There is a joke, I have been told, that is making its way through pastoral circles.There was a little old lady who would come out every morning on the steps of her front porch, raise her arms to the sky and shout, “Praise the Lord!”
Well, one day an atheist moved into the house next door. Over time, he became irritated at the little old lady. So every morning he would step out onto his front porch and yell after her, “There is no God!”
Time passes with the two of them carrying on this way every day. Then one morning in the middle of winter, the little old lady stepped onto her front porch and shouted, “Praise the Lord! Lord, I have no food and I am hungry. Please provide for me, oh Lord!”
The next morning she stepped onto her porch and there were two huge bags of groceries sitting there. “Praise the Lord!” she cried out. “He has provided groceries for me!” The atheist jumped out of the hedges and shouted, “There is no Lord. I bought those groceries!” The little old lady threw her arms into the air and shouted, “Praise the Lord! He has provided me with groceries and He made the devil pay for them!”
Is that funny? Why? What if we swapped the Atheist out for, say, a young Evangelical Christian who lived next door and was just trying to be kind to the lady? In that case did “the devil pay for it?” Well, of course not because, in part, he was being nice instead of trying to attack her faith, and in part because that kind of person is not the devil. He is not the enemy. Atheists, on the other hand, are, right? They are the spawn of Satan. They are the force of darkness that needs to be conquered in this world. They, as humans, are inherently evil, beyond hope of redemption, and must be stopped before they unravel our entire civilization.
If you think like this, even in the hidden recesses of your mind (few of us would say so out loud) might I suggest you take the time to get to know an Atheist. Many are vulgar and cocky, yes, but here’s the really difficult part to grasp sometimes; they are God’s creation. He made them. He has wonderful plans for them, if they would only listen. God would be willing, at the drop of a hat, to forgive every one of them and joyfully welcome them into his kingdom, if only they would accept his offer. They do not, but their choice does not change God’s concern for them. They are not the devil.
And if God cares for them, so must we! In fact we need to care for every single human we ever come across. Never, ever, is a human the enemy. They are the civilians in this battle of philosophies, worldviews and spiritual beliefs, and we must be careful how we treat them. As humans, though, there is this innate tendency to misunderstand who the enemy is in this battle, so we end up shooting the civilians we are called to protect instead of the enemy that holds them. Christians not only pick on people outside the faith, we have an equally horrible track record with how we deal with other Christians who we disagree with.
Getting it wrong
Hell’s Bell is a website dedicated to countering the claims of Rob Bell. I have no problem at all with disagreeing on important theological matters, and I, too, have grave concerns about Bell’s theology. Despite all that, there is no need to dress up Rob Bell as the serpentine symbol of Satan incarnate as they do at the Hell’s Bell website (forked tongue and all). Rob Bell, misguided Christian though he is, is loved by God just as much as you are, just as much as I am, and just as much as Atheists are.
And this is not an isolated incident. That Christians have this tendency to attack one another becomes no more apparent than when we start to dialogue on matters such as God’s possible use of evolution in creating all living things, Calvinism and Arminianism, Catholicism versus Protestantism, and many other issues. These conversations often end up becoming very divisive with respect to the people involved, not merely divisive with respect to the theology we are all (rightly!) wrestling with.
However prevalent this in-house fighting is, it spills beyond the walls of Christianity too. Brian McLaren recently wrote about the relationship between Christian Evangelicals and Muslims. Although his commentary was a mixed bag of good insights and misguided piety, he definitely raised at least two points that I think are well worth considering. First, don’t spread false information. He provides an example of a story that had been circulated via email that is apparently demonstrably false, but paints a certain group of Muslims in a very bad light. Many Christians (but not exclusively Christians by any means) have a tendency to just believe bad stuff about non-Christians – in this case Muslims – and pass it along without ever investigating its veracity. That’s a very bad tactic.
Secondly he ponders how many Evangelical Christians actually have a Muslim friend. This is a very valid question. How easy it is to speak against those that you not only do not understand, but have never taken the time to get to know, personally. Perhaps there are some who have not had the opportunity to become friends with a Muslim, but I suspect there are many more who have passed up the opportunity rather than seizing it.
