Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Worth Fighting For: The Secular Case for Evangelism

For those friends of mine reading this that don’t know, I am a Christian – and each of you have a different conception of what exactly that means. For my own part, I don’t just mean I belong to a global community or sociological people group that identifies itself on government forms and standardized tests as “Christian” – though I do mean that in part. What I really believe is something far more radical and, perhaps, harder and more offensive to accept: I believe I am a child of the One True God, purchased in death and reconciled in life to a glorious destiny by the Son of God, and therefore born again of the Spirit of God. My faith meets at the nexus of two planes – an ineffable sense of the Love that built the world and somehow saves a soul, and the concrete knowledge of a God who entered history, in a specific time and specific place, who laughed and wept and prayed, whose feet felt the dust of Canaan and whose blood really did trickle down a cross, changing the world for all time. 

 I believe these things. You may look at them now and either agree wholeheartedly, or perhaps shake your head in skepticism – but in either case, we can understand each other. You can demand of me a proof that will obliterate any shadow of doubt; you can demand of me an explanation for the tragedies committed in the name of so-called “religion”; you can demand of me a real, no B.S. answer about why an intelligent, rational human being should believe that an old dusty book is the unassailable Word of God; but the one thing you cannot demand of me is that I shut up and let everyone just believe what they want to believe. 

 I don’t think I’m being unreasonable in this refusal to stay quiet, and I don’t think that refusal grants you the ammunition to assail my character. This is something that has bothered me for quite some time. As a man who identifies himself as a Christian, I spend most of my day interacting with those who don’t share my beliefs. This fact doesn’t surprise me; I was taught in early youth to recognize a world that mostly disagrees with me. Still, even as a young man I have heard one criticism of my faith more than any other, and it goes something like this: “The problem with Christians is that they’re always trying to shove their beliefs down everyone’s throats. Why can’t they just keep to themselves, practice their beliefs quietly, and let other people worship their own way? Why can’t they accept that their religion isn’t the only right one, and that all religions are just trying to get at their own forms of truth? The world would be a much more peaceful place.”

There’s a reason why Christians are always trying to “force” their beliefs on others (though we really shouldn’t use that word, because to most people “force” really means “asking if they know about Jesus” or “handing out pamphlets on the street”), and it derives from a character quality that most of the world, atheists and agnostics included, normally admire: compassion for others. If I really believe with sincere devotion that we are setting fire to a world built upon perfect justice and are destined to reap every last twisted sewing – if I told you there was a chance of being healed, of being finally cleansed of pain and heartache, of rediscovering true joy and the perfect homestead we once abandoned – if I believe this is the truth, and yet say nothing, what sort of person am I? The man who knows a way to help his friends but turns away out of pride, or fear of rejection? 

 But that’s so arrogant and condescending of you, claiming you’re trying to save me because you know the “real” truth. How does telling me I’m not merely wrong, but also ignorant, really help me? Why do I have to drop everything and give my life completely to a religion in order to find happiness? Why can’t you just accept me the way I am? These are all valid questions, and you’re right to ask them. But don’t you see, it doesn’t matter if you think that I’m wrong, that Jesus never really existed and he certainly didn’t “die for your sins.” Even if I am wrong, you can’t begrudge me the fact that I loved you enough to try and articulate to you something I earnestly believe. If I’ve done anything to earn your respect, at least permit me to offer you a taste of the draught that saved me, pulled me from the depths, and restored me to life. If I’m an earnest believer, you should see the change in me anyway. Don’t begrudge me the chance to explain why. 

 This doesn’t stop with Christianity. Any man who has given himself over to an ideal – be it something particular like the love of a woman or devotion to country, or something abstract like Freedom or Truth or Human Rights – cannot be faulted for shouting his ideas from the rooftops or from the platform at a protest. He cannot be called intolerant or proud for giving his life on the field of battle, or staring down the barrel of a gun in the name of his beliefs. If every religious devotee or political idealist just kept to himself, we would live in a world much sadder and darker than it already is. Even if you think there is no objective Truth, you must still respect the idea of Truth enough to accept those who live and breathe and die by a Truth they hold to be sacred. If none of us are prepared to fight or defend or evangelize for the things we believe in, why do we believe? 

