The Table Podcast

Respectfully Engaging Atheism

In this episode, Drs. Darrell L. Bock and Glenn Kreider discuss world religions, focusing on atheism.

Respectfully Engaging World Religions
  1. Respectfully Engaging Sikhism
  2. Respectfully Engaging Shintoism
  3. Respectfully Engaging Animism
  4. Respectfully Engaging Judaism
  5. Respectfully Engaging Hinduism
Timecodes
00:15
Atheism as a religion
04:16
The core and range of atheistic belief
11:33
Attraction of atheism
19:08
Factors influencing atheistic belief
24:04
Atheism in the Unites States
27:17
Atheism and cultural engagement
33:36
Communication keys for conversations with atheists
39:06
The importance of patience and relationship
Transcript
Darrell Bock
Welcome to The Table, where we discuss issues of God and culture. I am Darrell Bock, executive director for cultural engagement at the Hendricks Center at Dallas Theological Seminary. And my guest – he almost is a regular; I think we have to create a new category for you – is Dr. Glenn Kreider, who is professor in systematic theology here at the seminary. Glenn, we thank you for coming in.
Glenn Kreider
Thanks, Darrell.
Darrell Bock
And our topic is we are in the midst of a series on world religions. And the subcategory that we are discussing today is atheism. Now, that might strike people as odd. But in one sense we are asking the question, because religions deal with world views and that kind of thing, should we think of atheism as a religion. And then we have three standard questions that we are going to work through; what’s at the center of what this religion or world view is, and then secondly, what causes people to adhere to it, and three, how does the gospel speak into that adherence? So that’s the road map for where we are headed.

So Glenn, thanks for coming in. We’ve had you talk about the new atheism before, and we’ve talked about the four horsemen of the apocalypse and all that kind of stuff.

So let me start off here; should we think of atheism as a religion?

