Madison Church

Religion, Society, and Self | Suspicious Faith (Part 2) | Stephen Feith

November 06, 2023 Stephen Feith
Madison Church
Religion, Society, and Self | Suspicious Faith (Part 2) | Stephen Feith
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Ever wondered why some of history's most influential atheists like Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, and Frederick Nietzsche, were able to make such uncomfortably accurate critiques of faith? We're shaking things up in our latest episode, taking a brave step towards understanding their perspectives and how they invite us to examine our own beliefs. This isn't about questioning our faith, rather it's about strengthening it through thoughtful self-examination and open conversation.

Enter the enigmatic world of Karl Marx as we explore his unique outlook on religion and faith. Marx argues that religion has become a soothing balm, a societal ibuprofen, if you will, that distracts us from the true societal issues. We delve into the compelling intertwinement of religious institutions with oppressive political and economic systems. Together, let's unearth the potential within us to address religion as an opium and strive for a more enlightened society.

Finally, we edify our thoughts with the teachings of King Solomon and Jesus, reflecting on the huge responsibility of those in power to uphold justice and protect the vulnerable. The vision of God's kingdom cannot be achieved alone; therefore, we emphasize the significance of individual contribution. Remember, each of us has a part to play, and burning out isn't an option. So, join us on this thought-provoking journey, a conversation that could guide you towards a more profound understanding of your faith.

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Speaker 1:

Good morning and welcome to our Madison Church Online gathering. My name is Stephen Feith, lead pastor, and we're so glad that you're joining us online whether it's your first time or you've been checking things out and I get the wonderful honor to invite you to join us in person sometime soon. We'd love to move you from online spectator to in person participant. Last week, we started a new series called Suspicious Faith and if this is your first Sunday with us, this is a weird series. I just want to warn you on the front side, because we are exploring the thoughts and beliefs of three renowned classical atheists Sigmund Freud, carl Marx and Frederick Nietzsche. How's that for a teaching series at church right Now? You might be wondering, or at least I hope you're wondering. Why would you be exploring the teachings of prominent atheists right here at church? The Bible is a big book. I don't know if you noticed. You can look around. It's a big book. Isn't there enough in there, from cover to cover, to talk about? Why are we going to outside sources? Well, that's a good question, but the answer is quite simple. The answer is that their critiques of our faith, these atheist critiques of our faith and our beliefs, are just uncomfortably accurate and true a lot of the times. I mean the things that they're saying. It isn't easy to dismiss if you actually listen to them. It isn't easy to push off to the side. And so we're going to listen, we're going to explore their critiques. Now it's important to remember and I didn't mention this last week, I kind of talked around it in a different way but it's important to remember that their critiques don't negate our faith. It doesn't mean that what we believe isn't true, right, as a matter of fact, I hope you don't think that your faith is going to be weaker by the end of this series. You're like we're talking about atheism for three weeks. I'm going to have less faith by the end of it. That's not true. If I do my job well, I think your faith is actually going to be stronger. It's going to be stronger at the end of this If I do it well. And if you get to the end of the series and your faith isn't stronger, there's one person to blame. It's me. It's not the classical atheist. Okay, so I'm just going to take responsibility on the front end here.

Speaker 1:

Their critiques invite us to engage really honestly in a thoughtful self-examination and consider how the beliefs like what do you believe? What do you believe about God, about Jesus, about life and sin and the afterlife? They invite us to do a self-examination. Do the things that we believe actually come from Jesus' teachings or along the way of following Jesus, having faith, going to church? Did you pick up some extra bits along the way? And that's what we're looking at throughout this whole series, because oftentimes, if you didn't pick it up last week, the things the problem that Freud had with our faith wasn't really a problem with our faith. The problems that Freud had with our faith was actually just kind of a distortion that we carry of our faith.

