Category Archives: World

Jesus CAN Co-Exist: A Response to the Rev. Karl Schaffenburg

The Rev. Karl Schaffenburg, the rector of Grace Church in Sheboygan, WI, published a short opinion piece in an early May issue of The Living Church, a popular publication among Episcopalians. The piece, entitled simply “Why Jesus Would Not Coexist,” takes aim at the popular blue and white “Co-Exist” bumper stickers one finds on automobiles, Facebook posts, and t-shirts all over the country to say that the Christian faith remains incompatible with the idea of pluralism.

Fr. Schaffenburg’s critique actually raises some common concerns about pluralism and the place of Christianity in a pluralistic society I hear rather often while doing interfaith work, and so I thought it might be helpful to engage with him to see if his assertion that “Jesus Would Not Coexist” reflects the most accurate reading of the Gospels or a positive definition of pluralism.

To begin, Fr. Schaffenburg introduces the concept of the law of non-contradiction found in classical logic (that two contradictory claims cannot be simultaneously true). He then briefly explains the differences in the ways that the Abrahamic traditions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) view Jesus. He argues on the basis of John 14:6 (“I am the way, and the truth, and the life…”) that “Jesus cannot coexist with contradictory claims to truth made in other faiths. If Jesus had been content with coexistence he might have escaped crucifixion. We should live peaceably with all people (Rom. 12:18), but we ought not reduce this peace to a glib assertion that all paths lead to God. The assertion that all faiths are the same and there is no exclusive truth is itself a doctrine, and one that excludes all but the universalist. It represents an incoherent quest for tolerance.”

I would have to agree with Fr. Schaffenburg that such a view indeed “represents an incoherent quest for tolerance,” yet I’m not so sure that the crucifixion stands as the best example to support his claim, nor that “tolerance,” however conceived, necessitates universalism. If what Fr. Schaffenburg aims to do is point to the veracity of the Christian faith, I stand with him in this claim; I think it is the “true” faith (otherwise I wouldn’t be one). That said, to be a Christian does not mean I cannot exist alongside other faiths in a positive and productive way that includes cooperation and collaboration.

To his credit, Fr. Schaffenburg does grant that elements of truth can be found in other faiths (this, he notes, is a “classical Christian doctrine”). Yet ends his piece by labeling the “real danger of COEXIST” as “its underlying assumption that how we live is ultimately a matter of human agency,” arguing that the “lessons of history… make it clear that we will never achieve peace and harmony on our own.” He critiques the view held by some Christians that attaining piece on earth is equivalent to the kingdom of Heaven, and concludes by saying, “Coexistence that treats Jesus Christ merely as an important moral teacher disregards that he revealed himself as God and reduces the saving act of God to a set of rules. It claims that if we live in a certain way we will attain salvation, thus toying with Pelagianism. For this reason, COEXIST is unworthy of anything more than a bumper sticker.”

There’s a lot to tease out in Fr. Schaffenburg’s critique. In fact, I would argue that the biggest issue I have with his editorial is that it simply sets out to do too much—arguing against universalism, certain views about salvation, the Kingdom of God, and Pelagianism—all in a short piece about a bumper sticker.

But there’s something else here, too. Beneath Fr. Schaffenburg’s many aims lies the assumption that pluralism—to “coexist”—requires one to give up the tenets of their own faith or, in the case of the Christian, to relegate Jesus Christ to the margins for the sake of an ideal of world peace.

Yet I would argue that this is not the sentiment that lies behind the “Coexist” bumper-sticker, nor is it the understanding of pluralism that undergirds our work at FLP… or even of Fr. Schaffenburg himself.

We coexist every day—at work, at school, in airports, in the grocery store. My convictions as a Christian do not limit me to interact only with other Christians, but rather informs the way that I work in the world. Indeed, Jesus himself coexisted with those he encountered; it was they who could not coexist with him.

Perhaps a healthier view of pluralism and coexistence can be found on this very website, on the “Pluralism” tab at the top of the page. Permit me to conclude by quoting it.

When we say pluralism, what do we mean? Good question.

