Letter from Mark van Steenwyk II

by Luke Muehlhauser on October 18, 2009 in Guest Post,Letters

The editor of Christian webzine the Jesus Manifesto, Mark van Steenwyk, has been exchanging a series of letters with me. My first letter to him and his first letter to me were published on our own websites, but now we are going to post our letters to each other’s websites. So my second letter to Mark is over here, and Mark’s second letter to me is below.

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Dear Luke,

You ask: “What is [my] Mere Christianity?”

It is a bit of a challenge for me to answer that. I hold some convictions more closely…more centrally. However, I don’t like defining which are the “non-negotiables” because the listing of such “non-negotiables” often implies that the things that don’t make the list are expendable. It is like asking: “Which parts of a human body are most basic” or “which parts of a car engine are the most basic,” etc.

I can, however, try to share what convictions I hold the most dearly–which beliefs are at the center of understanding my other beliefs. And so, at this stage of my life, these are central to my understanding of God:

  1. The Divine exists in community.
  2. Jesus Christ reveals the Divine to the world, and God is present in Jesus Christ.
  3. All that exists is created, sustained, and moving towards the Divine.
  4. The “church” reveals Jesus to the world, and Jesus is present in the world through the church.
  5. There is no church outside the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed, because Christ is present uniquely in their sufferings.
  6. The church is made up of all who participate in the Divine community, who have experienced the Divine, know the Divine, and are known by the Divine.
  7. The life, teachings, death, resurrection, ascension, and continued presence of Christ by the Holy Spirit are historical realities that tell the church who they are in relation to the Divine and in relation to the world and in relation to one other.
  8. The life, teachings, death, resurrection, ascension, and continued presence of Christ are only properly understood as the acts of nonviolent Divine love.
  9. We, the church, by the power of the Holy Spirit, are to follow Jesus’ way of life and his teachings. We are to willingly enter the brokenness of the world and, like Christ, redemptively suffer so that all may be reconciled to God, one another, and creation.
  10. As we continue to participate in the Divine community–being empowered by the Spirit, in the way of Christ, towards God–we will experience resurrection and life everlasting.

I may be forgetting something, and this certainly isn’t exhaustive. However, I think it gives an accurate snapshot of those convictions that are at the center of my way of thinking.

You ask: “By ‘truth’ do you mean ‘that which corresponds to reality,’ or something else?”

Sure. But “truth” is a very elusive, dynamic, thing. It is elusive because our assumptions, presuppositions, and desires make it impossible to be objective. It is dynamic because it is constantly in flux. And our own participation in reality constantly changes that reality.

So, saying “truth corresponds to reality” may be an ok way of putting things, but it seems unhelpful. It doesn’t get at the complexity of grabbing a hold of truth or the seeming impossibility of grabbing a hold of truth. Unlike many postmodern thinkers, I don’t reject objective truth. But, like Marx, I understand how knowledge has been twisted by those in power.

So, I have a couple follow up questions for you:

1) Is there ever room for a “leap of faith?” In other words, is it ever good to accept or act on something without evidence?

2) Is there any wisdom in evaluating belief systems for their effects, rather than for the rationality of their beliefs? For example: I may disagree with certain religious sects, but can recognize the beauty and outcome of their way of life. How does one evaluate such belief systems?

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{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

Sabio Lantz October 18, 2009 at 9:28 am

As an atheist, I am going to answer “yes” and “yes” for Mark’s questions – though we all await Luke’s reply. I feel that acting without evidence is often essential — even for survival. And I agree that beliefs should be weighed by their effects. I am pretty sure many atheists will disagree — and some, for nontrivial reasons. Prior to reading this I exploratively labeled my position on this: Cognitive Mysticism.

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IntelligentDasein October 18, 2009 at 9:30 am

This guy is so much easier to comprehend than Vox.