Speaker 1:

I stumbled upon this quote this week. I thought it was great. If we have not taken the time to cultivate the skills, habits and dispositions that allow us to hear the voices of outsiders, we Christians risk falling into a state of interpretive arrogance. Yes, this means we start thinking that our words are God's words, and that's where we get in trouble, right, I mean, that's where it gets confusing, and so we have to be willing to listen to folks, not just the people who agree with you. That's easy. It's easy to be in a small group with other Christians and to believe with that. It's easy to be at Madison Church and you're like. Well, I like most of these people, so most of them are okay with me. Right, it's important to listen to people who don't share your faith. It's important to listen to people who adamantly disagree with what you believe, because there is truth in it. There is a benefit to listening to outside voices In our study. I hope it really encourages us to reevaluate aspects of our faith that might be rooted in error or superstition or even illusion. It's that idea of making God in my image. Who do I need God to be in this particular moment? And as a you know, I was thinking about it even this morning. This is the last minute note I wrote in like even though these atheist thinkers, when giving their critiques, they didn't intend it to help your faith grow today, it's going to help your faith grow. So, whether they like it or not, their critiques are going to help your faith grow.

Speaker 1:

And, as I mentioned last week I just quickly going over it again we're talking about suspicion throughout this series, not skepticism, and there's an important difference Suspicions seeks to uncover the potential duplicity and hidden motives within people like me, pastors, clergy and institutions like the Catholic Church like religious organizations, but it also invites us to be suspicious of ourselves. Okay, so be suspicious, have a suspicious faith. Skepticism, on the other hand, which is what we are not talking about in this series, is about evaluating evidence and facts. Now, we love that, or I love that, and we'll do series throughout the year in which we're going to talk about like where did the Bible come from? Can we trust the Bible? We'll throw these things against the wall and really test it to be skeptical, but in this series it's all about suspicion. What are the motives? And with this understanding, let's turn our attention to I bet you haven't heard this in church Carl Marx. His unique perspective on religion and faith intersects with our theme of examining hidden motives and it's relevant in our journey to understand the complexities of faith and its impact on society. So, carl Marx, a little background for you born in 1818, that does make him older than Sigmund Freud for some of you who remember that useless fact last week. Again, I'm prepping you for jeopardy because I do want 5 to 10% thrown back at me if you ever get on and win. But he was born in Prussia, that is, modern day Germany.

Speaker 1:

Matt Marx pursued a diverse education. He got educational degrees in law, history and philosophy, so that's quite the spread in terms of academic pursuits. He had a job as a journalist, he did a lot of writing and that obviously is what shaped so much of his political and philosophical ideas. But what he's probably most known for, besides his atheism, is partnering and collaborating with Friedrich Engels In Paris in 1843, and five years later a very influential and popular book came out called the Communist Manifesto. That came out in 1848. But beyond his contributions to communism, marx is notable for his critiques of religion, and not just his critiques of it, his objection to people of faith.

Speaker 1:

Now Marx's view on religion. It was deeply rooted in his belief that it functioned as a form of social control. Faith in religion was about controlling the masses. It was about pacifying crowds and getting them to do what a few people wanted them to do. But it wasn't just a few people on top. It was good for you and me, the little people on the bottom, because it helped us just get through our hardships and dealing with inequality. In his own words, quoting the Communist Manifesto religious suffering is at the same time an expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the feeling of a heartless world, the soul of soulless circumstances. It is the opium of the people. Marx describes religion as the opium of the people, emphasizing and if you didn't know this opium is a painkiller, it's a numbing agent. That's what it does, and he says just as opiums and opioids numb people, so does religion. Now he calls a critical drawback, though he says opium can alleviate physical pain.

Speaker 1:

Anyone who's ever taken an ibuprofen, a tyla you don't need to have a prescription to do this Anyone who's ever taken a painkiller, you know you got a headache. You take a painkiller. The headache goes away. Well, what caused the headache? Well, you don't know. You just want it to go away. So you take it. And that's what he's saying. Religion is just like it is a societal headache that we have. We don't know why we have it, but we take the ibuprofen and it goes away for a little bit. Now, that's okay if you have headache out of the blue one day, but if you're somebody, you're having a headache every day and that headache comes back no matter what. If you're not on ibuprofen, there's a significant problem going on. There's something we need to deal with, and if we just keep taking the ibuprofen or the tyla and all and we keep just saying, well, you know what, it'll eventually go away, it'll eventually get better maybe. But I also know we have a lot of medical professionals in the room and watching online and you're saying go in, go see your doctor If you have a chronic headache for months and months and months and you don't know why you need to go in. Stop taking painkillers and ignoring that. And that's what Mark says.

