Saturday, November 18, 2017

A Rational Philosopher Talks About Jesus

I wrote an article a few weeks ago about how Episcopalians make talking about Jesus too hard.  Say evangelism to Episcopalians, and they’ll dive under the nearest pew.  I argued that it isn’t that hard, quit making it so complicated.  It doesn’t require bible thumping testimony, just an opportunity for ordinary conversation.  So I was interested when the Whitman College philosophy department announced a lecture on the question, ‘Is belief in God irrational?’, to be delivered by a visiting professor I’d never heard of.  If a philosopher was going to stand before a small audience and talk about God, I wanted to see how she did it.

Whitman is in the ranks of elite liberal arts colleges, and one of the jewels in our local academic crown that includes Walla Walla University and Walla Walla Community College.  It has a reputation for being liberal, secular, and atheist.  But my former parish is well stocked with Whitman faculty, as are a couple of other congregations in town, and two students I mentored in years gone by have gone on to become Episcopal priests, so the popular image of the place has its weaknesses.  

Still, it’s a very secular campus, and philosophy departments are seldom comfortable nests for those strong in a faith tradition.  Don’t they belong over in the religious studies department?  Philosophy is for critical thinkers, not naive theologians.  It was a little surprising that Whitman’s philosophy department arranged for visiting philosophy professor Meghan Sullivan to give the lecture.  It turned out to be a well constructed, funny exposition on how she came to be a Christian, and how she answers questions about the rationality of it.  Raised in a non-religious family that wasn’t interested enough in religion to claim atheism, she went to college to become a lawyer.  She ended up becoming a philosopher with a deep interest in rationality and the nature of time, but she also ended up becoming a Christian.

Now a professor holding the John A. O’Brien Collegiate Chair at Notre Dame, she teaches in a broad range of philosophical areas with an emphasis on rationality and time, as well as the occasional course on religion.  When it comes to her faith, she’s comfortable talking with whoever might be interested about how she came to it within the context of a highly disciplined approach to philosophy.  Which brings me to her lecture.  The department reserved the small Kimball Theater in the old music building.  It’s normally used for recitals, and lectures to which fewer than a hundred are likely to attend.  At the appointed time of 7:00 p.m., it was packed with over 200, mostly students.  All the seats were taken.  Many sat in the aisles or leaned against walls, while others stood in the foyer listening as best they could.  I doubt anyone anticipated such a turnout.

She stood there without notes, cracked jokes, talked about her life, how she entered into the Christian faith rather gently over time, with no evangelical moment of decision, and her love of what some theologians call ‘classical Christianity.’  She explained how she answers typical objections from skeptical students and fellow faculty who find a rational philosopher claiming to be Christian an irreconcilable anomaly.  There was no altar call, no condemnation of non-believers, and no assertion that her Catholicism is the true and only Church.  It was just her own story told with humor.  And the audience ate it up.  What I imagine, and may never know, is that she opened doors to kids who didn’t believe that intellectuals could be faithful to a religious tradition, and that Christianity exists in forms other than evangelical fundamentalism or slick prosperity preaching .  Who knew?  

For me, she was an example of how an ordinary lay person can talk easily and comfortably about her faith without sounding like a nut.  She was invited to speak about it in a venue to which others had been invited.  It wasn’t door knocking witnessing, or street corner bible thumping.  She didn’t highjack an intimate conversation about other things.  She didn’t demand a decision for Christ, and she didn’t threaten eternal hell for those who refuse.   She simply made it clear that this is who she is, and if invited, she will speak about it.   

That’s something we can all do.  There are more times than we might think when an invitation to speak has been made, when the venue is right, and when the listeners are willing.  The question is, do we have a story to tell?  We do.  Each of us does.  If we can talk about our golf game, last vacation, children, or any of the dozens of other stories we have at the ready, we can talk about Jesus too.  It might be to an audience of one or two, but that’s all it takes.  

Our various church leaders keep telling us there is a hunger out there that defies assumptions about the decline of religion in general, and Christianity in particular.  The anecdotal evidence that they’re right is in a small lecture hall packed with two hundred students: not a cell phone, iPad, or laptop to be seen.  All of them from a school where religion is said to be unimportant,  irrelevant, and distasteful. 

That’s all.




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