Quick Question from the Road

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : July 2, 2007

So much of what we think about at Christianity is basically a generic theism with Jesus slapped on. I’ve often said that, if “forced” to choose, I’d rather be a pagan who follows Jesus than a generic theist. I usually say this simply to shock people into dialogue, because many people think of Jesus simply as a theism “add-on” or think that our energy in proclamation of the Gospel should be in convincing people of God’s existence. I’m curious about what you think: Do people need to be “converted” to theism before becoming Christians? How essential is theism to Christianity? How essential is Christ to theism?

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30 Responses to “Quick Question from the Road”

  1. Matt Wiebe on July 2nd, 2007 10:45 am

    While I think that an explicitly Christian theism is the most consistent way of thinking for a Christian, I do not think that someone needs to go through a theism conversion prior to a Christian conversion. Theism is, of course, of secondary importance to trust in Jesus himself as the way, truth and life.

    There are some cases in which (eg: C.S. Lewis) a conversion to theism serves as a stepping-stone towards full-fledged trust in Jesus, but this is not a necessary path to take.

    Christ is not essential to theism, as theism is a broad playing field in which Christ is only one player. You are certainly right if you say that what most Christians actually believe is some watered-down version of Aristotelian theism, with a God largely disinterested in–if not oblivious to–the affairs of humanity. That is certainly not anything we should aspire to convert anyone to, as it bears no resemblance to Jesus’ Father in Heaven.

  2. Jonas Lundström on July 2nd, 2007 12:13 pm

    I am not exactly sure I know what you mean. But to me it seems that one has to believe that God raised Jesus from the dead in order to get onto the path to the kingdom. Doesn´t this imply theism in some form? I think people need to feel that the man Jesus is alive, raised and made The Leader by the creating force of the universe.
    Maybe I misunderstand your post?

  3. Ryan Wiksell on July 2nd, 2007 3:16 pm

    I will agree with what’s been said, and add this:

    I think your opening question is a good conversation piece, but ultimately a “pagan following Jesus” cannot stay true for long. No one who stays “pagan” could really claim to be following Jesus.

  4. keith johnson on July 2nd, 2007 4:51 pm

    Hi Ryan:

    I’m not sure if your comment contradicts Mark’s “pagan follower of Jesus”. Traditional theology holds that Christ *is* God, and continuing to follow Christ probably entails learning more of the truth about him, which probably entails eventually learning that God is. But in the Matthew 25 parable of the sheep and goats, the sheep were the ones who offered comfort to Christ without their being aware that it was Christ they were helping. In the parable the order of their “conversion” was first love, then knowledge of the truth. If Christ is God, then following Christ IS following God, whether or not you have complete knowledge ABOUT Him.

    your friend

  5. Jeshua on July 2nd, 2007 5:36 pm

    Interesting question, Mark. I tend to agree with Jonas in that theism seems to take at least some part in believing in Jesus. I’m not an expert on “-isms” so I may not understand the full implication of your question, but is it possible that leaving theism out of turning to Jesus is like reducing salvation to the sinner’s prayer? The sinner’s prayer isn’t wrong, but it’s not the whole picture.

    I’m not sure that we can really believe in Jesus without being a theist. Without theism, Jesus is just another good man, so to believe in Jesus without believing in theism may have some good things going for it, but ultimately it is an incorrect/limited view of Christ.

  6. tana on July 2nd, 2007 6:54 pm

    Ack!! Not to be a self promoter, but this, well, a version of this is my blog post for today! What’s in the water?

  7. Heather W. Reichgott on July 2nd, 2007 8:47 pm

    Maybe it depends on whether you started out as a Jew or a Gentile.

  8. Luke on July 2nd, 2007 9:58 pm

    I tend to think a lot more people would be seduced by the beauty of the way of Jesus if they didn’t feel they needed to swallow all the irrational doctrine of the church first. Kind of like how Buddhism has found followers in the west (but not so much Mahayana Buddhism). Even the vitriolic Richard Dawkins wrote a piece called “Atheists for Jesus.”

    I even wonder if neomonasticism could take hold in the non-theist mainstream if the movement’s focus was on love and service and simplicity and it could be decoupled from talking snakes and mind-reading, tri-person, invisible spirits. People want a better, fuller, more loving way of life than their busy and pointless consumerist rat-race, but children of the Enlightenment don’t, by definition, swallow dogma.