Speaker 1:

Religion is like. We have problems in society, we have problems in culture, there are problems that need to be dealt with, there are problems that you and I need to come together and deal with. But what do we do? We don't deal with it. We just insert a little bit of faith, a little bit of religion. We just a little bit. And in this way Marx is a little bit like Freud, because he's saying religion is really just offering us a form of peace. You know, life's hard, what happens after we die? All of these things are big and scary and we're simple and so we need something to believe in. But Marx goes Further than Freud, which is interesting because, I mentioned earlier, marx is older, he was born before Freud, and so Marx was putting this stuff out. I think Freud missed it, but Marx contends that Religions comforting influence diverts attention from the actual sources. So it's not just about me and Me not dealing with stuff. There's a community aspect, because you don't want to deal with it too, and you don't want to deal with it too. So what are we gonna do together? You don't want to deal with that, I want to deal with that. We're just gonna get together and we're gonna not deal with it together, and we're gonna use religion, we're gonna use faith and we're gonna use church and our beliefs and our practices and the things that we call sacred and things that we call tradition, and we're gonna use that. So that way we don't have to think about it until it gets really bad, and then maybe we'll do something, but then it's gonna be back to business as usual. And you're saying, man, that sounds a lot like modern culture. Yes, it does sound like modern culture.

Speaker 1:

Marx's critiques were developed nearly 200 years ago and they're still wildly relevant today. Historically speaking I'm not. I mean just in the last few hundred years Religious institutions have aligned themselves with oppressive political and economic systems. For example, during the era of European colonization, the Christian church provided moral justification for the conquest and domination of indigenous populations. People felt bad about this. Right, they came to this new land. We're taking this land from people, we're killing them, we're slaughtering them. They're doing a whole bunch of other things. That's why I feel guilty about this. We don't know if it's right. What do we do? Religion, faith, god wants you to take this land. Aha, so, even though I feel guilty and ashamed about it, it's okay because the religious people says it's okay. So that's what Marx is talking about and this highlights. It's not just manifest destiny, it's not just slavery and justifying slavery with the Bible. It highlights how the Bible has been selectively interpreted to justify discrimination for centuries.

Speaker 1:

People will rip specific verses out of context to support their views on gender inequality, homophobia, racial discrimination, and they know that they shouldn't. They feel guilty about the hate that they have inside of them. So what do they do? They open the Bible. They try to find a verse Aha, religion, there's my hit, there's my Tylenol, there's my ibuprofen. Now I can numb out and not think about this until it wears off, and then I'll come back for another hit.

Speaker 1:

Mark would look at marks would look at our society and look around at the Christian church. The last four years lost eight years, lost 12 years. He would look at us and say, see, I told you religions of farce. Because instead of dealing with issues of inequality and exploitation, both corporately and economically, but also individually and personally, the Christians don't care. They don't care at all. They go to church on Sunday, they do church on Sunday, but they aren't the church. Marks would say they live one way on Sunday and the minute they leave they live a different way. They just need that hit a church that one hour to just numb them out for the rest of the week. Marks would say they believe in Jesus. They read in the Gospels there's this Jesus. They believe he walked the earth, they believe he was the Messiah, he says, but they don't follow Jesus. So who cares? Etc, etc, etc.

Speaker 1:

This is Karl Marx's critique of the Christian faith. Now we know that's not how we should live our Christian faith out. We know that's not how other people should live it out and yet we have to acknowledge that is how many of us and many other believers live out their faith. So let me say Marx is right faith can be an opium, but it should not be. So how do we remedy this?

Speaker 1:

There are two stories we can look at, from thousands of years ago, way before Jesus came on earth. That shows us this conflict Occurring before Marx was born, before Freud was born, before any of us were born again, before Jesus was born, and we see this tension of people using religion to ignore problems. And the first story is found in Psalm 82. If you want to follow along in your own Bibles, I'll have the words on the screen in a moment, but the scene is is that there's a heavenly court, we're in heaven, god is there, and God is surrounded by those who are giving divine justice on earth. There's this is maybe a little bit more like a story and Allegory of sorts going on here.