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Beelzebub October 18, 2009 at 1:04 pm

It’s good to read from a Christian and not have a visceral response. It gives me “faith” that I’m not just a rabid anti-Christian but actually am more driven by the socio-political attitude of fundamentalism. While I may still not believe Christianity, I’m far more sanguine to Mark’s Christianity than Vox Day’s. At the risk of starting an internecine battle, it would be interesting to hear what Mark thinks of Vox Day Christianity.

I, personally, would answer 1) with yes. The spirit of exploration, for instance, is a leap of faith without much evidence. Certainly the European global explorers had no knowledge that they would return alive from their expeditions. I’ve read that Neil Armstrong and his crew gave themselves a 50% chance of making it to the moon and back alive. Exploration and discovery are acts of faith.

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J Wahler October 18, 2009 at 4:24 pm

Good healthy conversation here. Still suffers egregiously though from ambiguous ‘Jesus-Jargon’, with terms like “divine community”, “brokenness of the world”, “reconciled to God”, it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish it from a satirical Alan Sokal version of the so-called ‘Emergent Church’. Its notable though that Mark answers an explicit affirmative for the resurrection and ascension of Jesus of Nazareth…a far cry from the less than straight forwardness of a Vox Day.
A hugely contentious and pertinent question asked here at the end by Mark, the classic sort of W. James pragmatist argument of utility over truth value. A question of innate “moral intuition” that may have found its superfluousness in responses from literature like Zuckerman’s “Societies Without Gods” and Hauser’s “Moral Minds”. But, whether or not those of us who’ve had the ‘accident of birth’ to be born ‘christian (or generally religious)’ and then denconvert and be as “moral” as we had once been, seems to be an empirical sort of question. An answer I’d find enormously interesting.

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Hermes October 18, 2009 at 7:48 pm

Mark, I answer yes to both of your questions. As you know, details mater.

#1 – Intuition and giving the benefit of the doubt are necessary for living, though I will add that if there is no effort to examine a decision the chance of being mislead by others or by your own biases increases. I put no restrictions on those statements and freely admit they apply to religious and non-religious questions. If you have not read Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, I highly recommend it, as it shows many subtleties not covered by my brief comments.

#2 – From what Luke has said about your own efforts, I would say that they are a positive force in the world. Yet, to be specific about religion, there are the good deeds you perform (possibly in the name of Christianity) and the bad deeds others perform explicitly in the name of Christianity. The sad fact is that the impact of a bad deed can swamp any good that comes out of a good deed. When religious belief as a whole is examined, I think it is a net negative. My assessment is based on research performed by others and my own investigations. A summary of that research is available here, including databases that can be used to perform your own research;

http://whywontgodhealamputees.com/forums/index.php?topic=2076

Important: I am not saying that all religious actions end negatively. Neither am I saying that using secular methods only always return positive results. I am also not saying that all societies will be harmed by religion as some may benefit from it more than others.

What I am saying, though, is that *in toto* religion seems to be a net negative on society because of the data on societies. As such, the default consideration that religion is always a positive force is not justified and may lead to more suffering and bad influences than it addresses. I would say that if I were to bet, I would bet that is the case.

If everyone were like you and Ken Miller I would have zero concerns about Christians and Christianity. I would consider all of them to be allies working towards a better future. Yet, there are many bad actors in the Christian camp and those actors tend to be the spokespeople for larger religious institutions and sects.

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Mark Van Steenwyk October 18, 2009 at 9:20 pm

Sorry for the “Jesus Jargon.” Actually, I’m not sorry. All of the words I’ve used can have specific and concrete meaning in the right context. I would have liked to define them if anyone is interested, but I’m assuming that J Wahler (above) isn’t interested in the very real ways I understand “divine community” or “brokenness of the world.” :)

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Mark Van Steenwyk October 18, 2009 at 9:32 pm

Hermes: I don’t dispute that “*in toto* religion seems to be a net negative on society…” though religion is still so largely universal that it would be hard to prove your statement. Nevertheless, I suspect that it is true. I don’t believe just any-old religion will do. I’m not interested in abstract religion, or even Christianity as a whole. In fact, I think that (to borrow from Jacques Ellul) in order to affirm Christ it is almost necessary to subvert Christianity. Christianity (or, to be more precise, Christendom) is certainly partly responsible for a lot of what sucks in the world today. That isn’t to say that, if the world were to adopt atheism, it would be better. To me, the problems begin whenever any human grouping begins to define itself in a way that legitimizes their dominance of another. There are ways to get at this besides religion–like racism and nationalism.

