January 19, 2021

How Not To Be A Disciple

churchladyA couple of weeks ago, I read a post on my nephew’s blog that made me rear up and do my best Church Lady impression.  It wasn’t what my nephew said, it was the post he linked to that stoked my ire.  And boy, did my ire get stoked, to the point where my nephew asked to delete the comment I had left because he didn’t want a flame war to break out on his blog.

Well, he’s only sixteen and I’m supposed to be a responsible adult, so I cooled my jets and agreed it was for the best.  I also realized that calling (or even thinking of) someone as a “smug git” is not the best way to open dialogue.  But, by the sweetly even-tempered irenic discourse of St. Jerome, I was tempted to do so.  I was all ready with CUTTING SARCASM to do a wholesale demolition of the post.  I even looked up an essay online that I saw in a blog link because I was going to mine it for copious quotes and rhetorical questions about “So what is this progress, what is this better philosophy, you are going to raise your child with?  Because there are serious modern thinkers who don’t believe in all that apple pie nonsense.”  Oh, I would have been such a smart alec about the whole thing!

Luckily, better counsel (my nephew) prevailed.  Then I got this in my daily email notifications for “Read the Catechism in a Year” and I figure if the Holy Spirit is whapping me round the back of the head, then going with my first impulses would be a bad idea.

(This is from the YouCat version. YOUCAT stands for “Youth Catechism”.  It is an official youth catechism intended specifically for teens and young adults compiled under the direction of Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna.)

Is atheism always a sin against the First Commandment? Atheism is not a sin if a person has learned nothing about God or has examined the question about God’s existence conscientiously and cannot believe. The line between being unable to believe and being unwilling to believe is not clear. The attitude that simply dismisses faith as unimportant, without having examined it more closely, is often worse than well-considered atheism. Corresponding CCC sections (2088-2089; 2123-2124;2140)

That’s why I’m not going to rehash the argument I would have made here – because I was not acting out of charity, I was indulging my annoyance.  I jumped to a lot of conclusions about the author of that piece based on nothing more than the tone of it and the fact that he regurgitated a talking point recognizably derived from Richard Dawkins.  I don’t like Richard Dawkins, which is another failing on my part.  When he sticks to talking about science, I am perfectly prepared to give him all the credit he is due.  When he goes outside of that, I am not – and that is as much as I should say, before I commit the sin of detraction.

Really, who am I to say what is in this man’s mind, or how his views may change in time?  I am assuming that he’s just following the Zeitgeist but how do I know that he has not thought this out, has not attempted to construct an ethical philosophy?

How do I know that he is not reading the same kinds of essays and following the same kinds of discussions I know about?  I don’t.  But I was all too ready to call my brother a fool, which is what we have been specifically warned about in Matthew 5:22:

“But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.”

Suppose this man were to ask me why do I believe, what answer could I make?  I know the various arguments that get trotted out in apologetics, but is there any way of looking at my life and seeing that as evidence that being a Christian has made a change?  So what if he and others like him are living on the scraps of what Christendom created in the culture?  Yes, that’s spiritual poverty, but it’s complete dependence on the grace of God even if they don’t know it.  They are the poor in spirit, who will possess the kingdom of heaven, where the Pharisees like me will be very lucky to have the intercession of a whore or a tax collector to get us through the side door.

So I’m writing this very short post to tell you all that I’m ashamed of myself, of my lack of charity, of my failure as a witness in my life and my words to the Good News.  That’s my big spiritual discourse for this week.  And seeing as how the new encyclical is on Faith, and I need to read it more closely, then obviously the Holy Spirit is not done with this teaching moment yet.  I hope I survive it.


  1. Martha, could you please elaborate on what irritated you so much in this post?

    • Marcus Johnson says

      Perhaps it’s not that the post was inherently irritating, as much as it was that reader was instinctively irritated.

