Dear Chris --
We would have never crossed paths if it weren't for Derek Webb, so for all the noise about him at the beginning of the year, there are some personally-gratifying things that were accomplished. I don't know if it's right to call us "friends", but we're friends on Facebook and in the Tweetcloud, so that's a start.
Someone tweeted this yesterday, and it caught my attention:
Now: so what? Before I get to the so-what, I want to introduce you to the readers of this blog because I think, in 10 years, you are going to either be a middle-class guy in a sea of similar post-academic middle class guys, or you're going to be the next Deepak Chopra.
Your bio at HuffPo (now a cog in the AOL Rube Goldberg machine) says this:
Chris Stedman is the Interfaith and Community Service Fellow for the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard University and the Managing Director of State of Formation, a new initiative at the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue. Chris received an MA in Religion from Meadville Lombard Theological School at the University of Chicago, for which he was awarded the Billings Prize for Most Outstanding Scholastic Achievement. A graduate of Augsburg College with a summa cum laude B.A. in Religion, Chris is the founder and author of the blog NonProphet Status. He is a panelist for The Washington Post On Faith, and his writing has also appeared in venues such as Tikkun Daily, The New Humanism, and more. Previously a Content Developer and Adjunct Trainer for the Interfaith Youth Core, Chris is a secular humanist working to foster positive and productive dialogue between faith communities and the nonreligious. He is currently writing a book on this for Beacon Press and speaks on it regularly both by invitation and as a member of the Secular Student Alliance Speakers Bureau. Chris also serves on the Leadership Team of the Common Ground Campaign, a coalition of young people standing up in response toAnd then "below the fold" of the read-more link its continues:
the recent wave of anti-Muslim rhetoric and violence in America. Portland, Oregon's GLBT newspaper Just Out called his work "brilliant" and labeled him an "emerging... vibrant and youthful queer voice for the secular humanist movement."Funny how that works out -- but I admire you for making your bio about your work and not your personal life.
OK -- back to that tweet.
The link in that tweet takes us to your home court, apparently: HuffPo. That has got to be a sweet gig as they seem to let you post whatever you like whenever you like.
But that said, what do you think about your tweet-follower's grand vision for what you are doing? Do you think he has the scope and scale right?
I mean: what I took away from the HuffPo piece was that you think there's a common cultural context that people with and without religion can sort of participate in, and that they can cooperate with each other to achieve some kind of socio-political good together. Is that really "reshaping" anything?
I think it can reshape the atheist evangel, to be sure -- it will move the popular atheist stereotype out of the ghetto of cage-stage positivism and adolescent nihilism/hedonism into a plump, congenial middle-age. This kind of thinking is frankly understood as the norm in Europe, and to say and do otherwise there is shocking. But American atheism has been a lot like American fundamentalism at least from the days of the vile Madalyn Murray O'Hair, and its ability to seek converts through fear and intimidation has probably been a very powerful factor in keeping it a marginal ideology. So kudos to you for being a stand-up guy for humanism rather than something and someone less concerned about a so-called path forward in a multicultural world.
Now, with all that said, I have a couple of notes for you which I hope you'll consider. Because we've chatted before I'm sure none of it will offend you because you're not a thin-skinned fellow. But I think it'll do some good to put these things out there for public consideration:
1. For a couple of months now I've been trying to understand how you establish your ethical basis of reasoning. My friend Doug Wilson would say you're just kidding yourself to think that you can have a values system that holds any meaningful and transferrable weight to the next person in line unless the values are external to both of you and not subjective in nature. For example, to have a reasonable discussion rather than a fist-fight is preferable if you don't like a bloody nose (a subjective measure), but if you have nothing to lose, why do one and not the other?
I know, I know: lots of ways to achieve a non-theistic ethical system. But all of those miss the point: it is not that you might choose to be in accordance with system "X" -- I concede you might. It is that you have no basis to convince me that system "X" is necessary for me. So for example, it's not necessary for me to abide by the bounderies of the relationships of other people, is it? I mean: the definition of marriage is a hot topic in the interfaith community right now, and the view which is prevailing there is that marriage is ill-defined today. Many want to redefine it -- and forget that it has a definition which is tested by millennia as the most socio-politically stable and beneficial for a culture. That evidence, and the moral reasoning behind it, is now not really part of the discussion you're seeking to lead -- it's by definition an outmoded way to go. You say.
What if I think "you say" is not compelling? How do we discuss it and get to "productive dialog"?
2. I like it that atheism is trying to go the seeker-friendly route. I already know the outcome of the seeker-friendly route, and I hope it does not leave you disillusioned, or worse: jaded and protective of the duchy you will have established by the end of the next decade. I'm assuming your book will be a hit and your "chaplaincy" will lead to bigger and better things in spite of your body piercings and ink. My hope is that unlike the evangelical seeker-friends you won't trade your integrity for prestige.
3. In spite of your bio, your definition of your self is principled by one defining characteristic, and that characteristic has lead you to leave the Christian faith. That story is told a hundred times an hour by all kinds of people: "I could't leave my intellect, so I left my faith;" "I could't leave my self-respect, so I left my faith;" "I could't leave my business, so I left my faith;" "I couldn't leave my lover, so I left my faith." I think you know this already -- and you accept that you are not alone in your decision. It helps you justify the choice to see that other people are driven by their conscience to reject the idea that Christ died for sin, including the sin which you or I might be most closely related -- though they might be particularly different for each of us.
The problem with that conclusion, I think, is that you know the world is broken. You know that people choose every day to do what is wrong -- because look at you: you have set out to right it. You know there's something wrong that needs to be changed. But you have invested in the ones who are, from beginning to end, the problem and not the solution.
The world is not a broken place because of what "they" do, but because of what we do, Chris. And we don't do these things because we don't know better, or for the lack of a compelling moral compass: we do them because they are what we want to do. That's not going to change after a productive dialog.
That kind of damage, that kind of deep-well instinct to err, doesn't need another book to diagnose it. It needs a savior -- someone who isn't trying to mark up his body with ink and poke-holes to satisfy his need to be recognized. It needs a savior who will really save, and who will pay the price for even the worst of these, like you and me.
His name is Jesus, Chris, and he's not looking for a dialog. He is the Word. Let me reintroduce you to Him, and let's listen to Him and obey what He has said -- because He's worthy to be heard, and then honored, and then praised.
Good luck on your service trip, and on your work writing your book.