Archive for September, 2007

A response to my recent column on Dawkins

Saturday, September 29th, 2007

Quite often, I get letters regarding one point or another in my columns. Sometimes they are complimentary, while more often, they are not. Seldom, however, are they worth reprinting. I got a note today, however, that I thought was provocative enough to post here.  Below is this gentleman’s note to me, followed by my response.

More food for thought.  CDP


Dear Mr Piatt, 

I am moved to respond to your recent column on Richard Dawkins primarily because of the last two paragraphs equating faith-based fundamentalism with rationalism.  Coincidentally, Dawkins has an article answering his critics in the October/November issue of Free Inquiry addressing  this tendency on the part of people of faith to believe that a dedication to reason is just another form of fundamentalist faith.  Here are the relevant passages:

It is all too easy to mistake passion, which can change its mind, for fundamentalism, which never will. Fundamentalist Christians are passionately opposed to evolution, and I am passionately in favor of it. Passion for passion, we are evenly matched. And that, according to some, means we are equally fundamentalist. But, to borrow an aphorism whose source I am unable to pin down, when two opposite points of view are expressed with equal force, the truth does not necessarily lie midway between them. It is possible for one side to be simply wrong. And that justifies passion on the other side.

Fundamentalists know what they believe, and they know nothing will change their minds. This quotation from a fundamentalist says it all “…if all the evidence in the universe turns against creationism, I would be the first to admit it, but I would still be a creationist because that is what the Word of God seems to indicate. Here I must stand.” It is impossible to overstress the difference between such a passionate commitment to biblical fundamentals and the true scientist’s equally passionate commitment to evidence. The fundamentalist proclaims that all the evidence in the universe would not change his mind. The true scientist, though, knows exactly what it would take to change his mind: evidence. As J.B.S. Haldane said when asked what evidence might contradict evolution, “Fossil rabbits in the Precambrian.” Let me coin my own opposite version of the fundamentalist’s manifesto. “If all the evidence in the universe turns in favor of creationism, I would be the first to admit it, and I would immediatel change my mind. As things stand , however, all available evidence (and there is a vast amount of it) favors evolution.” It is for this reason, and this reason alone, that I argue for evolution with a passion that matches the passion of those who argue against it. My passion is based on evidence. Theirs, flying in the face of evidence as it does, is truly fundamentalist.  

This ends the quotation. What follows are my own thoughts.

In the next to the last paragraph of your column you imply that the rationalist has some responsibility of proving the nonexistence of God. Not so. The burden of proof rests with the person making the assertion. It is not up to the rationalist to prove the nonexistence of a figment of the faithful’s imagination. You also imply that the rationalist cannot prove the nonexistence of God. Not so again. The more clearly defined a deity becomes the easier it is to disprove his existence. It is childishly easy to show that the God of the bible cannot possibly exist.

A final note. I encourage you to pick up a copy of the Free Inquiry mentioned above. At the end of the article quoted there is a passage from Dawkins’ Unweaving the Rainbow   that is one of the most inspiring and uplifting statements on the human condition you will ever see.

Sincerely,    D.T.

(My Reponse to him)

Dear DT:

Thanks for your response. I think, perhaps, that you perceived a couple of the points made in my article differently than I intended.

My comparison of Dawkins to fundamentalists was, in my mind, regarding their seemingly shared interest in eradicating the viewpoints of those other than those they themselves hold. I don’t begrudge Dawkins being a rationalist or an atheist. My concern with him in the public forum is that he prefers to erect barriers to discourse and draw lines, whereas Krauss is more content to use his own knowledge to help enrich others’ understanding.

One of my other concerns about Dawkins’ sentiments is that he holds little or no regard for someone who maintains a view that is not based upon reason. I respect that he holds to the process of reason as sufficient to explain all phenomena in the universe, and that to do otherwise is feeble-minded. I would argue, however, that reason, rather than being an inviolable, universal constant, actually is a construct of human consciousness, as is faith.

