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Initial Thoughts & Reflections on Jubilee

February 22, 2010

I’m recovering today from Jubilee, CCO’s annual conference. (And by recovering, I mean teaching on the Conquest of Canaan in Skeptics’ Bible Study, the Problem of Evil to 80+ leaders from Navs, and Daniel 2 in a missional community today. I’ll sleep in 2011 I guess). My good buddy Jonathan Weyer and I teamed up on 3 breakout sessions. I thought our sessions went well. I led “Called to Campus Ministry?” which had a good turnout. Jonathan led the “Chaplain to Pirates” session on working with atheists, which had a great turnout. Since we share a brain, Jonathan and I could have given each other’s talks, but were content to chime in here and there.

This was my first time speaking at a conference of this scale, and I’m grateful for the opportunity. I hope to do it again, and enjoyed aspects of it. One downside, which I didn’t see clearly beforehand, is that it’s not near as much fun as attending. I didn’t meet  5-6 people I really wanted to meet, or get to catch up with dozens of friends. I only got to one other breakout session that I wasn’t in (Benson Hines’, which was FANTASTIC). And participating in 3 talks on Saturday was pretty emotionally draining–especially the panel discussion. Oh yes, the panel discussion.

I was the moderator for a panel discussion between Christians and atheists on Saturday afternoon. The panel was made up of three people: Hemant Mehta (author of “I Sold My Soul on eBay,” board member of the Secular Student Alliance, and blogger over at http://friendlyatheist.com/); Ashley Paramore (atheist activist, board member of the Secular Student Alliance, and Events Coordinator for Students for Free Thought at Ohio State; and Jonathan Weyer.

Our goal for the panel discussion was to model for students how to have a meaningful dialogue with people we disagree with, without resorting to the common straw men arguments and ad hominem attacks on the one hand, and soft accommodation on the other hand. We were there to discuss, to learn, to listen–not draw blood or score cheap points. In this, I believe we succeeded. (More on that later).

We had a large room with capacity for 500+, and it appeared we had standing room only. I laid the groundwork that this wasn’t going to be Jerry Springer or UFC 115, so people looking for blood and fireworks would be disappointed. I led off with some questions I had written in advance, and then started using the questions from the audience–which were written out, so I could organize & prioritize them. There were some great questions, and I saved all of them. I’ll probably blog them separately sometime, because it was fascinating to see what a bunch of Christian students ask when they have the chance.

Hemant and Ashley lived up to their reputations as willing and agreeable dialogue partners. They seemed to enjoy the opportunity, and gave winsome descriptions of their position. Still, that did not prevent us from pushing into some areas of disagreement. At one point, Hemant acknowledged a “faith in science,” a revealing statement which led to an interesting back-and-forth.

We also sparred over the place of faith in the public square, and particularly in schools. Hemant is a public school teacher, and has taken flak for his atheism. While I recognize the importance of the establishment clause (that government should in no way establish any official religion), I did push back on the privileging of secular thought over any religious thought in the public square. (An interesting article on this recently at Inside Higher Ed: http://bit.ly/c534XU). See also the work of Stephen L. Carter of Yale, who said:

“Efforts to craft a public square absent from religious conversation, no matter how thoughtfully worked out, will always in the end say to those of organized religion that they alone, unlike everybody else, must enter public dialogue only after leaving behind that part of themselves that they may consider the most vital.” (The Dissent of the Governed, p.90, via Tim Keller’s Reason for God, p.14-15).

We agreed that atheists can be moral people. Apparently a common charge from Christians is that they can’t, though this doesn’t hold up biblically. Christians (should) believe in natural revelation and common grace. Therefore, non-Christians are given a moral intuition and a conscience, so they know things like murder are wrong without being told. And God’s common grace restrains evil in the world. The difference is that Christians, I believe, are able to give a more coherent account of where morality comes from. Atheists use the “borrowed capital” of morality derived from God and his revelation, rebel against him where & when they see fit, and generally do not worship or acknowledge him as they should as created beings, worshiping creation instead of the Creator (read Romans 1).

