Books in Conversation: Butterfield, Nagel, and Tauton

Relationships and Evangelism with Opponents of the Faith

In this post I want to bring into dialogue a few authors who discuss, in varying ways and forms, the impact of friendship and thoughtfulness on unbelievers. The point that rises out of a conversation between these texts is that the most vehement atheist may be brought near or even won over by friendship and thoughtfulness. In order to display this we will look at The Last Word by Thomas Nagel in order to see the shaky sand that the thoughtful atheist stands on. Nagel’s book on reason ends with a solemn note for atheists like himself, which puts him at odds with the likes of Richard Dawkins and others of his ilk.

From Nagel, we will turn to another famous atheist, the late Christopher Hitchens and hear from Larry Alan Tauton, a friend of Hitch and an evangelical evangelist, about the two books Hitchens kept about himself. In The Faith of Christopher Hitchens, Tauton argues from personal experience with Hitch that he may not have been all that he was assumed/made out to be. He may not have been in vehement in his attacks on the Christian faith or his defense of atheism.

From the discussion of Hitchens, we will turn to a woman who was a Christian critic, but by God’s grace met the lord through the Word and hospitality. This, of course, is Rosaria Champaign Butterfield, author The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert and Openness Unhindered. While we will be spending our time on the former, I would like to give a plug to people in ministry as Openness Unhindered is the best book I have read on sexual sin. In the book of Butterfield’s testimony, Secret Thoughts, she recounts her journey from being an atheist, lesbian activist and intellectual to the wife of a conservative presbyterian minister.

No Firm Foundation

By the thoughtful atheist I mean an atheist who, like any other thoughtful person, does not simply accept what they wish were to be the truth or even want to be the truth, but what they find to be the truth under investigation. The atheists I have met these days take either a postmodern stance or scientistic start toward the world. Either truth must be subjective to the individual in question or truth is only receivable through scientific advancement and investigation. Nagel rejects out right the idea of subjectivism:

My aim is to clarify and explore this question and to try, for certain domains of thought, to defend what I shall call a rationalist answer against what I shall call a subjectivist one. The issue, in a nutshell, is whether the first person, singular or plural, is hiding at the bottom of everything we say or think.

Reason, if there is such a thing, can serve as a court of appeal not only against the received opinions and habits of our community but also against the peculiarities of our personal perspective. It is something each individual can find within himself, but at the same time it has universal authority…. Whoever appeals to reason purports to discover a source of authority within himself that is not merely personal, or societal, but universal— and that should also persuade others who are willing to listen to it. (3)

This is a book about reason and as the title, The Last Word, suggests Nagel believes that it is here that authority is anchored. It is not in the person subjectively, but in him by way of the application of coherent thought. The use of reason moves us away from subjectivism as they “collapse into either self-contradiction or vacuity— self-contradiction because they end up claiming that nothing is the case, or vacuity because they boil down to the assertion that anything we say or believe is something we say or believe” (6). For Nagel, “Reason purports to offer a method of transcending both the merely social and the merely personal” (9). If I were doing a formal review, I would want to stay on this theme, but instead will will fast-foward through Nagel’s masterful vanquishing of postmodern thought to his concerns about religion. Nagel tackles several important topics toward the end of the book, eventually coming to evolutionary naturalism, the view according to Richard Dawkins, gave atheism an intellectual basis.


41Tu-6hGYLL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_Review of The Last WordNagel’s defense of reason over and against postmodern subjectivism and relativism is top notch. When engaging those who disagree with me, I find it quite helpful to be able to use a source closer to their own camp, in that sense Nagel is very helpful. An atheist and yet a student of reason, Nagel finds himself haunted by religion and the idea of God. Some aspects of the book are slow and dull—this is a philosophy book on reason after all—but the good parts are well worth the slog.


Rather than heaping praise upon it, Nagel worries about the radical reductionism in the naturalist’s system. Then he writes, in a moment of intellectual honesty and transparency:

In speaking of the fear of religion. I don’t mean to refer to the entirely reasonable hostility toward certain established religions and religious institutions, in virtue of their objectionable moral doctrines, social policies, and political influence. Nor am I referring to the association of many religious beliefs with superstition and the acceptance of evident empirical falsehoods. I am talking about something much deeper— namely, the fear of religion itself. I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.

