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July 18, 2006



Yes, I totally agree with you. First things first; much of what the Church teaches is incomprehensible without quite a bit of background. And more and more people grow up in a secular environment and have no Christian vocabulary at all.

But also, I think: give people a reason to choose the Church over secularism. After all, as you note, all of those things can be defended rationally. So I add: give people an experience of mystery and the numinous. Give them a way to the experience of God.

Barry Fernelius

"And he said to them all, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me."
- Luke 9:23

In other words,

1. Let go of that ego.
2. Do what Jesus did.

This will involve loving God and loving your neighbor. And who is your neighbor? There's a nice parable that answers that question in an unexpected way. And what may be the consequences of your actions? You may have to make sacrifices, including being willing to sacrifice yourself. Such is the nature of real Love.

In the Gospels, Jesus says, "Follow me." Note that he doesn't say, "Worship me."


But the question is: why should anybody follow a bunch of rules like this? Why would anybody want to sacrifice anything? People sacrifice if they know there's a good reason to do it, or a reward.

What would make a person believe you have the answers in this list?

D. C.

BLS, you raise a crucial question. I would offer the following assertions as motivation. I can't "prove" these assertions, but I'm sufficiently persuaded that they're likely to be true, that I'm willing to make my bet on them:

1. We are all created co-creators. By pursuing our individual desires, we participate as "cosmic construction workers" in God's continuing creation of our universe.

2. God manages to make use of our "work product" even when we do it badly, in a way that interferes with the work others do.

3. The particular teachings of Jesus that I listed, in my view, amount to a formula for doing our "work" well.

4. We don't know what will happen when our individual work assignments are done. There are sufficient hints of life after death that it isn't unreasonable to speculate that this might be true. Moreover, we can surmise that God isn't likely to simply discard us, to consign us to nothingness, when our work is done: He's smart enough to realize that if he were to do this, eventually we'd figure it out, and then we'd lose all motivation to continue working.

At least for me, this is a sufficient motivator.

I hope to write more about this in the near future.


Well, you know I'm gonna respectfully disagree with you...

I certainly wouldn't want to argue for a doctrinal full court press, but I see three problems.

First, if this is going to be used as an introduction to Christianity rather than quite good and highly recommended ethics, if you are going to move them to where the Creeds are, then this is an ethically questionable bait-n-switch.

Second, I think bls is right. Ethics are great but if I wanted this I'd just be a Stoic or something. If all I'm getting are rational arguments why would I care that it is *Jesus* teaching them? Why the appeal to an authority if the point is rationality. If they're rational, it doesn't really matter who taught them.

Third, as far as I'm concerned the thing that makes Christianity worth believing is its rejection of rationalist emperical materialsm. It teaches that there is something else out there. There is a sacred, a holy, a dimension without which ordinary life is flatter and less worth living.


Very nice article.

The phrase that you used when responding to bls that sticks out to me is "sufficiently persuaded." That, to me, is the great gulf between traditionalist Christianity and the masses. The traditionalist story is no longer persuasive to most people. And if we could see into the minds of some traditionalists, I think we'd find that it isn't really persuasive to them either. If something is so obvious and persuasive, then why the incessant impulse to circle the wagons around the "revealed truth." People circle wagons when they are fearful. So the question is what are they afraid of?

To answer my own question (and I'm speaking as a former fundamentalist), I think much of the "circling the wagons" mentality among traditionalists is due to the fact that the old story is no longer persuasive to them either and this has led to an "Emperor's New Clothes" phenomenon in which no one wants to be the first to admit this. It's not that people are afraid of losing their faith in the old story, it's that their "faith" is already gone and they refuse to look in the mirror at the scar of where it used to be.

In contrast, your version of the Jesus story can be very persuasive for modern people. It's comprehensible and credible and I think it's a great entry way into the Christian story for moderns and post-moderns.


Well, speaking for myself - and as a recent convert from skepticism and atheism - I wouldn't bother with the Church if it weren't for "the story."

Even as a skeptic, I found "the story" particularly beautiful. It was practically the only thing I liked about the Church - which as I think you know, D.C., I really can't stand most of the time and would certainly not have anything much to do with, if it weren't for "faith." I do have deep "faith" - but of course it could be that we're not using the word in the same way.

So I disagree that modern people are immune to the appeal of the traditional story. Perhaps there are several ways to appeal to moderns.

D. C.

BLS, again you raise a really important point.

Stories do indeed play a huge role in people's lives. That's why litigators are trained to present their cases in terms of stories that, they hope, will resonate with jurors' own experiences and biases. Johnny Cochran's team presented OJ Simpson's defense as the story of the L.A.P.D. yet again jumping to conclusions; that story evidently resonated with the largely-minority jury.

I'm one of those people, however, for whom a story is inspiring and faith-building only to the extent that it's factually accurate. A factual story represents the reality that God has wrought. It can help build faith, in the sense of trust in God. An inaccurate story is something else, possibly even manipulation (conscious or unconscious); the inaccuracies certainly don't contribute to one's trust in God.

And if there's one thing we know with great confidence, it's that stories are so easily distorted, even in a single retelling.

