A discussion with the Jedi Pastor

I've got a soft spot for Methodists. I first came from a Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) background and we always found it easy to work together with Methodists. Our youth groups played together, our churches worked on common goals. When one of us walked into the other's church, we found it familiar and safe. (Not at all like that time the local Baptist church tried to baptize me all over again so I'd finally be a "real" Christian!)

So I want my readers to give a warm welcome to pastor Ken Hagler, of the Crossroads United Methodist Church of Marietta Georgia. Pastor Ken, who is also known as the Jedi Pastor, has been gracious and friendly in stopping by my blog to trade notes with me. We find we have things in common - the biggest of which is that we are both trying to grow new organizations.

Ken has several scattered comments throughout my blog, and I have commented in his blog. I thought it might be useful to bring much of that discussion to it's own post, where we can continue in a more orderly fashion.

Ken, in an earlier comment we say,
Me: No matter what path a new Christian takes, at least he's a Christian - right?

You: Yeah, I suppose you've got me on that one, to a point. Yet, John Wesley did an entire sermon and theme of the "Almost Christian." The idea being you're walking around with all the trappings but look at the heart. Do you really love God? Really? Then let me ask, do you love your neighbor and how about your enemy? Really? So, are you going out of your way to do anything about that?
I have to wonder about this sort of Christian position. It sort of borders on the all too common finger pointing where one Christian accuses another of not being a "true" Christian, which is often a logical fallacy.

I would think that the majority of main stream Christians would not want to claim Fred Phelps as their brother in Christ. But how many would claim James Dobson as a fellow Christian? Or Donald Wildmon, or Tony Perkins or David Barton? These people have wide support, not just among fundamentalist evangelicals, but among mainstream Christians too. But I and many others have noted where these people are acting in unethical and hypocritical ways.

But what if you're a Christian who doesn't agree with these people?

I don't claim that some atheists are not "True Atheists". I've written a two part post where I agree that atheists-turned-Christian were probably at one time atheist. (I do, however, question their understanding of secular philosophies and ethics.)

But when I point out the latest hateful act by a Christian leader, I very often get a response from a Christian where he or she says, "Oh, well I don't have that person's beliefs. I think he's wrong."

Worst of all is the response of, "Well, he's obviously not a Christian or else he wouldn't be acting that way."

Which leads to the obvious question. If you don't agree with one of these Chrstian leaders, have you let anyone know? I ask this because silence implies agreement.

When Tony Perkins uses his position to agree with California pastor Jim Garlow that same-sex marriage will inevitably lead to a loss of religious liberty (and eventually lead to the jailing of pastors), I see very few Christians refuting that silly argument. So I'm forced to believe that most Christians are in agreement, or at least not opposed, due to their silence.

Do you consider any of these religious leaders to be "almost Chrsitians"? And if so, do you speak against them, or try to teach others why these leaders may not be correct on an issue?

And yes, I know it is impossible to counter every little silly thing that a person might say, and I realize those on "my" side of the fence are just as prone to being idiotic. (Check out Patrick Greene) But I still think it is important to say something - even if you do feel like you're merely tilting at windmills.

Ken, I know that was a hard "poke", but it reveals some of my frustration with the mainstream religious "silent" majority in this country - their silence allows other religious people to speak for them. I think that our comments reveal that you and I are probably fairly close in how we view most things.

From another comment thread:
Me: But from an Atheist's point of view, this has to apply to ALL religions, not just Christianity. I'm an equal opportunity Atheist, I think there is no evidence for ANY religion.

You: I was responding more to this point, which I interpreted you to mean you were throwing all religions together: Theists VS Atheists. IF you and I were going to begin this discussion my first goal couldn't be to convince you of the truth of Christianity. You would have me present a case for God, in other words, to convince you of a theistic world view. At least this is how I understand your reasoning to this point.
Agreed. This is a major flaw in Pascal's Wager, which C.S. Lewis bases part of "Mere Christianity" upon. You can't start from Atheism and deliver me directly to the Trinity of Christianity - you have to travel a path.