 When you can articulate to me a utopian model not grounded on some conception of truth, or bricked and mortared with ideals built by the sweat of true believers, than I will say we have no reason to evangelize. But until then, I am not ashamed to proclaim what I believe to be the truth of the Christian Gospel. It is an idea that has earned men not fame or fortune, but the threat of execution and the cold walls of prison. It is an idea that has changed the world, from the action of social institutions in ending poverty to the changing of one man’s heart in a darkened room, when he had already abandoned hope. It appeals to the humble child and makes children of learned scholars. In short, I believe it to be the truth, one worth fighting for. I don’t believe I condescend when I tell you about it; in reality, I believe you condescend when you accuse me of narrow-mindedness or intolerance or hatred. I am not silent, nor do I retreat into private, inoffensive religiosity, because I still believe in something more important than myself or the shallow niceties of politically-correct company. 

The world is full of radicals, and chances are you agree or at least acknowledge the legitimacy of some of them; why do you reject Christianity's legitimacy out of hand? What has it done to warrant such a dismissal? You might agree with Gandhi: you have no quarrel with Christ Himself, only His followers. You might think the people of the Church are judgmental and hypocritical. True, some of them are; but many more have given their hearts and lives for something they saw to be beautiful and true. Many have spent long nights praying for their apathetic friends, not out of some misplaced sense of self-righteousness, but because they honestly love and care for others with a desperate passion. In the end, we are all believers in something; we would be fools to say otherwise. 

 You are all my friends, and I love you. Perhaps you disagree with what I’ve written, and are currently entered into complete and utter rage. If that’s the case, please – let’s talk about it. If you’ve really read all this, and still think that “let’s talk about it” is some covert tactic of mine to try and convert you, then I don’t think you actually read it. So please, the discussion forum is wide open.


  1. This is beautifully written and well put, Brendan. Being bored with summer, I do in fact have the time and inclination for conversation about this topic. Where to begin? I sometimes find myself wondering why all of us who are true believers in Christ and find happiness in carrying out God's work have to group together in such "distinct" and separate "sub-religions" in Christianity, usually thinking theirs is so much more "superior" than the other. To me, it seems so contrary and frivolous to what we believe. We are ALL brothers and sisters living here on this earth to serve God.

  2. Why do you reject Christianity's legitimacy out of hand?
    The tens of thousands of other religions throughout history. The 20 major religions currently in existence. The fact that the only reason you actually believe in one is because of where you were born, when you were born, who your parents were, or who your friends are. When you understand why you dismiss the thousands of other religions, then maybe you will understand why I dismiss just one more than you do. Then you will realize why people see Christians as narrow minded, arrogant, condescending, and most of all egocentric.

    If there is a higher power, it makes no sense why he would care about you. You would be a spec on his radar, no more important than a fly. The power is omnipotent, transcendent of space and time, and you believe he cares about some lumps of talking meat. Doesn't hold water, and sounds down right silly.

  3. I will give you my Utopian model not grounded on "truth." Every life form is made primarily from the same elements. These same elements are the primary building blocks of the universe. Everything is made basically of the same. In much the way your book describes, we are made in his likeness, only it is not a he. It is the universe itself. We are all star stuff. The universe experiencing itself. Blown from the center of space carried through time and across indescribable distances, molded into consciousness to witness the beauty it is a part of. To experience inconsequential love, happiness, anger, despair and every other feeling that has been given a name. We have one chance to live, a fleeting and miniscule moment in time where we are aware of ourselves and others. Some may realize the connection we have with each other and everything that is, and they see the beauty in it. The beauty is so great and so indescribable that they need to give a name to it. God, Allah, Thor, Zeus, or whatever it is. When what they are truly describing is a elemental oneness with everyone and thing.

  4. Jonathan – hello, sir! Thank you for reading and commenting. I’m not sure which of your posts to respond to first, so let me address your notion of “legitimacy” – or rather, what you perceive to be my intention in using such a word. Correct me if I’m wrong, but in your post you seem to be attacking the legitimacy of Christianity as a religion in comparison to other world religions. If I can stop you there, let me say that this wasn’t the intention of my essay. My argument rests on the assertion that whether or not you find Christianity to be true or a ridiculous falsity, you can’t really attack the Christian’s right not only to assert his belief in that religion as true, but also his motivation to tell others about it. Feel free to respond to this point first, but I’ll go ahead and address the rest of your comment.