In all three areas (science, faith in the public square, morality) I sought to push back on Hemant and Ashley a bit, trying to get them to more clearly articulate their philosophical & epistemological foundations. In this I was somewhat frustrated, but we were limited by time and the breadth of our discussion.

I understand that some students left the discussion unhappy that more blood was not spilt, or that more points weren’t “scored.” Now it’s my turn to push back on Christians who feel that way: what does it look like to obey Peter’s command in 1 Peter 3:15 about “giving the reason for the hope that we have…but do this with gentleness and respect”? What does it look like to put James 1:19 into practice? “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry,” Shouldn’t we especially do this when dialoging with those who disagree with us?

“Our enemies are NOT flesh and blood,” but spiritual powers (Eph. 6:12). So we seek to demolish strongholds of unbelief and arguments that set themselves up against God, but we don’t fight the way the world does, and we don’t seek to demolish people! (2 Cor. 10:3-5). Isn’t love the final and greatest apologetic, as Francis Schaeffer said?

That doesn’t mean being soft or overly accommodating, and I don’t think we were. We pushed to the point of disagreement, as far and deep as the forum would allow, and we did so without being disagreeable.  That’s the conversation Jonathan and I engage in on a regular basis at our schools. There’s plenty of shrill, polarizing yelling out there, and that approach does little to engage or persuade. What Jonathan and I are seeking to do is backed by our ministries, that we have good reputations with outsiders, that we’ve seen people come to faith in Christ, and the fact that we both brought atheists with us to Jubilee.

I have many more thoughts on Jubilee, including the whole question of whether any of this dialoging does any good, but that will have to wait. I have to go lead a “Skeptics’ Bible Study” on the conquest of Canaan and whether the Bible advocates for holy war/genocide. No rest for the weary. ;)

20 Comments leave one →
  1. Amy permalink
    February 22, 2010 4:00 pm

    Looking forward to reading your further thoughts, Steve. Thank you (and Jonathan) for what you do, and for what you did at Jubilee 2010. I hope you get a true Sabbath day soon!

  2. February 22, 2010 11:37 pm

    Thanks for sharing, that is really neat to have that type of discussion at a campus ministry conference! Sounds like it was honoring to everyone involved

  3. February 23, 2010 9:18 am

    This gladdens my heart. Don’t think for a minute that this effort doesn’t matter. The fruit of this kind of dialogue may never be seen by you or I within our lifetimes. But that fruit will be real, and it will last.

    • February 23, 2010 11:07 am

      Thanks Joe! I have no doubt that we sowed some good Kingdom seeds, and will trust God for the results in his time.

      Hoping we can meet up soon!

  4. February 23, 2010 12:25 pm

    Grammatical mistake: “by you or me” Must absolve myself of guilt!

  5. johnfouadhanna permalink
    February 24, 2010 12:04 pm

    Hey Steve, it was great to have a chance to meet you at Jubilee. Though I too wish we’d had more of a chance to talk. Hopefully another time soon.

    You did an excellent job moderating the panel.

    One area where you and Jonathan might seem to be taking a different approach is in the area of morality. Jonathan, at least this weekend, didn’t think it a fruitful line of discussion [this may have been due to format or time constraints]. You rightly are interested in purusing the assumptions/presuppositions lying behind our morality.

    Stanley Fish writing for NYT discussed this recently:

    http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/02/22/are-there-secular-reasons/?ref=opinion

    A couple of questions come to mind I would have liked to ask:

    1. If someone were to seriously harm you or someone you loved, could you/would you forgive him? Why? Why not/

    2. Should you tell the truth if the consequences for you are negative and you’ll never be found out? Why? Why not?

  6. thomas2026 permalink
    February 24, 2010 9:31 pm

    John,
    It’s not that I think it’s not a fruitful line of discussion. I just think that we Christians take the wrong approach with it. Normally it’s , “Atheists have no morality” which is absurd. Rather, it’s they do have morality, but they have no philosophical support. I thought I made that point, but it’s possible I didn’t.