  9. Ben on July 2nd, 2007 10:03 pm

    Seems like eventually if you are truly following Jesus you’ll be led to the God question, but I think one can start with Jesus. Actually I think the New Testament encourages us to do this. To say that Jesus was divine is not to find something out about Jesus, but about God. We proceed from the known (Jesus), to the unknown (God), not the other way around (ala N.T. Wright). Jesus reveals the Father, shows us what God is like. So to follow Jesus leads you straight to God. But one could certainly start out as an atheist following Christ.

    Actually I think a lot of Christians could do themselves a lot of good by ditching whatever preconceptions they have about God from their “general theism” and just start with following Jesus with a “beginner mind” - they might discover a few things about God that were opaque when they were theists with a Jesus add-on!

  10. keith johnson on July 3rd, 2007 12:00 am

    Hi Ben:

    That’d be my take as well. Like Paul wrote in Collosians:

    “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.” (Col 1:15)”

    Christ makes the invisible God visible, so rather than getting so hung up on the meaning of omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, or whether or not God is outside of time or within it, maybe we’d learn more about God from just observing Christ, inside and out. Maybe theistic proofs are beside the point: what need is there to *prove* God exists when you can see him clearly in the face of our Lord.

    your friend

  11. keith johnson on July 3rd, 2007 12:18 am

    Hi Luke:

    You wrote: “I even wonder if neomonasticism could take hold in the non-theist mainstream if the movement’s focus was on love and service and simplicity and it could be decoupled from talking snakes and mind-reading, tri-person, invisible spirits. People want a better, fuller, more loving way of life than their busy and pointless consumerist rat-race, but children of the Enlightenment don’t, by definition, swallow dogma.”

    I would quibble with you a bit. I’d say the children of the Enlightment have swallowed whole a dogma, namely that whatever cannot be examined by scientific methods is irrational and ought not be embraced. There is no way to non-circularly demonstrate any such thing. IMO it is obvious that invisible “spirits” exist, we know from intimate inner experience that we have minds, that our minds are not reducible to brain *behaviors* because our minds are not *behaviors* at all. But I think that getting bogged down in such philosophical reflection can sometimes–for some people–be a distraction. You are right that a lot of people are hungry for a better way to live. Christ taught us just such a way. I believe there is supernatural benefit for following Christ, and if I’m right about that then we’d expect that benefit to obtain even for those who didn’t quite buy the supernatural theories. Christ *leads* to God, Christ is the *way* to God ( I believe) and if I’m correct the atheist who is attracted to Christ will find that our soon enough.

    your friend

  12. Daniel on July 3rd, 2007 4:37 am

    I’m not sure the gospel narrative makes sense unless one is a theist. I suppose one could easily embrace an ethics of Jesus without embracing the God of Jesus but could you understand the mission of God to include the gentiles into the people of Israel’s God without understanding the jealous God of Moses? The early church found its most fertile soil in the God-fearers of the empire and later there was a long discipleship before full inclusion in the church.

    I’m all for provocation but I think a radical monotheism is inherent in discipleship; whether one comes to that monotheism before or through Jesus is secondary.

    peace, courage, joy,

  13. Jonas Lundström on July 3rd, 2007 4:45 am

    Marks question was about “becoming christian”. For non-jews/non-moslems, they will probably get a grip on Jesus (through the church) at first, and this, of course, is fine for me. (Bens words on this was great, I think.) But to become a follower of the Messiah, I think one needs to be baptized (not a lot of talk about this in the emerging church?), into the name of Jesus and/or into the name of the Parent, the son and the spirit. And should we really baptize someone not confessing God/the Parent? Doesn´t turning to the Messiah implies some basic trust in the whole of God´s story?

  14. Anna on July 3rd, 2007 12:57 pm

    I’ll second what Matt said about C.S. Lewis…who is really a revamp of G.K. Chesterton. The whole scene from the Narnia movie where the Professor makes the case for Lucy “Lying, Insane or Truth-teller” is straight Chesterton.

    His “Ethics of Elfland” chapter in Orthodoxy is the best case for Pagan turned Theist turned Christian.

