Dr. Dennis Kinlaw was president of Asbury College when I was there so many years ago. He was a professor of Biblical languages at Asbury Seminary before he was selected to lead the college. I remember him as a great teacher and preacher.
Dr. Kinlaw tells of sitting on an airplane next to a man who claimed to be an atheist but shared a remarkable story of how he, the atheist, came to believe in prayer.
He said, “I used to have vicious migraine headaches that I thought were going to drive me crazy, and medicine could not do anything for me. One day, I thought, Religious people pray. I didn’t know anything about religion, I didn’t even believe in God, but I thought it surely couldn’t hurt to try; so I prayed.
“I said, ‘Lord, I don’t know if You are or not, and if You are, I don’t know whether you can help me or not, and if You are and You can, I don’t know whether You would or not, but if You are, and if You could, and if You would take away these headaches, I would be very grateful.’ Do you know what? The headaches went away and I thought it was a very happy coincidence.
“Then I had a second thought. That is a cheap way out. What if God is, and what if He did? If I attribute my healing to chance, it would be extremely ungracious.
“So, I prayed again. “Lord, I don’t know whether You are or not, and I don’t know whether You did or not, but if You are and if You did, I want You to know that I am grateful.’
“Then I had another thought, There have been many good things that have happened in my life that I assumed were accidents. I wonder if those are blessings from God, too? And if they are, I have never even told Him thanks.”
So, he said, “I prayed again. ‘I don’t know whether you exist or not, and I don’t know whether You are responsible for the good things in my life, but if You had anything to do with them, I want You to know my gratitude.’”
This comes from a book that Dr. Kinlaw wrote called This Day with the Master. I never heard him tell it from the pulpit. Yet, I can see him standing before a congregation after relating this account of prayer with a wry smile on his face, letting the irony of this story soak into the listeners. He is silent except for perhaps the gentle tapping of one finger on the pulpit, counting off the time it takes for the story to penetrate our hearts, time to deal with the paradox of an atheist praying, expressing gratitude to he knows not what. Then he asks us who are supposed to know.
“Don't judge a person until you've walked a mile in their shoes.” There is a lot of wisdom in that saying. Lately, I've been thinking about “atheist shoes” and “Christian shoes”.
I have a friend who once wore “Christian shoes” but now wears atheist ones. Recently I've heard him make comments about the Christian faith which are totally unfounded. For example, he once objected that the Christian view of heaven seemed boring to him. WHAT? OK, all that most unbelievers think they know about heaven are angels on clouds strumming harps all day long. But intimate conversation with the Creator of everything could never be boring. A Christian, or one who has been a Christian, should know that. He did know once. I fear that he distorts “Christian shoes” in order to justify throwing them away.
Another atheist friend made snide remarks about the faith expressed in my articles online. This lead to a rather long series of exchanges. His comments about the Christian faith were often erroneous and when I attempted to correct him, he would respond with something like, “I've read the Bible. I know what you believe.” It is hard to explain the faith to someone who thinks they know it better than you do! When someone asked why he was so tenacious in his debates with me, he responded that he found people of faith fascinating even though he didn't understand us at all. I suggested that if he wanted to understand us, then he would have to make the effort to step into our shoes, if only hypothetically, to see how we think and why we think that way. He seems unwilling to do that. We haven't had much contact since.
So, I have a question for all my atheist friends. When I put on “atheist shoes” and walk around a bit in them, it seems that life, the universe and everything is all about me. All I've got is a few decades of life and that's it. There is a big universe, but I didn't make the galaxies and I can't do much for them. There are other creatures, including some humans, but ultimately my interest in them derives from their connection to me. If there is no connection to me, then they don't really matter, right? I am the only one who can decide what is valuable and what isn't, for me at least, right?
Am I missing something? I can see how this fundamental narcissism is a good thing for some. It might be kind of nice if everything were all about me. But obviously I'm not very great. I am really not even all that good. Atheists, do you see the problem I'm having? Do you have a solution? Honestly I don't think there is a solution outside of faith in God. But I could be wrong. What are my “atheist shoes” missing? I really want to know.
Have you ever heard of Jessica Rey? She is an actress and entrepreneur with a line of swimwear. My daughter introduced me to a youtube video of hers called “The Evolution of the Swimsuit.” She begins with a line from a hit novelty song from the 60s called “Itsy Bitsy, Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.” The line is, “She was afraid to come out of the locker” (the locker in which she had put on the little piece of swimwear.) Ms. Rey asks why she was afraid to come out in public wearing an itsy bitsy bikini.