    But, really, being moral begs the question whether any of us can really be moral in the first place. Or, that Christianity is about morality, it’s not. It’s that we can’t be moral and God’s grace saves us.

    As you said, time constraints didn’t help us here, but Steve and I both feel pretty passionate about a grace based apologetics. We have had to work though how this applies.

    • johnfouadhanna permalink
      February 25, 2010 3:01 pm

      Hey Jonathan, sounds like we basically agree re atheists being moral and the absence of it’s basis. I wholeheartedly agree with you about the Christain position that says atheists “are not moral.” As you know, if you say that to any self-conscious atheist/secularist, he won’t recognize himself in that statement.

      There are of course nuances to this discussion, as you are aware.

      Enjoyed your “pirates” presentation. Keep up your excellent work of grace based apologetics.

  7. February 25, 2010 1:42 am

    Hemant’s “faith in science” might not have been as revealing as you think it was. “Faith” has a number of definitions, one of which is “trust”. Scientists “trust” science, but that doesn’t mean they have “faith” in science, in every sense of the term.

    While I disagreed with most of Hemant’s comments pertaining to morality, I thought he was absolutely spot on when it came to your questions pertaining to the “privileging” of secular thought.

    Saying that people are given a “moral intuition and a conscience” as if such things are not the product of evolution, is just bad science. Nonhuman animals exhibit a similar “moral intuition and a conscience”.

    The Christian account of morality is not coherent at all (even if God does exist), and I’m surprised that even you cannot see that.

    Just a few thoughts I had. =]

    • February 25, 2010 11:26 am

      Why do you “trust” science, using logic from outside science? And how is that not faith?

      Rusty–we talked at length last week about the problem of evil for non-theists. Part of the problem, just a small part, was your acknowledgment that you would not give your answer to someone in the midst of great suffering. You would “give them the Christian answer.” While you may dismiss that as a joke, I think there was some truth in that.

      We’ll be talking about this a lot more this evening, weather-permitting.

  8. February 25, 2010 11:38 am

    We should trust things to work that do tend to work, we should trust people to be honest who do tend to be honest, etc. These past experiences let us know what is likely to be trustworthy, and what isn’t. As to whether or not this is “faith” depends on what you mean by “faith”. If faith is, as you have asserted from time to time, a belief in or trust in Jesus Christ, then this is obviously not faith as it makes no mention of Jesus or of anything in Christianity.

    I don’t know what I would tell someone in the midst of great suffering. I probably wouldn’t try to convince them that there is an afterlife, or that their suffering is a necessary means to a greater end. But if someone was on their deathbed, suffering, and their faith gave them some amount of comfort, I wouldn’t try to take that away from them. Keep in mind that the question of what I would do in such situations does absolutely NOTHING to answer the question of why evil exists if a “good” god exists. In fact, I don’t see why the question of what I would do in such circumstances is relevant to anything.

    • February 25, 2010 1:33 pm

      So trusting in science is a preference, ie, what makes the most sense to do? By what means, extra-science, does it make sense to do so? Or is there an “ought” in there? And why ought we to trust science? And “trust” still sounds a lot like “faith” to me, as you’re using it.

      Jesus is fundamentally the object of faith for the Christian, he’s at the core of our faith. But humans are fundamentally “faith-based” because we were designed that way as creatures by the Creator. So the faith impulse will find other objects to focus on, in this case, science. I believe that’s the trust you’re speaking of.

      As far as what to say on the deathbed, I believe it’s but one clue that points out evil is just as much, if not more of a problem for the non-theist. And at least in the Christian framework, we have a hope to offer. But I’m starting a series of posts on problem of evil, so I’ll save my arguments for those.