As I've written extensively here, my professional experience reinforces the grave questions I've had, ever since I was a kid, about the factual accuracy of "the story" on which traditionalist Christians base their beliefs. For example, I'm not persuaded that Jesus was God incarnate — the apostles certainly didn't preach this, and my threshold question about the Prologue in John's Gospel is: "And he knew that, how?" Concerning Jesus's post-mortem appearances, my sense is that those episodes likely fall into the same general category as my mother and grandmother (separately) "seeing" dead relatives, with the stories likely being embellished in the retelling. As to the empty tomb, a far more plausible explanation, if you ask me, is that someone (probably Joseph of Arimathea) quietly moved the body to a permanent resting place after the Sabbath and deliberately didn't tell the Eleven.

There's another story, however, a meta-narrative if you will, that resonates profoundly with the geek / former engineer in me.

  • I get awestruck when I contemplate the way the universe has been coming together over the past 13.7 billion years and continues to do so today, notwithstanding the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

  • When I see a heavy cloud dumping rain on the earth, I marvel at the feats of cosmic engineering that continue to be performed throughout the universe.

  • I likewise get awestruck when I contemplate the way that humanity is able to contribute, albeit modestly, to the continuing creation. Think about how we imagine how things could be different than they are; we desire that things be different; we act on those desires; and we learn from experience (our own and that of others). IMHO, this is nothing short of miraculous.

  • I don't mean to sound Pollyana-ish, but it seems to me that, no matter how hard we try to screw things up, we still eventually manage to improve the state of our little corner of the world (albeit sometimes at terrible cost). That strikes me as another miracle.

Boy, that God, he must be one damned smart fella to have engineered everything this way. And he must care about us at least a little bit, because he allows us to participate in his project, and he lets us derive joy from life at least some of the time.

* * *

BLS, I'm truly grateful for your questions. They're incisive, and they get me to focus on specifics, which helps me figure out what I think and write it up.

Mary Therese

So your version of Christianity boils down to "Let's all be nice to each other"? Great ethics, but what's Christian about it? The great unevangelised out there have been told this from day 1 ("Play nicely with Johnnie, darling, and don't hit him over the head with your dolly"). What our Lord did wasn't in general to provide a new, specifically Christian ethic (almost everything He said on those lines was a restatement or development of OT/rabbinical teaching); He sacrificed His life at least in part so that we could be given the power (through the sacraments) to carry out those ethics.

D. C.

Mary Therese writes: "[Our Lord] sacrificed His life at least in part so that we could be given the power (through the sacraments) to carry out those ethics."

Mary Therese, you obviously accept that meta-narrative. The brute fact is that millions of educated people don't — and a large proportion of them don't even believe in God. We can't bulldoze them into believing, nor even (at least in modern societies) into pretending to believe.

So, do we simply shake the dust off our feet and leave these folks to be dealt with by God in his own fashion? That's certainly one possibility, and not without at least some scriptural support.

But the Great Commission doesn't say our evangelistic efforts will get an A merely for effort, whether or not that effort is effective. It doesn't say, give it a shot, and if it doesn't work, well, at least you tried. No: The Great Commission seems to demand results: it says, unequivocally, go and make disciples of all nations.

As a way of bringing people to God, the traditionalist Christian story works only for some people. We don't get to just abandon the others, I submit; we can't say, we've done what we're comfortable doing, Lord, but it didn't work out so well, so it's all up to you now.

No: It's our responsibility to keep trying, to come up with other approaches that do work for the others. One such approach is what I propose, to proceed step-by-step (most people have to learn arithmetic before they try to tackle calculus). If we can persuade non-believers that God exists, that's a win. If we can persuade them that following Jesus is the way to go, that too is a win. If not all of them proceed to full-blown orthodox belief, so be it; let's not mourn that the glass is half-empty.

I appreciate the comments; thanks for stopping by.


I think we're using the word faith in different ways. When I put "faith" in quotation marks, I mean the post-Enlightment meaning of the word that means to basically assent to a series of propositional statements. For traditionalists, I think having "faith" in Jesus largely means assenting to a series of creedal statements. So if I say that I don't assent to a creedal statement like "Jesus died for my sins", then they would say that I lack "faith" in Jesus.

But I do have faith in Jesus in the sense that I endeavor by God's spirit to be _faithful_ to his vision of God and man.

And I agree that the traditionalist story of Jesus is beautiful. The idea of someone having great enough love to lay down his life for his friends is beautiful. But to me the story of the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan are also beautiful and I don't care about the historicity of the events contained in them any more than I can about the historicity of some of the accounts of Jesus. The stories as stories stand on their own.


Wayne, I understand what you're saying. But actually, I would have made the same argument!

That is, I'd say to you: If you can't believe the historicity of the Jesus story, what's wrong with the "story as story"? Doesn't that have a reality of its own, also? I mean, we're able to take great meaning from a novel such as Moby Dick, right? We don't really care whether the story is literally true in every particular; what we're interested in is the meaning of the story. We know the point of the story is not to talk about whaling in 1800s New England; we know there are deeper ideas involved.

So what would be terrible about viewing the Jesus story that way, and exploring the very, very profound ideas that are embedded in it? Does it have to be literally true for it to matter to the world?

That's how I looked at it for a long time, anyway. To me, it doesn't really matter if the story is literally true, as we know the meaning of that word. What matters are the deep resonances within it - which, again, are just as real in another way. Wouldn't you say?

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