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Advice to a Future Seminarian

One of my students graduated recently from Palm Beach Atlantic University, and he is heading into seminary and then the pastorate. He took a full platter of classes from me, and we had excellent discussions in and outside the classroom. As a graduation gift, his girlfriend asked another professor and me to write him a letter, passing on “words of wisdom” to a rising seminarian. Having attended seminary myself (Trinity Seminary in Deerfield, Illinois for my M.Div. as well as M.A. in philosophy of religion) and having served on the pastoral staff of a church in upstate New York, I wanted to pass on to him what has, by God’s grace, stood me in good stead over the years.

I had just one page to get all of this onto PBA stationery, but, as Shakespeare said, “’Tis better to be brief than tedious.” So if you’re interested, you can look over my shoulder to see what I wrote.

Dear _______,

I was asked to pass along some “words of wisdom” in light of your graduation from PBA and new start in seminary. I’m certainly honored to do so, as it’s been a joy to have you as a student in my classes and to know you as a brother in Christ. You have stood out above your peers not only in your gifts, intellect, and eagerness to learn, but also—and most importantly—in your dedication to Christ. May you ever pursue Him with pure, simple devotion and cultivate your gifts for His glory.

As you go on for further pastoral training, continue to develop Christ-oriented, soul-shaping habits outside the classroom. Seminary students often neglect spiritual nourishment, falsely assuming that doing homework in biblical studies and theology will suffice. Meanwhile, their spirit shrivels or, at best, becomes stunted. So that the Word of Christ becomes deeply embedded within, make time for Scripture memorization, meditation, and prayer. I suggest reading through the Bible each year—in addition to specific book or topical study. Be a Scripture-saturated pastor and pilgrim! And set time aside for reading insightful, stimulating books to keep your horizons broadened and your mind sharp. Let these priorities become a pattern for life.

Seminary has been a snare to many a would-be pastor and theologian, pride perhaps being the greatest danger. A classic for all seminarians is Helmut Thielicke’s An Exercise for Young Theologians. In it he writes, “Truth seduces us very easily into a kind of joy of possession.” With increased knowledge comes greater temptation to pride. An important theme that has been something of a motto in my life is, “Walk humbly before God and others.” May it be yours as well. Personal experience has been a good instructor here: As I look back on my own pilgrimage, I have moved away from certain strongly-held theological positions during college and even seminary days (all within Christian orthodoxy). Be prepared for and open to such changes. Beyond this, the heart of theology is not the accumulation or systematization of propositions, but humble worship and wise living, at whose heart is love for God and others.

The Pastoral Epistles are a rich, vital resource to reflect on and to help guide you through the challenges of ministry—and there will be many. Paul told Timothy: “in speech, conduct, love, faith and purity, show yourself an example of those who believe” (1 Tim. 4:12). During my early college years, I began to cultivate the habit of mental purity (adultery begins—or is stopped—in the mind). As someone has said, “You can’t help the first look, but the second one is yours.” Vigilantly guarding your thought-life will preserve you and (when you marry) will also be a precious gift to your wife.

Other “words of wisdom”—without much elaboration—are these: Be a good listener. Don’t burn bridges. Make every effort to relate to people from different cultures, walks of life, and socio-economic backgrounds. Give the benefit of the doubt to others as much as possible. Don’t be quick to judge, recognizing that “those people” strongly resemble you (and me) in all the weaknesses and frailties that come with our condition (Heb. 5:2); it’s easier to hold others to a higher standard than we apply to ourselves. Be quick to forgive. Remember how sinful you are and how gracious God is. Live in His grace by the Spirit’s enabling; legalism is a deadly trap. Be bold in praying for physical healing and other manifestations of the Spirit’s power. Show magnanimity to those who may not like you or the way you do things—and even learn from your critics. Be winsome and encouraging in your speech. Guard against anything that can mar your character, your Christian reputation, and (most importantly) the cause of Christ. Your life will be a living letter, known and read by others (2 Cor. 3:2).
I pray that these reflections and lessons, which have benefited me, will be of some assistance to you as you journey on with the Lord.

May Christ’s grace and peace go with you—and keep in touch!

Paul Copan

41 Responses to “Advice to a Future Seminarian”

  1. Wow, Paul. That was great. Wonderful words of wisdom. Knowing you makes it all the more full of impact. You are one who exemplifies this in every thing I see from you. Thanks for your example to me my friend.

  2. That was grand!

    Thanks for letting us be a fly on the wall, so to speak.

    This is gold…

    “Beyond this, the heart of theology is not the accumulation or systematization of propositions, but humble worship and wise living, at whose heart is love for God and others.”

