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Saturday, October 6, 2012

Letter to a Great Agnostic

This article would best be read AFTER reading my blog entitled, “Does God Really Need Our Prayers?” Particularly the comments section.

A long comment deserves a long response and I always secretly desire to enlist the help of my other readers who may be more knowledgeable than me about such things, not to mention more articulate!

King Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes, “The more the words the less the meaning, and how does that profit anyone?” (Ecclesiastes 6:11) I fear that I am guilty of ignoring that proverb!

But it’s my hope that should I fail miserably at this apologetic that anyone reading, and not just my agnostic friend, that they would ignore everything that I have said here and go straight to the laboratory – by bending on their knee and actually trying to talk to God for a month, by praying the Lord’s Prayer, just to see what happens. I said it below and I will say it again, I believe that talking to God in this way, would be far more beneficial than reading one of my blogs!

Either way, here is my letter to one great and honest agnostic.

Hi PJ

Thanks for reading my blog; I’m relieved that you enjoyed it!

I’m sorry to hear that life has thrown you some tough experiences but it is good to hear that they have not lead you down a path of self-destruction and that you can still entertain a smile. Sincerely, well done.

Thank you also for allowing me to make this letter public. Not only will my readers (if I have any) find it interesting but you have given me something to write about, something an aspiring writer like me can never be ungreatful for!

As far as this response is concerned please regard this as a discussion, not as an argument. I have enjoyed reading your comments and can appreciate your views on an abstract level and expect no less from you. On the other hand, as a Christian, my faith compels me to proselytize and to win souls, so if my response seems preachy at times, please accept this is natural to my Christian disposition and can’t be helped. I hope you understand.

I’ve put the Gospel of Thomas in my “List of things to read” which is a very long list I’m afraid, but I will get there eventually, provided December 2012 really isn’t the Apocalypse! I mentioned before that I wasn’t sure, from a scholarly understanding, why it was not included in the canon of Scripture, but from what you’ve already told me I can see at least one point worth mentioning…

In Luke 9:54 there is an account of a Samaritan town that rejected Jesus and his disciples James and John asked Jesus if he wanted them to call down fire from Heaven but Jesus rebukes them for suggesting such a thing. I only mention this because the idea of the other disciples wanting to stone Thomas seems quite against what Jesus had taught them. Even when the crowd came to Gethsemane to take Jesus away, he rebukes Peter for cutting off the ear of the servant of the High Priest…

Also, on another note, you will never find in the New Testament an example of Christians stoning anyone; in fact it was usually the Christians getting stoned. So I can see, at least in that case, that the gospel wouldn’t be consistent with the rest of the New Testament Canon or with historical accounts of the way early Christians treated one another…

A question I would raise regarding the text would be, how does it hold up against Old Testament prophecy regarding the Messiah? What I mean is the Old Testament has more than 300 references to the coming Christ which find their fulfillment in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. I’m not sure, but I imagine the early church fathers were aware of this, which probably gave those gospels more credibility than the Gnostic texts perhaps?

As an introductory example of an Old Testament reference to Christ my favourite is Genesis Chapter Five, which at first glance looks like a boring genealogy of Adam to Noah. For years I read this Scripture and thought, “Whatever!” Until someone pointed out that the meanings of the names gave the text a completely new significance:

Adam = Man
Seth = Appointed
Enosh = Mortal
Kenan = Sorrow
Mahalalel = Blessed God
Jared = Shall Come Down
Enoch = Teaching
Methuselah = His Death Shall Bring
Lamech = Despairing
Noah = Rest

String those meanings together and you have a pretty cool (well, cool if you’re a Christian) statement:

Man was appointed Mortal Sorrow but the Blessed God Shall Come Down Teaching that His Death Shall Bring the Despairing Rest.

If that does absolutely nothing for you, then that’s fine, but keep in mind it is one of hundreds. I would be very interested to know if the Gospel of Thomas holds up against, well I guess you could call it prophetic analysis?

However, I promise to read the Gnostic Gospels one day and maybe I’ll have something else to write about…

With regards to my idea of God having a paternal nature, I meant it really as a way of understanding why God wants our worship and adoration. I don’t mean for a second that the instinct is exactly the same as ours given our inferior range of emotions, but to understand why God would want our love and devotion can, in my mind be compared to my own desire for my little ones to love and look up to me…

Now I know this next bit is going to sound incredibly arrogant, but I have to say it. Before I had children, I loved my friends and family very much, in the same way that you do now. But please believe me when I say that when I had kids, “Love” was completely redefined for me. Before then it was very easy to read the Bible and think of the Christian God as being this great big grumpy rule maker who doesn’t want us to have any fun, but when I became a dad it was like a penny dropped inside my brain and I had an “Aw, so that’s what it means!” moment every time I read that God was our Father in Heaven. He doesn’t seem so mean anymore.

