Friday, October 10, 2008

So the Christian Said to the Atheist . . .

Maybe, just maybe, we have broken the logjam. This past summer I told you about a book in which a pastor and an atheist joined forces to spread a message of "evolutionary" Christianity. Their collaboration resulted from a connection of a different type: the two, Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow, had recently married.

Now comes another book in the same spirit. David Myers, a Christian psychologist at Hope College, invites conversation and connection in a little volume called A Friendly Letter to Skeptics and Atheists. It's a ostensibly a response to Sam Harris's Letter to a Christian Nation and other "culture war" books of that type, but it accords more with the Sermon on the Mount than any Christian response so far.

A member of the Reformed Church in America and a conservative on many fronts, Myers believes that everything must be subject to the test of "coming true." As Moses said, “If a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord and what he says does not come true, then it is not the Lord’s message.” Data, then, are God's words. Let the chips fall where they may.

And the chips fall on many issues in the culture wars. Gay marriage, for example. Says Myers: (1) There is mounting evidence that sexual orientation is a matter of nature, not choice; it's a biological disposition that is well in place by birth. (2) The data say clearly that enduring marriage makes for happiness, the health of children, and the integration of societies. (3) The Bible contains 31,103 verses, over 2100 of which mention poverty and only 7 of which speak of same-sex behavior. Of those 7, none are the words of Jesus and none address enduring same-sex partnerships.

So, we say to our fellow people of faith: Should we not put on our social radar screens the concerns that Jesus had on his? What would Jesus do? . . . Rather than advocating a sexual double standard for straight people (marry or be celibate) and gay people (sorry, you must be celibate), why not proclaim a single Christian sexual ethic? Why not yoke sex with faithfulness? Why not seal love with commitment?
Christians distressed by that conclusion just might pray for Myers--except for the last ten years of research on "intercessory" prayer. It has uncovered no "God effect" on healing: in a variety of settings, patients who were prayed for fared no better than patients who weren't. (A study involving in vitro fertilization appeared to be an exception until two of its authors were found to be involved in fraud.) The negative results did not surprise Myers, who had predicted them in a notarized document before any of the research began. In fact, he says, a positive outcome would have conflicted with his Christian view of God. "The Lord's Prayer, the model prayer for Christians that I pray daily, does not attempt to control a God who withholds care unless cajoled."

Myers's approach is simple and direct. You test, you take the results as the word of God, you move. What's notable is the direction in which he moves when results clash with "Christian" ideas: not away from Christianity but toward it--toward its core, that is, toward the true meaning of Jesus' message, the true meaning of prayer.

"Get the beam out of your own eye," Jesus taught, and that is the approach Myers takes in A Friendly Letter. He has data for skeptic and atheist eyes as well (I'll sample some next week), but he wants to start the conversation here, on the Christian side. "If we have abetted poverty, injustice, climate change, genocide, or pointless war, then for shame," he says. Mea culpa. "We are guilty."

The current issue of The Global Spiral, a publication of the Metanexus Institute, contains the complete review from which this post is adapted. Take a look.




Anonymous said...

John, this article speaks directly to a friend of mine, and supports his views exactly! Thanks for it -- he will be encouraged! My best to you,
Mary Johnson

Anonymous said...

As I read the articles that you sent, I became aware that there is more common ground between probing believers and reflective atheists than we often assume. The "reflective" adjective is the key: to the degree that we reflect both on the intended significance of our Judaeo-Christian symbols and on that of scientific descriptions, we might find ourselves to be in far more harmony than are those who fail so to reflect.