Christian (noun): One who professes belief in the teachings of Jesus Christ; a follower of Jesus. (Actual contemporary meaning: A follower of a follower of Jesus.)
When I was sixteen I found myself at a Campus Crusade for Christ mission, handing out groceries to inner city Philadelphians. The staging area was a comfortable hotel, where we stayed and where team meetings were held. During the day we were dropped off in teams of three, armed with the aforementioned bags of groceries as well as tracts describing the “four spiritual laws.” To get the groceries, someone had to listen to our pitch. Later, everyone who’d “been saved” (had spoken a prayer acknowledging Jesus Christ as their Personal Lord and Savior) was tallied on a chalk board for the assembled missionaries to celebrate.
My ethical concerns about this type of practice developed later (we were exploiting economic disadvantage to further our own spiritual agenda; furthermore, none of us contacted any of our subjects afterward – they were just marks on a chalkboard), but my indelible memory was of competition. Those who achieved the highest “save rate” were rock stars – the spiritual giants we aspired to be. I overheard a conversation during breakfast the first morning that went something like, “Have you heard anything from Tom?” “No, he’s really fallen away from the Lord.” “That’s too bad. I’ll keep him in prayer.” I vowed never to be spoken of like that.
My paternal grandmother had already been praying for me, of course. When she gave me a rosary following my First Communion I misunderstood its purpose and wore it as a necklace; she took it away and warned that I’d go to hell if I did such things. Later, when I told her I wouldn’t be attending confirmation classes during high school, she reiterated that I’d end up in hell. As Huck Finn said, “I couldn’t see no advantage in going where she was going, so I made up my mind I wouldn’t try for it.” Her virtue seemed particularly self-satisfied and unappealing to me. In retrospect, I doubt she’d have considered my Philadelphia evangelism a satisfactory result.
I was evangelized by Young Life at a glorious camp in the Adirondacks when I was fifteen. Their religion was nothing like my grandmother’s – it was sunny and fun. Of course, I was someone’s chalk tally too, but it was a terrific bag of groceries. Most of what I’d later call my spiritual journey would be various attempts to return to the emotional experience I’d had at that camp. Two years later I lost my virginity with a college-aged Young Life leader; I also lost the good opinion of the Christian friends I’d made. (They were keeping me in prayer.)
Periodically someone will ask me, “If you were to die tonight, do you know for certain where you’d spend eternity?” The honest answer to this must be, “No, and neither does anybody.” Evangelists are like car salesmen standing on empty lots. Their product is described and promised, but always in some vague future. Payment is due now, of course – assent, good deeds, right behavior (and selling one’s share of cars.) Rival dealerships must be discredited. Essentially, all of the sleaze without even a car to drive.
Pascal’s Wager presents it thus: God either exists or doesn’t; one must either choose God or reject Him; if God exists, one gains everything by choosing God (infinite life and happiness) and correspondingly loses everything by rejecting Him; if God doesn’t exist, one loses little by choosing God (temporal pleasures) and gains only limited benefit by rejection (one lifetime of hedonism.) The odds tilt towards God – the possibility of unlimited gain versus finite loss. Pascal (and those who refer to his ideas) didn’t bother with the fine print: the wager depends on two simple choices, when there are actually many; it presumes the nature of God and the reward that God will grant; it considers only the interest of the individual and disregards potential impact on others.
Of course God exists or doesn’t. But people continually find new ways to describe God, from vengeful singular to Universal collective. The means of pleasing (or appeasing, or reconciling with) God vary according to which narrative one subscribes. Even within Christianity there are vastly different interpretations of what God is and what humans must do about it; to make matters worse, many faith traditions are mutually exclusive. The odds are decidedly against Pascal’s God representing any actual God, especially since Pascal states that reason can’t argue for or against God (and by extension for any particular God.)
Furthermore, Pascal’s Wager specifically posits a loving God who intends humans to live forever in paradise if they accept Him. Those who ask me if I know where I’ll spend eternity make the same leap. Unfortunately there is no objective evidence that such is true. Many claims have been made, but few self-proclaimed witnesses have ever agreed in detail. Wishful thinking about eternity is often called faith, but it can more accurately be described as fantasy.
Finally, and what I consider to be the real evil of Pascal’s Wager, is that it concerns only the individual. Once someone is convinced their religious interpretation is correct, they act with the presumed authority of God to impose their views on others. This has led to human sacrifice, religious crusades, jihad, and the Defense of Marriage Act. I’ve often heard zealots refer to “God’s Law,” sometimes with the disclaimer that they don’t make the rules, they just try to live by them. Bullshit. Anyone who has “faith” that unbelievers (or Muslims, or homosexuals, etc.) will burn in hell is guilty of intent as surely as “good Germans” who allowed concentration camps are complicit in the deaths of millions. (Buddhism has it right on this; among other admirable precepts it puts the burden of conscience on the individual and essentially says, “First do no harm.”) If the faith that will bring one to paradise hurts others, it must be rejected.
