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'All the People I Respect Are Non-Christians'

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"I don't get it. All of the people I know and don't respect are Christians. And that even includes my family. But I respect you ... and you're a Christian. Explain that to me." Those were my friend's opening words at breakfast. Thankfully, I didn't lose my appetite.

We are both part of a network of scientists -- in the natural, basic sciences, the applied and engineering sciences and the social sciences. Many in our network are fiercely intelligent scientists who are quite impressive when you meet them. Most don't belong to any religion, a minority believe in God.

So my friend was having trouble reconciling the fact that I am both a scientist whom she respects and someone who calls himself a Christian. She asked if we could meet regularly to discuss this issue. I was open to talking about it, so her first assignment for me was to read Bertrand Russell's essay "Why I Am Not a Christian." I was happy to discuss it, and this morning, we met for breakfast to discuss it. There was just one problem: Russell's essay is based on belief.

As I've said in an earlier post, in science, it is not your belief or interpretation that makes you a scientist; is is how you practice science and follow the scientific method. Though other scientists may disagree, your interpretation of the results is up to you. So, for instance, even though a vast majority of climate scientists believe that global warming is caused by man, there are a minority of climate scientists who come to a different conclusion. They are still scientists. Beliefs don't change that.

The same, I argue, is true of faith. There are many topics over which Christians themselves believe differently and disagree (the same is true of Jews, Hindus, Muslims, etc.). These disagreements involve non-fundamental topics. However, Christians even disagree about beliefs considered fundamental; they disagree about which beliefs are fundamental to the Christian faith! A great book that displays this is "The Meaning of Jesus" by Marcus Borg and Tom Wright. These two Christian theologians, one non-stereotypically conservative and the other non-stereotypically liberal, have mutual respect for each other and disagree in complex, nuanced ways on questions such as who Jesus was, what did Jesus teach, why Jesus was killed, in what sense was he resurrected, the second coming of Jesus, etc.

I write this to say a simple truth: most students, academicians and seminarians in religious studies departments, philosophy of religion departments and divinity schools know that the spectrum of belief in Christian and religious thought has always been much wider than current, accepted, mainstream Western Christian theology. For some reason scholars and educated pastors who know how wide this spectrum is, fail to pass this information down to Western congregations who must either believe one thing or else lose their label as Christians. This is why I love books like "Love Wins" by Rob Bell, not because he said anything new that hasn't been thought by other historic Christians in the past, but because he let people who don't study those figures and their writings know that there are a number of beliefs about hell among people who have called and do call themselves Christian. He opened wide the playing field for some saying, "You can be a Christian and not believe this particular view of hell." Others have done this before, but he is currently the most visible Christian leader to do so, thereby sending this message to many people who have never known this.

There is a transformation going on in religions today. In Christianity, this shift has been made evident through books like "The Great Emergence" by Phyllis Tickle, retired Professor Harvey Cox's "The Future of Faith," "A New Kind of Christianity" by Brian McLaren and "Christianity After Religion" by scholar Dr. Diana Butler Bass. These authors document a shift away from belief-based religion of exclusive identity towards a practice-based doubt-embracing community of inclusive faith and spirituality. Historically, as Dr. Bass highlights, these times of upheaval and shifting focus in religions have happened in the North American church again (the First Great Awakening: 1730-1760) and again (the Second Great Awakening: 1790-1830) and again (the Third Great Awakening: 1890-1920). Using a 1999 Gallup poll and a 2009 Newsweek poll, Dr. Bass notes there has been a noticeable decrease in the number of people in the U.S. identifying themselves as "religious only" between 1999 and 2009 while the number of U.S. persons identifying as "both spiritual and religious" has increased between those same years. Dr. Cox calls the present transformation a shift from the age of belief to the age of spirituality.

So let's be clear, what my friend saw as problematic was a conflict in belief systems, not a conflict with faith. She told me this during breakfast: "How can you be a scientist and yet believe these kinds of things about God? I mean, you don't really believe all the Bible says or that Jesus was a magical being, do you?"

So how do I tell my good friend that someone can be a Christian and not interpret all the stories in the Bible in one way? How do I explain someone can be a Christian and not lose their intellect as Dave Tomlinson says so simply in "How to Be a Bad Christian"? Like Russell, there are Christians who doubt God's presence and existence, who believe arguments for the existence of God don't make sense or are inconclusive, who believe the church has often impeded progress and that fear forms the foundation of religion for certain people. How do I explain that for growing numbers of people, what it means to be a Christian is shifting from a belief-based ideology in which one assents to propositional statements, to a faith-based life built on an ethos of love of the other and forgiveness? How do I tell my friend that being a Christian has not always been foundationally defined on belief, but a transformative way of newly living (a faith)? How do I explain that Russell's entire essay attacks intellectual beliefs and says very little about this actual faith? How does one do that?