|SERMONS-An Atheist’s Advice|
A Sermon by Dr. Ralph Blair at City Church, New York on June 22, 2003
n atheist’s advice? Here it is: Christians should be Christians. That was the advice of at least one atheist. Back in 1948, French Dominicans asked existentialist Albert Camus to talk on the topic: "What Do Unbelievers Expect of Christians?" His remarkable response was that Christians should take their Christian faith more seriously than many do – and not in terms of mere "abstraction." This philosopher who spent his life fighting nihilism and totalitarianism said that Christians should "speak out, loud and clear … in such a way that never a doubt, never the slightest doubt, could rise in the heart of the simplest man" as to the truth of their Christian witness.
This was in the same year that another honest unbeliever, Eric Blair, wrote his prophetic novel against the totalitarian utopias of Stalinism, Nazism, capitalist excess and the welfare state – all of which were foolishly embraced by Christians who failed to grasp the depths of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Blair, whose 100th birthday was 12 days ago, wrote the book under his pen name, George Orwell. Reversing the year 1948, he titled his satire of dystopia, Nineteen Eighty-four.
A few months before that, Time magazine had put C. S. Lewis on its cover and captioned his portrait: "His heresy: Christianity." In the 1940’s, it was called "heresy" when an Oxford don converted to Christ. What would they call it today? Probably not "heresy." That would be too religious a term – and so, an irrelevant term.
"Christian terrorism" is what today’s atheists call a Christian’s being Christian enough, for example, to attend a weekly Bible study while being governor of Alabama. But when this same governor calls for tax cuts for the poor and tax increases on corporations – and all in Jesus’ name – well, these same secularist critics fall silent. They fail to understand that these two instances are one and the same Christian witness. They’re not expressions of the Right-wing on the one hand and the Left-wing on the other. They’re expressions of a Christian’s simply being a Christian.
The days of Sunday "Blue Laws" are, of course, long gone. And that’s fine, for the observation of the Lord’s Day is for the Lord’s people. What sense does it make to pagans? But thanks to the secularists, there’s still something special about Sundays. And it’s not simply that "Sundays were made for The New York Times." In the wisdom of ESPN: "Without sports, weekends would be [merely] weekends." There’s still an echo of miracles and Jesus’ call for followers. ESPN distorts it this way: "Without sports, would anyone believe in miracles?" "Without sports, who would we follow?"
Nazi and Soviet totalitarianisms are over. Now we’re oppressed by "nicer" ideologies of totalitarianism. Take your pick:
? Secularism: The shutting out of the sacred – especially the Savior.
? Materialism: Only matter matters – especially if it’s high end.
? Pluralism: All views are valid except, of course, that Christ is Lord.
? Relativism: No dogma’s true except the dogma that nothing’s true.
? Individualism: Reality reduced to "What’s in it for me?"
? Intellectualism: Reality reduced to what can be argued.
? Emotionalism: Reality reduced to what can be felt.
? Legalism: Reality reduced to what can be codified and litigated.
? Verbal Puritanism: Reality reduced to words no one finds offensive.
? Nationalism: Reality reduced to us writ large and to hell with them.
? Trivialism: Reality reduced to "Joe Millionaire" or Scott Peterson as "all news, all the time."
And, of course, there are still the not-so-nice totalitarianisms.
? Atheistic Communism: Prisons called China, North Korea, Cuba.
? Islamism: Maniacal and monolithic Muslim revolution.
? Anti-terrorist patriotism: Justice denied in the name of justice.
? Gangster liberationism: Zimbabwean land reform, Sudan’s slavery.
? Gangster capitalism: Third world rape for the almighty dollar.
Whether it’s an ideology of the totalitarian Right or Left, each is an idol. And, as with all idols, there’s no delivering on promises, no matter how well-intentioned are the idolaters. For when what is but an aspect of God’s good creation gets distorted into an absolute to which we’re all then held hostage, we’re at the mercy of what’s fundamentally false. And no matter how subtle or systematic these substitute saviors may be, the damage they do is systemic. They take over. What we pervert in our image perverts us to its. Bloated on nothing at all, our spirits slowly but surely starve to death. Every totalitarianism is, thus, a cult of death.
So we must "speak out, loud and clear" against every distortion of reality, every fakery of ultimate concern, every lie of liberation. We must do this, not to put a patch on paganism, but to warn fellow Christians from falling for non-Christian nonsense and to warn the world that all such self-invented self-seeking is self-defeating. This is the prophetic tradition of Scripture.
