Recently, I received an email from an agnostic reader who asked my opinion about a problem. I thought my response might generate some conversation.
Dear Allen (the name has been changed),
Sorry it has taken me longer than expected to answer your email. Reading it again, I'm not quite sure what to tell you. I am the last person who would defend Christian denominations and their activities. Anglicanism is a mess. Thankfully, I am not an Anglican. But do I understand your situation correctly? You used the word "proselytize." Your brother-in-law is trying to "proselytize" you. I take this to mean that he is concerned for your rapidly aging soul. At our age (I'm 66 as well) that is no unimportant issue. We could be dead tomorrow (if not sooner). In answer to his concern, you raise your objections about what Anglicans are doing in Africa. Do I have that down right? So how in the world should you deal with this damnably irritating individual (whom you love and respect) regarding his futile attempts to save you? Is that the question?
In my experience, with all such people delicacy and sophistication simply do not work. No matter what his concerns may be that you are on your way to hell, you have every right to your opinions and privacy. In particular, within the confines of a family, no one should browbeat another. Sadly, I think there's no other alternative than a fairly brutal response. I suggest that you tell him with the utmost clarity that his attempts to save you will never work. You have made your decision regarding Christianity. While somewhat clinically fascinating as an example of spirituality, it will never be of any deeper personal interest to you. As a sophisticated man you are quite prepared for what you consider to be the minimal risks involved with this decision. The minor risk being that Jesus Christ is exactly who the Bible says he is and that your rejection of eternal salvation offered through him means that you will go to hell. While you don't believe this fantasy for a New York minute, you accept the logical potential that there is a very tiny percentage of possibility that it could be true. After all, in the insanity of our quantum universe almost anything could be true, if not in this dimension, then in some other. Accepting this tiny percentage of possibility and standing against it will prove one of two things - either you are a man of great moral courage who has risen above primitive ignorance or you are an arrogant, smug eternally self-destructive fool. One way or the other, I would inform your brother-in-law that you are ready, willing and able to take the risk.
Perhaps he is not fully aware of the important values held by every good agnostic. As gently as possible, I would inform him that you carry in your proverbial wallet an important piece of self-identification. It is your Professional Searchers Card and it qualifies you to dabble endlessly (well, not endlessly) at the smorgasbord of world spirituality - a dab of this, a titillating morsel of that. He needs to understand that Professional Searchers are members of a very exclusive club. Their self-esteem (some would call it arrogance or overweening pride, but why quibble?) is found at all costs in maintaining their life-long objectivity. The most important clause in the contract of club membership is that a Professional Searcher is not allowed ever to actually find anything of eternal and life-changing importance other than belief in the power of his own intellect and the rather entertaining illusion that he is master of his fate and captain of his soul. To invest in anything beyond this would mean an instantaneous and very humiliating loss of membership and the status accruing to it among his many sophisticated friends. Which, you might mention, brings up the most egregious claim of historic Christianity.
To be a Christian demands abject, self-mortifying humility. Not only must one believe in the anachronistic concept of sin, one must accept that he is a sinner deserving of hell before a Holy God. That is bad enough, but it gets infinitely worse. One must actually humble himself, ask forgiveness for his sins and then turn away from them, depending only on Jesus Christ, and his death on the cross to pay the eternal penalty for all the evil crap that he has done. You might mention to your brother-in-law that, not only is this unnecessary in your case, it is personally insulting and goes against every modern concept of psychological well-being, all of which, in one way or another, depend on stoically coping with human evil and murderous destructiveness, while desperately struggling to maintain a positive, life-affirming attitude - indeed, a truly heroic endeavor in the face of your own ever-approaching death.
So there we have it. The time for charm and patience is at an end. Give it to him with both barrels.
Of course, there is another way. I spent a significant portion of my life as a card-carrying Jackass. It was a great relief to get that card out of my wallet. For such a little piece of plastic, the thing was an amazingly heavy load that pulled my trousers down to my knees. Strangely, for a long time I was completely unaware that I was wandering through life as a bare-assed idiot. I was oblivious to the cool breeze swirling around my posterior because I was smugly pleased that my intellectual hair was combed and my tie was straight. But what am I blathering about? That was only me.
All the best,