Glenn Kreider
Well, if a religion is a world view perspective, if it’s a faith, conviction about the world and the way it works, then atheism is a religion. It’s a conviction that the world operates without a creator, without a god, and that adherence of the faith position live in light of that conviction.
Darrell Bock
Okay. And actually what’s odd is that I’m aware, as I’m sure you are, that there are atheists who have organized their “faith”, I’ll put it in quotes, in ways and building community and communicating with one another, even meeting together and singing hymns. You get all done with it and you go – except for the fact that it’s not connected to a belief in a god, all the other activity sociologically looks like what you would see in a church or a synagogue.
Glenn Kreider
Yes. In fact, friends of mine who are in those communities describe it as very similar to the church experience. And those who were previously active Christians who have made their way there talk about how necessary it is to have fellow believers or fellow nonbelievers, fellow adherence of a religious system in the – there is something about the structure, there is something about the weekly, regular meeting together and talking together, and even hearing what we might call sermons from our perspective. And similar religious practices like evangelism and apologetics that characterize the Christian faith.
Darrell Bock
Yes. I actually find the mirroring almost ironic.
Glenn Kreider
Well, in fact, the mirroring might indicate from a Christian perspective how deeply embedded belief in God and the practices of the Christian faith are in the world that God has made.
Darrell Bock
Yes. Because what people do even when they abandon Him, is they still go to all the features that reflect – so again, in an ironic kind of way, this inkling of the image of God within us, still grasping for things that are related to the way God made us. It’s an interesting thought.
Glenn Kreider
Inkling might be a pretty mild descriptor.
Darrell Bock
Yeah, that’s me. I’m always mild. [Laughter].
Glenn Kreider
I would say it’s compelling evidence.
Darrell Bock
There you go. There you go. So let’s talk a little bit about – I actually think another problem with this particular area is that actually all kinds of things are meant by atheism other than raw atheism. We’ve got a big bucket here that we could be talking about. And I think it’s clear that we need to be aware of the range of possibilities that we deal with here. So let’s go there. And this ties into what would normally be the first question in the series, which is, all right, so what makes this category? What does someone who is in this category believe? And one of the things that we are doing in this section is actually to help people see when you use a label – and it doesn’t matter whether it’s Islam or Judaism or whatever – that actually underneath that label are a lot of variations. It isn’t one-size-fits-all. So the issue of generalization can be a problem in thinking through this. So let’s deal with atheism. And I’m thinking about it in its popular sense as opposed to its technical sense. We all know what it technically means; someone who doesn’t believe in a god.
Glenn Kreider
Or who doesn’t believe there is enough evidence to commit to belief in a god.
Darrell Bock
Okay. So we’ve got that at the technical level. But in fact we’ve got a huge range here of what we’re talking about.
Glenn Kreider
Right.
Darrell Bock
So what would be in that range?
Glenn Kreider
And this is off the top of my head. I’m not aware of people who have made these kind of classifications. But I would think in terms of a continuum from a militant, committed, evangelistic atheist who is trying to convince everybody to accept his or her strong conviction that there is no god, even to the extent of having great confidence about that. Many atheists are a little more agnostic about it because it takes a great deal of certainty to be able to prove there isn’t a god.
Darrell Bock
A little chutzpa.
Glenn Kreider
Yeah.
Darrell Bock
That’s me being mild again. [Laughter]
Glenn Kreider
Well, on the other end of the continuum are people who haven’t really thought much about it, have never really considered the questions and are living without any outward recognition of the god who created them.
Darrell Bock
Almost by default.
Glenn Kreider
Almost by default.
Darrell Bock
Yeah, just without thought.
Glenn Kreider
And a similar continuum, by the way, in many other religions too.
Darrell Bock
Right, yes. And then thee is another group that probably technically doesn’t belong here but might operate in similar kinds of ways. And that’s the person who we might generalize and classify as agnostic. They haven’t made a commitment in this regard, but the are undecided and so they operate in most of their life as if there is no god.
Glenn Kreider
I would put agnostics on that continuum too. It’s not believing there is enough evidence – too many negatives in there – for there to be a god, but operating as if there is no god.
Darrell Bock
Yes. And of course one of the things I think is happening in our time with the way in which our culture has become more secularized in general is that a lot of people if they don’t have exposure to any kind of religious tradition at all – I don’t care what the religion is in making this point – then this is the bucket they land in.
Glenn Kreider
Yes, kind of by default. There was a time in our lifetime when we would think of atheism – because there was such a narrow sliver of the population in America – that we would think of atheism much more in a technical sense than today. Today it’s a pretty broad continuum of convictions.
Darrell Bock
And I think the numbers are showing that this category is growing, at least I you believe the people who talk about the category of the nones. That’s n-o-n-e-s. [Laughter] [Crosstalk]

So it’s a growing category. And I think it reflects the, as we’ve said already, the secularism that’s in our world.

Darrell Bock
And that category would include on this continuum I laid out earlier. But it also includes, and very disappointingly, a number of people who would formerly would have identified with another religion such as Christianity.
Darrell Bock
And have decided they’re not there anymore.
Glenn Kreider
Right. For any number of reasons.
Darrell Bock
Exactly. So the point here is that we’ve got a wide array of options. It also reflects something else that we’ve talked about that’s probably happened in our lifetime that’s an important part of the overall fabric of the way our culture is working these days. And that is it used to be – I want to get your reaction to this. My take on what’s going on is that it used to be there was a Judeo-Christian net around our culture. So it caught people who never actually got too close to the church. There were certain things in our schools and certain things in the culture in general, in the art that we saw, and that kind of thing that had these a least Judeo-Christian values that were influencing what was going on. It’s like a smallpox vaccination, you know? You got a little bit of it in your life whether you consciously contracted smallpox or not.

That net for the most part I think in our culture is gone. And so it changes the way, the impact of someone who just goes through life in America in particular – I think we’re talking about what’s going on in America, although I think you could apply this to the west in general for sure. And so to end up in a secularized kind of category by default now is a much easier thing to do than would have been the case 50 years ago.

