On December 15th one of the more intelligent, pugnacious, and acerbic banner bearers of the so-called New Atheists passed away. Christopher Hitchens was well known for his political and cultural commentary, and for his books such as God is not great. There were unfortunately, I’m sure, some Christians who exhibited a bit of schadenfreude at his passing. On the whole though, his death seemed to inspire thoughtful commentaries and reflections upon the nature of belief and disbelief.
Hitchens was insistent, up to the end of his battle with cancer, that he had no doubts and remained firm in his conviction that God does not exist. There would be no death bed conversion, no rolling of the dice or Pascal-like wager in favor of theism.
When asked how he would respond if he discovered there was a state of consciousness beyond this life, he responded with “I will be surprised, but I like surprises.”
The most poignant commentary by far was that of his brother Peter. Of course, the commentary of any family member on the passing of a loved one is bound to be poignant. This was more so because of the long running disagreement between the two, a disagreement centering on faith. While Christopher was one of the more well-known atheists in the western world–or at least the Anglo-sphere–Peter is a Christian and responded to his brother’s book with his own, The Rage Against God: How Atheism led me to Faith.
While Christopher and Peter participated in a number of public sparing matches over the years, limited eventually by their desire that, in Peter’s words, their disagreement not “…turn into gladiatorial combat in which nothing would be resolved and enmity could be created.”
In the end, it seems, faith was a subject that was off limits as a topic that would inspire more heat than light in their relationship. As Peter writes toward the end of his reflections on his brother’s passing, about the last time they saw each other:
We both knew it was the last time we would see each other, though being Englishmen of a certain generation, neither of us would have dreamed of actually saying so. We parted on good terms, though our conversation had been (as had our e-mail correspondence for some months) cautious and confined to subjects that would not easily lead to conflict. In this I think we were a little like chess-players, working out many possible moves in advance, neither of us wanting any more quarrels of any kind. (In Memoriam: Christopher Hitchens 1949-2011)
Some, perhaps, would be inclined to say that Peter failed in keeping his duty as a Christian, that he should have harried his brother to the end in order to bring him to faith. I would submit that such a view of sharing the gospel is not only ineffective, but in the end, runs counter to the gospel that it purports to espouse. Fundamentally, such a situation highlights that it is not our responsibility to convert others.
Only God can bring others to conversion, attempting to do so ourselves only serves to alienate people and in fact, drive them away from the opportunity to see God at work in our lives.
The story of the calling of Nathaniel illustrates some of this.
Philip invites Nathaniel
John 1:43-51, the calling of Philip and Nathaniel, closes out the chapter and follows immediately on the heels of the calling of Andrew and Peter. Jesus is traveling through Galilee and he sees Philip along the way and simply says to him, “Follow me” (John 1:43). If Philip asked any questions or had to be convinced, the gospel account is silent. He responds to Jesus’ call quickly, and more than that, he immediately goes out to share what he has discovered, going to his friend Nathaniel and telling him “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth” (John 1:45).
Just as Philip’s response may reveal something of his character, Nathaniel’s response shows that he is at least a bit incredulous, if not cynical of Philip’s pronouncement. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” he asks. Some scholars think that this sounds like a local saying, but there is no attestation of it outside the gospel of John. Regardless of whether this were a local saying around parts of Galilee, taking a swipe at Nazareth, Nathaniel shows his quick wit, skepticism and directness with this response.
I would say that, in many ways, there are a lot of Nathaniel’s in our culture today. People who, while not exactly hostile to faith, are at least skeptical of its more traditional and institutionalized forms. Ours is, largely, a culture that empowers the individual, including in the area of the spiritual. This can be a good or bad trait, but it always means that received authority is a poor support for something you’re hoping to share with others. Likewise, argument becomes a self-defeating tool when trying to share the faith with others.
