It takes all kinds to make the world go around. Roger Olson once said, “If strong, five-point Calvinism is true, then God is monstrous and barely distinguishable from the devil.” As an Arminian, he is highly critical of the Calvinist understanding of God. On the other end, R. C. Sproul asserted that “If God is not sovereign, God is not God.” When asked if Arminians are saved, he said, “Yes, but by a happy inconsistency.” As a Reformed Calvinist theologian, he’s dubious of the Arminian understanding of God or any other understanding of God that allows for free will. Leighton Flowers has proposed a system he calls “Provisionism,” which allows for free will but is distinct from Arminianism. Among the Roman Catholics, Baptism and Eucharist are normally required for salvation. (Though they acknowledge that God has the power to do so without them and may do so.) An Evangelical approach to salvation denies that they are necessary at all. Most of the proofs of God that float around are actually definitions in the form of an analytic judgment, and they are subtly different from each other in important ways. For example, the Cosmological Argument defines God as the unmoved first mover. The Teleological Argument defines God as the designer of the cosmos. (Or at least our little corner of it.) While it is possible that these two things are the same, it is also possible that they are not. The unmoved first mover could have been the Big Bang, and the designer might have come in later. Then in the Bible, God is defined often as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. While the author of Genesis obviously connects this to the God of the Teleological Argument, it’s not at all clear that Abraham did. It seems likely that Abraham thought of his god as one in the Canaanite Pantheon. Perhaps the highest in the Canaanite Pantheon. It’s entirely possible that if you could get in your time machine and go back to have a conversation with Abraham, he would give you a genealogy of El Shaddai including both children and parents that was far more similar to the Greek Pantheon than the Uncaused First Cause. It’s also possible that many other Canaanites worshiped El Shaddai under that name, but in a way that was displeasing to God. After all, it seems that Abraham expected that a sacrifice of his first child was expected, and it was revealed later that God hates these child sacrifices. Others take the personal route straight to the person himself, and simply say that Jesus is God, whatever that means. Trinitarian consensus is not an inoculation against this, though. The Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox have divided for centuries over the question of whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father only, or from the Father and the Son. The Nicene-Constantinoplean Creed, definitions of Ephesus, and Definition of Chalcedon tell us that whatever God the Father is, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit are as well, but they don’t actually tell us what that is. Even the term “creator of Heaven and Earth” might mean teleologically, materially, or something else entirely. It certainly doesn’t address the question of whether God is the kind of being that determines everything unilaterally or the kind of being that allows free creatures to make decisions for themselves. There is a quote that gets floated around that’s been attributed to various authors: “In essentials, unity. In non essentials, liberty. In all things, charity.” But shouldn’t the fundamental nature of God be an essential? If that’s the case, shouldn’t it be spelled out in the Bible and/or agreed upon by a variety of churches?
Of course, I have my own thoughts on each of these. But I’m going to let you in on a secret: I could be wrong. I’ve actually been wrong before. (That was the worst afternoon ever, but I corrected myself. That is why I work so hard to make sure it happens rarely.) I approach my understanding of God through the moral argument. I believe that Love is the principle that defines morality, and that God as described in the Bible is Love, and that the God who is Love entered into history as a person, was crucified and killed, and then got back up. I believe that Love is self-sacrifice for the benefit of the other. I believe that for Love to be real, there has to actually be another to sacrifice for. I believe that giving up control is part of Love. Naturally, this leads me into being more on the libertarian, protestant, memorial views on free will, church structure, and the sacraments. But I could be wrong.
Even though it’s been about five hundred years since the Protestant Reformation, the Lutheran, Reformed, and Roman Catholic churches remain separate. The leadership of each assert that the things which keep them from folding into the others are essentials, worth separating for. Each of them experience members of their church who were raised from childhood, begin testing the counter-claims of another rival church as an adult, and then convert when they learn that the counter-claims are not as easily dismissed as they were raised to believe. Over and over. Generation upon generation. And so often, when someone converts to their new church, they dive in fully embracing their new faith and condemning their old faith, with every nuance of their childhood faith discarded and forgotten. There are exceptions to this pattern, to be sure, but they are the exception and not the rule.