The Christian Paradigm
Humans have always sought explanations. Primitive cultures might attribute bad weather to supernatural beings; they might offer sacrifices to appease those beings. Later, scientific observation provides explanation for the weather and we stop attempting to control it by killing things. But the pattern remains: understand and control.
The Christian model observes that people tend to act in their own self interest at the expense of others. It’s a valid observation, and it’s part of almost every faith tradition. Christians call this condition Sin, a separation from God. Curiously, the Christian remedy for Sin involves sacrifice (the death of Jesus). A Christian acknowledges and accepts Jesus’ sacrifice in his or her behalf; that person is then “saved” from spending eternity in hell. (As an aside, I’ve always had difficulty with the common usage that describes a Christian as saved – past tense – from something that hasn’t yet happened. More problematic is that someone who has been saved might lose that salvation at some point in the future, although that is a point of contention between denominations.)
Certainly people seek God because they want to go to Heaven, and evangelists use the fear of death and hellfire as their trump card. Still, many seek God because they are looking for something reliable and good in a crazy world that’s full of pain. Every Christian I know cites God as all-loving – an absolutely reliable friend who accepts us no matter what we’ve done; it’s a key figure in the Christian paradigm. Despite even Biblical evidence to the contrary, God Is Love, and He wants to have a personal relationship with us. (From my studies, this seems to be a relatively recent description of God, corresponding with modern expectations concerning relationships.)
The problem with the Christian paradigm (and with any religious model) is that it’s entirely self-referential. There is no evidence that humans will live forever in either heaven or hell, should either of those exist. Likewise, there is no proof of God/Sin/Salvation as described by Christianity, any more than there was ever proof that supernatural beings caused tsunamis which could be prevented by human sacrifice. God is assumed to be fully good because humans value those traits in one another. Theologians have worked diligently over centuries to elaborate on the Christian model (and there is beauty in it) but ultimately the construct must be accepted on faith, and we can’t ignore that the model (the Christian notion of God) has been constructed out of human fears and wishes.
So why Christianity? Why not accept Islam on faith? I was raised nominally in a Roman Catholic Christian tradition, which predisposed me to investigate other Christian traditions later. If I’d been raised in a Muslim tradition I probably would have explored Islam. Both traditions attempt to explain the human condition, encourage certain behavior, and provide hope for eternity.
The Christian paradigm hasn’t aged well. Aside from its reliance on sacrifice as a means of appeasing God, its political structure is monarchical. This was the dominant political model two thousand years ago but it has gone out of favor in our time. Still, Christians sing hymns to the “King of Kings.” Heaven is described as a real city with emphasis on jewels and precious adornments, and is perhaps large enough to contain the population of the world twenty centuries ago. Most people today wouldn’t describe such a place as paradise. The main activity in Heaven is described as worshipping God; again, this doesn’t sound like an appealing way to spend eternity (unless contrasted against burning in a fiery lake; it’s a bad choice either way.)
Another problem with the Christian model is that its imagery is steeped in competitive metaphors. There is a hero (God) and a villain (the Devil, or Satan.) There is an ongoing battle between good and evil, the outcome of which has been preordained in favor of good. Christians fight a battle against Satan and achieve victories for God. Everything is in terms of winning and losing (Pascal’s Wager is a win/lose proposition, and so is the evangelist’s pitch.) The imagery seeps into our culture, and God is often described as being on the winning side in conflicts. Professional athletes believe God will help them to win. Governments use religious imagery to encourage young people to give their lives in war. Most religions, and most Christian denominations, believe God favors their interpretation. Many also believe God will cast everyone else into hell. They win. Everyone else loses.
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. John 3:16 (NIV)
The verse quoted above is probably the most referenced line in the Bible, a favorite of the evangelist and sports enthusiast alike. It was the centerpiece of the four spiritual laws when I participated in Campus Crusade. But what happens when someone questions the source of the text? That’s where apologetics comes in.
Apologetics is the art of defending the indefensible; that is, providing a rational basis for faith in Christianity. (I don’t mean that faith in Christianity is indefensible; rather, that Christianity’s tenets can’t be defended rationally.) Few Christians I know are good at apologetics – they tend to fall back on “you gotta have faith” when pressed. The subject fascinated me for a time. I enjoyed reading books and hearing lectures by those who were able to defend their faith in the real world.
