Why I am an Atheist Who Believes in God: How to give love, create beauty and find peaceWhy I am an Atheist Who Believes in God: How to give love, create beauty and find peace by Frank Schaeffer
Originally written on goodreads while 30,000 feet over the east coast.

Like someone else said, the book is full of one liners. As I tweeted my way through the book, you could see how offended dogmatic people were by the title.

If you can make it past the title, though, you will find that he has written an book full of honest uncertainty, one that shows how you can give up on the certainty of youth without becoming lost in cynicism and bitterness.

Jesus and the Samaritan woman1A year or so ago, I came across the following quote: “other people’s real lives were more important than my mere beliefs.

I copied this to my twitter feed and someone responded with a comparison to adultery and a story Philip Yancy told in a book he wrote about a person who excused his adultery with God’s grace saying, in essence, “God will forgive me.”

The story about Yancy’s friend raises a good point. Sin can hurt other people.  The person who sent me the story said “sexual sins hurt so many people”.

Yes, it is obvious that some sins have the power to really hurt other people. But I’m not sure that adultery is the same as homosexuality in this sense at all.

Adultery is not a sexual sin so much as a breaking of vows, and as a result, destroying trust and confidence — causing real and lasting harm. I’m not sure how adultery can really compare to a mutually exclusive homosexual relationship.

Adultery as a sin is not even about sex. Someone could have a non-sexual relationship with a co-worker and cause jealousy in and harm to his life-long partner (for example, his wife) if it began to compete with his relationship with his partner.

Sex is definitely a powerful urge and we can easily fool ourselves into doing things that are painful to a lot of people if we are not careful with our sexual desire, but I don’t see anywhere in the Bible that God picks “sexual sin” out as a special category deserving of careful consideration.

Jesus summed up the Law and prophets with two commands: “Love the Lord … Love your neighbor”. I can see making an argument from the perspective of purity that homosexuality violates the first commandment, but I don’t think homosexuality itself violates the second. Adultery, on the other hand, definitely violates the “Love your neighbor” bit.

Still, the first commandment (and the purity argument) is ignored every day. A couple of examples are in order:

First, America has an obesity epidemic. (I’m a “victim” of this epidemic if you use BMI to measure it.)  Obesity can be evidence of gluttony — a misplaced desire for food, and one of the deadliest sins — definitely a violation of the purity argument.

And, while times are changing, we still treat people who take God’s name in vain — one of the ten commandments, arguably more important than anything the Bible says about homosexuality, and another argument from purity — with more humanity than homosexuals.

This brings me to this bit from St Issac:

If zeal had been appropriate for putting humanity right, why did God the Word clothe himself in the body, using gentleness and humility in order to bring the world back to his Father?

Too often we confuse zeal for purity.  Even if we are pure as the driven snow, pride — another one of the deadliest sins — can creep up on us and we’ll become zealous in our pursuit of purity and start ignoring the admonition to “Judge not”.

Don’t mistake what I’m saying as an “excuse” for sin. I’m no more excusing my friend’s sins than I am my own lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, or pride.  But just as I pray for God’s mercy and hope in it, I hope for God’s mercy for others.

It is true that there are prophets in the Bible who pointed out other people’s sin.  And maybe you are like John the Baptist who zealously pointed out Herod’s sin, but I prefer to follow St. Issac here and emulate Christ’s gentler example.

Christ sat down with the woman at the well even though he knew she wasn’t pure and said “I do not condemn you” to the woman caught in the act of adultery. He said “I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world.

I suppose it is just a sign of my lukewarm ways that I’m more comfortable trying to be like Jesus here than John.

Asian food.jpgLast night, I ate dinner twice. The first time I got an education about Israel’s wars in 1967 and 1973.

But at the second dinner, Amir told me he read my blog. So, of course, this post is about the discussion I had with him then.

He asked me why I make a point that I am Orthodox when I talk about my Christianity here. I suppose that from the outside, these differences look sort of petty. Yep, you’ve got bells and smells and they have a praise band. So what?

The first part of my answer was from Stuff White People Like: It is different than my parent’s religion. I remember when my wife and I were looking at Orthodoxy some 15 years ago. There were a lot of heated discussions with my parents — especially my dad. That made an impact on me and, even though the differences don’t mean much to someone who isn’t a Christian, they mean a lot to me. It is a distinct part of my identity. The point is not that if you’re the wrong kind of Christian (let alone an atheist) you are going to hell. Instead, it is simply a restatement of my identity.

To borrow from Tom Morris post on identity embracement, I’m an Orthodox, freetarded capitalist, and a straight, white, American father of four. When I post about an area where I feel like my identity is in the minority — like being an Orthodox Christian American — I dwell on it a bit more and that is reflected in what I write.

(Photo credit: No, that isn’t my dinner.  It is from John Martinez Pavliga and used under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.)

Armored-car-Manila.jpgDerren Brown has produced a number of British TV Shows about priming that are really fascinating to watch. Even though he is a public figure, he is able to use priming to get people to do things they wouldn’t normally do, including, in one show, robbing an armed car.

I just started reading You are Not so Smart, and the first chapter was on priming, appropriately enough.

Priming is all about the subconscious — the extra-rational — something that, over the millennial, religions have adapted to. In the West, though, we don’t really seem to value things we can’t reason our way towards. You can see this in Christianity before the Enlightenment and even before the Protestant Reformation — even before the advent of Thomism — in the Roman Catholic dogma of transubstantiation.

The Church saw “This is my body” and dogmatized the premise that made that statement literally true. Eastern Christians, who have been more comfortable with a mystical understanding of truth, simply accepted the statement as true without the need for philosophical and dogmatic exercises.

