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.



7 thoughts on “An Atheist Visits a Lutheran “Information” Class

  1. I remember reading this a few years back… I think you hit it on the head with the modernist / postmodernist difference. To be honest, I’m troubled by an overly modernistic approach to catechesis. Not that I’ve entirely bought into a postmodernist approach either. Both seem to try cutting off the hermeneutical circle/spiral (downplaying the role of either belief or understanding) and ignoring the role of the Spirit through the proclamation of the Word as entry point to this circle/spiral.

    I have to say though, I do like Pastor Lassman’s classes, they are on Youtube so anyone can watch them.

    This brings up another question, something I struggle with. At what point is a new member “worthy” of reception? Is there a necessity to score a 85 or greater on the Pieper Orthodoxy Quiz of explaining things to death? Can we be comfortable with new members, or potential member “not getting” everything?

    This is all coming from someone who puts a lot of effort into teaching and is not afraid to get into some of the nitty gritty stuff. I want members who are willing to continue to learn (what pastor doesn’t)… but also I’m comfortable with someone saying “I don’t quite understand, but I’ll trust what you’re teaching, just show me from Scripture, and am willing to keep learning.”

  2. Timetheos,

    I know I’m late to the party, but I found your post interesting. Still, I wonder if we as a culture might sometimes overemphasize the incommensurability of our abilities to explain ourselves. Most atheists in the U.S., of course, come from Christian backgrounds and many have enough theological sophistication to understand the doctrines they reject. I once knew somebody who argued that a nonbeliever couldn’t by definition evaluate a Christian’s reading of scripture or doctrine because the nonbeliever wasn’t somehow “within” the framework.

    What it comes down to, in my opinion, is that Christians offer the world an ultimatum: believe us or else, which is alright (life is full of ultimatums) except that the content of that ultimatum is profoundly non-rational. How does a nonbeliever judge between what is non-rational (lots of true things are that) and irrational without giving up their integrity as reasonable human beings? This difficulty is only compounded when we assume others aren’t spiritually equipped to pick the pearls from among the table slops.

    Total depravity is a perfect example of this. To believe in this particular doctrine requires us to abstract the concept of “goodness” from the complex of situations and decisions that define it and apply it universally. But why should we? It would be irrational to do that with, say, the concept of “stylish” or “politeness.” We assume these latter are complicated instances of human behavior. Why not goodness? Anyway, I hope I’m not firebombing your post with irrelevancy.


    • Thanks for the comment. It’s a good question on the difference between irrational and non-rational, but it comes back, I think, to assumptions. How one defines “rational” in the first place is going to determine whether one thinks something is irrational or non-rational. It seems to me that hardcore atheists have a very narrow view of rationality, and so define irrationality very broadly (to include things like miracles).

      As to the incommensurability of our claims, whether there is a God or not seems to be about as defining a question as there is. It’s not Red Sox versus Yankees. At least there, two people who disagree are talking the same language of baseball. But with it comes to theism and atheism, it seems that there are two fundamentally opposed assumptions. And how does one even go about trying to convince someone of the rationality of something that is excluded from the start?

      I’m not sure how you’re using total depravity. When I use that term, I mean it in the sense that no human can be pleasing to God in himself (or herself). But when it comes to goodness, as far as humans can define or describe it, it is clear that all sorts of people can be “good” or do good things. From my perspective, the outwardly good works mean absolutely nothing when it comes to God’s justice (outside or apart from Christ). So I agree that the context of any given human life will give nuance to any general definition of goodness as far as we can see. At the same time, I believe that outside of Christ, there is only one category of humans: sinners who are evil in thought, word, and deed, making them blind, dead enemies of God. One’s concept of goodness depends entirely on whether we are talking about the human coram Deo or coram hominibus. That’s my Lutheran view, anyway.


  3. My reading of this sparked a tangential thought regarding what we actually teach. An important aspect of Christology (Christianity) that even Christians can’t agree on. And.. part of conversation I recently had elsewhere.

    Goes like this. What choices do we have? When are we saved.. (ie: may Christians clame “When I was saved” as in “When I chose to accept Christ.)

    Ok.. now.. what exactly is our “choice” in the matter?

    Do we choose to be saved? or did God-Christ choose to save us.

    Do we choose to repent? or does God choose for us to repent?

    Christianity is a logical conundrum in that on one had we say we must do something, while on the other hand we teach that Christ did it for us… which is it?

    Now… try and explain this to an Atheist, or someone questioning their faith, in context of our standard “believe us or else” preaching routine.

    Next… try and debate any given Christian from any denomination about what exactly our choice in all this is… and observe the wheels come off the discussion train.

    My question is, how is an atheist or questioning person supposed to gain insight to their assumptions when we can’t even agree amongst us believers?

    … or, is it that we are so bent on “proving” our message that we lose sight of our simple instruction to share the message.?


    My position, as taught by my Lutheran elders is that Salvation is God’s-Christ’s choice. Whether we repent or not is our choice, or at least our choice as inspired by the Holy Spirit. And once we share that message with someone it is our duty to turn over the job of “proving” of the message to the Holy Spirit.

    Maybe what we need, really, is just turn back to the basics of sharing and setting an example, rather than trying to twist the thumbs of language forcing people to believe through sheer force of intellectual logic.

    I’m rambling a bit with this, but trying to say (or rather intimate) a lot within a limited text window.

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