Friday, September 28, 2007

The roof! The roof! The roof is on fire!

Years ago, when I used to frequent online discussion groups and had no blog, I had a rather interesting experience in a discussion group on atheism. Being open about the fact that I was a Christian, I got a bit of hostility from the other posters, as is to be expected. I did reassure everyone that I was not there to preach unless asked to, as I was sure they received more than enough people wandering through to explain to them the great peril they were in due to the wrath of God, and I probably had little to add to the discussion. I'd come to discuss some other matter that I no longer recall, but in the midst of the hostility that largely died down once I had made my intentions clear, there was one poster to the group that asked me what I thought to be a surprising question.

He thanked me for not wanting to preach, but he asked me in curiosity why it is that so many Christians are so preachy. Really it had never occurred to me that a person in the midst of our western culture might not know the answer to that one. To my surprise (and some amusement), after I had explained it to him, he became angry again. Although I had done nothing to convince him of the truth of Christianity (and indeed, most likely he is still an atheist to this day) he was furious no longer at the audacity of Christians who preach to unbelievers, but instead at the audacity of Christians who do not preach! This was a strange 180-degree turn I'd never seen before, and have not seen since, but on some level, it makes sense.

There's a popular metaphor used by many Christians in response to inquiries about the purpose of preaching the Gospel and proselytizing in general; it may have been the one I used that day. You see, it's like this: Suppose you are walking along in the street and you see someone sitting in the window of a house that's on fire. He clearly has no idea his house is on fire, because he's sitting there complacently reading a book or watching television or what have you. What do you do? Do you try and get his attention and let him know he's in danger, or do you leave him alone, because you don't want to annoy a stranger? Well, most likely you try and let him know that he's in trouble, right?

You wave your arms, you shout, you throw pebbles at the window, until finally, he comes to the window and exasperatedly asks, "What the heck is it you want?!" Upon informing him that his house is burning, rather than gratefully thanking you for your help and running outside, he looks around. He smells no smoke. He sees no flames. He decides you're a lunatic and tells you to go away and stop bothering him. Now you can do that, or you can stay there and shout and insist to him that truly his house is on fire, and he must get out, now! Eventually, you're either going to save the guy's life, or he's going to get really annoyed at you up until the point he burns to death, and then it's too late.

This is a popular metaphor, and indeed, some people do think of it being literally true, but in a spiritual sense. After all, if you're not saved, then supposedly day by day the flames of Hell are creeping closer and closer to you, until the day comes that you will die and they will consume you.

There's a real problem with this metaphor, though. In a practical sense, if you were in a real-life situation similar to the one presented in in the metaphor, you could always in a last resort enter the house, overpower the occupant and drag them out to the street where the flames would be visible. You could call the fire department to come and put out the fire, for that matter. But the metaphor doesn't stretch quite that far.

How do you drag someone out of a metaphorical burning building?

It's a truth, be it fortunate or unfortunate, that you simply can't make someone believe in something. You can show someone evidence, you can plead with them, you can threaten them, but in the end, people believe what they choose to believe.

It's odd, but I actually feel like I understand fanatics who burn down churches or blow up abortion clinics or suicide bomb buses or what have you. Surely there's a feeling that something is so wrong with the world, or at least a particular part of the world, that the only thing to do is to lash out in violence. But if you burn down a church, you're not going to change the personal beliefs of a single member of that church; blow up an abortion clinic, and you're not going to stop a single woman from getting an abortion; get on a bus in Tel Aviv with explosives tied to you and wipe the thing off the face of the earth, and the nation of Israel will continue to exist. In cases like these, violence is not just wrong, it's pointless! But at the same time, I get the sense of desperation that no doubt drives these people to behave in such an irrational fashion. When something is perceived to be wrong with the world, we want to act to make things right.

Yet unfortunately it is exactly in these areas of life where people are driven to extremes that these extremes serve no purpose. You can't force belief on others, you can't force morality. Blow things up, drive people out of physically burning buildings, and still most likely they will stay in the exact same place mentally they have always been. In the end, all you can really do is share your beliefs and pray.

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