So, while one might suggest doing away with religion to make the world a better place, I think it is more helpful to ask “what types of religion or spirituality can actually subvert this dominating tendency?”

It is profoundly disheartening that Christianity bears so little resemblance to Christ. That isn’t to say that Christ is/was safe and easy to understand. However, I think one must be misguided to see within Jesus a justification for war, genocide, murder, oppression, etc. Rather, he calls us to subvert such things as we love our enemies, welcome the stranger, embrace the marginalized, and seek the way of peace.

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Jake de Backer October 18, 2009 at 10:44 pm

Mark,

I’d be interested in your thoughts on John Shelby Spong and that markedly distinct sect of Christianity; Episcopalianism.

It seems if Jesus is your drug of choice, the Episcopal church can offer it to you without the almost inevitably harmful side-effects coinciding with the use of Catholic Jesus, Orthodox Jesus, Pentecostal Jesus, Lutheran Jesus, etc. e.g. Committing to a form of logic where 3 = 1, Endorsement of cannibalism (or as they’d prefer it called, Communion), paying for the pointy-hat’s, the sash, the robes, the golden goblet’s, the jewelry, you know for a group of people who hate Liberace.. I digress.

I haven’t read a lot of dialogue here on that sect and if you, or any reader, has any thoughts, I’d certainly be interested.

Regards
J.

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eric October 18, 2009 at 10:58 pm

“faith” is a very sticky subject in these religious/irreligious discussions, and i’ve always found the phrase “leap of faith” to be misleading. it often conjures images of closing your eyes and just going for it, but that is simply hopeful, or even self destructive, risk taking. certainly Neil Armstrong giving himself a 50% chance of returning from the moon demonstrates a clear lack of faith that he would return, but an incredible sense of courage and curiosity in the face of some very dangerous odds.
a christian with faith in their god would state 100% certainty that god exists.

theists may claim that an atheist has faith in science, but this faith seems better described as “trust” in the institution of science (which we know, absolutely, makes mistakes and occasionally lies to us. out trust is not absolute), and a rational recognition that the scientific method is probably the best way to test, discover and develop natural theories about our observable universe.
i would say that a “faith” that is more truly analogous to the theist’s faith enters the atheists life in the experience of love. when in love, we feel and believe in our lover’s reciprocal love, even when there is no evidence for it… even when there is tragic evidence that it almost certainly doesn’t exist.
i’m compelled more to this line of thought by my experiences of christians emphasizing the importance of “falling in love with god/christ.”
though i think the comparison falls apart a bit when we realise that people don’t often live their entire lives loving without evidence of a reciprocal love. which brings the issue back to the phrase “leap of faith”, which indicates a single decision based on feelings, rather than evidence, but this does not describe the theist’s situation, which is more of a lifelong march than a single leap.

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Beelzebub October 18, 2009 at 11:27 pm


certainly Neil Armstrong giving himself a 50% chance of returning from the moon demonstrates a clear lack of faith that he would return, but an incredible sense of courage and curiosity in the face of some very dangerous odds.

I guess that’s true by the dictionary definition of faith, but I think religious faith is counter to any kind of odds.

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Beelzebub October 19, 2009 at 12:05 am

–which is not to say Armstrong was invoking religious faith, tho perhaps he was. It’s striking how many Astronauts wax religiously philosophic upon hitting orbit.

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Sabio Lantz October 19, 2009 at 2:29 am

Wait, I want to question the empirical cause-effect claim that, “*in toto* religion seems to be a net negative on society because of the data on societies”.

I thought that religiosity is shown to grown in unstable, insecure environments. Not the other way around. Besides, such a claim would be very hard to measure. Imagine saying “drugs are in toto – negative” and quote accidental deaths by drugs. Can’t we first divide into good and bad use before we try to talk about drugs, or guns, or sex?

