The Ancient Modern

The Heart of the Debate  /  Joshua Alan Sturgill

Recently, I attended a debate between an evangelical and an atheist. They were, of course, discussing whether God exists.

What I found most interesting is how neither seemed to know what (or Whom) they were discussing. “God” was a very abstract concept for both of them, so it was difficult to know whether they were engaging in a genuine dialog, or if each was merely stating a set of intellectual commitments.

They seemed to agree that God (if he exists) is rather impersonal. God (if he exists) looks in from the outside. And, God (if he exists) has done nothing to deal with our immediate suffering.

As the so-called debate continued, I found myself more sympathetic toward the atheist. Something about her character appealed to me, her earnestness and dedication.

When I left the event, I experienced a strange kind of epiphany. The debaters became like two world views or principles. I’ll call them Atheist and Evangelical, as if these are proper names.

They were debating on three stages at the same time, like overexposed photographs.

On one stage, Atheist frequently refers to others who share her opinions; she debates, discusses and sees all social issues through the lens of her belief. Evangelical, as well, openly displays belief. She talks about church, morals, afterlife, salvation. Evangelical, too, sees social issues as connected and solved through her worldview.

The second stage reveals a deeper, more complex and, perhaps, a more troubling reality.

Atheist is genuinely disturbed by the pain and suffering in the world, and seeks a solution to sickness, conflict, war. She sees religion as an interference at best, and at worst, as a contributor to the global crisis.

Evangelical, on the other hand, believes that there is no solution to the world’s ills. Suffering, for her, is God’s just punishment. God has chosen some and rejected others. Evangelical, at heart, doesn’t care about the “pagans” who suffer drought and disease.

Finally, a third stagewhich seems to penetrate to the heart of both figures:

Atheist has rejected God because of the world’s sufferings. If for one instant, Atheist saw a God of compassion Who cares for and heals all things, she would instantly and gladly accept this God. She works hard to do good, to be compassionate because, to her mind, who else is there?

Evangelical, despite the appearance of faith, fully embraces her belief in a God Who discriminates between one group and another, who rewards the righteous and punishes the unrighteous. Everything that Evangelical does is to ensure that she stays in the “righteous” category. She is kind and gives to charity. But the motive is not for people, but against God. That is, against being rejected by God.

I watched this debate play out on its three stages, behind its three podiums. And I am left with the following questions:

Do either of these figures have an accurate picture of God or the divine nature?

Which would be more disappointed to discover her idea of God was false?

And which would be more delighted or satisfied if God was fully revealed?

All poetry and supplementary material: copyright 2020 by Joshua Alan Sturgill

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