We follow a model of interfaith engagement developed by the Chicago-based non-profit named the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC).

IFYC’s approach to interfaith engagement pulls heavily from the work of Harvard scholar Diana Eck and revolves around three components:

            1.) Respect for individual religious or nonreligious identity.

Respect for identity means that everyone can bring their full identities to this work. There’s space for people to believe that they are right and others are wrong, and that their beliefs are true and others’ are not. Interfaithcooperation is not syncretistic or relativistic; no one has to concede exclusive truth claims to be part of it – whether you are an Orthodox Jew, a conservative Christian, or an atheist, you are welcome to the table of      interfaith cooperation.

                 2.) Mutually inspiring relationships.

Interfaith cooperation builds relationships across religious and nonreligious   boundaries, while creating space for real conversations about disagreements and difference and a sense that each person gains from the relationship.

            3.) Common action for the common good.

Interfaith cooperation is based on the conviction that people of different religious and nonreligious backgrounds have shared values that call them to make the world a better place. By working together on local and global        projects based on these shared values, individuals learn to connect to those    who are different from them while strengthening their communities.

Their idea is simple: face-to-face interaction, as well as conversations with those with whom we disagree, can be a means for mitigating hate and increasing understanding. We think it’s a pretty good idea.

IFYC focuses on shared values and does not suppose or support shared theologies. So do we.

We believe that you don’t have to water-down your own religious tradition in order to participate in interfaith cooperation. Instead, you are encouraged to fully embrace your own tradition and share its distinctives with others. This is our idea of pluralism.

One day (God willing and the people consenting!) I hope to be a priest with as much experience as Fr. Schaffenburg, and I hope that I can carry a constructive definition of coexistence with me in my ministry that facilitates interactions with those of other traditions to work for the greater good while still retaining the potency and vitality of the Christian faith.

 

 

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A Common Table?

One of my best friends from high school is Jewish. He’s not very religious at all, but being Jewish is an important part of his identity. As we’ve gotten older, our lives have taken us in different directions, but we’ve stayed close, in part (I think) because we share our traditions with one another—he celebrates Christmas with my family and I have celebrated Passover and Hanukkah with his. A few weeks ago, I invited Peter to come to a church service at which I would be preaching. I invited him as a friend—not as part of a missionary enterprise—and I was very touched when he agreed to come.

I meant to warn Peter before the service that there would be Communion. I wanted to tell him that Communion is for Christians who feel prepared in their hearts to receive the body and blood of Christ as holy sacrament. “No pressure,” I wanted to tell him—“you are still welcome here, even if you don’t take Communion.” But I was busy preparing for the service and we weren’t able to connect beforehand and so I never got to relay the message.

When it came time to celebrate the Eucharist I looked over at Peter. I had knots in my stomach. I hope he doesn’t feel uncomfortable; I hope he doesn’t feel pressure; I hope he understands what is going on.  As the thoughts ran through my head, I actually considered running over to him; but before I knew it, I saw that he was in line to receive Communion. And a moment later, he had received and returned to his seat.

Afterward, I asked him how it had felt to receive Communion in a Christian church. “I enjoyed it,” he said. “It felt personal.”

“You know you didn’t have to take it, right?”

“Yeah, I know” he said. “But I wanted to.”

At home that night I thought about what it meant that my Jewish friend had taken Eucharist. Was he a Christian now? No—not even close. He remains strongly rooted in his Jewish heritage and tradition. But I felt that this friend—someone who has known me for over 10 years and has seen significant changes take place in my life—knew me in a different way. I felt that even though we would not continue to worship together, we were more deeply connected. Receiving Communion is very important to me as a Christian; it is a major way that I connect with God and strengthen my faith. Being able to share Communion with Peter—even if it didn’t have any spiritual significance for him—allowed me to convey this very important part of my faith in a way that was deeper than words. I felt honored to have been able to invite Peter into a Christian worship service that welcomed him and included him, despite his differences from other congregants.

