Roger Olson on atheism: begging to differ

I like the work of Roger Olson, a brave evangelical theologian standing up for classical Arminianism against the tide of Calvinism. Yet my experience of atheists is very different to his:

I have certainly not met every atheist, so I can’t universalize or absolutize the following opinion. However, my experience of atheists is that, those I have met and talked to, do not really deny the existence of God (or any god or gods) due to lack of evidence. Underlying and causing their atheism is (I detect) a resistance to moral accountability. They do not want to believe that they are or will be judged because they want to live as they want to live without judgment other than their own.

The atheists I know well do not seem to be resisting moral accountability at all. Instead, it is far more to do with lack of evidence and being very unconvinced by what they see of Christians and the church. I know some people who dearly want to believe in God, but their experience of the world is that God is absent. They say with Julian Barnes, “I don’t believe in God, but I miss him.” I think of a couple of the atheists I know who were brought up evangelical, and live lives in accord with much of the ethical framework of their evangelical upbringing (sex, drugs, forgiveness, love), and strive to be just, generous people.

Olson’s account of atheists is what I was brought up with. My church taught that those who were not believers actually knew the truth of Christianity but didn’t want to turn from sin. I don’t dismiss the idea that sin can blind people to God’s presence and God’s truth. That does follow quite logically from the Christian story. But it’s another thing again to claim that atheism is a willfully chosen rejection of a God who is actually apparent to the atheist. (To put this another way: I think almost anyone who was truly convinced of the extraordinary claims of Christianity, including eternal life, would choose to turn to God.)

Some possible factors leading to the difference between Olson’s and my experience of atheists. First, the strength of Olson’s Arminianism, with its emphasis on free will, could be part of it – to fully embrace Arminianism is probably to look for equality of opportunity for salvation and insist on the universality of God’s offer of grace. I suppose at this point I have some sympathy with a more Calvinist outlook (on this point only) which would place more weight of the hardness of the human heart, even the impossibility or difficulty of recognising God. (Really, I mean that my experience lines up better with the Calvinist account on this point – but also with the atheist claim that for many of them, they are completely unconvinced by theistic claims because of God’s absence.) Second, the Australian context is surely different to the US one. Belief in God is in the air in the US, it’s an assumption. Things are just as likely to be the other way round here in Australia. Maybe atheists really are different over there, or at least there’s less of the ones I meet for Olson to meet.

What do you think? Do atheists usually know God is there but choose to live in rebellion? Or are many of them genuinely unconvinced? Or something else different again?

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An autobiographical reception history of the story of Noah

Nathan-Noah

In the 1980s, Noah was a kids’ story. Here is a photo of me as Noah, age five or so. I loved having a cotton wool beard and my own little ark on a trolley, my brother one of the animals. The story is a Sunday School favourite for its craft possibilities, rather than its theological meaning. I don’t remember feeling any concern for the people who perished in the flood; they were evil – the story explained this.

In the 1990s, Noah became a source of science. The glossy Creation magazine would arrive in the mail, and I would learn about how the global flood explained all sorts of things, from the existence of fossils to the extinction of the dinosaurs (the flood changed the climate, and the dinosaurs couldn’t cope). Significantly, Creation Science Foundation became Answers in Genesis, because it wasn’t just the creation stories which explained science and origins, but the whole of Genesis. (Except that I don’t remember many articles on the significance of the Joseph stories, or other later parts of Genesis. I’m sure this an undertapped part of Genesis when it comes to science.)

In the 2000s, I sat in the Life and Literature of Ancient Israel unit at university, and the Noah story became a touchpoint for source criticism and the claim that the editor of the Pentateuch wove together different traditions in this and other stories. I was confronted with the strange repetitions within the Noah story and the diverging details within it (how many animals? how many days?). I felt stupid for never noticing them before. Quixotically, I fought against source criticism, rallying together every scholarly objection or question mark over the theory. What was I trying to preserve? A particular view of the inspiration of the Bible.

