Two Atheists Help Me Discover Faith
I was killing time between planes when my phone buzzed. My good friend Joe Myers was emailing me, “Jim, there’s this atheist on eBay who is selling his soul, you need to get into this – it’s right up your alley”
Buying a Soul on EBay
I was killing time between planes a little over a year ago when my phone buzzed. My good friend Joe Myers was emailing me, “Jim, there’s this atheist on eBay who is selling his soul, you need to get into this – it’s right up your alley”
A few years before, I’d started paying people to come to church. I was simply not a talented enough of a pastor to get them to come for free. I had read Luke 16 where Jesus encourages us to make friends using unrighteous mammon so I knew I was on solid ground biblically :)
Joe knew I was practiced in the art of paying people to come to church, write a critique and then tell whoever I thought would be interested what I thought the feedback was telling us about ways we could improve church and improve ourselves as followers of Jesus.
Who Cares About Atheists
I don’t like to debate. In fact I think it is a complete waste of time. Consequently it never occurred to me to interact with Atheists since that is all I ever saw them do whenever they and Christians got in the same room. Besides, there are ample books already written on every topic these groups argue about. Any position you want to take has been defended and attacked by some of the smartest people in the world.
I’m not the greatest intellect in the world and Atheists seem- well so brainy that I didn’t want to get into it with them. I was also very discouraged at the meanness Christians seem to exhibit when responding to their Atheistic fellow arguers. I expect Atheists to be mean, to name call and to belittle their ideological opponents but Christians make all this noise about living a transformed life and being morally superior so I was uncomfortable with the hypocrisy they exhibited when they would mimic their opponents emotional behavior.
Bottom line: I had no interest in Atheists or Atheism.
Let’s Go To Church
Joe must have been inspired by God to email me because we (Off The Map) actually ended up winning the bid for the eBay Atheist ,Hemant Mehta . We promptly did what any right thinking Christian would do with a captive Atheist, we sent him to church. Actually we sent him to ten churches and asked him to critique them and write online review. He wrote about it on our blog (the EBay Atheist) and then in his book, I Sold My Soul on EBay.
I also went on to write a book called Jim and Casper Go To Church. I worked with another Atheist, Matt Casper and spent most of last summer reviewing some of America's best known (Saddleback, Willow Creek, Dream Center, Mosaic and The Potters House) and least known (Lawndale, The Bridge, Imago Dei and Jason’s House) churches with him.
Jim and Casper Go to Church not only chronicles our visits but also our relationship. The one recurring question Matt would ask me after visiting these churches (and observing the spectacle we have come to call church) was “Is this what Jesus told you guys to do?” Check it out and see how you would answer that penetrating question.
Here are a few things I learned about faith from my work with my Atheist colleagues
Defend the Space not the Faith
We’ve been taught that we are supposed to be able to defend the faith (the basic doctrines of the Christianity). Most Christians not only do not know basic doctrine well enough to defend it they mostly don’t want to lose their friends.
Casper and I had no interest in arguing, fighting or defending our philosophical positions. We decided that it would be more fun if we dialogued rather than debate. We determined to defend the (relational ) space we found ourselves occupying instead of a faith he didn’t believe in and I wasn’t smart enough to prove was right.
Nothing sets an Atheist off more than hearing a Christian say “I know Jesus is God and that I’m going to heaven when I die”. They wonder how we can say we know something that is scientifically improvable. They wonder how we can be so sure that Jesus is God and not just another prophet. They wonder how we can assert something that cannot be measured. They also notice that we often say it loudly and confidently which often reinforces their negative opinion of our certainty
Having become aware of these critiques I begin to wonder how faith got moved into certainty. When did assurance migrate into certainty? When the bible says “we know” does it really mean we know in the same sense that we know gravity exists or that oxygen exists? If so then why would it also say that we “know in part” and why can the word faith be easily understood as trust, hope or confidence.
Hey, I’m not a theologian so no need to take me on. I’m simply asking some simple questions that not only Atheists ask but many Christians are asking as well (at least in private).
Non Manipulative Intentionality
When Atheists ask me if I want them to follow Jesus I say yes. When they ask me if I am trying to convert them I say no. We all want to people to be more like ourselves. To have our opinions, tastes, preferences and politics. That’s called being alive in a pluralistic society. We can’t help it.
How does a follower of Jesus maintain the desire for everyone to follow him and not control the process. Simple, just follow Jesus example. He left a lot of loose ends not the least of which was the fact that while thousands of people were perishing in Persia he seemed content to remain in Palestine. He even stepped over needy people he (one would imagine) could have healed to get to one somewhat reluctant man who had become accustomed to lying around doing nothing. Jesus left a lot of loose ends and incomplete opportunities. He was not linear. He was an artist who happened to be a scientist.
We call this non manipulative intentionality. We live life intentionally but we do not manipulate, coerce or control the process. This is what I think of when I call myself a follower of Jesus.
Atheists think that what we believe is the equivalent of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. I find this refreshing. Nothing is veiled or hidden. It is easy to understand not only their viewpoint but also how they have arrived at their view.
We have confused the religion known as Christianity with the Jesus movement. We have ended up defending something that is often indefensible. Jesus didn’t tell me to be a Christian – the historic church told me to do that. Jesus told me to follow him (actually over 30 times in the gospels compared with be born again which he said once at night under the cover of darkness).
I am not a Christian I am a follower of Jesus.
To be more precise I am a former Christian who now follows the way of Jesus. I have no need to defend, explain or prove the claims of Christianity. I do have an obligation to be transparent about my followership of Jesus and my belief in him, which I am happy to do. I have found that when I make this distinction Atheists begin to ask more interesting questions. They want to know how I could follow Jesus, what I find attractive about him and why I would dedicate my life to following him.
I owe each of these new insights to my interactions with Atheists. They have helped me grow closer to Jesus and more honest in my faith.