    Biblical Wisdom = Skillful Living!

  3. Thanks Paul. What a sobering reminder. I’m in my 4th semester of seminary and I can relate to these areas of concern. In fact, I’m guilty of some. I will be passing this on to my classmates.

  4. Thanks Paul,

    Having just read the bio of John Loftus (http://debunkingchristianity.blogspot.com/) I am reminded how important balance is in the Christian life.

    It is vitally important that Christians engage intellectually with the Christian faith and make it a priority to develop the life of the mind. It is also vital as well that learning and acquisition of knowledge translates into an authentic personal relationship with God through proper attention to the devotional and spiritual life. Emphasis of one side at the expense of the other is potentially fatal for one’s Christian faith.

    http://www.faithinterface.com.au/discipleship-spiritual-formation/the-balanced-christian-both-and

  5. Roger, thanks for pointing that bio out. I read through the first few pages of his book (as much as I could under the Amazon preview). This type of book strikes me as a tremendously important read for any seminarian and should probably be required before graduating.

  6. Paul, Currently I am in my second term at Bethel Seminary (Christian Thought). My Phil Prof, Dr. Walker, introduced my to some of your work. I enjoyed reading your essay in “God is Good, God is Great”. This post too is a great encouragement. Thank you!

  7. Paul (and Michael)
    I had my thoughts formulated and then read Michael Patton’s comments.
    His words were so close to what I had in mind…starting with, “Wow!…”.
    And having the privilege of getting to know you some…as a mere ‘bottom feeder’/underling, I eco that I know you to live out of these strongly held convictions. You are a dear, sweet, humble, godly brother in Christ and I am greatly blessed to know you.
    What a gift you have given this graduate/future pastor. I hope he will frame it and keep it on his study wall–revisiting it often.
    Dan just shared his reflections on having spoken at a Navigator’s conference…picking up the pulse of Christianity among college students in the NW. I commented to him that it sounded like an environment which you, Paul, would thrive it…that is, they would benefit from what you have to say (and need it). I also mentioned that Michael should follow Dan’s contacts there and try to introduce the theology program among Navigators, as he noticed Biblical illiteracy.
    You three godly men are great! It’s wonderful to see how God has broadened your horizons and influence, as you live lives fully consecrated to Him. Amen!

  8. I just want to say that Paul Copan seems to model his own advice here, much of which we don’t need the Bible for, and it’s a testament to his faith hope and love.

    But nothing can prepare you for some of the roadblocks that will be thrown in your path–nothing! Baz Lurhman said it best to the class of ’99 in a song titled Everyone’s Free (To wear sunscreen):

    The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind; the kind that blindside you at 4pm on some idle Tuesday.

    And

    ….what ever you do, don’t congratulate yourself too much or berate yourself either – your choices are half chance, so are everybody else’s.

    People comment on my story and congratulate themselves for not having made the same choices, but then they were never in my shoes.

    The life I’m now leading is nothing compared to the one I dreamed of having. Dreams are still good though. Dream away. Just keep in mind that life can blindside you at any time. Be glad if it doesn’t, but don’t congratulate yourself too much if not.

    I won’t berate myself either.

  9. Paul,
    What a wonderful letter! Every student entering seminary should receive such words of wisdom. As an apologetics student I greatly appreciated them. With the next semester about to begin, this is a wonderful time for your to share this letter. I’ll definitely be re-reading this more than a few times to remind myself of its truths. Thank you for posting it, and I’ll be sure to share it with my classmates.

  10. I fail to see the humility in any of this but, I might define humility differently. Humility to me is accepting life on life’s terms not, believing there is an imaginary kingdom as an anodyne to this world’s problems. I do see an awful lot of prescriptions to ensure docility so that obedience will occur. I don’t know if those are values that allow for emotional maturity. I have to agree with John Loftus. Christianity is a mind-set where good but frightened people seek out obedience as a means to emotionally insulate themselves from the reality that life is random. Obedience to an invisible god provides a level of emotional transcendence which can get them to sleep at night. It’s a heuristic that is comforting but, it also is one that is ripe for manipulation by power-seeking men who will make promises to ensure their power (e.g. Karl Rove’s invention of compassionate conservatism as a means to strategizing towards an imperial Presidency and a permanent Republican majority). Most Christians I know (and I know many seeing as I attend a Bible Fellowship church that holds to the doctrine of inerrancy and the practice of expository preaching) believe the type of Christian life Dr. Copan suggests so they can comfortably ignore the socio-political realities of this world without ever having he awareness that their docility provides a passivity easily manipulated by men seeking power who will go to any lengths to tell you what you hear. Blind obedience to anything, including the bible, is not a virtue.

