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Is Believing or Not Believing in God a Competition?

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Is Believing or Not Believing in God a Competition?

Guest Commentary by Scott Kinder-Pyle | Interim Pastor at Salem Lutheran Church

Are you a competitive person? I know, from personal experience, that a good game of cards or dominoes — or even the old Hasbro board game of Sorry! — can get my passions flowing. And it’s not long after somebody wins and somebody loses that we wonder if the effort exerted in the first place had been worth the resulting turmoil.

That is, why risk losing if you might’ve refrained from the competition and seemed indifferent and nonchalant about the whole me-against-you affair? Or why risk winning if your celebration of that eventuality may inflict pain and suffering on the loser? I do realize that, on one fundamental level, some decent parenting in childhood may have equipped us with the resilience we need regardless of the games people play. And yet …

Recently, I’ve felt a weird confluence of those competitive juices splash upon my psyche as I read about former believers or theists pursuing lives without belief in “God” and then publishing their atheism as if it were some kind of exalted triumph.

Some Examples:

First up, FāVs News writer Sarah Henn Hayward entitled her new book, “Giving Up God: Resurrecting a Spirituality of Love and Wonder” in which she describes both the grief and liberation she experienced in rejecting the religion handed down to her by previous generations.

In the book she writes, “It has been a massive relief to feel that evangelical pressure slide off my back. Without the threat of eternal damnation for unbelieving loved ones hanging over me anymore, I’m allowed to let others live their lives however they choose without it affecting me. Without God constantly watching from the eaves, I can stop agonizing over how to win God’s favor each day.”

Second, in a Jan. 21 New York Times essay by Emma Goldberg, the avid reader will find the story of humanist chaplain, Devin Moss, who offered compassion to a non-believing inmate on Oklahoma’s death row, Philip Hancock. The final prayer, as referenced in the piece, went down like this: “He rested a hand on Hancock’s knee and recited the words that he had written in his notebook: ‘We call the spirit of humanity into this space,’ Moss said. ‘Let love fill our hearts. We ask that in this transition into peaceful oblivion that Phil feels that love, and although this is his journey that he is not alone. We invoke the power of peace, strength, grace and surrender. Amen.’”

And third, in theaters now and near you, a new film’s conceit depicts a therapy session, which might have occurred (but did not), between an 83-year-old Sigmund Freud and a 40-year-old C.S. Lewis. In “Freud’s Last Session,” the debate over the existence of God rages. And, perhaps, the viewing audience will be intrigued by the family-of-origin insights that are raised about Lewis’ conversion to Christianity. On the other hand, as the famous analyst deftly played by Anthony Hopkins admits: “The sad irony of my life is that I am a passionate disbeliever who is obsessed with belief and worship.”

Game on?

I don’t know. Just as folks reject certain binary and mutually-exclusive choices in various areas of life and arenas of knowledge, I am inclined to say something cryptic. And that is, perhaps inherent to every expression of authentic belief in God is the disbelief in anyone’s idea of God — as if that idea could somehow summarize, totalize or encompass the Mystery — and sadly, tragically, wage war on all other ideas.

I’m not trying to win the argument. Are you?

Scott Kinder-Pyle
Scott Kinder-Pyle
Scott Kinder-Pyle identifies as an ordained pastor in Presbyterian Church (USA), and has served as an adjunctive professor of philosophy, religion and literature at Eastern Washington and Gonzaga universities. Scott is a poet and the author of There’s No I in Debris—Except this One! In 2020 and 2021, he served as a resident chaplain at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center, and has subsequently worked for Kindred and Gentiva Hospice as a Board Certified Chaplain [BCC], accountable to the Association of Professional Chaplains. Most recently, Salem Lutheran Church of Spokane’s West Central neighborhood has welcomed Scott as their interim pastor. He’s married to Sheryl going on 36 years, loves his children, Ian and Philip, enjoys films like Adaptation, ponders painting in the near future and appreciates the thinking of Emmanuel Levinas.

