Tag Archives: atheists

The Problem with Religious People, Part 2

rick-warrenIn the aftermath of the tragic suicide of Rick and Kay Warren’s son Matthew, another tragedy is occurring: So-called followers of Jesus are using Matthew’s death as an occasion to attack Pastor Warren. This is sick, ugly, and sadly, indicative of the state of the body today.

It’s one thing for non-believers to make ridiculous statements like, “your son died due to your anti-gay hate toward gay people including your son” (as if there was even evidence that Matthew was gay, or as if he was not greatly loved by his mother and father, which he clearly was). It’s another thing when believers take this occasion to bash Rick Warren’s supposed theological errors, as if this was some kind of divine payback for his alleged sins. What kind of garbage is this?

-Dr. Michael L. Brown
“Enough with the Mean-Spirited Words Against Rick Warren (And Others)!”
CharismaNews.com

Yesterday, I read about the tragic suicide of well-known author and Pastor Rick Warren’s son Matthew. I have three adult children about the same age as Matthew and I can’t imagine any pain worse than facing the death of any of my children. Words cannot express the agony that Rick and Kay Warren must be enduring at this time, especially because they are people who are in the public eye. Whatever they experience, including heartrending grief, the world media watches them.

Imagine my surprise at reading Michael Brown’s article (I don’t usually read the source website, but I followed the link from Facebook), from which I quoted above, about how not only secular people are mistreating the Warren’s over the death of their son, but other Christians as well.

Really?

I know that Pastor Warren is a target for a number of reasons. Sometimes all it takes is just saying “I’m a Christian” in public. Some people, including many Christians, are critical of MegaChurches. Others, mainly secular folks, are critical of Warren for what they perceive as his “anti-gay” stance. Some of his critics have gone so far as to claim that Pastor Warren’s son Matthew was gay (which has not been substantiated to the best of my knowledge) and that it was Rick Warren’s disapproval of that “fact” which resulted in Matthew’s suicide.

To give you some context, I followed a link from Brown’s article to twitchy.com, which collected a number of “tweets” people made on twitter regarding Matthew Warren’s suicide:

@GayPatriot: I would imagine. But if you’re gay and your dad is the biggest preacher in the country it could lead to mental health problems.

@boymv18: your son died due to your anti-gay hate toward gay people including your son..

@TheReallyRick: Son of Saddleback Church pastor Rick Warren has committed suicide. Place your bets on when its discovered he was gay. #ReligionKills

@BlazePhoenix_: Trust me, I AM being as charitable as I can be about hateful bigoted Pastor Rick Warren’s obvious failure with his own son!

The beat goes on and you can visit the “twitchy” website to read the rest of the “commentary.” It’s not pretty. I periodically encounter atheists on the web and their usual stance is to accuse me of moral failings because I “need religion to be a good person.” The assumption is that it’s better to be a good person based on who you are rather than who you serve.

Uh huh. Color me unconvinced.

michael-brownAnyway, what about Christians criticizing Warren? Brown’s article didn’t quote any Christian criticism nor provide links to websites or blogs taking Pastor Warren to task, so I (briefly) tried to find a few. I didn’t do well at all. The two primary Christian sites I found writing on the topic were Christianity Today and Christian News. Both sites presented straightforward news articles without editorializing excessively, especially in any negative light. I looked at the comments on each site in response, and found that they were universally kind and compassionate.

From the Christianity Today blog:

Loretta: I am so very sad for this family and their great loss. The enemy of God’s people attacks us where he can hurt us the worst, in our families. I will pray for your family’s healing from the Lord. I trust that this young man knew the Lord as his personal Savior and that knowing that will bring the Warren family hope and comfort.

Barbara: I am so sorry, I know the battle, my daughter suffers from depression for many years and she has just turned 27yrs old. I pray everyday for her and others. why do they have to go through this, I am so sorry, I belive Jesus has him now and now he can work on him and bring him to the promise land, May Jesus bless you all .Barbara a mom.

Paul: This is very sad indeed. May the Warrens at this time experience abundant comfort and peace from our God and Father. And may the young man’s soul rest in peace. Amen!

The comments at Christian News were similar:

I am so sorry for your loss. My father committed suicide when I was 3 years old, I will spend my life wanting to help the broken hearted and show them our heavenly fathers love! My prayers are with the Warren family and friends. I pray the do not “what if” but say “what now God!” I love the Warrens for all that they as a pastor and family have given to us. I pray all of our words spoken to this family are filled with love and grace. We all mean well, listen and pray for them! Praying now!!
Mary Ann Moore, Sebastopol, CA

Linda Long: We are so sorry for the loss of your son. We also lost our son to suicide. It’s a Pain that never goes away, but we have an amazing God that will give you all the strength you need to get through this difficult time. Our prayers and thoughts are with you and family. God bless you!

