Letter to Mark van Steenwyk I

by Luke Muehlhauser on October 3, 2009 in Christian Theology,General Atheism,Letters

mark_van_steenwykAlongside my ongoing exchange of letters with Christian blogger Vox Day, I will now exchange letters with Mark van Steenwyk, editor of the Jesus Manifesto. Mark was a mentor to me shortly before my deconversion. I think of him as a highly moral person, and I interviewed him for my podcast here. He is also a leader in the New Monasticism movement; his group is called Missio Dei. (As you will see, Mark is a very different kind of Christian than Vox Day is.) As in my exchange with Vox Day, we will try to avoid the usual arguments for and against the existence of God. Below is my opening letter to Mark.

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Mark,

I’m so glad you agreed to this dialogue! I always enjoy speaking with you, and I hold you in the highest regard.

You probably don’t spend much time examining your basic beliefs about God – for example whether he exists or whether Jesus was resurrected in 1st century Palestine. Most of your work seems to be focused on how to live out the compassionate servanthood of Jesus in a world dominated by power struggles and empire. (Somehow I imagine we share an admiration for Noam Chomsky and Mohandas Gandhi.) Those are important topics, but for now I’d like to pull you back toward an examination of the rational warrant for your most basic beliefs about magical beings and their interaction with the physical universe.

You are an intelligent and highly educated Christian. But I think an honest and open look at the world around us should compel intelligent people to conclude that the Christian God does not exist. When I began to study the Historical Jesus and philosophy of religion, every fiber of my being resisted the doubts these studies cast upon my faith. But in the end I chose honesty, and I could not honestly say that I had good reasons to believe the Christian God exists. Mark, I don’t think you’re dishonest in your quest for truth (though many Christians and atheists are), but I do suspect that your feelings and relationships prohibit you from examining the grounds of your faith fairly.

That said, I’m not sure I’m out to deconvert you. Given how much your Christian beliefs motivate your moral choices, I wonder if you’re better for the world believing in Jesus than not.

You’ve said before that you’re a Christian because of your inner experience of Jesus and also because of “the aesthetics of belief.” I suspect there are other reasons, too. Since there are so many varieties of Christian theism, would you please outline for me (1) which propositions of basic Christian theism you affirm, and (2) why you believe these propositions are true?

Also, how do your beliefs about God inform your sense of meaning and purpose in life? What does the Christian life mean to you?

I will be happy to answer the same questions for myself, or else you are free to pose your own questions to me. I leave that up to you.

Cheers!

Luke

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{ 31 comments… read them below or add one }

Taranu October 4, 2009 at 7:06 am

Luke, I know this is off topic, but there is a question bugging me since I finished reading Pagan Christianity by Viola and Barna and I was wondering if you could help me. Could the early Church have survived in it’s nonhierarchical way (I mean without borrowing from the pagans) or is it the case that the Church wasn’t made to endure for long because the Second Coming was imminent?

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tinyfrog October 4, 2009 at 9:43 am

It’s too bad you haven’t done any podcasts since May.

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lukeprog October 4, 2009 at 10:33 am

Taranu,

Sorry, I don’t know much about that topic.

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lukeprog October 4, 2009 at 10:36 am

tinyfrog,

Podcasts take a lot of work, but thanks for your interest. I’m editing two more episodes right now.

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IntelligentDasein October 4, 2009 at 1:00 pm

I do not think it could have. Almost all religions have depended heavily on syncretism in the past for survival.

Taranu: Luke, I know this is off topic, but there is a question bugging me since I finished reading Pagan Christianity by Viola and Barna and I was wondering if you could help me. Could the early Church have survived in it’s nonhierarchical way (I mean without borrowing from the pagans) or is it the case that the Church wasn’t made to endure for long because the Second Coming was imminent?

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tinyfrog October 4, 2009 at 3:22 pm

Great. I like your podcasts. I realize it was a bit off topic to bring up podcasts, but it was something that crossed by mind when you mentioned a conversation with Mark Van Steenwyk.

