Maybe fifteen years ago I met a new friend. To protect the guilty, I’m calling him Bill in the following lines.
I was walking in the neighborhood and Bill’s dog got loose. The dog ran up to investigate me with Bill chasing and calling after it. I held the dog’s collar until Bill arrived.
Bill thanked me and asked who I was and what I did for a living—all laced together in one statement and question. Ordinarily, I didn’t tell new acquaintances that I ran a Christian ministry. More often than not, saying that was a conversation killer, but for some reason that’s how I introduced myself to Bill. “I’m Preston, from a few blocks south. I run a Christian ministry… and I’m also an author and a speaker,” I added quickly.
“How interesting! I’m Bill. I’m an author, and a speaker, and an atheist. Do you drink?”
I was a bit off balance by our introductions, but one thing was clear: Bill was inviting me to talk about our lives, specifically our views about God.
Until Bill moved a few years ago, he and I met weekly. We discussed everything, but spent little time on small talk, lots of time on major issues.
Bill paid me a high compliment one evening as I walked to the door. “Preston, here you are: a Christian minister and a conservative. And here I am, an atheist and a flaming liberal, but we are the best of friends.”
Bill is gone now, but the benefits of our friendship remain, laced into the tapestry of my soul.
What follows is the first of two letters I wrote to Bill. I didn’t put anything new on paper. Rather, I wrote to him for the record—to put in lines strings of words, clumped into paragraphs, forming thoughts important enough for a more formal consideration than conversation invokes.
Bill is gone now, but the benefits of our friendship remain, laced into the tapestry of my soul. Bill’s friendship was important to me, and our conversations about God helped me think carefully about belief and unbelief. I share these pieces of our conversation with you in hopes you too will benefit.
Dear friend, Bill:
Your friendship is a treasure. With the investment of your time and your soul, you have enriched my life and diversified the portfolio of people helping me define how I think, what I believe, and how I conduct myself. I am indebted to you for this and realize I cannot repay you, but know as certainly that you would not ask me to try. Such is friendship.
Like traveling overseas has held me accountable to consider other cultures, your perspectives as an atheist have challenged me to consider my beliefs, opinions, and true convictions. In this you have done me a great service. I’m grateful to you.
Carefully considering which beliefs are essential, and which are non-essential, creates a more realistic opportunity for healthy communication. Our friendship certainly reflects this.
As I’ve thought about it, not all beliefs are top-tier convictions. But those beliefs that are essential must be held close.
Wisdom would counsel that a man should expend great effort to carefully construct and place these top-tier pillars of conviction. Too few, and life is without definition, tossed by every wind. Too many, and life is rigid, dogmatic, and closed—like the Fundamentalists.
Pillars ill-constructed crumble and must be either endured, dispensed with, or reconstructed. The conviction that the world was flat proved to be an ill-constructed belief and had to be redesigned around new data, but not before the hard-liners martyred as heretics those asserting something different from their belief.
Replacing, redefining, or reconstructing a top-tier conviction—like the shape of the earth in the fifteenth century—is a formidable undertaking. Most people would rather do anything else because of all that necessarily follows. Among other implications, not only is the structure above the suspect pillar at risk, the ego of the pillar’s architect is in jeopardy. But upon realizing that a prudent evaluation of top-tier convictions is in order, we say those who pursue the matter are open-minded and brave.
“Preston, you took a leap of faith; I took a leap of unfaith.”
For me, the existence of God is a top-tier conviction. For you, the nonexistence of God is a closely held belief. As you and I have realized, our differing beliefs each bear indicators that we believe correctly, but neither of our convictions can be laid out with enough certainty to declare we have absolute proof. We have each considered the evidence before us, followed those paths to their conclusions, rejected one, and then taken a leap of faith to the other in order to land upon our individual conviction.
As you stated once, “Preston, you took a leap of faith; I took a leap of unfaith.”
Thinking about atheism, when Christianity took root in the first century it spread and reached a critical mass that required Roman society to confront its claims. When the Romans did this, they concluded Christians were atheists. Unlike the more tolerant Greeks who had a temple to the “Unknown God,” the pantheon of Rome was closed. As they thought about what Christians believed, they found nothing in Roman religion corresponding to or accommodating of Christian theology. Rather than consider that their conviction about the pantheon of gods might need to be redefined, they determined that the God of Christianity did not exist and pronounced adherents to Christianity, atheist, i.e. without God, or more accurately, without any of their gods. Similar to the solution adopted by the flat-earth believers, but to a much greater degree, the Romans sought to eliminate through martyrdom those who disagreed with their top-tier conviction about God and gods.
