So the blogger Friendly Atheist has posted 78 tough questions for Christians. While they assume some evangelical if not fundamentalist beliefs, I thought it might be a helpful exercise to respond as a progressive Christian. Maybe they can open up some conversations about different approaches to faith.
Is Anne Frank burning in hell?
How about Mahatma Gandhi?
Is Fred Phelps in Heaven since he believed in the divinity of Jesus?
Should a killer who genuinely repents at the end of his life go to Heaven?
Should a kind-hearted atheist go to Hell for all eternity?
Do kind-hearted religious people who just aren’t Christian also deserve to burn?
Would you be happy in heaven if someone you loved was in Hell?
A few thoughts about the above questions. They revolve around popular conceptions of heaven and hell found in some evangelical circles. But empirically I don’t see how such concepts hold up.
But I think we can say something on behalf of objective immortality. The idea, which comes from process philosophy argues that any event, when it happens becomes objectified, becomes a fact that constitutes our world. It can’t be undone and whatever follows will be because of the kind of world constituted by these previous events. They also lay the foundation for the field of future possibilities. That provides the raw materials that God has to work with in the creation of the new.
As such, our actions, our lives matter, eternally, for God and for what kind of world we have. As a result, we have it within our power, limited as it may be, to open the world up for God, ourselves and others. Anne Frank and Gandhi clearly did this and Fred Phelps did not. If anyone experiences heaven and hell, it would be God whenever our world is ennobled or is not the prior describes Anne’s and Gandhi’s life.
Its hard to say that Phelps did the same. Instead he created a hellish life for himself and for his children (as those who have escaped the family can testify). And he created hells for for many other people, including the lgbt community. But no one “deserves” hell. Not even Fred Phelps. As a person he was due love and care even if he did not bring that out for others.
If your child were dying, and I hope that never happens, would just pray for them or would you take them to a doctor?
And if you’d do both, which one do you think has more of an impact?
Going to the doctor is a form of prayer
Whose prayers does God answer?
All to be best of God’s abilities and the relevant elements of the given situation.
And if it’s ultimately His Will, why bother praying?
If God is good, which I think by definition must be the case, we cannot say all events are God’s will
If you have cancer, what would help you more: Certain drugs, or prayer?
Certain drugs can be an expression of prayer
If you had an amputated limb, would prayer ever bring it back?
If you have an exam coming up, what would contribute more to a higher score: Prayer or more studying?
Study is a form of prayer
If you prayed for me over YouTube right now, do you think I would know it?
I don’t think so
What matters to God more: The quantity of people praying or the quality of their prayers?
If quantity matters, shouldn’t the most popular team always win the Super Bowl?
The results of prayer depend on context, the relevant actors, and the end being sought. Undoubtedly God was at work with both sides
If quality matters, why do people you love sometimes die no matter what you do?
Death is basic to life. It’s constitutive to who we are as creatures. And yet I think each death is a tragedy, including in the life of God. It’s a loss of a private universe of experience that is uniquely had by that person that can never be duplicated. Whether the person’s life was short, long, good, bad, mixed, human or some other kind of creature, when it ends our world is impacted by it.
But there’s a basic trade off. Not a tradeoff God has made, but one that our environment supplies (the material God has to work with). The fact that we are so integrated to our environment, we can modify it, we’re mobile, we’re receptive to it, and we’re complex means that the range of things which can cause death and affect change skyrockets. Rocks don’t undergo near as much change but their relation to the environment is limited. But it’s a staggering thought to imagine what all has to work together to keep a complex organism going. The more complex the more vulnerable it is. Is it worth it? Yes but of course I’m living it.
Is it possible that your prayers have no supernatural effect and only serve to make you feel better?
Prayer can make us feel better and produce affects but it is not supernatural. I think a discussion of prayer could be in order. Prayer is a broad term that performs many different functions. And different kinds of prayers and occasions happen depending on the end in view.
I won’t list them all, lots of folks have different categories. There could be centering prayers, that remind us who we are, who God is and the relation thereof, and names the occasion that brings us to prayer. There could be forms of meditation which focus our attention away from the hubb bubb of daily life. There could be prayers of thanksgiving, of gratitude. But the kind of prayer that these questions focus on is generally called petitionary prayer.
Petitionary prayers seek to change the circumstances of our lives. They reflect a certain kind of desired end. They seek to work with God towards that end. In that they require the full involvement of ourselves towards that end. So if I pray for a good grade on the school test but do not study, then I am not actually doing anything to achieve that end. It may be a wish but wishes and prayers are not the same thing. I have to involve myself in working with God to achieve the desired result. So a farmer who prayers for a good crop still has to plant the crop, a student still needs to study, and if your family member is to be well, they need to visit the doctor.