If there is Christian criticism against the Warrens in relation to the death of their son, I can’t find any. That’s probably good, because I periodically have problems with religious people and even sometimes lose my faith in religious people ever having the ability to truly follow the will of God.

Atheists are expected to be mean-spirited and cruel (not that all of them are) but Christians are to aspire to a higher standard. More’s the pity when we don’t.

However, Brown’s focus wasn’t on Rick Warren who, as I said before, is an easy target for a variety of reasons. His focus was on mean-spirited Christians and how we are exceptionally poor witnesses to the world around us when we are unkind and inconsiderate.

Interestingly enough, in Bible study last Sunday, we studied 1 Peter 2 which includes instructions on how to be good examples and good witnesses for Christ in a pagan world:

Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.

1 Peter 2:11-12

failureIf there are Christians who are publicly criticizing Pastor Rick Warren and his wife Kay for any reason at this difficult time in their lives, you should be ashamed of yourselves. If there are Christians specifically criticizing the Warrens for somehow participating or causing their son’s suicide, again, you should be ashamed. Whatever differences you may think you have with the Warrens or however you may feel about Pastor Warren’s theology, doctrine, or the nature and character of his church, does any of that really matter right now? If someone is grieving…if anyone is grieving, isn’t it our responsibility to show comfort and compassion in the name of Christ?

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.

John 13:34

The implication is that we should love each other, not just in a “warm and fuzzy feeling” way, but with the same sort of love that Messiah loves us…love that’s self-sacrificing…loving someone enough that you would die for them if you had to.

Brown finishes his article with this:

Sadly, it is not just active Christians who frequent Christian websites. There are plenty of former-believers and outright non-believers who visit them too, and all too often, our inability to be civil in the midst of our disagreements, our extreme willingness to identify fellow-believers as false prophets and false teachers, our self-assumed right to judge the motivation of people’s hearts, and our utter violation of Jesus’ command to love one another as he loved us simply demonstrates to the world that our gospel is not true.

May this be the day we search our hearts, determining to watch our words, repent of our sins, and glorify the Lord with everything we write and say. Surely he deserves nothing less than this.

And remember: The world is watching.

The world is watching. We can choose to either sanctify the Name of God or desecrate it. Our choice, and by our choice, people will make decisions for or against God.

And also remember it’s not just people who are watching. God watches as well.

Advertisements

Separating Good from God

returning-the-torahThe campaign of the Greeks was aimed to “make them forget Your Torah and violate the decrees of Your will” (Sidur p. 59); as the Midrash (Bereishit Raba 16) puts it, (the Greeks demanded) “Write…that you have no share in the G-d of Israel.” It was a war against G-d. “Let them study Torah,” the Greeks implied. “Let them practice the justice-mitzvot and the ‘testimonial’ observances. But they must not mention that the Torah is G-d’s Torah and the mitzvot are the decrees of His will. Torah and mitzvot must be severed from G-dliness.”

“Today’s Day”
Thursday, Tevet 2, Seventh Day of Chanuka, 5703
Compiled by the Lubavitcher Rebbe
Translated by Yitschak Meir Kagan
Chabad.org

Why should any religion get the credit for people doing good, but not get the credit for people doing bad?

I think it should be consistent either way, don’t you? Either the church gets all the credit or none of it. You can’t just give it the good and ignore the bad.

-comment from NotAScientist
on my blog post
When Christians Do Good

Typically, one of the criticisms non-religious people level against Christians and other people of faith is that we need some sort of excuse to do the right thing. We use our faith and our religion as an external motivator to do good when, as human beings, we should just know how to do good and do the right thing because it’s the right thing.

This gets muddied up further when definitions about what “right” happens to be differ between religious and non-religious populations and certain social priorities and “causes” become involved. Then too, the matter of the “supernatural” vs. the “rational” is also injected into the argument, with rational, scientific atheism and secular humanism weighing in on the side of “thinking” as opposed to “believing”.

In doing a little research into “atheist advertising” for this blog post, I found a number of clever slogans that atheists use to promote their particular viewpoint. One was on the side of a New York City bus and read…

“You don’t have to believe in God to be a moral or ethical person”

The ad then provided the URL to the New York City Atheists website (see the story at The New York Times for details).

But that takes us back to the “Today’s Day” quote at the top of this blog post and interestingly enough, Chanukah.