Imagine, if you will, what might have transpired if Philip had tried to brow-beat, cajole or otherwise convince Nathaniel of the rightness of his assessment of who Jesus is. Nathaniel seems a pretty self-possessed guy, free with his thoughts and secure in them. Of course we can’t know exactly what would’ve happened, conjectural as that thought is, but we can take something important away from the way Philip handles the situation. He doesn’t attempt to overwhelm Nathaniel with the prowess of his logical argument, or to confound him with scripture citation after scripture citation. Philip knows his friend, and that makes all the difference.
Rather than attempt to convince Nathaniel, Philip does something profoundly simple. He says in response to Nathaniel’s quip, “Come and see.”
This is precisely how we’re to respond to the various Nathaniel’s in our own lives today. We share with them what we have found in Jesus Christ, but when it comes time to convince them, time for them to move from audience or bystander to participant, we’re called to simply say, “Come and see.”
This is an amazingly freeing proposition. Episcopalians and other mainline protestants have rightly been accused of being a bit embarrassed by the “e” word, evangelism. There’s no denying that one of the reasons our congregations are shrinking is because of a simple failure to share what we have found with others. Few mainline folks invite others to church for example.
And that raises an important question. Are we neglecting to invite others because we are embarrassed by Jesus, by the forcefulness of other Christians or is it something else. Is it because we are afraid that people won’t actually meet Jesus if they come to worship with us?
The Invitation is to see Jesus at work
Philip invites Nathaniel to come and see Jesus, and in so doing he recognizes that the impetus for conversion comes not from his argument, no matter how well crafted or how well meaning. The impetus for conversion comes from Christ himself. It is God who turns hearts, not us.
This truth is evidenced in John by a contrast between what Philip says and what Jesus says. Philip, in his invitation to Nathaniel says that he has found the Messiah, the one of whom Moses and the prophets wrote. Of course, as readers and hearers we know that it is in fact Jesus who finds and calls Philip. The reality behind this is highlighted even more starkly when Nathaniel takes Philip up on the invitation to come and see Jesus.
As Nathaniel approaches, Jesus calls out to him, saying “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” (John 15:47). In the exchange which follows, Nathaniel is amazed that Jesus tells him what he was doing before they met, that he had been sitting beneath a fig tree. Jesus tells him that he will see greater things than these, including “heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man” (John 1:51). This demonstrates an important theological truth that will be emphasized even more in John 15, when Jesus says “You did not choose me but I chose you” (John 15:16).
So it is Jesus who does the choosing, not the individual. Philip does not convince Nathaniel, he simply offers an invitation for him to come and see Christ at work. When we invite folks to come and see, we are inviting them to come and see what Jesus is doing, whether that is in our corporate worship, in the way we live our lives, in the way we respect one another and serve those in need. We are relieved of the need to convince others as though they could come to faith through debate, but we should be reminded of the responsibility to share our experience with others, and to invite them to come and see Christ at work. When we have come and seen, we have the responsibility to go and tell, without the fear of rejection, without the added expectation of somehow having a good enough argument, or a profound enough story to convince someone else. We bring others to Christ, and let Christ do the work, just as Philip did.
In the past a person hounded by others may have feigned belief to keep the peace in their relationship, or they may have attended church services simply because it was the culturally acceptable thing to do, but today, there is no such pressure. Indeed, societal pressure actually runs against belief or at least active involvement in a faith community. There is truth to the old adage that “a man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.” In today’s world, attempts to force agreement don’t even result in false believers, they result in people alienated from faith and more people cheering on the criticisms of the New Atheists.
So, while it is unfortunately true that some well meaning Christians would (and have in my hearing) criticize Peter Hitchens for not “doing enough,” and that there are many who would opine with certainty on the eternal fate of his brother, I applaud Peter for not pushing, and for offering a witness to the fact that a Christian can maintain their convictions while also maintaining their relationship with those who do not agree. When we let go of the lie that we can save others, then we are truly free to share the good news with them, in deed as well as word, and in a situation where words just won’t do, we still have the relationship and we can say, by our love, “come and see” Christ at work in the way we live our lives.
Let all of us who have seen, have the strength to share the truth, and also the strength to let go of what is not our responsibility, so that we can fulfill what is: inviting others to meet Jesus and let him do the convincing.