  11. Chuck, are you afraid to die? I’m asking a sincere question.

  12. Susan, Islam claims if you don’t believe in Allah you will suffer eternally when you die. Are YOU afraid to die?

  13. John,

    So if X threatens Y and Z threatens Y, and Z is false, then X’s threat is false too?

    I’ve read a lot of atheist works. I have only a read a little of yours, but if this evidences the kind of reasoning you employ, should I still waste my money on your books? I was really thinking about buying them BTW.

  14. Hodge, logic solves everything doesn’t it? You make such a crystal clear logical case that it just makes me want to convert!

    No, not at all!

    You see “the many gods” objection to Pascal’s Wager places all of these threats on an equal epistemological playing field and thereby can lead to the rejection them all for the same reasons, even if one of them might be correct in the end (as you just showed).

    I don’t think any of them are correct, though. And I’ll tell you this: I am so sure Christianity is a delusion that I’m willing to take the risk of that Wager. I have to be, you see, I have to be. I could not/would not argue against Christianity if I didn’t think so.

    That’s the kind of reasoning I do in my books, so perhaps you shouldn’t bother. ;-)

  15. Hodge,

    He didn’t say “Christian claims must be false because Islam makes similar claims”. His point was that Pascal’s Wager isn’t a good reason to believe.

    As a response to Pascal’s Wager by itself, I agree with him completely. (If that’s what Susan was getting at, then his response was an on-target way to point out the flaw in the argument.)

  16. “I don’t think any of them are correct, though. And I’ll tell you this: I am so sure Christianity is a delusion that I’m willing to take the risk of that Wager. I have to be, you see, I have to be. I could not/would not argue against Christianity if I didn’t think so.”

    Which is what you need to argue then. That was my point. You can’t negate a possible option by denying other possible options. You have to make the case against that option specifically. Pascal’s wager isn’t “You should believe because it claims to be true and you could be toast for not believing it.” Instead, it is “Reason cannot decide whether it is true or false, since one must believe one way or the other first, and you ought to believe it according to its probabilities because the less probable carries with it more of a loss.” So you have to deal with the claim that it is true, not bypass it with “Well, every other religions says that too.” So what?

    This was my point about your reasoning. If your reasoning bypasses and caricatures the arguments you are meant to address, then should I spend my money on your books? Your answer: “No, this is my line of logic.” Don’t worry, John. I’ll still buy them… second hand.

  17. “You make such a crystal clear logical case that it just makes me want to convert!”

    Please don’t mistake my intentions, John. I don’t believe this is a possibility for you.

  18. Hodge,

    Again, he didn’t negate Christianity.

    My understanding of Pascal’s Wager is that it’s not based on theism (or Christianity specifically) actually being more probable than atheism. Rather: Even if Christianity were less probable, the stakes are infinite, so it would still be the best bet to make.

    That’s why I said Lofton’s comment is a good reply to Pascal’s Wager “by itself”. (Besides, if something else tells us that Christianity is “more probable”, there’s not much point to mentioning Pascal. The stakes are a motivation to decide carefully–but Pascal’s Wager doesn’t add any reason to believe Christianity.)

    If I’m wrong about what Pascal said, fine. (You’re welcome to show it, if you care.) But still won’t mean that Lofton’s reply attempted to negate Christianity.

  19. Jugulum,

    Let me rephrase the argument this way:

    Susan: I just swung on a tree.

    John: I don’t believe you because monkeys can swing on trees too.

    Me: But that has nothing to do with the claim that Susan swung on a tree.

    John: Well, let me tell you why I don’t think Susan is correct in her assertion.

    Me: Thanks, this is what should have been addressed in the first place.

    In other words:

    X: Are you afraid to die, because Christianity may be true?

    Y: Are you afraid to die, because Islam may be true?

    X: But Islam isn’t true. I’m assuming that Christianity is.

    Y: Then let me address your assumption rather than talk about other people’s assumptions.

    My point is not that Pascal’s wager is a good argument, but that John’s argument doesn’t address the assumption in Pascal’s wager (his assumption is that theism has a greater probability and justification to it–that’s why he makes three points here and not just the one being made, which include justification of theism, probability theory and decision theory). And regardless of whether we argue over Pascal, Susan is assuming something to which John’s counter argument does not address.

    Now, John says that he does address this in his books. Fine. My point is that he is assuming something is true and Susan is assuming that something is true. Deal with the assumptions specifically rather than relying on analogy.

