Celebrating the NFL’s First Openly Atheist Player

Posted: August 10, 2015 by Matt Horan in Uncategorized

ESPN Magazine FosterBy Matt Horan

I just finished reading the much-anticipated (by ESPN, anyway…) article in the ESPN Magazine about Arian Foster being perhaps the first openly atheist player in the NFL. While the article was written to make news, there was absolutely nothing new in it. He had all of the standard complaints: How can there be a good God who causes one side of a street is destroyed by flooding and the other is untouched? Why do people thank God for winning football games–does that mean God made the other team lose? God should be doing more important things than watching football like stopping suffering and war and disease. How could a loving God send people to hell?

My main reaction to the article is sadness. Sadness that Wesleyan denominations are not doing enough to share their faith with the world, leading people like Arian Foster and others to think that faith in Jesus Christ is either fundamentalist or nothing.

If we did, Arian Foster might have realized along the way that God doesn’t cause suffering. Somehow, in order to allow human free will, God limits interaction with the workings of the world to avoid coercing us into loving him.  Sometimes God intervenes, but sometimes intervention would impact human free will, and therefore sometimes he does not, even though it means that there will be suffering by the people he so loves.  Love is only love if it is chosen freely, and an ounce of coercive influence by God exerted over that choice would make it something else.  There is much mystery in this relationship, much room for discussion and difference of opinion, but perhaps awareness of this view might have encouraged Foster to give God a chance.

If we did, Arian Foster might have heard about the Wesleyan theology of grace: that God gives us every opportunity to have a relationship with him in this life and in the life to come.  Long before we are aware of our sin and our need for repentance and grace, God reaches out to us, inviting us into that relationship.  As long as we live, that invitation will persist.

In Jesus Christ, God shows us that his intention toward us is not to visit a variety of blessings and curses on us in order to work out his will in the world.  Rather, God intends to be in solidarity with us–mourning with us, struggling with us, journeying with us.  Anyone familiar with the Christmas story knows that Jesus is also called “Emmanuel,” or “God with us.”  God does not cause suffering, but when stopping it would exert too much influence over us that our free will to love him is taken away, he allows it.  He joins us in our sadness, but then opens our eyes to the ways that this season of suffering might be reframed as an opportunity to undergo spiritual formation and be shaped by it more and more into the image of God.

Fundamentalism is not the only way to live as a disciple of Jesus Christ.  We’re not totally depraved.  Your eternal salvation or damnation is not predetermined before you’re born.  Jesus didn’t only die for some people–he died for everybody, including Arian Foster.  If you don’t want to be a Christian, you don’t have to be.  And if you are one and don’t want to be anymore, you have that option too.

Would this view have swayed Arian Foster in some way?  No way to know, but the reasons he’s an atheist are all directed against the Fundamentalist/Calvinist version of God.  If we had invited Arian Foster to consider the Wesleyan understanding of God, perhaps ESPN would have written about sports this week instead.

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