Rhinos, Unicorns, Evolution, Gay Marriage, and Scripture

The odd collection of nouns in the title are related. I promise. Roll with the idea and examine a few related scenarios. If you’ll track with me, I hope you’ll see some inconsistent ways in which we use our reason when religion, especially our interpretation of Scripture, gets involved. In most cases, we apply our reasoning freely – unless we have prior commitments, which cause us to set aside otherwise-sound conclusions in favor of sticking to our guns.

Suppose it is 300 years ago, and there is a European expedition heading into Africa. It has been several centuries, if not longer, since Europeans have ventured beyond the African cities on the Mediterranean coastline. No one quite knows what all lives in the interior of the continent, so this group of explorers sets out to learn about this mysterious land. As part of their mission, they intend to chronicle all which they find in a journal which they will publish upon their return.

After venturing significantly inland, the group catches a distant glimpse of the wild rhinoceros; however, their supplies are running low, and thus they must start their return voyage without investigating further. In their journal, they note the existence of a large horse-like creature with a prominent horn on its head, and they give a rough sketch based partly off what they were able to see from the great distance and partly from what they imagine it to be like, filling in the gaps of their knowledge with familiar notions like that of a horse. The end result in their journal entry is the mythological beast: the unicorn. They do, however, manage see a mound of rhino droppings, and — extrapolating from the absence of other large creatures in the area — determine that this mound must have come from what they assume to be the unicorn.

When the expedition returns to Europe, they are hailed as heroes, and their journal receives widespread circulation. For a time, it becomes common knowledge that a unicorn-type creature lives in the heart of Africa. Every good school boy or girl grows up thinking unicorns are real, because it was written in the books which they read from when they were small.

After a while, another group decides to explore and expand on the claims made by the first expedition. As luck would have it, they, too, find the supposed “unicorn,” but they are able to see them much more closely. The truth of the matter astounds them, as they had all supposed that the animals would have been much more like horses, but they see the enormous mounds of droppings exactly as described and are able to piece together the fact that these rhinos are the real truth behind what people thought to be unicorns.

Eventually, this second group returns to Europe to give their report. Their findings surprise the public, and there is some resistance at first, but by and large, people accept that the first expedition had made a mistake in their reasoning. Given the new evidence in front of them, people realize that the horse-like unicorn does not exist, but rather there is a new creature which is shorter, fatter, and much more muscular than a horse.

Now, none of this ever happened (though there were, in fact, historical misrepresentations of the rhino), but had it occurred, we would have been comfortable with the conclusions. Despite what we might have thought, new information is welcome, and we can use our reasoning to incorporate this new information into sensible systems of knowledge explaining the facts.

Fast forward to right now. We have in our hands a book containing information very similar to that of those explorers’ journal: the Bible. A long time ago, anywhere from 2000-3000+ years ago, people looked at gay people and said, “Huh, that’s weird. That’s not what I like. It must be abnormal and unhealthy.” They looked at the animals around them and said, “These animals had to come from somewhere! Something or someone must have made them like this.”

Admittedly, these are fairly natural intuitions which build off of what we already know. As apologists are keen on pointing out, if we see a watch, we assume there was a watchmaker. Also, if someone exhibits a behavior that most people don’t share, we assume some kind of dysfunction, and this assumption is sometimes well-founded. These natural inclinations are much like seeing the rhino from far off and assuming it is a horned horse: the ideas here are comfortable and somewhat familiar to us, even if they’re wrong.

So in the 19th and 20th centuries, we started looking more closely at some things which we had always assumed to be the case because of our intuitions and the books like the Bible which had said so. We looked at the animals and saw patterns we couldn’t explain through Creationism. We realized that the earth was much older than we had anticipated. We dispelled the “unicorns” of our thinking and replaced them with more careful analysis.

When we began to look at human sexuality, that, too, turned out to be not at all what we were expecting. It took almost the entire 20th century to realize that not everyone is or even can be straight, and not everyone fits neatly into the primary two gender categories, but that’s okay. What is important is for each person to find a way to live a healthy and fulfilling life. These things rubbed against our intuitions and our texts, but they turned out to be true.

You may not agree with me here, but I hope you’ll do me a mental favor by asking yourself a question: why is it acceptable to apply one’s reasoning in the first case with the rhino vs. the unicorn, yet in the second, special creation vs. evolution and homosexuality vs. “traditional” sexuality, some might say to defer to the prior text? More specifically, what is wrong with our capacity to reason in the second case? I suggest to you that our capacities to reason are the same, and our conclusions are valid and sound, yet people tend to overrule those conclusions based on prior commitments to the Bible.

Of course, some wish to believe that their beliefs, which they formed because of their commitments to reading the Bible a particular way, are truths which we can demonstrate through reason. There are people like Ken Ham who try to prove special creation, and there are groups like Focus on the Family which (at least previously, if not still) try to demonstrate that people can change their sexuality to be in line with what they think God teaches. Yet time and time again, their arguments lose court cases because they lack solid evidence. The most natural conclusions we can draw from the evidence we have gathered are those which I have mentioned: that animals have evolved and that gay people deserve a way to live happy and fulfilling lives, just as anyone else does.

If you object to reasoned conclusions on religious grounds, you need to examine your epistemology — your methods for forming your beliefs — and see if you are consistent. What is the difference in our reasoning between cases where we think freely and those where we restrict ourselves via Scripture? The answer may cause some of us to change our views on the Bible.

