The Wired Word for the week of September 26, 2021
In the News The recent election of an atheist as president of the Harvard Chaplains Organization raised two questions for us here at The Wired Word. First, how important is it to have correct doctrine -- in comparison to right living? Second, how can Christians nurture interfaith relationships while maintaining a faithful witness of the gospel of Jesus the Christ? Nearly four centuries after Puritan colonists established Harvard to educate the clergy, the university's organization of chaplains has unanimously elected as its next president an atheist named Greg Epstein, 44, author of the book, Good Without God. He will coordinate the activities of more than 40 university chaplains, who represent about 25 religions, traditions, organizations and denominations. Epstein was raised in a Jewish home and became Harvard's humanist chaplain in 2005. He focuses his ministry on students who don't identify with a particular religion, who are still searching for meaning and community that doesn't require belief in a god. Epstein said such students "still experience a real need for conversation and support around what it means to be a good human and live an ethical life." According to the Pew Research Center, one of every four Americans call themselves atheist, agnostic or nonreligious. The Harvard and MIT Humanist Chaplaincy website states that humanism "affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment, aspiring to humanity's greater good." While humanists do not believe in a god, they "are clearly devoted to goodness," the website states. "We don't look to a god for answers," Epstein said. "We are each other's answers." The Rev. Kathleen Reed, a Lutheran chaplain and chair of the committee that nominated Epstein, said the humanist was their first choice to lead the Harvard Chaplains' Organization. Many view him as a figure who works to build cooperative relationships between people of different faiths and no faith. Some have criticized news outlets that mischaracterized Epstein's new role as Harvard's "chief chaplain" or "boss" who would be "in charge of" the other chaplains. John Lomperis, a graduate of Harvard Divinity School, wrote: "This latest rotation was not a matter of Epstein and atheism triumphing over any of the other chaplaincies. It was simply his turn," adding that "even if Epstein wanted to shut down other campus ministries [implying that he doesn't want to do that], he has no power to do so." Pete Williamson, an evangelical Harvard chaplain employed by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF), voted to elect Epstein to the largely administrative position for a term of one year, which can be renewed once. "Chaplain presidents are chosen not to reflect whose tradition is ascendant, nor as a reward to the most influential chaplain," Williamson explained. Lomperis argues that "Our faith must compete in a wide arena of different religious and non-religious worldviews." If we want religious liberty for ourselves, Lomperis suggests, we must "also defend the freedom of conscience of our non-Christian neighbors to promote and live according to religions with whose beliefs we strongly disagree. This is ... a basic matter of Christ's Golden Rule of treating others as we want to be treated". Williamson wrote that he believes evangelicals can flourish "in interfaith spaces without compromising faith, truth or mission." According to him, Harvard chaplains are free to present and practice their diverse faiths without passing an arbitrary litmus test on matters of faith and doctrine. Williamson says Harvard's "commitment to genuine diversity makes space for evangelicals to flourish as trusted members of religious leadership." While some bemoan what they see as Epstein's incorrect theology, others appreciate that in many ways, his lifestyle may more closely approximate that of Jesus than do the lifestyles of some who self-identify as Christians. Emily Hunter McGowin, an assistant professor of theology at Wheaton College, wrote recently that it is all too common for some Christian leaders to have "the 'right' doctrinal content in their books and sermons," while their lives "contradicted and undermined the gospel they preached." McGowin asserts that "anyone who teaches against the core doctrines of our faith can rightly be called a false teacher. But this is not the only way to deny Christ." People teach with the "whole person -- words and deeds -- not just explicitly named doctrines," she says. "And it is ... embodied teaching that causes the weak to stumble, leads many astray, and drives countless others away from Christ." As historian Jemar Tisby said recently, "Theology is not merely stated but lived." More on this story can be found at these links: The New Chief Chaplain at Harvard? An Atheist. The New York Times An Atheist Is a Perfect Choice to Lead Harvard's Chaplains. The Crimson Why Harvard's Atheist Chaplain Matters Less, and More, Than You Think. Juicy Ecumenism Why I Voted for the Atheist President of Harvard's Chaplain Group. Christianity Today Beware False Teachers With Good Doctrine and Bad Ethics. Christianity Today The Big Questions 1. How would you define the similarities and differences between people who believe in God and people with the same basic value system but without faith in God? 2. Can a person be "a good person" without believing in God? Why or why not? 3. What is the relative importance of right thinking (doctrine or orthodoxy), compared to right living (orthopraxy), in our faith? Is one more important than the other in lending credibility to our witness? Explain your view. 4. How can Christians effectively live out their faith when it is viewed as marginal or irrelevant by large segments of our "increasingly pluralistic, post-Christian and openly hostile" population (Lomperis)? 