Respecting the Faithful, Respecting Faith – Part 1: Strength in the Face of Despair

In January 1956, Martin Luther King was in despair. His decisions as a civil rights leader in Montgomery, Alabama were being questioned, even by former supporters. He had tried to resign his role as president of the Montgomery Improvement Association, feeling he was not the best man for the task. He had been receiving anonymous death threats by phone and by letter – 30 or 40 per day by late January. He feared for himself and for his young family. He was 26 years old.

On January 27th, in his darkest moment, after a threatening phone-call, he sat at this kitchen table and looked to God.

“Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right…But Lord, I’m faltering, I’m losing my courage…I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.” King describes hearing “An inner voice… the voice of Jesus” saying in response “Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness, stand up for justice, stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you, even until the end of the world.”


I am powerfully moved by this portrait. I have never faced the magnitude of trials Dr. King faced in Montgomery, and may never do so. Nothing in my experience measures up to his trials or his triumphs. But to some degree I hope I can empathize with Dr. King’s position, and I think I can begin to understand the impetus that might drive someone to seek celestial aid. As an idealistic high school teacher, fresh out of university and buzzing from the short training provided by the Teach First program (the British equivalent of Teach for America), I leapt into teaching with great zeal. For years I had studied and written about education, and dreamed about the magical classroom I would create. Sharp intellectual rigor would be coupled with abundant joy. I envisioned happy, hardworking children beaming while reciting Chaucer and arguing over the various merits of Dickens and Austen.

My friends and family all told me I would be a wonderful teacher, and I fully believed them. I filled my classroom with marvelous objects – a gong for classroom rituals, Tibetan singing bowls for sound-effects, and juggling-balls for games. I lined my shelves with ranks of books on critical pedagogy and cutting-edge teaching techniques, fresh and warm from the Cambridge University Press, and covered the walls with panoramic posters of Shakespeare’s Globe theatre. I arrived for my first class ready with a university-level lecture on 18th Century Literature, complete with disquisitions on Stubbs’ Whistlejacket and the political caricature of James Gillray.

Only a few weeks in, my dream had shattered. My walls and my books were covered with spitballs fired by outraged and enervated students. Chair legs were strewn across the floor, severed from my classroom chairs with a hacksaw, then used to drill holes in the wall. Some of the kids were so appalled at my teaching that they charged away down the fire escape in the corner, or hid in the small office that adjoined my room. Others simply flung a torrent of abuse – some extremely witty, some simply vulgar. In my two years working with a non-profit in prisons across England I had never encountered anything similar.

I shall never forget the moment when an 11 year old decided to take over the class, striding to the front with a cry.

“Who qualified you to be a teacher? It’s disgraceful!”, he yelled, proceeding to elaborate the thesis that “Shakespeare was a fat git!”, gesticulating wildly in an eerily accurate caricature of me. I cannot expunge the memory of Billy, who would fling open the door of my classroom, demonic grin on his face, and cry out “Mr. Croft’s lesson! Duct tape on your bumholes, lads!”

And no one was learning anything.

But not only was I a terrible teacher: I was convinced I was hated in my department. In my first month the Head of the English Department, a strict disciplinarian with a piercing, shrill voice (and my in-school “mentor”, the person responsible for my development and success in the classroom), suggested that in order to remove some unruly students from class, it might be necessary to “exaggerate” on official misbehavior reports.

In some extreme cases, she suggested, you might even provoke students into violence.

She related how she once had once done this, pulling a boy’s chair from under him so that he fell over, knowing that he would respond angrily. When he did so, she then used that as ground for his permanent exclusion from the school – and she was “proud” of this.

I sat in the staffroom, surrounded by my new colleagues, and noticed that an expectant hush had fallen: they were waiting to hear my response. I recognized this as a crucial moment in my career: I could refuse, and stand up for my principles, but I would then face the wrath of my superior and the animosity (so I imagined) of the staff. I was barely weeks into the job, and had no authority or respect, no power, and, increasingly, little hope.

“I’m sorry,” I said, “But I can’t do that.”

This led to weeks of victimization and ostracization. It was made quite clear that I would not be missed were I to quit. I had no allies among the staff, none among the students, and my friends were busy with their own lives.  I could see everything that I had worked for – three years at Cambridge University! – collapsing before me, and in public, in front of the eyes of hundreds of jeering students and unsympathetic teachers.

Once, in abject misery, I locked myself in the classroom and called a friend, begging them to help me find another job. Travelling to school each morning I wished that the train would come late, sparing me a few moments of humiliation. I hoped I would fall asleep in the cold plastic chair on the railway platform, so that I would miss the train.

And I recall a momentary thought, a fleeting fancy: why not step in front of the train?

One evening, in my darkest moment, after a harrowing and embarrassing day failing in front of children, I sat at my bedroom table and looked within.

I remembered the Sartre I had studied as an undergraduate, and recognized that even now, when all seemed hopeless, I was faced with a choice. I remember thinking to myself

“James, you have personal agency, and you are responsible for exercising it. You can choose to give up, and find something else to do with your life – simply quit and never go back. Or you can fashion a way, any way, to make your chosen career – your vocation – a success. I want to make this work, and I’m trying to do my best, but I’m not sure I have the strength or skill to succeed this time.”

I thought of the person I wanted to be. I thought of my most profound values. I thought of the effect my actions would have on those around me, including the colleagues and students who seemed to detest me.

And I made a choice.


What is the difference between Martin Luther King’s response to despair and mine? Is there a difference? Does that difference matter? It is clear that many people “turn to God” at moments of great personal challenge, and equally clear that they seem to find a source of strength there. At the same time, as an atheist, I am committed to the uncomfortable position that, however deeply felt Dr. King’s belief that Jesus responded to him, and however much his faith imbued him with the courage to do great deeds, he was, at root, mistaken. Whoever spoke the words King heard, whatever was reinforcing his mettle, it was not Jesus, and it was not God.

I think there is a difference between what I did and what Dr. King did, and I think that difference matters. In brief, I think that when we turn to God for guidance, to the exact extent to which we believe we receive guidance and assistance from God, we diminish our own sense of personal agency and individual responsibility. I also think that the very discussion of this question raises profound challenges for interfaith work. Because even articulating my view on this issue – that there might be something worrying about Dr. King’s response – however respectfully I seek to couch it, is likely to offend and disturb some people of faith.

Is there really a problem with relying on faith in times of trouble, and is some level of discomfort when discussing this inevitable? Are there some pills that cannot be sugarcoated? Or is there a way to discuss these questions that does not only respect the faithful but respect their faith? Exploring these questions will be the purpose of Part Two of this post, but please add your thoughts below!

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62 thoughts on “Respecting the Faithful, Respecting Faith – Part 1: Strength in the Face of Despair

  1. James,

    Another beautifully written essay.

    Now usually when I am in despair, I don’t pray to Sartre. I know you didn’t either, but you did look outside of yourself in your recollection of Sartre’s teachings. Somehow Sartre’s voice, as you had internalized it, enabled you to take heart and to act on your own despair. Why did you need to name Sartre as the author of this individual agency? Why not just take the idea of making a choice and run with it?

    Existentialism tends to promote a kind of extreme isolation of the individual self. But when it came down to it, you chose not to act alone, but to credit this sudden movement in your thought to both individual agency and the recollection of a man who, in his own way, sought to offer guidance for those struggling with the extreme turmoil of life. He says we are condemned to choice, but choice is an action all the same. To act may be part of that condemned state of existence we call life, but without choice there is no motion, without motion there is no life, there is only isolation and a slow disinterested death. If we truly let ourselves become isolated, then the voices stop and our action loses motive.

    What did King hear Christ saying? Stand up, be righteous. What did you hear? Act. Choose. Do what’s right. King says the voice was Christ’s. You say it was Sartre’s. I say it probably makes no difference. King trusted the voice he heard, but relied on his own actions. You trusted the voice you heard. Why?

    Your friend, Mark

    1. Thanks Mark – your point about trust is extremely well-put, and marks one of the distinct differences between seeking guidance from a philosopher like Sartre and from the Son of God. I’ll explore this at greater length in part two, but briefly, while I am entirely free to ignore Sartre if I find his thinking unhelpful, it would seem odd to ignore the voice of God, if you truly felt you heard it. This, I think, makes a big difference for how we understand our own agency.

      1. “While I am entirely free to ignore Sartre if I find his thinking unhelpful, it would seem odd to ignore the voice of God, if you truly felt you heard it.” That “if” says it all, really, and brings the two experiences back to the same weight, in my mind. 

        1. ““While I am entirely free to ignore Sartre if I find his thinking unhelpful, it would seem odd to ignore the voice of God, if you truly felt you heard it.” That “if” says it all, really, and brings the two experiences back to the same weight, in my mind.”

          I entirely agree! But note the difficult position that puts me in. I would have to say that while MLK SAID he was hearing the voice of Jesus, he really meant it as a metaphor. I’m am absolutely certain that many would not accept that reading at all…

      2. James,

        Two issues here. Let’s start with the faulty syllogism.

        1) You say: “…while I am entirely free to ignore Sartre if I find his thinking unhelpful, it would seem odd to ignore the voice of God, if you truly felt you heard it.” While it may seem odd to you to ignore the voice of God, can you imagine how boring the Bible would be if everyone who heard the word of God did exactly what God told them to?

        Sometimes, whether we want to accept it or not, certain philosophies, clearly not ones as prosy as Sartre’s, will find their way into our thought and we will follow them without realizing we are doing so. We could call this the Authority Trap. And it is as true for atheists as it is for anyone else. (Please note that. For some reason you keep ignoring my strongest arguments.)

        The issue you are dealing with is called Free Will. Sartre did not invent it while drinking coffee and smoking bad cigarettes on the banks of the Seine. Free Will is either true for all of us, or it is true for none of us. The Authority Trap either catches us all, or it catches none of us. The only alternative is to pretend that we are not all human, or that some of us, simply by virtue of our beliefs, are immune to the Authority Trap and have a special capacity for Free Will that others do not have.