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Thordaddy October 5, 2009 at 2:00 am

Luke,

When you speak of “magical beings,” the implication is that you are invoking entities that do not exist. If this is the case, how was the notion of “magical beings” introduced into a material universe? Remember, because “magical beings” DO NOT exist, this is, according to science, evidence that no empirical evidence for such a thing exists. So how is it that you are discussing such a thing?

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lukeprog October 5, 2009 at 6:45 am

Thordaddy: When you speak of “magical beings,” the implication is that you are invoking entities that do not exist. If this is the case, how was the notion of “magical beings” introduced into a material universe? Remember, because “magical beings” DO NOT exist, this is, according to science, evidence that no empirical evidence for such a thing exists. So how is it that you are discussing such a thing?

Since when is there an implication that magical beings do not exist? The vast majority of all people in history have believed in magic.

If magic is non-physical, then I would expect we cannot measure it scientifically. But if this magic interacts with the physical world, we can certainly measure its effects. This would be yet another invisible thing that has measurable impacts on the world, and we could test various intentional explanations against the data. See Theism and Explanation.

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Ben October 5, 2009 at 7:23 am

lukeprog: I’m editing two more episodes right now.

Sweet.

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C.D. October 5, 2009 at 9:01 am

I noticed the structure for your introduction letters has drastically changed. I guess it’s only natural after making assumptions and getting hammered for it in your last intro letter.

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Mark Van Steenwyk October 5, 2009 at 10:09 am

Hey Luke, my response is up: http://www.jesusmanifesto.com/2009/10/a-letter-to-common-sense-atheist-part-1/

C.D. The structure for the letter is probably different because Luke knows me fairly well. He doesn’t need to make assumptions. :)

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Penneyworth October 5, 2009 at 12:16 pm

Hi Mark,
I listened to your interview with Lewk again trying to figure out whether or not you believe in Heaven and Hell, and whether there are rules for admittance, but I couldn’t tell. (I cant read your response letter because my company has blocked your website but I can still get to lewk’s site for some reason.) It seems to me that if worshiping Jesus and following certain rituals to get into heaven are not the issue, when throwing out religion altogether in one’s quest to live a peaceful life, was there really a baby in that bathwater? Can’t I just say “somebody somewhere once thought non-violence was the way to go, and I’m going to follow that path too.”? Do the vague teachings of Jesus really inspire these ideas of peace that you advocate? It seems to me that you are the real source of this goodness, and you project it onto Jesus, but you could project it onto Peter Pan or Mark Twain just as easily. Anyway, I think ur awesome and I would join your commune if I lived in Minneapolis. But what about heaven and hell?

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CharlesP October 5, 2009 at 1:28 pm

Mark, while I found your response to be unconvincing, it at least didn’t have the @#$% tone that Vox Day’s did (and I’m questioning why Luke chose him to attempt a dialogue with in the first place). While I say it was unconvincing I do find it to be interesting and relate-able (I’m in a similar deconverted realm as Luke), especially as it seems close to some of the philosophizing of some of my still christian friends. In much the way I’m not convinced by the Dalai Llama to convert to Tibetan Buddhism, I find the concept of a person living a “good life” to be a more compelling reason to examine how they’re living and what they’re doing than to buy into the belief system that might gird their philosophical/ethical/moral framework.

As an aside/addition to Pennyworth’s question it seems that Mark Kurlansky’s book Nonviolence would be an interesting one to look at for that discussion.

(I think there’s another comparison I want to make about specific athletes/exercise and healthy living vs specific religion & moral living… but I’m not ready to put it to words just yet).

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Thordaddy October 5, 2009 at 3:49 pm

Luke,

You say,

…pull you back toward an examination of the rational warrant for your most basic beliefs about magical beings and their interaction with the physical universe.