In the 2010s, the Noah story was at the centre of theological problems with the Old Testament. I read Eric Seibert’s Disturbing Divine Behavior and wondered why I’d never been disturbed by the genocide of almost all the human race in the flood. How could it be a kids’ story? How could we not question this depiction of God? Is it consistent with the God we know in Jesus Christ?

And now, in 2014, I’ve just watched Darren Aronofsky’s Noah. It is a strange and fascinating film; its landscape and naive quest structure (and rock people) reminded me of The Never Ending Story more than anything, but it has a dark edge, and owes as much to the old-fashioned biblical epics. Here we are forced to question religious certainty, because Noah truly does some despicable things in his pursuit of what he believes to be his mission from the Creator. We see some of the realities of a global flood which kills thousands; the screams of the dying heard by Noah and his family within the ark are truly harrowing. (The scene felt to me something like what most evangelicals imagine the judgement of non-Christians at the return of Christ, while they are safe in their ‘ark’.) The story takes themes from elsewhere in the Bible – child sacrifice, barrenness, father and son arguments – and thickens the Noah story with them. It gives the Noah story the mythic sense which Genesis demands; this is something like our world, but it is certainly not our world as we know it. The Noah story is strange, and this new film captures some of that strangeness, closer to the origins of the Earth and of us.

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Somewhat Anglican #7: The Passing of the Peace

I have not received official instruction on the ritual of the passing of the peace. It was something I used to look at with a little suspicion – why would you need a ceremonial passing of the peace if everyone was being truly hospitable and living up to their duty to make each other welcome? It seemed artificial. Yet sometimes we need a ceremony to make us do the things which should be habit, and if the only time you look someone in the eyes and shake their hands on a Sunday is when the order of service instructs you to, that is better than not at all, which is, if we’re honest, the default of non-liturgical churches.

My sense is that it matters how you pass the peace. It’s not just a handshake – surely it’s meant to be more of a hand clasp, with a genuine sense that you are imparting the peace of Christ to one another. Surely it is good, too, to look each other in the eyes and to say each other’s names as you wish that peace on them. There should be no whiff of the perfunctory about it. And I like the fact that in my parish, there are few enough parishoners that you can realistically hope to pass the peace to each and every person.

I’m glad we pass the peace in the Anglican Church, even if it’s sort of weird.

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Somewhat Anglican #6: Ash Wednesday

The first time I’ve marked Ash Wednesday has also been my thirty-third birthday, the age at which Jesus died. The coincidence led to incongruities. The season is meant to be one of denial; our impulse is to celebrate birthdays with luxury. I am such a bad Anglican I left the Ash Wednesday service quickly to make it in time for a booking at a restaurant to drink Chianti and eat fine food.

It felt medieval inside St Martin’s in the March evening heat, the sparse lighting illuminating the altar and leaving the congregation in dimness. The colours had changed to purple. The priest mixed the ashes of last year’s palm crosses with healing oil and smudged it in a cross on our foreheads. In the sermon she asked us to discern what it was we were holding onto which was not life-giving.

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Somewhat Anglican #5: The church year as antidote to Easter eggs in January

eastereggs

Each year, understandably, my Facebook feed lights up with Christians bugged by Easter eggs in January and Christmas trees in October. Living in Australia in the 21st century, our calendar is shaped by commerce and patriotism. Two central Christian seasons, Easter and Christmas, are co-opted by shops as seasons of consumption, with their own products and sales traditions. There are others with some religious connection too – Valentine’s Day and Halloween. To these are added the patriotic celebrations – Australia Day and Anzac Day. There are special ways to consume for these events too, particularly Australia Day, as well as the media solemnising the occasions with wraparound souvenir editions or special reports. We know what season we’re in because of what display Coles has and what ads are playing on the television.