        I read on a blog recently the words of one rather overly self-impressed atheist, who said the difference between “them and us” is I am awake — the believers are asleep. I don’t think he was quite as awake as he thought he was. But do you really want to reduce atheism to this kind of cartoonish outlook?

        2) You have inverted literal and metaphor. Traditionally, metaphor is the language of religion and literal is the language of science. Unfortunately, Fundamentalists tells us that they take the Bible literally. And so we, this is an example of an Authority Trap, have let them become the authority for our use of the word literal.

        If you try to reduce Martin Luther King’s language to the literal, you reduce him to a Fundamentalist. Do you really want to do that? Jenn told you above why that was not the case. Don’t let yourself get caught up in a bad piece of logic here.

        MLK’s language is very metaphorical. You tell us that you invoke Sartre as a rhetorical metaphor, a mere ornament to your language. There is a difference between using metaphor and speaking metaphorically. No one is going to be upset because you tell us that MLK is speaking metaphorically. They will say, yes, he was very religious, wasn’t he.

        James, as I read what you are writing, it seems to me that you speak in a way that is largely metaphorical, with a few nice touches of rational language. You are least interesting when you make extended excursions into logic, because it is not your native style.

        Being an atheist does not mean you have to avoid metaphorical language (by which, of course, I don’t mean avoiding the use of metaphors, I mean a metaphorical tone and style, as opposed to a rational tone and style). You also do not have to prove your rationality by forcing reason on to metaphorical language. Leave that to the atheist sheep caught up in their own Authority Trap.

        Now is there a difference between you and King? Yes, I think there is. King is comfortable with his metaphorical language. I won’t presume to speak for you. Are you comfortable with your own metaphorical language?

        3) One last thing and then I will shut up (for now, at least). Wallace Stevens is one of my favorite poets. The following comes from “Esthetique du Mal.”

        He would be the lunatic of one idea
        In a world of ideas, who would have all the people
        Live, work, suffer, and die in that idea
        In a world of ideas. He would not be aware of the clouds,
        Lighting the martyrs of logic with white fire.
        His extreme of logic would be illogical.

        Stevens had set aside traditional relgious views in the early and quite beautiful “Sunday Morning.” He is here talking about their successors.

        Your friend, Mark

        1. Sorry I left out one thing because the computer killed a version I had been editing (one that did not include the rather silly paren about paying attention to my more significant thoughts — please ignore that comment, very silly). The point that got lost in the jumble was that the differences in rational and metaphorical language are well described in Ernesto Grassi’s Rheotric as Philosophy. I have only just stumbled on to this book, but it addresses these issues of types of language exceedingly well. These issues are essential to most modern philosophies, including naturalism.


        2. Mark, I’m going to try to respond to this because I don’t want anyone to feel I’m not responding to their replies or that I’m twisting what they said. I’ll respond to each numbered point.

          1) You point toward a “faulty syllogism”, but I’m not sure what you’re referring to. I was trying to point out that, rationally speaking, if you thought the omniscient creator of the universe had your back, it would make no sense to ignore that. That, I imagine, gives one a different level of certainty to when I think about Sartre and his cheap cigarettes. I’m not sure that observation is in the form of a syllogism, or whether you were referring to that?

          I do respect your point that “Sometimes, whether we want to accept it or not, certain philosophies, clearly not ones as prosy as Sartre’s, will find their way into our thought and we will follow them without realizing we are doing so.” I think this is highly likely. And just in case you think it wouldn’t happen with Sartre, the end of the 3rd Matrix movie so pithily captures the essence of it, in my view, that it’s perfectly easy for it to sink in!

          I want to note, regarding your “self-impressed atheist” who thought believers were “asleep”, that I said nothing of the kind and still do not do so. Nor do I think that I make the same move in a less obvious way. I do ask that people take me at my word, and not at the words of another.

          2) “Traditionally, metaphor is the language of religion and literal is the language of science. Unfortunately, Fundamentalists tells us that they take the Bible literally. And so we, this is an example of an Authority Trap, have let them become the authority for our use of the word literal.”

          I’m not sure where I’ve made this error. The first thing I’d say in response to this is that science is nothing if not metaphorical. Indeed, a good description of science might be “the construction of useful metaphors which help us better understand our experience.” Think of the “atom as solar-system” model – that’s a metaphor, and a very powerful one. Or what about the field of immunology, wherein the body “remembers” its “attackers” and “fights back” with “defenses”. These are all war metaphors brought into the biological arena. Everywhere you look in science you find metaphor after metaphor!

          Now, Karen Armstrong argues that religious texts and practices were never meant to be taken literally, and that to take them literally is a new trend, and a worrying one. I don’t know – she’s the expert on religious history, But it seems just as presumptuous to assume MLK was speaking metaphorically as to assume that he is speaking literally. I don’t know for sure, but I think the difference is significant, and that it makes little sense to try to ignore it or gloss it over. Do you agree with the distinction, and that it matters? If not I have more work to do.

          “MLK’s language is very metaphorical. You tell us that you invoke Sartre as a rhetorical metaphor, a mere ornament to your language. There is a difference between using metaphor and speaking metaphorically. No one is going to be upset because you tell us that MLK is speaking metaphorically. They will say, yes, he was very religious, wasn’t he.”

          I’m not sure of the reason behind the distinction you are trying to draw here. I’m certain, though, that if I said to some people “MLK did not REALLY hear the voice of Jesus – he meant that as a metaphor”, that they would strongly disagree. I’m certain because this is just what happened on Thursday.

          “Being an atheist does not mean you have to avoid metaphorical language (by which, of course, I don’t mean avoiding the use of metaphors, I mean a metaphorical tone and style, as opposed to a rational tone and style). You also do not have to prove your rationality by forcing reason on to metaphorical language. Leave that to the atheist sheep caught up in their own Authority Trap.”

          I entirely agree that one shouldn’t give up metaphorical language because one is an atheist. Given my understanding of science and language, whereby metaphor is everywhere, it would be impossible to continue if I were to do that! But in some spheres of life I think it important to make clear a distinction. Think of our beloved Dewey, in “A Common Faith”. There he was essentially arguing for the re-metaphorization of religious language. He clearly felt there was an important difference between understanding words like “God” literally or metaphorically, and preferred the latter.

  2. Dear James,

    I would not agree that there was a qualitative difference in the respective revelations of yours and Dr. King’s. I would say that the difference lies in your respective cultural, linguistic, and epistemological frameworks, and how they determine how you each perceive and express your experiences. Dr. King wrote that faith, that the language of faith, is often a result of sociocultural patterning, and also an act of volition; it is an intentional framing of a moment of self-transcendence (which is what I would call your experience) in traditional religious language. Dr. King knew exactly what he was doing, and he also knew how deeply ingrained it was for him; as a minister and a scholar with many years of professional experience, doctoral work, and leadership behind him, he was a remarkably self-aware and socially astute individual who could see the deep hybridity of inculturation, linguistics, choice, perception and imagination. In the description of his revelatory moment Dr. King invokes the clearly-defined moment of embracing one’s authentic purpose, transcending his emotional limitations and claiming his ethical responsibilities. You too saw this as a moment of realizing responsibility for your own life. Remember…God constructs, especially amongst those as well-versed with liberal and liberation theology as were Dr. King, are often quite humanistic and about as far as you can get from Dawkins’ and Falwell’s supernatural paper tigers. Perhaps you and Dr. King may have more in common that this article suggests….

    Your quite possibly presumptuous humanist-Jew-Bu friend,

    1. Thank you for your response, Jenn. You say:

      “I would not agree that there was a qualitative difference in the respective revelations of yours and Dr. King’s. I would say that the difference lies in your respective cultural, linguistic, and epistemological frameworks, and how they determine how you each perceive and express your experiences.”

      It seems to me that a difference in epistemological frameworks would constitute a qualitative difference, and an important one. You’ve given me a good point to discuss in the next part – thank you!

      1. Dear James…

        I’m going to break a little (or a big) interfaith dialogue rule and poke a little fun at you. Yes, there is a difference between your experience and Dr. King’s experience: he turned the country around, and you went back to grad school. The call that he felt (though I would wager he was perfectly acquainted with every single one of your arguments and would humbly and soundly both agreed and stayed convicted about the non-illusory nature of his faith) was enough for him to sacrifice himself over and over again until his death. He knew he would be killed in Memphis in April 1968 and he still went. I’m not sure that the calling you felt would have moved you to such a degree of sacrifice. Self-transcendence, yes. Poverty, yes. Creativity, yes. Cleverness, yes. Self-preservation, yes. But how does it go beyond your own life? See, that is the difference between your revelation and Dr. King’s revelation. Dr. King was drawn outside of his own finiteness for the sake of his people.

        But what are you doing here? Are you honestly questioning MLK and those of us who find the denomination of Humanism to be occasionally, characteristically snotty and reductive in order to improve anyone’s social condition? I have searched my heart about why I find your tone to be irritating at times, especially when you joyfully gather ammunition against your conversants from their comments to your writing, and I think it’s rather petty on my part: I’m still a fledgling at my relationship with what I use the word God to describe. I have gone about discerning that relationship intelligently and painstakingly, and I’ve had plenty of kitchen-table revelations that called for for self-transcendence and self-sacrifice. Our exchanges here have asked me to go deeper in my journey and check in with myself, and I often arrive at a similar, though deeper conviction. But there’s something I find quite strident about your tone that is unproductively provocative.

        That may be because I find your tone threatening to my own humble faith stance, which is precarious even in my own heart. But I am also troubled by your tone because it smirks with a sense of superiority which I don’t see borne out in your purpose. What is your goal, writing here on SOF? Is it to convince us all to open our eyes to our “delusions”? What is my goal, in writing to you? Is it to convince you to open your eyes to what I see as your narrow and rigid dismissal of what faith can be for the doubtfully and deeply intelligent? Your posts are always bright, but they are often uninformed. I just wonder if you’ve really investigated what it is you’re rejecting with such a tone of triumph. If writing on SOF is to lend a Humanist perspective to the cacophany, please, this is important and more than welcomed. But if it is to tell people that what sustains them is silly, I don’t think that’s productive.