  20. Hodge, I wasn’t going to comment further, since you already said you’d probably get my books second hand so as to keep me from earning additional royalties. ;-)

    But at the risk of proving that you don’t need to get them, here goes anyway, probably the last time here.

    Where is this tree that Susan claims to swing on? The analogy is a disingenuous one. A tree can be seen and touched and there is no dispute if I see her swing on it.

    What she’s claiming is a multifaceted set of beliefs all of which have to be true for her claim to merit my attention:

    That a trinue God has eternally existed outside of time, who created a world in time, and who revealed himself in the canonical texts we presently have (which were redacted by hindsight editors). She also must be correct in interpreting these texts, which Christians themselves dispute, that this God sent the 2nd person of the trinity as an incarnation (which cannot be rationally explained) to atone for her sins (which also cannot be rationally explained), arose bodily from the grave (even though personal identity after death in a resurrected body is probably an incoherent notion) and will reward the saints by taking away their freedom in heaven, and punish the damned by taking their freedom away. And when she’s done with that she needs to explain why there is so much intense suffering in our world if a perfectly good God exists.

    –Or something like that.

    That’s the parallel here.

    But there is so much more. She will have to explain why she originally adopted her faith and why she would not have accepted a different one if born and raised in a different time and place, AND why she disputes psychological studies showing that we all defend that which we prefer to be true, all of us, which does NOT support Christian defenders at all, but agnosticism, which I maintain is the default position, a position that leads me into atheism.

    And more and more.

    You see, once you understand why you reject all other religions then you will understand why I reject yours.

    This is the Outsider Test for Faith that I’ve developed and it is devastating to Susan’s (and your faith). There is no escaping it in my opinion and I’ve dealt with every known objection so far.

    Now you might say that finally I have offered you reasons, and I have indeed. But you cannot expect me to write all that I know, even now in this comment, much less in the short sound byte above.

    Cheers.

  21. Sorry, I should fire my editor, no wait, it’s me!

    Corrected sentence should read:

    …and will reward the saints by taking away their freedom in heaven, but punish the damned by having them retain it.

  22. “The analogy is a disingenuous one. A tree can be seen and touched and there is no dispute if I see her swing on it.”

    Well, not really. My analogy had Susan tell you that she swung on the tree, not that you saw her do it. She is describing a past event that you did not witness (nor did anyone else but Susan). Ergo, the claim is subjective to her. She believes that she did swing on the tree. You didn’t see her. Your counter argument does not address this issue. It instead argues from analogy that because A is similar to B, and B can be dismissed (because there are not monkeys in the area) then A can be dismissed as a false assertion as well.

    “What she’s claiming is a multifaceted set of beliefs all of which have to be true for her claim to merit my attention:”

    Of course, we don’t disagree here. This is in fact my very point, a point to which you now concede, do you not?

    “You see, once you understand why you reject all other religions then you will understand why I reject yours.”

    Well, the arguments you just gave me, except for your outsider test, which I’ve read a little bit about on your blog, isn’t really anything I haven’t read before; AND it’s further proving my earlier point about your argument by analogy. Now, you are dealing with her assumptions. I’m not sure how anyone proves an assumption about a metaphysical claim, but at least I think you get my point, even if you don’t want to do so.

    Unrelated:
    My question for your case is really this: Does your argument against Christianity include a justification for ultimate beliefs in atheism that start with those beliefs rather than claiming to be conclusions of evidence and reason; it’s metaphysical assumptions that, on the surface, seem self-refuting; it’s assumptions within it’s methodology of inquiry, which seems to beg the question, etc. AND do you address Bahnsen’s laws of logic argument? Those are the two things I’m really interested in. The other things you brought up all have good answers to them from the Christian perspective. I cannot accept atheism as a viable position, however, until I see a good argument concerning these two that I mentioned. So if your books deal with these then I will buy them sooner than later, as I’m interested in what the “other side” has to say about these. Thanks.

    As a side note, I plan on reading more of your outsider argument, but what do you say to a Calvinist who believes that people are placed into the situations they are in order to believe what they do according to God’s desire? In other words, He leaves people to believe what they will naturally believe without His help, and those, who He wishes to believe always, do so. I imagine you have dealt with this, and if it’s in your books, then I’ll just get it there.

  23. Hodge, I hope you understand when I add this final note, not having yet read your comment completely, I do not interact with people on a one by one basis very often at all. If you read my books and you have further questions then and only then can I respond. Again, I hope you understand. There are too many people and not enough time.