Ms. Rey then runs quickly back in time showing the changes in swimwear for women all the way back to the turn of the century when women's swimwear was not the least bit revealing yet there were still mobile changing rooms which would follow women almost all the way to the water. Ms. Rey asks how we have come so far from wearing houses to wearing almost nothing.
The answer is, of course, the sexual revolution of the 1960s and the “empowerment” of women to be free from the least hint of sexual repression. Ms. Rey wonders if the “power” granted women has been worth the cost.
The cost is the way men look at women who dress so immodestly. She cites a study in which men are shown pictures of women in bikinis while their brains are scanned. The parts of the brain which light up during the use of tools, become active when viewing the scantily clad women. The parts of the brain responsible for higher activities, some might even say the spiritual activities like compassion and empathy, shut down completely. The researchers say those parts of the brain responsible for compassion and empathy almost never go inactive like they did during the study.
The human male's brain seems to be almost hardwired to objectify women who expose their bodies. Clearly, an ability to turn men into beasts is a kind of power. But, like Ms. Rey, I don't think it was that kind of power being sought by the sexual revolutionaries. But many warned that turning human beings into animals would be the result of such sexual liberation. Sexual license results in slavery, not freedom.
Ms. Rey describes looking for modest swimwear for herself. When she couldn't find it, designed some of her own using Audrey Hepburn as inspiration. Many people asked her where she found her swimwear and her fashion line was born.
If you think her designs are a throwback to the pantaloons of the turn of the century or the burkas of the Middle East, you'll be surprised. Audrey Hepburn was no prude. Neither is Ms. Rey. As another actress once said, “Your clothes should be tight enough to show you're a woman but loose enough to show you're a lady.”
Here is hoping her fashion line is highly successful and generates a new trend overshadowing the itsy bitsy teenie weenie bikini.
Gerard Vanderleun at American Digest put up a video called "This is Water". It is an edited version of a commencment address given by David Foster Wallace to the 2005 class of Kenyon College. It is fascinating. Take a look.
What do you think? Well, here is what I think...
There is a lot of very good stuff in there. Lots of great ideas and good advice. It is more and more the case that "the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about." But that is more because of how we have been taught to see and talk, than about the important realities themselves. Yes, the Water in which "we live and move and have our being" is there whether we see it or not. What that water is, is of vital importance. Unfortunately, this video leaves out what the water is.
Yes, there is a "default setting" based on our inherent selfishness; "everything is all about me". It is great that the video calls us to rise above it even though it is hard to rise and few, if any, of us do it very often. Yet what is the foundation of this call to rise above? "The only thing that's capital-T true is that you get to decide how you're going to try to see it.” Oh, so it really is about me, all about ME, after all. Hmmm.
Now, in the full speech from which this video is made, Foster does tell another "didactic story" which could point more to Reality. He tells of an atheist and theist arguing about God after a few beers in a remote Alaskan bar. The atheist says, "It's not like I haven't investigated the claims of God. Just last month when I was lost in the blizzard facing certain death, I prayed for God to help me and save my life." "Well, then you must believe. Here you are!" cries the theist. "No," replies the atheist. "That was just a couple of Eskimos that happened to be passing by and led me out." Foster says, "It is easy to run this story through a standard liberal arts analysis. The exact same experience can mean two totally different things to two different people, given those people's belief templates and two different ways of constructing meaning from experience. Because we prize tolerance and diversity of belief, nowhere in our liberal arts analysis do we want to claim the one guy's interpretation is true and the other guy's is false or bad. Which is fine, except we also never end up talking about just where these individual's templates and beliefs come from." (Emphasis mine) No, Mr. Foster, it is not fine. The fact that we don't talk about where beliefs come from and judge the reality of those beliefs is THE problem with modern education and this video. It is the foundational problem of modern liberal arts education which leads people to get it wrong every time. It is why you, Mr. Foster, fall right back into the "default setting" when you explain that freedom, education and right thinking is all about ME and MY CHOICE.
In the end, Mr. Foster cannot say with conviction, "GOD IS LOVE" and "In Him we live and move and have our being" for that is far too moralistic and judgmental. So, we are left with banal platitudes like, "Have a nice day". Just use your $100,000 education to dream up fanciful reasons to say "Have a nice day" even when, no, especially when you don't really mean it. Why? 'Cause if you don't you'll be miserable. (But don't think I'm moralizing like Dr. Laura!)