        Humanism, if I am not mistaken, honors humans and human abilities and human volition and human choice and creativity above any sort of supernatural intercession. I’m definitely a humanist, and I’m definitely a religious person. I love what I call God, and this relationship, full of choice and fighting and dark nights and yearning, has saved my life from many oncoming trains. Maybe my comment is questioning the conflict between the claims and the tones of many humanists. Maybe many humanists are just as insecure as believers and feel the need to tear everyone else down.

        I thought I’d go for the honest exchange, anyway, so there you are.


        1. Dear Jenn,

          Thank you so much for your reply. It was precisely to open this discussion that I posted this, and I’m extremely glad you felt you could respond honestly to what you must have felt is a provocative piece. I know how very difficult it can be to express what you are thinking honestly, especially when you feel that someone else might disagree strongly, so I want to say I very much respect you for being brave enough to do so. I have spent some time considering my response, so that I can get away a little from a sense of defensiveness.

          First, let me say that your feelings here were mirrored by at least a few others in the Faith and Leadership course I recently attended when we discussed this very question. The Martin Luther King scenario is essentially taken from that course, and we discussed it on the last day there, and I said something like I wrote above (though in much less detail!). And the response of a few people was to think my points superior (that very word was used) and offensive. It was also an occasion for people to ask “What are you doing here?”, just as you do. So you are in good company.

          I have to admit that I was upset by this to begin with, because I thought I had couched my comments in a respectful way. But after more thought, I began to wonder whether it is EVER possible to approach questions like these in a respectful way. Hence that being the second major question of this post, and the reference to “respect” in the title. I think of this question, incidentally, as a meta-question about the limits of interfaith dialogue itself.

          But before we get to that question, perhaps I should review why I thought I was being respectful. If I have been clearly DISrespectful, then we don’t have to address the meta-question at all.

          So, how did I try to demonstrate respect here? I noted that I am “powerfully moved” by Dr. King’s situation. I admit that “I have never faced the magnitude of trials Dr. King faced in Montgomery, and may never do so”, and that “Nothing in my experience measures up to his trials or his triumphs.” I say, further, that “I think I can begin to understand the impetus that might drive someone to seek celestial aid.”

          What I’m doing there is trying to show respect for Dr. King, his position, and to make it clear that I am in no way comparing myself to him. I openly acknowledge, right at the start, that “he turned the country around, and [I] went back to grad school.” I don’t think I am under any illusions here that my life has been “superior” to his in any way, and I’m quite explicit about that.

          Furthermore, I try to give faith its due. I say “It is clear that many people “turn to God” at moments of great personal challenge, and equally clear that they seem to find a source of strength there.” I note that my own position is “uncomfortable”, and that simply expressing my view that there is even something to be discussed here “is likely to offend and disturb some people of faith.”

          And that is PRECISELY what happened!

          Honestly re-reading what I have read, I do not see how I could have expressed the same ideas with a more respectful tone or framing. I think I did pretty much everything that I could do to make the post not seem “superior” or “smirking”. And yet, you have the courage to honestly tell me that is how it seems to you, and I believe you.

          Why does this happen? And what can we do about it?

          One reason why I think this happens is contextual. In the context of strident debates between religious and nonreligious people many things the ‘other side” say are construed as part of that ongoing debate. I not that you use, in your reply, words like “delusion”, and you wonder if I am here to “tell people that what sustains them is silly” or to “tear everyone else down”. I humbly submit that I never used the word delusion, and never in the article called faith “silly”. Nor do I think an honest reading of any of my posts could end with the conclusion that I’m here to tear people down. But I know precisely who and what you are thinking about when you construe me in that way. So the context is a problem.

          However, I think there’s a deeper issue here (our “meta-question”), and I’ve started to think of it like this: at the “interfaith table”, most of the participants are discussing WHAT role faith should play in their lives, and HOW it should play that role. I, and some other Humanists, will want to discuss WHETHER faith should play a role in people’s lives. In a certain sense, we’re those annoying people who ask whether there’s a need for the table we’re sitting around, or whether that table is shaped right!

          That is an uncomfortable position. It may also be an unsustainable one. I am beginning to think, with great sadness, that in fact the questions I want to raise are impossible to raise from within an interfaith context such as SoF without being seen as superior and dismissive. If that is so, it’s sad, but it’s not the end of the world – I have other venues where I can put forth my honest thoughts. The only problem is that people like you probably would not be comfortable in such venues – and we lose the chance for dialogue.

          I would very much like to hear your thoughts on this, particularly if you can come up with a way for me to say what I want to say without seeming disrespectful. I would also like the opinion of experienced interfaith participants on this question. It is perturbing me quite a lot.



          1. FWIW, it took you much time and thought for you to recognize the meta-question, and you are very involved in the subject & have been for years: it seems, then, that the assumptions which concealed it must be pretty pervasive and persuasive. Something to be done there, perhaps?

            Query… If their question concerns the role of faith, doesn’t that indicate that faith fulfills specific functions? And don’t humanists negotiate life without faith, and therefore have other ways of fulfilling those functions? 

            There is a place for you at that table, but it’s clearly one that requires extra effort — on your part, to be heard; on theirs, to think more deeply and clearly. 

          2. Dear James–

            First, before you contemplate whether SOF is an appropriate forum for your contributions, I must note that this i surely the busiest article hub on the whole site. I never seen so many comments flying back and forth. Obviously you’re pushing some buttons and deep thinking is happening. So…maybe that is an answer to the question of whether dialogue here is productive given the motley crew of contributors. It is happening, in any case, and you started it.

            I think we’ve both come to the meta-question from different directions. Mine was in the form of googling a quote from “Good Will Hunting” for a post I put up the other day.

            Sean: My wife used to fart when she was nervous. She had all sorts of wonderful little idiosyncrasies. She used to fart in her sleep. One night it was so loud it woke the dog up. She woke up and went, “Uh, was that you?” And I didn’t have the heart to tell her. Oh!
            Will: She woke herself up?
            Sean: Yeah! But Will, she’s been dead for 2 years, and that’s the shit I remember: wonderful stuff, you know? Little things like that. Those are the things I miss the most. The little idiosyncrasies that only I know about: that’s what made her my wife. Oh, she had the goods on me too. She knew all my little peccadilloes. People call these things imperfections, but they’re not. It’s just who we are. Ah, that’s the good stuff.

            As it relates to “interfaith dialogue” or diversity work, this makes me think about how I can accept that individuals are different in taste and perception but it’s easy to consider certain worldviews quite cracked from inside my own perceptual norm-set. I find that I have to constantly append my own faith claims with the “for me, for now” caveat of the responsible subjective faith journey, because it’s such a private endeavor, with so many layers of socialization, hybridized identity, inculturation, nuero-psycho-pneumo-physical factors at play.

            So the thing that bugs me about certain humanists is that they seem to be on a crusade to get everyone to agree with them or to establish to everyone that they are smarter than everyone else or that they really know the answer and the are certain everyone on a faith journey is unaware of the absurdity of most religious symbolic frameworks. The object that may be a table to you may be a chair to me, but it doesn’t really matter, does it? Until I want to bash your head in with it, that is.

            With my “for me, for now” faith claim caveat, and watching my own claims shift and deepen with the turns of my life, sometimes I think it doesn’t really matter what certain worldviews imply or suggest, if they are sustaining to whoever hols them. The problem is when those views start incurring violence or oppression upon others. The thing is, I can readily identify where certain faith claims are hurting individuals around their won sexuality, their self-imposed pressures, etc. Not everyone’s faith life is about freedom and authentic individual flourishing, to say the least. I don’t know…where does faith-driven violence start or end? Do we attend to things systemically or intersubjectively? Both?

            I think that when interfaith dialogue is positioned as a format for intersubjective agreement it’s bound to fail. That’s why I’m pretty ambivalent about the whole affair. I think that people from the same family, let alone people from different hemispheres, will never achieve that sort of communion (and you know, thank Dog for that). I think the only real point of interfaith dialogue is when it is positioned around a constructive end–an ethical bridging of ideas and personpower toward community cooperation on an actual project or meal or friendship, etc.

            So to do this on a website may be perilous, because what can we plan together? What we build here? Are we just here to flex epistemologies? What do you think?


        2. Jenn, I’m a theist with a faith that’s now unshakeable but highly idiosyncratic. There was no dogma that worked, and in the end I reasoned my way towards an understanding that accounted for my own experiences without contradicting known laws of science. Atheism makes no sense _for_ me, but it makes sense _to_ me as a solution for many others. 

          For all the difficulties of having true & honest conversations on the subject, I’ve never had conversations as honest, thoughtful, and thought-provoking as those James has been a part of. 

          I respect and adore James’ passionate, positive insistence that true dialogue is possible, because his persistence and native sweetness can keep things going over these rough bits. He is tripping over the difficulty of trying to understand the reasons for belief while being certain that belief is unreasonable; be interesting to see where he goes with that. 

          I see what you mean about feeling patronized, but the conversations between theists and atheists have that as (probably) a permanent undercurrent: the disagreements are fundamentally based on, “but you’re missing something essential, here!” That sense of the others’ willful blindness tears the heart out of respect, as has been pointed out elsewhere on this thread. Thus multiplying the value of James’ personality and approach, IMO.

          1. Jenn,

            Can absurdity find a seat at this table? I mean the reduction of the world we live in to extremes. An extreme of nihilism – nothing has value; an extreme of subjectivism – we all see the world absolutely differently; or an extreme of objectivity – the world is only what we see it to be and subjectivity and emotions have no value at all.

            Now, the truth is that these conditions never exist. No one can ever be an absolute nihilist, even if they say they are. The same is true of subjective relativism, and absolutistic objectivity. They just don’t exist. And yet, we often find people who want to reason from these positions – they are easier to reason from; great fall back positions. But they are, as Godel told us, never complete, never comprehensive.

