As a Christian raised Jewish, I have an interest in all things comparative religion; particularly online interfaith communities and blogs. It’s within these spaces that I have felt and still feel safe to parse through many of my questions, concerns, and doubts about Christian doctrines that don’t exactly line up with the Jewish ones I grew up with. These discussions take place in the blog comment threads, which, unlike other Internet dwelling spaces, are pretty well regulated for agenda-driven trolls, and are surprisingly civil. I can read comments I don’t agree with and not feel I lost any brain cells.
Selected more by coincidence than conscious choice, the blogs I read and interact with most are written by atheists and skeptics, many of whom used to be Christian. Their stories are often heartbreaking: a seasoned church leader asked a question of his elders about how hell can be just, which invoked accusations of apostasy. A committed Young Life student told her parents she thought she might be gay and was immediately thrown out of her childhood home. A student evaluated the evidence and came to the conclusion that evolution actually happened, and was told he must choose between his faith and science. The blogs born from those struggles exist, I think, not to challenge or criticize believers, but to comfort others with similar experiences and affirm that they are not alone.
I have a confession to make: I don’t find many Christian blogs to be nearly as compelling. It took some time for me to search myself and discover why that is. When it comes down to it, I believe the answer is because my virtual skeptic friends tend to be better at demonstrating humility, compassion, and care for “the least of these” than many evangelicals do. Ironically, I find that many skeptics I know have a closer understanding of Jesus’ teachings than many of the Christians I knew from my college ministry days. That could be because atheists in America have a more accurate understanding of what it might have been like to be those reviled, first-century outcasts that Jesus paid particular attention to in his ministry. If we American Christians are honest with ourselves, we’d admit that many—in fact, I’d wager most—of us do not experience the tension of choosing between authenticity and our families. In some cases, even choosing between authenticity and our jobs, like for my friend Neil in Mississippi.
Over the last few months, I’ve received offers from these bloggers to help moderate their comment sections: a “job” that basically requires making sure all participants are civil and respectful of one another. Any “trolls” coming in to blatantly proselytize without regard for the blog content will be respectfully asked to stop. If they don’t, they get banned.
This “job” gives me quite a bit of power, to put it mildly. And in the case of at least two of these blogs, I am the only Christian moderator—the only theist moderator, period. It’s actually a tremendous honor, which I believe I earned by being transparent about the doubts I have, particularly when it comes to the eternal fate of nonbelievers. My entire family is still Jewish, so this is something personal that I wrestle with a lot, and I’ve confessed many times that this doctrine might remain permanently filed in the “I Don’t Know” file of my theology, which I don’t believe is the same as dismissing it altogether. Ditto for the issues of homosexuality and, most relevant lately, the issue of whether or not it’s a sin to change one’s gender. “I don’t know” has sort of become a default, which I’ve explained is because knowing Jesus takes precedence over everything else. If the issue is not tied into the requirements for salvation—and to my knowledge, there’s only one requirement to be saved—then it’s not worth the risk of alienating people from faith, causing them to become more disillusioned and jaded than they might already be.
But my formative spiritual “training” took place in college, as a member of Campus Crusade for Christ, where it was pounded into me that the gospel is purposely exclusive and offensive. It’s supposed to be that way so it’s easier to weed out the “lukewarm” believers from the “on fire” ones. I can just imagine some of my former mentors shaking their heads at me instead of congratulating me for finding an “in” with atheists and skeptics. I imagine that they might accuse me of being too “soft.” If I effectively preached the gospel, as the Bible commands that I do, I wouldn’t have any atheist friends at all. This form of “tough love” isn’t designed to cultivate friendships, but to warn people of an impending fate they cannot see, not unlike a parent warning her teenage daughter that the older guy she’s been seeing is bad news, and she should not see him anymore.
I’m not sure how many Christians are aware of the fact that many atheists used to be Christian, and devoutly so. I don’t know how many Christians are aware that many of the apologetics we are trained to use are actually not that original to anyone who grew up in church or participated in youth groups. I wonder how many Christians are aware that many atheists can out-Bible them when it comes to Scripture memorization and biblical exegesis.
I naively assumed all atheists were ignorant of “true Christianity” until I started reading these blogs. And yes, as a Christian moderator, I do have an agenda. But it’s not what you think.
My “agenda” is to listen.
My “agenda” is to try to understand, even if I don’t agree.
My “agenda” is to imagine myself in the shoes of someone who has been hurt by religion and is too traumatized to return.
My “agenda” is to analyze myself and consider how some of my past actions might have contributed to driving those people out of church.
My “agenda” is not to save anyone, not to preach, not to persuade.
My only “agenda” is to be Jesus as best I can, however flawed my example.