Still, I wondered: Was it okay that he received? What if the celebrant had known that he wasn’t Christian—would he have been refused? I know that some churches have very strict rules about who can and cannot receive Communion—these are serious and contentious issues. In fact, disagreements about the Eucharist have led to major disputes and splits throughout Christian history. I myself have been kept from Communion in certain worship settings and I know others who have had to look on because they didn’t fit fellow Christians’ criteria. I don’t hope to build a compelling theological argument for the necessity of inclusive Eucharist in this blog post, but I do want to say that there is something very powerful about extending our tables, even to those who are not prepared to receive Christ into their hearts. After all, the gifts themselves have the power to transform each of us. What would happen if we didn’t require each person to be our ideal of a Christian before sharing in the bread and cup? If we didn’t hold onto these gifts so tightly, would we find both ourselves and others transformed?

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Interfaith Relationships

In honor of Valentine’s Day (which also happens to be my birthday!  Gifts in comment, reposting, or tweet-form are not only acceptable but preferred), here is an article about interfaith relationships.

Have you ever dated/married outside of your own faith tradition?  What are some of the joys?  Challenges?

Peace and love,

Anthony

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Quick Links: Reimagining Christmas

Check out this Sojourners’ article by Sheldon Good on Advent Conspiracy and how Christians can “reimagine” the consumer culture that overwhelms Christmas.

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Hearing Stories and Telling Stories: How Polarization Erases Personhood

Unsure of the public’s reaction in the days immediately following 9/11, Dr. Saleh Sbanaty and his family refused to go outside for fear of violence, heckling, or worse. One day, however, necessity got the better of them and they traveled to the grocery store to pick up a few things. While walking the aisles toward the cash registers,  Dr. Sbanaty felt a hand on his shoulder.

He froze.

He turned around to see a woman he had never seen before. She looked him in the eyes.

Though for a moment time seemed to slow to a halt, Dr. Sbanaty’s pulse quickened. Would she yell? Would she spit? Dr. Sbanaty did not know.

“You are welcome in this community,” she said.

Instead of insults and hate, she spoke words of encouragement and acceptance, even though she knew nothing of the man before her– a professor of engineering at Middle Tennessee State University and a devout Muslim. She was able to see him as a person, not a talking point.

Picture can be found at [http://www.islamophobiatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/Islamic_Center_Murfreesboro2.jpg].

During FLP’s hiatus, we’ve seen religiously-motivated violence, political unrest, anti-American protests, massacres, shootings, the bizarre national argument over same-sex marriage fought over a fast-food chicken sandwich, debates over foreign and domestic policy, bombings, landmark Supreme Court decisions and more– and all the while we argue and denigrate one another as we disagree. Much of it has left me confused and disappointed; everything seems so broken, so irreparable.

This feeling of disappointment at humanity’s ability to talk about tough issues hits home for me. Many of you will have heard of the controversy that began some time ago surrounding the construction and opening of the mosque and Islamic community center in Murfressboro, TN. I’ve even written about it a couple of times on Faith Line Protestants.

During my orientation at Sewanee last August, we heard from Dr. Saleh M. Sbenaty, a professor at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro who has advocated for the building of the mosque and spoken on its behalf to the media on numerous occasions. The story at the beginning of this post comes (albeit slightly paraphrased) from the talk he gave that day a couple of months ago.

His daughter, Lema, a strong, proud, hijab-wearing young woman, joined him at our orientation and delivered the powerful story of her experience in the Murfreesboro community as both a student at the university and as a worker at a local pharmacy. She too has spoken publicly on behalf of the Murfreesboro Islamic Center, and has even appeared on CNN and other prominent news outlets to share her story and fight common misconceptions that follow Muslims in this country.

It brought tears to my eyes to hear how she had been treated– how customers had refused her service at the pharmacy, and how people stared and jeered and taunted. The Sbanatys aren’t strangers to the Murfreesboro community; indeed, Dr. Sbanaty has lived in Middle Tennessee for around a quarter of a century, and the area is the only home his children have ever known. Lema spoke with as much of a drawl as any good country girl I know, seeming just as at home in her cowboy boots and fashionable jeans as she did in her head scarf. Yet she and her fellow Muslims have found themselves treated in recent years as outsiders rather than neighbors.