Within each of these groups, there are apologists. Apologists argue by offering reasons to doubt the varsity of the counter-claims to their faith. If someone were to break away from the church they were raised in saying that the church of their youth had drifted too far from the Bible by allowing women to attend church with their heads uncovered, the church of their youth would immediately raise apologists to explain why that’s legalistic. A generation later, the one leaving this head-covering church would spark the appointment of apologists explaining why it is unscriptural to have women attend church with their heads uncovered.
One of the problems that I have with the way we do theology right now is that we talk like it’s objective, but we treat it as if it’s subjective. From where I sit it looks like we have exactly the opposite problem in mathematics: the professionals often talk like math is subjective, and yet when they apply it they treat it as objective. If fictionalism or nominalism is true, then Pi isn’t a concept that corresponds to objective reality. Vanishingly few mathematicians or engineers actually treat Pi as though it isn’t a concept that corresponds to objective reality.
Quite the opposite thing happens in theology. Enough though some Calvinists could never sit under a Provisionist or Arminian pastor, they’ll call those who do separated brothers in Christ. There’s definitely a sense in which I agree: they are separated and they seem to be brothers in Christ. But that does raise an interesting question: how can they be brothers in Christ if they have different fundamental mental images of what the word ‘God’ connects to?
Things get really sticky when we try to define “brothers in Christ” as well. We might suggest that just believing in Jesus crucified makes two people brothers in Christ. What about the Mormons, then? They believe that Christ was a Jew living in the first century, crucified under Pontius Pilate, dead for three days, and then seen alive by his followers. They also think that God the Father was a physical person with flesh and bones that populated this planet with a wife and that we will get to do the same on another planet somewhere else when we die. Let’s leave the Mormons out of it, the first centuries of the church had gnostics coming up with mythologies that leave me wishing for the good ol’ days when all I had to try to reconcile was God being a physical being. Or on the other end, how about Jehovah’s Witnesses? They’re not Trinitarian, so does failing to recognize that Christ is God disqualify them from brotherhood? If so, some of our early church fathers weren’t our brothers. What about someone that thinks the Apostles saw a hallucination? Can they be a brother in Christ? Can an open theist? What about someone that has been hurt by their church of origin and is no longer willing to darken the door of a church, but maintains a very orthodox belief about Christ, God, and sacraments?
One of the problems I’ve found, living in the Western World, is that many people who identify as atheists really just mean that they’re skeptical of all the church government systems they’ve seen. Most of the atheists I’ve seen don’t actually have a well developed argument regarding God or gods, but they sure do have a particular set of reasons why they’re skeptical of the churches they’ve seen. I’m kinda not far behind them. That’s one of the reasons why I’ve always identified as non-denominational, even when I’m enrolled with a local church of a particular denomination. I’ve never been in a church where I’m not at least a little skeptical of the governance of the church. Even when I’m participating in that governance. Even (perhaps even especially) if I were given absolute authority over a church, I would still be suspicious of the guy in charge. When someone is identified as a Catholic apologist or a Reformed apologist, from the outside it very often looks like their goal is to join a person with a particular church structure above another. Internally, that doesn’t ever seem to be the goal when you get to know them, and yet there’s always that nagging question, “What would they be doing differently if that were their goal?” And too often the answer is, “Nothing: this is exactly the same behavior we would expect from someone trying to join as many people as possible to the particular church structure they are an apologist for.”
