Friday, August 2, 2013

TURNING POINT

Battle Creek Academy is a small school run by the Seventh-day Adventist church that is located in, yes, Battle Creek, Michigan.  The school, which includes classes from first grade through high school, has always been unapologetically committed to providing its students a Christian--and more specifically a Seventh-day Adventist--education.  Prayer, hymn-singing, religious services, and religious instruction are an integral part of each school day’s activities.  It is where I went to school from the first grade through graduation from high school.  

On a warm and sunny day in the early fall of my junior year of high school my friend David and I sneaked off campus over the lunch hour to visit a small natural history museum located just a few minutes north of the school grounds.  Leaving campus during the school day was forbidden, but it was easy to do, so we did.  

Many people can’t identify a specific point in time when their view of the world shifted or was clarified, but I can. 
If someone had asked me that morning if I was a Seventh-day Adventist, if I accepted Christ as my personal Savior, if I believed in his resurrection, if I believed in a personal God who could and did intervene in our daily lives, I’m not sure how I would have answered.  The “standard” response to all of those questions had always been yes.  But I had read and experienced a number of things that I believe were at work in my thinking and that had set me up for what happened at the museum.  The fact is, though, that no one that I knew well--parents, siblings, classmates, teachers--would have considered asking such questions, at least not in a serious sense.  Everyone already knew what the answers should be.  There just wasn’t anything to doubt.

As I said, I don’t know how I would have responded to those questions before that visit to the museum.  However, I know that on our return a half hour later my answer to all of those questions would have been no.  A moment came during that visit when I realized that I no longer believed in any of the major tenets of the SDA church, no longer believed in Christ’s divinity or in the truth of his resurrection, no longer believed in a personal--or for that matter, impersonal--God.  And here’s the thing: I don’t believe that the events of that half-hour changed my beliefs.  Unlike Saul of Tarsus, I did not have an epiphany in the sense that I clearly believed one thing at one moment and something different the next.  Rather, that visit served to clarify what had already occurred in my thinking, in my view of the world.

I have Christian friends who are concerned for me, for my current spiritual well-being as well as for my ultimate salvation.  A number of those friends have prayed for me.  Others have cried when I have explained to them my beliefs (or more properly lack of beliefs) about God and Christianity.  I know that they are sincere in this.  As far as I’m concerned, everything ends with my death.  There was a time when I was upset with that fact, but now I actually can take some comfort in that knowledge.  

How do I explain to these friends that my beliefs are not a matter of choice.  I do not have a choice in what I believe, nor can I change my beliefs because another alternative seems more attractive, anymore than they could change their beliefs just by wanting to or because someone asked them to.  More specifically, my loss of faith was not a choice that I “made.”  I didn’t sit down, weigh all the factors, consider the alternatives, and consciously make a decision--that is, voluntarily change my mind.  Instead, I have a strong sense that this was a change that occurred to me rather than being one that was made by me.

I want my friends also to understand that truth is more important to me than faith.  I accept that we can never actually know the truth.  All we can do is more and more closely approximate it through the exercise of our human intellect, applying a skeptical application of the scientific method instead of acceptance of and reliance on authority.  That intellect and that methodology are limited and imperfect, but they are the best that we have and they have been enormously successful.  I take great joy in learning about what we have been able to accomplish in understanding the world, and I would like others to share in that joy.  I realize that there is an argument that, by looking to science and the scientific method to inform my view of the world, I am simply putting “faith” in a different “authority.”  I hope that I will be able to explain why I believe reliance on the scientific method is superior to reliance on authority in the general sense of that term.

Just as some of my friends are distressed by my worldview, I am distressed by theirs.  I would like to share with them the beauty of how successful science and mathematics have been in explaining reality.  But, in my view, their reliance on authority places limitations on that understanding.  And that saddens me.  However, I realize that, just as my perspective is hardened, if you will, by age, so is theirs.  Moreover, while I am not particularly offended by the need for evangelism that some of my Christian friends feel, I fear that they would be offended by any effort on my part to press my secular beliefs on them.  I know that in some ways I have worn my point of view on my sleeve:  My license plate says “SKEPTC.”  But I have learned to treat the matter lightly.  Nevertheless, just like others, I would like to spread the “gospel” of my view on “the truth.”  My advancing age adds to that need and to the urgency I feel to do so.  It is my hope that this venue can serve to do that.

