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DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Atheists, Baking, and Questions

Written by: on November 30, 2018

I first read Who Needs Theology in 2002 when I was 24. It was the first book of my first semester at Fuller and I think the only book I read cover to cover. I can remember reading the book with absolute delight, highlighting passage after passage. I let several friends borrow my copy because I was so enamored with it. It has been 16 years since that reading of the book and I sense that my understanding of things has changed somewhat. There is still a lot to like with the way the authors describe different types of theology and the application of it. I find myself grating on the presuppositions they are leaning on to make their grand declaration that everyone is a theologian.

A few years back I was leading a discussion group at church on the book Jim and Casper Go To Church. If you are not familiar with the book, Jim Henderson (Christian author and ministry leader) invites Casper (an atheist) to travel around the country going to Christian churches of various types. It is a somewhat light and entertaining book. The study I was leading had the normal cordial crew of four or five folks from the church and then Darren arrived. Darren, at the time, was the head of the Tacoma Atheists. He had made a habit of going to churches partially because he grew up going to church and enjoyed it and partially because he likes making friends with pastors – at least the ones who do not aggressively try to convert him. Darren was the best thing that happened to that discussion group. All too often these sorts of groups fall into the Christian ghetto and start to stereotype people that are not Christian. Darren kept us from putting atheists into a corner. Of all the things that I have learned from Darren, the most significant is that for most atheists, the question of God is not something they struggle with – ever. By atheist I do not mean a college student that just had his first post-modern philosophy class and has decided denouncing God is the way to make his parents blush. Instead I mean people who have genuinely decided that all there is to life is what we can physically perceive.

The authors state “[t]he ultimate question of all life’s ultimate questions is the question of God, for this is the question to which all others point.”1 That statement feels like a large leap and unfortunately a leap that people of faith all to willingly take. I believe that a person will only reach the concept of God if they are biased in that direction. As people of faith we have forgotten the revolutionary nature of the concept of God. The only thing we as humans can be completely certain of is what we perceive in the physical world using our five senses. God, being supernatural, does not enter into that realm, which means the conception of God is not something that we would naturally enter into. Something supernatural needs to happen to us for us to perceive the supernatural. As such I think that the premise that the authors build their argument upon is not valid. If that sentence had been prefixed with “for people of faith” or even “for people open to the idea of a supernatural power” I’d have no problem with it. But I suspect that for a lot of people the reason we exist is (to put it bluntly) egg met sperm.

The other issue I have is their conception that everyone who thinks about God is a theologian. Everyone who thinks about God is using theological concepts, but that does not make them theologians. The authors use the example of cooking,2 they say that anyone that cooks is a chemist. I suspect that people who have been trained as chemists would have a real problem with me calling myself a chemist because I know how to use baking powder. I am certainly using chemistry concepts, but I am not studying my results or trying to expand upon human knowledge of chemistry. I am instead trying to make fudgey brownies, which requires the result of the work of chemists, but that does not make me a chemist. The authors do indicate that there are levels of theological study, from the lay to the professional, but to call yourself a theologian seems to imply some level of intentionality. If, to use my brownie analogy, I am making multiple batches and testing the results of different kinds of flower, then I am doing lay chemistry. But most people do not enter into baking brownies or discussing God with that kind of intentionality.

I asked Darren what he thought about the quote I used earlier and his response was interesting. “There was a point in my life (when I was a Christian) when I would have agreed with the author. When god is the answer to every question you don’t have an answer for it does feel like everything points to God, or the question of god. But yeah, it sounds pretty absurd to me now.”3 I understand the authors’ urge to make theology, which is commonly held up on a pedestal, palatable to the masses. I think they could make better, more nuanced arguments and get there but unfortunately instead they took logical leaps that they assumed people would not question which I think weakens the book.


1 Grenz, Stanley J., and Roger E. Olson. Who needs theology?: An invitation to the study of God. InterVarsity Press, 2009. p. 15.
2 ibid p. 18
3 Darren Garven, interviewed by author, Tacoma, November 28, 2018

About the Author

mm

Sean Dean

An expat of the great state of Maine where the lobster is cheap and the winters are brutal I've settled in as a web developer in Tacoma, Washington. As a foster-adoptive parent of 3 beautiful boys, I have deep questions about the American church's response to the public health crisis that is our foster system.

14 responses to “Atheists, Baking, and Questions”

  1. mm Sean Dean says:

    I apologize for getting this in late. I’ve been sick all week and thinking clearly has been a struggle. Hope it makes sense.

  2. mm Tammy Dunahoo says:

    I appreciate your critique, Sean, and sorry you have been sick this week.

    Pondering your thoughts I wonder if Grenz and Olson would themselves use different “nuanced arguments” if they were writing it today. It is over 20 years old and language is radically different.

    I appreciate your statements about the natural and supernatural and I believe that is a significant reality we often fail to give credence to. I am in many churches that seem to use logic or emotion with persuasion to get people to respond rather than believing and trusting the supernatural work of the Spirit to bring the spiritually dead to life. Unfortunately this results in people like Darren deciding, after some time of being in the church, that it is not real.