    Can you tell I had the Chronicles of Narnia as bedtime stories for three years as a child?

    Your fellow Pagan Jesus-Follower ~Anna

  15. Richard on July 3rd, 2007 1:47 pm

    I tend to think a lot more people would be seduced by the beauty of the way of Jesus if they didn’t feel they needed to swallow all the irrational doctrine of the church first.

    People want a better, fuller, more loving way of life than their busy and pointless consumerist rat-race, but children of the Enlightenment don’t, by definition, swallow dogma.

    I’ll completely admit to selective quoting, but I wanted to throw this out there and see what the crowd thought of it. The quotes make it sound like following Jesus as “Your Best Life Now” except with a different definition of what Best means. This brings two questions to my mind. First of all, would a redefinition of Best be what we, the Jesus-followers are advocating (particularly when talking about following Jesus without theism). Secondly, should it be?

  16. keith johnson on July 3rd, 2007 3:11 pm

    Hi All:

    What is that “best life now” Jesus promised? I would say it is expressed in the Sermon on the Mount as well as in the way Jesus himself lived. By following Christ we *become* the kind of people who turn the other cheek, who love even our enemies, who forgive those who have sinned against us, who seek first the Kingdom of God, who don’t worry about the future. In Matthew 25 Jesus says our treatment of the “least of these” *is* our treatment of our Lord. That tells me there is no distinction between the objects of our love–our neighbors, our enemies, our Lord, loving one is loving all, failing to love one is failing to love all. Christ makes us *able* to love all.

    But our transformation doesn’t happen instantaneously, we can be right theologically and still be far from where God wants us to end up–in fact, I’d say that’s the case for all of us. So given that, why think that a person couldn’t *start* his journey along Christ’s way as an atheist?

    your friend

  17. Daniel on July 4th, 2007 4:29 am

    I guess I have a question about what it means to “start” a journey along Christ’s way. My three year old is neither a theist or an atheist. He is mostly a “play with toy cars in the sand-ist.” Yet he prays and sings hymns and tells us every time he sees a horse that “Jesus ride a donkey!”

    At some point, however, he will come to a space where he will be confronted with a decision to follow Jesus and suffer a cost or follow the world. Will he be able to choose the former as an atheist or pagan? Maybe, but for how long? How many years? Yes, you can “start” from anywhere, we all start from somewhere.

    Perhaps Jonas is on the right track to point us to the question of baptism. At what point we should baptize or be baptized? That is a question that has plagued us for centuries and continues today.

  18. keith johnson on July 4th, 2007 11:23 am

    Hi Daniel:

    Here’s what I was thinking of: suppose an atheist find himself drawn to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and he sincerely tries to put it into practice. He is aware when he judges others, when he is angry etc., in other words he notices his own sin. He find himself trying to forgive his enemies and even hope for good things to happen to his enemies. He is skeptical of the supernatural, but he finds that what Jesus taught has a pull on him. Isn’t he closer to the Way than is the Christian who goes to church every time the door is open but sees himself as more righteous than those sinful unbelievers out there?

    your friend

  19. Jonas Lundström on July 4th, 2007 1:30 pm

    Keith, I agree, I think. If I am allowed to keep on bringing in the baptism-question, I think that your atheist still needs baptism and becoming a part of a christian group of followers, a church. But your case might also put a question mark after the baptism of lots of “christians”. At this point, I am definitely drawn to anabaptism, I think that “baptism” might not be valid, and might need to be repaired or completed. I am not sure I believe in the total rejection of baptism of children or half-believing adults, but I definitely believe that there is a need to repair or make the baptism of lots of “christians” complete, through some useful ritual. (In our small church, we have handed over one of the keys to our house to a brother or sister in the church, as a way of making visible the meaning of baptism.) Baptism should be administered to people who really want to leave the world and follow Jesus, no matter the cost.

  20. Daniel on July 4th, 2007 4:26 pm


    Good question, let me see if I can articulate my position.

    I am not denying that one can begin a journey “anywhere” but about our hypothetic atheist (lets call him Bob) I would have to ask a couple of questions.