My plan here is to explore, perhaps in alternating posts, both some of the events in my life that led me to my worldview, as well as some of the primary tenets of that worldview. If nothing else, I believe my efforts to write these brief essays will serve to clarify for me how I came to have the views that I do and how I continue to feel about those views.   My journey has been personal to me, of course.  Even so, I am hopeful that to some degree at least my experiences will resonate with others and that these entries will engender expressions either of commonality or of respectful disagreement.  I think we can all learn from such dialogues.  I am looking forward to this.

John


© 2013 John M. Phillips

14 comments:

  1. just one thought, this phrase - "reliance on authority places limitations on that understanding"...I am sure many Christians allow "authority" to do their thinking for them and swallow hook, line and sinker anything that is spoon fed them. Infact, I think, at Battle Creek Academy we were pretty much expected to parrot back what we were told and not to question what was presented. But there are some who do their own thinking and studying. There are some Christians that do not dismiss science and nature, and still conclude there is a entity in the universe that is the source of life, and the sustainer of life. That Being is often referred to as God, but often the picture of God is so twisted that being a skeptic is the better course to follow. There are so many pictures of God and most I would reject...and if there is a God then He is Love.

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  2. Hi, Lisa. One of my goals in doing this blog was to help me to articulate better my views on these matters, and you have already helped by pointing out that my phrase "reliance on authority" is not as clear as it should be. It might be helpful to think of reliance on authority on two levels. One level states that we should accept something as true or as a given simply because our parents or teachers or someone else "in authority" declares that we should. This is like a parent answering a child's question of "Why?" with the phrase, "Because I said so." Not very satisfying and really the wrong message to send in my view. But there is another level to the idea of reliance on authority, and that is the level that I was really trying to refer to in my post. On that level the authority that I am referring to is scripture itself. And on this level reliance on authority instructs us that if there is any conflict between scripture and, say, geology or paleontology or chemistry or physics or biology, then scripture, as the ultimate authority, is to be preferred. At its most fundamental level, science states that there is no authority that should be preferred to rational analysis applied to the unvarnished evidence. It's OK to try to reconcile science and scripture, but if they differ, for example, on the age of the earth, then science states that the scripture must be wrong. This is the very essence of skepticism. Personally, it was not that I found the picture of God to be twisted or unacceptable, it was rather that I found that science explained how life could come into existence and was self-sustaining through the laws of nature and not because there was a God who created or sustained it. I plan to write a lot more about these matters in later posts, but I would enjoy any other thoughts you might have about this (hopefully) clarified idea of reliance on authority. John

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  3. Hi Uncle John,

    I read your blog and being a Christian, I would like to respond. I am breaking this into 2 parts as it’s too long for one post.

    First of all I did not have the intense push towards religion that you did growing up. We went to church sometimes (usually Easter) and I went with many friends growing up over the years and have experienced many religions. At one time I declared myself an atheist for a few months (I was in my early teens) but soon realized I DID believe in God and my belief was stronger than my teenage angst. I go to church sometimes today. I believe that there is no ‘one right’ church but I do believe that singing hymns, praying and worshiping together is a gift that develops strong community support. It’s that support that sustains those of us who believe, when times are bad.

    When you talk about ‘truth’ and science and how mathematics successfully explains all the complexities and beauty of the world, let me counter that with my own belief in ‘truth’. I believe there are many things that science cannot explain, at least to my satisfaction. You in turn, may feel there is an explanation and I welcome you to share it. As you know, you will not change my POV, nor will I change yours and I have nothing but respect for you or what you believe in, no matter how misguided.

    Let me state that I do believe in evolution and that God made it possible for things and life to evolve and adapt to the changing world. I don’t believe we are all from the same primordial soup but were created. I don’t think science can explain things such as emotions, why do we love? Why do we hate? Why is there a duckbill platypus? (Left over parts is my guess…ha ha). Why do we have a sense of humor? Why didn’t any other creature evolve to have the capabilities of humans? Why are there albinos in nearly every creature on the planet from crickets to humans? I am really making rhetorical questions, I’m sure you have a scientific explanation for all of those things but something as simple as laughter, why? It serves no real purpose, except as an emotional expression.