In addition to his identity as a Muslim and a university professor, Dr. Sbanaty is also from Syria, having obtained his undergraduate education at Damascus University. You could see the pain in his eyes when he talked about the current struggle plaguing his home country. I felt ashamed that here in America we couldn’t offer him something more than just less persecution, less danger, than what he would now face in his home country.

Despite their recent struggle with parts of the community and country-at-large, Lema and her father had positive stories to tell in addition to their sad ones– stories of the mountains of support they have seen from local churches and other groups that have come in to advocate on their behalf.

Yet this support seemed betrayed when the construction of the mosque hit so many snags. Arson, vandalism, and legal obstructionism have all taken their toll on the Muslim community in Murfreesboro, despite the opening of the mosque last summer. It makes me think: with all the arguing, name-calling, and ill-informed discussion, what do we lose in the background? What stories go untold, unheard? Surely something gets lost among our soundbites and rapid-fire commentaries.

Something Dr. Sbanaty said about the situation in Syria struck me rather deeply. He urged us to consider that, despite the simplistic narratives fed to us in the drone of endless news cycles, the actual environment in many of these countries that produces such violence comes not simply from the Muslim faith, but from the years of oppression, mis-management of funds, militarism, and complex socio-political and even tribal contexts that produce what we have seen in everything from the Arab Spring to the anti-American sentiment prevalent in some of the region. (Our own military intervention in these countries might also have something to do with it, I’d wager.)

What gets lost among the rubble of our terrible discussions, I think, is personhood. Polarization erases personhood. Whether it be in Murfreesboro, TN or Damascus, Syria– polarization pushes stories and individual experience out of the way for an easy stereotype or an easier cliche. What this presupposes about human dignity should give us pause.

As a Christian, I believe in the inherent worth of all God’s children.Therefore I also believe in the inherent worth of all these children’s stories, their lives. Just as Frank Fredericks’ wonderful post earlier this week about the parable of the Good Samaritan challenges us, I too want to challenge us to think: what goes unnoticed when we are unwilling to listen? What stories go untold?

Interfaith work can be a way of telling those stories. Tell them. Hear them. Share them.

Amen.

 

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From Ghana to West Virginia: Lessons about the Kingdom

I wrote this piece during a recent visit to Cape Coast, Ghana as part of an observational experience with the Global Health Initiative at the University of Illinois.

It’s a 10 hour flight between Washington D.C. and Accra, Ghana, giving me ample time to notice the group of twenty on the plane in front of me wearing matching t-shirts. The group displayed alternating colors of light blue and lime green and a logo that read “Kingdom Expansion” across their left breast.

They were from somewhere in West Virginia. And they got me thinking.

My first reaction was cynical. I was about to embark on an academic journey relevant to my graduate research, medical training, and interest in global health. As such, I initially felt some sort of self-righteous superiority, thinking back to my own “matching t-shirt” experience (ours were bright blue) —a “Go & Serve” mission trip to Jamaica when I was a freshman in high school—and feeling as though the current context of my travel was more sophisticated this time around.

To be honest, I assumed this “Kingdom Expansion” group was out to convert the people of Ghana to Christianity. And though that’s not something I believe to be a bad thing, the way in which I imagined them implementing their evangelism strategy left me feeling a combination of embarrassment and anxiety.

Keep in mind: this is all going on in my head. Perhaps I was jumping to conclusions.

So what was this group of brightly-clothed Christians who, for some reason, I didn’t trust to communicate the gospel effectively and respectfully, really out do to? Many of them were rough, middle-aged guys who had donned work boots and jeans with their uniform t-shirts for the 10 hours of backache-producing absence of legroom. So in reality, all clues pointed to a crew ready to build a house or fix a school – not the insensitive street-corner evangelicals I was afraid of, always ready to talk but never willing to listen.

Several days later I’m flipping through my pocket-sized Bible by the light of the single light bulb in my hotel room, the West Virginia group on my mind. I asked myself: Why was I so bitter about a group of Christians set out to “expand the kingdom?” And, more importantly, what does expanding the kingdom really mean?