    • mm Sean Dean says:

      Tammy, the one area in my life where I am still deeply Pentecostal is in the area of conversion. I honestly believe that people do not come to Christ outside of the work of the Spirit in their lives. You could have the perfectly crafted argument at the perfect time, but without the Spirit “whispering” in that person’s spirit they’re not going to convert. As much as I love logic, I know that evangelistic success if a work of God and in no way based upon any argument I could make.

  3. mm Mary Mims says:

    Sean, thank you for analysis of the book. My minor was food science, and I worked for many years in that field. I did have a bit of a laugh at the book in that section of comparing cooking with chemistry. I guess maybe it works if you compare it to folk theology since that is often based on truth. I guess I see your point though that maybe everyone is not a theologian. I do think everyone has questions about God and your friend has chosen to not believe in God. I am glad for your example of loving and welcoming him anyway. It shows that your theology is not threatened by someone not believing in God.

    • mm Sean Dean says:

      Darren has been an incredible blessing in my life. He has taught me to not take Christian understandings of the universe for granted when talking with people. I think it’s easy for us in the west to assume that everyone has thoughts about God, because we are a culture that is still largely theistic — being that Christians, Jews, and Muslims still make up nearly 3/4 of the population. I wonder if it would be as easy to make that claim in other places that are not so saturated with religion. I could be wrong.

  4. mm Harry Fritzenschaft says:

    Sean,
    I always appreciate your intellect and your insight, sorry that you have not been feeling well. Your critique is valid in that you are speaking from a Darren versus seeker/believer perspective. Obviously, from that perspective nuanced language would be more helpful and effective. Perhaps, like Tammy pointed out, Grenz and Olson would have utilized different language and illustrations if the book was written for today’s prospective readers. I find it most telling that you compare your earlier context of enamorment with your more current one. Obviously between the two you have had experiences that have caused you to continue to construct your theology contextually. For me, your reflective theological process was my primary take away from this source (along with the need for an integrative motif). I would love to hear your thoughts how you would articulate Grenz and Olson’s tenets of good theological development for today? Blessings on you and yours, H

    • mm Sean Dean says:

      One of my theological heroes is John Wesley, who is most famous for founding the Methodist Church (which he didn’t but that’s another argument for another day). He had an idea that religious experience was useful in the creation of doctrine along with tradition, scripture, and logic. In my life I have found this to be especially true. So much of what I believe now is based upon things that I’ve experienced balanced with what I’ve found in the scriptures and read about by other theologians. I can’t imagine it any other way, and to some extent I think Grenz and Olson would agree.

  5. Mario Hood says:

    You make some great points Sean and I enjoyed hearing about Darren point of view. In saying that, would Darren’s point of view actually support the author’s premises? He at one point did, believe in God, but now doesn’t and has “theologize” only what he can perceive is real. Hasn’t he then answered the question that the authors have proposed?

    • mm Sean Dean says:

      I think more from the atheist perspective, the idea that the ultimate question is the existence of God is a farce. For a lot of atheists they did begin at a place of faith and move away from it, but there are those who don’t start at faith and for them the ultimate questions don’t have to do with God or God’s existence.

  6. it was good reading through your blog Sean. I’m sorry that you have been sick through the week and thank God that you’re now doing well. Inviting an atheist, Darren for discussion is great way of reaching out to him and giving him opportunity to re-examining his beliefs.

  7. mm Rev Jacob Bolton says:

    Great point . . and I agree . . the big jump regarding the question about God. How would (or maybe a better question is “Would you”) rephrase it?

    The question of beauty?

    The question of love?

    The question of meaning?

    The question of the “peat-iest” Scotch?

    None of the above?

  8. mm Sean Dean says:

    While the quest for the peatiest scotch is always a worthwhile endeavor, if I had to choose it would probably be something like the question of community. A lot more thought would be required, but I’m nearly certain it’d revolve around community.

  9. mm Jenn Burnett says:

    I’ve been reading a number of things on First Nations’ spirituality this week, and so have been chewing on the enlightenment motivated binary of the natural vs the supernatural. In my extremely limited understanding of First Nations’ spirituality, all things have an element of the spiritual and so their is no binary. So to think about the natural world, would also be thinking about God. I wonder how much of this was true of the context of the early church? We see people behaving eradically as ‘demon posessed’, but today would we say mentally ill? How many occurances or realities that we would call ‘natural’ would have once been understood as part of the supernatural? I wonder about this because my leaning when I read the book was similar, to question that assumption, but then I questioned my questioning. Is it possible to go through life without having any thought about what is inexplicable? And is that thought enough to suggest it is concerning god in an undefined way? Would that be enough to make us a theologian? (Mmmm….I’m thinking about fudgey brownies…is the chemist emerging?)

    • mm Sean Dean says:

      Maybe my issue is more with the idea that “theologian” boxes people into the structures and forms of Christian theology. The way the authors frame the concept (or at least the way I read it this time) is that eventually everyone comes to the question of a monotheistic god. This seems kind of ridiculous since most cultures came to the idea of a pantheon of gods rather than just one. Monotheism is unique to the Abrahamic religions. Theology as an area of study has, as such, been largely something people from the Abrahamic traditions have pursued. It just doesn’t settle well with me the idea that someone would naturally fall to the Christian position without being first lead there by someone who is already a follower.

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