    I also think it’s so coincidental that nearly every species on the planet must have a mate to reproduce. Not to mention the vast amount of different creatures, plants, insects etc. that exist in our world. It's staggering. I find it fascinating that you believe it actually happened by accident. Oh sure, we’re cloning and growing ears on the backs of rodents but that’s with extreme scientific, controlled conditions and even then, it’s not easy! For me the answer is clearly, Divine intervention.

    I get from the drift of your blog that somehow you may feel that those of us who DO believe in God, and Christ are perhaps less intelligent because we don’t understand the math or the science that’s why we rely on God for our explanation? However, to me, you just have a strong craving for order and it’s difficult to accept anything but a clear cut orderly answer. END PART ONE

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  4. I also wonder when you speak about your early years in SDA church, how you raised your children? If you felt that religion was ‘pushed’ on to you did you let your children explore a religious belief or was science the thing you ‘pushed’ onto them? I’m curious if they have any religious beliefs of their own today. I think it’s natural for parents to teach their children their own beliefs and I don’t think reading scripture and hymn singing is so horrible. I also don’t think teaching science is horrible either but I do believe we should be open to two schools of thought as to HOW it all came about. Are you not being just as close minded when you only look at one possible answer? Isn’t it just as one-sided to teach only one concept as you felt your religious upbringing was to teach that God is the only possible answer to everything?

    Based on a couple of your statements such as about your advancing age adding to the urgency to explain your POV and that everything ends with your death. I also have a few questions I would like to know the answers to if you are willing to share them. Would you like there to be life after death? Would you welcome an epiphany? Have you tried to experience a faith in God? I almost get the feeling that you would like someone to make an argument that could convince you there is such a thing, that there was a math problem that did explain God. Your license plate being ‘SKEPTC’ is not unlike those that declare their faith. Some Christians are over the top because they need reassurance of their path. I don’t make many such declarations. I don’t need someone to convince me either way, I am confident and resolute in my belief.

    I do pray for you Uncle John, I have always looked up to you and respected you and I feel that you will have that epiphany but it may come at the time of your death. I am not worried about your soul as some of your friends may be, because I believe God knows you, like he knows all of us and one day it will all be made clear to you and perhaps only to you.

    I know that I am no match for your intellectual level, my statements may seem real simple or even silly to you. I hope that you do not take any kind of offense to any of my questions. It all comes from love.

    Respectfully,
    Your Niece Julie

    P.S. I don’t have anything to lose in my belief. I too see the world and it’s complex beauty if not through the ‘scientific’ way you see it, then through the ‘God-Given’ way I see it.

    Thank you for listening. END

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  5. Follow up... I meant to put a >GRIN< after my comment about being misguided (it dropped when I was editing my post) I meant it more as a joke. Also, I meant to state ANY such declarations not MANY declarations. New to blogging and wanted to clarify it.

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  6. Hi, John. I am glad to see that you have actually started your blog. I know you have wanted to do this for a while now. You have mentioned several things that many Christians will probably want to respond to in one way or another, and I'm sure you are not surprised that I am one of them. My concern at the moment is what you said about basing one's belief on "authority." Perhaps, as you indicated, you will clear this up a bit more later. Meanwhile, I am having trouble distinguishing the difference between those of us who believe in scriptures as our ultimate authority and those who believe that "no authority should be preferred to rational analysis applied to the unvarnished evidence." Is this preference to "rational analysis applied to unvarnished evidence" in itself not your ultimate authority? (By the way, I love your niece's thought process. She certainly reminds me of her uncle...only on the opposite side of the fence!)

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    1. Hi, Gerrie.
      Thanks for responding on my blog. Your comment regarding science as just another authority is well taken. And in one sense I agree with you. I do find myself being more willing to accept a statement based on science than one based on "authority," such as scripture. I think the difference is that science is willing to change its view based on the evidence. There are all kinds of examples of this, beginning with Copernicus and the idea of the earth circling the sun rather than the reverse. Other examples include Newtonian physics being replaced by Einsteinian relativity and more recently plate tectonics. Belief based on authority, on the other hand, is not as willing to change. If the authority doesn't change, neither does the belief. Sometimes scriptural authority does change, as when there is a "sea change" in terms of the attitude toward the Old Testament, such as the perception of God. I think it gets dressed up as a change brought about by Christ's death and resurrection, but my sense is that this is just a way to justify a change in the authority. What do you think? The other point I would make about science as authority is that science has been incredibly successful. Just look at all the advances in technology and medicine--all accomplished through reliance on science.