Glenn Kreider
Christianity was privileged. And I like the way you described it; there was kind of this air – it was in the air. And church attendance, even though statistically most people weren’t in church. But it was such a part of the culture not just in the bible belt. But that’s gone. And atheists used to be on the margins. They used to be seen as strange and dangerous people. But increasingly in a secular world this is another option.
Darrell Bock
Yes, it’s a new normal.
Glenn Kreider
It’s a new normal. And Christianity no longer privileged and more and more marginalized and seen as scary to the culture.
Darrell Bock
So this sets up the transition into the middle portion of this conversation. Because I think we are going to spend the bulk of our time dealing with how does Christianity step into this. And that is what creates adherence. In other words, what’s the draw? And I actually think this is an important question to think about. Because there are lots of draws.
Glenn Kreider
Yes. There probably are as many draws as there are spots on this continuum. Everywhere from the person who has considered the claims of Christianity or other religions and finds them non-compelling and chooses to reject them all, to the person who has been deeply wounded by God’s failure to respond as he or she thought God should, to woundedness that comes from organized religion, to people who find the claims of naturalism more likely to describe the world as exists. I mean, there’s a wide continuum of perspectives.
Darrell Bock
That’s right. Which means that in conversations that you would have with someone who claims to be an atheist or an agnostic, this is just core, I think general, that you almost need to be able to get a spiritual GPS on where they’re coming from. You can’t generalize in such a way that you just go in with a template and say I’m going to slap this on top of you.
Glenn Kreider
Which, as you say, is generally the case.
Darrell Bock
That’s right.
Glenn Kreider
That it ought to always be the case as we interact with people that we ought to hear where that person is, we ought to listen to the person. We need to understand the context in which we are having the conversation instead of slapping on a response that’s generic, assuming that everybody in a particular position is exactly the same. Because not all old, white men are exactly like you or me.
Darrell Bock
That’s very, very true. Because we’re both odd. [Laughter]

And actually this is an important point I think. Because I think that some people in their conversations first, and almost from the very beginning – and I think that the impulse that we have to be evangelistic pushes us in this direction – want to get into the role of assessment before we have had understanding. And in these conversations what you want to do first I think is kind of get the layout of the land so you know where to engage and how to engage as opposed – and develop some element of trust and communication so that then when the hardest parts of the conversation come, the difficult parts, the places where you disagree come, you’re actually able to negotiate that space a little more effectively.

