Sunday, January 31, 2010

Failing the Sesame Street Test

Back when I was a kid and Elmo was still a distant nightmare haunting the minivan dreams of America, Sesame Street was actually pretty cool. It was wild and wacky and irreverent, more inspired than the product of professional educator focus groups. And yet Grover taught us to read, Cookie Monster taught us speak a few words in Spanish, and the Count taught us that vampires aren't all bad.

One of the repeated spots was a simple pattern matching test for tots. Four squares would be presented. In three of them would be three objects that fit a general category. Three cookies, for instance. Or three pairs of pants. In the fourth, there'd be a rock. Or a donut.

Or Mr. T.

We'd be asked: Which of these things does not belong? It wasn't that the thing was worse than the other things. Mr. T may not be a chocolate chip cookie, but he's first name Mister, second name Period, third name T, and we pity the fool who says otherwise.

It was just that...other than being made of matter...the thing in the fourth box didn't conceptually fit with the things in the other three. It was dissonant. It did not belong. And over the last few days, that's been my conundrum.

Over at the fitfully active presbymergent site, I've been having a back and forth with a Presbyterian Minister of Word and Sacrament who does not believe in God. Oh, he believes in God the same way that Ludwig Feuerbach believed in God, in that he understands God as a concept. But he rejects the idea that there is any referent to which that symbol directs us. He also states that faith is unnecessary and counterproductive, least in his conversations with me, describes "people of faith" in terms that are actively dismissive. Sample quote from our exchange:
"If you need a supernatural being to keep you from robbing my house, selling drugs, starting wars, then by all means believe in one."
I've actually heard that line several times before in my online debates with neoatheists. There's a reason for this.

He is, quite simply, an atheist.

While I disagree with him, I like the guy. His blog is on my feed-reader. He's a humanist and generally open to caring for other human creatures and seeking justice for those who are oppressed. He can get a bit shrill on occasion, but I'm hardly in a position to throw stones.

Here's my struggle. He appears to enjoy the forms and ritual of Christianity. He likes the story of Jesus, and the ethic that Jesus taught. He likes the sense of community one finds in a church. But I find myself really struggling to see why he would choose to be the pastor of a Presbyterian church.

The chaplain of a humanist society who reflects fondly on some of the things he most likes about his Jefferson Bible? Sure. Heck, be a Unitarian. Unitarians are cool.

But if you conceptualize faith in the same way as Richard Dawkins (who he really likes), then...crazy would seem that leading a church is an odd vocational choice. His own congregation is open-minded, open-hearted and progressive...but they do use the word God without slapping it into the quotation marks I use with my boys whenever I describe creatures that have no connection to reality, like the "tooth fairy" or "Sarah Palin."

If you consider yourself an atheist and non-religious, being the pastor of a Christian church you're failing the Sesame Street Test. In a way that a kid could peg in a heartbeat.

And I'm not being a grouch about it. Just genuinely baffled.