On Dismissing “All the Other Possible Gods”

Linda and I, in Columbus

Call this Statement F: “I contend we are both atheists, I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.” —Stephen F. Roberts
In all my years of teaching philosophy of religion, and reading multitudinous numbers of theists, atheists, and agnostics, I never encountered Statement F. And for good reason, I think. It’s just an internet sensation, fit for village atheists such as Nietzsche decried. It has no relevance for the philosophical discussion.
“Theism,” in the philosophical discussion, is defined as: belief in an all-knowing, all-powerful, omnibenevolent, necessarily existent, creator of all that is, personal agent. “A-theism” is: the denial of the existence of the God of theism.This issue, therefore, is: Does an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving, necessarily existent, personal agent who has created all things exist? “Zeus” (et. al.) doesn’t fit here. No philosophical theist or atheist I know of is interested in the question “Does Zeus exist?” So, intrinsically, Statement F commits something like a Ryleian category mistake. It would be like someone who chooses to play chess using the rules of checkers. Philosophical theism, from Plato onward, has not played by the language-game of Greek mythology.
See, for example, “Atheism” in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
“‘Atheism’ means the negation of theism, the denial of the existence of God. I shall here assume that the God in question is that of a sophisticated monotheism. The tribal gods of the early inhabitants of Palestine are of little or no philosophical interest. They were essentially finite beings, and the god of one tribe or collection of tribes was regarded as good in that it enabled victory in war against tribes with less powerful gods. Similarly the Greek and Roman gods were more like mythical heroes and heroines than like the omnipotent, omniscient and good God postulated in mediaeval and modern philosophy. As the Romans used the word, ‘atheist’ could be used to refer to theists of another religion, notably the Christians, and so merely to signify disbelief in their own mythical heroes.”
Statement F is part confessional, part propositional. The propositional part is patently false; viz., “We are both atheists.” No. I am not an atheist. That’s false, unhelpful, and coercive. It’s dramatic, theatrical, and untrue.
The class of academic philosophers who debate the matter of theism don’t bring up Statement F. Internet atheists do. There’s a vast epistemic gap between these two groups.

Drink Deep at the Fountain of Living Water

The River Raisin, in our backyard
In 1946 A.W. Tozer wrote these words:
“In this hour of all-but-universal darkness one cheering gleam appears: within the fold of conservative Christianity there are to be found increasing numbers of persons whose religious lives are marked by a growing hunger after God Himself. They are eager for spiritual realities and will not be put off with words, nor will they be content with correct ‘interpretations’ of truth. They are athirst for God, and they will not be satisfied till they have drunk deep at the Fountain of Living Water.” (Tozer, A.W. ; The Pursuit of God, Kindle Locations 25-29)
These words capture my heart today, and the hearts of my community of Jesus-followers.
We want to know God and be known by God.
We desire to live and breathe in the presence of God.
We are beginning this morning by abiding in Christ, and intend to abide in Him throughout the day.
We want, we need, God as a living experiential reality, and not as a mere religious theory to be discussed.
We hunger and thirst for God.
We expect to be wielded by God today in His redemptive mission.
***
You can purchase Tozer’s beautiful, meditative, clarifying The Pursuit of God for only $2.78! (Which raises the question why the value is $2.78 and not, e.g., $2.79.)

The Basic Questions of the Presence-Driven Church

The basic questions of the Presence-Driven Church are variations on the basic question, which is: What is God saying to us?
The variations on this include:

  • Where is God leading us?
  • What is God telling us to do?
  • What does God think of this?
  • What does this look like from God’s perspective?
  • Is God building this house, or are we?
  • Are we hearing God correctly?
  • God, what are you saying to us?

Our leaders at Redeemer ask these questions, primordially. We agree not to do anything or build anything or move in some direction just for movement’s sake, but only as God has told us to do so.
Therefore the basic requirement of anyone who is a leader at Redeemer is: abiding in Christ, and hearing the voice of God.
This is one of the reasons why, as leaders and as a people, we don’t vote on things. If the voters don’t hear from God the voting will be in vain. If God isn’t allowed into the house-building, then we are striving in vain.
In some contexts simply to raise the question “What is God saying to us?” creates tension. The person who asks might be viewed as arrogant, or naive, or uneducated as to the correct protocol at “church meetings.” If this question cannot only not be raised, but is off the map, then the church will be self-guided at best, demonically inspired at worst.
If these questions are unfamiliar, some may ask: “But how can we know what God is saying to us?” That’s a good question. Optimally, as a leader you want your co-leaders to know the answer to it. Begin to instruct your people on: A.S.L.O.
If some are skeptical that God speaks to people today (or ever), then you’ve got deism. At this point the church is on their own, sans the leading of God. It makes me weary to even think of this, as a pastor.
Ask the question.
*** See also:

Silence Before God Is Different Than Entertainment In the Church

Button bush

“Silence is the discipline that helps us go beyond the entertainment quality of our lives.” – Henri Nouwen, The Only Necessary Thing, 49
For some years I taught a course on prayer in the D. Min. program at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary. One of my students was an African American leader and pastor in Chicago, named Joe. I remember the first day of that class, back in 1980-ish. When the students arrived we did a few introductions. Then I quickly sent them out to pray for an hour, using Psalm 23 as their meditative focus.
When they returned from class I asked, “How was that for you?” Joe was crying. He said, “I haven’t prayed for an hour for 20 years.”
Jump ahead 4-5 years. I’m teaching the same class in the same place. When the D.Min. students arrived, I saw Joe. I asked, “What are you doing here? You’ve already taken this class!”
Joe said, “I wanted to take it a second time. There is still so much for me to learn.”
Joe is the only student who has taken my class twice. I asked him how he was doing, and how his church was going. Joe shared this. “After that class 5 years ago I went back to my people and preached on a Sunday morning on Psalm 46:10 – ‘Be still, and know that I am God.'”
“What happened?” I asked.
“I simply read the verse, then sat down. There was silence for 40 minutes, when finally one person stood up and spoke a word from God, and then another did the same. We just stayed there, silently, in the thick presence of God. Gradually, one by one, people began to leave.”
“How was it, Joe?”
“It was… electric!”
Wow, I thought. Joe has a hopping, dynamic church. What a radical idea God gave him! This story confirmed a number of things I believe about pastoral ministry and the nature of the church.

  1. This whole kingdom of God thing is all about God’s presence, in which God rules and reigns.
  2. Therefore, desire God’s presence in the first place.
  3. As leaders for Christ we can reject the idea that we need to entertain our people, and that what our people need is more entertainment.
  4. What our people most need is God.
  5. Cultivate a Presence-Driven environment that moves and responds in God’s presence.
  6. Usher people into God’s presence. There is the place where “audience” dissolves and engagement begins.

The Absurdity of Objectless Anger

Years ago I knew a couple. Let’s call them not by their real names, but simply X and Y. And details of this common (to me) story have been altered. X used to be a theist, but told us she became an atheist because of hypocrisy she saw in Christians. Her reasoning was:

1. Christian hypocrites exist.

2. Therefore, God does not exist.

There’s simply no logical claim of inference here. So X’s atheism was irrational.

X was hurt by Christians. Her response was to leave the faith entirely. When she’s hurt by some hypocritical atheist will she leave that, too?

X fell in love with the atheist Y. Y had no Christian background like X did. Y lived only for his own pleasure. Y’s goal in life was to “be happy.” The logic of the teleology of happiness is self-centeredness. To Y, at least as it seemed to some of us, the purpose of X was to make him happy. X was one of Y’s gratification objects. Happiness, as Aristotle told us, is a horrible life goal.

Then, tragically and suddenly, Y died. We were all saddened, and we grieved with X. I prayed for X, even though she didn’t believe there was any God to pray to. Nonetheless I do believe. Therefore I do pray.

We attended the funeral. Sometimes I have been asked to do the funerals of atheists like Y. I have accepted, on the condition that I will share about my belief in and hope in God. I’ve experienced the losses of many loved ones, including a son. I would not have made it through that event were it not for my already-existing belief and trust in God. I’ll welcome the opportunity to share that at any funeral. I’ve had conversations with funeral-attending atheists over the years. They want to meet with me over coffee.

Y, in the aftermath, self-medicated to cope. When I talked with her she was angry. “I am angry at God for taking Y!!!” “I hate God!!!” “I want nothing to do with God!!!”

“Why?” I wondered to myself. After all, X is an atheist, so there’s no God to be angry at. On atheism there’s nothing to be angry at, just as, in a similar way, atheist Julian Barnes brilliantly wrote Nothing to Be Frightened Of (reify the word “Nothing”). X seemed angry at people like me who do believe in God.

But why? We didn’t take Y’s life. Just like I didn’t kill my own son. Was X angry at the world? At the universe? At the theory of evolution? I’m not making light of X’s grief. I have been with many who grieve, and have been with myself in my own grieving. X’s version of atheism was not allowing her to grieve well.