Come on, Mr. Foster! The "water" is God. Yes, He's hard to see and talk about nowadays. But it was not always so. May He help us lose this post-modern Liberal arts non-sense which is so fatal, and get back to learning and teaching what is really True and Good and Noble and Right. Yes, that means saying some things are wrong and bad and false. So be it.
Some religious people of his day complained about Jesus' habit of spending time with sinners, even eating with them, so he tells some stories to illustrate that “the Son of Man came to seek and save the lost.” The last story begins, “A certain man had two sons.” One son leaves home and squanders his inheritance. When he finally decides to return home, his father throws a big party because “this son of mine was dead and is alive again.”
We call that story The Prodigal Son. I used to think the word meant wicked, but it doesn't. “Prodigal” means generous or reckless; a spendthrift. Although the story has been used to call wicked people back to God, that is not the point. All that matters for the story is that the son had made a mess of things by wasting what had been given him. He is less wicked than foolish.
A phrase that sticks out to me in the story is “he began to be in need.” That goes a long way to explaining his behavior. He took for granted that his needs had always been met by his father. Wouldn't they always be? Well, maybe not, outside the father's house. And then there is this phrase after the neediness sets in....“no one gave him anything.”
He had lived as if there were a boundless supply, giving freely to all. That is how it was at home. But now in his need, people won't reciprocate. Isn't that the world we know? People take. They don't give.
When he finally does get back home, his older brother won't celebrate the return of this reprobate. That is the point of the whole story. Jesus is prodding the religious folks who look down on sinners to join in the celebration when sinners repent. The refusal to accept the Prodigal brother is the real wickedness. The story exposes that wickedness to anyone who has ears to hear.
I've been wondering if we couldn't rename the story, The Liberal Son. Liberals tend to be generous (at least with other people's money) to point of recklessness. They seem to take for granted the wealth and social structures in America which produce the wealth we've inherited from our ancestors But if the name is changed to Liberal Son, then we'd have to call the other brother, the conservative son, wouldn't we?
It seems likely that liberal policies in the nation will lead to a social train-wreck like it has in, say, Detroit. When they begin to be in need, we'll have to see if those who voted for such policies will come to their senses and decide to come home to the wisdom of the founding fathers. Or will they just blame it all on their older brother?
It is my hope and prayer that there will be many, many conservative sons who know Jesus' story and have developed the heart of their Father in Heaven. Then, if the liberals come home, we can party.
Last week I made the statement that we are rapidly becoming, if we haven't already become one, a pagan culture. Here is why I said that.
I defined a pagan as one who worships an experience or the object of an experience. I should explain that worship of an experience need not be a formal worship. In ancient times a pagan farmer might have sex with a temple prostitute in order to magically ensure that his crops would grow. He planted seed in the field, so he plants seed in the temple as well. That would be a kind of formal worship arrangement. Yet many pagans are driven by sexual experience without any temple involved. It is the elevation of an experience to a highest value, not a temple, which makes a pagan.
Similarly, a pagan isn't necessarily a primitive, superstitious person who believes in the reality of beings like the Olympian gods. Even today a sailor might be said to worship the sea. The sea gives him his livelihood demonstrating awesome power which paradoxically can even threaten his life. The sailor need not believe in Poseidon or Neptune to be pagan.
A pagan culture worships experience and countless experiences qualify for worship. Pagan gods multiply as experience after experience adds god upon god. One person's god is just as good as any other. “Add to the pantheon,” is the pagan way.
Even religious experience can be worshiped apart from the gods involved. The bumper sticker “COEXIST” formed out of major religious symbols; Islamic crescent for the C and Christian cross for the T, is essentially pagan. Pagans don't care if any of those religions are true. Pagan religion merely seeks an experience which we should all accept and enjoy and let others enjoy. Experience is the thing for a pagan.
The sexual revolution and proliferation of drugs clearly have pagan roots. From Playboy bunnies to professor Timothy Leary's advocating drugs to achieve spiritual enlightenment, the experience is the thing. Traditional warnings about dire consequences of such hedonism are seen as the jealous cries of old folks who are shackled by outmoded moralities. Hugh Hefner is now mainstream and the influence of advocates for drug legalization continues to grow.
There is worship of Mother Earth or Gaia as she is often called nowadays. Certainly an element of worship empowers much of the environmental movement. There may not be a temple to humpback whales or panda bears, but there is an awful lot of money sacrificially given on their behalf.
Then there is money itself, too. How many business leaders are driven to work and sacrifice in pursuit of piles of cash? The experience of wealth is one many people would die or even kill for. You might say they worship green paper!