As you’re reading this, Chanukah has just ended (at sundown Sunday night) but the lessons it teaches us are still fresh in my mind. Why would the Greeks be content to continue to allow the Jews to perform the Torah mitzvot and to do justice, as long as they divorced those moral and ethical deeds and the Torah itself from the God of Israel? If you donate food to your local food bank because you believe that helping others is the right thing to do, and I perform the same act in response to the will of God, what difference does it make? Hungry people are still fed either way, right?

atheist_christmas_adWell yes, hungry people are still fed either way. Someone can enjoy a donated meal without wondering about the motivation of the person who provided it. Their belly will be just as full and they can feel just as grateful to the person who helped them out. I can understand why an atheist would make such a statement, but why would the ancient Greeks, who had no end of gods of their own, want to say something like that about the Jews? Why separate the good deed from the ultimate author of the good deed, God?

Pinchas arose and wrought judgment, and so the plague was checked.

Psalms 106:30

The word tefillah, or “prayer,” has its origin in the word pallel, which means “to seek justice.” Prayer should therefore be an activity whereby one seeks justice. The first recorded prayer in Jewish history is that of the Patriarch Abraham. He sought justice for the people of Sodom and pleaded with God to spare them (Genesis 18:23-33). Thus, when we pray, whether for ourselves or for others, it should be with the understanding that we are seeking justice.

How, then, can we ask of God to grant our various requests? Are we deserving of this? Do we deserve them? Are they within the realm of justice?

Two answers come to mind. If, as part of our prayers, we admit the wrongs we have done, sincerely regret them, and commit ourselves not to repeat them, then we may indeed be deserving. We therefore do not make our requests on the basis of what we are, but on the basis of what we will be. Second, if we extend ourselves by forgiving people who have offended us and acting with kindness toward them, then God’s acting accordingly toward us can in itself be considered justice.

Thus, teshuvah (the process of regret and return) and gemilas chasadim (acts of kindness) are the foundations of prayer.

Today I shall…

try to do teshuvah, and to act toward others in a way that I wish God to act toward me.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
“Growing Each Day, Tevet 1”
Aish.com

I don’t have some wise commentary or a learned sage to draw from to answer the question I posed above, but there seems to be one difference between the atheist’s motivations and the reason a person of faith does good: the definer and creator of good.

If man is the final arbitrator of what is good and evil, then good and evil changes over time, changes between nations and cultures, and changes from one individual to the next. What I may consider good, another person may see as evil. What I can justify within my own conscience may be considered tremendously heinous within another’s moral structure.

But God is God. He does not change and thus what is good does not change.

And what is good?

And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.”

Mark 10:18 (ESV)

OK, it’s not that simple. I’ve mentioned before that religion and how we understand God evolves over time. Besides that, even just within Christianity, various denominations and even individuals who go to the same church can differ on a number of political and social issues in terms of what is “good” and “evil.” Should you pray for the well-being of President Obama or pray against his health and safety? You may believe the answer to that question is clear, but I promise you that no matter what your answer may be, there is a believer out there who has the opposite answer, and yet both of you believe you are in the right because of God and the Bible.

But even though we have that monkey wrench in the machine, I still believe it is better to seek out God in matters of right and wrong than to universally rely on our own judgment and feelings. I’ve been writing recently about the Sandy Hook school shootings and it is only the most recent of the many debates you will find on how to address violence in our society. What is the right thing to do? What is the ethical and moral thing to do in response to the death of 26 people, including 20 small children?

symmes_chapel_churchI don’t know.

I do know that even those of us who turn to the God of the Bible for our strength and our hope don’t always agree on the answer. How much more must a secular world with only the standard of public opinion dispute each other, disagree, and contend?

I don’t know the answer. But I am thankful that when I have to ask the question, I don’t have to ask another human being who is just as hurt, sorrowful, and angry as I am.

If my sense of right and wrong became detached from God, even if my basic behavior and my concept of what is good did not change, I would be at the mercy of the opinion of whatever group of people I chose to listen to or worse, I would have to depend upon the voice of my own personal thoughts and feelings.

I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.

Psalm 121:1-2 (ESV)

It was God who took a family and made them a people and a nation too numerous to count. If the Greeks had succeeded and caused the Jews to detach the Torah from God, Israel too would become detached and ultimately lost. It is God who redeems the soul of every living person and from whose hand we receive what each of us needs at its proper time. Without God, we too would be lost.

Blowing Out a Candle

They DID NOT choose their religion. They were brain-washed into it. Religion is a matter of geography. Religion is a matter of the family you were born into.

THINK! It is not you who chose your religion, it was chosen for you! It is time to move on, to realize that religion is man made. Become who you are, an individual, an atheist!