This path has to talk about the religious form of the supernatural (and is it different or the same as what I would call the "ghosts and telepathy" form of the supernatural? Why or why not?) The path has to convince me that Christianity is superior to any other religion. It should answer those people who are also trying to convince me that "any path is good" - for example Universalism which is as happy with me being Islamic as they are with me being Christian.

This path should convince me that Jesus is something more than just a myth or historical figure turned mythic. And if you bring the Bible into your argument, you have an additional path to travel, namely convincing me that the Bible is anything more than a collection of stories. You'll be asked to clarify the contradictions in the Bible, and explain why God in the Bible seems so bipolar between the Old and New Testaments.

Worst of all, you'll have to do this not just for me, but for those people that I will go to ask advice of. I draw upon a large community of ex-Christians, some who have been former evangelical ministers, who know this material as well as you do. But being fair, I expect you to also draw on your own Christian community. However, that might work against you because I note that different Christians have interpreted the Bible to mean different things, some of which are contradictory!

And ultimately, while I think such a discussion will be interesting, I think that the psychology of belief (I've been reading about this lately) would seem to indicate that neither of us will be persuaded. The most either of us could hope for is to "plant a seed of doubt" in the other.

To continue this comment, you say:
I had not thought of expanding the sphere of scientific evidence. But if we did as you suggest, namely exploring options, doesn't that equate to one of the atheist arguments against denominations and sects? If we grant to you the opportunity to explore scientific answers, can we not receive the same opportunity to explore the spiritual without being plastered for it?
There is an Atheist argument against the different "flavors of Christianity" as I put it. If I'm asked to be Christian, and I say, "Sure! I'll become a Mormon!" I might get a horrified reaction. The same might be true if I select "Catholic" or even "Baptist" - it all depends on the faith of the person trying to convert me.

I don't think analogous to theories in science. First of all, I would argue that "scientific evidence" suggests a misnomer. I would narrowly define that there is a Scientific Method, and those who follow this method are scientists who are practicing science. I would define science to mean that effort to increase human understanding and knowledge of our physical world.

To me, the term "scientific evidence" is analogous to the term "alternative medicine". Evidence is either well supported, or it isn't evidence. The scientific method indicates methods of finding well-supported evidence, and I suppose in that way you could call it "scientific evidence" - but I believe most scientists would just call it "good evidence".

Another definition that I have a problems with is that of the word, "spiritual". When people say "spiritual" they often load the word with a lot of new-age-y concepts that deal with things beyond the material universe. Some people use it as a sort of "dodge" to allow themselves to identify themselves as "religious" without the necessity of conforming to all the rules of a religion.

I use the word spiritual to indicate the human condition, for example how humankind is able to share their pride in accomplishment, how we are able to share our sense of wonder.

I personally have not found evidence that there is anything beyond the material universe, so I don't use the word "spiritual" in that fashion.

Now that I've picked those nits... lets get down to the question. What I think you are asking is if I can pick on the different "flavors" of religion, then don't you get to pick on the different "flavors" of Atheism? Or of Science?

But atheism isn't science, although atheists may (and often do) point out that science findings don't support a supernatural world-view. Maybe an experiment tomorrow will prove the supernatural, but until then I'm satisfied to wait for evidence.

There is often an objection to science "not knowing anything (or everything)" because of the small sliver we see in the daily headlines. For example, according to the headlines scientists say coffee is good / bad for you and causes miscarriage / increased mental abilities / cancer / longer life. What are we to believe?

There are two difficulties with science. The first difficulty is that the game of science is played among humans. And humans can be petty and illogical. But when they follow the scientific method and follow the rules of the game the science becomes self-correcting. Sometimes it takes decades, and sometimes newer ideas have to wait until the petty supporters of an older and not quite as correct idea die off.

Even Einstein made this sort of mistake. His support of determinism in physics led to his famous quote, "God does not play dice with the universe." Quantum mechanics proved him wrong. As Stephen Hawking has said, "God not only plays dice, but sometimes throws them where they cannot be seen."

