Diving in to Faith Conversations

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“What do you do for a living?” she asked. Eight of us were waiting on shore for the dive boat to pick us up for a two-tank dive during my visit to Grand Cayman. The boat was late.

“I’m a pastor back in the States,” I replied.

“I’m an agnostic myself. But I find value in all faiths.”

“It sounds like you’ve had several friendships with people of various faiths?”

And we were off. Delayed in diving into the Caribbean Sea, we dove into conversation about religion. I talked about what Christians have in common with other faiths, and a few important ways the Christian message is unique.

The experience reinforced some long-held convictions about faith conversations.

First: You don’t have to invent ways to talk about faith. Just be ready to engage with the interest people show in the topic.

Second: When having a conversation on faith, don’t forget to actually make it a “conversation.” Christians sometimes perceive evangelism as a sales pitch you make in duty to God. But there’s no “evangel” in that kind of “evangelism.” The word “evangel” means “good news.” How has your faith been “good” for your life? Answer that, with the give and take that’s natural to any good conversation, and you’ll be doing it right.

Third: Show the beauty of your faith and then the logic, in that order. Don’t think of evangelism as gearing up for an apologetics argument. Instead, start with why you personally find it so beautiful. As I talked with my dive partner on that sandy beach, that’s what I did. I mentioned that while all religions have certain things in common, the unique Christian claim is that God entered our world in Jesus. I told her that such a claim told me the lengths God was willing to go to make himself know to us. “Make it attractive,” Pascal wrote about the faith. He was a 17th century mathematician and physicist, so he certainly had enough intellectual firepower demolish intellectual arguments against Christianity. But he advised, “Make good men wish it were true, and then show that it is.”

 

(The Anchor Course can be a useful tool in ongoing conversations about faith. Click through the menu items at the top of this page to find out more about The Anchor Course)


“It seems unwise not to make inquiries”

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Imagine if you got a letter from some bank saying that some wealthy person–and here a name is given that you have never heard–has left you money. Even if you were of a skeptical nature and you had no evidence that this could be true, it would be unwise not to make inquiries. If a man has come into history claiming to have the gift of eternal life and the key to the meaning of things, and if he has not passed into obscurity like other claimants but has convinced many people that he is right, it seems unwise not to make inquiries.”

Tim Keller, Making Sense of God, page 238


“Gradually the effect wore off and I made no effort to retain it. I was too deeply embedded in the world to change course.”

Clark

When the sense of something—Someone—beyond natural experiences breaks in on us, what do we do? Here’s what Lord Kenneth Clark did. He was one of Great Britain’s most prominent art historians and authors, and the producer of the BBC television series Civilization. When he was living in a villa in France he had a curious episode:

I had a religious experience. It took place in the church of San Lorenzo, but did not seem to be connected with the harmonious beauty of the architecture. I can only say that for a few minutes, my whole being was radiated by a kind of heavenly joy, far more intense than anything I had ever experienced before. This state of mind lasted for several minutes…but wonderful as it was, [it] posed an awkward problem in terms of action. My life was far from blameless. I would have to reform. My family would think I was going mad, and perhaps after all, it was a delusion, for I was in every way unworthy of such a flood of grace. Gradually the effect wore off and I made no effort to retain it. I think I was right. I was too deeply embedded in the world to change course. But I had “felt the finger of God” I am quite sure and, although the memory of this experience has faded, it still helps me to understand the joys of the saints.

Fanny Crosby, the late 19th-century hymn writer, had a different reaction to a similar experience.

Pass me not, O gentle Savior,
Hear my humble cry;
While on others Thou art calling,
Do not pass me by.

 

quoted in Stuart Babbage, “Lord Kenneth Clark’s Encounter with the ‘Motions of Grace,'” Christianity Today, June 8, 1979, p. 28. Referenced in Tim Keller’s  Making Sense of God, pages 18-19.


“Live life fully now, and if you ask me why I should do that–I don’t know”

Julian Barnes poses for a photogr

From Nothing to Be Frightened Of, by Julian Barnes:

On the radio, I heard a specialist in consciousness explain how there is no centre to the brain—no location of self—either physically or computationally; and that our notion of a soul or spirit must be replaced by the notion of a “distributed neuronal process.” She further explained that our sense of morality comes from belonging to a species which has developed reciprocal altruism; that the concept of free will, as in “making conscious decisions from a little self inside” must be discarded; that we are machines for copying and handing on bits of culture; and that the consequences of accepting all this are “really weird.” To begin with it means, as she put it, that “these words coming out of this mouth at this moment, are not emanating from a little me in here, they are emanating from the entire universe just doing its stuff.”