5. What part of your own testimony or experience might it be good to share with someone who is not persuaded by the Christian faith? Confronting the News With Scripture and Hope The blog, "Self-transcendence, C.S. Lewis, & the Sheep," by Canadian pastor and author of The End of Religion, Bruxy Cavey, guided us in our reflections on some of the Bible passages in this lesson. James 2:17-20, 25 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. But someone will say, "You have faith and I have works." Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe -- and shudder. Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith apart from works is barren? ... Likewise, was not Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by another road? (For context, read James 2:14-26.) James questions the faith of people who claim to believe in God but don't act like it. Anyone can say they follow Jesus, but if they don't clothe the naked and feed the hungry, those words are hollow. James tells his readers that they may well believe the core doctrines of our faith (God is one!), but belief alone is not enough; even the demons may have correct theology on that point (v. 19). On the other hand, Rahab the prostitute from Jericho is an example of someone from the wrong side of the tracks, who may not have had a good grasp of theology, but who saved the lives of the Hebrew spies by her actions. King Cyrus of Persia is another pagan who is described as God's anointed one who would carry out all God's purpose (2 Chronicles 36:22-23, Ezra 1:1-2; 5:13-14; 6:3, 14; Isaiah 44:28; 45:13), even though there is no indication he is intentionally or knowingly serving God. One might conclude that James is advocating a kind of salvation by works, but it would be more accurate to say that James is teaching that good works are evidence of the presence of faith. One thing is certain: Getting doctrine right is not enough. Jesus said we would be known by the fruit we produce in our lives (Matthew 7:15-20). Questions: Why do the demons shudder, even though they believe correct doctrine? Why might people have reason to shudder as well, even though they believe the right things? What works have you seen people do that give evidence of their faith? Who do you know who serves the purposes of God, even though they do not profess to believe in Jesus or in God? Who do you know who professes faith in God, but who does not demonstrate the reality of their faith in the way they live? John 10:3-4, 14-16 [Jesus said,] "The gatekeeper opens the gate for [the shepherd of the sheep], and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. ... I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd." (For context, read John 10:1-17.) In this chapter, Jesus portrays himself as the good shepherd who knows the sheep that belong to him. Some knowledge is above the pay grade of mere mortals, but "the Lord knows those who are his" (2 Timothy 2:19). While in this life, we may not know everyone who belongs to God's flock, God knows. Some day, we may be surprised to find some sheep in the fold we didn't expect to see there. Perhaps among that number will be members of an interfaith community that we don't yet recognize as our spiritual kin. Questions: Who do you think were the "other sheep that do not belong to this fold" Jesus mentions to his disciples? Are there still other sheep that Jesus wants to bring into his fold today, who have different identities than those to whom Jesus was referring in the first century? Might they include some people that might fit an "interfaith" description? Explain. Luke 9:51-55 When the days drew near for [Jesus] to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, "Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?" But he turned and rebuked them. (For context, read Luke 9:49-56.) We find a hint of the root of the theological disagreement between the Samaritans and Jesus in the conversation Jesus had with a Samaritan woman he met at Jacob's well. She said, "Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem" (John 4:20). Their religious tradition differed so greatly from that of the Jews that they would not extend even basic hospitality to Jesus. James and John were so shocked by the behavior of the Samaritans that they were quite ready to use whatever power God gave them to incinerate them. But Jesus didn't criticize the Samaritans. Instead, he rebuked his disciples. Jesus told the woman at the well that the time was coming when the location of worship would be a moot point; what would matter in the end would be worshiping God "in spirit and truth" (John 4:21-26). Just before the incident in the Luke text, Dr. Luke describes another discussion John had with Jesus about someone who was not part of their group who was casting out demons in Jesus' name. The disciples' instinct was to try to stop the man, but Jesus objected, saying "whoever is not against you is for you." After all, the man in question was trying to do a good thing, by freeing someone from demonic oppression, the very same kind of ministry Jesus did and the same work he equipped his disciples to do. Megan M. Ross, of