Josh McDowell has built an impressive career in apologetics with bestsellers such as Evidence That Demands a Verdict and More Than a Carpenter. Lee Strobel wrote The Case for Christ, The Case for Faith, The Case for a Creator and other, similar titles. Both authors attempt to construct a rational framework for Christian belief. They share a common structure: prove the Bible is reliable so that it can be taken at its word (as a historical document instead of spiritual), then examine the faith on a point-by-point basis using the Bible as proof for each item. Both authors turn out to be easy targets for skeptics, because they can’t prove the Bible is factual, which casts doubt on every other claim they make. For example, both McDowell and Strobel point out that the Gospel narratives were written within the lifetimes of people who were alive when Jesus was alive; those people presumably would not have allowed inaccurate things to be written about Jesus. Also, they highlight prophecies made in the Old Testament that later “came true” in the New Testament; because the parts of the Bible were written at different points in time, fulfilled prophecies are supposed to indicate that a supernatural hand was guiding Scripture, thus guaranteeing factual accuracy. (Strobel’s Case for a Creator uses the complexity of biological life as proof of God; the principle and its dismantling are similar to the other examples.)
Another famous skeptic-turned-believer was C.S. Lewis, author of the beloved Chronicles of Narnia books. Lewis gave a series of radio lectures in the early 1940’s that were later collected in Mere Christianity. The most quoted passage from that book (in my own` experience, both at Young Life and at Campus Crusade for Christ) is Lewis’ “Liar, Lunatic or Lord” trilemma:
I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. …Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God. C.S. Lewis
Like McDowell and Strobel, Lewis relies on the Biblical portrait of Jesus as historically accurate (and thorough enough to conduct a psychiatric evaluation). He stacks the deck like Pascal though, by simplifying the choices to three. Lewis also makes a logical leap and intends his audience to make it with him (he dismisses two of the choices blithely, writing “it seems to me obvious” without explaining why.) Lewis’ philosophical proof falls well short of convincing those who have even rudimentary questions.
The Evolution Issue
Pastor Tom Nelson of Denton Bible Church gave a sermon once where he said that if man is descended from apes, it would kill his faith in an instant. Luckily, according to Nelson, God created humans exactly as described in the Bible, and exactly in His own image. I’ve never understood why so many Christians quarrel with evolution, but it’s a big enough issue that legislators try to get the subject removed from curricula.
For those to whom evolution is anathema to faith, the least laughable argument is that human worth – our place in the universal order – is dependent on our being created wholly in the image of God, and not evolved from “lesser” beings. That’s Pastor Nelson’s point, and while it explains his views admirably, it’s problematic from a moral standpoint. Many Christians believe that God has given the earth and all within it to humans for their exclusive use (a reference from the Book of Genesis). This argument has been cited (including at my dinner table, by a guest who has never been invited back) in rejection of not only evolution but of global warming and overpopulation issues. Essentially, humans are and have always been the supreme beings on earth by God’s decree, and the earth will end on God’s timetable, at which point God’s followers will continue on in Heaven. If our lives are lost in the meantime, so much the better because we will be in heaven that much sooner, and if the planet suffers in the meantime, well, that just can’t happen unless God wills it.
I believe that human worth is independent of whether or not God exists, let alone whether evolution is true. The humanist who values life in the absence of a greater power, or of any promise of eternity, is arguably a greater defender of human worth than a Christian like Nelson, whose measure of that same worth is dependent on his own concept of God. Likewise, we should defend the worth of all creatures, and conserve the resources of our planet without justification that God has intended it all for our consumption. (This is a Buddhist principle that is occasionally cited by Christians as our responsibility to steward what God has given us; to be fair, most Catholics and Presbyterians I know are advocates of this philosophy.)
The Problem With Prayer
One of the most outrageous evangelical Christian bloviations is “put God to the test.” That is, pray and see for yourself what God can do. The Bible explicitly says that God will grant whatever is asked for in faith. Of course, most people know instinctively that it doesn’t work that way, and an evangelist might have a response such as this: God always answers prayer – the answer is Yes, No, or Wait. Well duh. Others will say the disappointed prayer didn’t have enough faith.
A well known passage of Scripture, Luke 17:6, says that if one has the faith of a mustard seed (i.e. a very small amount) one can tell a tree to uproot and cast itself into the sea. I’m unaware of a single reported instance of this happening. One way to interpret the fact is to say that nobody throughout history has had even the smallest amount of faith. Another interpretation is that the Bible doesn’t keep its promises; that is, God fails the test.
Recent medical research has shown that prayer is similar to meditation, in that it can activate certain pleasure centers in the brain. In other words, there is evidence that prayer makes people feel good, which makes God’s response irrelevant. And that’s good, especially when the evidence suggests that God is indifferent to prayer – we know that bad things happen to good people, and wicked people get away with all kinds of shit. (To be fair, good people get away with stuff too.)