In this context, “magical beings” is euphemism for God. Being a self-proclaimed atheist, you ASSERT the non-existence of “magical beings.” This belief almost certainly is derived from the materialist scientist’s assertion of “no empirical evidence” for magical beings, i.e., God.

The question becomes how are you able
to speak of non-existent magical beings without the benefit of empirical evidence?

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lukeprog October 5, 2009 at 4:15 pm

Penneyworth: I cant read your response letter because my company has blocked your website but I can still get to lewk’s site for some reason.

What, are you in Communist China??? :)

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lukeprog October 5, 2009 at 4:36 pm

Thordaddy: The question becomes how are you able
to speak of non-existent magical beings without the benefit of empirical evidence?

Yes, I assert that magical beings do not exist, for many and strong reasons.

But I don’t understand your question. I can speak about magical beings the same way I can talk about Luke Skywalker.

I’m not sure I would call the phrase “magical beings” a euphemism for “God.” If anything, it is a dysphemism for “God.”

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Ben October 5, 2009 at 4:39 pm

lukeprog: I can speak about magical beings the same way I can talk about Luke Skywalker.

And that’s how we know Jedi-ism is true. Because you are able to put the topic in complete sentences. ;)

Ben

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Thordaddy October 5, 2009 at 8:02 pm

Luke,

You can talk of Luke Skywalker because ALL the empirical evidence George Lucas needed was to be found in this material universe and the conceptualization he brought forward has penetrated your personal knowledge bank. The answer though calls forth the question of logical regress. If it were, as you say, a simple matter of speaking of God because others spoke of Him before you then what of the first speaker of God? How do you explain OOG (origin of God)? You assert the conceiving of the inconceivable and doubly so by asserting “no empirical evidence for existence of God.”

You assert the “Inconceivable Delusion.” A logical impossibility.

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lukeprog October 5, 2009 at 8:24 pm

Thordaddy,

Are you giving Descartes’ trademark argument? Is that what you’re trying to say?

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Thordaddy October 5, 2009 at 9:28 pm

Luke,

I don’t think so…

I assume that all that exists is the material world and man and his ideas are the product of evolutionary mechanics. I assume the scientist’s assertion that “no empirical evidence exists for the existence of God” and the atheist’s claim that “God does not exist.”

By accepting your worldview, a simple question springs forth and it is how did the Originator of God (OOG) do it…? Conceive the inconceivable without benefit of empirical evidence?

Do you posit the “Inconceivable Delusion?” Is this an evolutionary advantage?

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Mark Van Steenwyk October 5, 2009 at 10:14 pm

Hey folks, it would be swell if you post comments directed to me on Jesusmanifesto.com (unless, for some strange reason, it is blocked) :)

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Mark Van Steenwyk October 5, 2009 at 10:26 pm

Pennyworth:

Whether or not I believe in “heaven” or “hell” depends upon how you define them. I believe that our continued existence into forever-ness as we participate in the Divine nature is dependent upon a transformative relationship with Christ. That doesn’t mean that “if you don’t believe X and Y and do Z you are going to hell.”

One’s religious conviction need not be dependent upon an afterlife. After all, Judaism was, until the 2nd Temple period, largely absent of a belief in the afterlife.

There is more to Jesus than ethics. And his teachings aren’t all that vague. They are mostly vague to modern USAmericans because of our “distance” from the place and time of those teachings.

Even if I granted that Jesus was just some normal dude (like Gandhi–if he could be normal), I would still say it is strange to assume that I’d be projecting my goodness upon him. Relationships–even with the dead–are somewhat mutual. Can someone who emulates a Gandhi really arrive at personal goodness without Gandhi? If I am good because Christ inspires me, did I really get it on my own?

But I am convinced that my experience of Christ goes way beyond the admiration of a dead saint. I have experiences–even if others call them delusions–of a living Christ who is present in the midst of my own struggles to pursue beauty, goodness, and truth.