The Harvard Crimson editorial board, wrote of our culture's "anti-atheist hostility" that stems from "the fact that many tend to associate belief in God with morality itself," leading to the opinion that "irreligion implies immorality." Ross adds that "this is a muddied portrait wrongly ascribing menace to an identity marked only by a lack of belief in a higher power." While some non-Christians actively work against Christ and his followers, others may be very cooperative with Christian endeavors. If we view them all with the same lens, we may miss those who are actually closer to the kingdom of God and the way of Christ than we realize. Questions: What was wrong with the reaction of James and John, from Jesus' point of view? Why was Jesus unwilling to condemn the Samaritans who didn't receive him? Is it important to make a distinction between people who are actively anti-Christ and anti-Christian, and those who are not following Christ at the moment, but who may not be fighting against him? Why or why not? How should we relate to people in each category? Matthew 25:34, 37-40 [Jesus said,] "Then the king will say to those at his right hand, 'Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; … Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?' And the king will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.' (For context, read Matthew 25:31-46.) According to pastor and author, Bruxy Cavey, "The scene is the judgement of the 'nations.' This is the translation of a Greek word, ethnos, which usually refers to groups of people who are not yet part of God's people ... "In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis taught that a non-Christian might place his or her faith in Christ through their faithfulness to Christ, even if they are unaware of it. He writes: There are people who do not accept the full Christian doctrine about Christ but who are so strongly attracted by Him that they are His in a much deeper sense than they themselves understand. There are people in other religions who are being led by God's secret influence to concentrate on those parts of their religion which are in agreement with Christianity, and who thus belong to Christ without knowing it. In C.S. Lewis' The Last Battle, Emeth, a soldier who served a false god all his life, kneels before Aslan, anticipating condemnation and execution, but Aslan surprises him by welcoming him into his kingdom. He explains that because Emeth had followed the right impulses of his heart (see Romans 2:14-15), Aslan would accept the services the soldier offered to the false god as though Emeth had been serving Aslan all along. Questions: How comfortable are you with C.S. Lewis' theology in these passages? Does his analysis make sense to you? Why or why not? For Further Discussion 1. Respond to this, from Bob Roberts, pastor and founder of the Multi-Faith Neighbors Network: "In recent years evangelical Christians have functionally cordoned themselves off from the rest of society and culture. They have done this for a variety of reasons, but the result has been a church that does not understand the world, and a church that does not understand the world is a church that cannot faithfully serve and engage the world with the love of Jesus. Multi-faith gives us the opportunity to not only serve the world, but to understand the world as well." 2. Discuss this, from Emily Hunter McGowin, assistant professor of theology at Wheaton College: "[Some people] assume that right doctrine will inevitably lead to right practice. That's simply not the case. Conversely, some believers attend to their actions without caring about the doctrinal commitments that undergird (or contradict) those very behaviors. "Fundamentally, orthopraxy and orthodoxy are inseparable. Right action is fueled and directed by biblical and theological truth. And orthodoxy is only meaningful and substantive when it takes on flesh in faithful practice. We cannot have one without the other. They go together." 3. React to this: According to humanist college chaplain Bart Campolo, when he told his famous evangelical father, Tony, that he could no longer call himself a believer, Tony said, "I am not afraid you're going to hell, because the God I believe in doesn't send people to hell for eternity for having the wrong theology." 4. John Lomperis, the Institute on Religion and Democracy's United Methodist Director, wrote: "When I was [a student at Harvard], one very theologically conservative, inerrantist, complementarian Harvard chaplain memorably lamented how we evangelical Christians sometimes spend too much energy getting angry at seeing non-Christians acting like ... non-Christians." What might be a more productive use of Christians' time and energy? 5. What is the purpose of interfaith work? Responding to the News Discuss ways you might intentionally develop relationships with people who do not profess faith in Jesus Christ. When have you done so in the past? What worked well in developing positive interfaith relations? Prayer Lead us, Good Shepherd, to follow you. Open our ears to hear you speak, so that we will be able to discern your voice from all others and not be led astray by false shepherds. Thank you for including us in your flock. Help us to rejoice in the other sheep you are bringing into your fold, especially those we didn't know belonged to you. Make us one flock, as we listen to your voice and follow you, our one Shepherd. Amen.
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