            The world is terribly messy — which I think was one of the themes of your last post. You speak of inter-subjectivity which strikes me as such a funny and peculiar word. We have lived so long with the notion that objectivity and subjectivity are opposites that we now must have a word to grant us permission to combine them. We have always done so, you know. All language is rational language – because all language is rooted in logos. All language is emotive and imaginative – having roots in premises that cannot be attained purely through reason or observation. Pure rational language, pure emotive language, pure imaginative language – with no intermixing from the others – these do not exist.

            I see two great dangers here: 1) we let our small experience as individuals grant us an epistemology that we reify into believing is not merely a way of seeing, but is indeed reality itself (i.e. who said epistemologies were individual? Surely they are social in nature, if not how could they have any relevance at all); 2) we believe that silly notion that we are isolated one from another (Sartre is not alone in having forced that nonsense upon us — it comes as well out an overreading and overreaching of Judeo-Christian-Islamic free will).

            I am neither an atheist, nor a theist. I don’t much care much one way or the other whether there is a god or not. (I have two jokes I tell to describe my beliefs: 1) God created the heavens and the earth; the plants and the animals; and God created man – and man was so delighted and honored, he returned the favor. 2) I have little trouble believing in god; I just wish someone could prove to me that atheists exist.)

            I am a humanist (and as such a little offended, but only a little, whenever humanism is used as a synonym for atheism, but that’s by the bye).

            Do we need inter-faith? I believe strongly that we do. Because, unlike James, I think faith is simply a natural emotion that we all have. You cannot rid yourself of it by some act of free will. It is not that great thing written with a capital F and used to scare “non-believers “by fundamentalist extremists, but a small and honest and inevitable thing that will out, because it knows no obstacle of will, no obstacle of rationality, no obstacle of science, nor will it have any congress with such. It is one of those primal emotions that we like to dismiss as mere sentimentalism. But what is sentimentalism anyway; not a lie, not the enemy of the intellect; not the province of the slow and stupid; but simple, easy emotions that we all possess and that come to us quite easily, perhaps too easily.

            Yes, we need an interfaith table, but not because we need some way to rationalize our beliefs, or make the messy world seem orderly, or come to agreement on our varied epistemologies, or satisfy our individual needs, and certainly not because we need to come to an agreement on the shape of the table. No, we need inter-faith because we are all human … and that to me is reason enough.

            Regards, Mark

  3. I strongly agree with Mark and Jenn’s beautifully-expressed responses. I’d summarize and extend them by taking a new look at an old phrase: “God is in the details.”

    In despair (a familiar state), we tend to feel inadequate to face the reality we find ourselves in, so we reach outside our own present selves for something to reattach us to a self that’s large enough, smart enough, buoyant enough, whatever enough, either to reframe our reality in a more manageable way or to refocus ourselves on a more manageable slice of reality. Or both. 

    I have to address the “paper tiger” thing before making my next point. There’s a stumbling-block of intellectual dishonesty I find over and over among otherwise intelligent and reasonable atheists which is so stupid yet emotionally laden that it stops reason in its tracks: because God is dogmatically presented to this arguer as a simplistic, extrinsic, imaginal authoritarian, and because no such entity exists, then there is no God.  (Check Wikipedia’s entry for “logical fallacies” and have some fun.)

    Let’s pretend, for the sake of argument, that there are theists who don’t see deity in those terms. 

    You say that Dr. King was mistaken. How, exactly? Words are not reality, they’re simply the clothing we put on our own perceptions and experiences, so we can share them with others. He used words like God and Jesus which each of you interprets in a highly personal way. I’d argue that, whether or not either one of you is mistaken, you’re confusing the clothing with the wearer. 

    You both had the experience of getting mired in despair, pausing to confront it, and expanding your thoughts and awareness deep into yourselves, well out of yourselves, and into your remembered pasts and projected futures. This mental stretch is not a normal state, thank goodness, and normal thoughts don’t come from there. How they are perceived and interpreted is strongly affected by personal characteristics such as experience and personality. 

    Dr. King had what he interpreted as a spiritual communion with his understanding of God; you had what you experienced as a profound mental communion with the material you’ve absorbed in your own deep studies of thought. 

    Not that it matters, since I haven’t published on the subject and don’t intend to, but I’m all too familiar with despair as I’ve dealt with the continual deterioration of this painful condition which a hostile “care” system won’t allow me to cure. It’s a 1-way street but it doesn’t have to be, and that combination of facts gets a bit much each time I lose more function. In my own process of pause-confront-reach-expand-reframe/refocus — after exhausting the finite possibilities offered by my limited understanding of deity, my truncated education, and my extraordinary but mortal friends — I’ve come to see what I’m doing as FAR simpler. 

    The irony is that intellectuals like Carl Jung, Dr. King, and your gifted self tend to perceive and try to explain this in complex and lofty terms, although I think Sagan would give it a shot. I’m procrastinating; here goes. 

    We are descended from billions of ancestors who bore the unbearable. The mental limits & willful blinkers we don, that lead us to do things like lead a nation out of mental slavery or expect prepubescents to leap from thuggery to enlightenment in one classroom, are artificial constructs; they are part of how we chop experience into manageable chunks according to our ideas of how things should be. 

    When we stop and reach, what we’re doing is not so much reaching _for_ something, though subsequent accounts tend to sound like that. We are simply reaching beyond _self-selected_ limits, and we are doing so purely because of the survival urge. 

    Despair feels like an inward dying. The primitive brain isn’t interested in dying. Jung spoke of the collective unconscious and King spoke of the incarnate voice of God. Both are fair perceptions, for amateurs, of what I deal with on a regular basis: coming face to face with the combined lizard-monkey-subconscious mind that can drive body and brain beyond physical limits because it simply won’t countenance dying from within. 

    Once this irresistible combined force comes into play, our willful constructs stand no chance. Our minds open to past experience and future possibilities until a solution appears. Any brain that can compute the trajectory of a thrown ball will have little trouble with the simple matching task that presents. It feels almost miraculous because most people take their preconceived delimiters so seriously. 

    In short, in regard to how Dr. King and you handled your episodes of despair, you’re both slightly off base _but_ neither of you is wrong in how you chose to clothe your perceptions in words. Those choices were inevitable outcomes of your unique brains and personal histories. This is a matter of decades of neural connections based on different exposures and different neurochemical flows. 

    While it would be mistaken for you to experience the resolution of despair in Dr. King’s terms, it would be just as mistaken for him to experience it in yours, for very hard physical and neurochemical reasons — and also because the _account_ of the _perception_ of the _experience_ is 3 full degrees away from the real _point_. 

    If it helps, perhaps you can keep the chemistry and wiring in mind, as a reasonable basis for respecting the faith (== the current end of decades of neuronal development) of those whose faith you disagree with. I know you’ve got the learning theory, but I’m not sure you have the understanding of ontogeny and subsequent development. Another degree for another day, perhaps? 🙂 

    Nonscientists mulling thought tend to lose track of the anatomical and chemical underpinnings of their subject. Check out V. S. Ramachandran on visual perception and cerebrocortical reorganization; could shed new light on religious art, among other things. 

    As an academic, of course, it’s part of your job to sweat these details. But for the sake of your mental and moral balance, I hope you remember that that’s what they are. 

    Sorry to take all this space. But your ideas are so well worth discussing, that this apology is frankly disingenuous!

    1. No need for apologies! 😉

      “You say that Dr. King was mistaken. How, exactly? Words are not reality, they’re simply the clothing we put on our own perceptions and experiences, so we can share them with others. He used words like God and Jesus which each of you interprets in a highly personal way. ”

      Indeed. But I think it makes a difference whether we understand our words to be literal or metaphorical. I am very clear that when I draw on Sartre, for example, I am not literally speaking with him. It is not clear to me, from MLK’s words, that he is clear of the same. If he is simply using those words metaphorically then there is little significant difference. But if not, I think it makes sense to discuss what that difference is.

      On the neuroscience piece, I’m something of a neuro-skeptic. Perhaps we should table that discussion for another time 😉

  4. James,

    Thanks for sharing your experience and reflections thereon, as always. (Also, you’re a truly great storyteller!)


  5. Interesting distinction between memory and imagination. Hadn’t phrased it in those terms myself, or understood it as such here; I was focused on the inwardly-questing nature of both experiences.

    Many philosophers discredit neurobiological sciences as doing a disservice to the mind. I often find a too-limited perception of what constitutes “neurobiological sciences” — a very wide term indeed. 

    Having said that, I’m completely annoyed by those who view the mind as entirely an artifact of its scientifically quantifiable processes. 

    There are pitifully few who can take both fields seriously. Frustrating!

    More than any physicist longs for Unified Field theory, I long for Unified Mind theory. I’m certain it is possible. 

    I look forward to that discussion 🙂

  6. There is so much in this rich post and follow-up discussion that I honestly don’t know where to begin. I’ll admit I’ve read in a slightly distracted frame of mind as I’m writing from the hospital where I’m caring for my father….where, honestly, there have been numerous occasions where I have turned to God as I understand God to seek patience, guidance, understanding, and the courage to do what next needs to be done. Without tackling the whole of your post–perhaps all the more provocative because of how many of us revere Dr. King–I’ll simply look at the suggestion that turning to God perhaps lessens our sense of personal agency.

    For me, the prayers I have been praying over the past few days are the foundation whereby I have stepped up to be the caregiver I need to be–if anything, what I am tapping is a source that wipes out the all-too human/ego-driven messages that would have me either play the super-hero of the moment or get in my car and drive as fast and as far as I possibly can in the opposite direction. I do not claim to be a prayerful person, much as I might want to be, but for many who are, my sense is that their prayers empower them to be infinitely more than they would be otherwise. They are not turning over their responsibility, but finding a space to name it and step into it.