I want to make it clear that, if God does not exist, then there’s no one and nothing to be angry at in our times of loss. Anger makes no sense without an object of anger. X’s anger was objectless. In the language of existentialism, her emotion of anger was “absurd.” Senseless. This is not an argument for theism. It is to make the Nietzschean point that let’s not be village atheists who act like theists in the tragedies of life.

I like how physicist and atheist Stephen Weinberg describes the absurdity of the atheistic life. He writes: “Not only do we not find any point to life laid out for us in nature, no objective basis for our moral principles, no correspondence between what we think is the moral law and the laws of nature, of the sort imagined by philosophers from Anaximander and Plato to Emerson. We even learn that the emotions that we most treasure, our love for our wives and husbands and children, are made possible by chemical processes in our brains that are what they are as a result of natural selection acting on chance mutations over millions of years. And yet we must not sink into nihilism or stifle our emotions. At our best we live on a knife-edge, between wishful thinking on one hand and, on the other, despair.”

How might Weinberg have counseled Y? He writes (Ib.): “What, then, can we do? One thing that helps is humor, a quality not abundant in Emerson. Just as we laugh with sympathy but not scorn when we see a one-year-old struggling to stay erect when she takes her first steps, we can feel a sympathetic merriment at ourselves, trying to live balanced on a knife-edge. In some of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies, just when the action is about to reach an unbearable climax, the tragic heroes are confronted with some “rude mechanical” offering comic observations: a gravedigger, or a doorkeeper, or a pair of gardeners, or a man with a basket of figs. The tragedy is not lessened, but the humor puts it in perspective.”

As one whose job description includes being with the grieving, I’m glad I didn’t suggest this to Y or tell her a joke. Yet nihilism follows from an atheistic worldview.

On atheism there’s no greater meaning to life, and nothing redemptive about our sufferings.

A.S.L.O.

Linda and I joined many of our Jesus-friends for a week together in Green Lake, Wisconsin. One of the many highlights for me was being with J.P. Moreland. He is one the greatest teachers I have ever seen.
As wonderful and stimulating as this week was, I look forward to today, and the week that lies before me. I expect no spiritual letdown to happen; indeed, my expectations are that God will encounter me in new ways. Today. This is the day the Lord has made; I will rejoice and be glad in it.
I am not a conference-dependent person, but a God-dependent one. God did meet me this past week. The good news is that God doesn’t live only in Wisconsin. The wellspring of spiritual life for me is in the daily entering into his so-close presence.
So today I will continue to do what I have been doing for 40+ years. In that regard nothing has changed, and everything is changing. I will…

ABIDE
SATURATE
LISTEN
OBEY
ABIDE

  • I will follow Jesus’ final instructions to his disciples, given in John chapters 14-16. The results will be that…
  • I will experience his love
  • I will experience his peace (not “peace” like our world gives)
  • I will experience his joy
  • With Christ in me I do the things that Jesus did
  • I will not go up and down according to the circumstances of life
  • I will not be a conference-dependent follower of Jesus
  • I am a branch, connected to Jesus the True Vine
  • My life will be fruit-bearing
  • I will live in expectation. Today, and this week, could contain a watershed moment. Anything good and amazing can happen to the Jesus-follower who lives attached to Jesus, who lives “in Christ.”

SATURATE

  • I will take the Book and read
  • I will meditate on the biblical text
  • As for me, today and this week, my meditation is focused on 2 Corinthians
  • I will slow-cook in the teriyaki sauce of God’s thoughts and God’s ways and God’s promises
  • I will shut my ears to our hyper-wordy world and attend to the deep words of Scripture
  • I will fix my eyes, not on things seen, but on things unseen
  • I will be illuminated by God’s Spirit
  • God’s Spirit will escort my heart to its true home

LISTEN

  • I will be alert
  • I will live with ears wide open
  • God has much to say to me this week
  • Today, I have “ears to hear”
  • When God speaks to me, I will write it down in my journal
  • I will remember the words of the Lord, to me
  • God will tell me that he loves me
  • God will shepherd me
  • God will lead me in paths of righteousness, not for my glory, but for his sake

OBEY

  • God will direct my paths
  • God will make my paths straight
  • The inner “GPS” (“God Positioning System”) is turned on
  • Where he leads me, I will follow
  • I will experience life as an adventure
  • In obedience to God, my life finds meaning and purpose

A.S.L.O.