I contend that the free church traditions are missing out on a powerful alternative to the secular calendar in not properly observing the church (or liturgical) year. Most people in the free churches didn’t mark Epiphany last week, and may not even observe Lent or Advent at all. Being somewhat Anglican now, I know what season it is because we celebrate a different phase of Christ’s life with many other churches around the world. The shifts are marked by  distinctive colours in the church and a change in liturgy. I have an antidote to the secular calendar because church is shaping my sense of the year unfolding. It is, week to week, centred on Christ and helps me to live my life with a grounding in Christ’s life.

It needs to be done together like this, the whole church following roughly the same calendar (even if it has to be modified according to denominational differences), because when each church is left to set its own calendar, there is not a strong sense of an alternative to secular time. There’s just an individual church decreeing that January will be the month we do a series on King David and February the month we look at relationships. I call on free churches to give up some of their independence for the sake of the wider church and adopt more fully the church year.

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Atheist churches – rebirth of 19th century secular societies?

The Sunday Assembly, ‘godless congregations’, have been in the news a lot recently. (CNN Belief Blog has just reported on a schism within the movement.) But I wonder if they’re actually a rebirth of the nineteenth century phenomenon of secular societies (which probably never really went away)? I was just reading Timothy Larsen’s Crisis of Doubt, about nineteenth century secularists and atheists who reconverted to Christianity, contrary to the accepted mythology around the ‘crisis of faith’ in the Victorian era. Many of the capsule biographies he provides feature men who became practically preachers for secular societies, giving regular addresses to their meetings, with ‘outreach’ type rallies at other points. It’s an interesting historical phenomenon; I’d like to see the parallels and divergences considered.

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On Becoming Somewhat Anglican #4: Attending the Church of St Martin, a Soldier For Christ

st-martin-tours

A sign at the front of my parish church, St Martin in the Fields, records that the building was erected in memory of the sons and daughters of the suburb of Kensington who served and died in war. Today was the celebration of its sixtieth anniversary; the memory of the dead would still have been fresh in 1953. There are other connections to the military. We prayed today for chaplains serving the defence force. On the wall is an honour roll of the dead. We also hold a special ANZAC service each year.

I am a pacifist, and believe non-violence is a central part of the ethics of the kingdom. But the Anglican Church is never going to be a pacifist denomination, or even have a general tendency in that direction. It still holds the vestiges of its status as the state church, serving as a place for communities to mourn dead soldiers and make spiritual sense of war. I have sympathy for that; the juggernaut of war crushes ordinary people and leaves survivors needing to make sense of it. Yet, naturally, it is a point of great tension for me.

Imagine my joy, then, of learning that I attend a church named for a conscientious objector. Martin of Tours is a wonderful saint for Anglicans – a soldier wrestling with his conscience. In a wonderful irony, he was born in 317, during the reign of Constantine, a period which can be seen as the turning point toward a militarized church. He was a Roman soldier who eventually decided his faith in Christ prevented him from fighting. Jailed as a conscientious objector, he offered to go before the enemy army unarmed. In some versions of the story, the enemy army fled; in others, the battle didn’t happen as peace was negotiated first.

This would be an interesting point at which to probe our saint’s example. Are we called, too, as Christ’s saints to lay down the sword, and refuse to kill our enemies? The temptation is to see Martin of Tour’s actions as the extreme, somewhat legendary, and completely unrealistic actions of a saint called to perfection, while the rest of us have to live in the real world. Yet the message of saints is surely meant to be that one does not have to be Jesus Christ to attempt to live a holy life, and that real men and women who follow Jesus can do it also.

Perhaps Martin of Tours was chosen as the name of the parish because he is the patron saint of soldiers and it seemed appropriate for a memorial church. It seems a historical irony, or perhaps a holy paradox that he would be designated thus. Built into the designation is the call to each soldier who calls on him to wrestle with their conscience as he did and decide what it means to be a “soldier of Christ”.

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