Q & A

QUESTION: What do you think someone might get out of attending your church? Do you see it as a case where someone who has some light or latent belief in God might be moved to rejoin a congregation? Or do you think an atheist might be converted? Or not converted but moved in some way to attend your church? And if it’s the latter, what would an atheist who remains an atheist get out of your church?

ANSWER: I think someone attending my church, no matter what their theology is, would get an opportunity to serve their community in various ways. For example, Kate put together a group of people that knits shawls for children at Phoenix Children’s Hospital, once a month we feed homeless people, we have resettled refugee families, we occasionally have trips to fill water tanks to save those crossing the desert who would otherwise die, and of course, we have many opportunities for directed contributions wherein virtually 100% of the donation reaches the needy.

Any of these things are available elsewhere, I suppose. But this is all in one place. It is very accessible. There are a variety of opportunities. Oh yeah, and if you have a new idea–go for it. A woman in our church recently started collecting sample bags that you get when you buy make-up. She takes them to women’s shelters a couple of times a year. It helps the women if they need to go on a job interview, and at Christmas it is nice for the women, as well as the children, to get a little gift.

I think someone attending my church, no matter what their theology is, could develop their inner self. For example, one of the advantages of intercessory prayer that we came across when investigating it earlier was developing our sense of empathy. Likewise, our service offers individuals a chance to quietly reflect on the week. Sermons often focus on how to be better people, rather than on abstract theological ideas. Obviously, you can be quiet by yourself; you can discuss how to be a better person with your friends and loved ones. However, like going to Weight Watchers, or AA, or a college class on literature there are real benefits to exploring these topics intentionally.

I think the first two categories would be every bit as valuable to a committed atheist as to anyone. However, someone who has some light or latent belief in God could develop their beliefs about God & faith. Our slogan is “where questions are as important as answers.” That attitude of encouraging questioning is in every level of faith development classes. So, for the little kids in my classes I ask questions like, “What do you think, is Jacob a good guy or a bad guy?” Then poll the kids and get different answers and ask them why they think that. For the junior high and high school students we do a great job of encouraging conversation about how faith affects their lives (but frankly I think many churches do a good job of this). The big difference is that in our adult Sunday school classes conversations have included exploration of bodily resurrection (with a number of folks being on both sides of the issue); does God evolve and change over time; defining sacred; etc. Big, challenging questions. People often remark at how great it is to be able to openly question things.

Now, I think many atheist would find this conversations riveting. But for those who feel like they believe in something spiritual but have rejected organized religion as having answers for them, would be surprised by the breadth of inquiry that goes on at Chalice.

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OBSERVATION: The characteristics of Chalice that you’ve described all have a unique quality. Serving, developing our inner selves and developing our beliefs about God and faith all are ongoing over time. The atheist or one with “latent belief in God” might pass through Chalice with curiosity, attentive to the possibility of a connect. However there are so many risk-free-easy-one-stop-instant-gratification opportunities to do some good in the world, read a book on religion or self-improvement, practice yoga that they’re just as likely to choose one of them. What they can’t get there is also unique to Chalice, and they won’t find it in many (if any) other places.

It’s hard for the atheist or one with a latent belief in God to find a group of people who are interested in them — in knowing why they affirm their atheism or why they have moved away from organized religion. Especially a group of people whose common thread seems to be shared faith. That’s why they’re unlikely to look first in church for somebody to hear them.

You alluded to it in your post. Chalice is a gathering of people with whom it is safe to say you don’t believe, or that you have doubts. The questions really are as important and valuable as answers — I believe more so.

Yesterday evening I sat in a living room enjoying great conversation with four people who have been visiting Chalice. I listened as they talked about some of the things they were taught to believe as children, and what doesn’t make sense to them now about those beliefs. “Am I progressing, moving forward, or moving backward in my faith?” one of them asked. What a great question! Then she said that the people who taught her those beliefs would think she had wandered astray, moving backward. The assembled group thought it was progress to expand, widen, broaden her beliefs.

The reason our church shies away from giving answers to people is that the process of discovering their/our own answers is so much richer, and we just don’t want to take that away from each other.

So my response to your question, “…what would an atheist who remains an atheist get out of your church?” is:
being heard, respected, accepted, included, welcomed.

So my response to your question, “…what would an atheist who remains an atheist get out of your church?” is:
being heard, respected, accepted, included, welcomed.

Those are big offerings, no doubt.