From an image posted on Facebook
by Spread Logic and Reason

Disclaimer: This is a rant. This isn’t what I normally post here as a “meditation.” Frankly, I’m getting a little tired of being pushed around by a bunch of folks on the web who think they can take an image, manipulate it with some text, and use it to complain about how bad religion is. Today, I decided to push back.

I first saw this bit of Internet meme “shared” by a Facebook friend and a person I’ve known for many years. He’s a person I hold in high regard but we obviously have different viewpoints on religion. If I had seen this coming from almost anyone else, I would have ignored it, but I consider this person an actual friend, so naturally, it hurts.

Here’s my initial response to seeing this image:

I turn 58 tomorrow. I didn’t become a Christian until I was over 40. I used to be an atheist, primarily because the prevailing culture around me was atheist and it seemed to make sense at the time. Then I started thinking for myself. Why would I let the culture around me choose my religion and my identity for me? Why would I let an Internet meme choose my identity for me?

And what have I ever done to you that you should try to change my identity into what you think would be better for me? I’m not trying to change you.

Then I thought about it some more while doing my lawn, came back over lunch and expanded my answer:

It occurs to me that all cultures and people groups have their various values and customs that are passed on from one generation to another. Most liberal progressives don’t complain about cultural diversity, even if it radically differs from their own, because they recognize that people have the right to observe their native customs and certainly, in the vast majority of cases, liberal progressives and atheists don’t demand that other people groups who are not white, middle-class Americans, change their ways just because they are different than the white, middle-class American atheist’s ways.

Islam and Judaism are closely tied to national, ethnic, cultural, and racial identity. Why isn’t is considered racism, prejudice, and bigotry for you to demand that Jews and Arabs refrain from passing on their values and beliefs to their children? Are you (the general “you”…not naming anyone specifically) more equipped to tell the rest of the world to live your lifestyle? Don’t you pass on your values (atheism, progressive liberalism) to your children?

Why are you trying to control everyone else in the world?

To be fair, between my first comment and my second, my friend said:

Jim, if you had been born in Saudi Arabia and were atheist, assuming you survived to 40, the odds are more likely you would have become Muslim. This isn’t really about an Internet meme, but an historical fact. It exited loooooong before the Internet. 99% of people grow up believing what their parents did. Why did none of the natives in the Americas become Christian for 1500 year. That you decided to for a different belief system than your environment does not alter the facts. You are an exception.

I can see his point, but I think he (and a lot of people like him) are missing something. In making statements and posting photos such as the one I put at the top of this blog post, aren’t atheists trying to say that their viewpoint, lifestyle, and values system is superior to everyone else’s? I know that many religions, particularly Christianity, are accused of exactly the same thing and I know from personal experience (having once been an agnostic leaning toward atheism) that having to listen to a Christian evangelist can be really annoying.

But what about all that “diversity” stuff? If progressive liberalism and atheism supports generally being accepting of racial, cultural and ethnic diversity, then isn’t complaining about how different ethnic, cultural, and racial groups choose to raise their children and pass on their values a type of bigotry? While Christianity isn’t tied to a particular nationality, race, ethnicity, or culture, Islam and Judaism certainly are. How can the comments espoused by this group of people be seen as anything but prejudiced and even racist?

Yes, I’m coming on strong. Yes, today I’ve decided to feed the trolls. But it seems like everyone is supposed to have rights to this, that, and the other thing in this world…except religious people. Not only is this group of atheists guilty of the same acts they say religion commits: exclusivism and rejection of the values and lifestyles of other people groups, but they’re also guilty of what the rest of the world sees Americans as doing: attempting to spread our own values and lifestyle to the rest of the world and using our own cultural lens to judge the right and the wrong of other people, cultures, and nations.

How are these atheists any more morally correct than any religious person?

“Blowing out someone else’s candle does not make your’s burn any brighter.”

-Anonymous

Dear people who don’t like religion,

How does complaining about religious people make the world a better place? What do you gain by “going after” Muslims, Jews, and Christians? Do you plan on taking on Buddhists and Wiccans next? Has the Dalai Lama somehow offended you? If you really want to spend your time and energy being useful and helping others, please step away from the computer and actually do something for another human being. Volunteer at a homeless shelter. Give cans of food to the local food bank. Spend an hour picking up trash in the parking lot of your neighborhood park. Hold the door open at a public building such as the library for a disabled person or a single mother who is trying to manage five children. Heck, just smile at a stranger once in a while because it’s the right thing to do.

Don’t complain about me or people like me, saying we’re the problem. Go out into the world and be the solution. If you do that, the problems will take care of themselves.

Signed, a fellow human being, who has volunteered, donated, picked up trash, held doors open, and who smiles occasionally at strangers.

Thank you.