My guess is that this cosmic authority problem is not a rare condition and that it is responsible for much of the scientism and reductionism of our time. One of the tendencies it supports is the ludicrous overuse of evolutionary biology to explain everything about life, including everything about the human mind. Darwin enabled modern secular culture to heave a great collective sigh of relief, by apparently providing a way to eliminate purpose, meaning, and design as fundamental features of the world…. It is just as irrational to be influenced in one’s beliefs by the hope that God does not exist as by the hope that God does exist. (131)

What Nagel doesn’t say is that atheism in intellectually inconsistent, but he does call into question the consistency of atheists as individuals. Have they really thought through the position? Do they actually believe that evolution has deep explanatory powers? Nagel wrestles with the idea that science is an observational discipline, not an interpretive one. That is, science can tell us the ‘what’ and ‘how’ about certain issues, but it cannot answer the most important ‘why’ questions of meaning.

I had the privilege of studying under many brilliant theologians and philosophers, one, Dr. J.P. Moreland, has engaged in multiple conversations with Nagel. So in a class in which Nagel’s views came up, I asked Dr. Moreland how someone goes about evangelizing to such a person (that is a person who explicitly states that theism is the most rational worldview available, but rejects it because he does not want to live in a world “like that”). Moreland paused, then said, “I suppose prayer and friendship, obviously apologetics is probably not going to work regardless of presuppositionalism or evidentialism.” With that we turn to our next book.

Faith and Friendship

At Talbot School of Theology I was required to take a class on apologetics, it was a good class, I learned much from Dr. Doug Geivett. However, I wish I had taken a class on prayer. Not sure how the accreditation board would feel about that, but prayer and friendship seem to me to be of the utmost importance when evangelizing. A great example of this is in the recent book The Faith of Christopher Hitchen. 

Disclaimer: The Faith of Christopher Hitchens is getting very mixed reviews right now. Some love it, some hate it. I have looked at many of the negative reviews and found that it appears very few of them have read the book. In fact one positive review from Religion News Service (which has since modified with out retracting their review) stated that the book was about Hitch’s conversion. It is not, in fact the last chapter wonderfully expounds what true conversion is and explicitly states, “There is nothing in these to indicate a need to have Christopher’s conversion, his body, so to speak, to add credibility to the Christian religion. By contrast, many atheists were almost triumphant at Christopher’s death if only because it meant, in their godless illogic, that there was no one to hear the prayers for healing offered on Christopher’s behalf” (178). This is not a book about a vehement atheist coming to faith, it is a book about a man opened up to truth through friendship, however.


9780718080396Review of The Faith of Christopher Hitchens: Tauton’s well written memoir discusses his unlikely friendship with public atheist and intellectual Christopher Hitchens. The friendship built for many years, eventually taking a turn after Hitch was diagnosed with cancer. With the grim specter of his own demise looming over him, Hitch availed himself to a challenge Tauton had offered up years prior—a study through the Gospel of John. Though Hitch was never convinced, the story is an inspiring one, reminding us that people are not projects and converts are not Christian merit badges. It is the Lord who gives faith and our duty is that of the faithful servant alone.


When the book begins, Hitch had already been in the public eye for quite a while. Hitch, a journalist, had traveled the world writing romantically about socialist and Marxist movements, combating religion and conservatism where her he found it. He was the liberal’s liberal. He held the line and he did so with vicious and powerful prose and the gravity of an educated British accent. As he records in his own memoir, however, the failure of the movements that he had placed himself behind had caused him to question their legitimacy. These questions led to near complete apostasy after the tragic events of 9/11. The break with the Left came to a head on back-to-back television appearances on The Daily Show and Real Time with Bill Mahr:

After Hitch left the Left he found himself in an unknown territory for himself. He had become a conservative in many respects. In his new political philosophy he ended up with new allies, many of whom were evangelical Christians—among which was Larry Tauton.

Tauton records his first meeting with Hitch and states that he knew he was going to like him immediately. Though he had been weary at first of meeting one of the dreaded horsemen of the new atheism, Hitch’s personality put Larry at ease. Over the years their friendship grew and Christopher became increasingly open to Larry and his family and friends. Even to the point where the climax of Tauton’s book records an long road trip from Washington D.C. (where Hitch lived) to Alabama (where Tauton lives). Over the course of this trip, at Hitch’s suggestion, they read and discussed the gospel of John.