    Why is Bob following Jesus? Because Jesus is a nice guy or perhaps he is a good example of “the way” as understood in taoism or maybe he just had a vision while on some acid that told him he should follow Jesus. In and of itself it doesn’t matter but at some point that original motivation is going to run out of steam and Bob is going to be faced with a choice, continue to follow Jesus or surrender to other loyalties. Perhaps that challenge will come when Bob reads the Revelation of John and the future judgment comes into view? Or when Jesus starts talking all monotheistic or when other aspects of his lifestyle (not just the uncool things like anger or violence) come under divine critique.

    At that moment we begin to find out if Bob has really been following Jesus or just using Jesus as an example or ideal for some values that he brought to and found justification for in Jesus. There are millions of professing Christians who leave Jesus on the street corner whenever his call to single minded loyalty conflicts with something they want to do also. There are many theists who “use” Jesus to justify certain values and then ignore him when he asks them to surrender others. They are in the same boat as Bob, neither closer to nor farther away from the Kingdom of God.

    This is why some Anabaptists have attempted to hang on to some form of church discipline, we all the insights of one another. We are all, to one extent or another, “hairy legged souls lost out in sin.” I think a good measure of when someone, regardless of where they began their journey, is ready for baptism is their willingness to give and receive instruction from the local congregation; knowing that the Bible is the authority b which we teach, exhort and correct one another.

    I can’t say if Bob is “saved” or not so it is not a question I should try to answer. Neither can I really “know” how close he is to the Kingdom. He could be a son of Thunder or a Judas I. as far as I can tell. The questions I do think we can address are those of how our congregations will function as communities seeking to follow Jesus in the world today and that is why I think the question of baptism is relevant.


  21. keith johnson on July 5th, 2007 12:13 am

    Hi Daniel:

    you wrote: “Why is Bob following Jesus? Because Jesus is a nice guy or perhaps he is a good example of “the way” as understood in taoism or maybe he just had a vision while on some acid that told him he should follow Jesus. In and of itself it doesn’t matter but at some point that original motivation is going to run out of steam and Bob is going to be faced with a choice, continue to follow Jesus or surrender to other loyalties. Perhaps that challenge will come when Bob reads the Revelation of John and the future judgment comes into view? Or when Jesus starts talking all monotheistic or when other aspects of his lifestyle (not just the uncool things like anger or violence) come under divine critique.”.

    Since Bob is hypothetical, I think I’ll tell you why Bob is following Christ: when he reads things like the Sermon on the Mount it seems compelling to him. I say this with a certain amount of experience because when I was much younger I was just like Bob. I was an atheist, but when the dudes from Gideons passed out the free New Testaments I grabbed one and felt the exact thing Bob felt wrt the Sermon. I was *indeed* drawn to Jesus the very nice guy, but the Sermon on the Mount is a little more radical than can be captured by “nice guy”. But I didn’t believe in the supernatural.

    I have since come to believe in the supernatural and to see Jesus as Lord, the 2nd person of the Trinity, the one “by [who] all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him… [who] is before all things, and in [whom] all things hold together”. But I wonder why that is important? I’m not sure it’s because unless you hold the right theological opinions you aren’t saved. Christ said that the entire law is summed up by (a) loving God with all you’ve got and (b) loving your neighbor as yourself. I wonder if one can love God while not believing God is real? It doesn’t seem impossible to me. If I were an atheist I would think my dead brother was dead and gone and no longer existed, but still I would love him. IN Matthew 25, Jesus gave no hint that having the right belief about the supernatural was a requisite for being grouped with his sheep. Maybe right theology is a gift that God gives to those who follow him, not the other way around.

    your friend

  22. Daniel on July 5th, 2007 7:36 am


    Nice to meet you.

    I would agree that correct theological belief is not necessary to following Jesus, none of us is 100% correct.

    I do, however, believe that no individual is stagnant either in belief or the development of character. Eventually our hypothetical pagan or atheist will be faced with a degree of cognitive dissonance that they will be forced, cognitively or behaviorally, to choose between two masters, so to speak. If the individual is making a conscious effort to follow Jesus, he or she will discover through experience, that they “hate the one and love the other.

    I don’t know that the example of a dead brother one still loves is analogous to the dilemna faced by the atheistic oriented disciple because the brother did exist as opposed to a God one believes never existed. It is more like an imaginary construct of the perfect friend or spouse. Treating love as a well spring of action and not a dreamer’s emotion (James 2, 1 John 5) will one suffer persecution or die (Matthew 5) for an imaginary construct? Because individuals are more complex than our simple labels one might but I would wonder if our diagnosis of their world view was detailed enough or, baring that, if they were acting rationally.