Speaker 1:

Okay, and so in in the story, there's these divine beings who are giving justice on earth, but something is wrong. God observes that the divine beings are falling short of their sacred duties. You might be asking what are these sacred duties? I mean, if God has divine beings on earth, he's got to be pretty sacred duty, something that he only trusts with those he's really close to. Well, it's to uphold justice and to protect the vulnerable. And they're not doing it. And so then God says, in quoting Eugene Peterson's the message, paraphrase enough, you've corrupted justice. Long enough. You've let the wicked get away with murder. You're here referring to them. You're on earth to defend the defenseless, to make sure that underdogs get a fair break. Your job is to stand up for the powerless and and prod, first, prosecute all those who exploit them.

Speaker 1:

In this story, god is the divine judge. He's the judge of judges, and he calls them out, he addresses them, he confronts them, reminding that they have a holy, a sacred calling. You were meant to be champions of the weak. You were supposed to be defenders of the fatherless. You were to be protectors of the poor. You were supposed to rescue the oppressed from the clutches of wicked, and they just weren't doing that. They weren't doing the one thing that they were put on earth to do.

Speaker 1:

And Psalm 82 ends with God saying the end is near. You're gonna be held responsible for this. You're gonna be held accountable for this, just like everyone else is. So will you. Just because you were in a position of power and you were given the authority to judge, doesn't mean you're not still under the scope of my judgment. And he assures them because you have done so wrong in my eyes, I will hold you accountable. This all serves as a potent reminder of the profound responsibility that those who are in positions of authority and power have, just how big of a responsibility that we have to uphold justice and protect the vulnerable.

Speaker 1:

Now Marx would look at this story and he would look at the divine judges and Marx would say, yes, that's what faith and religion is. It's a few people on top who just do a few things to keep everyone pacified and then they move on. But in the story we see that God confronts that Marx. That might be a reality, that is happening in some places, but that does not mean God's okay with it. That's not God's vision, that's just what's happening and it doesn't mean God's sitting on his hands. In the story, what we see, you walk away with this idea that God calls people accountable. He calls them forward, he has them step up. And so while Marx might say, well, people, religion, god says is not supposed to be this way.

Speaker 1:

Now there is a contrasting story in Psalm 72. So go back to 10 chapters if you're following along. This time it's King Solomon. King Solomon in this one approaches God in prayer. He's becoming the king of this nation. His dad is King David, or was King David passed away? Those are really big shoes to fill, because Israel didn't have a great king ever before David.

Speaker 1:

And David steps up and you go from never having a great one to like David being the OG. I mean, he's just the great and the goat, I mean just the greatest of all times, and so he's kind of like trying to live up to his dad's expectations, and I love the prayer that Solomon prays. He says give your love of justice to the king, referring to himself, oh God, and the righteousness to the king's son. Help him judge your people in the right way. Let the poor always be treated fairly. Help him to defend the poor, to rescue the children of the needy and to crush their oppressors. He will rescue the poor when they cry to him. He will help the oppressed who have no one to defend them. He feels pity for the weak and the needy and he will rescue them. He will redeem them from oppression and violence, for their lives are precious to him. This is a humble prayer from a guy who's trying to get it right, and for those of you who grew up going to church and Sunday school.

Speaker 1:

You know that Solomon ends up screwing up anyway, but it's really a great start and how he wants to be. And for a while, under Solomon's rule, the kingdom thrives. It's not until he begins to turn away from God that things go badly for him. But while he's following God and he's prioritizing the oppressed and the defenseless and the fatherless, things thrive. Things are blessed. God gives him his favor. He acted as a shield to people who needed protection, and this is the faith that Mark couldn't have comprehended was real. That's the sort of faith that Mark doesn't have a box for. He says no, it's just supposed to numb you. And what Solomon is saying is I don't want to numb people, I want to fix problems. He said I don't just want people to get by. He says I'm going to stand up, I'm going to do work, I'm going to get my hands dirty, my feet are going to leave the castle. Everything you reread, it highlighted fact. Check me. All you want. These are all action based things that Solomon is praying. I will do this, god help me, do this, god help this, be my will.