Glenn Kreider
Yes. And we’ve all been in situations – I know you have – where people assume they know what I believe, what you believe, based on something. And I just think it’s respectful and courteous and it’s a virtue to let the person speak for him or herself and to learn from them. I’m always interested in why you believe what you believe.
Darrell Bock
Yes, I am too.
Glenn Kreider
And how this works out for you. It’s easier to talk about how Christianity impacts if we have a common ground and understanding, a place to stand.
Darrell Bock
And getting a reading on where the person is coming from and what drives them actually helps you to understand how to move into those conversations. I tell people – this is a pretty standard thing I say now regularly – I say when you first move into a relationship and you know someone is in a different spiritual place than you are, you want to do two things; you want to get a spiritual GPS reading on where that person is coming from and how they put their life together. And then the second thing you want to do is you want to shut off your heresy meter. You know? And what I mean by that is that you don’t go into the first parts of those conversations with an every time I hear something I don’t agree with theologically and spiritually, I’m going to respond and give the retort. No. You save it. That’s why God gave you a mind. But you need that portrait first of understanding. Because sometimes it is a particular experience with the church that was real and painful, and might have even been abusive, that has triggered this that is going to need some really hard empathy in order to be able to have people work past that, that’s become like a phaser field wall that they’re put up into the conversation that prevents you from getting to them.
Glenn Kreider
Yes. It’s sometimes hard for Christians to conceive of a person who rejects belief in God. And it actually works for them or it appears to work for them. And that sometimes we just actually need to hear this person describe and talk about what their life is like and how what we find so precious and so important to us and so clear and so compelling from what we believe and what scripture teaches us about God, that there are people for whom that’s a real hurdle and a challenge. Because they don’t feel the need to change what they believe.
Darrell Bock
Now, I don’t know enough about your own personal story to know how this fits. But I did not grow up in a Christian home. I came to faith in college. So if I can say it this way; I know what it is to live life as an agnostic.
Glenn Kreider
I have no idea.
Darrell Bock
Okay.
Glenn Kreider
I grew up in a Christian home. I have always been a believer. I don’t remember any time that I didn’t believe. And I know there must have been some point along the way that [Crosstalk]
Darrell Bock
Theology teaches you that, right.
Glenn Kreider
But I have no idea when it was. I have no memory of not being a Christian.
Darrell Bock
Interesting.
Glenn Kreider
Which doesn’t mean I didn’t go through crises of faith or challenges.
Darrell Bock
Right. The point that I’m making is that I know what it is to be on the other side of that wall. And I used to be the person who would refute the Christian trying to share with me. I spent much of my high school career doing that. And so I know what that thinking is like. And so I do imagine – and maybe I’m wrong – but I think that for a lot of Christians for whom Christianity has been central in their life from the very beginning – their parents had it and maybe their grandparents or their great-grandparents had it – to think about an existence that doesn’t have that as part of the equation is just so foreign.
Glenn Kreider
Yes. It’s completely foreign to me. It’s foreign to my experience. And it’s been really helpful for me to listen to stories of people not only from your perspective, but people who don’t have antagonism toward any religion but are comfortable – so I’m kind of in the middle of this continuum here talking about people who are not real militant about it and who are not wounded, but for whom through growing up in this kind of an environment or just never having considered – religion is not a big deal to them.
Darrell Bock
Yeah, that function in a culture in which religion is kind of on the edge. They have negotiated the spaces of their life in this kind of a way and they have managed. You know, ups and downs, life throws you ups and downs. But that’s true for anybody. And so they sit there and they say, you know, do I need this? And so they have lived in that world and it’s – we talked about the new normal earliest – it’s their normal life and it has been their normal life.

So I think sometimes when we grow up in the church, we don’t realize that thousands of people grow up that way. And you are actually – this may sound odd, but you’re actually when you introduce the topic of religion asking them to create a category for their lies that they’ve spent all their life function without. Quite nicely, thank you. You know? And so that’s where they’re coming from.

