Rebecca K. Reynolds

Honest Company for the Journey

But could a God like that be good? (Part 1)

 
 Photo by Lisaleo on Morguefile

Photo by Lisaleo on Morguefile

The fiercest and most common objections I hear about Christianity aren’t scientific or historical but moral.

Millions of dollars are spent on faith-based training programs trying to argue that the Bible wields academic heft in a post-Enlightenment world, but the real crux of modern atheism doesn’t quiver before the intellectual force of the Scriptures.

Very simply, most atheists don’t like the God of the Bible because they think he isn’t moral. They think God is narcissistic, savage, inconsistent, moody, sexist, racist, and primitive.

I’ve met few Christians who are able to empathize and engage with this barrier. They shake their heads and say that atheists “just don’t get it.” They slap on a platitude. But for the most part, Christians aren’t sure how to respond to the argument that if the God of the Bible is real, he’s not the sort of leader modern humans should trust.

God has allowed this barrier to impact people I love deeply, so I’ve not been able to dismiss it like some Christians. Even if I apply childlike trust to my own faith, my heart still reaches back to plead for those who cannot believe so easily. The Lord has kept me in a strange and difficult place—a place of loving him while also understanding why friends are angry about how they perceive God.

So, I want to try to talk about this issue with respect for those who disagree with me. I want to try to explain why (at least some) atheists have such a hard time wanting to engage with the God of the Bible. And I also want to share a couple of thoughts about how I’ve processed their honest apprehensions.

1. Atheists believe the the God of the Bible is inhumane.

They have heard bits and pieces of the Old Testament— verses about mass slaughter, the stoning of homosexuals, and punishing women who were raped. They have read verses that condone slavery and advocate for treating females unequally.

While Christians tend to say, “But that was the Old Testament!” it’s very difficult for someone who isn’t all that familiar with the Bible to see how 1300 years of the Mosaic Law fit into a larger narrative context. To someone who doesn’t understand how many years the Bible actually spans, or what the different covenants communicated, the words of Deuteronomy and Galatians seem to hold equal weight.

2. Christianity has lost cred because of misapplications of the Bible.

If atheists are confused about Biblical interpretation, they have good reason. Over the centuries, a great many so-called Christians have yanked random verses out of context to try to gain cultural power. Biblical verses have been misapplied to support American slavery, the abuse of women and children, wicked political leaders, and cruelty toward the desperate. Just as satan used the Scripture during Christ’s temptation in the desert, wicked men have quoted the Bible while promoting darkness.

Before we get all defensive about this and say, “Yeah, but those teachers weren’t legit!” we need to think seriously about how trust works. Aristotle taught that ethos (personal credibility) was far more persuasive than logos (facts) or pathos (emotions). Jesus taught something similar when he explained that bad fruit falls from a bad tree.

To ask people to immediately embrace a belief system that (in their view) has proven cruel is unrealistic. Jesus warned us about the impact of false religion, and our society is now facing the consequences he told us would come. Grave damage has been done, and it’s probably going to take a lot of time in the company of real faith to even begin to repair those wounds.

People who have been deeply disappointed in religion need to test the waters, need to push on the walls, need to shake the foundations. That’s not just because those people are weak—it’s because they’ve been exposed to a false version of Christianity that hasn’t held to its core.

3. Even the New Testament can be morally confusing to the modern reader. It would be different if every baffling verse were packed away in the pre-Christ books, but even in the epistles, we find passages that provoke the modern, humanistic conscience. Beautiful commands to feed the poor, die to self, and serve the weak are juxtaposed alongside commands for women to keep silent in the churches and for slaves to obey their masters.

Concepts like predestination and hell feel profoundly unjust. Atheists ask, “How could a mortal resist the plan of God? And why should a soul face eternal consequences for a temporary choice?”