First I’ll address the bitterness, which comes with a confession. I struggle sometimes to trust other Christians with communicating the gospel because of the prevalence of poorly-directed messages about sin and repentance which present Christ-followers as judgmental, self-righteous, and hypocritical instead of compassionate, humble and authentic. But I realize that I lacked any real knowledge about their intentions, and had based everything only on their matching t-shirts and rugged footwear. Needless to say, I realized that my concerns were irrational.

Meditating on the reality of that irrationality brought me quickly to reflection on the kingdom.

You see, I’m convinced that God calls me to a career in academia. The university best positions me with my strengths and gifts to serve the least of these and to work for the expansion of the kingdom of God. But it’s not an infrequent temptation to accept the irrational sense that other callings are less significant or Christ-centered than my own. And while my passion for God’s calling has me convinced that God’s plan for me is the most incredible thing in the world, I’ve come to the obvious conclusion that the central concept defining kingdom-expansion is broader than my own past, present, or future experience. In short, it’s bigger than me.

So somewhere in the process of thumbing through New Testament parables and puzzling over their meaning, I realized that the understanding for which I had been searching was hiding in plain sight.

But the answer is not about where you look; it’s about how you look at it. I learned that the answer can be seen in Ghana on the shack-lined dirt roads through which open sewers run, and in the clinics where medical supplies are scarce and good doctors even scarcer. And it can be seen in the eyes of children – some malnourished, sick or barely clothed – who respond with a mix of curiosity and excitement to the appearance of a foreign face.

In Ghana, there are so many opportunities to love. It’s a concept so plain that it could fit in a text message:

“Love one another,” he said. “As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” (John 13:34).

Interfaith work has taught me that loving others involves getting to know people personally – learning each person’s story and the philosophy that has both driven that story and been formed by it.

I think I was afraid that my fellow passengers from West Virginia weren’t aware of that lesson, and that their efforts at expanding the kingdom would suffer as a result. But something has reminded me that I shouldn’t assume they haven’t realized that Jesus valued relationships.

Maybe I’ll get lucky and the West Virginia crew will be on my flight home as well. Then I can ask them what they were doing to expand the kingdom in Ghana, and I’ll be careful this time not to make assumptions. Because although we’re provided with a rather ubiquitous model for love in the character of Christ, implementing that concept probably looks different for a second-year MD/PhD student from Illinois than it does for rugged guy from West Virginia.

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Reflecting on September 11

I remember the day when, shortly after September 11, 2001,  my mom asked me if anyone bullied the Muslim kid at school.

“No,” I said, “not that I’ve noticed.”

And I hadn’t noticed anything. But as we all know, not all American Muslims fared so well, and even if those I knew weren’t being bullied, there is no telling what sort of distress they felt inside that I couldn’t see.

So today, as I struggled to think about how to pose my reflections on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, one thing comes to mind: love.

And it is only proper that love should be the prevailing message, because the things which we remember are the ramifications of an ideology of hate, the destruction accomplished by terror. I believe that the objective of extremism is not solely the destruction of life, but the induction of hatred in others. So we see that from hatred, hate also rises.

That hate is manifested in many forms, from the violence that fuels war across the world to the doctrine that continues to raise terrorists around the world to the bigotry and intolerance of Islamaphobia here at home. So our reflections on 9/11 must not be only about the twin towers, flight 93, the pentagon, and those who died, but also a somber recognition that our struggle should not be a fight against other human beings, but against hate.

It is a fight that can only be won with love. I am reminded, then, of Jesus’ simple, yet profound words.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…” (Matthew 4:43).

“‘Love the Lord your God with all you heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hand on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40).

However you define neighbor and enemy, these words are clear: we are called to love. This must be our response, particularly on the day where we remember those who have lost their lives to hate.

I leave you with a verse on which I’ve been reflecting, as a final thought today:

There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

We love because he first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brotheror sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their borther and sister whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.