Glenn Kreider
And yet at the same time it is helpful I think to find some way of talking about – we are all people of faith. And so to believe that there is a god, to believe there is no god, those are both faith commitments. And we can find common ground there to begin talking about what faith is and how we all live in light of what we believe.
Darrell Bock
And that actually makes for a nice transition into the, as I said, what causes someone to adhere. Well, sometimes they are reactive. Sometimes this is just where their life has been all along. You get emotions on top of that. Some people are, as you said earlier, almost evangelistic in the way they go about this. They adhere and they are going to proselytize in this direction. In some cases they proselytize in their mind to protect people from the dangers of what they see coming out of religions, and they’re pretty passionate about that. And then other people are just there. You know? As you said, they’re not going to push back on the fact that you have a religious faith. In fact, I’ve heard people in this category say to me I think it’s nice that you have this; it’s just not something that’s driven my life. But for you it seems to work, and that’s nice. I don’t know if it’s taunt, but it’s an interesting place to be.
Glenn Kreider
And those categories overlap in religious worlds too. There are Christians who have grown up in the bubble of Christianity and have never really thought much about it. You just kind of accept to the beliefs of the people around you. There are some Christians who come to faith in crisis moments. And other religions have those same categories of beliefs, too.
Darrell Bock
Well, the statistics tell us this is a growing category. We were talking earlier about it used to be that this was a narrow group of people who were kind of seen and were culturally pushed out as kind of odd. But that’s no longer the case, is it?
Glenn Kreider
No. This is the fastest-growing religious conviction in the United States of America. Probably 25 percent of the population. At least who would identify as non-religious, would check the none box.
Darrell Bock
That’s right. And it seems to be growing in a significant way among younger people as well. It’s the I’m opting out of this.
Glenn Kreider
And yet it’s growing among all segments of the population. So it’s not just young people.
Darrell Bock
Right. The interesting thing is that I think what it reflects is – well, the way I like to say it is that one of the things that’s happened in our world is that we are aware of more choices, if I can say it that way. And I’ve said the world gets bigger and smaller simultaneously. There are more people, but we also have so much communication about what’s going on with all those people that we are in closer connection being aware of what’s going on outside our own world. It’s harder to live in a bubble.
Glenn Kreider
Yes. And the days of living in a town with a Methodist church, a Presbyterian church, and two Baptist churches as the only options, those days are over. All kinds of religious practices and religious convictions throughout the country.
Darrell Bock
So this category is becoming a growing category. We’ve already suggested that some of that might be just by the nature of the default of what’s happened in our culture at large. Now, let me deal with one other kind of sociological question before we dive into interaction with people out of this group. And that is the sociological reality is that as this group grows and becomes more prevalent and becomes less exceptional, the challenges on the church grow. Because I can’t assume the net anymore. It’s gone. And one of the reactions might be, well, we’ve got to get it back.
Glenn Kreider
Hard to do when you’re considerably less in numbers than other religions. If we are less than 20 percent – evangelicals, if we are less than 20 percent, it’s pretty hard to get back what was lost. Privilege is over.
Darrell Bock
Yes. So that means all kinds of things. I like to tell people that – that bothers people. That can make them afraid. But I actually like to remind people, that’s actually where the early church started. When Jesus had his 12 and 120 in the midst of the Greco-Roman world and a world of about 70 million, that was a pretty small percentage.
Glenn Kreider
A pretty small group.
Darrell Bock
Yeah. And yet they managed by the way they lived and started out to represent God well, be faithful, and have an impact. And so it’s not necessarily something we should be afraid of.
Glenn Kreider
Right. Christianity has always thrived, because it’s true, powered by God.
Darrell Bock
Right.
Glenn Kreider
And it thrives in a variety of cultural contexts. We are in a new normal, in a world certainly never envisioned by the founding fathers, but a world of freedom of and freedom from and freedom for and freedom through –
Darrell Bock
Just freedom.
Glenn Kreider
Yeah.
Darrell Bock
That is the mantra of our culture.
Glenn Kreider
And in a real sense Christianity should not be privileged in such a pluralistic world view.
Darrell Bock
In fact that’s the point of inviting people into sacred space, is to say we recognize there is the world, and then there’s the walk with God. And those are not the same thing. And if it were an intrinsic part of the world, then you wouldn’t need the church.
Glenn Kreider
Right. That we were salt and light in the world certainly indicates that apart from the salt and light there would be tastelessness and darkness.
Darrell Bock
Yes. And we are created to be countercultural and to be distinctive. And thus by its very nature almost be a minority. Well, that was easy. [Laughter] Easier said than done, right?
Glenn Kreider
Exactly right.
Darrell Bock
So let’s turn our attention to engagement now and thinking through – and whatever word you prefer beyond engagement. But let’s turn to thinking through how do I interact with this new reality. And I think the first question I want to ask goes something like this. And I’m asking you to speak kind or out of your own experience. So you grew up in an environment in which Christ and the church has always been a part of your life. And yet you have managed I know to develop an understanding of and sensitivities towards an engagement with people whose life experience is the exact opposite of your own. How does that work?
Glenn Kreider
I have learned to listen. And many people would say you don’t listen enough. But I have learned to listen and to try to understand where this person is, what led to this position, and to avoid overgeneralization, as I mentioned earlier. It frustrates me when people assume because I teach at Dallas Seminary they know what I believe about everything. And I don’t want to do that to other people. I want to hear – I’m really fascinated to hear people’s stories, how they got to where they are, what they believe, how it’s working, and to try to find some way in the midst of that listening to find, A, some common ground that we all share. Living in a fallen world, in a broken world, nothing works the way it’s supposed to work. We break everything we touch. And also to connect the gospel, connect what scripture teaches us, to this person’s life experience and to help them to see that God is active and present and working in this world.
Darrell Bock
And that God is kind of used to working with people who don’t understand who He is, right? [Laughter]
Glenn Kreider
He used to working with them [Crosstalk].
Darrell Bock
That’s right. Well, that’s the point. Anyone who reads Romans 3 understands that God is – this is the nature of His laboratory. We all fall short, need God. We all have struggled with how to be connected to God. And it’s by His goodness and grace that we get connected to Him to begin with. So the idea that someone would be there in and of itself is not surprising. We said it’s the new normal, but actually the way to think about it is maybe it’s the old normal.
Glenn Kreider
Yes. And that leads me to add an additional component, to recognize that growing up in the church – I grew up in a Christian community where I picked up that we actually have everything together, we understand everything. And to come to appreciate and understand our brokenness too, my brokenness, and to be able to confess that and to find common ground there. It’s incredibly important.
Darrell Bock
Yes. God is at work in all of our lives. I like to say that one of the best ways to be an effective Christian is to never forget where you came from and how you absolutely needed God to get there.
Glenn Kreider
And never forget where you’re going.
Darrell Bock
Exactly right. So it’s both elements. And the important part of that connection is to recognize that everyone’s need for God is the same. Whether you’re in the faith or out of the faith, everyone has the same need for God. And so that point of connection I think is an important part of the conversation.