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Walter A Hesford
Walter A Hesford
22 days ago

Thank you, Pastor, for this deft commentary on this “competition,” and for your refusal to enter it. At a recent event sponsored by the Palouse Free Thinkers, people were asked to vote on whether or not God existed. I upset the sponsors by refusing to vote.

Chuck McGlocklin
Chuck McGlocklin
17 days ago

I attended a Freedom From Religion meeting a month after they had a booth at the fair. (They were proselytizing) (I felt ashamed for the way so called Christians behaved and wanted to show them that not all Christians were obnoxious bigots.)
Of about 30 people, most new, most stated they were agnostic; only 2 claimed to be atheists. They knew that you cannot prove a negative.

Jody Cramsie
Jody Cramsie
19 days ago

Perhaps the examples noted by Pastor Kinder-Pyle are people attempting to find a different way of expressing The Ultimate than he and his institution do.  I’m not sure why he feels he is in a competition. 
  
For many, the dominant version of Christianity in the West does not adequately speak to the lives of people living in 2024; it appears irrelevant, archaic and just maybe the ultimate in competition:  who is saved or not saved.  

Rejecting a particular iteration of Christianity and the god it espouses may appear to be the same as rejecting god entirely.  It doesn’t have to be that way.  But if we accept a world with only binary choices, it’s possible we don’t see any other options.  However, a conception of god that more properly represents the knowledge, understanding and experiences of humans in the here and now in the cosmos might reveal a more coherent and less conflicted version of god.  

It’s not about throwing out the old to insert the new; it’s about demythologizing the old language to re-express the eternal truths.  It’s not about recreating a god we might like better; it’s about creating a paradigm and using language to better express our understanding of god and what that should mean for our current lives. Walter Hesford made the important point in a recent column that “great teachers and prophets of religious traditions . . . have always voiced alternatives to dominant versions of reality.”  I think he’s right on.

Voicing alternatives to dominant versions of reality isn’t competition.  For some, it is most certainly quite challenging.  But it is absolutely necessary and in keeping with the highest ideas of religion. 

Chuck McGlocklin
Chuck McGlocklin
17 days ago

If someone does something good, encourage them (water). If they disagree with you and you think their life would be better, plant a seed. We cannot save or change hearts. That is the Holy Spirit’s job. Give Him tools He can use (beware Prov 18:19).
If you want to be competitive, start counting the people that you love unconditionally. Those are the ones that love to see you coming. That like to spend time with you and are sad when you part.

After 40+ years of being a Christian preceded by 5 years of pretending I was a Christian, I, thankfully, have given up on religion (what Sarah Henn Hayward describes) to save me. But am in full on love for my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ , God the Father and the Holy Spirit.
The multitude of denominations that God has allowed (because He woos all but gives freedom of choice to all) are tools for His disciples to exercise the gifts that He has given, love being paramount. All seem to sink into the graveyard of them, their doctrines, rules, membership, etc. are what YOU need in order to be saved. They are wrong. What we need is Jesus. (What I gather from Sarah is that she hasn’t met Him and therefore does not KNOW Him.)
God led me to a conservative church 40 years ago because they taught me what …”I” … needed. (I emphasize …”I”… because not all need what I needed and other denominations may do a better job of giving it.) I have stayed there because they need the gospel that sets us free as much as anyone else.
I pray for my atheist friends and many in other denominations that disagree with me, not that they would agree or follow me, but that God would give them the experiences to KNOW that He is real. I think the lives of many Christians would be radically changed if they had those life changing experiences. The experiences may be painful but sensing God’s presence, hearing that still small voice, KNOWING that He cares and will get you through is what all of us need, absolute trust in Him, if we are to have hope.

Love is a gift from God. Loving enemies is against our selfish human nature. We are not saved by what we believe but what we do with the knowledge God has given us. God will save those that exhibit the gifts of the Spirit; not those that just know the rules.

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