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Hermes October 19, 2009 at 4:29 am

Mark, thanks for your thoughtful reply. Two comments…

I. I agree with your general sentiment. At a minimum, Christian institutions are due for some substantial reforms. Unfortunately, the good work you do and others do is frequently used as cover for the bad deeds that are done in the name of Christianity. When I point out some of those bad deeds, the reply is almost always ‘but look at the good’. Because of that, I’ve switched entirely to asking what Christians will do about the bad deeds of other Christians done in the name of Christianity.

As a secondary problem, many of those bad deeds that concern me are things that many Christians enthusiastically support. Because of that, I no longer dwell on my list of what I think are bad deeds and simply ask if the other person has their own concerns. This, also, is frequently fruitless though a few people have said they are in their local church governing body and have brought these concerns up with their local church officials. While your good deeds and the actions of a few individuals to stop the bad deeds are a step in the right direction, it’s simply not enough for me to give Christianity in general a pass. I would be negligent if I did nothing to try and drain the swamp by convincing people that Christianity at it’s core is not tenable or even admirable. I don’t expect that to correct all wrongs, but from the data I’ve examined it looks like it is a step in the right direction as a practical measure before even issues of philosophical correctness are addressed.

II. If you have a moment, take a look at the link I posted above and at a minimum the videos in the first couple posts. If you are more curious, use the raw databases or just snag them for later use. If you know of any others similar to these, please post them as I’m constantly expanding the list. Currently, I’m referencing these;

General statistics on regional populations
International – http://www.nationmaster.com
USA only – http://www.statemaster.com

International religious statistics
http://adherents.com

U.S. Religious Landscape Survey
http://religions.pewforum.org

United Nations: Statistics of the Human Development Report
http://hdr.undp.org/en/statistics/

Vision of Humanity
http://www.visionofhumanity.org/gpi/home.php

World Values Survey
http://www.worldvaluessurvey.org/

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ayer October 19, 2009 at 4:39 am

Jake de Backer: “I’d be interested in your thoughts on John Shelby Spong and that markedly distinct sect of Christianity; Episcopalianism.”

Actually, Spong’s Episcopalianism would keep the pointy hats, etc., and other accoutrements of high-church liturgical Anglicanism. The problem is that he denies the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, which is the core of the Apostles and Nicene Creeds and which Mark has affirmed. Spong’s “religion” is simply secularism with a “spiritual” veneer.

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Sabio Lantz October 19, 2009 at 4:42 am

being Atheist, I tend to agree with ayer. Spong has a career as a religious specialist, he did not want to give that up no matter if the core of his beliefs changed.

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Hermes October 19, 2009 at 5:37 am

Sabio Lantz, RE: “*in toto*” comment; check the link from my earlier post. It has quite a few details that I’d be glad to discuss with you there. For the most part, you can compare apples to apples checking the data yourself. No mater what reality is, I’d like to know what it is or if that is impossible to have a good idea about what it probably is.

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ayer October 19, 2009 at 6:05 am

Hermes: “What I am saying, though, is that *in toto* religion seems to be a net negative on society because of the data on societies.”

Just saw this interview on C-Span (11 minute clip below) with atheist S.E. Cupp who offers a strikingly opposite view of religion’s influence:

http://vodpod.com/watch/2361044-s-e-cupp-a-conservative-atheist

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Sabio October 19, 2009 at 6:05 am

Hermes, I went to your link. My question of causality remains. Can’t it be that unstable, unsafe societies are fertile ground for religious societies to flourish. The question is which causes which? Do you have a study that points to the causal direction of religion makes unstable?

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Hermes October 19, 2009 at 6:57 am

Sabio, could it be that unsafe societies spawn higher levels of religiosity and theism? Sure. That’s a proposition I’d accept without any argument.