Distance

Once in a while, He seems to be peeking through the latticework of our world, filling the day with light.

But then there are times He hides His face behind a thick wall, and we are confused.

We cry out to Him, loudly, for He must be far away.

He is not far away. For the latticework is His holy hand, and the walls themselves are sustained by His word.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Hiding Behind His Hand”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
Chabad.org

In Torah-study the person is devoted to the subject that he wishes to understand and comes to understand. In davening the devotion is directed to what surpasses understanding. In learning Torah the Jew feels like a pupil with his master; in davening – like a child with his father.

“Today’s Day”
Thursday, Tamuz 26, 5703
Compiled by the Lubavitcher Rebbe
Translated by Yitschak Meir Kagan
Chabad.org

I have to keep reminding myself that there is something bigger than humanity. If I ever stop, my faith in just about everything would completely collapse, especially in human beings. It seems like every time I turn about (virtually), someone else is saying that all religious people everywhere are fanatics. I have to keep reminding myself that, for some people, all they know about a life of faith is from those people and groups who only pretend to honor the God of the Bible. I have to remind myself that the only “Christians” some folks are aware of are those who use their religion as an excuse to spew out their vile, personal hate.

No wonder other religious people as well as agnostics and atheists hate Christians.

But it makes me wonder.

If all Christians everywhere are judged by the behaviors of a few, fringe fanatics, doesn’t that make the people doing the judging prejudiced and bigoted?

I know that even the best among the body of faith take heat for evangelizing to the “unsaved”. From the Christian’s point of view, he or she is fulfilling the mandate from Christ (Matthew 28:18-20) and sincerely trying to keep another living human being from “eternal damnation” (I put these terms in quotes because they are very “Christian-centric” and not easily understood outside the church).

I know that although we are not of the world, we are supposed to be in it (John 15:19, Romans 12:2), if only to live the lives we are created for, to do our part in repairing the world, and to prepare our environment for the Master’s return (“and even though he may delay, nevertheless every day I anticipate that he will come”…from the Rambam’s Thirteen Principles of Faith).

But most of the rest of the world still thinks I’m a schmuck.

Trying to convince them that not all people of faith are “the enemy” seems hopeless. The secular “haters” outnumber me by quite a bit, and as I’ve said before, I guess I should have expected this. I guess it’s especially difficult to take when people who I like and otherwise get along with continually bombard me with “religion is evil” messages day in and day out.

Judaism’s answer, according to Rabbi Freeman’s interpretation of the Rebbe is:

The first thing needed to fix this world is that Jews should love each other and be united.

And this can begin even without a planning committee and without funding.

It can begin with you.

That can work for the church too, but this strategy often involves defining yourself by who or what you oppose. How can you oppose the world and not expect it (and them) to oppose you? Doesn’t that make it difficult to have conversations? Does that mean the church becomes a self-contained box and only talks inside of itself? How do you spread the Gospel of Christ that way, or do you only “spread” it inside the church?

All that said, maybe the only way to survive with faith intact is to withdraw periodically. I think that’s what prayer is like sometimes. It’s what Shabbat would be like for Christians if Shabbat were permitted to the non-Jew.

It’s almost a shame that my primary template for understanding Christianity is traditional Judaism, because the vast majority of Jews are completely opposed to everything I stand for. Somehow, I manage to fit a square peg into a round hole, but perhaps only in my own imagination.

Alone in silenceI’ve always thought that Christian hymns like just you and me, Jesus were terribly self-centered and driven by the desire to contain the King of the World within a single, human relationship, but I also see the appeal. It’s easy, when you don’t feel as if human beings are friendly, approachable, or even trustworthy, to want to withdraw from humanity all and only trust the Divine.

Of course, that strategy presupposes you have the ability to trust God, but then, that’s one of the interesting things about people who oppose religion. Sometimes people like them and people like me have a thing or two in common.

But I learned long ago that you have to trust someone. If God can’t be trusted, then life is hopeless.

Rabbi Freeman’s solution goes something like this:

Do kindness beyond reason.

Defy terror with beauty.

Combat darkness with infinite light.

I could spread light throughout the world from today until the day I die and most people would continually refactor and redefine the light as darkness, just in order to keep fitting me into how they define religion. In the end, I have to hide some tiny spark of His infinite light  deep inside of me and somehow manage keep it kindled. The horrible alternative is to surrender to terror and a perpetual descent into the abyss, watching both people and God dwindle in the increasing distance between us.

As opposed to people, God is supposed to be the ultimate inclusionist. I certainly hope so.

