I’m going to stretch the rules for advice columns that I inherited from Ann Landers a little bit this week. It’s all Facebook’s fault. Recently, as I was reading a remark posted on a friend’s page, I thought to myself, “gosh, I wish that someone would write into FKB with that question.” And then I realized that, well, I could just make that happen.
Writing an advice column is already a pretty presumptuous act — I’m pretty sure that telling folks whom I’ve never met to dump their boyfriends or to stay in low-paying, but satisfying jobs qualifies as hubris. So, I figure that I may as well pile on the hubrisitude by answering a question that I found lying around on Facebook.
Let’s hope that no one notices.
Hey Rev! (that person on Facebook might have said)
A recent Pew Report found that 38 percent of people who identify as atheist/agnostic believe in God or a Universal Spirit. I have to scratch my head at that statistic. If we’re all going to assign our own idiosyncratic meanings to words, then what do they even mean?
- Facebook Friend
Dear Facebook Friend:
I’m so glad that you asked.
Maybe what that Pew survey means is that a name such as “atheist” might be the beginning of a conversation rather than the end of one.
A few years ago, I had the privilege of attending an afternoon workshop with a life coach and transgendered educator by the name of Renata Razza. Razza’s focus that afternoon was on what effective and meaningful ministry with GLBTQ people looks like. He gave my colleagues and me a big bucket of tools from which I draw on to this day. None of those tools were more valuable than a simple but profound piece of advice.
“People,” Razza told us, “are who they say they are.”
In other words, if someone tells you that he is a man, then that’s who he is. If someone tells you that she is a lesbian, then that’s who she is. It is neither helpful nor respectful to start cross-examining such a person to determine if he satisfies your criteria for maleness or if she meets your test for lesbianism. Naming is a vital act for human beings. And honoring the names which people choose for themselves is a profound and empowering act of empathy and of compassion.
It didn’t take long for me to realize that Razza’s words had big implications beyond ministry with GLBTQ folks. Walking with another person during a time of joy or change or learning or loss is made immensely easier when we err on the side of agreeing that such person is who she says she is. Now, that’s not to say that I never dispute the name which someone has chosen for themselves — to the contrary, I will gently but firmly challenge a label such as “unlovable” — but it is to say that we do well when our bias is towards respecting someone’s name or names. If a person says that she is an introvert or a conservative or a feminist or a Christian (or maybe even all of those things), then that’s who she is.
At St. John’s Cathedral in Spokane, where I serve as a pastor, there are two young people in the youth group who both identify as atheists and who pray to God with an inspiring passion and conviction. I guess I could argue with those youth. I could tell them that they aren’t really atheists. I could insist that, just like me, they are Christians who reject the often anti-intellectual, selfish and bigoted narrative of mainstream Christianity in favor of the generous love of the Gospel.
But I don’t do that. I want to respect the name that these two young people have chosen for themselves. I want to be in genuine conversation with them. They say that they are atheists. And, therefore, that’s who they are.
Jesus tells one parable after another about transgressing boundaries, about nurturing a kingdom in which we listen to and love our neighbors, irrespective of the categories which have been imposed upon them or which they have chosen for themselves. Our calling is to do the same. So, let’s not fret too much when we meet an atheist who believes in God. Instead, let’s take such a meeting as invitation into a place of generous curiosity about that person and about her story.
We may be surprised by just how much a prayerful atheist has to teach us.
Do you have a question about ethical decision making, living a faithful life or theology? Leave a comment below or send your question for Martin Elfert to email@example.com.