4. Perhaps even more offensive than all of these things is God’s determination to require faith of a society that worships empirical proofs. Modern America doesn’t build temples to gods made of wood and stone, but we have idolized an epistemology built upon the reliability of human perception. Despite the inability of empirical science to provide primary proofs—despite its ultimate reliance upon presuppositions built upon blind faith, a weakness even the founders of empiricism openly acknowledged—modern academia feels no qualms about demanding secondary proofs. Any deity who fails to jump through these hoops is deemed a bad sport.

I believe the Bible is true, and I believe that God is good. But I also understand why questions like these catch in the throats of the atheists of my time.

It’s hard for me to write this next bit, but I also think it’s pretty important. Sometimes what’s called “faith” is really just a lack of empathy.

I don’t mean that everybody needs to become a melancholy, cynical doubter. Not everyone is wired like that. But a lot of people who call themselves Christians aren't just pragmatic--they are fundamentally selfish about their own faith.

They have checked off the salvation box, and those who haven’t don't really keep them up nights. Once they’ve signed the dotted line on their own fire insurance, they move on to accumulate as much wealth and happiness on this planet as they can, huddling in groups with people who agree with them, and not caring all that much who makes it out with them in the end.

The politicization of the American church has exacerbated this problem. The we/them mentality has helped us divide the world into good guys and bad guys. If we are honest, a lot of Christians are truly more concerned about LGBTQ rights than they are about LGBTQ souls. A lot of Christians are truly more concerned about protecting the free market than they are about helping the poor. A lot of Christians are truly more passionate about proving their liberal family members wrong online than they are about where those family members will spend eternity.

Empathy doesn’t alter what the Bible teaches about holiness. Compassion doesn’t turn us into moral relativists. But these traits can expose our idols and show us that sometimes we have minor gods standing between us and the Pearl of Great price. Sometimes we think we are worshipping Jesus when really we are just trying to save our own skins.

I’m writing this post as a political conservative and as an orthodox Christian. I hold to old creeds and confessions and to inerrancy. Making room to care about the questions I see atheists asking hasn’t undermined my faith in Jesus.

The church is spending so much energy trying to convince the unbelieving world that the Scriptures are true, but perhaps the church needs to talk less about this and more about real heart of the matter--how the unconventional God of the Bible could possibly be good.

I’ll try to spend some time over the next few weeks unpacking my thoughts on that. For now, this post is too long already.

The Smell of a Dead Monk

Father Zossima is the kind old monk in Dostoevsky’s The Brother’s Karamazov.  He’s similar to Bishop Myriel in Les Mis, an otherworldly sage who has learned to live out the gospel in a radical way.

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Father Zossima is also the beloved spiritual mentor of Alyosha, the hero of the novel and the youngest of the three Karamazov brothers.  Aloysha is only twenty, and he’s a novice in the local monastery, so he trusts Father Zossima wholeheartedly, agreeing to follow whatever instruction the old man gives. Because Aloysha’s biological father has been distant for most of his  life, it’s easy to see why this young man gravitates toward kindly, paternal affection.

Father Zossima is also a local celebrity, known for spiritual access to healing and prophecy. It’s widely suspected that the old man will be sainted when he dies, so when his earthly life finally draws to a close, the townspeople grow to a frenzy. Expecting miracles, they bring family members who need healing to his coffin.

Yet at this critical moment in the novel, something terrible and unexpected happens—something which shakes Alyosha’s faith. Father Zossima’s body begins to decay.

At the time, tradition taught that a true saint’s body wouldn’t decompose—that it would even release a perfumed sweetness into the air. Yet within hours—even sooner than most—the scent of real, human death fills the room.

Several monks who had been jealous of Zossima’s fame and admiration seized this opportunity to mock and deride him. Soon, their whispers grew to open verbal hostility, and finally a hateful monk enters the mourning room to lambast the dead father as a false teacher.

Alyosha’s naïve young heart breaks.

He had not only loved the old man, he had lived inside a bubble of spiritual idealism, believing a string of religious fairy tales. When reality didn’t match his expectations, Alyosha was spiritually undone, overcome with doubt, devastated that all had not gone as he expected.