There are ecumenical apologists. One of the reasons that I wish I were a YouTuber instead of a blogger is that the culture of Christianity on YouTube is far more ecumenical than in the blogosphere. The one thing that I don’t like about the culture on YouTube is the tendency towards identifying as apologists rather than theologians. Be that as it may, even the vast majority of ecumenical apologists on YouTube or out in the world would like to see their targets ultimately join up with a church structure. Here they’re upfront about it, though. They will say up front that goal one is to get people to believe in God, goal two is to get them in a church.
I don’t particularly care if someone joins a church structure. I mean, there’s the social benefits and I think believers should be getting together with other believers to make sure they’re not going off the rails and other things like that. I think that joining with a church structure is probably the best thing for the vast majority of us. One way or another, we should make a point of celebrating the Eucharist/communion with other believers as often as is practical and prudent in a way that we are sharing in each other’s life, struggles, success, and prayer. This should include studying God together. One way or another, some kind of hierarchy is going to develop when we do that. Who knows, maybe along the way someone will actually find the one that’s doing it the objectively right way. Or maybe they’ll think they did, but they’ll be objectively wrong. But since I don’t think I’ve found the objectively right way to do that, and I’m even skeptical of the idea that there is an objectively right way to do it, I put joining someone to a group rather down towards the bottom of my priority list. After all, I don’t want to be guilty of the same crime Jesus condemned.
Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves. Woe unto you, ye blind guides, which say, Whosoever shall swear by the temple, it is nothing; but whosoever shall swear by the gold of the temple, he is a debtor!
Matthew 23:15-16 (KJV)
Most of my content isn’t aimed outside the Church. My thoughts aren’t for unbelievers, as a rule. Periodically, I’ll encounter an argument for a particular atheist position that I find frustrating enough to write on, but generally I start from a place of belief. I think that Matthew was originally inspired and then preserved in Hebrew. If someone starts from a place of saying, “I don’t believe in inspiration,” they’re joining that conversation at a different level than I am. I can defend my understanding and belief in inspiration, but that’s a different conversation at a different level, and frankly my notes on each are extensive enough that I can’t keep them both going in my head at all times. I need to pick one at a time for months or years at a time to go deep on. If I’m actually responding to an atheist position, I consider it low hanging fruit.
More often, I’m responding to the apologetic response to that position. Apologetic answers tend to fall into two categories: either they’re very specific to a particular view of God, or they’re so general as to accommodate any theory of God. There’s benefit to both, if the goal is to get someone connected to a church. However, if a deep, personal connection to God is the goal, shouldn’t you have a sense of what you intend to worship?
I’m more than happy to have a conversation with someone about particular points I agree or disagree with in any particular denomination. But one of the things I find fascinating about modern denominational Christianity is that no matter what your particular complaint about a particular church might be, there’s another church out there somewhere that doesn’t have that thing. Pick a point. Was the church you grew up in too soft on homosexuality? There are churches like Westboro Baptist that have made a brand out of how hard they are on homosexuality. Have you become convinced that marriage should not be restricted to heterosexual couples? The Reconciling Ministries Network has been helping homosexual people find churches that welcome them since the 1980’s. Did you read those Kosher laws in Leviticus and fall in love? There are churches in the Hebrew Roots Movement that will help you with that and teach you when the scriptural holidays are and how to keep them correctly. Think we’ve gone overboard with this holiday thing and that we shouldn’t celebrate quite so much? Jehovah’s Witnesses are out there just waiting for you to join in. Is it painfully obvious to you that God appears in three modes? Oneness Pentecostalism is happy to welcome you. Are you pretty sure that the authors of the first ecumenical councils were speaking God’s truth when they defined the Trinity and church structure? The Orthodox Church of America has been waiting for your call. And so on and so on.