Okay, well, let’s talk a little bit more about engagement. Okay, so I listen. That’s step one; I listen. And what am I listening for?

Glenn Kreider
I’m listening for understanding. I want to hear the story. And I’m listening for opportunities to connect what the scripture teaches us to draw attention to those God moments in a person’s life. And when you begin to hear stories of how what looks from a Christian perspective, because it is, that God is at work in a person’s life whether or not they are aware of it or not, and to be able to see these remarkable, these amazing, these surprising coincidences, that you begin to see a pattern in the way lives work. And I would attribute that to the work of God at least to be able to begin that conversation.

We also see the incredible beauty in the world that God has made and to help people recognize that in the complexity of the world that God has created and the beauty of the world that God has created, his fingerprints are everywhere – or better, his fingers are everywhere; because fingerprints are evidence of his absence. God is present in the world. But when I say fingers, I have to point out that God doesn’t actually have fingers. That’s a figure of speech too.

Darrell Bock
Don’t – please [Laughter] There are simple things that I like to do that can often turn a discussion at least in an interesting kind of direction. And that is just to think about what it takes for life to exist on the earth. The particular balance of all the factors; the way our atmosphere works and everything else. And you sit there, and it is a kind of argument from design where you sit there and you say, you know, a piece of DNA is so complex and so wonderfully woven. And sometimes we think the scientists are the least religious, but there are scientists who are quite committed, who say if you understand the science and the chemistry of what it takes for DNA and the way it’s constructed and for it to work, and to think that that’s just by accident.
Glenn Kreider
We’re all people of faith seeking understanding.
Darrell Bock
Right. And so that’s one place that I like to start. But let me talk about this idea of building bridges. I want to give an example in the scripture. It always blows me away in Acts 17. Paul starts off his message at Mars Hill by saying, I see that you are very religious in every respect. Now, that term religion he has a double-entendre word. It’s has a superstition element in it. But he really is reaching out to them. Because he goes to the example of the idol to the unknown god. And he says here is an orientation that you have and here’s a gap in your thinking that I want to dive into. And he’s trying to give them pause and thinking through where they are coming from. He is starting from where they are coming from.

And I actually think part of the role of understanding is to try and establish points of where the person is coming from that can be fruitful for the direction of a conversation. Is that what you’re looking for as well?