  24. No problem, John. I appreciate your willingness to discuss this with me here, and must also say that I am appreciative of your summary of Christianity. I usually run into atheists who have to commit reductio ad absurdum in order to make themselves look better; but I appreciate the integrity of the summary, even though we would disagree concerning the ability to place these things together rationally. Take care.

  25. Hodge,

    “I don’t believe you because monkeys can swing on trees too.”

    That’s where I said the problem is. You filled in “I don’t believe you because” instead of “Your argument doesn’t work because”, without apparent justification.

    Now he’s going on to make the positive argument, “I reject Christianity for the same reasons you reject all others.” If that’s what he meant originally, then you were right.

    ——-
    John,

    Your “explain why you reject all others” approach doesn’t touch historical arguments for the reality of Jesus and the resurrection, or philosophical arguments against materialism. You can offer responses & attempt to debunk them directly, or attempt to show internal incoherence in Christianity (which you did attempt to do), but you can’t take a shortcut to dismiss them out of of hand. Agreed?

    I don’t understand why you find you “But there is so much more” paragraph compelling. (1) Anyone who’s taught something as a child didn’t initially accept it for intellectually rigorous reasons—that hardly proves the impossibility of reaching intellectual rigor & adequate justification for beliefs. (Part of becoming an adult is examining what you were taught.) (2) If I were raised differently I might not believe in quantum mechanics, but that hardly debunks the scientific support for it. (3) Studies prove psychological tendencies; don’t try using them to dismiss all rational argument for everything. (If you want to go there, you can’t go past hard agnosticism on anything–you have to stop presenting any kind of argument for any conclusion about anything. Including the argument that those psychological studies demonstrate anything.) All three seem rather empty.

  26. I will say this upon reading your comment. The most important thing we have to establish is which set of assumptions (or control beliefs) is preferable when examining the evidence. Should we approach the evidence with a supernatural or a skeptical set of assumptions? In my book WIBA more than half of it is dedicated to this question, and I argue that we should approach the evidence from a skeptical set of control beliefs if we must have a set of assumptions at all, and we must.

  27. Thanks John. I will buy them sooner rather than later then. Take care.

  28. Jug,

    I see your point, but I do think John was making the latter claim, as is evidenced by what followed. If my son says to me, “Dad, are you afraid of drinking poison because it is harmful to you?” and I answer him with, “Well, are you afraid of eating lollipops because they can be harmful to you,” then it seems clear that I am trying to negate the idea that one should be afraid of X with the argument that one is not afraid of Y because Y is not really that harmful. So it is the last implication, I think, that draws out the intent.
    Now, John could just say, “Well, I don’t think that X is any more harmful than Y because . . ., but my point was only that that is the argument with which he should have started.

  29. John,

    First, I’m sorry I wrote your name as “Lofton” instead of “Loftus”. :)

    Second, I hope “skeptical set of assumptions” doesn’t amount to “No arguments for the supernatural could convince me”. :)

  30. Hodge,

    I see most evangelicals distorting evidence to further there a priori conclusion that biblical Christianity is true. It operates on many fallacious levels (e.g. appeal to authority, equivocation, argument from ignorance). You’ve shown all of these tactics in all of your responses to John.

    Mostly it adopts a defensive arrogance (like your tone, manner and argumentation Hodge) which is then denied due to a doctrinal belief that you hold “love” (rather than protective defensiveness) as your highest standard.

    Your understanding of love is rooted in a desire to defer your ability to think and behave within the context of authoratarian control. It is the essence of Christ-centered-living; obedience to an imaginary King that sanctions certain behaviors (e.g. heterosexual vs. homosexual marriage) based upon agreed cultural superstitions.

    I know the heuristic from the inside out Hodge because I once wanted to believe what you seem to be defending until I understood my defense of it was leading me to hypocrisy.

    In short, your argument is BS and self-centered because A) Susan didn’t ask what you ask and B) didn’t ask it of you.

    There was no tree in her question.

    You are re-defining the operating premise of this conversation to serve your theological prejudice.

    That is a defense of an a priori conclusion.

    You of course act as if you are practicing logic to better understand what is real. You aren’t, you are only looking to defend the cultural preference which ensures your psychological comfort.

    It is offensive to anybody who values true inquiry and applauded by those with an emotional attachment to a particular control-belief heuristic.

    I don’t begrudge your need to feel safe but I do oppose your heuristic because it empowers dangerous obedience.

    Susan asked me if I am afraid to die. She didn’t ask you or John anythng. John recognized her question was the essence of Pascal’s wager and had the respect for her and her question to rebut it on those grounds.

    Here’s my answer.