From Foe to Friend to Fellowship

Though Hitch never came to faith, it is likely that he was held back from belief by his pride in his public persona. Hitch, himself, records in his memoir, Hitch 22, that he was a man of two books. This theme Tauton draws out discussing how Hitch lived as two separate men, a public man and a private man, with significant differences between the two. Hitch, it appears, may have been too unwilling to break completely with his public persona and come to faith. However, a similar story records the bravery of Rosaria Champaign Butterfield, who severed all ties with her old life when she accepted Jesus and began pursing discipleship to him. Butterfield’s memoir The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert records her startling transformation from a tenured feminist and queer theory literature professor at Syracuse University, who also happened to be in a long term committed same-sex relationship, to becoming the wife of a reformed Presbyterian minister.


41t4ptakMWL._SX319_BO1,204,203,200_Review of The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert: I am usually not a fan of testimonials, especially Christian ones, they just do not do that much for me. Rosaria’s, though, is a different story. First it must be said, Rosaria is a brilliant writer. Much of Christian publishing is plagued by mediocre to below mediocre writing, but Rosaria, thanks to her literary background shines as a writer. Not only that, Rosaria is both introspective and theological. She is able to oscillate seamlessly between theology and philosophy and narrative. An ability few have.


The story begins with an angry op-ed in the university paper against the presence of the Promise Keepers ministry on Syracuse’s campus. Rosaria was in the process of researching for a paper on the Religious Right and the Bible from a feminist perspective. While not being an atheist, she and her partner attended an Unitarian church, she was far from the church and the true God it proclaimed. the op-ed prompted a response letter from a local pastor. Rosaria, deciding to use this pastor, Ken Smith, as a resource on her project accepted an invitation to dinner. She records the beginning of the deep friendship as follows:

Ken and Floy did something at the meal that has a long Christian history but has been functionally lost in too many Christian homes. Ken and Floy invited the stranger in— not to scapegoat me, but to listen and to learn and to dialogue. Ken and Floy have a vulnerable and transparent faith. We didn’t debate worldview; we talked about our personal truth and about what “made us tick.” Ken and Floy didn’t identify with me. They listened to me and identified with Christ. They were willing to walk the long journey to me in Christian compassion. During our meal, they did not share the gospel with me. After our meal, they did not invite me to church. Because of these glaring omissions to the Christian script as I had come to know it, when the evening ended and Pastor Ken said he wanted to stay in touch, I knew that it was truly safe to accept his open hand.

Since this beginning, the journey on which the Lord has taken me has been a great adventure, and this simple meal in a pastor’s home, the unlikely circle made by a radical lesbian feminist professor and two strong Christians in their 70s, a heavy Syracuse sun setting as we talked behind a large wall of windows in their home, was the first leg of this journey. I left their table needing to know a number of things: does God exist? If God does exist, what does he expect from me? How do I communicate with him? How do I know who he is and what he wants? What if God is dead? Do I have the courage to face the truth, either way?

Before I ever set foot in a church, I spent two years meeting with Ken and Floy and on and off “studying” scripture and my heart. If Ken and Floy had invited me to church at that first meal I would have careened like a skateboard on a cliff, and would have never come back. Ken, of course, knows the power of the word preached but it seemed to me he also knew at that time that I couldn’t come to church— it would have been too threatening, too weird, too much. So, Ken was willing to bring the church to me. This gave me the room and the safety that I needed to match Ken and Floy’s vulnerability and transparency. And so I opened up to them. I let them know who I was and what I valued. I invited them into my home and into my world. They met my friends, came to my dinner parties, saw me function in my real life. They made themselves safe enough for me to do this.

Again, it was friendship, prayer, and meaningful conversation that set Rosaria on the path she walks today.

Conclusion

What does it mean for the church to be hospitable? What does it mean for Christians to make friends with non-Christians and honor them as people, not just projects? What does it mean for churches to be comfortable enough for the stranger and alien to enter in to a worship service? These are questions we need to be asking, how can we make safe places for those Jesus is calling to hear his still quiet voice? These books have challenged me, as my family prepares for ministry to establish a trend of hospitality in our ministries and lives.

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