I have a follow-up question. You mentioned a person who was wondering if they were “moving forward” in their faith. What does it mean to “move forward”? It sounds directional, which makes me think of a fundamentalist view of “complete faith” as a kind of end zone, the goal. It sounds plausible until you try to start defining “complete”. I go back to the joke about the man caught in a flood who keeps refusing help with, “God will provide.” God finally (at the man’s death) disabuses the man of what it means for God to provide, he says, “I sent you a boat and a helicopter, what else were you waiting for?”

So what does it mean to progress? In the living room conversation you had, did you (or they) go into what directionality means? The people who raised them would say they were moving backward, and I am assuming that your friends’ questions of faith were the reasons for the backslide. this would make me think their childhood guides did indeed hold a directional view of the progress of faith.

I’m guessing that you don’t hold a view which is as 2-dimensional as that but I’m having trouble conceptualizing it. When you (and Jim) talks about “growing” in faith, the language you choose has that same goal-oriented feel to. What’s the goal?

Matt, thank you for your observation of the linear nature of the terms “forward” and “backward” and even “progress”. No, we didn’t talk about the meaning of those linear concepts in relation to faith — that would have been a stimulating conversation. Sorry we didn’t turn that corner.

To me, “growing” in faith has to do with depth — still a mathmetical descriptor, but I’m sure you know that I’m not referring to a measurement of the distance from the front to the back of a cube. I am attempting to describe a quality of expansiveness — not unlike the difference between the depth of conversation you, Matt, enjoy here as compared to the conversation you would have with the attendant at a toll booth as you drive through. Your conversation her is deeper, more expansive, poking around, exploring concepts. There’s really no end — it could go on forever. Growing in faith is a little like that for me.

We also unconsciously assign values to our concepts. I unabashedly assign the value of “good” to the notion of expansiveness or deepening — in almost every application, in particular as it applies here to faith. Some things just are not static, like learning or faith or love, etc.

My experience with fundamentalist Christianity has not included the idea that there is something like a “progression toward” the ultimate goal. You get saved all of a sudden, and then you’re in. Or you’re not, and then you’re out. But you could move backward from your “in” position — by questioning, doubting, professing not to embrace particular beliefs. For someone with a fundamentalist orientation to faith, there really is such a thing as falling out of God’s grace (or at least the grace of God’s people) over doubt or disbelief.

That’s why I have such a passion for letting people know that there really are groups of Christians who actively doubt and examine their disbeliefs, and not in secret — in community. Out of the closet.

So, Matt, do you ever drink that beer, or do you just stare at it?

I am attempting to describe [faith as] a quality of expansiveness…

This makes much more sense to me than I have heard before. Thanks.

My experience with fundamentalist Christianity has not included the idea that there is something like a “progression toward” the ultimate goal. You get saved all of a sudden, and then you’re in. Or you’re not, and then you’re out

Not that we need to make this about the subtle and varied forms of fundamentalism, but I have seen it go both ways at once. There is certainly a binary component, the in-or-out bifurcation of saved or unsaved. But at the same time an Evangelical will also talk of being more or less tempted, backsliding without falling completely out. There are elements of Evangelicalism which are not so intellectually dishonest as to pretend anyone sheds temptation all at once or ever completely. They will often describe their faith as progressive, getting “righter” with God over time. Obviously this is not a survey of every Evangelical, and there are those for whom the binary switch is their only model. What a scary place life must be for them, as they are in a community of people who profess no temptation while each one must, in his or her heart of hearts know that they still might qualify for hell.

Linda, this next question is one I’ve asked of Jim, probably more often than he’d like as it implies a certain interpretation I admit I am guilty of. Do you think your Christianity is the same Christianity that is enjoyed by those fundamental Evangelicals? I will push it right to the edge in the comparison to make it more stark: I’m talking about young-Earth literalist Evanglicals.

I won’t be coy and say I’m only asking… I’m not. My thesis is obvious, I think you are not both the same religion. You both have legitimate (if not equally valid) reasons to call yourselves “Christians” in the sense that Jesus or his message or interpretation, or interpretations about him are informing what you think of as your faith. But the conclusions to which you come about how to live your life, your relationship to your creator, to each other, to the world is so divergent that the differences between you are greater than that which is between you and some who would not use the label “Christian”.

Surely you and I have more in common than you and Ken Ham do. And certainly he has more in common with Abd-al-Wahhab than he has with you.

Finally, in conclusion, yes, I drank the heck out of that beer. It’s brothers are still safely ensconced in their basement home. This is one of the few beers which will age nicely, changing in character over time. In fact a spiced winter warmer like the one in the picture are often said to develop more depth over time. Perhaps if I drink a few I can get closer to God…?

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