Further, to suggest that I claim Dawkins must prove the nonexistence of God would be off-base, I think. What I claim is that he cannot (not that he must or should) prove the nonexistence of God any more than someone can prove the existence of God. Aristotle was far wiser than Dawkins, I believe, when he drew limits around the capacity of reason. He claimed that there is no way to use reason to discuss or lay claim to what existed “before” the universe, as reason by its very nature is bound by the properties of time, motion and matter. Now, Thomas Aquinas used this as a springboard to fit faith into the gap left by Aristotle, which clearly was not Aristotle’s intent. However, he understood that reason had its own limits, a concession which might serve Dawkins well.

Just a few thoughts before my brain goes too soft for the day. Thanks again for your note, and thanks for reading my column, even if it presents a point of view with which we don’t agree.  Incidentally, I’ll look for a copy of Free Inquiry.



Science and faith: Can’t we all just get along?

Saturday, September 29th, 2007

Science and faith: Can’t we all just get along?

Anyone who is surprised by the recent backlash from hyper-rational militant atheist writers and thinkers clearly has not been paying attention.

As religious fundamentalists have dug in their heels, forcing such ignorant pseudo-scientific principles as New Earth Creationism into textbooks and school districts, the push provoked a visceral response from the scientific community. Most notable among the atheist polemicists is Richard Dawkins, with his best-selling book, “The God Delusion.”

In effect, what the religious extreme has done is successfully give a platform for rational fundamentalism. History certainly would have predicted this reaction, but perhaps this isolated, agenda-driven arm of religion simply does not care.

As critical as I am of “my way or the highway” religious rhetoric, I’m equally disappointed in the vitriol of the rationalists who feel not only that they must take on what they view as dangerous faith views, but also God and the entirety of human faith in the process.

In a recent issue of Scientific American, two scientists, Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss, discuss the ways in which people of science can communicate with faith communities, if at all.

Happily, though some like Dawkins seem to lump religious fundamentalism in with the complete human faith experience, others like Krauss are more measured in their approach. Though neither claims any faith in a divine entity, Krauss sees an opportunity for science to help enrich faith by illuminating some pockets of ignorance within some religious thinking. Dawkins, however, would just as soon see the entire construct of human faith in God dismantled and eradicated.

“I think religion is bad science,” says Dawkins to Krauss in the article, “whereas you think it is ancillary to science.” The two proceed to debate the inherent nature and role of faith in the human organism, revealing a broad complexity of views even within the scientific community.

“I do not think we will rid humanity of religious faith any more than we will rid humanity of romantic love,” claims Krauss, “or many of the irrational but fundamental aspects of human cognition.” Dawkins argues this point passionately, however. Though he acknowledges that such non-rational dimensions of human experience as love and appreciation for art help make life worth living, and may even be tangentially related to rationality, faith is not.

“Positively irrational beliefs and superstitions are a different matter entirely,” says Dawkins. “Isn’t it . . . condescending to assume that humans at large are constitutionally incapable of breaking free of them?”

While Krauss is content to illuminate through rational means, Dawkins prefers to argue a personal agenda. In doing so, he comes across much like the Bible-banging fundamentalists who claim, rather arrogantly, “Reality is as I say it is: nothing more and nothing less. End of conversation.”

Krauss offers perhaps the most helpful clarification about his desire for the future relationship between faith and science when he says, “What we need to try to eradicate is not religious belief, or faith, it is ignorance. Only when faith is threatened by knowledge does it become the enemy.”

Krauss’ issue, then, seems to be more with ignorance promoted by rigid, unyielding faith practices. Dawkins, on the other hand, is in attack mode against all strains of faith.

There are glimmers of the source of resistance Dawkins has when he refers to New World Creationists, fundamentalism and much of the harm done in the name of faith throughout history. To this point, I stand in agreement with both him and Krauss – that such damaging and ignorant positions should be challenged.

However, for a rationalist who can no more prove the nonexistence of God than a fundamentalist can prove the existence of the divine, his short-sighted – and I would argue, emotionally based – objections sever any possibility of reconciliation or further communication.

This sort of fundamentalism, whether based in faith or rationalism, is at the source of more pain than healing. Even for someone like Dawkins, who claims morality from a humanist context, this sort of rhetoric is hurtful and essentially flawed. Some might even argue he’s made a religion of his own militant belief in atheism.