    No Susan I am not afraid to die. I don’t look forward to it because I enjoy living but I only fear those things I have some control over and in response to that fear make choices to face their potentiality relative to my probability in changing the outcome. Death will happen no matter what I do and in the face of it I look to live as much as I can. The God hypothesis gets in the way of living because it interferes with me understanding me at an authentic level in deference to people-pleasing and group think. I’d rather test assertions within the context of my life than have to adhere to truth claims due to some level of presuppositional agreement.

    Too much bad thinking happens with Christians because they are compelled to agree with each other as they build a kingdom for an invisible overlord.

  31. John, and Hodge ….and Jugulum,

    The question I asked, “are you afraid to die?” was just a staight-forward question. I’m a simple girl, not a philosopher. The ensuing discussion is interesting but I will not be responding with logical equations.

    I read Chuck’s comment and the question just popped into my mind…of atheists in general. My thought stemmed from having read the biography of John Wesley. John was highly devout …having started an on-campus club at Cambridge (I believe) for those who were seriously wanting to live lives consecrated to the Lord. He was quite a pious and disciplined man hoping to remain in communion with God by living a life of obedience and spiritual discipline before Him.

    John wrote of a time when he was aboard a ship which encountered a severe storm at sea. The sea was crashing over the ship and it looked like it was going to go down. John told of how utterly gripped with fear he was….fear of death. He was so stuck with a group of German Christians who were also onboard, that they didn’t seem afraid at all, not even the children. The sea eventually calmed and John had conversations with them which ultimately lead him to a different understanding of Christianity. Eventually John came to understand that he didn’t have a relationship with God at all. He had not come to God on God’s terms….with humility. He had thought that being a consecrated man, earnestly seeking God by doing good was the key to knowing and relating to Him.

    All of the world’s religions, outside of Christianity, teach some form of this path to God: that it’s about doing certain things …obeying certain ‘rules’, rituals, and /or ceremonies….that’s what brings a person into favor with God. That’s what insures one’s salvation. Islam is one of many religions which teach that. That’s why people of other religions are never really certain of their salvation, because they never know if they’ve done enough to earn God’s favor.

    God’s word teaches us that God loves us so much that he sent His Son, Jesus, to take on Himself the punishment for sin that is due us. We need only to repent, believe in Him and receive the free gift of salvation and forgiveness which is offered us through Christ. That is love. That is freedom (from ‘religion’ and the justice of God for our rebellion against Him.)

    You asked me if I fear death. I don’t have any thoughts of fearing my death, but the true test would be if I were looking death in the face…with terminal cancer or the like. I haven’t been there, yet. Do you fear death, John? Take the question at face value, (please!).

  32. Oh, hi Chuck. Looks like we were posting at the same time..but you beat me to the button. Thanks for responding. You are right….no tree in my question….no Pascal either. ;-)

  33. Susan,

    For clarification, I am not an atheist. I don’t believe atheism or theism are rationally coercive and therefore choose to be agnostic when it comes to supernaturalism. I don’t know what you believe is consequentially true and if you are honest neither do you. You don’t know what will happen to you when you die but, by faith, you do believe in a certain outcome.

    I don’t see concerning myself with that outcome adds any value to my life.

    I once believed in what you believe within a Calvinist context (total depravity, unmerited grace) but then suffered a nervous break-down due to an untreated anxiety disorder that led to a major depressive disorder and hospitization. My depression convinced me that my Calvinism was real and my psychological pain was evidence I was not one of the elect. This led me to believe suicide would be better than living as one of the damned. I have come to understand that my perceptions were both theologically supported and, evidence of illness. I received medical help and my pain was alleviated. Part of the medical help is to look at the beliefs I held which helped me cooperate with my disorder. Phenotypes in regards to neurological genotype mutations become active due to both genetics and environment. Changing my thinking has helped alleviate the pain of depression. I no longer look to prove any supernatural claims because I realized my desire to do so was rooted in my fear of living outside the approval of my community. It was control belief that, for a time, mitigated the pain from my anxiety disorder. Since my deconversion, I have suffered the disappointment of many who believed I was a righteous Christian man but, I choose not to care because I have achieved a level of peace that Wesley saw in the German Christians.

    Mine is rooted in the knowledge of who I am relative to my experience and probable science and not what a particular book of scripture tells me I am.

    I am in agreement with John. In the face of randomness, the best path to workable truth is to hold a skeptical opinion. If I had done that I believe my cognitive disorder would have been diagnosed before major depression occured and would have limited the probability of suicide. I, however, held theistic beliefs that supported my anxiety as evidence of my sin and perpetrated a level of denial which intensified my illness through the dependence of inefficacious measures like prayer and repentence.