I want to point something else out, about Brian McLaren. I have never read any of his books so I cannot say from personal familiarity, but I’ve been told that many of his views on the Bible and Christianity are so liberal as to be fundamentally undermining to the Christian Faith. I have good reason to believe he represents one of many who take the role of a “Fifth Column” within Christianity. In less diplomatic terms, his views represent the enemy in sheep’s clothing. And yet I quote him. I use him precisely to illustrate the point of this article. He is not the enemy even though many of his views are. And even if many of his views are wrong, they are not all wrong. Everybody – even the most misguided ant-theists in the world (not that McLaren is one of them) – at least gets some things right. When they do, their true statement are correct even if everything else they say is wrong. Do not treat him as the enemy, even if his views are fundamentally aimed at watering Christianity down to the point of drowning it in an ocean political correctness. And he is completely correct to observe that we ought not treat Muslims as the enemy either, even if Islam is a mistaken and dangerous ideology.
I’m picking on Christians here (I am one, obviously) but I want to point out that this is hardly a Christian-specific problem. I have an Atheist acquaintance who recently took suspiciously longer to reply to an email than usual. He explained that he was in a “flame war” with his fellow Atheists. This PDF (starting at page 8) documents how one former Atheist was treated when he had the audacity to question what his fellow Atheists were telling him to believe. I expect similar problems exist in Islam, Buddhism and just about any religion or philosophy that has human adherents; the problem is hardly unique to Christians.
Getting it right
Let’s turn from looking at failures and consider a positive interaction with respect to a significant disagreement. The Ehrman Project website is entirely dedicated to countering the claims of Dr. Bart Ehrman regarding his treatment of the New Testament text. It is thorough, it is scholarly, and it certainly pulls no punches in its goal of correcting Ehrman’s claims about the New Testament. Listen to the introductory comments the website makes in this video.
Could you count all the compliments they heap on Ehrman? Witty. Good communicator. Excellent scholar. The list goes on. Oh, some might complain, they are being too soft on him. What Ehrman needs is a good kick in the shins instead of all this conciliatory appeasement. I have heard some Christians take to calling Ehrman names like “Error-man” and what have you. Such maturity, such profound insight; surely this is what a heretic like Ehrman needs.
I beg to differ. The rest of the website is remarkably diligent in documenting, and responding to, Ehrman’s many misleading claims and faulty interpretations of the Biblical data. They are unrelenting in their attacks on Ehrman’s claims, but unlike Hell’s Bell, they have a much better understanding of who, exactly, they are fighting. Ehrman is not the enemy at all. He, like Bell, like McLaren, like the Muslims and Atheists, like anybody with an inaccurate understanding of reality, is just mistaken and is propagating what they believe to be true. The mistakes and faulty logic are most certainly the enemy and need to be coherently and consistently refuted. We cannot let up on that fight, but as the battle wages we must ensure that we use the most precise of “smart bombs” to make sure we hit the weapons depot and not the hospital, the school, or the housing complex immediately next to it. Snipers, not atomic bombs, are the weapons of choice in this war.
Real and perceived enemies
Ironically, the tendency to connect the person with the ideology – a philosophical mistake that leads to the further mistake of attacking both the person and their philosophy – is the kind of error that is most commonly associated with postmodern philosophy. According to Postmodernism, beliefs are not really about some reality outside of ourselves; beliefs are whatever you create them to be. Thus a person’s belief is not some claim they accept about the world around them that can be accepted or rejected, or merely modified to better fit the data. Beliefs are treated as though they are part of a person’s very being. It’s not hard to see how one could go from that misguided understanding of beliefs to the conclusion that the person, themselves, is the target. Postmodernism, and its impact on interpersonal discussions, is covered at greater length in phase 4 of Arguing with Friends.
In the mean time, we must never forget that,
… we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. (Eph 6:12 ESV)
For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ. (2Cor 10:3-5 ESV)
As you look down the long barrel of your high-powered philosophy rifle ask yourself this, “Is that the gunman, or his hostage?”