Defining church is harder that you might think

Saturday, September 22nd, 2007

Defining church, churches harder than one might originally believe

How many churches are there in our community?

This is the question posed to me this week by a friend of mine who is a successful church coach. He has taken a dying congregation and, in two years, increased its weekly worship attendance to more than 300 people. I began thinking through all of the buildings and various denominations I see in a week. I estimated we probably have 300 or so churches in Pueblo.

Then he nailed me.

While we have hundreds of church buildings and dozens of denominations, he said, there is only one Christian Church. Church doesn’t just happen on Sunday mornings, or whenever services take place. Church isn’t nearly as much about what we do inside the walls as it is about what we do when we leave.

In a world where people are more institutionally suspicious than ever before, we who cling to our bricks and mortar, programs and Sunday sermons as “church” will continue to wonder why the world sees us as isolated and out of touch with the rest of society. People care less and less about denominational affiliation, and more about how we – all Christians – respond to the world’s needs.

We worry more about members going from one Christian church to another than we are concerned about living out what we believe as witness to those who don’t come to church at all. We get more obsessive about our membership roster than about training and empowering disciples to do God’s work, from wherever they choose to do it.

My friend who put such a challenging question to me said he recently had a hard discussion with his church. He explained that he intended to spend half of his weekly hours engaging people who did not regularly attend worship, including those who had never come to the church building at all.

Initially, everyone approved, but they soon realized that, after sermon preparation, meetings and study groups, there was little time left for him to pay pastoral care calls.

At first, I was shocked. If he had to choose between coffee with a nonmember and visiting a regular member in the hospital, he said, he’d go to coffee. It seemed callous, but he reminded me that he is not the church, and that if we’re doing our job of empowering people to minister to the world, there should be plenty of people in the church ready and willing to call on the church member.

On the other hand, there were few who could sit with someone curious about his congregation’s ministry and lay out their vision like he could. He was called to revitalize a dying church, and so his first priority is to evangelize. The word “evangelism” has a bad connotation these days, but at its heart, evangelism centers on building relationships. He was hired with the charge of bringing new life to the church. The problem is that, too often, churches say they want one thing, and then act like they want another.

I have another friend, also a pastor, who recently left his church. He started the congregation with nothing five years ago, and now he’s positioned to walk away because his congregation would rather he “spent more time caring for them,” rather than reaching out to the community.

There are times when we all need the support and nurturing that a church family can offer. But when the leadership of that church becomes the sole source for this care, rather than the leader who empowers others to carry out the daily ministry, something’s wrong.

Those of us who focus more on our own needs – or the needs of our church building or denomination – rather than the needs of a world mired in suffering and spiritual crisis, have lost focus of the true vision of the church’s purpose.

We cannot serve two masters.

Chipotle activism in motion

Friday, September 21st, 2007

OK, enough messing around. We’ve heard rumors for years about Chipotle coming to Pueblo, but now is the time for action!

Click on the link below and sign to show your support for a Chipotle restaurant in Pueblo, Colorado. Then send the link along to friends. We need thousands of signatures to overwhelm them, so get to work: 

Fight the good fight,
Christian Piatt
Chipotle Activist

Pueblo, CO

The last shall be first, except when it comes to worship

Sunday, September 16th, 2007

The last shall be first, except when it comes to worship

There are certain events where ticket prices are so out of hand that the average person simply can’t afford to go. Prime concert and sports tickets run sometimes in the thousands, and even base prices for many shows keep those of less than extravagant means out in the cold.

At least we can always find a seat in worship, right?

Maybe, and maybe not. A recent story about a temple in Miami auctioning off on eBay front-row seats for life, to the tune of $1.8 million, raised a few eyebrows and even more questions. The offer, done somewhat tongue-in-cheek, included engraved nameplates on the seats, premium parking spaces and custom-made holy gear for the winners.

While the creators of the auction did not expect anyone to pay such a price, they did acknowledge the offer was legitimate, and that the extra income certainly would be welcome.

Shows such as Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” have parodied the idea of scalping temple seats for high holidays, and this is not far from reality. Reports online have suggested that chairs for high holidays can go for as much as $2,000 apiece in certain areas.