I guess I’m just trying to say that this is an experiential understanding on my part of the nature of God, I don’t expect you to agree, but maybe, just maybe, when you have children of your own you will find yourself asking different questions about the nature of God? Then again, perhaps not…

As for the brain chemistry thing, I agree that some kinds of love can be explained chemically, especially the love the Ancient Greeks referred to as “Eros”. But it can’t explain “Agape” love – which is another Greek word that refers to unconditional love. This is a type of love that has nothing to do with human emotion at all. With unconditional love you are able to forgive people for their wrongs against you. With unconditional love you are able to stay married to the same spouse years after the sexual attraction has evaporated.

The Bible teaches that “God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit whom he has given us.” (Romans 5:5) This is the kind of love Jesus showed when dying on the cross; he was able to say, “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34)

For some great reading there is an old book called Foxes Christian Martyrs which is a collection of traditions and true accounts of Christian Martyrs from the days of Ancient Rome to the 16th Century. The book contains many examples of Christians who suffered martyrdom for their faith and yet were still able to show love to their persecutors. One story even tells of a guy who, when the soldiers came to his house to take him away, he offered to bake them all bread because they looked famished from their journey.

I don’t believe that sort of love can be explained away by chemical processes. Loving those who hate you makes absolutely no sense.

But to be completely honest, as a parent, I don’t want to explain my love for my kids away as some kind of chemical process. There’s also a flip side to this, and that is the plethora of examples of bad parents who really don’t love their kids at all. In my Country, New Zealand, we have a disgustingly high rate of child abuse… if Love can be relegated simply to a few chemicals then we have a lot of people in the world with a serious chemical imbalance. Actually, that’s neither here nor there, just thought I would mention it.

But there must be a love that motivates us to Honour, duty, accepting responsibility, kindness in the face of adversity, and respect for people you disagree with. In fact, I can say that I love you in the context of this discussion, by hopefully treating you with respect, but I don’t think I’m having a chemical reaction toward you right now. Insert winking emoticon here - ;)

As a Christian, when I look at my kids and catch myself thinking that I would gladly suffer any agony that they would face in life if it would mean that they did not have to, I can really appreciate what it meant for Jesus to say, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…” John 3:16.

Then there’s evolution. Well, I can’t really talk about it scientifically, but I think philosophically I have found the foundation for our different approaches to the question of God.

If your worldview starts with us being the accidental conclusion of random molecular incidences then of course you’re going to approach God from the premise that you are not that important to a perfect supreme being, therefore he is not worth pursuing because knowledge of him would be completely beyond our reach.

Whereas I’m coming from the angle that we are not random accidents and that the perfect God made a perfect world which included a perfect human being who was corrupted through original sin.

You seem to think, based on your evolutionary presuppositions, that God is unattainable because of where we are on the evolutionary scale; I think that God is unattainable because of our fallen state – however this does not exclude the fact (as I see it) that I am made in the image of God and that his paternal desire for me to be in a relationship with him is therefore valid, if you start from my philosophical premise that is.

Not sure if that makes sense. But for me if God is perfect or worth my time then he must not have used billions of years of decay and chance and accidents to bring about everything that I know and perceive today, including myself. A god who wound us up his clockwork just to set it adrift without his occasional providence is not a perfect god, (nor is he a good dad), that kind of god has more in common with my idea of the devil than with the God of the Bible.

Incidentally I have actually read Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and have seen some of the acclaimed TV series, both of which I thoroughly enjoyed, but the arguments for the processes of evolutionary Science have never “compelled” me. I have read better arguments against the theory than for it by Authors like Dr. Jonathon David Safarti in his book “Refuting Evolution” to name one.

But to prevent us from going off on THAT tangent, permit me to point out that I have no desire to argue Science with you because I am not an ultracrepidarian. I like poetry and literature and Dr Who, I can’t in good conscience enter into a debate about an area of study I don’t care much about. I’ve only mentioned the Creation/Evolution debate to say I’ve looked into it and I’m comfortable with not believing in it and also to illustrate that God could not, in my thinking, be perfect if he was the sort of God who needed to use billions of years of torment and chance to create anything. The God of the Bible would beat that god in a celebrity death match any day.