Struggling with the World, Part 2

From the anthropological perspective on the problem of evil, therefore, the prime concern is not so much to defend the notions of divine justice and power. It is rather, as in other personal relationships, to determine what measure of continuity, stability, and predictability can enable the relationship with God to survive all shocks. It is to identify the cluster of beliefs that supports a person’s will to persist in the face of tragedy and suffering. If the world I live in requires that I become overly vigilant because of the threat of danger striking at any moment, then how can I sustain commitment to a way fo life predicated on God’s covenantal love and justice?

How do we respond to events that can call into question our whole identity as God’s relational partners?

-Rabbi David Hartman
Chapter 8: “Rabbinic Responses to Suffering”
A Living Covenant: The Innovative Spirit in Traditional Judaism

Note: If you haven’t read Part 1 of this “meditation” already, please do so before proceeding here.

An atheist can dismiss such questions by dismissing God. The presence of tragedy, suffering, and evil can be accepted as conditions of a natural world filled with imperfect human beings. It can also be a world that, while imperfect, is struggling to develop toward a higher moral and ethical reality as indeed, progressivism strongly believes. Human beings then, establish and revise the foundations of our own morality, sometimes radically, as time advances and the concepts of rightness, mercy, and justice continue to evolve in societal consciousness.

The covenantal Jew on the other hand, perpetually wrestles with God as did Jacob (Genesis 32:22-32) before his confrontation with the (supposedly) murderous Esau. But it’s in that battle that a Jew struggles not only with God but with himself.

A covenantal religious consciousness is always vulnerable to self-doubt and to feelings of rejection and guilt. When suffering and tragedy have struck without any explanation once, twice, and repeatedly, individuals in the community no longer know what kind of world they are living in. Like Job, they may ask: “Why do You hide Your face and treat me like an enemy?” (Job 13:24)

-Hartman

But in Rabbi Hartman’s viewpoint, a Jew is not simply a conduit for the cosmic forces of an Almighty Being to use to manipulate the course of history or even personal events.

The acceptance of that responsibility therefore need not entail that paralyzing sense of guilt alleged in Paul’s criticism of the law. Nor does mitzvah demand unconditional obedience without rational discernment, since the halakhah expects from Jews not just a dedicated will to serve God but also a reflective, sensitive, and critical moral disposition.

This takes away the motivation for a covenantal Jew to say that “God told me to do it” when facing a moral decision or in responding to personal disaster. The Torah is not a static set of rules carved in stone but rather a moral imperative written on the living and beating heart of every Jew. Each situation must be examined and evaluated not only against the yardstick of tradition and the mitzvah, but as potentially a wholly new phenomenon that may require a completely unique and unanticipated response, framed within the organic, evolving Jewish moral and historical tapestry.

Returning to Rabbi Freeman’s commentary on Judaism and its response encountering the demands of a progressive culture, the Rebbe felt that modernity didn’t present a set of obstacles but only “challenges. Challenges chiding you to show your stuff. Show that stuff and do what a Jew has to do, and those challenges themselves lift you on their shoulders, carrying you high.”

To continue:

Every talk, every letter, every teaching of the Rebbe must be understood in that context: We are not prisoners within an ominous world; we are the agents of its Master. We are not here to placate the world, but to repair it; not to reform ourselves to its tastes, but to reform it to the tastes of its Creator; not to conserve Judaism, but to be an organic part of its flourishing growth; not to reconstruct it, but to use it to reconstruct our world. Because ours is not a Torah of the past, but one that beckons to us from a magnificent future.

The Rebbe’s response to the challenges of a world and its developing, progressive morality is to move one giant step backward and to take a “metaview” of that world. Human advancement and even human history is transitory. Modern liberal progressive thought acknowledges that morality is not a fixed entity and adapts across time and the needs of the human spirit. While the Rebbe no doubt had a more established sense of moral and ethical standards, he also understood that the world is not ownerless or that, human beings are not the only “landlords” of reality. The world has a Master and we are His agents.

The world of human events wasn’t something to be avoided, but to be encountered and wrestled with. Rabbi Freeman characterises the Rebbe’s response by saying that “he grabbed it by its horns and harnessed it to plow his field.” For the Rebbe, each Jew stands in this place:

When you stand in a place of enlightenment, the Rebbe so often taught, you may have boundless, infinite light—but you do not have G‑d Himself. In the void of light where this world was made; in the darkness of Jewish exile, where we must choose life from the depths and create our own light to find it; in a society that forces us to wake up, take the reins of our own lives and challenge everything—there we touch G‑d at the very core.

A Jew may be surrounded by darkness but he stands in a place of light and it is from that light, regardless of how hopeless the circumstance, he must proceed, carrying with him not only the strength of the traditions of the past, but the infinite hope of a future from which the Moshiach will emerge and where God will rescue His people. Atheism, progressivism, secular humanism are conditions to be wrestled with, to be “grabbed by its horns and harnessed,” but they are not defining, either of a Jew nor the world that is ultimately owned by God.