We Christians are not exempt from this sort of elitism within our hallowed walls, however. From services being conducted in languages the general population doesn’t understand to walls and elevated platforms, we have any number of systems in place to keep people separated from those things we deem just a little bit more special than they.

I’ve struggled in a number of churches with the concept of elders or deacons sitting up front, facing the congregation, throughout a worship service. I actually was asked to serve as a deacon at one church where we served, but disagreement about how we served ourselves Communion first before serving everyone else caused me to resign my post.

Sometimes the preferential treatment is even more subtle. Though there is a strong case for keeping ministers uninformed about the weekly giving of individual members, there is a rather legitimate case to be made as well for the pastor to know such things.

The problem is that, once you know person “X” or family “Y” isn’t giving what you think they can or should, you can’t help but let it affect the way you see them and how you interact with them.

Would we bend over backward to keep a very generous giver in our church, more so than the poor couple who drops the equivalent of a few denari in the plate, sacrificial as their modest act may be for them?

Would we pay an extra visit here and there to our best volunteers and those congregants with the most prominent social standing? In most cases, I would argue the answer is that we would, and do.

I’m not exempting myself from this equation. It’s part of human nature to want to preserve that which benefits you or your community the most. However, if we’re not aware of such tendencies, the risk is that we lose perspective on exactly who it is we’re there to serve, and why we come together as faith communities in the first place.

There’s plenty of worship that goes on in our churches, temples and synagogues every week, but it’s not always worship of God. Sometimes it’s of people, or our buildings. Sometimes we’re so proud of our own achievements we are practically worshipping ourselves.

Here’s the question I pose to myself to gauge where I am compared to where I want to be: Would I go as far out of my way to greet and make room for a slovenly dressed, somewhat smelly visitor as we would if a movie star or political dignitary walked through our doors?

Most of us will struggle to answer “yes” to this question. I know I do. Until we can, every time, we’re part of the problem.

MySpace to Sacred Space book update

Monday, September 10th, 2007

I spoke this week to the marketing folks at my publisher and was told that our new book, “MySpace to Sacred Space,” currently is #2 on their bestseller list. It’s a relatively small publisher, releasing 25-30 titles a year, but it’s nice to see the book doing fairly well.

Thanks to those who participated in the initial research, and those who have picked it up since. If you haven’t yet picked it up and want to, or if you’d like to get your hands on my other book, “Lost” A Search for Meaning,” go to my home page at and click on the links to them both on Amazon.

Please also consider letting your friends and family who might be into these titles know about them. The marketing budget for the publisher is fairly limited, so we depend heavily on word-of-mouth (or word-of-blog or email) to get the message out.


Church should be provocative, but how?

Saturday, September 8th, 2007

Church can be provocative, but how?

One of my favorite games when I was younger was Truth or Dare.

A group of friends takes turns asking each other questions. If you refuse to answer a question, you have to perform a “dare.” It is up to you to decide if revealing embarrassing tidbits about yourself is more risky than taking your chances with a daring stunt.

There is always a little adrenaline rush when your name was called in Truth or Dare. There is some fear, and depending on the members of the group, more than a little excitement. One of the favorite dares among preadolescent kids is to make a boy kiss a girl in the group, or vice-versa. Most of the questions begin with something like, “Have you ever . . . ” thus allowing the others to learn more about where they stand with respect to their own experiences.

I’ll admit I’ve actually played this game later in life a time or two. Once, while my wife, Amy, was in seminary, our friend from Germany took a dare. Next thing we knew, he was running across the plaza of the student housing complex in nothing more than a straw cowboy hat and boots.

We were in Texas, after all.

Fortunately, he didn’t get caught, and we all had a good laugh. The next day, however, he did make the police blotter in the school paper as the anonymous streaker, seen running through the seminary complex.

It’s strangely fun to be provoked in a relatively safe setting. There’s also some modicum of sadistic pleasure in getting a friend to do something they would never otherwise do.

Though I believe that church should create a climate of provocation, I’m not sure we’re all ready for Truth or Dare. I take part in a weekly small prayer group, and, for several weeks, a certain scripture that we discussed has resonated within me.