    I have an unformed thought in my mind about whether we are evaluating people by their actions in the world or the source of those actions–and if it matters. For me, I don’t believe that atheism is untrue for those who claim atheism as a system of thought–I’m not insistent that my God-centered view of the world must be true for all. I guess I am just wacky enough to believe in the possibility of multiple truths….but don’t take me too quickly to task on this, as I’m not prepared to defend myself or my views. I have appreciated Mark Heim’s work on “multiple ends,” but I’m not certain how his work encompasses atheism, so more study and reading to follow.

    In the meantime, I will share this favorite quotation that occurred to me as I was contemplating how to step into the dialogue:

    “i found god in myself
    and i loved her
    i loved her fiercely”
    — Ntozake Shange

    Whether she found god, herself, or the capacity to love fiercely, I’m glad she sought….

    1. Thank you for stepping into this space, Jennifer. It is not an easy discussion to have, at all, and I can only imagine the freight it must carry with it for someone in your situation. I am very moved when you say

      “I do not claim to be a prayerful person, much as I might want to be, but for many who are, my sense is that their prayers empower them to be infinitely more than they would be otherwise. They are not turning over their responsibility, but finding a space to name it and step into it.”

      I think that that is my sense as well – I can see the strength people get from their prayer! But I’m not sure I quite understand it.

      I wish you and your father well.

    2. Jennifer,

      Beautiful post. Thank you.

      You expressed what I was trying to say above, but much more directly and expressively. Certainly a strong tradition can be found in Christianity and other religions (particularly Buddhism) that by emphasizing free will serves to enable the individual not merely to feel good, but to act and to do so through self-agency, not through reliance upon some sort of “god-crutch”.

      I am no enemy of atheism, but I worry when the atheist begins to feel that atheism alone allows access to this important and very human path of action.

      All my best to you and your father,

  7. James,

    Thanks for this post. Near the end, you say:

    “In brief, I think that when we turn to God for guidance, to the exact extent to which we believe we receive guidance and assistance from God, we diminish our own sense of personal agency and individual responsibility.”

    This makes me wonder if you’ve read the classic debate between Luther and Erasmus on free will from the 1520s. (Conveniently, you can find both of the relevant books in one volume, called Luther and Erasmus, edited by E. Gordon Rupp.) I bring this up because I think that Luther’s _De Servo Arbitrio_ is probably the single most powerful and influential expression of an idea that mirrors yours, namely that any use of human will or reason derogates from God.

    Personally, I find Luther’s line of thinking terribly exasperating. I’m not alone among theists in having this reaction to Luther, either. It might interest you, after reading Luther (which, yes, I’m strongly suggesting you should), to take a look at a book like John Locke’s _The Reasonableness of Christianity_, followed by the Presbyterian John Edwards’s responses (which make use of something like Luther’s logic). Book II of Richard Hooker’s _Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity_ offers a very cogent rebuttal to a hard-line Calvinist version of Luther’s argument, by making what I find to be a quite moving theological defense of the use of human reason. But I’m getting carried away with the reading assignment here…

    My point in saying all this is that such zero-sum approaches to theism and humanism are not the only way to go. For what it’s worth, and I hope you’ll take this as a compliment, I find your most potent positive expressions of humanist values to be quite comfortably compatible with my theistic worldview. They challenge me in just the way that my religion does at its best.

    For this reason, I think that you do have a potentially important part to play in the dialogue here at SoF, even if I (like Jenn) have occasionally found your responses a bit strident and (forgive me) dogmatic. I think that Chris is trying to think outside the zero-sum box from an atheist’s point of view, and I find his efforts extremely valuable. I think, moreover, as some of your responses above suggest you’re beginning to intuit, that the very notion of dialogue is premised on just such an attempt.

    This post, it seems to me, might serve as something of a launching-pad for your own.

    Respectfully (I hope),

    1. Thanks Jason – I shall try to find time for all the reading you suggest! I think the idea that we can find non-zero-sum ways of thinking about these issues is powerful (although I’m not sure quite what it means at this point).

      I must admit, I do detest being termed “dogmatic”. My parents used to call me that, and clearly I haven’t outgrown it! I, of course, do not think of myself this way. Rather, I like to talk of my views as “strongly stated, loosely held” – if better arguments come along to convince me I can turn on a dime.

      I’m intrigued, too, that no one has really taken up the challenge of the question I posed – is it even possible to discuss this question without causing people to label you in various derogatory ways?

      You know what would be very valuable for me? If you (or Jenn, or someone) could point to a specific thing which you felt was particularly dogmatic, so I can see exactly what it is people have a problem with. That would be very kind!

      1. Perhaps Mark can help me out on this point, because he’s devoted more thought to the subject of rhetoric than I have, but I think that rhetoric, in the sense of the means of persuasion, is deeply at issue here, both in the way that you feel religion leaves you out in the cold and in your felt need to speak truth to its awful power to do so.

        To illustrate what I mean, I’ll dust off my writing-teacher hat (it’s been put aside as I finish my thesis) and pretend for a moment that you’ve brought this post into conference with me. The main thing I’d try to show you is how powerfully your conclusion (specifically, the part where you deny King his own interpretation of his experience, simply because you happen not to believe in God) turns off the audience you’re trying to persuade. Almost the only possible rhetorical outcome of this move is a back-and-forth of “No, _you’re_ wrong,” at ever-increasing volumes.

        Here’s an alternative: you acknowledge the parallels between your experience and King’s. This is powerful stuff–the “heart” of the piece, in more ways than one. Then, you admit the obvious: that you and King interpret very similar experiences in radically different ways. Of course, at this point the question arises of what you’re going to make of this difference. That’s ultimately for you to answer, but if I were writing the essay (a delusion common to writing teachers), I’d try to do something in the vein of feeling humbled by what King emerged from his despairing moment to do. This, then, creates an opportunity for reflection on the question of what you, as an atheist, can _learn_ from King’s experience that helps you in your own, notwithstanding the significant differences in how you understand such experiences.

        This approach has several virtues, from a strictly humanist point of view. For one, it allows King to keep his own interpretation of his experience. For another, and largely because of the first, it lets believers see something of their own humanity in your experience–and your opportunity to persuade begins precisely here. And yet this is precisely the opportunity that the end of your essay seems to cut off. Why?


        1. Jason: This response is very helpful in clarifying the issues here – thanks! You say:

          “The main thing I’d try to show you is how powerfully your conclusion (specifically, the part where you deny King his own interpretation of his experience, simply because you happen not to believe in God) turns off the audience you’re trying to persuade. Almost the only possible rhetorical outcome of this move is a back-and-forth of “No, _you’re_ wrong,” at ever-increasing volumes.”

          I’m not sure, first, that I draw the conclusion you say I draw. There is a subtle distinction here, which may seem like hair-splitting, but I think is important: I do not think MLK is mistaken (that’s the word I use incidentally, nothing stronger) because I “happen not to believe in God”. I think he is mistaken if he thinks Jesus is actually talking to him (an important caveat, because he may not believe this, although he clearly says it) because I think God does not exist (and because I don’t think dead people send messages to us in that way). That is not quite the same – it’s a more limited claim, and it doesn’t have much to do with my belief either way.

          The rest of your advice is fantastic, and I would certainly follow it were I wanting to write a piece about something else. But it doesn’t quite help me express the point I actually want to raise in a more respectful manner. Essentially I would avoid making the point and make a different one instead.

          Perhaps we really have reached a boundary interfaith discourse cannot cross.

          1. that’s a funny apology … kind of like giving flowers and then kicking off the buds and then giving the budless stems … 😀

            I admire the stamina and good nature of James to keep up with such thoughtful and considered replies. And sometimes there’s nothing to add and sometimes it’s time for bed… and conservations to go to sleep too.

          2. James: respectfully, I think that your acknowledged hair-splitting amounts to a distinction without a difference. You reason as follows:

            1. MLK thought Jesus spoke to him.
            2. Jesus is dead.
            3. Dead people can’t communicate to the living (unstated premise: because God doesn’t exist)
            4. Ergo, MLK entertained a “mistaken” understanding of his own experience.

            The problem is that no. 3 comes down to your word against his. MLK might not be able to prove that dead people can communicate to the living, but you can’t prove the negative, either.

            Again, the real problem here is rhetorical. We know from the beginning that you don’t really believe that Jesus spoke to MLK, so bringing it up in the conclusion leads me to wonder what purpose you had in mind for the piece in the first place. Is “the point [you] actually want to raise in a more respectful manner” simply that the nonexistence of God makes dialogue between you and theists impossible, in spite of the significant commonalities between, say, King’s experience and your own? (I can envision a humanism that celebrates these commonalities instead of sticking on the one point of difference.) If so, then Jenn’s question about why exactly you’re participating in SoF is entirely on point.

            Please note that in saying this I am not asking, encouraging, or hoping that you leave SoF. I stand by my earlier statement of belief that you have something to contribute here, and I sincerely hope that you will find a way to make it.

            Back to rhetoric, then. Who is your intended audience in this piece, and what are your purposes vis-à-vis that audience? How are you going to establish an authority (ethos) for yourself that that audience will acknowledge? (Let me add, as a member of the presumed audience, that atheism is not a deal-killer in this regard.) After you establish such authority, how is your piece going to develop this authority in pursuit of your intended ends?

            The point about authority is especially important. You cannot expect “facts” like the non-existence of God to provide you, as the conveyor of said facts, with authority by virtue of their mere facticity. What is jarring in your calling MLK mistaken is that you are claiming a rhetorical authority that you have not earned. Maybe the interesting question for you to think about is, given that you really think MLK _was_ mistaken, how you can say this in a way that doesn’t come off as imperious, but instead invites your audience to think about MLK’s experience–and yours–in new ways. I know this sounds harsh, but I mean it in kindness, and I hope you will recognize that.

            Let me say in conclusion that I recognize your somewhat besieged condition here, and that I think you’re handling it much better than many people would. For all your complaints about being left out in the cold, you seem considerably more resilient than you’re giving yourself credit for. I admire and wish to encourage that resilience, whatever our proximate disagreements.