What this means is that even the "holiest" and most respected scientist can be proven wrong. Scientists love proving each other wrong because it leads to prestige. (And grant money!)

The second difficulty is that non-scientists don't understand that scientific theories are based on successive approximation. The first iteration of a theory, like Newtonian mechanics, is often "good enough" to get the job done. We went to the moon using Newtonian mechanics. Later iterations happen when the theory is refined, like using Einstein's general and special relativity to explain why the orbit of Mercury doesn't fit Newtonian mechanics. Einstein's theories didn't replace Newton's work, instead they clarified it further.

This is true in the field of evolution. Darwin's original theory is still being refined. Although I'm not a biologist, it is my understanding that some of his ideas were somewhat wrong and have since been corrected. And there is a whole host of things that Darwin never thought of, that have since been added.

But when two scientists argue passionately about their theories on evolution, a religious bystander is apt to crow that "Darwinism is in doubt!" I find it amusing that religious people did not point at the arguments between Einstein and Bohr as evidence that "Newtonian physics is in doubt!" This leads to the joke about the Evangelical position on "Intelligent Falling".

You are welcome to attack any scientific theory you wish. Scientists do it all the time. If you're successful, you could actually be awarded for doing so. But realize that science and atheism are not the same thing.

Now, if you wish to discuss secular philosophies and secular based ethics, I could recommend several - such as Secular Humanism or Positive Atheism or even The Brights.

One last bit from your comment:
Me: Science goes where religion fears to tread. And it's a darned good thing too!

You: I'm sorry but again, I can't go here with you. I have friends in the clergy ranks who are microbiologists and who have excelled in science and published excellent articles in defense of the scientific method (and even evolution!) Granted, it isn't my cup of tea (I have a broadcasting background), these clergy and I are United Methodist. We have a different code..."more like guidelines," to coin a phrase.
No, I think I still have the right of it here. From my point of view, you have described friends who are able to effectively operate under a dichotomy. In the lab, they are able to postulate and investigate a strictly material world, and do so successfully from the evidence of your words. But outside of the lab they are able to postulate a supernatural world that includes a divine creator.

They are not directed by religion to learn how all of (ahem) "creation" works. In fact, some flavors of Christianity explicitly reject certain avenues of study. For example, talking about the possible evolutionary and genetic components of homosexuality gets some Christians very upset.

But you're Methodist, and you have a "different code". In other words, you belong to a flavor of Christianity that allows more freedom of inquiry than others. From my point of view, your scientific friends are able to be scientists in spite of their religion, not because of it. I'm pretty familiar with the contents of the Bible, and I don't recall this sort of inquiry to be encouraged anywhere.

And I have to wonder - what if you successfully converted me to Christianity, but instead of choosing to be a Methodist, I instead became one of those flavors of fundamentalist who condemn your scientific friends for their hubris in "playing God"? When you finally meet your maker, would that count as a "win" or a "loss"?

Okay, I think I've dragged this on far enough. I have no idea if any of my readers made it this far. (I hope so!) I'll get down off of my soapbox now and let Ken do some poking.

And Ken, I've just realized you're from Georgia, the opposite side of the continent from me! I think I've spent a total of 3 days in Georgia, but I loved every day I was there.

1 comment:

Ken said...

Calladus, I thank you for your graciousness and Photoshop work (though my head is a bit on the tiny side there!) And as of yet, I’ve seen no soapbox and hope that in my response, I don’t pull one out either.

You said: “But realize that science and atheism are not the same thing.”

I think that maybe one of the rubs. While you say they aren’t the same, it certainly seems the two are often equated. Maybe it is a “What came first scenario: chicken or egg,” that began with a Christian or an Atheist connecting it. Maybe it was Scopes. Regardless, the UMC has held the position,

“We recognize science as a legitimate interpretation of God’s natural world. We affirm the validity of the claims of science in describing the natural world, although we preclude science from making authoritative claims about theological issues” (2004 Book of Discipline of the UMC, pg 97, paragraph 160, E).

