I've been in dialogue with an atheist this past week. He came from a Christian family and was a Christian himself until about ten years ago. He is very polite and honest but militantly against Christianity. He believes that no deity could possibly be more tyrannical than the biblical God, and he's convinced that all religion is brainwashing. Furthermore, Christians are guilty of cognitive dissonance.
During the course of the conversation, he told me that nobody in his family has seemed very concerned about his soul in the past few years, and although that didn't bother him, it was proof that it wasn't real to them. But he admired Christians like myself on the strength of our convictions. I asked him why, if he thought Christianity was brainwashing, he admired those who were more fully brainwashed. I reminded him that to him Christianity was not just a perspective he disagreed with but "a huge brainwashing operation." So presumably the less we internalize it, the better, right? Did I detect some "cognitive dissonance"?
My husband Rick questioned the wisdom of taking a compliment and using it against someone to win an argument, which got me thinking about whether theological debate ever wins any converts at all. Does any unbeliever ever say, "That's an excellent point. Thank you so much for pointing out the flaws in my reasoning. I believe now"? There's usually so much ego in those discussions that it seems virtually impossible to persuade.
Then it occurred to me that all my encounters with atheists in the past year had one common denominator: Even though they had rejected Christianity, they all had a very sensitive radar for whether it was real to someone who professed it. In fact, some of them were very honest about that, and when they determined that it was real, they actually asked questions.
That makes sense to me. When it comes right down to it, only a few questions really matter to them in those discussions: Does the biblical God exist? Is he good? And does he have the power to save souls in a way that is noticeable to the world? The most compelling evidence for God is his love in a human heart because it answers all those questions affirmatively, at least as a starting point. But when the discussion turns into debate, people immediately classify it as two egos wrangling over words, and it's over. Few things are more human, and less divine, than that.
I think that when this man talked about the "strength of my convictions," he really meant that my faith looked real to him. That would have been a good time to leave it alone and declare a small victory, instead of proving to him with my arguments that I was no different from anyone else.
I should have taken the words of 2 Timothy 2:23-25 more seriously: "But refuse foolish and ignorant speculations, knowing that they produce quarrels. The Lord's bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition."
It is so easy to take the words of life and use them as a dagger, doing more harm than good. All we have to do is look at the Inquisition and other less-than-glorious moments of church history to see that this is one of Satan's most powerful weapons.
We may think we're immune to that, but those words turn into a weapon whenever the ego takes over. One of the pastors at our church said that the opposite of love is not hate but Self, and I think he's right. The ego is always a barrier to God's love working through us. And every human soul bears the imprint of its Creator and therefore recognizes his love.
What a difference it would make if we always remembered that.