      Most professed Christians place so great of a value on their identity as a Christian, and their association with their faith tradition, church community, “Christian” music preferences, etc., that a statement made by someone who does not place the same value on that identity can be seen as threatening. I’ve been there myself, and it took me a long time to realize that being a Christian and becoming a deeper, more mature Christ-follower have become two different things. At this point in my spiritual growth, I would much rather hang out with someone who is decidedly non-theist, but respects my spiritual growth, than with a over-zealous Bible-believer who questions my faith because I have not listened to the latest Chris Tomlin CD (and not particularly planning on doing so, either).

    • I’m going to be snappish myself, but first it was the snotty attitude to the older family members (“Ha, ha, these fossils actually believe all this crap!”) asking if he was going to baptise his child or bring him up in a particular faith. As an older Irish person myself, I can see that the inlaws were asking out of genuine concern, and to brush it off as though their beliefs were too silly to even talk about annoyed me.

      Secondly, the unctuousness of “I’m going to bring my child up to be nice and tolerant and open-minded and kind” and all the rest of it, because of course, you can’t do that and be religious at the same time.

      But mainly because of the flippancy of tone, which was going too far on my part, because that’s what most internet blog posts are like; that’s the style.

      And really, how was me (how is me) being snappy and unkind and angry doing anything to advance the Gospel here? How is me calling this man all the names doing anything but demonstrating that yes, religious people are closed-minded and intolerant? How am I demonstrating the love and mercy of God when I let the mote in my brother’s eye irritate me ten times more than the beam in my own?

      • Marcus Johnson says

        I would dismiss his snottiness as evidence of his age. If he were in his twenties or older, and still making these inane generalizations about people of faith, then I would be a little more upset, but 16-year-olds are well-known for thinking they know more than what they actually do.

        • No, the calm, mature one in this whole circle was my 16 year old nephew. In the blue and red corners, you had the 20ish(?) guy spraining his arm from patting himself on the back so hard about not needing to sign his poor little baby son up to a religion in order to teach him how to be a good human being, and me who am somewhat well past my 20s (and 30s, and…) revving up to tear strips off him in the name of being a good person and a believer to boot.

          Ouch. 🙂

  2. His attitude of snarky condescension and dismissal of opposing views as not so much wrong as just tedious and unworthy of the effort to understand them bothered me deeply

    Mostly because they so closely mirror my own.

    I, too, believe what I believe mostly because of how cool I find it..

  3. My three thoughts on the article the guy wrote:

    1. His baby is adorable
    2. His writing is good and I don’t think it is improved by his use of the F word.
    3. If I were his friends, I would be concerned that he “often hopes his own closest friends will be in last-minute (non-fatal) car accidents, preventing them from coming over.”

  4. Martha! …I always pictured you as a bit less gray …. 🙂

  5. David Cornwell says

    Knowing how to write seems to run in the family. Half the kids in the USA can’t put 4 words together in a sequence that makes sense. He also seems to know how to irritate adults, which seems pretty normal. I’ve have grandchildren at various stages of adolescence and young adulthood and being an atheist or something akin to it causes parents an extra worry about the state of his/her salvation and/or intelligence, much to the glee of the kid.

    Young males do not normally reach a stage of advanced moral judgement and maturity until around age 23 (generalization of course) (with luck, because I know some who never reach that state). I know there are arguments against this view, but it runs pretty much to form if you watch families and children over a period of time.

    Children of one’s own can quickly change one’s opinion of good, evil, judgement, and prayer. Because having children gives the opportunity to play God.

    • David, unless I’m misreading Martha, the blogger Aaron W Dembski-Bowden is not her nephew but rather “the post he [her nephew] linked to” — so if by “Knowing how to write seems to run in the family” you intended to compliment Martha’s nephew, you have complimented the wrong person.