    I should add as a disclaimer that I would distinguish between the earnest disciple who is “a little iffy” from the one who denies the existence of God. Not to self promote but I hope to deal (indirectly) with the latter on my own blog by the end of next week.

  23. Beyond Words on July 5th, 2007 9:14 am

    I think our impoverished understanding of the Trinity contributes to this confusion. Take Bob, for example. Is Bob merely “following ” Jesus or is Bob worshiping and following Jesus? If he is both worshipping Jesus and following him, the Spirit is at work in Bob and he is experiencing God the Father. I don’t think that’s classic theism, but then, I don’t think theism really captures the Trinity.

    Worshipping Jesus presupposes the trinitarian nature of God and therefore, transcends the problem of theism. It’s not a belief per se, but an act of worship.

  24. keith johnson on July 5th, 2007 9:42 am

    Hi Daniel:

    I think we may be really in agreement here. On the 0ther hand, we might be as far apart as possible:-) Let me try to clarify. I agree with you about the necessity of spiritual growth, so I fully expect that the hypothetical Christian atheist Bob will eventually come to see the full truth–he will begin to see that God is real. But the way I read what you wrote,, you think that Bob will eventually encounter a moment of truth, where he will be faced with accepting or rejecting the supernatural claims of Christianity and that this is the decisive part of his spiritual life. That’s the idea I am questioning. Bob feels drawn to the the very things Christ said he should be drawn to and without doubt*would* embrace God if he thought God was real. The only barrier between Bob and a deep relationship with God is his lack of knowledge. I wonder–I actually assume–that if this were the case, God would in due time grant Bob the gift of that knowledge. While for some–for me as an example–knowing that God is real right now helps me walk the way of Christ, I wonder if there are not others who wouldn’t need this knowledge until the end.

    I am just wondering, you know:-)

    your friend

  25. Daniel on July 5th, 2007 6:20 pm


    If we are in disagreement it might be of a “straining the knat” sort… I would guess that our respective biographies cause us to see the issue differently or at least articulate it differently.

    Is the agency of the ultimate change God (as I think I read your comments) or the individual (my rhetoric at least and perhaps my theology as well).

    I began my journey as a redneck hedonist. Each bit of spiritual growth has been painful as I have given up one hope for another. Surrendering primary loyalty to self-gratification was hard. Surrendering primary loyalty to nation was harder and surrendering primary loyalty to father, mother, son and daughter hardest of all. I find other paths more intuitive than Christianity so it has been hard to remain true to that which I have confessed and believed.

    I also work with the mentally ill so I have a lot of reason to believe that bad things happen to everyday people… I see what “can happen” everyday. I wonder, will that guy with a cross on his neck learn from God now that he has to deal with a wife with a traumatic brain injury or bipolar disorder or will he take the first opportunity to bail on her so he can return to his comfortable suburban “reality.” He is faced with a choice whether he realizes it or not… he can choose God’s call to steadfast love or he can choose comfort… he may not realize he is doubting the existence of God but he does seem to me to be making a choice about the reality of the God he reads about in the Bible. We make choices everyday about the existence of God, only most the time we do not realize it.

    I do not deny that God acts to give knowledge. I would say that I am the recipient of that knowledge. It has only been my experience that with that gift comes converting and that can be very hard, that entails a choice. Someday I do think Bob will have to make a choice… and probably a lot of choices over a lot of days.

    Perhaps his experience will be different than mine… which is why it is good that Bob should have exposure to a community of faith where there are many voices teaching and correcting one another.

    Again… it seems to be a matter of knats.
    Courage Joy

  26. markvans on July 6th, 2007 9:52 am

    Great thoughts everyone!

    I want to echo what I’ve heard several of you say already: theism isn’t a necessary starting point for following Jesus–we all come to Jesus from different places in our thinking. And we can enter into a transformative relationship with him without having first believed in some concept of “God” or Monotheism.

