Saturday, September 20, 2008

Atheism, Superstition, and the American Present

Not all atheists are superstitious.... the very thoughtful die-hard, hang-on-till-we-go-extinct ones don't tend to be. But Ms. Hemingway has her finger on a pulse that I find as a growing trend in American culture among the masses.

There is a curiously finger-pointing at religion in our culture, but not just any religion. It's the "Christian" religion that keeps getting put into the boxing ring, stuffed with straw, sans boxing gloves. And when it falls down it gets propped up again for another round. So Jesus is rejected as irrelevant, not because good evidence to follow him is lacking, but because he can be labeled as 'religious' (which connotes 'private' and 'irrelevant'). Then all sorts of strange things follow.

This article, "Look Who's Irrational Now," which I found this afternoon in my weekend edition of the WSJ, speaks to a wide-ranging, growing disease of American unreason.

Jonalyn and I find as we engage with media, in our travels, in our speaking and writing, that G. K. Chesterton was right: Those who say they believe in nothing are very susceptible to believing in anything.

I am wondering if being superstitious will one day be widely accepted as 'normal' and not as an insult. If thoughtfulness and evidence will become the strange thing; if science will one day be ignored as it gets in the way of what we want and what we fear.

For all scientific and technological age we boast, modern humans have become a peculiar breed. We use technology to suit our passions but find irrelevant the very things technology stands on: a 'real world.'

Today, we see superstition poking out its head in phrases like 'spiritual, but not religious,' which usually amounts to an amalgamation of Eastern thought mixed in with Western productivity. Many are prone to believe the universe actually gives you things if you just desire them (like "The Secret") or that God is an impersonal force and we need to reach toward an enlightened consciousness (like in "The New Earth"). And if you hang around this boutique religion long enough, you'll also find out they hi-jack Jesus into a Buddhist-believer, offering us a 'Christ-consciousness' so you can achieve your full potential. Your material prayer flags of various colors will be caught in the wind and blow spiritual prayers across the countryside (and you won't have to do the hard work of encountering a real God and bringing your petitions)....

All that to say, you should read this article. It is the most succinct explanation I have found of this issue that we are seeing daily of irrational superstition replacing a rational look at the supernatural.

And these superstitious attitudes are very much in the church too. We are secularists about faith and superstitions about prayer. We think Jesus is about heaven and his making life easier and we rarely get a larger picture of the heavenly invasion of the Kingdom of God into the kingdoms of men to set things right-side-up. We forget that gratitude is not first a feeling in the Bible, as it is in "The Secret," but an action toward a larger Person who alone has the ability to give all good gifts. We fear radical love (it might make people feel validated in their sin) and we fear radical unity (it might make people feel validated in their doctrine)....

Jonalyn and I are working on a forthcoming book on this topic of making the most of spiritual small-talk in today's world by helping the church weed through superstitious ideas in our own lives, and engaging one another with a robust view of a Jesus who is spiritual on one hand and deeply human on the other. And that's, to me, is the only rational way forward... even rational enough for atheists to consider.


Samuel Skinner said...

Amazingly enough, people who aren't taught critical thinking skills exhibit a lack of critical thinking skills. What a surprise!

Why does this come as a surprise to you? The US has always been a free market for the next "new thing" and people follow it like it is the last train out of Dodge.

Or, in short, becoming an atheist doesn't make you more rational (although it is a sign you are more rational). It is like how having an e-mail account doesn't mean you have a blog- but it is a requirement.

Dale Fincher said...

Thanks, Samuel, for chiming in!

Kim said...


- After reading the article and your blog posting, and acknowledging that I may have very little influence outside of my own micro-climate;

What is the Christlike response to atheism, superstition, American culture and irrationality?

- What is the "appropriately human" response?

- What is a "Holy Spiritual" response?

- Are they different?

Peace, Kim

Dale Fincher said...

Kim, when I read your comment, it makes me wonder if you think my post isn't an appropriate response... or maybe you're asking about a larger picture...

I think a proper response is the appropriately human one. And to be human, one has to use all of his or her faculties: reason, emotions, will. Many movements (even churchy ones) exclude one and make us less human. Since Jesus is the smartest man who ever lived, he invites us into the life of the mind that think doggedly beats even rationalist thinkers because it doesn't limit knowledge to reason and empiricism.

Jesus also invites us to learn how to read out emotions as well as grow a strong will. He invites us into spiritual experiences with him and live a good life.