      • I will take ALL THE COMPLIMENTS on behalf of my nephew, because he can write, and draw, and play music, and for the past week or two he’s been involved in a local film shoot where he lives, and he’s a charming, handsome, intelligent, well-mannered young man to boot 🙂

        • Radagast says

          …and he’s Irish…

          Many of the young 20 somethings can tend to get under the skin… much education, but little experience which equates to little wisdom… but then we were all there at some point. I can deal with the teens because they are so naive that it can be entertaining. But the sole focus on individaulism when one is in their 20’s well… been there.

          When I was in my early 20’s I was an agnostic, although I wasn’t running around blogging to the world about how much more superior my thought process was over them ole’ folks. Bible thumpers absolutely annoyed me…(come to think of it they still do)… but then so did apparition chasers…. just seemed I was annoyed so much more at that age. I think he needs a couple more young’ins – then he’ll gain some wisdom and be putting energy into things that are more focused… like praying for sleep ; ).

    • David Cornwell says

      Apologies, I think with age sometimes I’m not attentive to details. Therefore what I said above is out of context to your post Martha. When I read it again, my comments didn’t really make sense.

  6. Martha – you are a saint and I need to learn from your example. My first impulse was far worse than yours. After reading his post I wanted to start my rebuttal by making a derogatory play on his surname. That shows you how low I am.

    But thank you for your honestly because it causes me to confront my own pride. Although his arguments are recycled, I must admit that my responses to them would be just as recycled. There hasn’t been much original thought in this debate for quite a while. Both sides start out by deciding what they will believe and then constructing arguments to back it up. But you make a wonderful point that in my arrogant attitude I disprove the very life change that the existence of Christ should result in. Ultimately, I believe because I chose to place my faith in Christ and that faith should change me and that desirable change is the “proof.”

    But, of course, the easier road is to start a flame war and try to humiliate my opponent in an argument 🙂

    • Oh listen, TPD, I was just as bad and worse in my reaction, and if my nephew hadn’t reined me in, God alone knows what kind of name-calling and bad temper I would have exhibited.

      And that made me stop and think: how different was I, in my way, from this man when it came to firing off what we both considered too witty for words demolition of our opponents? Why was I thinking more about demolishing and shredding him on the basis of ONE blog post, than I was of how I could in some small way demonstrate the beauty and joy and reasonableness of faith?

      My nephew wasn’t linking to this fella in order to rub the noses of religious believers in it; he was going along with the attitude of “let’s teach our kids to be nice and kind and tolerant and not judge or discriminate on the basis of difference of belief or behaviour”. That was the message he was taking from it, not “Faith heads are poopy heads”. And again, the guy writing is obviously only in his late 20s/early 30s, so who knows how he will think about things ten or twenty years down the road, when he starts struggling with the hardships and disappointments and losses of life?

      • The problem with the author’s piece, though, is that while there is an air of “let’s teach our kids to be nice” there is a great, great deal of language that communicates the author’s disdain for Christianity (contrary to the author’s claim that it “isn’t an attack on religion, or religious beliefs”). That’s the rub: behind so much reason and reasonability in an atheistic worldview, there is often something between eye rolling and open hostility to specific beliefs, or to belief in general. In so many cases, especially when dealing with broadcast media (like a blog post) rather than one-to-one interaction, there is so much degradation of Christians as non-thinking, senseless, or “sheeple”… or worse.

        As someone who used to be a 16-year-old on the other side of things (i.e., making caustic arguments for the “Gospel”), I know how easy it is for someone to be deceived by insidious beliefs. Beliefs that say one thing (and sound good at first) but lead down a path to another. Beliefs that are valid, but which are supported by a rotten foundation (and are internally inconsistent). I know that having parents who forced me to work through the consequences of my beliefs and the beliefs of those I looked up to caused me to grow far more compassionate for and tolerant toward those who don’t believe what I believe. THAT, in my opinion, is far more internally consistent than an atheistic belief in tolerance for tolerance’s sake, and that’s what every young person should struggle with, I think.

  7. I actually really enjoyed the linked blog post. It makes a lot of good points, and the writer has clearly thought about how to best raise his child from his own worldview’s perspective. Lots of kudos for that.

