I’m sitting here in the crowd, one of several hundred souls, safely ensconced within the walls of the megachurch-ish warehouse-turned-house-of-worship, with my coffee in hand—listening to the apologetics professor with the Ph.D. preach about the reality of truth. As I strive to focus on his elegantly-crafted message, rather than drift into my frequent musing on the question of why so many Generation X preachers prefer faux hawk hairstyles, I keep coming back to a singular question: Why am I here?
There’s a simple answer for that. I’m attending the Unbelievable? Conference in Portland, Oregon—the first of its kind in the U.S. It’s an outgrowth of the popular British radio show/podcast Unbelievable? on Premier Christian Radio conceived of and hosted by Justin Brierley. I’ve been a huge fan of the show for many years, due to its fascinating format: for each episode Justin brings a Christian and a non-Christian together and moderates a (usually cordial) debate about any number of different topics, from the existence of God to the scientific question of life’s origins to the morality of the latest hot-button issue.
I’ve listened to many episodes of the show, and it’s always a treat because Justin is a gifted moderator and overall decent human being, and he does a great job putting his guests at ease so that the real subject at hand can be discussed fairly and throughly. As a person of faith, I’m supposed to be rooting for the Christian in each debate—yet I’ve often found myself nodding in agreement with what the Atheist or Agnostic has said on a particular point. It’s a far more interesting and worthwhile style of debate than the five-minute bouts of shouting you typically see on talking-head TV news programs.
So when I heard that Justin Brierley was coming to America—to my new home base of Portland no less!—and recording a live show with a real audience where we could witness the debate between the Christian and the Atheist on stage, I registered immediately. It was a no brainer!
As expected, it was a great show and I had an absolute blast. Justin in person is every bit the gentleman he appears to be on his show, and his guests were in top form. Some of the questions posed were extremely fascinating—for example, Justin asked Hemant Mehta (the Atheist) to listen several aspects of Atheism that Christians routinely misrepresent, and in turn Justin asked Sean McDowell (the Christian) to list several aspects of Christianity that skeptics routinely misrepresent. Both Sean and Hemant raised excellent points about how often debates on religion or unbelief tend to descend into attacks on straw man arguments, and how we must learn to do a better job listening to the other person’s actual position so we can fully understand where we might agree or differ.
But that was Friday night. I woke up bright and early Saturday morning and headed into an entire 9am-5pm marathon of lectures and workshops concerning a defense of the Christian faith via the concepts and techniques of evangelical apologetics. It was a very strange experience for me, because I no longer consider myself an Evangelical. I made the conscious descion to leave that world behind a couple of years ago. You can thank the election of Donald Trump as U.S. President for that (though to be fair that was but one of many reasons).
Thus, in the midst of presentations on the nature of truth or the validity of doubt in matters of faith, I somehow felt like I was a spy. I worried that something might happen to “out” my lack of Evangelical bonafides and my hypocrisy in attending. In the past, I’d always been 110% dedicated to the cause, and would attend a conference of this nature with the very best of intentions. Now I felt myself brimming with cynicism, actively critiquing in real-time various statements made by the presenters.
Thankfully, I was never “outed” and, truth be told, at the end of the day I had enjoyed my time there. Objectively the conference was very well put together, and the speakers did a good job getting their points across without sounding overly dogmatic or hostile to opposing viewpoints. Even more encouraging, some of the presentations were specifically about how Christians can engage in dialogue with other people and the broader culture at large in ways that are respectful, humane, and (gasp!) humble. It was a welcome shift from the hateful rhetoric of the “culture wars” which have wreaked havoc on American society in recent years.
Why I’m Not an Evangelical
Despite my appreciation of certain aspects of the conference and the topics presented, I nevertheless continue to identify as a Progressive and a Contemplative, and thus my understanding of—and relationship with—the heart of the Christian faith these days comes from a radically different perspective. I’m glad the conference helped me gain a new level of respect for what the best parts of Evangelicalism have to offer. But I’m not going back to that world.
On Friday night as I headed out of the church building where the Unbelievable? show was held, I overheard the conversation of the people walking next to me. And I was struck by what one of them said (and I’m paraphrasing here):
“My issue with these kind of debates, and this is a problem on both sides, is everything’s about truth…what’s true, what’s not true, how can we know what’s true. Truth is all they talk about. But what about Beauty? What about Justice? What about Goodness? In a way, I don’t care at all about what’s true or not, I’m much more interested in these other things.”
I tend to agree, and this is something I’ve been saying for a long time. My belief that there is a God and that the world in which we live ultimately comes from divinity and not mere “physical stuff” is built upon considerations other than a basic true/false proposition. I believe because of the Story—I simply like the story of divine origins. I prefer the way it causes me to perceive the world. I often hear the argument “if there’s a God, why is there evil and suffering in the world?” but for me the reverse argument is far more compelling: “if there’s no God, why is there beauty and joy in the world?”
Because of the humanist ideals I subscribe to of equality, fairness, justice, freedom, and so forth, I believe it’s easier to ground that philosophy in a worldview which accepts the spiritual nature of humankind. I enjoy art, I enjoy wonder, I enjoy love, I enjoy kindness far more when I identify with the Source of all creativity and passion. This is why I simply can’t call myself an Atheist, even if I respect certain points within that philosophy.
On the other hand, while I could argue theological points as true/false statements and construct any number of plausible arguments to promote the Christian faith, that just seems boring and largely irrelevant to me. In my estimation, it doesn’t matter what you believe, so much as how what you believe affects you in the way you view the world and the way in which you treat humanity and the earth. I might feel more affinity with a Muslim who cares deeply about protecting the environment and caring for the poor than a Christian who acts like material wealth is a sign of godliness and encourages stripping the earth of its natural resources. In other words, “you shall know them by their fruits”—I wonder who first said that.
I do continue to see myself as a Christian in the most basic sense that I’m a follower of Jesus. I believe Jesus did something extraordinary and unprecedented in human history, and I believe that Jesus—while fully a man—was divine in ways we simply can’t fathom. But the quest to understand, to seek spiritual wisdom, to learn from the example of Jesus and his early followers—that continues to feel worthwhile to me. It’s the story of Jesus that compels me, not a series of true/false propositions, and it’s the way striving to live more like Jesus makes me feel and relate to others which proves the merits of my belief.
So, Unbelievable? Conference—you might have failed in your attempts to make me a better Evangelical, but you did succeed at one thing: making me a better person. Wrestling with big spiritual questions and exploring deep matters of the heart is always a worthwhile pursuit…even if the prompt to dive into such matters comes in the most unlikely of packages.