The thing is, I have disagreements with all of these groups. Not always what I’ve listed here, but even some of them listed here. Whether I agree or disagree with a point, I would love to discuss the merits and demerits of all the different ways to look at each of them. But if someone tells me that their problem with Christ is the view of homosexuality that they grew up with (whether too accepting or too harsh) or the view of Kosher they were brought up with (whether too lenient or to strict) or the view of holidays they were brought up with (whether too much or too little celebrating) or the view of theology they were brought up in (whether too simple or too complex) then all they’ve really told me is that they’re not even trying to understand. And there’s a degree to which that’s fine – if they’re willing to admit that this isn’t something they look into and get to know on a deep level.
We all have our interests, and I’m more than happy to sit quietly and patiently and listen to those who speak about their interests in great detail. If I’ve heard something that contradicts what they’re saying among my friends or on the news, I’ll ask them, and then whatever they say I’ll defer to them as the better read and researched on that subject. But mine happens to be theology. If you don’t put twenty hours a week into your bible study, theological study, don’t listen to lectures at universities and read textbooks that define the difference between a monarchical and Arian views of divinity, I’ll be able to tell rather quickly. If you have honest questions, I can answer them or point you to resources. But if you’re a train enthusiast or a politics enthusiast or a science enthusiast that is out to tell me why I’m wrong about an opinion in theology, I’ll meet you where you’re at and tell you why you’re wrong about trains or politics or science in the silliest way possible just to show you how you sound to me. I’m not here to tell you what your interests need to be. I’m not here to tell you about the things you are interested in. (Unless they happen to be theology related.) And I’m not here to show you that I’m right about theology. I’m here to have the conversation and learn.
Very few people that look into the questions of theology at that level are still atheists. I have enjoyed conversations with a few friends that do take it to that level and remained atheists, but they’re very few and very far between. So few and so far between that I’ve never had a point in my life when there were two of them at the same time. One atheist friend helped me to clarify what it was about the canonization process that I agree with. Another helped me to sharpen the way I think about the resurrection. At one point I took a very shotgun approach to proofs for God, and it was an atheist that helped me to see that not every proof of God is proving the same thing and that I should focus on the proof of the God I want to worship. By the time I had fully digested that and settled on The Moral Argument, he had moved away and was no longer a part of my life. Some of these people softened to Christianity while speaking to me and some did not. None of them joined a church. All of them had been hurt by church structures in some particular way.
Later in life, I had a conversation with someone who had been hurt by her church when their family was encouraged to break ties after a sin was discovered. She had no desire to let go of the sin. I was able to help her look up a church that didn’t have problems with that sin. They accepted her and welcomed her and embraced her. They made space in their church for her. Her natural leadership skills were put to use. Although we lost contact about a year later, she was already taking leadership classes and pursuing the possibility of ordination within that body.
I still think the thing she did was a sin. I still think that the better course would have been repentance. But that wasn’t on the table for her. There happened to be a church which celebrated her position, whether I agreed or disagreed. What do I do then? Conversations about the sin were painful for her. I could be wrong, and the small church that celebrates her position could be right. But she’s not moved by the conversation as to whether the cosmological or teleological approach to God is more accurate. She isn’t really a theologian. She’s an ethicist, interested in studying ethics, and is very strongly convinced that her position on one issue is right, even if it’s a minority position. And am I any different with Hebrew Matthew? And strictly speaking, I’m not an ethicist. I mean, my brand of theology and the study of ethics obviously touch and at some point I hope to put together my moral argument in a more complete system. That means that I need to have a basic concept of how deontological, consequentialist, and virtue morality relate to each other. Knowing one or two of the most prominent schools of each will probably be a good idea. But if two well studied people are arguing about merits and demerits of utilitarianism against aristotelian ethics, I’m grabbing the popcorn and watching so I can learn, not joining in to teach.
In the end, we have not found a way to objectively test ethics. As long as the thing that is keeping people out of the church is primarily concerns over ethics, I’m not going to be the one to solve the problem. The best I can do is point them to a church that already agrees with them. But that’s not what an apologist does. An apologist is there to change their minds, and that’s not what I’m there for. And that’s why I’m an amateur theologian and not an amateur apologist.