But prophets get killed. So we must make no mistake about what it is we take on when we follow through with the advice of Camus. If we do not count the cost, we’ll be caught unprepared and defeated before we even begin our witness. Don’t forget: The first word for witness was martyr. To witness for Christ these days, as always, is costly – as Christ warned his disciples it would be. And didn’t Paul warn Timothy: "Everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted?" (II Tim 3:12) Today, the cost of "speak[ing] out, loud and clear" for Christ runs the gamut – from a raised eyebrow at a Manhattan dinner party to a raised fist at a Chinese police station.
Among today’s Western cultural elite – in media, academia, the courts and even in religion – secular totalitarianism is rampant. And the most egregious expression of it is unambiguous Christophobia – the irrational fear and hatred of the Loving Lordship of Jesus Christ.
In his most recent study for the Oxford University Press, a distinguished historian at Penn State documents that attacks against Christians are allowed in ways that would not be tolerated against Muslims and Jews. He notes that "It is even said that anti-Catholicism is the anti-Semitism of the educated man. Demagogues attack Jews; educated men attack Catholics." (Philip Jenkins) Two weeks ago, in a Booknotes interview with Brian Lamb, a Jewish intellectual responded to Lamb’s question about why Hitler, Stalin, Osama bin Laden and other totalitarians have so hated Jews. Without hesitation he said that it all goes back to the hatred of Jews as espoused in Christian scripture! (Peter Berman) No matter that the so-called anti-Jewish Christian scripture was written by Jews, about a Jew, and for a largely Jewish readership. No matter that Hitler and Stalin were atheists and Osama’s no Christian.
After 9/11, a leading New York Times columnist called for war against what he termed "religious totalitarianism." This self-appointed revisionist of other people’s religion argued that it is urgent that all religions "reinterpret their traditions to embrace modernity and pluralism and to create space for secularism and alternative faiths." (Thomas Friedman) He seems not to realize that his call is, itself, a call for totalitarianism – the totalitarianism of relativism, pluralism and secularism! Relativeism and pluralism and secularism are worldviews. They are worldviews that arrogantly presume to redefine everyone else’s worldview in terms of their own. But such religious "tolerance" is intolerant of another’s religion’s defining itself or redefining theirs. Their presumed inclusiveness is betrayed by their pervasive exclusivism – as is, of course, inevitable.
A New York Times book review on a Christian political philosopher at the University of Chicago (Jean Bethke Elshtain) has this complaint: "Something in her Christian emphasis worries me, I have to say. [She] does not mean to argue for Christianity’s superiority over Islam or any other religion. And yet," he says, "a tone of invidious comparison does creep into her discussion. … Christianity [is] somehow in the right, and Islam in the wrong, a suggestion that makes my eyebrows rise in skepticism." (Peter Berman) Really? It’s not her suggestion that makes his eyebrows rise; it’s his bias that does that. And it’s reflective of his own "tone of invidious comparison" that he, himself, is "somehow in the right" and she is the one "in the wrong."
All the popular expressions of such totalitarian Christophobia suffer from this same blind spot. It’s exemplified by the naïveté of a UCLA professor of pop culture. He’s speaking about Christians when he says: "I worry about people who are sure they’re right!" (Richard Walter) Of course, he’s sure he’s right about that! And who thinks he worries a bit about that?
What’s the assumption behind what these postmodernists argue? Is it that social conflict must be avoided at all cost? Not really. They’re committed to the assumption that no one dares counter pluralism as they selectively define it to exclude Jesus’ Lordship.
Well, Christophobia has been with us from the days of Jesus and the earliest church. Jesus was rejected by his own family, the people of his own native town, the religious leaders of his day and even by his own disciples before his resurrection from the dead. He’d been recognized at first, by only the outcasts: the unclean sick, the carelessly observant, the Gentile "dogs" and the demons – the very ones rejected by the religious establishment. He sent his followers out, as he said, "as lambs among wolves" and told them that "all kinds of people will hate you because of me. … On my account you’ll be flogged in their synagogues, persecuted by Gentiles, and betrayed by your own families. (cf. Matt 10:17-22) And they were. Pharisee Saul of Tarsus was persecuting the first Christians when he was overtaken by the risen Christ on the road to Damascus. Thereafter he was Paul, the Lord’s apostle, and he, himself, became the object of persecution – as the Lord had predicted "he must suffer for my name." (Acts 9:16)
Has our witness been "loud and clear" enough for Jesus’ predictions of persecution to come true in our lives? Or are we not such typical Christians? Today, the "typical Christian lives in a developing country, speaks a non-European language, and exists under the constant threat of persecution – of murder, imprisonment, torture, or rape." (David Neff) In Pakistan, for example, Christians are imprisoned for "blasphemy." And when they’re released from prison, radical Muslims stand ready to murder them. In China, devout Christians are regularly rounded up and tortured in front of their families – their contorted and twisted bodies are hanged upside down for days, they’re burned, they’re drowned, they’re beaten and left for dead. Still, the underground church in China is flourishing with tens of millions of members. And with every cruel crackdown by the atheistic regime, many more people are converted to Christ and join with the underground believers.