I’ve seen studies that seem to indicate an altered result from a large group of prayers (doctors testifying that the patient took a miraculous turn for the better, etc.) I’m not going to argue with stories like that, any more than I’ll argue that The Amityville Horror is bunk. Shakespeare had the right idea when he wrote over four hundred years ago:
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy. Hamlet Act 1, scene 5
My real problem with prayer is when anyone, or any group, tries to sell their version as the “right” way. That’s actually my problem with Christianity in a nutshell.
In the End, It’s About People
I attended seminary for one semester. I took Soteriology (the doctrine of salvation) and Biblical Greek. It was as much a sham as my Grandmother’s Catholicism, which is to say that what holds a lot of value for some doesn’t necessarily mean the same to everyone, and I didn’t continue. After I recommitted myself as a teenaged Christian I attended three evangelical churches, three Presbyterian, one Pentecostal, one Southern Baptist and two Roman Catholic churches. Each of these had its differences with the others, and all believe themselves to be a relatively exclusive path to God. (The Catholic and Presbyterian churches are a bit less strident; while they believe they are close to the bullseye, they acknowledge a broad range of Christian tradition. Several Catholic priests I know will go as far as to admit members of ALL faith traditions to heaven, including Muslims, but those priests seem to be in the minority.)
I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve been told I’m going to hell, although I remember some of the reasons. They include but are not limited to wearing a Catholic rosary as a necklace without going to confession, remarrying following my divorce, and supporting the right of same-sex couples to marry. Those who insist I WON’T go to hell for any of the above seem to be as certain as those who believe I will. The seminary I attended was founded by the Grace Evangelical Society, which was particularly adamant about the concept of “once saved, always saved.” (This is comforting until one realizes they have a precise recipe for salvation that resembles a soufflé – one wrong move and it falls.)
Can any one version of God be true? I’ve met people who think God gives points for effort – that is, He values their sincere belief in SOMETHING. If that’s reality, then all faith traditions are essentially true. It seems just as likely that no faith tradition is true – Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Jews have all missed the mark, and who can say by how much? If God exists, He doesn’t seem interested in resolving the conflict, and this is perhaps the strongest evidence in favor of the atheist’s position.
However, atheism is faith of a different sort – it also depends on an unprovable assumption. While I have never had an undeniable “God moment” that would at least backstop my own unbelief, I can’t deny others their experiences. To be an atheist implies “I am right and you are wrong” on the basis of my own (very limited) understanding, and it’s akin to the Christian evangelist consigning others to hell because of their belief. At the end of the day, I can’t subscribe to atheism because it would mean rejecting Shakespeare’s maxim.
And we have hospitals and schools and relief organizations that do great things in God’s name. I believe these organizations would still exist in the absence of faith, or any kind of religious paradigm – they were founded by and continue because of good people who want to help others. Still, organized religion is great at raising money. Governments compel taxes, but religions aggregate voluntary resources that are used for many worthy causes (and unworthy ones as well.)
To the extent that religion is helpful to people, I am in favor of it. If a church concentrates resources to support the needy and social justice causes, or provides a community for mutual support and friendship, or provides comfort and pleasure to its adherents, I am for it. I am not interested in religion that exists for God’s sake: the God who counts sacrifices and takes offense at rosaries worn as necklaces and the like.
Some people reject church as so much theater – liturgies that have nothing to do with their vision of God, who presumably could not care less. I believe such theater is what matters most. To the extent that rituals and symbols provide pleasure and inspire the participant, church is not so different from a museum, or a concert hall. Great art lifts the human spirit, and the best religious liturgies have always understood this. Indeed, great art has come from religious devotion and liturgies regularly incorporate all kinds of art. Again, if the focus is on religion for God’s sake, none of it should matter. But if it’s all about people, then a wide variety of traditions starts to make sense.
By delving deeply into several traditions I attempted to understand and develop my own spiritual core. Churches welcome new members but they despise those who leave (many evangelicals I know call me a “church hopper,” which is roughly equivalent to “religious slut.” When I left a Southern Baptist church the pastor there announced in front of my children that I was leading my family on a road to hell. Which reminds me again of Mark Twain’s great line…) For all the good that churches might do, they undo it with heartless condemnation and a focus on God-centered religion instead of people-centered.
Many people use their faith as an excuse to infringe on the rights of their fellow citizens. The root of the Ten Commandments and most religious moral teaching is essentially, “Don’t impose your will on others.” To do so is the definition of Sin. The most horrific extremes are found in human sacrifice, the Crusades, activities of the KKK, the events of 9/11/2001, and others. However, today we see religious objection to same sex marriage and to government requirements to provide contraceptive coverage in health insurance plans, as well as other impositions that force one group’s interpretation of God’s Will on everyone else.
At the end of the day, I respect the contribution a church can make in its community, positive or negative. With the best of intentions, I will keep working for the positive.
Hear a shortened version of this piece in Podcast Episode #8