My understanding of all of this is that Judaism may wrestle with itself, with the demands of society, and ultimately with God, but it is the Jewish identity that remains the one constant that enables them as a people, to move forward, to survive not only challenges, but horrors, and that will see them finally standing at the foot of the throne of God, receiving His promises of life and peace.

As I’ve been writing this, I’ve been seeing a few elements that can be adapted to Christianity and those promises we expect to be fulfilled by our Master at the end of this age. But we must also learn to establish an identity that can engage our environment without fear or despair. Our “liability” as such, is that we Christians are commanded to not only encounter our neighbor and love him, but to attempt to convince him to adopt our faith and our worldview (which is something no Jew must face). In that, we present ourselves as agents of the world’s greatest benefactor while being perceived by many in the secular world as humanity’s greatest enemy.

We are ridiculed and reviled by atheists and humanists and in response, we struggle with our own doubts, retreat into concrete bunkers of inflexible dogma, or attack the inhabitants of an unbelieving world, thereby abandoning our evangelical imperative. But we can neither ignore the world nor hate it. We are commanded to live in it and to live with faith in God. Like the covenantal Jew, we must be anchored to our legacy who, for us, are the Apostles and disciples of ancient times, and also look to the hope of the future when Jesus returns.

In the meantime, like the Rebbe, we need to seize the world around us and live in it, though we are not of it. We must treat each person we encounter with love, respect, and dignity. Our values do not require that they respond in kind, only that we are consistent in imitating the example of our teacher and Master by being involved and by being a light.

We are not trapped between a hostile and violent army and a vast and unconquerable sea. We can move forward. The sea will part. But first, we have to get our feet wet.

Don’t be afraid.

Addendum: Just found an article at Commentary Magazine on liberal intolerance of religious folks (in this case, Jews) called Liberal Prejudice Against the Orthodox Crosses a Line. I can see we have a long way to go.

When We’re Left Behind

Teresa MacBain has a secret, one she’s terrified to reveal.

“I’m currently an active pastor and I’m also an atheist,” she says. “I live a double life. I feel pretty good on Monday, but by Thursday — when Sunday’s right around the corner — I start having stomachaches, headaches, just knowing that I got to stand up and say things that I no longer believe in and portray myself in a way that’s totally false.”

MacBain glances nervously around the room. It’s a Sunday, and normally she would be preaching at her church in Tallahassee, Fla. But here she is, sneaking away to the American Atheists’ convention in Bethesda, Md.

-by Barbara Bradley Hagerty
“From Minister to Atheist: A Story of Losing Faith”
NPR.org

When I read the NPR story, my immediate reaction was one of anger. I took the actions of ordained ministers who have become atheists and yet continue to serve in the pulpit as personally insulting and hypocritical. I also felt that NPR’s publishing of this story was an attack on Christians.

Of course, I shot my big mouth off on twitter and received replies asking why I felt that the telling of one person’s story on their journey of faith (even if it’s away from faith) was an attack on Christianity.

Good question. Why do I feel this way? If someone loses faith and a news agency decides to write a story about it, why do I care? For that matter, if some people choose to walk away from the church, why should I feel that they’re invalidating everything I believe in?

I don’t mind when people disagree with me. I don’t expect everyone in the world to have the same, thoughts, ideas, and opinions as I do. In fact, the world would be a pretty boring place if everyone were just like me. I actually enjoy a frank debate on interesting topics now and then. I guess it’s just the sense of being completely devalued, considered unintelligent, superstitious, and finally, irrelevant that bothers me. It’s one thing for a person to have never had faith and to refuse the option to consider God. It’s another thing entirely to be a person who was once devout and who helped others come to faith, do a complete u-turn and say God doesn’t matter anymore.

It’s like saying I don’t matter anymore, either. Faith isn’t something that I put on like a raincoat when the forecast is for thunder showers. Faith and trust in God is the fabric of my personality and the substance of my being. If we were once alike in our faith and you walk away, it’s like you’re saying who I am is no good anymore.

Two days later, MacBain returned to Tallahassee — and to reality.

“I didn’t know how far or how explosive her coming out would be, but, then again, nobody did,” says MacBain’s husband, Ray MacBain. “The next morning, we got up, I went to work and my son Alex texted me and said it went viral.”

The local TV station, WCTV, ran a series of stories about MacBain, interviewing her boss but never MacBain herself. Hundreds of people wrote comments on the site, and MacBain says they were painful to read.