But as you describe it, it seems to me, reasoned Christianity is already put in a hole precisely by a dichotomy not of our own choosing. On one side, we’re asked for material, demonstratable proof in God’s existence yet on the other side, if the Christian seeks to involve oneself in the scientific, you’ve indicated they have to put their faith to the side. Thank you for making the distinction that it is your point of view for I must disagree:

You said: “From my point of view, your scientific friends are able to be scientists in spite of their religion, not because of it. I'm pretty familiar with the contents of the Bible, and I don't recall this sort of inquiry to be encouraged anywhere.”

In addressing this, John Wesley, in his sermon, “The Case of Reason impartially Considered,” turned to these words from Paul:

“Brethren, do not be children in your thinking; yet in evil be infants, but in your thinking be mature. (1 Corinthians 14:20 NASB)”

In short, Wesley then rights in his Notes on the New Testament:

“Knowing religion was not designed to destroy any of our natural faculties, but to exalt and improve them, our reason in particular.”

I would argue, at least, that logical reasoning and philosophical questioning was part of Biblical record. Ecclesiastes comes to mind as well as Jesus’ reasoning with religious leaders, and the records in Acts of Stephen, Peter and Paul. I think the historical record shows this continuing in the Early Church Fathers too. And, as I read history, the Church often viewed scientific research favorably, that is until it began to question dogma, mythology and superstition.

But as we’ve determined, we Methodists are a different flavor, in part, I believe because of our focus on reason. Our discussion has lead me to the Works of Wesley, which are often cast aside even by UMC clergy, I must confess. Yet it is in his “Address to the Clergy” (Vol. 10, pg 492) that John Wesley writes:

“Rather, have not my stupid indolence and laziness made me very ready to believe, what the little wits and pretty gentlemen affirm, “that logic is good for nothing?” It is good for this at least, to make people talk less; by showing them both what is, and what is not, to the point…Have I mastered Gravesande, Keill, Sir Isaac Newton’s Principia, with his ‘Theory of Light and Colours?”
And it is in this address to clergy that leads me back to your first challenge. I think it is the most personal and maybe most important…

You said: “So I'm forced to believe that most Christians are in agreement, or at least not opposed, due to their silence.
Do you consider any of these religious leaders to be "almost Chrsitians"? And if so, do you speak against them, or try to teach others why these leaders may not be correct on an issue?”

Do I think they are “almost Christians?” I’d have to be in closer contact to determine though I’m honestly not holding my breath that such a conversation would be pleasant. As I’ve seen already, many “Christians” who have posted on atheist and skeptic sites tend to be most “unChristian.”

But to answer your point more directly, no, I’ve not spoken against them. Indirectly, certainly. I confess, I am wrestling with where I as a Christian and pastor do speak to such issues. I think that there is a similar thing occurring in the Church and with other clergy too. I certainly don’t sit around waiting for Bono to speak but I think he echoes what many of us feel (more so than Kirk Cameron I think). I feel compelled to stand in solidarity with Jim Wallis at Sojourners over any of the people you named (other than Dobson, I’m clueless – I can probably throw some from here that could be interchangeable).

You said: And I have to wonder - what if you successfully converted me to Christianity, but instead of choosing to be a Methodist, I instead became one of those flavors of fundamentalist who condemn your scientific friends for their hubris in "playing God"? When you finally meet your maker, would that count as a "win" or a "loss"?

I’m feeling a bit redundant but I would hope I could be as gracious as John Wesley. Though Wesley had parted ways with George Whitefield (one of the Holy Club) regarding theological differences, he still could speak eloquently and gracefully and truthfully regarding their friendship at Whitefield’s funeral.

Like Calladus, I don’t know who might have made it this far in our conversation but blessings to you!

Thanks for the Georgia comments too. Heather and I have now been here 10 years, which is longer than any other place we’ve lived. I’ve made my way out west a few times, hopefully we’ll make our way out there again.