. . .

The expert in consciousness was also asked how she viewed her own death. This was her reply: “I would view it with equanimity, as just another step, you know. ‘Oh, here’s this—I’m in this radio studio with you—what a wonderful place to be. Oh, here I am on my deathbed—this is where I am . . .’ Acceptance I would say is the best that could come out of this way of thinking about things. Live life fully now, here—do the best you can, and if you ask me why I should do that—I don’t know. That’s where you hit the question of ultimate morality—but still, that’s what this thing does. And I expect it to do it on its deathbed.”

Is this properly philosophical, or strangely blithe, the assumption that Acceptance—Kübler-Ross’s fifth and final mortal stage—will be available when required? Skip Denial, Anger, Bargaining, and Depression, and just head straight for Acceptance?

. . .

“That’s what this thing does. And I expect it to do it on its deathbed.” Note the demise here of the personal pronoun. “I” has mutated to “it” and “this thing,” a switch both alarming and instructive. As human character is being rethought, human language must be rethought with it.

 Nothing to Be Frightened Of
by Julian Barnes
pp. 180-82


Reaction to “The Benedict Option”: Convicted Yet Cautious

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Reviews of The Benedict Option began even before the book was released in March this year and haven’t let up. Clearly, it’s touched a nerve. Rod Dreher recommends that American Christians plan a strategic withdrawal from American culture. He compares his option to the Benedictine monasteries that were established during the barbarian takeover of the Christianized Roman Empire. Dreher says that just as these monasteries preserved faithful Christianity so it would exist to flourish again at a later time, American Christians need to do the same. American culture has become so toxic that any efforts to regain a position by which we could save it is futile. Our best option, then, is to find ways to preserve faithful Christianity within the new Dark Ages.

My reaction: convicted yet cautious.

His observations about how deeply-compromised American Christianity has become will resonate with biblically-faithful Christians. His advice about forming robust faith is sound, as well as his warnings about the coming negative consequences to vocational ambitions and income among those who try to maintain that robust faith.

Yet I’m cautious about this book. I’m concerned it will accelerate a bunker mentality that’s already prevalent in conservative Christian circles. Congregations can either see themselves as beachheads or bunkers. Beachheads are offensive positions from which to advance into the world; bunkers are defensive positions in which to retreat from the world. Those who want their churches to be bunkers will find comfort in this book. In interviews since the release of the book, Dreher expresses frustration at those who raise this objection to his book. It’s certainly true that throughout his book he insists that the Benedict Option is no call to hide away from the world. But when the futility of effecting any change to our barbarian-dominated culture is as loudly proclaimed as it is in this book, it’s hard to actually hear his few simple caveats that the Benedict Option is not, by the by, about withdrawal.

I think Tom Gilson’s observations about the book are helpful: 

I wish he hadn’t kept describing Christians as “exiles in place.” “Exiles” is the wrong word. We’re much more like expatriates. Exiles’ eyes remain turned toward their homelands, where they hope to return as quickly as possible. Often they make it their mission from a distance to accomplish social and political reform back home. We have no such distant home in need of reforming. Our mission is right where we are. Indeed, there’s another word for Christian expatriate: missionary. Missionaries go out on purpose, sent by God to love the people of their new homelands, and to discover how best to live and share the way of Christ in that cultural context. We don’t need to adopt the self-pitying language of exile. Instead we can embrace the joyful privilege of being missionaries in place. It isn’t just a more positive approach—it’s why God has us here. The Benedict Option needs an Expatriate Alternative.


About Tom

ANCHOR COURSE LOGO Tom Goodman is a graduate of Baylor University and Southwestern Seminary in Fort Worth, and he holds a doctorate from New Orleans Seminary. He has served as pastor in Louisiana, north Texas, and overseas in Grand Cayman before becoming the pastor of Hillcrest Church in Austin, Texas. Diane and Tom have been married since their days at Baylor University, and they have two sons, Michael and Stephen. Tom enjoys scuba diving, watching the latest Netflix DVD with Diane, and chasing mis-hit golf balls.