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  7. Hi, Julie, Thanks for reading my blog and for replying to my initial post. I hope that you will find reason to check in in the future and to respond as you did here.

    A major reason I started this post was to help me to clarify my own thinking about these matters and simply to express myself, as I do with my photography blog.

    Anyway, you raised a large number of questions and I will try to address a few here. Others concern topics that I am planning to deal with in future posts, so all the more reason for you to continue to tune in.

    One of the questions you raised concerned why we have emotional responses, such as love, hate, or humor. My personal belief is that, generally speaking, these are simply the result of evolutionary processes. That is, in our evolutionary history those individuals that have had these traits have been more successful--defined in terms of having viable offspring who pass on the trait--than those that did not. There has been a good deal of research in this area over the past few decades that supports this explanation, even for such responses as altruism.

    You mentioned that I believe that life or its diversity happened “by accident.” I’m not sure what you are referring to, but if that is the impression I gave, then I need to correct it. I do not believe that life was accidental or that the diversity of life that has evolved did so accidentally. Evolution is not an accidental process in the sense that the biological features that we have are purely the result of accident. That is an argument that some creationists have used, but it really does not accurately reflect how evolutionary principles operate. Instead, evolution is a process that occurs as a species responds to environmental factors. It is no accident, for example, that, say, a predator that happens to have better vision (or better hearing or a stronger grip or whatever) is more likely to be successful at surviving and having offspring that will carry on that trait. That’s not to say that traits do not arise by accident; they do. But their continuation in a species is not by accident but by reason of the fact that such traits provide an advantage in the survival and procreation of those members of the species that happen to have such traits.

    Julie, I do not believe that someone who accepts scripture as the ultimate authority is less intelligent that one who favors a scientific approach to understanding our world. Again, to the extent that that came across in my blog, it needs to be corrected. The difference is not one of intelligence; I have any number of devout Christian friends for whose intelligence I have the greatest of respect. Rather, the issue concerns the basic premises that one adopts in trying to understand the world. This is a subject that I am planning to address in a later post.

    You also asked about how I raised my children in relation to religion. My short response is that it was largely a nonissue. This has been a major regret of mine, not in the sense that I wish they had adopted a religion, but in the sense that they have not had the opportunity to experience some of the great cultural traditions that religion offers, including the literature and music. Again, the subject of a future post.

    Thanks, again, Julie, for your interest.

    John

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  8. It is true, a Christian’s “authority” (God) never changes; however as we continue searching the scriptures and prayerfully communing with God, an interesting thing begins happening. It is the Christian that changes! We change as we grow and learn from every aspect of life of course, but particularly from a lifetime study of what we believe to be God’s word to mankind…the Bible.

    There’s always something new to be found, or a different way of understanding what one might have read in a different season of one’s life. This is why the Bible is sometimes referred to as the “Living Word.” That we can continue learning something relevant for where we are today from these ancient writings is exciting, and I believe, quit significant as well.

    There will always be hard headed and/or closed minded Christians who believe they know all there is to know about the things of God. And, there are those whose hearts are in the right place, but who have no desire to go beyond the basics of what they were taught from childhood, or from whatever point they first learned about God.

    I would never down play these basic learning’s as the most elementary basics about God’s grace, Jesus’ sacrificial love and the Holy Spirit’s guidance and comfort are in themselves mind boggling, beautiful & life changing. Still, most open-minded Christians long to learn more about the things of God.

    We learn by studying the scriptures and obvious external resources, (i.e. history, science, life experiences, etc.) but the buck does not stop here. We also continue to grow from the internal guidance of God’s Holy Spirit dwelling in the heart of every true Christian. When a concern arises in a Christian’s mind or heart about something being said or written about, it is true that we go back to the Bible, our “plumb line.” It is the best we have, and we believe it is the best there is.

    This “sea of change” you mentioned is not necessarily a change of terms or attitude flowing from the Old Testament and into the New, but a greater understanding of the overall picture of God. I believe God reveals new things to us, as we are ready to handle them.