  34. Wow, Chuck! Thanks for your story. That sounds truly brutal. I’m sorry for your suffering. Actually, I have to admit that I’m of the Calvinist persuasion. I can see where one might be greatly tormented by thoughts of wanting to be one of the elect but concluding that they are not. I can assure you that psychological torment and depression are not indication that one is not of the elect however. Possibly those symptoms are attributable to thinking you were a true convert when you actually weren’t. Please believe me when I tell you that I am not speaking off the cuff here. Furthermore, when a person is a true convert they are an adopted child of God, and it is impossible to become ‘unconverted’. There most certainly are many false-converts however. My husband was one for many years. When I married him he thought he was a believer (true convert) and so did I. After all, he had gone forward in a church in response to an alter call. It’s a long story, but after 21 years….painful years, of marriage it began to occur to me that maybe the reason there seemed to be no evidence of Christ in his life…was that Christ wasn’t in his life. He suffered some torment of his own during those years….not clinical depression, but fear, depression, stress….very anxious and uptight person…..and angry. He went to church with me…and our kids, every Sunday though. Like I said, it’s a long story, but a year and a half ago he came to a point of true conversion. As near as I can tell the thing which was lacking in his original ‘conversion experience’ was that he was not really contrite about his sin. He told me recently that he went forward because he was ‘scared to death to go to Hell”. Unfortunately, that doesn’t necessarily carry with it the brokenness over one’s sin which is essential to true conversion and acceptance by God. “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble”. This is well illustrated by the story Jesus told of the law-keeping Pharisee at the temple who expressed his thankfulness before God that he was not like the thieving tax collector. Meanwhile the tax collector beat his chest and said, “have mercy on me, the sinner!” It was the tax collector who was forgiven and received by God.

    In spite of where you are now in your thinking, Chuck, I think that it is entirely possible that you ARE one of the elect. Being elect isn’t necessarily something that one is aware of throughout their lives….but God knows.

  35. Chuck,

    Your incoherent rant is typical of your brand of “agnosticism.” I didn’t make a single argument in favor of Christianity. You might want to use the empirical knowledge gained from actually reading what I said. I was critiquing a counter argument, rather than producing an argument to defend Christianity myself. Assertions, even though multiplied, do not your case make.

    BTW, I think it is interesting how the new conversational trump card (“you’re arrogant” rather than “you’re a racist” or “you’re a liberal”) is so easily dealt out by those who come on to Christian sites and verbally abuse Christians as delusional people who just believe in their Christianity for comfort (ironically, a claim you make that is then negated by your own story). Please show me where I attacked a person rather than an idea. Then read your own comments and show me where you attacked an idea rather than a person. Pot meet kettle…

  36. Thanks Susan.

    I’m glad your marriage is working out.

    I don’t care if I am one of the elect or not (no offense). Those ideas seem silly to me.

    I love my wife and treat others with respect and look to find honesty to what I see as true.

    I doubt I could operate as a Christian in our culture anyway. I am pro-gay marriage, pro-stem-cell research and pro-choice. All of these positions are held on what I consider moral grounds tied to ideas born from enligthenment thinkers like Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton and Locke.

    I am skeptical of supernaturalism because it affords meaning without observable evidence and therefore does not enforce accountability on someone making an assertion. It is dangerous.

  37. Hodge,

    Sorry you feel the way you do but, I consider your response further evidence of your arrogance and your defensiveness (I thought Christians were supposed to turn the other cheek by the way so, what matter is it if I think you are arrogant?)

    What part of my story does not support my notion that the current practice of American Evangelical Christianity is not a control belief to assist people in facing randomness. You are correct it stopped working for me and maybe it will stop working for you too. I never said you were delusional.

    I said this, “I don’t begrudge your need to feel safe but I do oppose your heuristic because it empowers dangerous obedience.”

    Now, where was the tree in Susan’s question? Did you not change the question so you could advance your own theological argument? Did that argument have a decided conclusion prior to you advancing it or, were you concerned with understanding new input to help clarify your perspective? In short, do you have the universe figured out with its beginning and end based on a biblical exigesis or are you willing to admit more information would help clarify things.

    You seem to be someone who would like to accumulate knowledge but, you also seem to be someone who thinks he has it all figured out.

    Which is it Hodge?

    I hold to what I wrote. I see nothing but defensive arrogance in your comments. Defensive meaning you look to defend what you think is the one true meaning of life and arrogance in believing that belief is true.