          3. I hope this goes to the right place! It’s getting very confusing here.

            I’m going to defend myself robustly here, because I am becoming somewhat frustrated with the tone of some of these responses, which do not seem to be responding to what I actually wrote.

            First, to your 4 step characterization of my reasoning. I made it crystal clear in my piece that it is from my perspective as an atheist that I view Dr. King as mistaken IF he was speaking literally. My premise was not unstated but explicit, and framed in “I language” with, I thought, a sensitive recognition of the difficult position that puts me in.

            Further, it is not up to me to prove a negative. It is up to the person making the positive claim to provide evidence for that claim. Regardless, I wasn’t attempting to address the question of whether God exists or not here. Rather, I was hoping to discuss how, if I believe God doesn’t exist, and you believe God does, we can actually discuss these questions respectfully and get some reasonable answers.

            I think, too, that I am extremely clear about the questions I am raising in my post. 1) Is there really any difference between myself and Dr. King when it comes to finding sources of strength? 2) Can we even discuss this question in a way which won’t upset people? I state both these questions quite explicitly at the end of the piece, and in the title. It is therefore odd to me that you say the following:

            “Maybe the interesting question for you to think about is, given that you really think MLK _was_ mistaken, how you can say this in a way that doesn’t come off as imperious, but instead invites your audience to think about MLK’s experience–and yours–in new ways. ”

            That is precisely what I ask in the article. The last three paragraphs lay this out in a way that I did not think could be misconstrued.

            What is fascinating to me about this exchange is that it seems that the heat over question 1) completely obliterates any chance of discussing question 2). Literally no one has addressed it. This leads me to think that in fact there might not be a way around the problem, and that leads to very uncomfortable questions about what the place of atheists at the interfaith table actually is.

            I wonder what Eboo Patel would think about this.

            To conclude – I had dinner with a good Humanist friend of mine last night and he asked me a very powerful question: “What is the “win” in this for you? What do you hope to gain from engaging in interfaith dialogue?” I was intrigued to find that I don’t have a cogent answer to that question. I’m not sure what the point of all this is, especially if it becomes impossible to discuss the root questions without being constantly afraid of stepping on people’s toes.

            I tried extremely hard to frame this post in a way which would not lead people to think it was “smirking” and “superior”, as Jenn put it. But it was perceived that way anyway, and I find myself running defense for 40+ replies instead of discussing the questions I raised. This is… unsatisfactory.

          4. James,

            I write at the risk of no longer contributing positively or helpfully to the conversation. You’re right that my four-point precis of your argument doesn’t do justice to your careful couching, and all along I should have been giving you more credit for your “uncomfortable position” phrase. My apologies for both.

            In an attempt to get at your number 2, I guess a question might be: why is the _difference_ between your experience and King’s the most important point for consideration? Maybe it’s _not_ really possible to discuss that question without things heating up inordinately. I think that dialogue requires that we tolerate passionately held points on which we are unlikely ever to agree. I recognize that your beliefs require you, uncomfortably, to think that King was mistaken if he is to be understood literally. My beliefs lead me, not altogether comfortably, to give him the benefit of the doubt.

            We shouldn’t wish that difference away–it’s going to inform everything that we say anyway–but neither should we let it bring us to conclude that dialogue is either impossible or undesirable. There are other truths than that one involved, say, the truth of your experience finding strength. I’ve certainly had experiences where I felt like God strengthened me, but I’ve also had experiences more like yours, where reading something or remembering something I’ve read has given me strength. (Camus, incidentally, figures regularly in such experiences for me.) We can talk about _that_ not only respectfully, but productively and probably quite enjoyably. And in the end, I imagine being left with the sense that your atheism didn’t really prove to be much of an obstacle to my learning something from you. Such has certainly been my experience reading Chris Stedman’s writings, as it has been with many of the other SoF contributors.

            For instance, I learned quite a bit from Adina Allen’s recent post on prayer–more than I suspect I would have if I ruminated too much on the fact that she wasn’t praying in the name of Jesus.

            There is–and should be–a time and a place to debate the big questions, but there is also a time and a place to put the big questions aside in the interest of the greater good. I believe the latter to be much more common than the former.

            I guess from my perspective we lose very little by bracketing the “big” questions (on which we’re highly unlikely to persuade each other anyway) in order to look for things that we _can_ learn from each other. Marilynne Robinson once wrote about “the doctrinal inch” separating Presbyterianism and Congregationalism. I’d say that the way we treat our corresponding doctrinal inches (or feet, or whatever) is entirely up to us: we can make them negligible, or we can make them the battle of Verdun.

            In that spirit, I’d like to apologize for my own tonal excesses and misunderstandings of your position. Maybe the next time I’m in Boston we can bury the hatchet over lunch and some Camus.

          5. I very much appreciate this reply, because it does lead to a potential way forward. Perhaps, as you say, the thing to do is to bracket disagreement over this issue and assert that there are other more important questions to address. In other words, not privilege the difference over the many similarities. And on those occasions where we HAVE to discuss the difference, we do so in the knowledge that people will perhaps be upset by what is said.

            I think part of the reason why I didn’t immediately jump to that conclusion is my own idealism: I like to work out what the “right” answer is to a problem and promote that. I am not, when it comes to ideas, so much a “live and let live” person. This has become clear, I think, in these exchanges! =D

            Maybe that is a problem. Maybe I need to cultivate in myself more tolerance for disagreement such that I can at times simply put aside disagreements like this, even though they matter.

        2. Jason,

          I don’t think I can help. Your comments seem dead on, but James is ignoring me, and I am not all that impressed with the answers he is giving you. He tends to pick out a little thing, throw a comment at it, ignore the general sense of the message, and pretend he has actually engaged in a dialog.

          I hope that does not come across too harsh, James, but this conversation has become almost surreal. You do realize that your first (only) response to me had me rolling my eyes, since in it you implied that you agreed with how I had stated the trust issue and then inverted my statement completely. Very strange!



          1. Mark – this is the first post in this long discussion which has actually upset me. If I choose to respond to it, it will be in a while, when I have thought on it. If I choose not to respond to it, it is not because I am “ignoring” you. I may just have nothing to say. Believe it or not, that sometimes happens.

          2. James,

            I’m sorry; I always tend to say something more than I should.

            But had you not noticed that others were upset with you? I certainly was not happy that you turned my words around; I thought you were thumbing your nose at me. And in my second post, I frankly thought I was telling you off. That is why I sent you a separate message asking you to excuse me for being too harsh with you.

            But if you were not thumbing your nose at me, or at any of the others… Okay, I’m going to stop there. That line of logic, will probably put me even more in Dutch with you; perhaps best to let it lie.

            Again, my apologies. I suppose I can’t ask you to delete that post, can I? No, I didn’t think so.


          3. Stephanie’s “joke” leaves me feeling like the world’s worst heel. I don’t know how or even if I can make a proper apology now. I wish I could undo what I said and I have asked Chris Steadman if he can just delete all my comments. I have certainly not been a very good dialog participant myself, and the worst thing is I managed to insult our host who has indeed been quite amiable. Odd thing is I’m feeling a bit of despair myself right now, although maybe its just self pity. All the same I rather wish I could hear a voice to put me straight, but nothing…

  8. I would hesitate to do this if you didn’t think it kind (by the way, I genuinely admire your openness to constructive criticism). Your expressed preference for debate over dialogue–which sometimes seems reflected in the tone of some of your comments–can make you seem dogmatic. Not dogmatic in your opinions, necessarily, but perhaps in the undergirding assumption that people are rational actors who are or should be susceptible to propositional persuasion. “Should be” meaning that bias can get in the way of said persuasion and may indeed be the primary obstacle to it.

    Many of Mark’s comments seem to be pushing back against the sola ratione aspect of these assumptions. I’m pushing back, too, but in a different way, by saying that this view is basically just a negative version of Luther’s polemic. I’m really interested, in my thesis work, in the religious aspects of 17th-century rationalism, the comprehension of which requires, I argue, sorting out the non-zero-sum quality of such thinking. Otherwise we end up with some weird bifurcation in thinking about people like Locke and Newton, both of whom wrote extensively on religious matters that clearly mattered significantly to them, but who also made stunning rational, “secular” contributions. Reading the exchange between Locke and Edwards will help you see how a kind of Lutheran polemic works to re-describe Locke’s religious views as “atheism” (Edwards’ word, not mine).

    I think I’ve got a post in me responding to your bigger question. Now, if I can just find the time to write it…


    1. James,

      I concur with Jason on this.

      But let me see if I can give you something that is very specific to the current case. You say that you have discovered a way of approaching despair that differs from MLK’s. Several people have raised a red flag on that issue. I think it is partly because King is so widely admired. But I think it also may suggest where you may be a little overly dogmatic.

      Perhaps you may need to spend some more time understanding King’s position. Your description of how King thought about Christ seems to me to be a little off — it seems to miss something of the nuance that I would expect King had an inclination toward and would no doubt have devoted to an issue that was so important to him. Now I am no scholar on King, but others, Jenn in particular, have suggested that you are missing something here, and you may want to listen to that critique.

      Perhaps, and this is just a suggestion, before moving on to part II, maybe you should spend some time looking at King’s religious thought, rather than simply looking at him as a political thinker who happened to throw few random religious thoughts into his political discourse (I think you can see how that is hardly an apt description of King).

      Although I wouldn’t rule out Jason’s suggestions as they will probably take you much closer to the issues between rational and religious language. I’m not the scholar Jason is, but his suggestions seem very strong to me. My arena is more attuned to basic rhetoric which is why I had recommended Grassi.

      Hope that helps, and I agree with Jason on one other very important thing: it is extremely impressive that you are willing to take such feedback in a public forum like this.

      Best, Mark

    2. Jason–

      How delightful to see the greatest work (De servo Arbitrio) of (IMO) the greatest theologian of the last millennium brought into this wonderful mix! The commendation Luther gave his Christian humanist foe Erasmus in the opening salvo of that work can be given James by some of his faith-filled interlocutors here: “ipsum jugulum petisti [you have aimed at the jugular/vital spot]!” For this stuff about God v human responsibility is really, IMO, the heart of the matter and that around which the question of religious-humanist (atheist?) dialogue need begin.