The New International Version of Hebrews, Chapter 24, says that we should “consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds.” The New Revised Standard Version says the same thing, except that we ought to “provoke” one another. The Message, a modern interpretation of scripture, says, “Let’s see how inventive we can be in encouraging love and helping out.”

This idea of provoking or spurring one another hardly fits with the uber-nice climate of many churches. I’m sorry, but I don’t go to church to have people be nice to me. I can go to a restaurant or department store and the clerks will be nice because it’s their job. If all we’re doing as faith communities is spreading a little more niceness around, we’re wasting our time.

It’s our job to draw the best out of one another, encouraging others to use the gifts they have to further our calling in the community. No one particularly enjoys going up to the quiet person in the back row and challenging them to be more involved, but if we’re really a part of a loving faith family, we should feel compelled to do so.

Now, being provocative in this sense is different than what the world considers provocative. For me, the word itself raises images in my mind either of fighting or sex. Not exactly church material, right?

But as it says in The Message, it’s about striving toward a common goal. “Let’s see what we can do together better than we can alone,” rather than, “get off your lazy butt and do something for a change.” If we’re going to provoke someone to love and good works, we’d better be ready to walk the road alongside them.

Finally, in the spirit of inventiveness to which The Message refers, this call is not just about filling slots in the same old tired outreach programs. It’s about imagining bigger and then doing bigger. Some programs have life cycles that have long since passed. So let them die, and make room for someone else to be provoked to love and good works in a way you may not have even imagined yet.

There’s already enough nice in the world. As Bob Marley would say, it’s time to stir it up.

Planting seeds brings growth in unexpected way

Saturday, September 1st, 2007

Planting seeds brings growth in unexpected way

Our friends from graduate school, Ryan and Shanna, were planning to come visit, but they had to cancel their trip.

On the way from Shanna’s brother’s wedding to the reception, Ryan got a call. His mother, Sandy, had suffered a massive aneurism in her brain, and she was in critical care at the local hospital.

She spent many days on life support in a coma, and plans were made for her likely death. Family and friends stood watch at her bedside and counted the hours. In time, she opened her eyes, regained some simple movement in one hand, and even began to mouth words once her breathing tube was removed.

Since then, her recovery has been nothing short of miraculous. She is standing with some assistance during physical therapy, and although it exhausts her to try, she is beginning to regain her speech. Her prognosis seems to suggest a dramatic recovery, although every step, both literal and figurative, is painstakingly deliberate.

Shanna and my wife, Amy, were both born on the same day. They were both pregnant at the same time in seminary, and they both gave birth to fiery, towheaded boys. Our kids have become good friends despite the current distance between them, and they both are now beginning to read.

Ryan and Shanna’s son is named Jake, and one of his favorite pastimes with Grandma Sandy is to read. Shanna recalls one trip in the car when Jake and Sandy read one of his favorite books for an hour straight, starting back at the beginning as soon as they reached the end every time. Jake had read the book so many times he had it memorized, but he never tired of having Sandy recite it just one more time.

Following her hospitalization, Jake would visit often with his parents. One afternoon following church, Jake asked to go along with Shanna to the hospital. When they arrived, Sandy’s occupational therapist was there, and greeted Jake warmly. When she asked about the dog-eared children’s book near the bed, he explained it was their favorite book to read together.

The therapist took Jake aside and explained that she needed him to help teach his grandmother the words in this book they had shared so many times. With the trust only a child can muster, he promptly crawled onto the bed and began to read, one word at a time, waiting patiently as Sandy struggled to articulate the same words she had previously shared with him.

The call of faith is to plant trees under whose shade we may never sit. Those rare, cherished moments when we get to partake of the yield from our own harvest are as close to holy as we may get on this Earth. However, they are not the reason we plant the seeds in the first place.

Sandy did not read to Jake because she thought someday that he might turn the tables and return the favor. She spent the time with him out of love, with nothing more expected in return. In her moment of greatest vulnerability, that love was repaid many times over. If there is such a thing as a gospel of prosperity, I think this is it at its very essence.

We don’t serve God because of the promise of this or that reward. We serve because it is right. Sometimes we’re called to serve those we love, and at other times, we find ourselves at the feet of our enemies. That same enemy may become our advocate in our time of greatest need, or may turn against us, despite our own good will.