    Such new insights might be seen in contradiction by those listening to preachers who take scriptures out of context for the purpose of using bits and pieces to support their “doctrine of the moment.” Insights from God are never in real contradiction when the Bible is looked at as a whole.

    When shown something new that is truly of God, its as though a bright light of new understanding has suddenly been shed…never in contradiction to what has already learned in scripture, but like a new found piece fitting nicely into to a puzzle. One might not be particularly looking for a new revelation, but, when it happens, it is so awesome! Personally, I feel that if I were to have had some of my revelations too early in my walk with Christ, they could well have gone right over my head.

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  9. John, my earlier note was so long it had to go in two parts. Here is the rest of it...

    You are so right that there have been incredible advances made in medicine and and incredible knowledge gained through science. I can’t imagine anyone in his or her right mind thinking otherwise. To say that I applaud these efforts is so minor compared to what those in the field of science deserve!

    As a scientist, you know more than most of us that even after countless years, so many unanswered questions still remain. Just as there is so much more to be learned through science, there will always be so much more to be learned about God!

    The more I come to understand the things of God, the more I realize how great the gap is between what I know and how much I don't know. That I will never know it all doesn't bother me tremendously. When I get frustrated at the things I don't understand, Isaiah 40:13 comes to mind, "Who can phantom the Spirit of God?" How could the created ever expect to have complete understanding, and know all there is to know, about the creator?

    It has to drive scientists crazy not to have all their answers. In this way I suppose Christians have an advantage. Though we yearn to learn all we can, the realization that we will never know all there is to know about spiritual matters during our life on planet earth is not a big problem for us. Over the years I have come to believe that the humblest person who says, "I don't have all the answers" is the one speaking the greatest truth, and to be able to just leave it at that is one of the biggest blessings.



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  10. Gerrie,

    I'm not sure where to start in responding to your comment. One of my personal commitments in regard to this blog is to make every effort to walk the line between (a) the need to recognize the dignity of each person's perspective and (b) articulating and remaining faithful to my worldview in my responses to others' expressed perspectives. My particular concern here is that our perspectives appear to be so disparate that our words are simply flowing past each other. I think I will make the attempt by focusing on one of the points, namely, scripture as authority. I know that I will need to expand on this idea in a later post.

    As I think I have said, one fundamental difference in perspective is that you and other Christians view scripture, that is, the Bible, as "authority." I hope it is not unfair to say that under that position, if there is any apparent disagreement between the evidence of our senses or of science, on the one hand, and scripture, on the other, then scripture must be preferred. But sometimes the disagreement between the two becomes too great. In that case I'm afraid that scripture gets reinterpreted. A literal reading of Genesis supports the view that God created the world in six days some six thousand years ago. And that view was generally accepted until geology, astronomy, biology, and a host of other scientific disciplines forced a reinterpretation of the creation story. Although many Christians still subscribe to the original account, most (I think) have reinterpreted that story to be symbolic.

    As a second example, there is a vast difference between Old Testament and New Testament conceptions of God. In the Old Testament God is seen at times as jealous and vengeful, nearly destroying all of mankind because they were so disappointing (though really are humans any different today than they were in the days of Noah?). God was also portrayed as favoring the Israelites over their neighbors, actively helping them to prevail in tribal battles, even though the individuals in these other tribes probably didn't have a realistic opportunity to accept the Israelites' God.

    Obviously, things change in the New Testament--and for the better in my view. One can argue that the difference is Christ's sacrifice, but that really begs the question of why the OT was so different if God was ultimately the author of both OT and NT. Another way of looking at it is to assume that the scripture was written not by God but by men who were just doing their best to understand the world, given the understanding they had.

    One more point: You indicated that "it has to drive scientists crazy not to have all their answers." This is really just the reverse of how the scientific community views the situation. They realize that they will never "have all their answers." The whole point of science is that our knowledge will always remain tentative and imprecise and will constantly be revised and refined as we continue to search. That is really not a problem at all for science; rather, it is the very essence of scientific reasoning and research. But what is exciting to the scientific community is that through application of scientific principles we are constantly improving our knowledge of the world (imprecise though it remains) and our ability to manipulate it.

    I know you realize that this has been a very difficult response for me to write. My hope is that it will give you a little more insight into my view of the of the world.