      James wrote (and Jason quoted): “In brief, I think that when we turn to God for guidance, to the exact extent to which we believe we receive guidance and assistance from God, we diminish our own sense of personal agency and individual responsibility.” Luther’s response to Erasmus’ version of a similar contention (he spoke in terms of “free will” was quite simply to say theirs no diminishing “free will” because there is no such thing (a “res in titulo solo”)– at least not as Erasmus saw it. I believe Luther’s key contention against Erasmus (and a whole bunch of medievals, and perhaps almost everyone living to day), is the idea that there is no neutral faculty in humans — the neutral will or the uncommitted “I” — hanging around somewhere surveying a buffet of beliefs from which it might choose this one and pass over that one. Rather than beliefs being the result of choices, movements of the will, something we think about, beliefs are what we think, will and act with. Beliefs are not something you have. They have you. (or so Luther [and people like Stanley Fish] has convinced me).

      The important point for this discussion is to see how Luther recognizes willing (note the participle– the will is bound and determined to will what it will!) abstracted from already in place beliefs as something predicable only of God and in turn to insist on the way in which rationality itself is always situated in a network of beliefs.

      I recognize this is bot of a ramble and should be clearer before post-worthy but … what the hell… if anyone cares about what I’ve gushed I clear it up in time.

      Speaking of gushing, here’s a longish quote from one of my favorite theologians, the late Dr. Gerhard Forde. It’s from his book *The Captivation of the Will*. Everything Forde wrote is in some way a commentary on Luther’s *De servo arbitio* and this book is a very brief commentary on it. Anyone who wants a very accessible and, I think, very accurate take on Luther’s “exasperating” work could easily read it an afternoon.

      “When we come to that which is above, however, we come up against something we really cannot do, or perhaps better, something we will not do, something that is truly above. That something is, of course, a someone: Almighty God. We come up against someone to whom all the attributes of divine majesty are ascribed, who is almighty, immutable, impassible, omniscient, omnipresent… And when we add to the list claims about predestination and election, we are in even bigger trouble. For the fact is that we simply cannot accept the almighty God. We cannot handle the idea of someone “above us” who we fear is controlling our destiny. When we come up against Almighty God we are. So now at last, the word has entered the conversation where it belongs. We are bound to say no and that is precisely our bondage! Students, albeit unwittingly, often hit the nail on the head. “I can accept,” they will say, “all that business about the gospel and justification by faith and so on. But I just can’t buy the idea of election and predestination!” To which of course, the only appropriate answer is, “You are absolutely right, of course! You can’t buy it! That is what this whole debate is about. You have not nullified the argument, you have established it! You are bound to say no. You can’t escape. Everyone theologizes as he must!” I must say to God, “God, I must have some say about my eternal destiny. You can have your necessity and your omnipotence and all of that, but when it comes to my destiny I must have at least a ‘little bit’ of freedom that seals the eventual outcome. You can rule the world, but I will take care of my own fate, thank you very much!” * (page 50)

      1. Ben,

        All I can say is that I wish you were still at Duke so we could sit down and talk about this stuff. I have my deep disagreements with Luther–I think that the glory of God can receive its all-encompassing due without requiring the total obliteration of the human in us–but I’m actually more than a little thrilled to find someone who not only takes Luther at his word, but believes it with the stirring conviction conveyed in your reply. I would not only appreciate, but probably actually enjoy, an in-person opportunity to try and understand a little better where you–and Luther (OK, and Stanley Fish, too)–are coming from.


        1. Sorry, Ben, it’s just occurred to me that I’ve mixed you up with Ben DeVan. The desire to talk about this in person still stands, even if its fruition seems unlikely in the near future.


          1. What an honor that my comments could even for a moment be mistaken for those of the always thoughtful Mr. DeVan! But yes, I am at the University of Virginia, neither Duke nor your Boston (right?). It is probably needless to say that I don’t think Luther’s take on human willing (at least vis-a-vis “those things above us”) obliterates the human person in the interest of God’s glory. In fact, Luther is convinced (and me by him and sacred Scripture) that human beings will always do exactly as they will/want because they could do no otherwise. Any one who thinks Luther’s understanding of the “bound will” has anything to do with some sort of external coercion misreads him. The nature of the bondage of which Luther speaks is simply put that man is bound to do precisely what he wants and that what he wants is to be God. There is no gun to man’s head–the gun is his head! As I mentioned in my previous rambling, the problem for Luther (and modern nonfoundationalists like Fish) comes in thinking the will is ever just hanging out and not actually in the act of willing SOMETHING. Instead, as Luther and Forde have it, the will is more like love–equally “passive” and equally always committed. For does one explain love to his beloved by saying, “I am basically neutral about you, dear, but I have decided to consult my will in this affair and take up the option you present. I have decided to start loving you.” ? Such a thing sounds ridiculous because it is ridiculous. There is a reason that when it comes to love, we speak of “falling for,” being “smitten by,” “taken with,” or “captivated by,” our beloved. (At least when it comes to human love. A unique aspect of God’s love is that it actually chooses its objects.) Our language of love illustrates the fact that one chooses to love as little as he chooses to obey the laws of gravity. What is ridiculous when it comes to love of another human or most so of God, is equally and for the same reason ridiculous when it comes to any of our beliefs. There exists no “free love thing” or “free willing thing” neutral and unattached, waiting for some “driver” to shift it into “drive.”

            Sorry about the length of this reply but you are correct to note that I am “stirred” by the whole matter. I expect no back and forth on this as your last comment responds to this one of mine as it did to the previious one. I wrote a little paper (not so great) a while back comparing aspects of Fish and Luther if you care to see it. Better than that or even my viva vox might be a look at Forde’s *Captivation of the Will* and *On Being a Theologian of the Cross.* Both books are little over 100 pages and lay out well what Luther (especially as a pastor) was up to in De servo. And, I do have an acquaintance/friend from seminary who now teaches Reformation history at BU who would surely do at better job than I could hope to do in talking Luther.

            Ben (alas!) Maton

    3. Thanks you for your honesty, Jason. I have to admit that your reply somewhat perplexes me. You say:

      “Your expressed preference for debate over dialogue–which sometimes seems reflected in the tone of some of your comments–can make you seem dogmatic. Not dogmatic in your opinions, necessarily, but perhaps in the undergirding assumption that people are rational actors who are or should be susceptible to propositional persuasion. “Should be” meaning that bias can get in the way of said persuasion and may indeed be the primary obstacle to it.”

      It seems to me that one essential criterion of being non-dogmatic is being open to changing one’s mind on the basis of persuasion. It also, I think, is an essential part of dialogue. If so, then if I read you right I am dogmatically committed to the idea that we should not be dogmatic, but should be open to changing our minds?

      If that is the charge I’m proud to plead guilty, but I probably have misunderstood you.

      My brain hurts.

  9. First of all I found your account of your first teaching experience tragic and shattering. It left me feeling profoundly sad and deeply frustrated. Frustrated because I studied education too (ages ago, in my ‘former’ life) and I’m sure your enthusiasm, energy and vitality with your wide ranging abilities were wasted on children who had severe learning and behaviour disabilities and probably needed a different approach. I was saddened because it left you feeling it was your fault, and also because other children might now have missed the opportunity to benefit from your teaching.

    I wonder if it’s a bit simplistic of me but I don’t see much difference between King and you. You both looked into your souls (so to speak) and heard the voices of authority (so to speak) which shape your characters as human beings anyway. Luther heard God, and you spoke to Satre. Luther’s decision was ultimately based on who he was as a person of Christian faith and yours was based on who you are as a learned interpreter of philosophy, a philosophical person.

    However Luther didn’t open a Bible and look for a message from God in a passage and you didn’t open Satre and expect to find the answer in a chapter. You both took your philosophies as a whole.

    What might have been a greater contrast would have been to compare either Luther or you, with the decision making process of Tony Blair. According to Alistair Campbell’s diaries he often read the Bible before making important decisions. And the following extract suggests that a story in the Bible made Tony Blair CHANGE HIS MIND and make a decision contrary to opinion before, and therefore contrary to the character of who he was as a person of the Christian faith. The decision was over the invasion of Iraq which over 80% of British people opposed, with that number increasing later:

    EXTRACT from Alistair Campbell’s diaries:
    Wednesday 16 December [first day of bombing] TB was clearly having a bit of a wobble. He said he had been reading the Bible last night, as he often did when the really big decisions were on, and he had re…ad something about John the Baptist and Herod which had caused him to rethink, albeit not change his mind.

    One has to wonder what is was. Was it the head on the platter? The dancing daughter? The marital misbehaviour? Or was it Mark 6.22: “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” According to Blair’s own testimony at the Iraq Enquiry, that was pretty much what he wrote in a personal letter to Bush. And effectively he did indeed give Bush what he wanted – he gave him British troops to beef up the numbers of invaders of Iraq.

    Blair was persuaded to change his mind by reading a selected passage and apparently looking for it to speak to him directly. Was he? Blair did diminish his own sense of personal agency and individual responsibility. I’m not so sure King did. He wouldn’t have acted any differently even if he hadn’t ‘heard’ the voice, would he? Both yours and Luther’s messages were internal. I think. Perhaps I’m completely off the mark! 🙂

    1. Steph – I’m delighted you brought up Tony Blair. I think it is an important case because I feel it is very easy to be on board with consulting God if God gives what seems to us, in retrospect, to be the “right” answer. Part of my argument in the next part of this post will be precisely that I see no justified way to distinguish between what Blair was doing and what King was doing (and indeed what Bush was doing). And this, I think, raises a crucial problem, which is at the heart of my question here.

