I was recently accused of throwing a fellow Christian “under the bus” of an atheist friend of ours. It started with Senator Barrack Obama’s recent remarks regarding same-sex marriage and Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. The article is worth reading in its entirety, but what started things off was something Senator Obama is quoted as saying in the article:
“I don’t think it [a same-sex union] should be called marriage, but I think that it is a legal right that they should have that is recognized by the state,” said Obama. “If people find that controversial then I would just refer them to the Sermon on the Mount, which I think is, in my mind, for my faith, more central than an obscure passage in Romans.” ((Hear audio from WTAP-TV)) St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans condemns homosexual acts as unnatural and sinful.
The atheist friend that I mentioned earlier has been one of my best friends for years, and a huge Obama supporter. I’ve seen him go from agnosticism to atheism and, in my humble opinion, both decisions have been based on some author that convinced him based on arguments they had written that were quite thin when addressing things philosophical and especially theological. In all fairness, anyone outside of the faith could accuse Christians of the same approach. I’ve seen more than my fair share of Christians either ducking or giving pretty weak responses to tough questions posed by those outside the faith instead of honestly and sincerely admitting not knowing. Nevertheless, I’ve always been a bit fascinated at how my atheist friend has for years digested book after book about why atheism is true (btw, yes, I’ve pondered the irony of someone consuming so volumes much of something that mean so much to their position to explain how everything comes from nothing and is meaningless), while not reading the Bible, and ignoring, knowingly or not, the apologetics of the brilliant minds that have defended it century after century. This person is quick to parrot Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens, but can’t quote Saints Paul or John; it’s likely he can quote Nietzsche, but probably inaccurately and out of context quote Jesus Christ. For these reasons I take his arguments against Christianity with an enormous grain of salt. Nevertheless, out of respect for what our friendship means to me, I don’t write off what he has to say. Besides, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if one day he finally decides to read some of the writings of Saints Basil, Chrysostom, and Gregory, or even some C.S. Lewis or G.K. Chesterton, he becomes an ardent defender of the Christian faith. It may sound crazy, but I’ve seen it happen before.
The fellow Christian I mentioned earlier on is a new friend in my life. I have no doubt he is sincere about his faith, and he’s no slouch in the thinking area either (which I’m REALLY glad to see in a Christian!). He’s a mid-western Protestant who moved here with his Swedish wife, and is impressive both as a colleague and a person. The fact that he has a sense of humor makes him a double-bonus in my book. 🙂 . I’ve been quite clear with him about my being Orthodox, and I’m sure by now he understands how sincere I am. Hopefully he knows that the icon of St. Chrysostom on the wall over my desk is not merely for decoration. I’ve thrown a few questions his way to try and find out what knowledge he has in the area of Church history and Eastern Orthodoxy, and I wasn’t too surprised to discover that it’s about the same as that of most folks from the US.
Okay. Now it’s time to tie all of this together.
When I first came across the article about what Obama said regarding the Sermon on the Mount (originally on the OrthodoxNet.com blog site), I sent an e-mail to my atheist friend letting him know that Christians would probably have a problem both with the idea of legalized same-sex unions, and especially about Obama referring to St. Paul’s writings in Romans as being “obscure”. He rightly pointed out that that’s how I and folks like me may feel, but that other Christians like Obama would probably be more sympathetic. I agreed, but also pointed out that even in the myriad Protestant denominations, most aren’t going to take kindly to St. Paul’s words being referred to as “obscure”. Sadly, after remembering the very long laundry list of flavors in Protestantism, I eventually found myself easily understanding how my friend could see the possibility of Obama’s words being appealing to at least some of Protestants out there. After all, there are appearingly so many to choose from. However, it did show me just how much he really didn’t know when it comes to Christianity.
After that e-mail exchange, I couldn’t help but wonder what my Protestant friend had to say regarding this generalizing of Protestants. I asked him how he felt when someone like our atheist friend could lump folks sympathetic to Obama’s interpretation of Scripture into the same crowd that he is in (and I know he isn’t sympathetic to what Obama said). While he definitely didn’t appreciate it, he never could explain how such confusion could be avoided in the future. I tried to get him to understand I personally thought it couldn’t be done because without an agreed Church structure or ecclesia, but he didn’t seem to get it.
Our atheist friend, and many other non-Christians (educated and uneducated alike) often make judgments about Christianity with what I believe to be a one-size fits all mindset. This is a huge mistake that’s both unfair and slightly ignorant. Were we to apply the same sort of thinking to the field of medicine, many would likely be going to see dentists about sprained ankles instead of toothaches. But we all know there’s much more to medicine than this. Nevertheless, I don’t believe the blame lies totally at the feet of non-Christians. As a dentist should be able to explain his or her profession and how it fits into the tapestry of medicine, so should Christians be able to explain where we fit into the grand tapestry that is our faith. Despite what many would like to believe, there are sometimes great differences between Christian denominations. Christians should be able to at least explain where they fit in in the history of the Christianity; especially given its rich history. After all, St. Peter tells us in Holy Scripture to “…be ready always to give an answer to every man who asketh you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear” (1 Peter 3:15). Is Church history not part of our answer? We Orthodox sure believe it is. We try our best to “…stand fast and hold to the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word or our epistle.”, just as St. Paul wrote to the Thessalonians (2 Thessalonians 2:15).
What I experienced with my two friends above has helped me to appreciate all the more why we Orthodox revere tradition and history as much as we do. While I should “be ready to give an answer” I must also remember to be absolutely honest in my answsers and willing to go back and search for those truly hungry to know. While it’s not always easy, and life keeps me busy enough otherwise, I must never forget that we’re all made in the image of God who sent His Only Begotten. If He can do that out of love for me then surely I can dig deep enough to try and find the answers to what we don’t know. And, of course, admit when I don’t.
God bless. 🙂