by Phil Johnson
ongtime readers will remember a character who posted in our comment-threads for several months as "Touchstone." He's one of only half a dozen people or so who in three years' time have managed to get permanently banned from commenting here. He was banned for (among other things) repeated acts of recreational profanity. I hated banning him, because he was more interesting than the typical miscreant who invades our meta. But it seemed he wanted to get banned, because his rule violations were deliberateand they escalated in intensity after he was warned.
I first encountered Touchstone at the Pulpit Live blog, where he showed up to take a swipe at me for suggesting that Brian McLaren "despises" certainty. Of course, Brian McLaren badmouths certainty at practically every opportunitysaying things like "Certainty is overrated," and fulminating about how irritated he gets when he hears preachers on the radio who sound more sure than he is about their biblical convictions.
Has Mclaren ever actually used those precise words: "I despise certainty?" Huh? No? Thensez Touchstone"I don't think an honest reviewer could say that McLaren 'despises' certainty."
Touchstone was a master of that kind of nitpicky, pointless deconstruction, highly skilled in the use of hyperbole and evasionbut the strictest of literalists when it came to parsing his critics' words. You know: a classic postmodern post-evangelical. Naturally, Touchstone himself didn't seem to think much of certainty either (except when it came to his own unshakable conviction that his personal opinion is more authoritative than the Bible).
Nevertheless, in his early interaction with me, Touchstone deliberately implied that he considered himself a Christian, writing at one point, "I tell people who ask for a starting point that I unreservedly affirm and support with *certainty* the Nicene Creed and the Apostle's Creed. I can quote them here, but I'm sure you're familiar."
Careful scrutiny (employing Touchstone's own preferred style of deconstruction) will show that this is no profession of faith at all. He "tell[s] people who ask . . ." that he affirms the basic creeds of Christendom. But did he really embrace the truths set forth in those creeds? I never once saw him profess actual belief in any vital point of Christian doctrine. His specialties were denial and deconstruction, and his attitude toward Scripture was overtly and consistently hostile. That was evident from the start of our interaction (almost two years ago now).
The ambiguous and minimalistic way he tried to imply that he was a Christian was not the only reason to distrust him. In our earliest exchange, he demanded evidence"at least a token footnote reference"demonstrating that there is increasing uncertainty among professing evangelicals regarding whether absolute truth even exists.
My first-ever message to him started by giving him the documentation he had asked for, in the form of statistics from a Barna survey. He ignored that part of my comment and continued to insist the original point needed documentation. When I suggested that he had overlooked the link I gave, he said he'd seen it, but it wasn't the kind of documentation he wanted.
That basically defined his style of discourse. When anyone refuted him he moved the goalposts. He was relentless. Practically every comment he ever made was dripping with smug postmodern skepticism and infused with a tone of ridicule. But he was sometimes amusingly clever, occasionally somewhat articulate, and always tirelessly verbose. So I answered as many of his comments as time permitted. I can't recall any time that he ever conceded a point on anything, no matter how insignificant.
He generally weighed in on threads dealing with the Emerging Church, postmodernism, or the authority of Scripture. Several of the post-evangelical critics who hang out in our combox used to tag-team with him, high-fiving and echoing his dismissive remarks. I almost said "arguments," but he had just one argument: that we had misunderstood or were misrepresenting post-evangelical opinions.
Still, his actual agenda always seemed to be a little deeper than merely defending postmodernity. His own blog showed little interest in Emerging/Emergent Christianity; it was basically a rationalistic attack on the Genesis account of creation. Though he never brought that issue up here, he hammered the theme in the combox at Triablogue (and on his own blog). It was clear, if you read his comments here and there, that the presupposition underlying all his opinions was a belief that science and theology are mutually exclusive. Science is rational; theology belongs to the realm of the imagination. That, of course, is modern atheism's main tenet.
I began to wonder if he was really an apologist for atheism, posing as some kind of Christian.
Everything he ever posted was consistent with that hypothesis. Virtually all his comments on our blog found a way to promote skepticism, attack some vital Christian truth-claim, or question the plain meaning of Scripture. He sounded like one of those de-converted former pastors who spreads the gospel of atheism with more zeal than he ever had for the faith. He clearly had a close familiarity with evangelicalism. His carefully-guarded anonymity and his finesse as a writer and polemicist made me wonder if he was someone we'd all be familiar with if we knew his real name.
