August 9, 2008

Another watershed issue that marked the final milestone for my Christian faith can be encapsulated in a statement you’ll find amazingly simple: What’s true is larger than what’s Christian.

As I timidly told my Christian friends about my new admission, the invariable response I got was, “Well of course.” I don’t know anyone who disagrees with this. Christian doctrine wasn’t meant to describe everything that mankind could know. Saint Augustine once said, “All truth is God’s truth.” But that seems more like planting an American flag on the moon. The US Government doesn’t own the solar system because Neil Armstrong brought a banner.

The problem comes for the Christian faith when you start considering where the boundaries of truth might lie and why we draw those lines where we do. Let’s start with just one example of what else might be within those bounds.

“Muslims are a problem,” I told my pastor-friend over a back-yard beer one evening. “They worship the God of Abraham and claim to have genuine religious experience, just like Christians do.”

“Yes…” He is a good and sympathetic friend.

“But almost no one wants to say that Christianity is the same religion as Islam. This leaves three possibilities as I see it: Either one of them is true, both of them are true, or neither of them is true.”

“Jesus makes some pretty exclusive claims to truth,” my friend reminds me. “‘No one comes to the Father but through me.’ That probably rules out orthodox Christians believing that both are true.”

“Good point.”

“The same is probably true for Muslims, but I know less about their doctrine.”

We both sip our beers and I start back in, “So if only one of them is true, we have a big problem in determining who’s religious experience is valid and who’s isn’t. Here again, we have three possibilities. Claims to genuine religious experience like answered prayer or healing could be either 1.) real encounters with the God, 2.) self-deception, 3.) deception by a third party like the devil.”

“That’s probably what I would say of Islam,” said the pastor, “that Mohammed was deceived by a demonic spirit. So even if he did believe he was hearing from ‘the God of Abraham,’ the fruits of his teaching demonstrate that the source must have been an evil spirit or the Devil twisting the original word of God that Abraham received.”

“Right!” I start to get a bit more excited. “But therein lies the problem. You have just as much reason to say that about Islam as Muslims have to say about Christianity—and that goes for all three of those options. Everyone loves to trumpet the Crusades or bombing abortion clinics as perfect examples of evils that result from Christian teachings. So a Muslim could look at Christianity and cite those things as proof that the Christian teachings are influenced by whatever the Muslim equivalent of the Devil is.”

“Except that Muslim doctrine supports violently attacking people who hold a different ideology.” He’s a sharp guy.

“But regardless of which doctrines one chooses to highlight, each practitioner, whether Christian, Muslim, Hindu or something else, has equal justification for applying the ‘demonic’ label to the other religion. The same is true for self-deception. I know you’ve said that you are a Christian because you have a real relationship with the person of Jesus.”


“But what would you say about a person who claims to have a real relationship with Allah?”

“If not that some demonic power was involved, I probably would say that they had convinced themself of it and now have something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

“Exactly!” I rounded the last bend, “And they could say the same of you. So in the end, you each have the same justification for claiming that your experience is a real experience of God, or lack thereof. And this brings us back to the first issue: if neither side has exclusive claim to their religion being true, and each claim both religions can’t be true, the only option we are left with is that neither are true.”

Neither of us liked this conclusion. We each sat back in our chairs and took long sips of our beer. I finished mine and set it down on the picnic table as I started in one last time. “But there is another option we didn’t consider: Maybe both of them are partially true. And the parts of truth which each highlight cover different a part of the greater tapestry of truth. It’s like the back yard here is truth, the neighbors property line marking the limits of what’s true.

“Let’s say Christianity occupies the space of the cement patio we’re on,” I continue, “and Islam marks the area where your daughter’s blow-up swimming pool is. They might overlap just a little bit, but each area covers different ground in the back yard. They both reach just beyond the back yard, or outside of what’s true, but for the most part they’re each in different parts of the back yard. Neither is the whole story, and neither are entirely in the yard. But with each taken alone, we don’t cover as much ground.

“Are you saying the exclusive claims are what’s beyond the back yard boundaries?” the pastor asked. “Do you mean that if religions weren’t exclusive, they would both really be true?”

“This will probably be a conversation for another night, but what I mean is that spending our time drawing boundaries around the patio or the pool is missing the point. We have a whole yard to enjoy. I’m going for a swim.”



August 6, 2008

There was no one thing that finally brought my Christian faith to an end—it was a long and slow progression. But if there was one watershed issue, it was that of the inspiration of the Bible. Let me give you some background.

I was a leader at a large church that many people had identified as “emergent” (even though the theology was quite conservative). As a leader in this church, I had started and run many different ministries. I was working on a new ministry which was going to revolutionize the way our church (and hopefully many other churches) did evangelism. We called it being “missional,” a term ripped off from Mark Driscoll, the “cussing pastor” of Don Miller’s Blue Like Jazz. I never did like that word, “missional,” but it was better than “evangelism.” So in order to train Christians how to be “missional,” I opted for a distributed approach of retraining through small groups. I would train the leaders who would then train other leaders who would eventually help retrain everyone in the church and beyond.