    • +1

    • I enjoyed reading the post too, although I agree with JoanieD that the use of the F word didn’t help the writing.

      I didn’t get the same impression of it that Martha did, where I would take issue with it was his statement:

      I’m fine with people believing. But I get easily disgusted at the thought of anyone believing with such fervour that they tell a child their way is The One True Way. It reeks of some ardent, invincible arrogance that has always terrified me, and I’ll never understand why it doesn’t terrify everyone.

      Herein lies the rub.

      It is really hard to be a Christian and believe other than “their way is The One True Way.” Jesus himself said “I am the way…. no one comes to the Father except by me.” Is it arrogant to believe this, or does it just go hand in hand with being a Christian?

      • cermak_rd says

        To the extent that other Christians and other religions are able to square this circle, it is a little arrogant. If it’s just a personal belief though, well, we’re the ones with the heaven tickets, it’s not awful, though. When people start trying to impose specific portions of their faith on others who aren’t accepting of that belief, then we go more toward awful arrogance.

        According to a recent survey, a majority of self-identified American Christians stated that other religions could lead to salvation. Certainly my branch of Judaism makes no exclusive claims (other than for Jews). I have a good friend who is a Hindu who was teaching his child that while they didn’t eat meat, due to their religion, it was not bad for others to eat meat. Just as Jains don’t typically teach their children that Americans are monsters for not keeping Jain dietary rules.

        Given that survey, the Scripture can say what it will and the dogma can say what it will, but when the believer has to interact with the outside world and their children marry non- believers, they accept pluralism just like the Jews, Jains and Hindus seem to be doing in the US (it’s a different story in India with the Hindus due to a lot of political factors).

      • Martha and I must be of the same generation. After reading the linked post my first reaction was a desire to toss the young bloke into the yard and rub his face in the grass.

        Doc Holliday: It appears my hypocrisy knows no bounds.

        Wyatt Earp: Doc you’re not a hypocrite, you just like to sound like one.

        • I’m in my mid-50s, and while I disagree with the poster martha linked to, I don’t find his statements offensive, especially in light of the militancy of many other atheists.

          His voice is, imo, worth listening to – and he is young. In some ways, he reminds me of myself at his age, except that I thought I knew all about God, salvation etc. and that I was right about everything


      • Christiane says

        Hi Michael Bell,

        you wrote this:
        “It is really hard to be a Christian and believe other than “their way is The One True Way.” Jesus himself said “I am the way…. no one comes to the Father except by me.” Is it arrogant to believe this, or does it just go hand in hand with being a Christian?”

        well, ‘arrogance’ is a very strong word to use when this viewpoint is all you have ever known, I suppose.
        Here is a ANOTHER Christian viewpoint to chew on:

        ” Apart from Christ “there is no salvation.” As Peter proclaimed before the Sanhedrin at the very start of the apostolic preaching: “There is no other name in the whole world given to men by which we are to be saved” (Acts 4:12).”
        For those too who through no fault of their own do not know Christ and are not recognized as Christians, the divine plan has provided a way of salvation. As we read in the Council’s Decree Ad Gentes, we believe that “God in ways known to Himself can lead those inculpably ignorant of the Gospel” to the faith necessary for salvation (AG 7). Certainly, the condition “inculpably ignorant” cannot be verified nor weighed by human evaluation, but must be left to the divine judgment alone.
        For this reason, the Council states in the Constitution Gaudium et Spes that in the heart of every man of good will, “Grace works in an unseen way…. The Holy Spirit in a manner known only to God offers to every man the possibility of being associated with this paschal mystery” (GS 22).
        It is important to stress that the way of salvation taken by those who do not know the Gospel is not a way apart from Christ and the Church. The universal salvific will is linked to the one mediation of Christ. ”

        (this excerpt is from: Pope John Paul II Wed Audience May 31 1995)

    • Final Anonymous says

      I didn’t have a problem with it either. Lots of atheists out there are far more critical, intolerant, and confrontational regarding any religious beliefs (and yes, vice versa). The fact that they have no problem with Auntie taking kiddo to church suggests teaching a reasonable amount of respect for Auntie’s beliefs, regardless of any giggles about them privately. And let’s not forget they are young parents just starting out, feeling a strong need to define healthy boundaries for what sounds like a LOT of extended family. Very healthy for all in the long term.