So prayer is not just the words we say. In fact, often those words can mask what our actual intention is to that situation. I often pray for things that cannot be, maybe to express solidarity in the situation, to feel like I’m doing something when nothing can be done, to let another person know that I care about them even when the situation is not fixable. I think our response to illness is often like that.
So prayer for me, is words + intention+ plus working with the resources we have towards the desired end. That doesn’t mean prayer always works, just like a doctor can fail, just like our best efforts can miss the mark, just as the odds may have been bigger then we anticipated. Prayer is not some magic that fixes this. It may be a determination to try, which is certainly a first step.
I believe God works with constituent elements of a situation, the resources at hands and us. Now, the past is past and cannot be undone. So no, God can’t stop a speeding bullet. That trajectory is already happened, it’s objectified and every other event which follows happens from that fact. But God can work with the future, with possibility. But I should be clear, not any possibility, but those that have a chance to be actualized, what sometimes is known as potencies. I can’t pray to join the NBA. Not only because I’ve doing nothing to achieve that end but physically I’m just not equipped. Age wise I’m not either. But I could pray to be a better pastor, I could pray to increase my love for my spouse, I could pray for a response to homelessness in Norman OK.
So prayer is not magic or words. Prayer is responding to the possibilities in our mix that can affect the good in life. It can respond to racism today, it cannot undo the transtatlantic slave trade. It could move us to reparations though. There’s any number of disasters, there are facts from previous events, they are the constituent elements of our natural world, there is the way various elements work together to produce any given situation. In that I believe God is the name we give to what is in that mix which is bringing out the good, and life, and an opening of possibilities in those contexts. So I don’t see God in earthquakes, but I do see God in disaster relief teams seeking to help people and to rebuild.
Is there anything in your life that makes you doubt God’s existence?
No, nothing. Because I believe we all, in fact, experience those contexts that make for life, for transformation, for the good. God is our word for that and I could no more doubt it then I could doubt anything else in my experience of the world. In God we move and have our being as some poets have been known to say.
How would your life change if you had serious doubts about God’s existence?
I’d have a different theology then.
Was Jesus white?
Why does God seem more likely to answer the prayers of a talented athlete than a starving child overseas?
God is able to affect change given the elements involved in the situation. So an honest prayer to God would move us to change how goods and resources are distributed so that every African can experience the full possibilities of life, of education, and of health that we would have for all people.
Why does God Seem [sic] to hate Africa?
God doesn’t but we seem to if our history towards Africa is any indication (theft of resources, enslavement, colonialism, etc)
If a group of Africans swooped in to your community with the intention of converting you and your neighbors to their tribal faith, what would your reaction be?
Not a fan of converting folks. But I am a fan of conversation though.
Does God speak to you?
Yes. Through the natural world, through the collective wisdom of our given religious traditions, through the development of knowledge, through family and loved ones including my two cats.
If God spoke to you and told you to kill someone, would you do it?
No, it wouldn’t be God then (so now you know something of my take on the Abraham and Isaac story)
Is God always watching you?
How about when you’re on the toilet?
I don’t believe God is a super human being, like us but bigger, so no.
How do you respond when someone who’s not a Christian tells you about their religious faith?
If it is an open conversation, I’m delighted.
Do you listen and consider what they have to say or do you just ignore them because they don’t believe what you believe?
I seek to listen though I’m better at interfaith dialog than probably talking to my evangelical brothers and sisters. That’s my own weakness.
What do you make of Muslims who think the Koran is the true holy book?
I believe it can be holy, but not *the* book
Are they wrong?
I think anyone who has only one source of religious truth may be limited in that regard.
Have you read the Koran?
Yes, in English
Why do you dismiss them so easily?
I don’t think anyone should be dismissed except for those who will not converse.
Is homosexuality itself a sin?
Should gays and lesbians have the right to get married?
Why would God make people gay and then punish them for being gay?
God doesn’t punish folks for being gay
If God’s already sending gay people to hell, why do you feel the need to persecute them here on Earth [sic]?
Again these questions presume a stance many mainline and progressive churches would not have. But given the prevalence of anti gay attitudes in the wider church, I think it is incumbent especially on us liberals to be publicly active in working for LGBT equality in the church, in our schools, and in our society
Why does God playing [sic] hide and seek with all of humanity?
I think God is in all that makes for life, for love, for transformation so even when limited by us and by circumstance, I think humanity encounters God in every day and in every moment.
Do you believe Jesus is coming back to Earth during your lifetime?
No, but I wish the kingdom of God was. But we get glimpses now and again, in those moments where people are treated with dignity and justice.
If you do, what do you say to the many generations of people who have been saying that for centuries?
It may be a desire to escape the world. We should rather embrace it.