The idea was that Christian practice tends to undermine the very thing it means to accomplish, especially with evangelism. I’ll explain: Christians call themselves “Christians” and everyone else they call “non-Christians.” Evangelism is meant to bring Jesus to non-Christians. So by definition and right from the start, there is a decidedly exclusive tone to the exercise. “We are Christians and they are not.” So it’s us against them. This would not do! We needed to reexamine our terminology if we ever wanted to reach these “non-Christians.”

Enter: Christianese.

There is a distinct language that Christian people speak. It is marked by terms like “in the spirit,” “sanctification,” “gospel,” “the word,” and hundreds of other terms which no one except Christians use or understand. These terms mark someone as being on the inside of Christianity. If you meet someone in a social setting and don’t have the guts the ask them flat out, a Christian will—consciously or unconsciously—listen for these and other terms to recognize their kin.

The problem with these terms is that Christians pick them up without learning clearly what they mean. Case in point, I remember hearing and teaching the doctrine of justification as being “just-if-i had never sinned” (a phrase that shares phonetic similarity with the theological term). This is a handy memory peg for teenagers, but very few Christians ever move from that (mildly) catchy phrase to a robust theological technical definition

What makes matters worse is that phrase has other meanings as well. According to my Oxford English Dictionary (and probably the man-on-the-street), “justification” means: an act of showing or proving to be right or reasonable. This is not at all what the theological term means. Christians tend to use what are sometimes normal words in unusual ways, often without distinguishing the difference. This is the crux of my present concern.

“Inspired” is another term that Christians use in a way different from everyone else, and I would argue, in a way they seldom understand themselves, if ever. This term is particularly important when speaking of the Bible. All Christian theology hangs or falls on one’s opinion of the Bible.

The Bible is taken to be important and different from all other books because it is inspired. But if you ask a Christian what they mean by “inspired,” the most common answer I get is always “God breathed” (from 2 Timothy 3:16). While more poetic, that is obviously no clearer. It does however provide a great example of how the structure of Christian terminology is circular so one term can only be understood in terms of others. When pressed for a yet clearer definition, the answers go in many directions.

One thing is clear however, Christians do not use “inspired” in a normal way. If I see a beautiful sunset and am moved to write a poem of the occasion, I can rightly say the sunset inspired my poem; but that is not the sense the Christian means of the Bible. God isn’t the enrapturing idea that motivated a creative work. (Is it?) Similarly, the Christian almost never means that God held the pen or physically forced the hand of the apostles to make certain words on parchment. So what do Christians mean by the term “inspired?”

I suggest that no one actually knows. It is technically a vacuous term. It’s a term that is associated with identification in that community, but has perhaps no semantic meaning of its own, even in that community. The desire that often coincides with the use of this term is wanting to indicate that the Bible has authority. But this is certainly not what the term “inspired” means.

So if we dispense with the term “inspired” when talking about the Bible in favor of terms of that more clearly indicate what we mean, we are left saying it has authority—this is a very different place! We no longer have a book handed to us by God in one way or another; we have a book that is important for very different reasons—among them: defining order in the social setting of Christian organizations. It is possible to have authority for this purpose without ever being from God in any sense. For example, if the group agrees that it should be the guiding document, it has authority. So in the absence of an intellectually honest and rigorous account of what Christians mean by “inspired” and concluding term and the doctrine are vacuous, I was forced (yes, against my will; I didn’t want to believe this) to reevaluate my long-held dogma about the Bible and concede the unprivileged status this book has among others… at least outside of Christian social circles.


August 6, 2008

I was once a Christian. In fact, I was something of the Über-Christian. I grew up the golden-boy in a conservative evangelical Christian church. My parents are Christians. Everyone in my family are Christians. I was.

I was a pastor. I was a worship leader. I was a counselor. I was an evangelist. I worked in the church since my early teenage years. I grew up in the church, quite literally. I went to a Christian college. I led many Christian ministries. I believed that Jesus Christ was my Lord and Savior. Now I don’t.

This blog is meant to explore the reasoning that led me away from Christianity. But I’d like to say at the absolute beginning that one of the reasons is NOT that I don’t like Christianity or Christians. As should be seen from the shape this blog takes, I wish I were still a Christian! I want to be. But I don’t believe it’s true. And most likely, I can’t be a Christian if I don’t believe it’s true.

You are invited, dear blog reader, to leave any comments you would like and I will respond as I’m able. I would love to be challenged on any ideas posted here! If you have some insight I lack which might illuminate a post, please share it. If you see a flaw in my reasoning, likewise, please share it! I will even go so far as to happily invite any reasoning that attempts to help convert me back. As I said, I wish I were a Christian. If you can help me overcome these intellectual objections, I would love to be welcomed back into the fold. But otherwise, the force of these things I share herein (and elsewhere) compels me to admit: I am no longer a Christian.