Yet, it’s not what I’m saying nor is it what the studies show. Check the similar countries not the ones that are in war zones vs. ones that are a thousand miles away. Say, first world ‘Western countries’ (USA, Canada, Europe, Australia, and Japan). Why is the USA so far down the scale for so many issues such as education and crime? Why do more religious people tend to divorce more frequently? Is it strictly economics or is there something else going on? I’d appreciate learning really what the main factors are in a more robust set of studies.

Focus in on the USA specifically and look from state to state. Check the Statemaster (USA) database against the PEW and Adherence databases. While correlation does not necessarily mean causation, even within the USA there is a definite trend. Is it proof? No, but it shows that the often cited opposite claim that religion is a force for good overall is not supported at all, meanwhile the healthiest societies tend to have lower numbers of people who identify as religious.

If religious people can make a claim that their religion is beneficial, why can’t I make a counter claim and drop all the data available on them to get them to either prove it or admit it just ain’t so? Does this make sense?

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Hermes October 19, 2009 at 8:03 am

Ayer, I never heard of her. I’m a registered Republican with libertarian leanings (though not one). The Republicans were the sane party at one time. No more. [ completed the program ] I didn’t see how it applies to the issues I brought up. Why did you waste my time with this?

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J Wahler October 19, 2009 at 9:15 am

Mark, I meant nothing disparaging by ‘Jesus Jargon’, only that some of your concepts and phrases are better understood by those who already hold them (in this case ‘emergent’ Christians). I’m actually very interested in you extrapolating the very real referents you hint at by ‘divine community’ and ‘being reconciled’, as I think Luke is as well. Also very interested in knowing about how you reconcile critical gospel/Jesus scholarship with the tenet of belief that necessarily requires having a high degree of certainty with regards to the supposed doings and sayings of a first century carpenter. Thanks Mark, look forward to your future dialogs with Luke.

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Mark Van Steenwyk October 19, 2009 at 11:08 am

Jake: I try not to think about Spong. Personally, I find him to be an unrooted revisionist. I could be wrong, since I’ve only read bits and pieces of his stuff. Regarding Episcopalianism: Spong doesn’t represent the whole of the denomination. I’ve found Episcopalians to have all the same sorts of flaws and strengths as the other reformation traditions: Lutheranism, Presbyterianism, Methodism, etc. With the exception of Methodism, I tend to think the Mainline Protestants have rejected oppression in spite of (rather than because of) their traditions. There are specific exceptions. The same could be said for Catholicism, but I find that it is important to recognize the different traditions within Catholicism (Franciscan Mendicantism, the Catholic Worker, and others) that have largely been prophetic correctives to the ills of Christendom. My own tradition, the Anabaptists, make horrible mistakes some times, but I would also like to think that we have, for the most part, resisted some of the oppressive qualities of Christendom.

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Hermes October 19, 2009 at 12:58 pm

Mark, it looks like a filter trashed my earlier reply. I’ll leave it at thank you, and I wish you good fortune in your efforts to do good. It is appreciated.

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MountainKing October 29, 2009 at 7:01 am

“1) Is there ever room for a “leap of faith?” In other words, is it ever good to accept or act on something without evidence?”

As previously mentioned, one could easily imagine some kind of real-life-situation that forces you to react on instinct. The same rule would apply to a religion or thinking system that specifically claims that theres no evidence for the things to believe. But thats just not the case if you look at the monotheistic religions that define god as an agent constantly interfering with the world we live in. There should be evidence but there isnt.
To rephrase your question: is it ever good to accept or act on something without evidence if you had the time and opportunity to get and check that evidence?

“Is there any wisdom in evaluating belief systems for their effects, rather than for the rationality of their beliefs? For example: I may disagree with certain religious sects, but can recognize the beauty and outcome of their way of life. How does one evaluate such belief systems?”

Hm, I don´t really understand the question. You´re basically saying that you think the sects teachings are irrational but their actions are good. In that case you already evaluated that belief system by comparing it to yours and found out: the theory is different but the practice fits what I consider good. What else is there to evaluate? Do you mean that good actions suggest that there might be something more than irrational thinking to the belief?

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