Glenn Kreider
Yeah. You mentioned Romans 3 earlier. I think Acts 17 is Paul’s exposition of Romans 1, that God’s eternal power and divine nature are plain and clear and seen and known and understood in creation. And so in Acts 17 he starts where these religious people are and then he tells them the story of the scripture, that God is the creator of heaven and earth, he is in charge of everything that happens in this world, even to the times and places you –
Darrell Bock
So how in the world do you think you can contain him?
Glenn Kreider
Yes. So He doesn’t need you. He serves us, we don’t serve Him. And that he has appointed a time of judgement and sent his Son. That story of creation, fall, and redemption, is the story that Paul tells. And it’s the story that scripture tells, and it’s the story we should be telling over and over again and to find some way to integrate people into that story, to show how their stories fit into that story. And what’s most fascinating to me about that is that Paul does that without quoting the scriptures. Not that quoting the scripture is unhelpful, but that he is using biblical language. He is using scriptural language without citing –
Darrell Bock
He is painting a biblical canvas without telling you in parenthesis where it’s coming from.
Glenn Kreider
But what he does quote is pagan poet. He’s quoting the voices, the authorities of the people that – he is quoting the people that they are listening to, which is also I think a very effective way to communicate the truth of the gospel to people to help them see that the voices of the cultures are calling out to the God who created us.
Darrell Bock
There are places – I like to say this to students on a regular basis – there are places in the cultural language where you see people reaching for that which reflects the fact that they are made in the image of God.
Glenn Kreider
Yes, everywhere.
Darrell Bock
That’s right. It’s all over the place. And you see it in the longings. It may come out in distorted ways, but it’s there. And they are the basis for conversations. And I actually think good art surfaces this in powerful ways. Good music does the same thing. Lyrics, that kind of thing.
Glenn Kreider
Love songs are a cry for a transcendent love. Songs about and descriptions of brokenness and fallenness assume that things shouldn’t be this way or assume that things could be better. And we are right back in the story of creation, fall. We mess it up, but God is at work even in a fallen world working redemptively culminating in a new heaven and a new earth.
Darrell Bock
Now, there is one feature of this that is worth discussing that fits right into the topic we’re talking about, about atheism. And that is in the ancient world it wasn’t a non-religious world. And what I mean by that is that there was a belief in transcendent spirits that permeated the culture. I like to tell people in the Greco-Roman world there were 150 religious holidays every year. That’s a holiday every three days. I’m sitting there saying, we need that calendar. You know? [Laughter]

And the cultural expectation is you would recognize what those holidays were about and you would dive into the celebration of what that was about. And it portrayed a certain reality. But today – and us – just to complete the picture, so everyone had a sense that they were a creature in one sense or another.

Glenn Kreider
And accountable.
Darrell Bock
And accountable to whatever those – however they conceived those forces to be, if they had to be placated or whatever, however many there were – yeah, I’ve got to go to these temples, I’ve got to make sure I cover that area. However that was viewed, they saw that.

Now, that is something that we can’t assume today.

Glenn Kreider
That’s right.
Darrell Bock
And so we have a different starting point. So my point is you could dive into the creator/creature relationship through the lens of the bible. Acts 17 is saying how do you talk to someone who doesn’t know Genesis from Malachi, who has no idea what that story is at all, doesn’t know any of it.
Glenn Kreider
You tell them the story.
Darrell Bock
You tell them the story. And you tell them the basics of the story, which is you’re a creature, there is a creator. There is only one creator, and you are accountable to Him. Okay, so that’s where it starts. You can’t do that today necessarily.
Glenn Kreider
No, no. Well, I think you can. I think you can tell the story. I think because of the image of God there is a deep-seeded conviction or a deep-seeded – that’s probably not the right world – a nagging sense in every human being that we are not the center of the universe and that there are certain things about the way the world works that are outside of our control and that to begin to – it does take a great deal of effort to help people recognize some sense of a transcendence, some sense of wonder and mystery. And the challenge is to get from that to God, particularly if Paul is right in Romans 1, that the universal response to God’s existence is rebellion against Him.
Darrell Bock
And suppression.
Glenn Kreider
And suppression of Him. Which is why it is so good and so comforting and encouraging to know that nobody accepts the things of the spirit except through the spirit. The spirit is the one who leads a person to understanding. The spirit is the one who makes it possible for the content of this story and the content of the gospel and the work of Christ to make an impact in a person’s life. We are vehicles of that story, we are tellers of that story, but we depend upon, we rely upon the spirit to do that work.