Yes, we are becoming, if we haven't already become, a pagan culture. “Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.”Philippians 3:19
Many years ago now, I was driving home from work when the moon appeared to me in a gap between trees. It was a full moon, huge on the horizon and extremely bright. There was a layer of cloud along the bottom of the moon which, as the light shone through, became as bright as the moon itself. It looked as if the moon was rising up out of a pool of cloud, and clouds were flowing off the moon back down into the pool. Or perhaps it was that some invisible hands were forming the moon out of the glowing band of cloud stretched across the horizon. The vision jumped out from behind the trees for only a few seconds and then it hid itself again.
I had heard words like “slack-jawed” or the phrase “their mouth fell open” used to describe awe, but it had never happened to me before, or since. It happened then. My face muscles involuntarily relaxed as I kept driving home and my mind began to process what I had just seen. Words like those in the paragraph above came to me and then I noticed that there were tears in my eyes. That shocked me. What kind of man cries at the moon? I began to analyze what I was experiencing. Dissecting an emotion, even an intense one, usually kills it. That is what my analysis did here.
When I got home I sat on the front porch and looked at the moon. It was still full and bright but no longer quite as large, and the clouds had moved on.
I told myself, “I understand the pagans. If I didn't know the Creator; the Artist who made the image I had seen, I think I would worship the Moon.”
Do you know pagans? They are all around us. We are rapidly becoming, if we haven't already become one, a pagan culture. Do you know what a pagan is?
A pagan is one who worships an experience like I describe above, or worships the object in that experience.
There are many awe-inducing sources. Mountains, Rivers, Animals, Trees, Sex and Drugs, Money and Power are just a few. Even Human Beings themselves, as individuals or a whole Tribe, can captivate and transfix our Mind, Soul and Body.
Those awe-inducing sources are, well, awesome gifts. But an awesome gift can be dangerous. Since we are so starved for the Divine in our fallen world and unable to experience God directly, those transcendent experiences threaten to replace Him in the minds, hearts and lives of many. That is why one of the first commandments is to make no image of God. God is Holy, that is, wholly other; different from anything experienced.
Even in church more and more people ignore the still small voice following instead the noisy pagan “gods”. It helps to know what they are doing in order to remind them that the Giver is even more awesome than the gift.
When I was a teenager I was a fan of
the Mary Tyler Moore Show. I even followed her friend Rhoda
Morgenstern when she moved to New York from Minneapolis to start her
own show called, well, Rhoda. Rhoda, played by Valerie Harper, was
always looking for a man. In New York she found him.
Joe, played by David Groh, was divorced
with a ten year old son, but he and Rhoda hit it off. Before the
first season was over, Rhoda and Joe got married. I'm told that the
episode of the wedding was one of the highest rated television shows
of its time. Apparently, I wasn't alone in following Rhoda's
Joe, having experienced the pain of
divorce, is reluctant to enter into another marriage. But Rhoda is
looking for a commitment. Joe suggests that they can move in
together. That sets up a sit-com discussion of the relative merits of
marriage and shacking up.
There was a lot of hype around the show
and especially the wedding. I remember seeing Valerie Harper in an
interview describing a bit of how the decision to marry was to take
place on her show. She explained that the script had Joe suggesting
that they move in together but Rhoda is reluctant to do so. Joe
pleads, “Come on, Rhoda. It's no big deal.” And Rhoda responds,
according to Ms. Harper, “Joe, if it's no big deal, then I don't
That struck this teenager as a pretty
wise response. Marriage is a big deal. I knew it then. I know it even
better now. Two people becoming one flesh, raising children and
making a life together, is a big deal that requires a big commitment.
Shacking up is a temporary arrangement of convenience; no strings
attached, no real commitment. Since love is a commitment; no
commitment, no love. And Love is a big deal.
I remember the interview because I was
shocked when I saw the actual episode she described. I was
anticipating hearing Rhoda school Joe on commitment and love. But she
never said that line on the air. Instead, Rhoda actually moves in
with Joe and then whines.... “Joe, I want married!” There is no
explanation. No wisdom. Just quid pro quo. “I did what you wanted.
Now, you'd better do what I want.” So, Joe reluctantly agrees and
they plan their wedding.
It isn't surprising that the show
didn't survive in people's hearts and minds or even very long on TV.
It isn't surprising that the marriage of Rhoda and Joe didn't survive
either. They were separated and divorced in the third season of the
show. I think most of us had stopped watching long before then.
I don't know why the editors cut the
wisdom originally given Rhoda. Maybe they thought it would be
funnier. Foolishness is sometimes comical. More often though, it is
just sad. Seeking love without commitment is as foolish as drinking
from an empty glass. It's not funny at all.
