Monday, February 06, 2012

Alpha Course Overnight Getaway: The Set-Up

Everyone at the getaway is being set-up to meet the Holy Spirit in person.
This is a special, mini-series within my larger series on the Alpha course. I am a Jewish-raised dude and now Gnu Atheist who has taken the Alpha Course along with my Christian wife. Names have been changed to protect privacy.

Part I, The Getaway Begins
My wife and I left early on Saturday for the getaway, dropping the kids off at the grandparents and then making our way up to the conference center. The center itself was not especially pretty, but the area was. I love New Hampshire!

We all got together in a room, with each row for a certain small group. Most of my small group was in attendance. We viewed a brief welcome from Nicky Gumbel. Live music was everywhere: a guitar and keyboard. I’m not sure if we heard music first or if the DVD came first and then some music.

Before we got started one of the leaders in my group asked what I thought of Gumbel. I said I thought he was a good speaker and of good humor. She suggested that I would get a lot out of the weekend, that a lot of my questions would get answered. I considered saying that I didn’t have too many questions really, but I let it go. I later thought about this moment, because I felt as though people saw me as someone with doubts and with a “struggle of faith,” which could not be farther from the truth.

In any case, there was music, some announcements and instructions, and then we were into the first DVD talk, which was an answer to the question “Who is the Holy Spirit?” Gumbel stressed the personhood of the Holy Spirit. He made the case for the Holy Spirit as a being asserted throughout the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. In some cases, the mention of the Spirit seemed more metaphorical (like saying “the hand of God”), but the key thing for me was that there was no address at all for justifying the existence of the Holy Spirit (more on this here).

On the one hand, it seems that we are using the reading of the Bible as authoritative in its assertion of the Spirit. On the other hand, it seems that we are using subjective experience as the confirmation of the existence of the Spirit. Clearly, the purpose of the weekend is to have people experience the presence of the Holy Spirit for themselves.

After a short break, we then went to a second talk. Music again was all around. The DVD was on what the Holy Spirit does. The thesis here was basically that the Holy Spirit empowers believers. It gives them strength, healing, and peace. One communes with "the Spirit" through prayer.

After the DVD, we went to small group. I forget whether this was supposed to be an open discussion or if there were prompts. The only thing I really remember was talking about Anselm and his argument from the Proslogion. Someone else had mentioned that they were interested in the encouragement from Gumbel that believing in Jesus makes sense of the rest of the doctrines: believe to understand. That’s when I brought in Anselm and his project of faith seeking understanding. I blathered on and on about Anselm, Aquinas, and Ockham--and even some about the moderns of the 17th and 18th centuries. I have no idea how I came off; I imagine that people gained the impression that I had some “book” knowledge of Christianity (as opposed to "faith" or experiential knowledge).

It was a long morning. We had started at 8:30 and were taking lunch at 1:00. Lunch was very nice. I had an egg salad sandwich. After lunch, a bunch of us (maybe 10-12?) gathered for a hike through the woods. We faced steep inclines and some muddy/watery spots, but it was quite refreshing. I talked a bit with one of my small group leaders, who asked me about Anselm and how I knew of him. I mentioned my former life as a medievalist. He is an organic chemist, it turns out. His research focuses on cell communication and he hopes to contribute to the fight against cancer. His mother, unfortunately, is on her deathbed with cancer. After the weekend, he has plans to return home to be with her. The hike was long and arduous. As we exited the woods, the sunlight was already fading.

At 4:00, we reconvened as a big group. As a big group we had an open forum. The woman leader from our church was up front along with a pastor. They invited any and all questions. There was a question from a woman who wanted to know if her dead husband was in heaven. Another person wanted to know about the rapture.

I asked a question: “Are we to take the Bible literally in all cases, as in six-day creation, talking snakes, and the dead walking around outside their graves?” The answer given started by saying that everything in the Bible (esp. the Hebrew Scriptures) has layers of interpretive meaning: literal, analogical, tropological, and (as I pointed out later [eschatalogical]). Then the answer talked about different ways to “frame” biblical statements. Some were obviously figurative. In other cases, one had to consider who was writing to whom, and at what point in history.

I replied, just to be clear, that the answer was essentially “yes,” that everything in the Bible had a literal aspect. The woman up-front suggested that it didn’t matter whether the serpent talked because the important thing was determining whether the Bible was inspired and therefore the important thing was to know the intent of the inspiring agent.

My rejoinder, as it were, was that if one believed the Bible to be divinely inspired the question of how to take specific passages was even more important. I didn’t follow up the argument, though. I should have said that if we could not determine literal from figurative, then how could we be sure of inspired/uninspired? How could we be sure of God’s instructions versus people’s beliefs of God’s instructions? There were more questions from others, including one about how nasty and genocidal the God of the Hebrew Scriptures is.

The pastor’s response to this question was awful: that the wars were for the good of both Israel and the world. The ends justify the means when it comes to God, I guess.

Next Time: The Holy Spirit Cometh!

1 comment:

  1. Good to see an account by a fellow atheist that has decided to go through this. I feel your sense of disappointment that it wasn't what we expected, but on the plus side, I did come away with more sympathy for those that do believe this stuff and that has made me better at engaging with these people. I never realised how honestly these beliefs were held until I did the Alpha Course. You'll love reading about the residential weekend I went on - we had Gumbel in the flesh and guess what - he made the Holy Spirit come into the room! I've got a few sessions to write up first though...


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