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Louder Than Words

Louder Than Words

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Dear Maurice,

I wish you and Benita could be with us here. The mountain air is crisp and the snow-capped peaks provide a majestic vista on the horizon.

News of your continued solid recovery from heart bypass surgery in the weeks since we were with you has buoyed our spirits. Keep up the good work!

You will recall that when we were with you, you told me again that you are praying for me to become a Christian. I've thought much about your prayers, which brings me to something about your faith that has puzzled me for a long time. Please permit me to express my puzzlement. Watching you prepare for surgery brought it all into sharper focus.

The puzzle begins this way. Once you learned heart bypass surgery would be necessary, you correctly set about investigating the best authorities on the subject you could find. You said that when it comes to something as serious as your heart, there's no room for error; subjective opinions and "miracle medicines" advertised in the media were off the table. And you wanted to proceed according to the best practices medical science could offer. I applauded you for that.

In fact, you even switched cardiologists because you weren't satisfied with your original surgeon's records. "Only the best for my heart," I remember you saying. You were so thorough that I half thought you might become an authority on the subject. "Everything has to be objective," you insisted.

Now here is the heart of the puzzle. Where your physical well-being is concerned, you objectively examine all possible medical procedures, consult the best authorities, dismiss baseless rumors, and reject superstitions. But when it comes to your religious beliefs, all that caution and objectivity seem to fly out the window.

Let me explain. When religion is involved you seem to value your own subjective opinions above everything else. I've heard you dismiss the work of reputable Bible scholars just because they didn't agree with how you think the Bible should be interpreted. When it comes to the Bible, your own private opinions seem to pass for ageless truth. Or you trust authors and teachers who seem to be as lacking in caution and balance as you are, but just more vocal.

I've heard you make pronouncements about science and the Bible based on your long-standing opinions that could have easily been refuted had you been willing to examine the evidence. Impulse and cashing in on the prejudices of others, including books that hawk pseudo-science, seem to be enough to settle your "convictions." I'm astonished by how, for so many of you Christians, that way of life seems quite adequate.

Honestly, Maurice, it seems that when it comes to submitting your physical health to objective scrutiny you are all for it. But when it comes to your religion and your ideas you seem to be driven by fear that your beliefs might melt away if placed under objective examination.

I wonder. What good is a religion that hides behind prejudices, breeds rumors, and nourishes a mish-mash of beliefs propelled by impulse? To illustrate, do you recall blaming the 2010 Haiti earthquake on the Haitian practice of voodoo, while ignoring the Caribbean tectonic plate that slid eastward and collided with the North American Plate under Port-au-Prince? Ignoring the devastating impact of natural phenomena, you confidently blamed the earthquake on "sin."

I don't know a lot about Christianity, but I do know that through the centuries Christians have valued some creeds that serve as norms for Christian belief. I think they are meant to be checks against people who like to believe anything they want to and still call it "Christian."

You seem to know nothing about the ancient creeds and seem to care even less. "What's a creed," you once asked, "but somebody's old worn-out opinion?" Worse, one thing that has struck me when I have attended church services with you is that even though your church proclaims the Bible to be God's Word, it is seldom read as part of your services. I should qualify that statement: your minister does read a few verses before launching into the sermon.

I hope I haven't wearied you and that you're still willing to listen. I have read some of the books you sent. Honestly, much of the material sounds just like you: highly opinionated and lightly researched. But they make it possible for you to issue unqualified pronouncements about science, world history, the Bible, other world religions, and the deficiencies of other cultures. The few times I have been with you and your Christian friends I have been surprised by how carelessly all of you make pronouncements about political figures and others with whom you disagree.

Is what I observe in you the kind of religion I am being invited to embrace? Does being a Christian mean that I must effectively close down my mind and settle into a ghetto of untested opinions? Would I then be required to settle into the kind of "group think" and impulsiveness you practice? Must I choose between reputable science and Christian faith? Having chosen one, must I abandon the other? Am I left with a view of biology and astrophysics for example that can say nothing more than your brand of Christianity or your interpretation of the Bible allows?

Maurice, I suppose over all, what frightens me most about your Christian cosmos is that it seems to be ruled by whims, prejudices, and rumors, but not much more.

It seems clear that in the end, given your careful adherence to objectivity in matters physical, and your inclination to impulse in matters religious, you actually value the physical above the religious, the material above the spiritual. Your actions seem to speak louder than your words.

Please accept my apology for being so candid. But frankly, until you can satisfactorily answer my questions and show by your life a better brand of religion than what I have seen so far, I think I will shelve your invitation.

Your loving sister,

Agnes

Al Truesdale is emeritus professor of philosophy of religion and Christian ethics, Nazarene Theological Seminary. He has edited The Global Wesleyan Dictionary of Theology and a book on Fundamentalism. Both will be released in 2012.

Holiness Today, January/February 2012