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  11. John, you are doing an excellent job in balancing your commitment of respecting other's perspectives while staying true to your own. I appreciate this, but am not surprised. I have always known you to be a caring, thoughtful and respectful person. Even so, I imagine that at times it is not always easy to hold such a balance.

    Given the perspective of your current readership,(at least of those who have made comments anyway) your honest, yet naturally gentle responses are what I believe will make your Christian audience want to come back often to your blog. It seems that it would be nice for you if others more in line with your own perspective(s) would begin responding to your blog as well. Personally, I would love it if someone who is both a Christian and scientist would join in as well. Perhaps both such parties will show up at some point.

    I stand corrected in saying that “It has to drive scientists crazy not to have all their answers.” I’m not sure where I got the idea that scientists must be terribly impatient with not coming up fast enough with the answers for which they are looking. (I certainly could have said something other than the "driving them crazy" term though! Sorry about that.) I have not gone through our old emails, but somewhere in our private correspondence, I somehow (incorrectly obviously) came to the conclusion that there was real frustration when it came to all that is yet to be discovered in the field of science.
    Unfortunately, it seems that I too often misunderstand what the other is saying. I find that I do this mostly when it comes to internet writing. The internet is such a wonderful medium for communicating, but it can also be so cold. (Not enough smiley faces...in fact, none at all for blogging! There is no way to show warmth, disappointment, shock, concern, acceptance, or any of the emotional responses that are so helpful through body language, tone or inflections of the voice, etc.)

    John, I want you know that you can always respond to me in whatever way you feel necessary in order to convey your true thoughts. I think we have come to an agreement that even as amazing the huge gap is between how we think and see some of the most important things pertaining to our world or to life in general, our friendship has been, and will hopefully always be, somehow able stand firm in spite of our differences. This is how I see it anyway. Even so, as with all important friendships, it is important to be sure we have not offended the other in any way. So, if I have said anything that might have come across as pushy or preachy, or made you uncomfortable in any way, I want you to know that I did not mean to any of these things, and I hope you will forgive me. I’m expecting our friendship to last forever. (Of course, I realize that my forever and your forever look completely different. Okay...try to imagine a big Smiley face right here!)

    I’m looking forward to reading more of your blogs. Though I might not always comment, I’ll be reading.

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  12. This is so interesting to read. I love your understanding of God Gerrie!

    John I appreciate your openness and willingness to share your side of the coin...heads or tails...which is it...some of both I think. God tells us we will spend eternity studying and learning His ways...I am sure much will be scientific! I just wanted to comment on scripture...yes, I think you are right on, John. Men were moved to write in their own words, their understanding of God. So often we see texts that accuse God of one disaster after another...and then if you read on, it will say and God let them go. They left Him behind, went their own way, refused to listen to His advice and the consequences were self evident. Then God weeps...it breaks His heart to see what we put ourselves through when we disregard His ways.

    Prophets were killed and finally God came Himself...He came to reveal Himself. Jesus said "if you have seen me you have seen the Father...my Father and I are One. And Jesus was rejected, killed by man under the influence of satan... controlled by evil. And yet Jesus died forgiving. I have the understanding that the last message to be given to the world is a true picture of God. God is love, and His only desire is to rescue man from the consequences of our sin condition, which leads to death. Just look at the news.

    Thanks for allowing me to read and comment...please understand that I am just voicing my point of veiw and respect yours and others. I really enjoyed reading Julie's comments. So well stated!

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  13. Hi, Lisa,

    First, thank you for responding to several of my posts. I will try to respond to your comments as they relate to the content of my post. I hope that you will continue to read and contribute to the "forum." I would only ask that your comments be responsive to the content of my post or to the comments of others who are responding to my post.

    I realize that we speak two different "languages" when it comes to these matters, the language of science and rational thought and what I would refer to as the language of Christian evangelism. I am familiar with the language of evangelism, having been brought up in an evangelistic tradition and having attended religious schools for 16 years. One of my goals with this blog is to introduce my Christian friends and colleagues to the rational/scientific perspective, which is not so much a language or body of knowledge as it is a way of looking at the world. My expectations are low in the sense of changing anyone's point of view (although that would be nice). Rather, I am hoping that they will make the effort to understand my perspective.

    John

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