More specifically, as I have considered your atheism, I have determined that if I believed about God what you believe about the idea of God, I doubt that I would believe in him either. I don’t care at all for the God defined for you in Episcopal school, the God defined for you during your early days at Yale, the God defined by your mentors, or the God you speak about when you reference Him, the Bible, or His followers.
I have also realized that God as you have defined him is not the God encompassed in my definition of him. Simply, when we talk about God—his existence or not—you are talking about one thing and I am talking about another.
In short, the God you have rejected is not the same God I have accepted.
An observation: You are a debater. In debate, there is an assigned subject for the season. Prior to competition each debater builds what he hopes will be a winning case in favor of the subject as well as a winning case opposing the subject. In order to be successful, a debater must be able to argue both sides of the topic convincingly—assuming the topic has been agreed upon and clearly defined.
My observation is this: I’ve never heard you argue convincingly for the existence of God. You argue about him, but always to the contrary. In all our conversations, I’ve not heard you reference the standard works that footnote the other side of this subject. I don’t see titles by Little, McDowell, Keller, Strobel, or Yancey on your shelf, for example. I only see you building upon one side of the question concerning God.
But what if your definition of God is incorrect?
I’ve asked myself why this is and return to my above point: Your definition of God—if he does exist—is untenable, the equivalent of being assigned an indefensible topic for debate, e.g. that the earth is flat. Therefore, consideration of the alternative—the existence of God as you have defined him—is not worth your time or effort.
Of course, the key to the last paragraph is the definition of the topic, i.e. God. You are convinced you have defined him accurately, as were the Romans regarding the pantheon and the scientists of the fifteenth century regarding Earth’s shape. You have built a pillar of conviction upon your definition and concluded God does not exist.
But what if your definition of God is incorrect? What if the data you’ve used to consider God is wrong-headed, unrepresentative, and lacking? What if God exists, but not as you have identified him when you consider God?
When CS Lewis redefined God—perhaps you recall it in his letter to Arthur Grieves—he referred to himself as the “most unhappy convert in all of England.” For good reason. Like the flat-earth folks years earlier, everything Lewis believed had to be restructured. I’ve known several pastors who threw away all of their sermons upon recognizing an ill-conceived pillar of conviction. It is quite courageous when you think about it; like realizing your life’s work missed the mark.
Since my note here is about a top-tier conviction, the existence of God, I’m relying upon our deep friendship to write lines to you that are challenging. Of course, we will sit and discuss these words in person, but there is nothing quite like the sequence of sentences to help us think carefully.
I think it responsible and reasonable to doubt, but not to discount or dismiss without careful consideration.
Bill, there is another side, another definition of God than the one you adopted. Like yours, the alternative view is thoughtful, skillful, scholarly if you delve into it—sometimes passionate—and it is worthy of your consideration. After all, unlike our political debates, the existence of God is extremely important.
So if I was in your shoes, received this letter from my friend, and determined to double-check my definition of God, what would I do?
Two things, neither of which I need to know about: First, I would state aloud—for your own point of reference—“God, if you exist I need help believing in you and believing the right things about you. As far as I’m concerned, I’m saying these words into thin air. The burden of proof is yours. I’ll do my best to be open-minded, but this seems quite foolish.” Second, I would suggest you read and consider Timothy Keller’s book, The Reason for God. Additionally, I think it would be intellectually honest of you to thoughtfully read Philip Yancey’s, The Jesus I Never Knew. Hear each out and consider…just to be certain. If you are right, your conviction will be stronger. If you need to reassess, you possess the bravery to do so. You have nothing to lose.
I think it responsible and reasonable to doubt, but not to discount or dismiss without careful consideration. I know I am asking something courageous of you—the reassessment and possible redefining of God and all that implies—but I believe in you and would be a sorry friend if I did not offer you my honest observation. Not to shame you, but I’ve read the books by your favorite atheists (smile).
Thank you for reading. Thank you for being a good enough friend that I can speak to you honestly. Whatever else anyone might say of you and me, it is a high compliment to us that we are such good buddies.
See you soon. Your friend,