    I’m wondering if you’re referring to Christians the world over, or just those in America. For many American Christians, it’s true that seemingly uncontrollable sociological statistics affect your affiliation with the Christian Church – where you’re born, who your parents/friends are, etc. But how do you deal with the countless multitudes of men and women the world over, often those who are born into overwhelmingly deterministic cultures/societies (Islamic nations, sectarian-based cultures, etc.) who see Christianity as a truth they can pursue wholly with their lives – even when every neighbor, coworker, friend, and seat of power shares a different faith (or no faith at all)? This is part of my point: Christianity is a religion carried into nearly every corner of the earth because of its devout, steadfast adherents. Substitute any other major world religion into that previous sentence and you end up with the same thing. As for you “dismissing” Christianity, please understand that you’re welcome to do so. Dismissal of faith is one thing, but downright intolerance for Christianity’s motivation to propagate that faith is quite another thing.

  5. A (not very) brief note on your choice of adjectives in describing Christianity: I find it interesting when people throw around the term “narrow-mindedness,” because it’s a dangerous weapon with a great deal of kick-back. I don’t mean to be caustic, but it would appear that you are “open-minded” enough to accept the multiplicity of faiths in the world, but not quite open enough to accept Christianity’s place in that array of faiths. Do you find similar faults with other major religions that pursue conversion (the big one being Islam of course)?

    “Arrogant” most usually means “having an exaggerated sense of one’s own importance or abilities.” In my post I argued that any sort of “arrogance” one presumes in the beliefs of a certain group is essentially neutralized by the fact that anyone who holds a certain view of theirs to be correct – and yes, your concept of cosmic, inconsequential beauty bound up in elemental oneness counts as a belief and/or “truth” claim – can be accused of the same arrogance. It’s like saying that if I see something black and you see it white, and I try to convince you that it’s black, you’re accusing me of arrogance because I think I’m right and you’re wrong – even though you’re doing exactly the same thing! In short, we all have opinions that we defend and assert, but that equalizes us; it doesn’t split the world into the arrogant (Christians) and the humble (anyone who doesn’t happen to believe in Christianity, but rather in something else).

    I’ve already addressed “condescension”, I think, in the post. As for “egocentric,” I can only assume you mean the concept of us thinking ourselves important in the universe, because true disciples of Jesus Christ are actually grounded in selflessness: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Luke 9:23); “For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21). My answer is simply this: you too see the beauty and oneness in human existence; you’ve already mentioned it in your own belief system. How then can we also be “lumps of meat”? We are either something special, capable of composing symphonies and painting masterpieces and denying self-preservation by giving our lives for the sake of others – or we are nothing but mere animals. I look around and I don’t see animals. I see human beings capable of creating as much beauty as horrific destruction, who love and hate with passion, who display reason and virtue as well as vice. If I am egocentric to see a messed-up humanity caught under a mysterious moral imperative to do good as something unique in the universe, then you are right to call me so.

    I apologize for the long posts, but I wanted to do your comments as much justice as I could, and hopefully provide more fodder for this discussion.

  6. My response was directed towards all faiths. Once any one of any faith realizes why they denounce the 1,000 other invented faiths, then they will understand why those without religion denounce 1,001 faiths.

    "I look around and I don’t see animals." - yep, that is egotistical. I believe you are mistaken to not see how special all life is. If your god is as great as people say he is, I doubt he would hold this same view. I imagine he would see life as great in all its forms, not just intelligence.

    I am not going to defend my cosmic belief of existence, simply because it is just a belief. A nice thought, nothing more. This is the core difference between religious and non religious people. You see things as black, a Muslim see things as white, and I see things as grey. Live a good life, a life full of love, kindness, and acceptance for others, and whatever god there may be, it will accept you. And if he does not accept you, then that is one crap god. And if there is no god, then you just lived your entire existence in love and kindness, what better way to spend your only one. That's what they a call an old fashioned, win-win.

    Lumps of meat are special. I believe all life is special. That is at the core of my belief system. I like to think we are the universe experiencing itself, front row seats to all that ever was. That makes me feel special.

    Final point, people can evangelize all they want. As long as it is done in a loving way. The moment I hear someone tell another they will burn in eternal damnation, or use any sort of fear as a reason to believe in their deity, that is when evangelizing turns into something else. Something not Christian.