Speaker 1:

And ultimately, these two stories, one set in heaven, the other one on earth, are contrasting reminders of the profound impact that leadership has. But it's not just people in leadership, it's you and it's me and the areas of our lives that we live in and we go to work in and the neighborhoods we live in. We also have a responsibility, like Solomon, not just to pray the right words but to do the right things. If you don't believe me, we're going to go to a story of Jesus found in Luke 7, verse 22. John the Baptist is hearing all these things about Jesus. He's curious is Jesus who he says he is? John sends a little posse to go see, go check and see if he is Jesus, because he wouldn't lie to us, or would he? That's a different question. But John says, hey, you're going to go check.

Speaker 1:

And they come to Jesus and they ask him are you the Messiah? John the Baptist wants to know, and Jesus of course just can't say yes. He of course can't just say no because he's Jesus. He always has to make this a little bit more complicated than it needs to be. Jesus doesn't tell them what to think. Instead, he says go back to John and tell him what you have seen and heard. Well, what have we seen and heard? The blind see the lame walk, those with leprosy are cured, the deaf hear and the dead are raised to life, and the good news is being preached to the poor. Well, jesus doesn't tell them what to think, but he tells them instead. This is what I'm doing Now, based on what you know. The Messiah should do go back and report to John who I am. You decide Now if you are a first century Jew sent by John the Baptist. And Jesus says look at all these things I'm doing and in the back of your mind you have a couple of different psalms in mind. You have Psalm 82 and you have Psalm 72. Which Psalm are you thinking is more like the Messiah? Psalm 72. He's got to be the Messiah.

Speaker 1:

Jesus was prophesied over and over again in the Old Testament that this is what he would do. He would stand in the gap and he would stand up for those who had no one else standing up to them or for them. Social outcasts, economic outcasts, all sorts of outcasts. How did they know Jesus was the Messiah? Because people experienced healing. How did they know Jesus was who he said he was? Because people experienced life. People were told about God, and that's how Jesus backs up the claim that John is asking who is he? Is he the Messiah? Jesus says look at what I have done.

Speaker 1:

Now, you and I, we're not just believers in Jesus that's Marx's complaint we're followers of Jesus. Can that be said of us? For those of us who claim to be followers of Jesus, do the people around us find healing? It doesn't have to be supernatural healing. Jesus' sake is automatically healed. But in general in life, do people find healing when they're with us? Do they find life around us? Or do we take life? Do they find God because of the words we use, the things we do, the thoughts we think?

Speaker 1:

I'm not calling you to be perfect. I'm just wondering if the trajectory of your Christian faith and the way you follow Jesus is in the trajectory of Jesus or if it's stagnant or if it's non-existent at all. Last week I had a mirror on stage and I challenged you and said this isn't about getting good at judging other people. I don't want you to be suspicious of the faith of the person sitting next to you or in front of you. I want you to be suspicious of your faith to look in the mirror. But this week I want to challenge you to step up In the face of intricate issues and the potential for disillusionment. Silence and apolitical stances are not the answer. Don't hear me say I want you to be apolitical and I don't want you to be silent. If you're a follower of Jesus, he calls you to step up and to use your voice To demonstrate the vitality and relevance of faith.

Speaker 1:

We must become a force for change. We're not supposed to be a painkiller. We're supposed to be an irritant. We're not supposed to numb social injustices, we're supposed to irritate social injustices. We're not supposed to go on with discrimination and racism and everything else. We're supposed to stop it, we're supposed to irritate it. We should annoy the people who profit and enjoy and get gains on those systems. We should be their enemy. They should not like us and we should be okay with that.

Speaker 1:

The church, you and I, the body of Christ, we are a community of not just faith but compassion and we are called, every one of us, to take a leading role in not just confronting structures of oppression but dismantling them in our society. And by embracing this challenge we will transcend the cynicism. If you ever get cynical, like I do, this is hard. But we can transcend cynicism when we see ourselves as agents of change, because we can embrace hope that God is working in us and through us. And so how do we do this? Because it sounds like such a big thing, okay. Well, how are we going to dismantle racism in a 30-minute talk on Sunday morning and in our service in Madison, wisconsin? Why didn't we do this sooner, stephen? Those are great questions. Let's start small. We need community-centered solutions. Many of the challenges we face in our city and in our country require a community type of solution and answer. Not one person can do this or figure it out. It takes all of us, and we will address the issues more effectively and create lasting change when we collaborate. A collaborative approach will lead to collective transformation all around us, where we can empower individuals and families to rise above their circumstances.

