Initial Thoughts & Reflections on Jubilee
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.