  38. Chuck,

    The tree is an analogy. I didn’t say Susan actually said that. My point was that John’s counter to Susan did not address what he thought, as well as what I thought, was Susan’s assumptive claim. That was my point. If someone says A and you counter it with non-B, that has nothing to do with A. That’s all I was really trying to get at. It really had nothing to do with the truthfulness of Christianity. I would make that observation even if I was an atheist.

    If I was defensive then I would have jumped on John’s first comment that was a brief reference to his testimony. I did not, however, feel that I needed to do so. But I did want to address what I thought was an imprecise use of argument. The problem with the discussion between atheists and Christians is that we are often talking past each other, caricaturing the other side, and refuting straw men. We need to counter with arguments that address what is said and assumed in the statements. That was why I said something. If I wanted to get on John’s case for anything and everything just to defend Christianity (as though it needed me to do so), then I would descend upon his blog with comment after comment. Instead, I just go there to read it.
    If I may be so bold as to say, Chuck, I think that you may be the one who is defensive here, as you have read an awful lot into my intentions from a brief conversation.

  39. Hodge,

    Am I incoherent or defensive or, defensively incoherent?

    Thanks for the explanation.

    I however find it less than satisfying.

    I still distrust what I perceive as disingenuous pretensions behind your philosophical explanation. I saw your choice as an attempt to defend your theology and you did it by distorting the conversation’s flow. It is a common thing passionate believers of any stripe do.

    I agree that atheists and theists talk past each other but doubt there can really be true agreement.

    Supernaturalists believe their inner emotional life is of primary importance when considering evidence towards truth claims while empiricists demand observable proof. I of course prefer the latter because it demands truth claims be held to a meritorious standard.

    Additionally, I am not an atheist as I stated above. I am willing to admit “I don’t know” when it comes to the question of god. Are you?

  40. COMMENTS (PART I):

    Now that the flurry of responses has died down, let me say thanks for your comments.

    I’m grateful to Michael through Kathryn (Comments 1-9) for your encouraging words. I do hope the “seminarian letter” offers helpful perspective and guidance to others.

    Then Chuck—see what you started?!—brought up “humility” and viewed it as a kind of escapism. This is, of course, far from biblical humility, and in various books like *Loving Wisdom* (Chalice Press) and *When God Goes to Starbucks* (Baker), I discuss humility as a proper appraisal of oneself in light of reality—not a failure to grasp reality. Indeed, I argue that God himself is humble in his intrinsic other-centeredness and in the Incarnation. Furthermore, Paul argues in 1 Corinthians 15, we ought not to believe what is out of touch with reality. If Christ hasn’t been raised, then we ought to abandon the Christian faith. This is hardly being out of touch with reality, nor is it some emotional insulation from harsh realities life dishes out (read the end of Hebrews 11!). And Jesus and his disciples were far from docile and passive, routinely challenging religious authorities and risking life and reputation since (in the case of the disciples) they could not “stop speaking about the things [they] had seen and heard.”

    If John Loftus (hi, John!) is correct about people (according to sociological studies) that “we all defend that which we prefer to be true, all of us,” then all he’s doing is defending what *he* prefers to be true. Now, that’s not going to get him very far in debunking Susan’s (or anyone else’s) opposing position! Thus, if John’s view is true, it’s merely accidental and thus doesn’t qualify as knowledge.

  41. COMMENTS (PART II):

    Well, I probably shouldn’t get into much of a detailed discussion on the rest of the interactions. I do want to say, Chuck, that I’m very sorry about your own personal crisis; I’ve known others who have had the same experience. I myself don’t hold to a Calvinistic perspective for a number of philosophical and exegetical reasons, but that’s a topic for another time.

    Despite John’s and Chuck’s arguments against belief in God as out of touch with the evidence/reality, note the atheist Thomas Nagel’s acknowledgment in *The Last Word* (Oxford): in his desire for atheism to be true (gosh, just like John Loftus said!), he is troubled by the fact that “some of the most intelligent and well-informed people” he knows are “religious believers.” I must say, too, that in the very many debates I’ve seen Christian philosopher Bill Craig engage in with leading atheists and skeptics (and I’ve seen a lot), he consistently shows up the opposition! And then there’s the impressive *Natural Theology* (Blackwell) volume he and JP Moreland coedited, which has received significant praise from the atheist camp. I’m also reminded of Antony Flew and A.N. Wilson—outspoken atheists who reversed their positions to follow the evidence where it led them. And then there’s the apostle Paul, who once “preferred” his Judaism before something persuaded him to “prefer” Christ! I could go on, but I’ll leave it there.

    Well, I must say that this discussion diverged quite a bit from some simple advice to a seminarian! Thanks again to you all for giving your input.

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