I read this section of Karamazov after midnight last night. I read because I couldn’t sleep because I was worrying. Though God tells us not to fear, I was afraid.

Beside me, my husband groaned in his sleep. He hurt his back pretty badly yesterday, and of all the times that injury could have happened to our family, this is one of the worst. Yesterday was our first day of switching to a new insurance with a new deductible, and after several nervous hours of Googling bulging and ruptured discs, I was trying to decide whether he needed an MRI.

For some of you, hits like this never seem to stop. There’s always one more kink in the happily ever after.

Even if you’ve never believed in the prosperity gospel, the theological promises of movies like Facing the Giants get into our bones. In the back of our hearts, we still expect faithful resignation to be blessed in visible ways. The follower of Jesus will coach the team to winning the championship, snag the new pickup truck, get the baby, and look at last around at his mortal life and find that all is well.

Some stories of faith certainly look like this, but in others, the blessings of God may smell more like a dead monk. That’s because God knows what each of his followers needs (truly needs), and his love allows different challenges for different Christians. He knows that coming face-to-face with deep disappointment can be critical to the maturity of faith.

As Alyosha comes to terms with the smell of death in his mentor, he faces,  “a crisis and turning-point in his spiritual development, giving a shock to his intellect.” Perhaps you’ve lived out a similar shock—perhaps you know what questions rise when we realize that God’s behavior does not fit into the tiny boxes we have made to hold Him. These moments of reorientation may be painful and bitter, and we may weep for days when we face them. But like Alyosha, they can also grow us up.

By his deepest disappointment, by this brutal blow to the crux of his security and idealism, Alyosha faith was strengthened. Because of the pain of a lost ideal, his belief was given a "definite aim.”

As I prayed this morning, I felt the onslaught of challenges facing our family. I prayed for direction. I prayed for sustenance and for miracles. I also prayed for the ability to worship God in rooms that reek of death.

On June 8, a team of scientists from Oxford published research addressing the Fermi paradox, the gap between our expectation that life exists somewhere in the universe and our inability to find it. This study concludes that we cannot find extraterrestrial life because it doesn’t exist.

Since I haven’t seen the Bible specifically negate the possibility of alien life, this has never been a major theological battlefield for me. I’ve always trusted that an infinite God could have simultaneous narratives running in different solar systems (or even in different dimensions). I’ve supposed that if he did have something like that going on, all narratives would one day fold together into a lovely story he knows we can’t comprehend with tiny mortal minds.

I haven’t obsessed about it, of course; I haven’t actively believed that life did exist elsewhere. I’ve just held the possibility loosely. I’ve let what God left unsaid remain mysterious.

So, it was strange to read the Oxford study and consider the thought that humans might actually be alone in the universe. I stopped to really think about that--we could be the only beings anywhere with souls. In all of this everything that goes on seemingly forever, our capacity for worship could be unique.

Maybe this won't hit you like it hits me--astronomy and I have kind of a "thing" going, and we have for a while. It’s more of a romance than an academic passion. I’m one of those weirdos who cries real tears when NASA releases new pics of Jupiter and Pluto. Star nebulae give me goose bumps. As a baby, my first sentence was, “The moon is in the sky, Mr. Hall.”

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I have felt reverent awe for God’s artistry in the heavens every since I can remember, a sense of being pressed down to my knees by the all-I-am-not, a compression like gravity. The created order is so beautiful, so extravagant... I’m tempted to use the word “magical.”

Without that Oxford study, assuming that we could possibly be alone in all of this feels audacious. History has slapped the hand of the small-minded church too many times. My faith is post Copernicus, post Galileo—I don’t have geocentric impulses.

And yet, here is science telling me that we could be alone.

I wasn't expecting to be taken so seriously by my Creator.