Speaker 1:

But it's not just coming together to do good work. I love that, but that's where it starts, it's not where it ends. We need to love everyone the way that God loves them, and I hope that you get tired of hearing me say that every week. I'm just going to continue to bang that drum till the day I die. We have to continue to love. We have to learn to love other people like God loves us. What does that mean Unconditionally and with deep compassion. We have to love them. This kind of love is transformative and it has a profound impact on individuals. We have to start by examining our own capacity for compassion. That might be where we need to start. If we can't love ourselves, we're not going to be able to extend love to other people. So we need to begin to do the work to love ourselves so we can extend it to other people. And so we're going to begin by thinking it's not me, it's we. We're going to do this together, and together we're going to extend love to other people. And then we're going to have partners, and this is what I alluded to during the connection card bit At Madison Church.

Speaker 1:

We have strategic partners in the city. And why is that? Because I don't believe we're Superman. I don't believe we get to fly into the city, beat the bad guy and then fly back out of the city into the next one. That's so arrogant, and the church has been guilty of that. Well intended, definitely well intended. We want to help, we're eager to help, but we've got to stay in our lane. And so one of the partnerships we're developing right now is with DACE, domestic Abuse Intervention Services, right here in Madison.

Speaker 1:

Domestic abuse primarily it doesn't exclusively, but it primarily affects women in our city and DACE doesn't just help them get out of these relationships, it helps them rebuild their life. It does counseling, they do phone calls, they do all sorts of things and in February we're having a person from DACE come out. The plan is every single week in February to talk about a different element of domestic abuse what it looks like and how we can help. What does Madison Church know about domestic abuse? What do I know? Not enough, but we're going to partner with the people who do this for a living and have a proven track record of helping. That's what we're going to do. We're going to partner with them. We're going to partner and we have partnered with Nehemiah in town. They help people who are formerly incarcerated, which, in the state of Wisconsin, primarily affects people who are black and brown. So we partner with them. It doesn't exclusively. Incarceration doesn't exclusively affect those people, but it primarily does in the state of Wisconsin. So what do I know about being black? Nothing, absolutely nothing. But I'm gonna partner with a black led organization that has been solving these problems and helping people and has a proven track record of doing so. So we're gonna do that and this is how we do it together. We do it as a community and we grow in love with each other. Because, as we rub shoulders whether it's at the gratitude dinner, we have a blood drive in January, we're gonna do a drive four days in February, no matter what it is we're gonna rub shoulders with these people, these professionals who are helping. We're gonna rub shoulders with people who have been positively impacted by these programs.

Speaker 1:

Again, it's not about you figuring out how to solve all of the world's problems by yourself. You can't do it. It's too big. If somebody could have, they already would have. It's essential to remember that change starts small, but it accumulates over time. And I do wanna say, for those of you who are already dedicating your time and efforts to various causes I'm not seeking to burn you out or take advantage of you. Thank you, but I wanna get you started. I wanna get everyone started, because here's the thing, here's what I worry about sometimes. I got a nice puzzle here.

Speaker 1:

Okay, we have the vision of what this looks like, of what the kingdom of God looks like, of what the gospel transformation looks like, without racism, without homophobia, with all of these things without the and we think how am I gonna do this? Well, as I mentioned already, the good news is you don't have to do it alone. I just need you to be one piece. Just need you to be one piece. Can you be one piece? Because the problem is right now we have this vision and we're like this is we need world peace or whatever? We gotta do this. The gospel, okay, it's gone.

Speaker 1:

The problem is we're only playing with half the box and in some cases, we're not even playing with half the box. In some cases, we're playing with a fourth of the box. So, if you're already in the box, thank you, please stay in the box. We want to continue to partner together. But what I'm urging you, like empathetically and throwing puzzle pieces all over the ground, and if we don't find them all, some kid's gonna be really upset upstairs. But we need you to just play your part, to just lay your piece on the table. I'm in. This is what I have to offer. Again, it's not to burn you out. You can't be two pieces, but be the piece that God created you to be.

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Religion as Societal Ibuprofen
Leadership and Responsibility in Upholding Justice
The Power of Individual Contribution