On my view, the appropriate human response is a holy spiritual one. Only it's grounded in real human experience as we walk in the life of God rather than somehow segregating us out of our communities into a pie-in-the-sky idealism.

Practical things we can do:

1) expose bad thinking that leads people astray

2) be direct and focus on the material rather than making fun of the person delivering it.

3) create culture, be creative, out-do the irrationalists. When I think of all the boutique spirituality out there, none of it is any better than what Jesus is offering already. But people won't look to Jesus as a spiritualist because he's been hijacked by humans who have turned into a 20th century thing.

4) Support one another who is shining a light on the front lines of ideas.

Those are a few that come to mind. Got some more?


Kim said...

Dale, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to give you that impression. I am asking about the larger picture.

Your post is descriptive of a condition, but not a lot about how to respond. To be fair, at the end of your post you did say that you're working on a book to address the issues at hand.

I like very much how you responded and agree. Something I've learned the hard way is that it's important to avoid arrogance when exposing bad ideas. Humility is such an elusive character trait! (At least for me it has been)

I guess I'm past the point of debate with an errant culture. But, I'm excited to simply be who I am, in Christ. I'm content to represent him as best I can to those whom I come in contact with and especially my wife and children. (I ignored them for far too long)

And, I certainly do support you and Jonalyn and others who represent Him well. He is spirit. We can only worship and come to know him through our spirits.

Guard your heart! Kim

Dale Fincher said...

Thanks, Kim, for clarifying!

By the way, I think Dick Staub's book, The Culturally Savvy Christian, is a must read for anyone who wants to engage. It's one of the best recently published works on the topic.

I agree that it is good to be ourselves, in Messiah, where we are. Grow where we are planted. Avoid the rush and marketing hype to get the word out there (that can be good on some level and can also be a curse). Speak when you have a platform and be authentic to the voice God has given you...

Simple things, really, grassroots. But encouraging and helpful to know we each have a part to play.

Reuben Scheeringa said...

Interesting post, one of the most difficult things I think we as Christ followers face, is that balance between the Incarnate Christ, and the Glorified Christ. If we hold to only one view or the other it creates serious issues. If we hold only to the incarnate Christ then we will love people and serve them, but never call them to repentance. I see a growing movement in this direction. Unfortunately we love them straight to hell. On the other hand if we hold to only the Glorified view, we become arrogant Pharisees, who are perceived as extremely judgmental and very hypocritical. Who wants to be a part of that. We must balance these issues very carefully, and therein lays the problem. What is the right balance? I face this issue daily, and pray that Christ will help me maintain this balance so that I can be the Man he wants me to be. Love people to relationship, and then call them to repentance in love, and because of love.

Dale Fincher said...

Hey Reuben, thanks for posting up!

When you make the distinction between the 'incarnate' and the 'glorified' Christ, I'm assuming you are contrasting the 'social' gospel with the 'soul-winning' gospel... yes?

I think the gospel is so broad that people see what God is like in both of them, when done with genuine love, gentleness, and respect.

I'd hesitate to make the distinction between these two "Christs" because he is the same Person and his ministry was set on the same thing. And I think, instead of merely pinpointing only one or another part of his life, I think we should take the whole thing (Richard Foster's, Streams of Living Water, is an important resource for this).

What is more, the 'incarnate' Christ, offered us the central tenant of the good news with his first words in the book of Mark. It had to do with his kingdom, and that includes both social and soul components. (People often call the good news the death and resurrection of Jesus or going ot heaven when you die... my view is that this is way too limited, even Jesus called it something more).

I think our sights have been set too low these days. We are motivated to help the poor because they are poor. We are motivated to help the lost because they are lost. Rarely do we hear our motivation come form inviting people into the kingdom because this is the trajectory in which God is taking all of us. "Thy kingdom come" is a long forgotten prayer.

And what does the kingdom look like? It helps the oppressed. It brings knowledge and understanding. It sets things right ('right'eous). It turns the upside-down right-side up. It changes current culture because it can't help it. And when we're not changing culture, we should question if we really understand the culture of the kingdom.

That's why I think it is important to grow where we are planted. Take opportunities however we can with the people right in front of us. If they need food, give them food, be present with them. Jesus will shine through. They may need repentance but it's the goodness of God that leads us to that, not blame and shaming or dragging people through irrational guilt.

So many who came to Jesus to be healed had their sins forgiven, not because they necessarily confessed with their mouth but because they acted on who Jesus was in the moment.

If we confess with our mouth we will be forgiven. But that doesn't mean it's the only way, as we see in the stories of Jesus.