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Penneyworth October 6, 2009 at 6:24 am

Thanks for your response mark, i’ll make sure to remember to post on your site when I get home and am free form these totalitarians who seem to think I ought to be doing what’s in my job description…

lewk, it’s worse than china… it’s the bible belt. I guess they have all these christian sites blocked because they figure jesus is the greatest web-surfing temptation for all the little preened fat ladies with mullets who work the phones.

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Roman October 6, 2009 at 8:12 am

Hi Luke,

I actually AM in Communist China, and I can read both your blog and jesusmanifesto fine.

Anyway, keep up the good work, your blog is excellent.

Thanks.

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Jeff H October 6, 2009 at 9:33 am

Thordaddy: Luke,I don’t think so…I assume that all that exists is the material world and man and his ideas are the product of evolutionary mechanics.I assume the scientist’s assertion that “no empirical evidence exists for the existence of God” and the atheist’s claim that “God does not exist.”By accepting your worldview, a simple question springs forth and it is how did the Originator of God (OOG) do it…?Conceive the inconceivable without benefit of empirical evidence?Do you posit the “Inconceivable Delusion?” Is this an evolutionary advantage?

If I’m understanding your question correctly, it’s fairly simple, really. All you need to do is take characteristics that exist and then mix and match them. For example, we know what horses are, and we know what horns are, so we put them together, and voila – a unicorn! We’ve arrived at something that has never existed, with no evidence for it at all, and yet we can come up with it anyway.

Same thing with God (well, similar). Our notions of God today, mind you, are much different than the God/gods thousands of years ago. If you want to think of spirits, all you need is an idea of a being, but a being without a physical body. If you want to come up with the idea of gods such as the Greeks did, they were very much like human beings, just with extra strength, power, special abilities, etc. Even the God of the Hebrews was very anthropomorphic. Is it so hard to think that God is just a person minus a body?

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ayer October 6, 2009 at 10:19 am

Jeff H: Conceive the inconceivable without benefit of empirical evidence?Do you posit the “Inconceivable Delusion?” Is this an evolutionary advantage?

The fact that our cognitive faculties evolved to produce belief in God is a good example of why, on evolutionary naturalism, we can have no confidence that our faculties are capable of truth-attainment, rather than just adapted for survival; because assuming God does not exist (as atheists do), humans have evolved to embrace a false belief. Yet this false belief has provided a survival advantage (by providing a comforting illusion against the harsh reality of the cold, cruel world, perhaps?)

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Thordaddy October 6, 2009 at 11:32 am

Luke,

Horse and horns are examples of empirical evidence. The correct analogy would be to conceive of unicorns without benefit of horse and horns.

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lukeprog October 6, 2009 at 6:32 pm

Roman,

Good to know, thanks for checking.

What part of China?

I was out there a few years ago. Love the food (which is not at all like the “Chinese food” we have in the USA), hate the pollution.

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Roman October 6, 2009 at 9:29 pm

Thanks for getting back to me Luke.

I am living in Hunan province. The food here is very spicy but I have gotten used to it now. It’s also very different to the Chinese food we have in England (where I’m from).

I know what you mean about the pollution!

Where did you go in China?

Anyway, I enjoy your blog and I like your openness to being wrong. It’s a quality which I haven’t seen that much on blogs. So thanks again!

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lukeprog October 7, 2009 at 2:15 am

Roman,

I was in Beijing, briefly, and then on the North Korean border looking at the ‘propaganda towns’ on the North Korean side.

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Thordaddy October 8, 2009 at 3:11 am

Luke,

It seems to me that like most self-avowed atheists, you like others, tend not to see the fact that you invoke God before rejecting Him as non-existent via your atheist persona. When you speak of deconverting, you aren’t just rejecting the “Christian God” but God Himself. You are a strict materialist. Yet, you have not the courage of your conviction.

If this is a purely material universe with human life submissive to the mechanics of Evolution then the emergence of a conceptual God conceived by a singular individual at a particular point in time into this universe is explained HOW by materialist understandings?

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