    The issue, of course, is that Jesus shows us who the Father is. If, for example, 10 years down the road someone is following the radical example of Jesus and hasn’t yet been baptized into the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, then it is a problem. At some point, we need to encounter the Triune reality that is God. I don’t think it is an irrational doctrine at all. Without it, Jesus is a moral exemplar and nothing more. This isn’t insignificant. Indeed, if there were no God, I’d still follow Jesus. And he’d probably be the closest thing to a god that I’d have in my life.

    But, in the end, that isn’t enough. I’m not talking about “getting saved”–I’m talking about participating in the divine nature. I’m talking about being filled with the Spirit. We start with Jesus. And Jesus calls us into a divine dance. If we embrace Jesus without embracing his Father and his Spirit, then we are missing out.

  27. Luke on July 8th, 2007 2:35 pm


    Though it is tangential to Mark’s question, let me address your quibble. You are right that Enlightenment thinkers have their own “tradition” (I’m using Alasdair MacIntyre’s term; he writes on this issue quite eloquently). If we can call it dogma, then it is a different sort of dogma altogether.

    Religious dogma is about what one believes, which is separate from how one believes. Whether one comes to Christian belief through personal experience, induction, deduction, or are simply grandfathered in (as is usually the case), what unites religious people is their dogma of what to believe: an omnipotent, omniscient, benevolent God created the universe; Christology; atonement; etc.

    The Enlightenment dogma is, on the other hand, about how one believes, separate from what one believes. The Enlightenment dogma is too think rationally about what we observe in the real world, not to believe any set of truths for all time. Thus, even if nearly all Enlightenment thinkers assume the universe is eternal, they all change their minds if presented with well-considered, compelling evidence (as happened during the 20th century, with Big Bang theory). And of course, Enlightenment thinkers are not going to accept truths just because they were asserted by ancient persons, whether Paul of Tarsus or Aristotle.

    Thus, we might see the central virtue of religion as faith; asserting truths in the face of whatever evidence comes our way. But the central virtue of the Enlightenment (or rather, Descartes’ skepticism, which preceded the Enlightenment) is doubt; not asserting truths unless reason and evidence compels one to do so.

    Perhaps that is why religion has no problem asserting gods despite so much evidence to the contrary, and why Enlightenment thinkers refuse to assert indemonstrable gods.

  28. keith johnson on July 8th, 2007 7:34 pm

    Hi Luke:

    I have to quibble again:-) I think it might be misleading to distinguish “what to believe” from “how to believe”. The Enlightenment does make a claim about what to believe: it demands we believe that “only those beliefs which can be supported by sufficient evidence are epistemically valid (to use a fancy philosophical term:-).” In fact, without circular reasoning you cannot “demonstrate” that reason and evidence is *ever* an effective way to expand our knowledge–the very demonstration would have to use reason or evidence and would thus be assuming its conclusion. But even if you could prove that Reason is one way to get knowledge, you couldn’t prove that, say, Muslim religious experience isn’t an effective source of knowledge, you couldn’t even show that probably it isn’t.

    Knowledge is really tricky and it depends as much on intuition and judgement as much as it does on evidence and reason. The folks who embraced the Enlightenment didn’t recognize that IMO obvious fact.

    BTW, I am not sure what evidence there is *against* God (or honestly against Thor or Zeus for that matter). But it’s not evidence that makes people reject God. Evidence is beside the point IMO.

    your friend

  29. Lisa on July 9th, 2007 2:20 pm

    Being a non-believer, I have often wondered whether someone could follow Christ but not have to accept the superstructure of Christian theology that goes along with it. I don’t know what the answer is, obviously, but I do know that Christ himself spoke a whole heck of a lot about belief and routinely talked about how believing, in and of itself, was fairly central to his message. So it seems to me that Christ himself commands belief and thereby does not rise above the dogma that those of us living in a post-Christian world find rather ridiculous. So maybe Christ is mired in the muck that this post seeks to shake off.

  30. keith johnson on July 9th, 2007 6:11 pm

    Hi Lisa:

    Jesus does talk about belief, but the question is what is the content of that belief? As a Christian, I *do* believe in all kinds of things you might find ridiculous, but I wonder if it’s a good enough start for a person to just believe this one thing: that the way we treat the “least of these” is the ultimate standard for how we should live our lives. Jesus seems to me to place that at the very top of his list of essential dogmas.

    your friend

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