  8. Ali Griffiths says

    Martha – regardless of how bad you feel about your initial reaction, I love the way you listened and took heed of your nephew – usually the wise counsel of teenagers is ignored.

    • usually the wise counsel of teenagers is ignored.
      +1. Ain’t that the gospel truth. I mean, they never seem to have nearly as much as they think, but too often their 2 cents is ruled out before it is rightly considered. I make it a priority to seek out their input whenever they have a vested interest in things.

  9. Some of the comments in the linked-to blog post highlight the way I might approach things with your nephew, and it’s how I approach things with my own children: rather than focusing on WHAT you believe (and why it might be wrong, or just different from what I believe), let’s talk about WHY you believe what you believe?

    Defend your argument, even if that argument is simply a rejection of someone else’s argument: why do you think stating a negative is a sufficient foundation for building a worldview? Is your worldview internally consistent? Do you think mine is? Is there room for discourse without resorting to such phrases as “God is a C*nt”? (No, you might not be talking to Dawkins himself, but you could very well be talking to someone who idolizes, or at least greatly respects, him. Young people, like your nephew, love polemics, whether it’s Dawkins or Macarthur.) Is there room for discourse without pre-emptively tanking your “opponent” with sentences like: “Critical thinking and reason supports one side, let’s not deceive ourselves otherwise.” (Taken with the author’s later claim—”If you’re worried we’ll make Christianity look bad, you’re doing us a disservice.”—it’s clear that there really isn’t going to be a proper discourse and teaching of what any theistic side believes.)

    Anyway, I applaud your decision to stay away from the snark, since that never helps anyone in the end. But I think it’s healthy and fruitful to challenge, in loving (and probably non-social-media-y) ways, young people on why they believe what they believe.

  10. Miss Martha, I think you’ve demonstrated very capably to us all how TO be a disciple…holding the mirror to our own souls. Good post, friend.

  11. cermak_rd says

    On the subject of the baptism of non-believer’s children, though; I do think that most Christian families put too much pressure on their younger family members to baptize their children. The problem is, baptism isn’t magic. Without a family willing to put forth the effort to rear the child in faith, it isn’t helpful and could actually be deleterious should the child want in future as an adult to actually embrace the faith after having married (marriage rules for baptized Catholics are different from those for unbaptized folks).

    There is a strain in atheism that believes that too much accommodation is given to religion in our society. To the extent that parents are given wide latitude in not providing their children proper medical care due to religious beliefs or educational opportunities (not homeschoolers, I think some are very good, here I’m referring to the Amish); I think it is true that too much accommodation is given. On the other hand, if my elderly aunt asks me if I went to mass this past week, I think it easier to just shift the subject rather than discuss my conversion or my spouse’s deconversion. I’m certainly not going to denigrate her beliefs.

  12. Klasie Kraalogies says

    With reference to the online essay, I’ll add this for future quote mining:

    Who was that lad they used to try to make me read at Oxford? Ship- Shop- Schopenhauer. That’s the name. A grouch of the most pronounced description.
    -PG Wodehouse

  13. Martha, you should join the LCMS. The amount of mud-slinging and vehement rhetoric flying back and forth in our online circles during the national youth gathering was a beautiful sight to behold. There’s no fighting as fierce as within your own little family, you know? I’m feelin’ your pain here, because I jumped in with guns blazing and had to eat crow online as well. Meh, it’s part of being human I guess. I suppose there are things we will only learn from the rubber taste of our soles.

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