It’s not for us to question who is and isn’t worthy to enjoy the comforting shade of God’s grace. It’s our job to plant the seeds.

Servant Evangelism (An article mentioning Milagro)

Saturday, September 1st, 2007

Here’s a nice article in today’s Pueblo Chieftain newspaper that mentions Milagro, out little ol’ church.

Servant evangelism

The Pueblo Chieftain Online
Members of First Baptist pump gasoline, offer prayers.

Churches offer services, hope for good results


In advertising, they call it “name recognition” or “brand recognition.”

In a significantly different vein, the world of religion calls it “servant evangelism.”

The approach and bottom line are pretty much the same: Be good enough at what you do or sell that when people have a need for the product or service, they think your brand.

Think Coke, Levi’s, McDonald’s, for example.

Or Pueblo’s First Baptist Church. Or Milagro Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

Each of those two Pueblo church communities have reached out to their fellow townspeople in significantly secular ways with the hope of getting others to say, in effect, “Hmmm – they did something good for me and they’re Christians. I wonder what this means . . .?”

The First Baptist bunch was stirred into such an outreach action at a mid-May church conference in Longmont, where they were challenged to “be” the church.

Those from Pueblo who had attended the event got together later with their pastor, Frank Proffer, and decided to address a real community problem: the high price of gasoline.

They took special contributions, put together $3,600, got in touch with McFarland Properties’ Spirit Gas Station at 3206 W. Northern Ave. and, for one magical Aug. 4 day, gave all comers a 50-cent-a-gallon discount on gasoline. The regular price: $2.95; the First Baptist “gasoline angels” price: $2.45.

“Why are you doing this?” a lot of people asked.

“Because God loves you, and so do we,” Proffer said his congregants responded.

There you go: name recognition, brand recognition, servant evangelism. About 40 people from First Baptist (none of whom used the offer for their own cars) pumped 7,036 gallons of gasoline into 616 vehicles (an average of 11.4 gallons per vehicle) out of six pumps from 9 a.m. until about 4 p.m., when the money ran out.

“Cars were lined up, and some people had to wait for as much as 45 minutes,” Proffer said, explaining that the “angels” also washed car windows and offered to pray with and/or for any of the customers who had particular needs to be addressed. That’s clearly the evangelism part of the equation.

Another congregation, Milagro Christian Church, on the south side of town, also also has become auto-intensive in its servant evangelism efforts. Under the direction of Pastor Amy Piatt, members of the congregation have held at least two carwashes, one as recent as last weekend. While folks wait for their autos to be cleaned, food and drinks are served.

The cost to drivers using the service: nothing. In fact, promotions offering the service state clearly: Donations will not be accepted.

Do people drive off in their clean cars feeling better about Christians? About churches? About Milagro Christian Church? Probably.

Will they drive their freshly washed cars to the church at 2111 S. Pueblo Blvd. to see what this sort of Christianity is about?

Will folks who topped off their tanks with discounted gasoline drop by First Baptist at 10th Street and Grand Avenue to visit with the pastor and his congregation?

Obviously, both pastors hope so – that too is the evangelism part of their servant ministry.

If they don’t show up at Sunday services – and Proffer said a few have – the brand, name or church recognition effect is still in place. A good deed has been done, an effort that Proffer said is win-win, because the worker is blessed, as are the members of the community who receive the service. Something positive has happened and if a seed has been planted, fine. If not, if nothing more than a good deed has been done, also fine.

“The return is that you’re going to feel good about helping someone else,” Proffer said, adding that the congregation is planning another gas buy-down come spring, or when prices soar enough that they become a burden.

The Baptist pastor – in Pueblo since Easter – saluted the energy of his congregation’s members – the average age of whom is somewhere between 65 and 70 – for their energy. He lauded what he called the “tireless efforts” of layman Jerry Biddle in organizing the event.

“Here’s a group of ‘Prime Timers’ who were willing to grab life by the nozzle and make a difference in the lives of people in Pueblo,” Proffer said, proudly.

“We hope this will serve as a challenge to Pueblo’s younger population to follow in the footsteps of these senior servants and continue the tradition of serving the needs of people – and maybe finding newer and more innovative ways of serving.”