  9. February 26, 2010 11:41 am

    Are you equating “preference” with “what makes the most sense to do”? I personally tend to avoid language like “makes sense” in any sort of actual argument, because it can be taken in different ways. If you’re repeating your question of why we trust in science, I would again refer you back to my initial response. “Oughts” refer to normative standards. Saying that one “should” or “ought” do something presupposes some sort of goal, with the action being a means to that goal. If the goal is “be rational”, then yes I think we should make the “assumptions” that science makes. But if our goal were something else, such as, say, “be irrational”, then we should start doing things like believing in the existence of contradictions. Telling me that my use of “trust” sounds a lot like your use of “faith” doesn’t do much to help clarify what you mean by “faith”.

    The fact that some stories are more comforting than “when you die, you cease to exist” to many people is not a “problem” for non-theists. It may be an inconvenience, but it is a reality. The fact that we’d like things to be better isn’t evidence that they actually are better.

  10. Knockgoats permalink
    February 28, 2010 11:20 am

    But humans are fundamentally “faith-based” because we were designed that way as creatures by the Creator. – Steve Lutz

    How about some evidence or argument for this bald assertion? We don’t need “faith” in science, because we can actually see that it works: computers work, planes fly, the planets continue to follow their predicted orbits whether you believe in science or not. There are many, many possible events that would lead me to conclude that science had stopped working: suppose the stars suddenly rearranged themselves in the sky, or fossil rabbits turned up in Precambrian strata, or prayers or magic spells started restoring amputees’ limbs, or the digits of pi starting from the 666 quintillionth turned out to spell out the Revelation of St John in a simple numerical code, or the sky filled with (intersubjectively preceptible) angels… I could continue indefinitely. So no, I don’t have or need “faith” in science, just the pragmatic observation that so far, it works.

  11. Knockgoats permalink
    February 28, 2010 11:49 am

    There’s an interesting pattern emerging in Steve’s recent posts, and it’s one I’ve seen elsewhere with Christians: we could call it “Tu quoque, atheist!” The problem of evil is widely acknowledged, even among Christians, as a serious philosophical problem for Christians. Now Steve can’t come up with a satisfactory defence (if he had, he’d be famous), so he lashes out at atheists “It’s a problem for you too!!11!!eleventy-one!”. Atheists disparage faith as iraationally clinging to implausible beliefs without or in the teeth of the evidence; Steve and his ilk can’t come up with an adequate defence to the charge, so once again its “You have faith too, atheists!!!!11eleventy-one!!!!! And what’s more, that’s how God made you, so nur-nurny-nur-nur!” I haven’t yet seen Steve trundle out the “Atheism is a religion” claim, but it wouldn’t surprise me.

  12. February 28, 2010 6:58 pm

    From the OP:

    The difference is that Christians, I believe, are able to give a more coherent account of where morality comes from. Atheists use the “borrowed capital” of morality derived from God and his revelation, rebel against him where & when they see fit, and generally do not worship or acknowledge him as they should as created beings, worshiping creation instead of the Creator (read Romans 1).

    That immediately implies that cultures that have no knowledge of “God and his revelation” cannot be moral, since they can’t borrow from what they don’t know. Is that defensible?

    Some moral principles–e.g., treat others as you would be treated, more commonly known as reciprocity–are defensible independent of one’s religious beliefs and are nigh unto universal among human cultures, even among those who have never heard of “God and his revelation.”

    That Christian moral principles have ‘evolved’ over the centuries is indisputable (slavery, anyone?). That makes claims of an absolute morality grounded in the Bible suspect at the very least.

    And rustophilus has it right: The “faith” we have in science is better termed “trust,” and we trust it because it has a 350 year history of generating useful and reliable knowledge. The trust is not ungrounded; it is evidence-based. The “faith” of Christianity, on the other hand, is explicitly evidence-free, and is intended to bolster belief in the absence of evidence. It’s semantic sophistry to equate the two different uses of the term “faith.”

Trackbacks

  1. Questions (Asked & Unasked) from the Atheist-Christian Panel Discussion at Jubilee ‘10 « the SENTinel
  2. The Problem of Evil, part 1: a problem for theists and non-theists alike « the SENTinel
  3. weekly review, tiny month edition « Exploring College Ministry blog (daily notes about our field)
  4. Atheist reactions to Jubilee « The Thomas Society

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