One of the modern church's issues is that we fail to act locally. We give money overseas to the oppressed. We feed folks at the soup kitchen. But we are rarely present with people. Jesus was present. And it was his presence that opened the way for people to see him. It isn't much different for us.

I personally don't find a difficult tension between telling the truth and serving the oppressed. I usually find them one in the same--when we are present.

Maybe I'm naive... LOL

Thanks for your perspective, Reuben. It greased the wheels this morning! :)

Reuben Scheeringa said...

You are absolutely correct in your assumption of “social gospel” vs. “soul-winning gospel”. And I want to make very clear I was not proposing the idea of two literal Christ’s, I am not a polytheist, LOL , and I agree they are the same. I make the distinction for this reason alone; I struggle with this idea of love. I work with young people constantly as you know, and I see this progression of “ideas” towards love. Unfortunately that is all they are is “ideas” to these teens. They like the idea of love, however their actions show otherwise. I completely agree that we need to look at the whole picture of Christ, but we aren’t .(when I say we I mean the body, it is not a personnel attack)

Yes, Christ turned the culture upside down, as did Paul, and I so desire to do the same, for in this day and age the culture has” in my opinion” infiltrated the church, where as Christ infiltrated the culture. Yes, we indeed set our sights much too low, and fall way to short in acting locally. I would take the local issue even further, what about our families. I find so many involved in ministry today, whether it be Sunday school teachers, pastors, elders, or deacons, whose families are in disarray. They are trying to reach out to the lost, when their children are right in front of their face, and a high percentage of them are walking away from God. Why? They ignore their families and justify it through ministry “Sorry I don’t have time for you I am doing the work of God.” Secondly they see them say one thing and at home do another. I found myself faced with this issue in the last two years. I remember watching a show and my 4 year old daughter came in and I turned it off. She said “Why can’t I watch that daddy” I gave the typical parent answer of “Just cause” and walked away. That night that answer haunted me as I began to think why did I turn that off? The truth was the show was immoral, I had been watching it since my college days and had an emotional attachment to it. Now it was an older show, and by today’s standards people would say oh c’mon it’s not that bad. (HMMMMM “not that bad….” That’s a whole other issue in today’s culture) But I could not shake the idea of why? The truth kept piercing my heart, I would not let her watch it because it was immoral, however daddy was watching it, how sick is that. What a terrible example I was. The real kicker is that in my position I can’t recall how many times I had discussed morality with my student’s. What a hypocrite I was(and probably still am) God crushed me that night and I wept over my sin, but God in his mercy and forgiveness restored me, and I am a better Father and teacher because of it. But how many have we turned away because of this exact thing.
We cannot be perfect I am well aware, and confession is good for the soul. And yes God forgives sin in many different ways as you pointed out. But we have to remember in many cases where he says “Your sins are forgiven” and yes for various reasons, He also follows with “Go and sin no more”. Confess with your mouth, YES, but Believe in your heart…..(Romans 10:9) this is where we falter. Do we really believe with our hearts? Confession to God means nothing if we don’t follow in his ways, and why do we follow? Because we believe with our hearts. Again we like the “ideas of Christ but in the end that is all they are.
Presence is essential yes, and when it is genuine Gods light shines through you more powerfully than we can even imagine. And yes it is through presence that Christ is most revealed. John Maxwell has a quote “ Where there is no relationship; There is no influence.” We see this theme beaming in the life of Christ. I remember this summer I was with a group of teenagers at a soup kitchen. And we served yes, but at lunch we had the opportunity to sit and eat with the people who came. It was an amazing thing for the kids to sit and talk with people, building relationships. I remember a young homeless man asking me” what church I was with”, I responded with “why do you think we are with a church”, his response blew me away. He said “ The light you bring into the room is different than other groups who come and help.” I almost dropped to my knees and wept. That is what Christ is about “ Let your light so shine before men” (Matt. 5) Through your Christ following presence, God is glorified. No doubt in my mind we have failed to be present, and America, especially the youth are suffering because of it. I remember a sermon by Ravi Zacharias (maybe you have heard of him?) J called
“When God Bids Farwell” one of the points he makes is Responsibility is Personal we need to take responsibility by the reigns, and Turn the world upside down.
As for you being Na├»ve, J Aren’t we all. I am sorry I have rambled on forever, I am very much, so desperately seeking the desires of Christ, and my passion sometimes overflows. I will understand if you decide not to post this as it is very long, so don’t worry about hurting my feelings.
Indeed this makes the wheels turn, I was in desperate need of someone to put another quarter in