concerned about learning my history.  Yes, he asked about my current beliefs, but it feels dishonest to explain all of those without the context of where I’ve been as a Christian.  I can give an explanation of why I don’t believe in the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, but without the context of all the years where I struggled with that doctrine as it forced me to come to conclusions that weighed against my conscience and the reading and thinking I had to do to finally reject it, my explanation is likely to fall flat.

Also, and this doesn’t factor much in debate (but it matters a whole heck of a lot when it comes to evangelism), but not asking about me hurts.  It shows a lack of concern for the other person, which is totally damning if your goal is to share your own opinions in a manner that will be well received.

But I’ll get more into that later.

Walk Humbly: Defining Terms

All posts in this series refer back to the conversation found here.

“[T]he Christian faith is not about feeling or convincing. It’s about God, through His spirit, revealing and convicting people of the truth.”

This is Damon’s response to the article from Defeating the Dragons that I mentioned last time.  He’s disagreeing with Samantha Field’s statement that “the typical evangelical teachings about faith usually involve this nebulous idea that “faith” equals “certainty”– that you feel sure.”

As far as I can tell, Damon’s model of faith is built around the concept of divine revelation.  You can’t believe in God without God first telling you that he’s there.  At that point, according to Damon, you don’t get a say in whether you have faith or not.  He uses as his proof text the famous passage from Ephesians 2:

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

Damon’s interpreting that first verse where Paul calls faith “the gift of God” to mean that faith literally must be received from God.  I think from there he might be using verse 9 to support the argument that we can’t do anything to obtain faith, though I’m not entirely sure if that’s the case.  For what it’s worth, my interpretation of this passage goes something like this: we receive salvation as a freely given gift from God, and our reception of it is predicated on faith in Christ.  The “not by works” bit refers to the fact that salvation is not something earned.  The last verse (which doesn’t usually figure in to discussions of this passage’s meaning about salvation) points out that an expression of that salvation is the good work that we do.

I don’t see anything in this passage that expressly denies the possibility that people may choose faith.  Yes, it comes from God, but as a gift.  Gifts can be accepted or rejected.

From there, Damon affirms this list of beliefs as foundational for his faith:

Inspiration and Inerrancy of Scripture
Deity of Christ
Virgin birth
Substitutionary atonement
Physical resurrection and physical Second Coming

Field puts together a pretty succinct explanation of why, from a historical view of the Church, most of these doctrines are suspect as the essentials of Christian faith.  Belief in biblical inerrancy is hard, if not impossible, to put into practice with a view towards the entirety of the Bible.  As Ned Flanders so famously put it, “I’ve done everything the Bible says!  Even the stuff that contradicts the other stuff!”  Substitutionary atonement is only one of a multitude of theories of how the Crucifixion operated in relation to salvation (pretty much all of which require a good bit of inference from what’s said in the Bible about it).  Heck, even the concept of Virgin birth, which I have no problem affirming, isn’t really provable, and is only significant if you subscribe to the additional doctrine of original sin, which theorizes that the sinful nature of humanity was passed down from Adam’s fallen seed (essentially Jesus had to be born of a virgin so he wouldn’t be infected with the sin virus that we all get from our fathers) and which first entered Christian thought in the fourth century by way of Augustine, a huge hedonist prior to his conversion who likely was working through some of his own hangups when he was theologizing.  As for belief in a physical Second Coming, well, I guess you can believe in that if you like, but it doesn’t mesh with Church tradition, and it additionally tends to foster an attitude that this current life doesn’t matter.

In my response to Damon following his affirmation of those same beliefs listed above, I try to lay out my understanding of a couple of terms that Damon says he’s not familiar with.  I was surprised that he expressed unfamiliarity with ‘evangelical’ and ‘fundamentalist,’ especially since they’re rather commonly used terms.  This whole conversation seemed to me to be framed around the question of whether there was a legitimate alternative to practicing Christianity in the manner common to evangelicals, but the terms hadn’t been laid out.

Now, I should say at this point that I’ve been trying to remain fair to Damon.  The conversation started because we had a disagreement, and he approached me for further discussion.  And up to this point things were pretty civil between us.  But look at what I said about fundamentalism:

Fundamentalism is not a specific ideology so much as a methodology. It can be applied to any subculture as those people within the subset who hold to their beliefs so strongly that they are unwilling to consider differing opinions as potentially valid. This doesn’t mean that non-fundamentalists don’t hold their positions strongly, only that they are willing to listen to people they disagree with in an effort to find common ground.

I think that’s a pretty good definition of the term (also as a sidenote, I pulled much of my discussion of fundamentalism in that response from this post by Fred Clark at Slacktivist).  Fundamentalists of any kind of ideology are the ones that people generally recognize as the extremists, the ones who are certain that no one else but them may be right about the way the world works.  They almost always fail to uphold Micah’s exhortation “to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly” (if their ideology even gives any credence to that passage).

So yes, I’m trying to be fair to Damon.

But from here it becomes more and more apparent that even though he’s not familiar with the term, Damon knows a lot about fundamentalism.

Walk Humbly

About a month ago, I posted my thoughts on the debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham.  It was an exciting event, because it provided an opportunity for dialogue with many of my good friends about the intersection between science and faith.  There was a conversation that popped up on Facebook following the debate where a friend of mine shared her thoughts on the debate, and several of her friends (myself included) responded.  One friend of hers, someone I don’t know personally, presented a case for the creationist viewpoint, and I pushed back rather hard against the apparent evangelical spin on Christianity that was being offered.

I might have compared the Calvinist version of God to a Lovecraftian horror.

There was some back and forth on the topic between us while the agnostics and atheists participating in the thread looked on, apparently bemused (I might be projecting my own thoughts about the exchange on others here), until finally this person just decided to send me a private message to continue the conversation.  I thought it was an odd decision, since I’m all in favor of public discourse over private correspondence, especially on a topic such as theology where I think it’s healthy for people to see that Christianity doesn’t have a single unified front.  In that interest, I’d like to present the transcript of our conversation here, with a few edits to maintain privacy.  All last names except my own have been removed.  Otherwise, the conversation is unchanged and presented in full.

I encourage anyone who has an opinion to offer it, and by all means feel free to criticize my responses if you think criticism is warranted.  In concluding our discussion, when I asked for permission to use his name, Damon expressed reservations because he felt that I would be unfair in my presentation of him, although he did say I needn’t give him a pseudonym.  There will be subsequent posts where I will be examining the content of our dialogue (with my own biases intact, of course), but this initial one is done to give the account as plainly as possible and without me imposing an unfair interpretation on his words.  This conversation has been very emotionally draining, and I expect my own contributions to it have been inadequate in places.

Because of the length of the conversation, I’ve put it in a Google Doc (found here) for easier viewing.  Embedded within it are links to various articles and videos that Damon and I shared with each other in our dialogue that readers may wish to peruse to better understand some of the ideas we discuss.