And I think in real sense it is a function of life in this culture that we are becoming more and more aware of our dependence upon the spirit’s work in our evangelism and apologetics.

Darrell Bock
Yes, I agree with you, and I don’t think I can reinforce this enough. I often to say to people, our responsibility is to be faithful in telling the story. We are not responsible for the results. That’s above our pay grade.
Glenn Kreider
And we have come out of an era – at least this is my observation – we have come out of an era where the power – the conviction was that the power was in what we do. And we can convince people, we can provide evidence.
Darrell Bock
If we just get the right method and the right details, we’ll be in good shape.
Glenn Kreider
So we created a set of templates which we then tried to apply in different situations. We are now much more aware of the diversity. So we’re right back to where we started, to understand –
Darrell Bock
It’s much more fluid and requiring discernment and judgement, which is why the understanding piece of the initial part of the conversation is so important.
Glenn Kreider
Yes. And I’ll come right back to Romans 1 again. There is evidence that demands a verdict, and the verdict is universal rejection. So what then is the transition? What’s the change? How does a person who is closed to the gospel, how does a person who walks through life with eyes wide shut, how is a person who refuses to acknowledge the clear and compelling evidence of the creator, how does that person move to become a person of faith? It’s the wonder and the miracle of conversion, that somehow something happens, and there are all kinds of ways that happens, that this person then comes to be a person of faith and has a new starting point, has a new place to stand, has a new story that they are now a part of.

And that’s the other part of this engagement that I think is so important. Not only do we need to hear others’ stories, but we need to tell our stories. And your story will connect with some people in a way that mine never will. And mine will connect with some people in a way that yours never will. And that somehow God brings us together with people where those stories intersect and overlap and connect to the grand story of creation, fall, and redemption.

Darrell Bock
And of course as we have suggested already, you’re talking about creating a category for people that they have spent much of their life functioning without. Which is just awkward.
Glenn Kreider
Yes.
Darrell Bock
It is.
Glenn Kreider
Yeah, but it’s awkward both ways.
Darrell Bock
Yes, absolutely. And it requires an element of patience about the whole enterprise at a relational level that I think we have to be prepared for.
Glenn Kreider
Yes. We are not marketers. We don’t have the sales pitch. We are human beings who interact with another human being created in the image of God. So this is a very significant manifestation of what it means to believe that human beings are God’s images.
Darrell Bock
Well, Glenn, thank you for coming in and talking about atheism and agnosticism and Nones with us, and just helping us think through how we engage in kind of the variety of what we are dealing with. This is an important conversation. There are more and more people who belong in this category. And it really is requiring the church to think about how they do evangelism in categories with people that they are not used to interacting with. So I think you for coming in and being a part of this today.
Glenn Kreider
Thank you, Darrell.
Darrell Bock
And we thank you for being a part of The Table and hope that you’ll be back again with us soon.
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Darrell L. Bock
Dr. Bock is senior research professor of New Testament and executive director for cultural engagement at Dallas Theological Seminary. He has authored or edited more than forty books, including Jesus according to Scripture: Restoring the Portrait from the Gospels, Jesus in Context: Background Readings for Gospel Study, Studying the Historical Jesus: A Guide to Sources and Methods, Jesus the Messiah: Tracing the Promises, Expectations, and Coming of Israel’s King, Who Is Jesus?: Linking the Historical Jesus with the Christ of Faith, and Key Events in the Life of the Historical Jesus: A Collaborative Exploration of Context and Coherence.
Glenn R. Kreider
Dr. Glenn R. Kreider identifies his motivations as his passion for the triune God and his desire to help others respond to divine revelation in spirit and truth. Prior to coming to DTS he directed Christian education and pastored a church in Cedar Hill, Texas. Dr. Kreider’s research interests include Jonathan Edwards, theological method, and our eschatological hope. He is married to Janice and they have two children. Dr. Kreider enjoys his adorable black lab named Chloe, two pugs, bold coffee, and good music.
Sexuality
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