      1. ooooh… I agree there’s absolutely no difference between Bush and Blair and effectively they both read the Bible as God speaking to them through a myth of redemptive violence… sort of. And it dictated their decisions. But while they read it in a biblically literalistic fundamentalist way (and it’s important to note that Blair changed his mind, that mind which his inner self knew probably to be right), Luther didn’t hear God although he thought he did. He heard himself, as a person of faith. And you listened to yourself the end. I’ll be interested to read your next article … I don’t want you to persuade me otherwise – I like King too much!! … and Bush and Blair I liketh not.

        1. James, I’ve been thinking – not for long – because I suddenly realised I was wrong. And that’s part of it – I let you help me realise I was wrong. There is a difference between King’s decision and yours, and King’s and Blair’s are the same. While I still believe that all three of you ‘searched your souls’ so to speak, for an answer, King heard God and Blair looked to the Bible for God’s message and both interpreted their ultimate decisions as God’s advice. While King’s decision reflected who he was and what he would have decided anyway, as a person of faith, and Blair’s decision went against his natural inclination probably, neither were free to change their minds. Their authority was God. On the other hand, you were responsible for your decision which although you felt was right at the time, you could have been persuaded otherwise.

          So despite criticism of hubris for humanity taking control, if we didn’t as individuals take responsibility, we wouldn’t be free to change our minds. I don’t think I’ve been very clear here… never mind 🙂

    2. I should add, too, as I’ve realized I don’t say, is that my decision was to go back to the classroom and to try again until I made something of a success of it, which I did. I didn’t quit! So whatever little benefit my students might have got from me, they got!

      1. Well I’m relieved about that. I didn’t feel comfortable at all with you giving up and I’m quite certain you did make a success of it too! Thank you for clarifying.

  10. Let me add my insignificant little mew to the resounding chorus of appreciation for your hosting this discussion, James — and bearing with the bullseye consequences of doing so!

    I’d like to present, not as an argument but a thought, the idea that a false dichotomy may have crept in:
    “it seems just as presumptuous to assume MLK was speaking metaphorically as to assume that he is speaking literally”

    What changes if one assumes he spoke symbolically? Symbols address layers of reality which most language can’t address adequately, not even metaphor.

    The linguists and rhetoricians can tear that apart in their sleep, I’m sure, as I may be using psychological lingo that doesn’t render well in these more closely-reasoned fields. Faulty language or not, though, I’m relieved to identify this false dichotomy because it is one of the two things that most bothered me about this so-intriguing piece.

    1. Perhaps I’ll add that the second point is the assertion that “King is mistaken.” (A statement which, in its tone, may contribute to the charges of arrogance?)

      The idea that seems more fair — and that sustains your typical forward-moving thrust — sounds like, “King came to a conclusion that makes absolutely no sense to me.” Questions naturally follow which lead one forward — “Why? What coherent path of thought could have led him to state something so apparently unreasonable?” — and this is more like you, in inviting discussion and engagement.

      “Strongly stated, loosely held” — wonderfully put. I’m going to use that myself 🙂

    2. Thanks for sticking with this, Isabel. I would tend, given my philosophical background, not to separate out symbolism from metaphor but rather to say that metaphor is a particular form of symbolizing (as is the use of “literal” language, indeed). But I understand that these words are very slippery and difficult.

      To the point about King being mistaken. Well, what I actually wrote was the following:

      “At the same time, as an atheist, I am committed to the uncomfortable position that, however deeply felt Dr. King’s belief that Jesus responded to him, and however much his faith imbued him with the courage to do great deeds, he was, at root, mistaken.”

      Note the I language, the careful couching, the recognition of discomfort etc.

      Would it have been less controversial and problematic to say his position “makes no sense to me”? Absolutely. But it wouldn’t be quite the same claim.

      The problem with saying this in any other way is that it would be inauthentic. I AM committed to the idea that he was mistaken (if he is talking literally – if not, then, as I’ve said before, there’s little difference between us). This is a slightly stronger claim to saying that it “makes no sense to me”.

      So another question arises – is it actually important to make the stronger claim? Is it enough to say “it makes no sense to me”? I don’t know the answer to that.

      1. If I get the opportunity to go back to school, I think I’ll submit a copy of this thread for credit, appending a minimum 3,000-word essay on how it demonstrates the intersection of philosophy, religion, logic, linguistics, psychology, and rhetoric. I’m in heaven, above the neck.

        James, you certainly couched your most troublesome statements in the most careful language possible that was consistent with stating your thoughts precisely and accurately. It’s intriguing how thin that heavy padding seemed; it was apparently a very spiky thought (metaphorically speaking! 😉 ) to come through in such a challenging way.

        As a writer, I’m soaking all this up like mad, for the rich informaton about how intention and meaning dance with perception. But that certainly doesn’t serve your purpose, which is to answer those two questions.

        I like Jason’s and your idea of identifying these irresistible force/immovable object ideas, bracketing them, and going on to explore and discuss the area around them. Perhaps these ideas are not permanently antithetical. Moving back to metaphor, the strongest walls can be breached if your sappers dig deep enough around them.

        With even more affectionate respect than ever,

      2. Is it really more controversial to say King is mistaken, than for King to say he heard the voice of God even if we do concede that he meant it metaphorically, and knew his decision was the result of his sociocultural patterning. His faith required him to accept this decision as authoritative. I don’t see how me suggesting he was mistaken about God is more controversial than him implying his decision had divine origin. And whatever he meant, others have interpreted it literally – surely he would have had the foresight to recognise that? (And if anyone calls me self impressed, if I don’t just ignore them, I’ll suggest they look at themselves and see how full of hubris they are). I think he was mistaken too, obviously, and I think he heard his own conscience, shaped by his Christian faith. But the problem is not so much that he suggested it came from God. The problem is, because of his faith, he is not free to change his mind, whereas James is. And Blair, like King, was not free to be persuaded otherwise because he believed his faith required that decision. But even if God were true, were either of them wrong about where their messages came from? I’m sure most British Christians wouldn’t have thought Blair’s message had come from God.

        We can’t just snap our fingers and convince Blair and King their faith in God isn’t real, so how do we change their minds if we think their decision is wrong? And what about Blair? Apparently his God told him to do something which was contrary to his inclinations, but also was clearly not the right thing to do with the evidence Blair already had. Yet he still went with ‘God’. What do you say after you’ve said they’re mistaken about who spoke to them? How do you persuade them to change their (wrong) decision? That’s the problem rather than belief, for me. Debate is the only solution I suspect – specifically Oxford flavour that is.

        Have I really missed the point and gone off topic?! 😀

        for a little of what Blair knew already:

        1. oh shivers that’s a bit long winded and dull – and off topic… 🙁

  11. James, thank you for this post. I enjoyed this and several of your other recent posts that I’ve read.

    I recall being intrigued by one of Sartre’s ideas, that in determining the person/entity from whom you seek advice one is in effect making their choice. Hence Dr. King, in choosing to turn to God, acted out his own personal agency.

    I think for many thoughtful Christians (and other religions as well) the adherence to a religious community and practice is an exercise of agency. Indeed, the routine practice of prayer and worship is an intentional choice that is meant to shape the way in which one behaves at a time of crisis. Whether or not King gave up some degree of agency in this situation should be discussed in the context of his entire life and his life-long commitment to the faith.

    That said there are many people who I would agree with you hold to their beliefs in an inauthentic manner simply because they are afraid of what would happen if they did not have that as both an epistemic and moral background.

    As a sidenote, I do not find your presentation of this issue offensive and think you add a great deal to the discussion at SoF. I admire the fact that you approached the disagreement in a very straightfoward and respectful manner while not pretending in any way that it does not exist or that it is not important.


    1. “adherence to a religious community and practice is an exercise of agency.”

      Indeed it is. This helps flesh out the spiritual life in a way often missing from similar discussions — moves it back to the discussion of real behavior and beliefs rather than general assumptions. Prayer is not just prayer: Jenn’s prayer puts her back in charge of herself, Bush’s prayer (apparently) saves him the bother of ever doing so, King’s prayer — however he experienced or described it — had the effect of refocusing his attention and energy, my prayer … well, I’m still here, and that’s enough.

      This statement betrays my own pragmatic bias: I care more about what works than on whether I think it ought to. I’m fascinated by the hows and wherefores, though.

  12. The messiness of my replies above leave me wondering at this point if I had not been trying too hard to exert my own personal agency in this dialog (in other words, I suspect my responses were too much guided by ego and not by a concern for James’s difficulties, the needs of the dialog, or the needs of the others engaged in the dialog). Sometimes, I guess, it’s best to put the ego away and let our social needs lead us. In that respect I feel inclined to bow to the authority of Jason’s most recent comments — so much more eloquent than my own.

  13. I sense someone has already said, “The End” to this string of comments, so it’s sacrilege for me to chime in once more! I’ve been reading your deep, wise, honest, flawed, apologetic, caring, curious words on my little mobile phone from the hospital, and I don’t know whether that has made the comment string more or less intimidating. Regardless, I was rereading my own State of Formation posts tonight, as the campus where I work is about to run a feature on my involvement tomorrow. I came across this passage from an earlier post, and in some way it reminded me of where this conversation is landing–putting away ego, seeking for what we share–in short, being in a real relationship with one another. Thanks to James for writing a post that at last prompted us to engage in true dialogue–messy, uncomfortable, and just the reason I believe most of us are here.

    Without further comment, here’s my brief passage from (en)gendering dialogue:

    If I know what you think about when you’re alone–what scares you when you think about those you love moving through an uncertain world–what generates pride in who you are and where you’ve come from, I can wade in to the conversation with comfort. Typically, any potential defense is set aside. I can be curious about how you think as you do, and the experiences that have shaped your ideas that are both like and unlike mine. We are in a relationship–the home of dialogue, for me. And, sometimes, if we enter that home in just the right way, or we share it for just the right amount of time, a miracle takes place–the relationship becomes what is real, and any conflicts or controversies that might have previously framed our coming together suddenly cease to matter. In essence, I find more I can say, “Same!” to than I find that sets us apart.

    1. Thank you, Jennifer. Beautifully said. Perhaps even our all too human failings have a purpose in good dialog.

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