Over time, I’ve come to the opinion that the different directions the Eastern and Western churches took on the idea of what has come to be known as the “real presence” are reflected in a lot of other areas — including what I have been calling the modern Cult of Reason.

So, what does all this have to do with psychological priming?

Priming is what happens when you act in a way that is largely influenced by your extra-rational mind. Priming is dependent upon cues that come from your environment. Derren Brown is adept at creating these sorts of cues for people, but you can also see these cues in the Liturgy of any Eastern Church. The smells, sights and sounds (which have all been developed over the centuries) all prime the person and provoke an extra-rational response.

In the West, many protestant denominations explicitly shy away from creating this sort of “heavenly” environment. Many Mennonite churches, for example, explicitly shy away from any environmental cues. While they certainly are not as explicit in their rationalism as others – Presbyterians, for example — they’re like so many in the West who don’t seem to see any use in anything that cannot be rationally explained.

But, as You are Not so Smart makes clear, even in the first chapter on Priming, we are not the rational, thoughtful creatures we imagine ourselves to be.

Today I got my copy of “Fr Alexander Men; Martyr of Atheism”.

Since I like to read this sort of book with my kids, I sat down with them and we read the first chapter.

The book starts out with a broad overview of the history of the Church in Russia to provide a context for Fr Men’s birth and life. This is good for those, like me, who are mostly ignorant of history. As I’m sure many of you know, the Church in Russia did not have an easy time.

As is clear from the first chapter, the Church became dependent upon the State and then had to cope when the States protection disappeared.

My curiosity was piqued, though, by mention of the aborted Council of Moscow in 1918. The author says it had potential to be Russia’s Vatican II but, instead, became a dead letter. Research is needed!

In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, this week is Cheesefare week and last Sunday was Meatfare Sunday — the last Sunday to eat meat before fasting begins in earnest.

What struck me this year, though, were the first two sentences of the Epistle this Sunday:

Brethren, food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do.

Right when I could get bogged down in legalism and judging others, they have to give me this thought: I’m no better off.

They really know me.

Related to this, Fr Stephen writes about the scandal of the Gospel in a way we don’t often think of it:

…the radical forgiveness of everyone for everything…

When I showed my kids my last post they said I should write about some of their experiences.

I should post a picture here of my kids. I know they don’t look like your typical Mennonites, but neither do they look very asian. But, yes, I’m biased and I see them every day, so I could easily be missing something.

First there is the silly, thoughtless racism. Kids are still saying “Ching Chang Chong” to anyone they think of as Chinese. The first time a kid said this to my wife I was surprised. She gave them quite a tongue-lashing, though. I’m surprised that my son reports kids’ say this to him. This is, as he said, just ignorance.

Some people are simply curious. My 7-year-old daughter says a boy asked his brother to ask her if she was Chinese. This isn’t really prejudice, just kind of cute curiosity.

One guy really annoys Ginger with his stupid, racist comments like bugging her about Miss May, a Chinese substitute teacher as if Ginger knows this person’s personal details. Even though the school offers Chinese as a spoken language (what one of her friends called “chink” accidentally before correcting herself) for students to learn, some still ask her if she can speak “Asian” — as if it were one language. They also think that my children all go to the same church with the other Asian children.

Which is weird because even though we have a Mennonite background and name, we attend a Greek church.

I think a lot of this comes down to tribalism. Just by getting married, Alexis and I haven’t stuck with the tribe. And when we started going to a Greek church, that was yet another non-tribal activity. In a small town like ours, People aren’t used to those who don’t stick to their tribe’s customs, and they’re curious and (sometimes) rude as a result.

Question: When is a person sure of having arrived at purity?

Answer: When that person considers all human beings are good, and no created thing appears impure or defiled. Then a person is truly pure in heart.

The person who is genuinely charitable not only gives charity out of his own possessions, but gladly tolerates injustice from others and forgives them. Whoever lays down his soul for his brother acts generously, rather than the person who demonstrates his generosity by his gifts.

Rebuke no one, revile no one, not even those who live very wickedly.

Let yourself be persecuted, but do not persecute others.

If zeal had been appropriate for putting humanity right, why did God the Word clothe himself in the body, using gentleness and humility in order to bring the world back to his Father?

St Isaac the Syrian

Last night in Choir we sang some traditional Orthodox Christmas Hymns along with the more typical Western hymns. Since I’m in the choir, I had to pay more attention to the words. The one that I really liked was this one that revealed the awesome presence of God in the plain setting of the Christmas Event:

“I behold a strange but very glorious mystery: Heaven — the cave;
The throne of the Cherubim — the Virgin.
The manger — the receptacle in which Christ our God,
Whom nothing can contain, is lying”.

Other than that, it has been a quiet Christmas day. My wife grew up a devout Catholic immigrant and she and I have been working to preserve “peasant traditions” (as she calls them) of a humble Christmas. Our Christmas remains (largely because of her efforts) a religious holy-day. In that vein, I am amused by the “War on Christmas” folks. While ranting about people’s season greetings, they continue to participate heavily in the consumer aspects of how Christmas is celebrated in the States. Which is not to say that I am offended by any of this: people are welcome to celebrate their holidays however they wish. God knows (and those who have even a passing acquaintance with me know) that I’ve had and will have my share of rants. I’m just a little bemused that people are offended that other people want to celebrate at the same time they do without sharing their faith. There is some special irony in the hoopla over the greetings. After all, is there any special religiosity in the phrase “Merry Christmas” (which we hear often enough here in the States from the Coca-Cola Santa) versus the Orthodox Christian greetings of “Christ is Born! Glorify Him!”