Finally, with regards to a perfect god setting everything in motion and leaving it be… the creation is not perfect. If he is perfect and left us here to suffer against his complacency then that god is not perfect. He is evil and malignant and I certainly hope neither of us ever meets him. The Christian answer to suffering is simple. He came and suffered with us and promises to return and set everything straight. I hope you can understand my preference between gods here?

I appreciate and commend your intention to continue the search. Jesus did after all say, “Seek and you shall find.” But I hope you would reconsider my challenge in my previous blog about praying, because what could be more compelling than applying the scientific method to prayer?

What I mean is, I’ve been praying for 27 years and when I meet someone like you who questions the validity of prayer it doesn’t compute against my 27 years of accumulated experience. I’m asking you to do it for a month. Begin with your hypothesis that prayer is a waste of time or that God is not interested in us mere humans and put it under scientific scrutiny by praying the Lord’s Prayer every day for a month and see if your hypothesis is correct. What have you got to lose? Not your scientific integrity; that can only be lost by not conducting the experiment, surely?

I believe with all my heart that praying will do more for you intellectually than reading my blogs!

Now to some of your closing comments I would like to say I disagree with the angle you’ve taken to prayer as opposed to doing good toward others. There are times when someone else needs help and you can’t help them; recently I watched my Dad die of cancer. I couldn’t help him, I could only pray.

Other times I have prayed and, I believe, God has placed certain people on my heart during the act of prayer to bring their needs to my awareness. I would argue that if you really want to help other people then praying for them sharpens your intent toward helping them in a practical way.

As for, “We can do things to help other people, instead of wasting our time in church” – here is where we, sort of at least, agree! If you ever read the book of Acts in the New Testament you will see a very different version of the church than what exists in the West today. The early church had more to do with providing community and aide for the poor, orphans and widows than the Jesus Fan Club you get in most churches today.

I hate to say this, and saying this will probably lose me readers, but I look at the majority of Churches in the West and see the sort of Church Christ describes in Revelation 3:15 where he says, “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked…”

The Church is meant to be helping people and doing the good that you talk about, and I am sorry that most of us are not. But don’t use this against us; Jesus taught that before his return, this is exactly what it would be like… (Matthew 24)

Note to my Christian readers who did not like the above paragraphs -

I am not anti-church, but I ask that you consider whether your church is feeding the hungry and thirsty, inviting in the strangers, clothing the naked, taking care of the sick and visiting those who are in prison, if it is not then why are you going to that church? If Church to you is no more than a rock concert and a guy in a suit saying things that make you feel good about yourself then I have a sad newsflash for you – you are not in a church, you are in a club. If your church is putting more money into its building fund than helping the people in your community who are in need, then get out while you still can. People like my agnostic friend see churches like the ones you go to and have been completely misled about what Church actually is. See Romans 2:17-24 and 2 Timothy 4:3)

Back to my agnostic friend…

With regards to whether God has emotions this is another example of our different philosophical platforms. If God is impersonal and created everything using evolutionary processes and set us adrift as you purport then yes indeed, that kind of god would be impossible to relate to, but because I believe that God made us in his image and that creation was a very personal act between him and his creation then, although my feelings would still be inferior to his (especially in my fallen state), they would still be like his in that he created us to be like him.

You mention again that rather than praying and worshipping him, he would have us actually do things for each other, but I don’t think praying and helping people are mutually exclusive. As mentioned above praying helps me to help people better. This has been my experience at least.

It’s interesting that when Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment in the Law was he answered, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” But then he said, “AND THE SECOND IS LIKE IT – Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” (Matthew 22:34-40) So even the Bible teaches that Serving and worshipping God as well as loving and helping others are synonymous, and I think that is beautiful. In fact, you could say that helping the poor and needy is an ACT of worship.

I like what John says in his epistle, “If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar…” (1 John 4:20)

And that’s it; I’ve reached the end of your comments. Thank you so very much for sharing your thoughts with me! I have enjoyed being given the opportunity to ramble!

If there is a merit badge for getting through 3,179 words of homily, then you’ve earned it!

In closing I would like to say this, if anything I’ve said is unsatisfactory or unconvincing, as I grow in knowledge over the next few years I hope that future me will be far better equipped and adroit at answering complicated questions. I trust you will visit me here again in five years or so and find someone with better skill for the surgery of the soul than I currently possess.

I hope you continue searching.

God Bless.

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