1 John 4:18-21

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The Anglican Church Goes After the New Atheists

Archbishop John Sentamu (Left) w/ Archbishop Rowan Williams (Right) Photo courtesy the Telegraph UK (http://tgr.ph/pAPSCB)

This post comes out of this article from the Telegraph, which discusses a new report endorsed by both the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr. Rowan Williams and the Archbishop of York Dr. John Sentamu that encourages clergy in the Church of England to “to be more vocal in countering the arguments put forward by a more hard-line group of atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, who have campaigned for a less tolerant attitude towards religion.”

So, some of you may be asking, why should we care? After all, we don’t live in Britain, nor are we Anglican. (Well, I am. But I’d expect many of our readers aren’t.)

One should care, I think, because at the root of this article lies a much more fundamental question regarding the relationship between the religious and non-religious in modern society. What I find most interesting is that the CofE’s report seems to locate the issue not only between Christians and atheists, but between all religious groups and atheists. The author writes:

“One of the paradoxes of recent times has been the increasing secularisation of society and attempts to marginalise religion alongside an increasing interest in spiritual issues and in the social and cultural implications of religious faith,” says the report, called Challenges for the New Quinquennium.

The Church must be “explicit about the need to counter attempts to marginalise Christianity and to treat religious faith more generally as a social problem,” it says.

[…]

The Church is keen to address the rise of new atheism, which has grown over recent years with the publication of bestselling books arguing against religion.

However, the document says that this intolerance is becoming more widespread and can be seen in public bodies, which it says must be challenged over attitudes of “suspicion or hostility towards churches and other faith groups”.

In recent years, a number of Christians have taken legal action against local councils and hospital trusts after being disciplined for expressing their faith by wearing crosses or refusing to act against their orthodox beliefs.

“There is still work to be done to counter the prevailing tendency of treating faith as a private matter which should not impact on what happens in the public realm.

“This is a challenge for all churches and faiths, but especially for the Church of England.”

As the report frames it, this isn’t just about Christianity– it’s “for all churches and faiths“. While things are a bit different here in the States– religion, for instance, is not marginalized as the author claims for Britain, and I find many claims made by Christians warning of impending threats of secularization dubious– I still find this deliberate “calling out” of one group worthy of watching.

If I’m not mistaken, the Vatican issued a similar exhortation to engage with secular society earlier this year (or a bit before), that sought to host dialogues and educational events in prominent cathedrals (I believe the article I read specifically named churches in Paris) between atheists and Christians. Such formal imperatives to get involved in the predominantly secular cultures in Europe could speak rather loudly as a bold step to save face, or it could represent a genuine attempt at peace and understanding divorced from mere proselytizing.

I’m all for engaging with atheists on notions of faith in public life– I’m even happy to debate theological/ethical/philosophical issues with the non-religious community; I believe a healthy debate is good, and can build bridges of mutual understanding if done well. However, what I hope does not happen is that the engagement turns into argument, rendering as lost any hope for understanding. Already many in the New Atheist movement have fervently spoken out against religion, calling it force for evil in the world and a gross suspension of reason. And here in the States, many in the more fundamentalist sects of the Christian faith refuse to deal with atheists, dismissing them all as immoral heathens bound for an eternity in hell. Painting in such broad strokes doesn’t strike me as productive, and so I hope that the CofE does a good job in countering New Atheism’s barbed critiques by promoting peace and a reasonable approach to faith.

Though sympathetic to the atheist’s position– and seeing it as a perfectly valid one– I personally  don’t appreciate the so-called New Atheist movement. I find it rather counterproductive and often results in the two sides (religious and non-religious) talking past each other. If the CofE can improve the public discourse surrounding the religious/non-religious divide, then I support the Archbishops’ effort; if this becomes another dialogic train wreck, however, I won’t think so highly of it. Much of this depends on how their initiative manifests itself in church life: will this be simply an increase in polemical apologetics, or a genuine attempt at providing quality lay-education programs on the subjects in question? Only time will tell.

In the meantime, the announcement of this report comes just before Greg and I are set to participate in a lunch-time panel discussion on Friday (tomorrow!) about Evangelicals and their (rarely peaceful) relationship to the atheist community. We will post more information on this event later.

We want to hear your thoughts. Do you think the church should engage so specifically with the so-called “New Atheists” and their criticisms?

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