What if He really did make all of this--the dimension of time--the capacity for sentience--the ability to praise--all poured into a handful of creatures placed on one tiny, tumbling rock? What if our hymns are the only hymns besides those songs the angels sing?

The circumstances which seem so grave to me--the challenges that make my belly quiver and my knees shake--readjust in light of this possibility.

My pain and fear are portals in all of space and time, and even when I face the smell of the decomposition of my theological fairy tales, I still stand before the God who was, and who is, and who always will be.

Here in the silence of the created order, I can speak trust to Him. I can yield to Him. Among all the cold rocks and the fiery gasses of all of creation, I have been given the capacity to hold my arms wide before all his mysteries and confess:

I did not see you lay the foundation of the earth.
I did not determine its measurements.
I do not know how its bases were sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone,
when the morning stars sang together
and all the sons of God shouted for joy.

I did not see you shut in the sea with doors
when it burst out from the womb,
I was not there when you made clouds its garment
and thick darkness its swaddling band,
and prescribed limits for it
and set bars and doors,
saying “Thus far shall you come, and no farther,
and here shall your proud waves be stayed.”

I have never commanded the morning since my days began,
or caused the dawn to know its place.
I have never changed its surfaces
l like clay under the seal,
or dressed the earth like a garment.

I have never entered into the springs of the sea,
or walked in the recesses of the deep.
I have never seen the gates of death or the gates of deep darkness.
I cannot comprehend the expanse of the earth.

Only by your hand, do I know the way to the dwelling of light,
because you are the Light of the World,
and amid all of the lesser lights of all You have made,
you, Great Light, have come to give light to me.

While a soulless Jupiter storms, while distant stars implode, while the red dust of Mars holds low in a lifeless hush, while no-man of the moon paints every grass tip silver, I can recline upon Jesus.

No matter what happens in my life, He is worthy. Though the good, dead monk reeks, Christ remains a center which cannot be shaken. And He has given me a voice that is able to praise Him. Thanks be to God.

Rain on a Barren Land (Genesis 25-28, Psalm 8)

 "Drought and Downpour" by Mayard Dixon, 1944

"Drought and Downpour" by Mayard Dixon, 1944

 

This week was kind of crazy for our family. We took our adopted son to the gastroenterologist and learned a little bit more about his past as well as some medical needs he may be facing in the future. M was born with gastroschisis, a condition in which the intestines were present outside of the body. I won’t expand more on that here, but I will say that it’s been sort of an emotional week with a few sweet discoveries and also some hard possibilities.

If you’re keeping up with our reading, yesterday we read Genesis 25-28 and Psalm 8. Briefly, I want to make sure you think about the theme of barrenness that began with Sarah. We find out that Isaac’s wife, Rebekah, is barren in Genesis 25, and as God heals her from this, she conceives twins who struggle hard in the womb—Jacob and Esau. Later, we will read about the physical barrenness of Jacob’s loved wife Rachel and the barrenness of affection his wife Leah faces.

Isaac also faces a famine which drives him back to Abimelech (remember the second king Abraham who took Sarah because Abraham claimed she was his sister?) Isaac makes the same mistake, and it’s a king of the Philistines—not the chosen people of God—who makes the moral call here.

Then we see the impulsiveness of Esau, the duplicity of Rebekah and Jacob, the conflict that rises among broken people trying to figure out the intersection between the blessings of God and the activity of men. It’s kind of a mess—barren people in barren lands making mistakes.

By the time I got to the Psalm 8 section of the reading, I was moved by these lines, “What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him? Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet...”

This psalm rings a lot truer to my own experience than some of the psalms that claim a human righteousness that deserves rescue. I can’t identify with feeling like i deserve God’s help. I know how messed up I am and how barren my moral ability actually is.

But when I read David’s stunned gratitude that God would bother with us at all, I feel some of his same questions fall naturally upon my soul. Who are we that you would trust us like you do?

His love is extravagant favor. Rain on a barren land. A child in a barren womb.