Why is the story of Jesus’ birth and life so similar to that of mythological beings well before his time?
While some of the links have been exaggerated, we should not be surprised that people tell stories based on what they know, use terms and ideas from the surrounding culture. How would we do otherwise?
How do you decide which sections of the Bible are literally true and which ones are just metaphorical?
There are two levels in this question.There is the literary genre question. That is, some stories are stories, some are history, some are parables, some are ethical teachings so the genre will determine how we read it. And then there’s the question of appropriation, how should the church receive these stories and ideas in the Bible. That is a conversation that happens with the text, the resources of our tradition, what we know of the world given our lived experience, our knowledge derived from various disciplines, etc. That’s an ongoing conversation any community would have.
What are the minimum requirements for being a Christian?
Participates in the conversation that this tradition has spawned, through joining a church, through engaging the tradition, it’s scripture, its rites, in seeing in the Christian story something about our own salvation and transformation.
And who falls under that definition?
Fred Phelps? Yes
Pat Robertson? Yes
James Dobson? Yes
President Obama? Yes
Do your really believe Mary was impregnated without ever having sex?
If someone came up to you and said she was pregnant but she was totally a virgin, would you believe her?
Why did God have to rape a teenage girl in order to become human?
You’re not reading the story right, this isn’t an account of rape.
If you could go back in time when Jesus was being crucified, would you try to save Him or would you stand back and do nothing because your entire faith depends on Him being crucified?
My faith doesn’t depend on him being crucified, if I could have stopped it I would have. It is his life that opens us up to God, that doesn’t exclude his death and how he responds in that, anymore then you could remove that from Socrate’s story. And yet it is not the end of the story.
What would it take to change your mind in God’s existence?
The reality to me is self evident. The question would be a linguistic one, does the term God help us orientate to saving realities we experience or does it not?
Do you think it is a little strange when someone says they’re gonna believe in something no matter what, even when all the evidence seems to point in the other direction?
Indeed it would
What is something your pastor has said in church that you totally disagree with?
At least partially disagreed with. If i was fully in disagreement with a pastor I probably would not be attending that church. But I rarely find someone who agrees with me 100% of the time.
And when that happened, did you confront your pastor about it or did you just let it slide?
I don’t feel the need for everyone to fully agree with me. If the disagreement could produce an interesting and productive conversation then I’ve initiated that before.
Why are there so many different Christian denominations?
They represent the full breadth and diversity that is the human condition. Who would want it any other way?
And are the people who are in those different denominations bad Christians, are they wrong?
No, that would be silly
Which denomination is right?
Many right denominations out there
Or, which group of denominations is right?
Well I’m favorable to those denominations which welcome women’s leadership, full LGBT inclusion, and don’t ask me to deny what I know about the world to join their church.
Who or what do you think is responsible for natural disasters, like earthquakes and tsunamis?
The natural world
Can you pause the video right now and tell me what the Ten Commandments are?
And if you know them (and good for you if you do), why do so many Christians believe the first four of them belong on government property and in classes?
They don’t. I don’t know why other Christians want the government to push religion except to say that some folks believe their faith is validated in that. But they are wishing for something that can be turned against them in the end. It’s best to keep church and state separate.
Would you feel comfortable saying the pledge of allegiance in class everyday if the words were “one nation under no God, with liberty and justice for all”?
No. In fact some religious traditions oppose pledges all together. I’d just assume we did that as well.
Do you think it’s just a coincidence that different religions are popular in different parts of the world?
Not at all. In fact, religion like language, represent ways of seeing the world that is fully enmeshed in their cultural context. And that diversity can give us a richness in how we can see and describe our world. It would be better if we gained from that instead of trying to fight or reduce those languages, religions, cultures, etc.
Do you believe that if you were born in Saudi Arabia, you would be a Muslim rather than a Christian?
Is it possible that religion has less to do with what’s true and more to do with the circumstances of where and when you were born?
Both actually. It’s the circumstance of where I was born but we have no access to truth removed from our language, our culture, our way of living in and describing the world. This includes science which is also a thoroughly historical, cultural phenomena as well, even as it is reliable.
Do you believe childbirth is an example of a miracle?
Yes. If a miracle reveals that of God, then childbirth is a miracle.
Does that mean Hitler was once a “miracle baby”?
Yes, filled with wonders and possibilities for the good that was never actualized. So while tragic, his birth did reveal God.
And if childbirth is a miracle, how come that miracle happens thousands and thousands of times every week?
Miracles are like that. They tend to be right under our nose if we would be open to them.
As a side note, these are not official answers of some religious bodies. They represent one progressive Christian pastor’s take on these questions.
Dwight Welch is the new pastor at the United Church of Norman, Oklahoma