A Close Brush with Finding a Reasonable Theist


My second most cherished stereotype is that there are no reasonable theists – anywhere – in the whole world. (First on my most cherished list concerns old men who wear dress hats.) I would wake up from nightmares panting and sweating, having dreamed I had accidentally found a reasonable theist after doing everything (closing my eyes and plugging my ears) to avoid them.

And then it happened. I heard a Methodist minister from Memphis named Maxie Dunham in the middle of a bunch of ads on the radio on a weekday. Then I heard him again a few days later. It was a simple 1 or 2 minute homily that really hit home, and he managed to do it without scraping us across the coals of Jesus Christ. He simply let it sink in. Each of his spots would end with “This is Maxie Dunham and these are my perceptions.” It was addicting.

He knew he had us; we were balls of putty in his hands. Then the inevitable happened. His ministry was rotated out of Memphis (as is the Methodist way) and we got a replacement whose diploma still had places where the ink hadn’t dried yet. The replacement tried to continue in Maxie’s tradition, but he couldn’t resist explaining what he meant, how it fit into the Bible, and what Jesus would do. It flopped.

In the meantime while we were suffering from withdrawal symptoms, Maxie had written a book (appropriately named Perceptions), and we got our fix. He wrote a follow-up companion book, and then – nothing. He had been booted up the line to become a bishop. He was lost in the hierarchy, and for years we heard nothing about him. It became a Where-is-he-now issue.

Then there was a news flash shortly into Bush II’s administration. He had become the president of Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky. I remember thinking to myself, “OMG, what if he’s turning out clones! There won’t be any hope for atheism to flourish in America.”

However, my prayers were answered, and the article was about his order to remove American flags from the cafeteria table to be replaced by more appropriate ways of commemoration. It had caused a ruckus, and shortly afterward he put the flags back, announcing the decision with a short statement liberally sprinkled with the editorial “we”. Of course, that didn’t go unnoticed either. Although this upset many people, I remained relatively neutral.

Nearly another decade went by without any mention of what was going on up in Kentucky. Then it hit. In reaction to a lesbian pastor, the United Methodist church voted to bring the Book of Discipline into a more modern setting to make it a “clear statement and a statement of compassion”. The book now reads The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.” The hemorrhage had been cauterised, and the lesbian will not be reappointed.

I haven’t forgotten Maxie Dunham. His press release was “It was a real victory for the church, because it leaves no room for confusion.” After all these years I can return to my comfortable complacency, knowing that my stereotype about a reasonable theist is safe after all.

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