Here's a typical sample of one of my replies to him, from this thread:
Shortly after we had to ban Touchstone from commenting at PyroManiacs, Peter Pike made a post at Triablogue documenting some of Touchstone's blatant lies. Pike pretty well furnished proof of what I had long suspected: Touchstone was really an atheist pretending to be some sort of believer.
Touchstone made a lengthy but lame comment in the combox under Peter's post. He neither affirmed nor expressly denied Peter's main premise. But in a remarkable instance of the irony that often colored his comments, he accused the Triabloggers of attacking his integrity because they could not answer his arguments.
The next day, Steve Hays banned him from Triablogue. That was 25 August 2007, (NOTE:) more than a year ago.
If Touchstone ever replied further to Peter Pike's post, I didn't see it. He more or less seemed to disappear, and I had nearly forgotten about himuntil last Friday, when I followed a link from one of his old comments back to his profile.
Turns out he's now openly promoting atheism. He has dropped any pretense of being a Christian and joined a band of atheistic e-vangelists who have twice the zeal and half the elegance of a Salvation Army tambourine band at Christmastime.
His atheistic "testimony" (posted just last month) is one long bald-faced lie. Touchstone now claims he went from being "a devout Christian" ("a deeply committed, 'sold out' believer for decades") to a full-on atheist just within the past twelve months. He insists (with a straight face) that this all happened to him quite unexpectedly and totally against his willwhile he was merely trying to rebuild and fortify his faith.
Touchstone's testimony is instructive on multiple levels. He says he had become disillusioned with evangelicalism, stopped attending church for three years, then decided to become Catholic. (He insists that during his three-year hiatus from church he was still "committed to [his] belief in God and [his] faith in Jesus as [his] redeemer and savior.") But "about a year ago now" (after getting banned here and at Triablogue?) he decided to put everything on the table for reexamination. He became (in his own words) a "provisional atheist," ostensibly as a way of buttressing his faith through some sort of rational process of reinvestigation.
Now, it is patently obvious to anyone who ever read his comments here and at Triablogue that Touchstone was no "devout Christian" a year ago. In fact, he was already an inveterate skeptic almost two years ago. And you've got to assume he didn't get there from his supposed evangelical upbringing overnight. So the veracity of Touchstone's story (especially his imaginary time line) is easily debunked, merely by doing a Google search here and at Triablogue and reading the comments he was making as far back as 2006. Those comments are irrefutable proof in his own words that the story he is now telling is sheer fantasy.
Virtually everything significant about Touchstone's online personaincluding his recent "coming-out"is a charade. Remember: his deep skepticism was evident here from the start. In one way or another agnosticism and contempt for biblical authority infused virtually every comment he ever posted here. We knew he was an atheist more than a year ago.
But what's most fascinating to me is the very high level of synergy between him and the small cadre of post-evangelicals who like to hang around our combox. Many of them use the same style of argument, share some of the same epistemological presuppositions, and hold the same contempt for certainty that he had. He fit in remarkably well with a certain sector of post-conservative, post-evangelical, post-certain commenters here and elsewhere around the blogosphere. It is evidence of something I've been saying for more than a decade: the postmodern perspective on truth and certainty has a dose of atheism built right into it. At the very least the postmodern enshrinement of values like doubt, ambiguity, distrust, demurral, and uncertainty is inherently agnostic.
Furthermore, Touchstone's need to fabricate a bogus "testimony" like this vividly illustrates another principle that ought to be self-evident: those who deny the truth are themselves untruthful. People who scoff at faith are naturally untrustworthy.
Despite the fact that Touchstone's testimony is an obvious lie, some of the emotions described in his account have the ring of bona fide experience. Reading his account made me sick at heartand profoundly, deeply sad over the inevitable impact of his worldview on his wife and family. Touchstone is a fitting cautionary emblem for people who think postmodern epistemologies are interesting playthings. He is a flesh-and-blood example of the vital truth of Proverbs 4:23: "Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life." (See the full context of Proverbs 4:23-27, and remember that "evil" includes false ideologies.)
I rather suspect that Touchstone's account is an Oliver Stone-style blend of modified fact and sheer fantasya compressed and romanticized retelling of an experience that stretched across several years. If we take the general contours of his testimony at face value, it should be clear (to those who have eyes to see) that unbelief was the engine giving momentum to his "quest" from the beginning. He decided very early in the process that he would not have the Bible as his authority. Rejecting the very notion of revealed truth out of hand, he chose to make his own rationalistic judgments about what is true, in essence making his own thoughts authoritative over God's Word rather than vice versa. For all the energy he spent defending postmodernism here in our combox, it turns out he fell for the quintessential modernist lie.