An Atheist Visits a Lutheran “Information” Class

I find this whole thing absolutely fascinating (scroll down halfway to get to Eliza’s notes on the class).  A couple years ago, this woman (girl? lady?) visited Pr. Ernie Lassman’s “information” (it’s obviously about more than information) class in Seattle, at Messiah Lutheran Church.  (The notice for the class was even picked up by Jay Leno.)

It is fascinating to read Eliza’s comments and see the disconnect that takes place between Pr. Lassman’s assumptions and hers.  At the basic level, it should make us think about the words and sorts of words we use when we are talking to someone who doesn’t share our assumptions.  But this is more than just about speaking in words that an unbeliever can understand, because even if you substitute a string of words for “justification” or “atonement,” that is no guarantee that those words will be any more understandable.  The point is not in the words themselves, but in the way of thinking that informs the understanding.  My way of thinking, which is made up of all the things I take as granted (assumptions), determines the conclusions I will draw from any given set of evidence.  But more than that, the way I think determines what I will accept as evidence for drawing a conclusion, because already my way of thinking is what I use to “see” or “hear.”  I hear things a certain way because my assumptions (formed in all the ways that assumptions are formed) have already limited my options.  For example, this quote [in the notes for this class] says a lot:

Anyway, this reminded me [Eliza] of the time in high school when the only student who could answer one specific confusing question in English class about a part of speech was the exchange student from Brazil, for whom English was a foreign language. That’s me – the exchange student, for whom the Bible is a foreign language.

So when Eliza and Pr. Lassman have a conversation or a disagreement, unless one of them has a “change of mind,” the bridge is nearly uncrossable.  Christians have words for that gap, but I think some “evangelism experts” forget that the gap exists; in other words, if we can only say things in the right way, or at the right time, or with sufficiently lowest-common-denominator language, then we can convince the atheist or the skeptic of the truth of Christianity, and then faith will be all but inevitable.  (My evidence for this is all the times I thought, “This is how I would have answered that question…”)  This is not an argument against evangelism, but a recognition of the limits of our reason and language.

Someone said that Eliza’s blog shows the fundamental conflict between modernism and post-modernism.  Modernism assumes a fundamental structure to the “way things are,” and, therefore, pure argument and reason will be enough to overcome any obstacle.  (I do not think that Pr. Lassman would assert that, but it is an assumption of modernism.)  This is related to the idea that denominational structures, as corporate structures, are indispensable, and so we see incredible efforts to sustain such structures (e.g., we need more money in order to sustain this structure, so we must “re-structure” in order to save money–give us money!).  But it may be that Eliza is also formed by modernism to the extent that she seems to have a desire for absolute coherence and consistency.  I like consistency and coherence as much as the next systematic theologian, but when you combine the finite limits of our minds with the infinity of God, I can’t help but think that we will see inevitable incoherence and inconsistency.  And who would want a god who makes sense to our minds without remainder?  (Isn’t that what the psychologists call “projection”?)

Side note: sometimes it seems that the same people who cry “mystery! mystery!” in the face of dogma are the first to want God to make sense to their limited minds.

One point that intrigued me was the discussion of sin and sinners.  Eliza and some of her commenters saw a disjunction between how forcefully Pr. Lassman emphasized the total depravity of humanity, and their own experiences.  Some even said that when they were free of viewing themselves as completely sinful, they felt a great burden lifted.  That’s not surprising.  If you don’t think that sin infects every facet of your being, you don’t need Christ to renew every facet of your being.  But beyond that, I think we (Christians, Lutherans) need to emphasize the “Two Kinds of Righteousness,” which could solve that difficulty.  In other words, people can and are outwardly “righteous” or “good” in the world.  Both believers in Christ and unbelievers do good things and live good lives insofar as anyone can see.  That’s true, but as nearly every page in the Scriptures testifies, that still does not satisfy God’s absolute justice and righteousness.  The disease goes all the way to the roots, and that is something that we do not (understandably) want to believe or recognize.  And we are very good at deceiving ourselves.  (Even an atheist should be able to agree with that.)  But when we talk about sin, we should be clear that sin is not confined to our actions, as if sins=the bad things I do.

Overall, I thought the whole discussion, including the comments, were enlightening, and worth reading if you are involved in catechesis or adult instruction/initiation.

Timotheos