What did it cost us to assemble here this morning – worry that maybe the air conditioning might not be up to snuff? Are we afraid of the thought police bursting in and arresting us for praising Christ Jesus our Lord? If arrest, torture, and execution were the dangers of worship for us, would we have come here this morning? Jesus said: "Blessed are you when you’re persecuted for my name." We’d more likely conclude: "Blessed are we when we’re not." Forget fear of arrest, torture and execution – we fear a social snub for Christ’s sake.
Well in a society every bit as multicultural as our own, the apostle Paul acknowledged that "the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing … [that] Christ crucified [is] a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles." (I Cor 1:18) The first century Roman historian Tacitus called the budding Christian faith a "dangerous superstition." That’s what many say today. But, said Paul, "to those whom God has called, both Jews and Gentiles, Christ [is] the power of God and the Wisdom of God." (I Cor 1:23f)
Persecution of American Christians is a Sunday School picnic when contrasted to the persecution faced by our foreign brothers and sisters in Christ. We’re used to dung-daubed Madonnas and urine-soaked crucifixes posing as "art." Some of us don’t even take offense at this – we’re too interested in appearing broad-minded. And we’re used to prime-time abuse of Christ’s name for everything but honor, and we may not take offense at even this. Fact is, we’re so used to hearing it we don’t hear it.
We’re victims of a suffocating, self-referenced, self-centered and self-defeating secular society and all the naïve assumptions of a postmodern pluralism in which Christ is taken to be irrelevant or a major irritant – if he’s taken into account at all.
The very content of religious faith is becoming more and more ad libitum – at our own private discretion to pick and choose as we privately prefer. But sadly, whenever we pick and choose as we privately prefer, we invent a "spirituality" that is utterly bereft of the Good News of the unconditional love of Jesus Christ for the whole wide world.
Many churchgoers are being seduced by a soft-headed and syrupy syncretism. According to pollster George Barna: "Christians have increasingly been adopting spiritual views that come from Islam, Wicca, secular humanism, the Eastern religions and other sources. Because we remain a largely Bible-illiterate society, few are alarmed or even aware of the slide toward syncretism – a belief system that blindly combines beliefs from many different faith perspectives."
This trend is true among Jews, too. The national director of contemporary Jewish life at the American Jewish Committee says: "Today, the boundary between being a Jew and a non-Jew is incredibly open and porous." (Steve Bayme) A professor of Jewish studies at Harvard predicts: "Jewishness and Jewish society will certainly be different in a generation or two." But, he says: "We simply have to allow that the vast majority of people act in ways far more consonant with their American values than their Jewish ones." (Shave J. D. Cohen)
And the vast majority of U.S. churchgoers act in ways far more consonant with their American values than Christian ones. A church historian notes the "often unreflective way [that even] evangelicals relate – and acquiesce – to their social and cultural milieu." (James Davison Hunter)
According to the Barna Poll, "aberrant theology and doctrine are increasingly invading the inner circle of [even] the Bible-believing community. … Every day, the church is becoming more like the world it allegedly seeks to change. … Increasingly, people pick and choose the Bible content they like or feel comfortable with, but ignore the rest of God’s counsel."
Among more liberal Christians, the old Christian vocabulary is recast to signify what is antithetical to historic, creedal Christian faith. In San Francisco, for instance, an Episcopal church is draped with an encircling mural of dancing "saints" that includes the Buddha, Muhammad, Malcolm X and Gandhi. When there was room on this mural for only one more "saint," both Princess Di and Mother Teresa suddenly died. What to do, what to do? Shall we add Princess Di or Mother Teresa? The congregation was thrown into a tizzy.
Noting that this particular "Episcopal" congregation has chosen to have no creedal consensus – except, of course, on the supremacy of its own dogma of selective diversity – one of the rectors writes that they’re trying to find "a way to be truly christian that does not exclude, condemn or marginalize experiences that are not christian." (Donald Schell) He spells "christian" with a small "c," thereby marginalizing the experiences of at least some!