“The majority of them, to begin with, were pretty hateful,” she says, although some nonbelievers soon came to her defense. “For somebody who’s been a good guy their whole life and been a people pleaser, it’s really hard to imagine that overnight you’re the bad guy.”

This is a very tragic consequence for a person, a member of the clergy, to experience when she “comes out of the closet” and admits to losing her faith. While the NPR story is very sympathetic to MacBain and others like her, I can see why people in the church would be angry.

broken-crossThere’s a sense of being betrayed. Imagine going through your own spiritual and emotional crisis. Who do you turn to for help? Often secular counselors, though well-meaning, just don’t understand the dynamics of a crisis of faith. For many people, the first person you turn to is your Minister or Pastor. You go to them, pour out your heart, fearing some “fire and brimstone” lecture, but hoping and praying he or she will understand. Then they do, they help you, they pray with you, and they gently guide you to a place where you feel like you can trust God again.

And then you find out they were lying between their teeth.

OK, it’s probably a lot more complex than that, and I certainly don’t want to be unfair to the practicing clergy who are atheists and enduring their own spiritual conflicts and crises in the pulpit, but yes, I do understand how the people around them could get very angry, could feel ripped off, and could feel discounted and even attacked.

It’s as if the one person in this world who you depend upon to be your spiritual anchor turns out to be made out of paper mache. I guess this is why we’re supposed to have faith in God and not in people, but for most human beings, it really helps to have someone spiritually stronger than you to rely upon when times get tough.

But people lose their faith. Really good and kind and wonderful people lose their faith. They go through hard times. They watch other people who they love go through hard times. Little children die of horrible diseases. Relationships are shattered. Where is a loving and compassionate God? I can see how faith could take quite a beating. Then your Minister announces to the world that she is an atheist.

Gee. What’s the point?

I’ve mentioned Joe and Heidi Hendricks before. I’ve mentioned they both have cancer. I’ve talked about the emotional roller coaster ride they’ve gone through on a daily basis for years and years. They are the two most remarkable people I know. I don’t know what holds them together…except their faith in God and their love for each other.

Put two Christians through identical horrible circumstances and then never let up on them. Hurt, terrify, and disappoint them over and over again until they both feel like they’re going to explode. Offer them comfort and hope, and then rip it away at the last possible second. What enables one Christian to endure with their faith intact or even strengthened, while the other’s faith is torn to shreds and they crawl away defeated, abandoning God as they feel they have been abandoned by God?

I don’t know. I’m not so cruel as to say one person’s faith was stronger or that the ‘weaker’ person didn’t have a ‘real’ faith at all. I can’t judge another person’s faith. I have no idea what they’re experiencing.

So if someone loses faith and walks away, what does that do to the rest of us? Why do we let it affect us at all? After all, it’s the other person’s decision. They’re making it for themselves. Pastors and Ministers and Rabbis are human beings after all. In fact, the demands of being a religious leader can make things harder rather than easier, and who knows how many of them silently suffer week after week, pretending to their congregations that they have a faith that has long since evaporated like an ice-cube in an Arizona heat wave.

We know we’re supposed to love one another. We know it isn’t easy. But that’s the point. Love isn’t easy. We have to love when it’s hard, too. If someone like Teresa MacBain in the NPR story is our Minister and she tells us she’s lost her faith, how should we respond?

“I believe in God,” says her husband, Ray. “And to be honest, I pray for her every night, I got friends praying for her.”

But he says he adores his wife and defends her right to disbelieve. “That’s why I spent 23 years in the Army. That’s why I’m still a police officer. We have freedom of speech and freedom of thought. And God never forced anybody to believe, so who am I to step up?”

This could have torn the MacBain family apart. For all I know, someday it might do just that. But we’re supposed to love and to try to understand, even when it’s not easy, and even when we feel attacked, and even when we feel insulted and take what the other person says and does really personally.

Love isn’t a warm and fuzzy feeling or lots of hugs and kisses. Love is setting aside your (my) personal reactions and trying to understand what the other person is going through. And then, you try to offer them what they need, even when it’s not what you want to give (and sadly, a recent study indicates that very religious people aren’t particularly motivated by compassion).

Is God that hard to find? When someone walks away and leaves us behind, God says we’re supposed to love them. Sometimes, with so many atheists telling us how bad we are and how evil Christianity is in the world, it’s hard to believe in love at all. It’s not rational, but if we acted like the rest of the world around us (and some religious people do), then we’d be as bad as they say we are. Jesus said to love. It hurts when someone who used to be a believer tells us they’re and atheist and that they’re “better” or they’ve “grown up” now. If we want them to respect our choice to be a person of faith, we have to allow them the same right and not take it as a slap in the face.