On our anniversary, I took my wife to see Les Miserables. To describe the experience, I told a friend that it is a wonderful story; we cried. He said, "You cried because you had to go to the opera, right?” No, it was the story. I guess I'm an old softie.
I understand the reason why my friend joked about the opera. Practically every line is sung and personally, I do find those recitatives a bit tedious. But the songs like, I Dreamed a Dream, Bring Him Home, Master of the House, are beautiful expressions of the emotions of the characters revealing their hearts, sometimes pleading, sometimes devastated, sometimes raucous, even bawdy.
I had heard about “Lay Miz”, as the abbreviation is pronounced, for about thirty years, but I had never been that interested in it. I knew that it was French and that it was revolutionary and that was enough to turn me off. I knew it involved a repentant thief and a persistent policeman and that seemed a bit contrived and unrealistic. Now, having seen the movie, it still seems a bit contrived and unrealistic. But that is OK. It is a wonderful story. It is wonderful, not because of the characters themselves, but what the characters represent.
Valjean, the thief, is transformed by an extravagant gift of grace, an undeserved blessing of freedom and wealth. Javert, the policeman, is honorable, stalwart, determined and hard-working. He believes that if everyone were like that, like him, the world would be a wonderful place. The genius of the story is in how these two lives intertwine just like the themes of Law and Grace mingle in every human life.
Around these two central characters are a host of others. There is Pantine, whose dreams are cruelly and and unjustly dragged to the gutter. There is the conniving innkeeper and his wife who live happily in the gutter and use it. There are the angry and idealistic youth who are literally willing to die for people in the gutter, even though those people are unwilling to rise up with them when bullets put them down.
The pivotal moment comes when Valjean(Grace) holds the life of Javert(Law) in his hands and lets him go free. The honorable Javert believes that Valjean expects to go free in exchange. Javert will not take part in a bargain to thwart the law. Valjean replys, “You are wrong. You have always been wrong. If I survive tonight, you can pick me up tomorrow at home.”
Tragically, this act of grace is so offensive to Javert and yet so powerful, he can't handle it. His whole life was spent looking down on others and teaching others to look down as well. He could not imagine anything good happening if he humbled himself, stepped back to the gutter, and looked up.
Similarly, every human life pivots at the intersection of Law and Grace; the Cross of Jesus Christ. Don't take offense. Humble yourself and look up.
It has seemed to me that there are two possible reasons a person becomes an atheist. One was that they were uncomfortable with the idea of an authority in their life and choose to deny it exists. That is the psychological source for atheism that I asked you to consider at the end of the last letter.
The other possibility was difficulty reconciling an all-loving and all-powerful God with the evil around us. They say if God were loving and powerful, He would not allow such evil to continue. Philosophers call this issue the Problem of Evil. It is very deep and very wide. I won't wade in here except to say this is only an argument against an all-powerful and all-loving God. In these letters I am merely asking you to consider the possibility of something, not a specific deity. I listed some other possibilities at the beginning of that last letter. So, the Problem of Evil, since it is limited to one specific deity, still allows for some kind of God. Human experience of Love, Beauty, Reason, Justice, Consciousness, etc. all point to something beyond us. Can you admit that there must be something more than matter and energy?
I see now that there is at least a third possible reason people become atheist. This third reason involves confusion about what it means to know something.
Religious people say we know God exists. Even without direct experience, religious people express confidence. “I never spoke with God, nor visited in heaven; yet certain am I of the spot as if the chart were given.” --Emily Dickinson.
Some of us even say that we know God personally, that we've talked to Him, that He has made His presence known to us. Almost always that knowledge, while it might involve some sights or sounds, does not come through our senses but some other way. An atheist would likely respond that we might as well be talking about a six foot tall white rabbit. If they don't see it, it doesn't exist. For many atheists, it seems, there is no other way to know something besides their senses.
Religions are nearly unanimous that God is outside of the physical universe. He transcends what we experience through our senses. Do you see how the decision to limit knowledge to empirical sense data eliminates the possibility of finding God before the search even starts? It is like the man looking for his keys under a street lamp even though he dropped them a block away in a dark alley.
Science shines a very bright light. But consider how the most important things in human experience; things like Love, always resist scientific explanation. Science, when applied to them, reduces them to mere mental states; or practically nothing. Yet, we know that things like Love exist even when we aren't sure exactly what they are.
So, Dear Unbeliever, will you consider the possibility that there might be more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your empirical philosophy?