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Pastor OK with atheist ads

Opportunity for all to reflect on society

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"Don't believe in God? You are not alone."

So reads the new bus ads taken out by the Humanists, Atheists and Agnostics of Manitoba.

In the ongoing battle between atheists and theists, how should a Christian respond to these provocative ads?

Doug Wiebe, our pastor at the Exchange Community Church, received a visit from a journalism student asking this question.

It's not clear what the student was expecting, but just a few minutes into the conversation, he rather suddenly cut it short. Maybe he was hoping for some fundamentalist, right-wing, extremist rant. When he found our pastor quite relaxed about it all, it appears he decided there might not be much of a story after all.

Whatever the reason for the shortened interview, our pastor was not particularly perturbed by the ads.

Sure, Christians could take up the classic oppositional stance and rail against the loss of Christian cultural significance and moral authority and decry the inherent nihilism we believe to be at the base of a theology-deficient world view.

Or they could welcome the opening of public space for questions of faith by people of goodwill. We so often lament, rightly or wrongly, what we feel to be the exclusion of Christian viewpoints from public dialogue while we stand in the corner pouting or sloganeering on a pet moral issue.

These ads place the issue of what we believe -- our faith in God, humanity or nothing -- back in the public eye and ear. They not only present a creed but place the belief, or lack thereof, in the context of community.

You are not alone!

We are reminded we are not merely interchangeable individuals. We are persons. We are unique. But our uniqueness can only be fully realized in a community of common concern and neighbourliness. As Christians, we call this church.

Now that the ads have given us the opportunity to speak theologically in the public space, what do we want to say?

A philosophical commitment to not believing in God is not a serious threat to Christianity in terms of our existence, even if we are more and more experiencing the privatization of belief in a secularist society -- it doesn't matter what you believe, just keep it to yourself.

If the bus advertisement of our atheist, agnostic and humanist neighbours opens the door to public speech, we must welcome and embrace the opening of the discussion.

We should use the opportunity these bus ads present to identify what really can undermine the commitment to a life lived in terms of a belief in God.

The real threat, I believe, is found in the last and longest of the Ten Commandments: "You shall not covet (desire) your neighbor's..."

This places the source of violence and discord in human life squarely on the shoulders of misplaced desire for whatever it is our neighbour possesses.

And this we name as capitalism (not commerce), where the goal is to manipulate desire and the individual is placed in constant conflict for goods and resources in a game of one-upmanship and greed.

The tragic end of this distortion of desire is the extreme poverty and untimely deaths of millions each year.

Especially in the West, Christians have been sadly complicit and frequently vocal and political supporters of unbridled capitalism as the best this world has to offer -- and maybe that is true. But that is all the more reason why we need to think, speak and act in terms of a belief in God.

Love God and love your neighbour, seek justice, live humbly.

This means seeing my neighbur (the other in my life whose needs I have the resources to meet) as my responsibility, and not pursuing my own ends at the expense of my neighbour. It means not buying into the myth of our 15 minutes of fame -- something we are apparently willing to do anything to get -- and then finding it is never enough.

That's what we are warned to guard ourselves against in the 10th commandment. It is the insidious, sometimes subtle, sometimes not so subtle message of our current political, economic, social and cultural institutions that creates this false desire. It's what Christians must turn their attention to if we really believe in our role as images of God in the world.

So if the ads of our atheist, agnostic and humanist neighbours spark interest and dialogue among the working poor, business people, students and commuters who might read them, all the better. Christians, and others of faith, must be prepared to open the conversation to what is the real threat, not only to our lives and faith, but to how we all make our way in this world. Clearly, the themes raised here require greater elaboration, and within this elaboration, I suspect we might find some common concern with our atheist/agnostic/humanist neighbours.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 13, 2013 A5


Updated on Sunday, October 13, 2013 at 11:01 AM CDT: First paragraph corrected

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