Well, are we Christians committed to being Christian? Will we take up the challenge of Camus? More to the point, will we take up the invitation of Christ to follow him alone, in the only lifestyle that’s alive: the seemingly crazy way of the cross?
At the very beginning of his Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, we find this statement from George Orwell: "My starting point is always … a sense of injustice. … I write … because there is a lie that I want to expose." But he did far more than write. Orwell put his own body on the line for the sake of his totalitarian-threatened neighbors in Spain. He paid for that with a nearly fatal bullet through his throat. Are we so committed to Christ and his Kingdom instead of to our own dead ends?
Orwell was, as one theologian observes, "committed to a Christian ethic but without the metaphysical framework of Christian theism that gives it validity" – at least self-consciously. (Kenneth Kantzer) But that theologian fails to discern what Orwell’s friend (and committed Christian) Malcolm Muggeridge recalls as Orwell’s understandable "allergy [to] institutional Christianity." In Muggeridge’s words, though, "there was in him this passionate dedication to truth. … This unrelenting abhorrence of virtuous attitudes unrelated to personal conduct." Muggeridge would know all about such duplicity – having spent so many years in one adulterous affair after another and finally surrendering to a no-nonsense commitment to Christ.
Orwell was a kind of "religionless Christian," as Bonhoeffer might say, a kind of "anonymous Christian," in Karl Rahner’s words. His close friend and biographer explains that Orwell’s approach was not "of the strident religiously anti-religious kind." A theologian recognized that "he was both too much and not enough of a Christian." (Kenneth Kantzer) Orwell behaved better than he could believe and explain – which is not so much bad as sad. What’s our excuse – we who say we’re Christians who’ve accepted the Good News of God’s unconditionally tender love in Jesus Christ? Where’s the evidence of an informed gratitude in our daily lives and lifestyles?
Just before he died, Orwell asked to have a Christian burial. By pulling some strings, Muggeridge managed to arrange it. And with a twinkle in his eye, Muggeridge recalled that "the service went off without a hitch, though it was obvious that a good many of those present were unfamiliar with Anglican liturgy."
This year marks the centenary of both Orwell and Muggeridge. Both men wrote with such superb style that Tom Wolfe ranks them (along with Mencken) as the 20th century’s three great fashioners of prose. Thankfully, they put that prose to the good purpose of debunking the "high and mighty" nonsense of the age. They both exposed the nakedness of all usurping emperors.
Muggeridge directs our attention to the sweep of world history and asks, "What do we see?" He says we see "Empires rising and falling, revolutions and counter-revolutions, wealth accumulating and wealth dispersed, one nation dominant and then another."
Having been born when the 20th century was only three years old, he recounts that "In one lifetime I have seen my own fellow countrymen ruling over a quarter of the world, the great majority of them convinced, in the words of what is still a favorite song, that, ‘God who’s made them mighty would make them mightier yet.’"
Muggeridge goes on: "I’ve heard a crazed, cracked Austrian proclaim to the world the establishment of a German Reich that would last a thousand years; an Italian clown announce that he would restart the calendar to begin his own assumption of power. I’ve heard a murderous Georgian brigand in the Kremlin acclaimed by the intellectual elite of the world as a wiser than Solomon, more enlightened than Ashoka, more humane than Marcus Aurelius. … All in one little lifetime. All gone with the wind. Behind the debris of our self-styled, sullen supermen, there stands the gigantic figure of one person, because of whom, by whom, in whom, and through whom alone mankind might still have hope. The person of Jesus Christ."
So can we respond to the advice of a reluctant atheist? Will we Christians be Christian? Will we submit every choice to Christ’s Lordship? Will Relentless Grace be our guide each day?
Some weeks before Camus was killed in a car accident in 1960, he’d asked a friend of his, a Methodist minister, to baptize him as a Christian. But he wanted to do it in private and so his friend put him off. Hadn’t he himself said: Christians should "speak out, loud and clear … in such a way that never a doubt, never the slightest doubt, could rise in the heart of the simplest" observer.
Well it’s your move – and mine. Shall we live the totally freeing life in the unconditionally tender love of Jesus Christ and his Father? Or shall we hold ourselves hostage to this or that totalitarian idolatry that leads only to the death camps, to this or that idol of utopia that always means, literally, "no place." It’s your move and mine – this morning, this afternoon, this evening, and starting all over again tomorrow morning – and on into the Land of Light.