Posted in Christian Culture Issues, Epistemology | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

The Good Samaritan: A New Parable

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Church leaders from across the United States gathered at an ecumenical council to discuss the future of Christianity. Culture was changing, and they found themselves having to compromise their beliefs to remain palatable to the public. Much to their surprise, Jesus showed up to offer counsel. In the course of discussion, a leading theologian asked of Jesus, “What must one do to be a Christian?”

Jesus turned to him and asked, “How would you answer?”

The theologian replied to him, “First, to love the Lord your God with all your soul and all your strength and all your mind. Second, to love your neighbor as yourself.”

“Very good!” Jesus replied, “This is what one must do be a child of God.”

But the theologian inquired further, because there were issues where he wished to justify himself, “What does it mean to love?”

And Jesus answered him, “A gay man was traversing the Internet when a group of hateful people disparaged his sexual orientation. Verbally bruised and beaten, he did not know how to respond. Each of his replies only met with greater bigotry and demeaning slurs. This left him in a state of self-doubt and despair.

“As it would happen, a Southern Baptist preacher would to read the discussion. He saw the man, but he felt that the people taunting the man were in a sense right, even if their words were harsh, and God did in fact view the man as an abomination who needed to repent. Thus, not knowing what to say, he left the thread as it was.

“Also reading the comments was a Christian counselor for ex-gay therapy. He too saw the man, but he decided that this would not be the right time to speak to him, because the man would be too sensitive to hear anything about converting his sexual orientation. He, too, left the man alone.

“But an atheist had also stumbled upon the site. When he saw the man, and he read the hateful comments, he felt great empathy. Knowing that further comments would only make the situation worse, the atheist sent the gay man a message privately. He disparaged the conduct of the others and encouraged the gay man to be comfortable with who he was. The atheist pointed the man to several mental health resources which would help the man accept his orientation and live a healthy lifestyle. He even gave the man personal contact information in case he should ever need someone to discuss these issues.”

Then Jesus turned to them and asked, “Which of these three men has loved his neighbor?”

But the theologian could not answer, because he so strongly desired to justify himself. An argument began to erupt from within the gathering, and many demanded that the atheist had not loved the gay man, because he had encouraged him into sin. Jesus grew distraught, because he could see that their hearts were set on maintaining their beliefs even at the cost of harming others. He asked of them, “What causes the gay man grief? Why does he suffer?”

“He suffers because of his sin!” the gathering replied, “And he must repent to be healed.”

“Does the man not suffer because of those who were taunting him?” Jesus asked further.

“Yes, but there is a deeper pain which sin brings. The atheist may have made those feelings go away, but the gay man will now believe lies, and those lies will bring death.”

Jesus’ patience was at an end. He then pierced them with his eyes and said, “You hypocrites! By the beliefs you suppose will bring life, you bring only death. Any man who by his beliefs cuts himself off from empathy for his neighbor does not love God, for he hates what God has made. Go, therefore, and do as the atheist, who not being blinded by his beliefs has found true goodness and love.”

At this, many dismayed and contended further with Jesus and said, “How can we accept this hard teaching? How may we reconcile this with our faith?” But Jesus left them to ponder what he had taught.

Header photo from Renaud Camus used under Creative Commons BY license.
Posted in Christian Culture Issues, Ethics | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

God is Dead, and the Newsboys Have Killed Him

Some time ago, I was a budding Christian evangelical apologist. Still in high school, I thought it was my Christian duty to argue against all the atheists who were threatening the faithful. I took to the Internet and started having conversations with people about subjects relevant to my then-evangelical beliefs: evolution vs. Creation, geology vs. the Flood, pro-life vs. pro-choice, etc.

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For all intents and purposes, I could have easily been Josh Wheaton, main character of God’s Not Dead. But something happened when I started talking to others about my beliefs: I actually listened, and that has made all the difference.

One by one, as I discussed theological matters with people online and among my friends, the mainstays of evangelicalism began to crumble in my mind. Some beliefs lasted longer than others, but as I conversed with other people, heard their reasoning, listened to their stories, and critiqued or incorporated their ideas, I realized that maybe things weren’t quite as I was told. Maybe there was something more beyond the boundaries of what I was told I should believe.

Some of my beliefs would go untested for several years into my tumultuous college experience. I originally majored in computer science, and so my classes really didn’t challenge my faith. Having changed my mind on evolution at this point, I thought I was already free from the intellectual chains of evangelicalism, but I was so very wrong. It took the heartbreak of a shattered engagement and my mistreatment at the hands of a church to “awaken me from my dogmatic slumber,” so to speak. My ex-fiancee and my church at that time rejected me primarily because I desired truth over conformity. It hurt like hell to have my desire for truth rob me of everything I valued, but it was a wake up call to decide what I truly valued, and I discovered that I valued truth above all. I therefore dedicated myself to its pursuit.

At that point, I realized everything I had believed was fundamentally broken. The logical consequences of the evangelical beliefs I still held, where everything hinged on converting the unbeliever, were exactly what happened to me: evangelicals cast out all persons dangerous to the integrity of the tribe and who might lead people away from conversion to the so-called “right” beliefs. Dissent is allowed only so long as you are an evangelism project, but once you begin to tell others about your views and to persuade them to your side, you start to erode the authority of “God”, and that can’t happen.

Leaving that behind, I ventured off to study religion to figure out my place in the world. After a long series of events, I realized theology at my institution offered more of the same, so I studied philosophy, instead. That has been the springboard for me into so many new ways of thinking that I hardly recognize the person I was even just four years ago.

So when I see a movie like God’s Not Dead, and I see the fear it has of atheists, liberals, Muslims, and the like, I can’t help but think something is wrong. I know what it is like to dedicate one’s life to seeking the truth, and this isn’t it; it is the opposite. This movie actually hides from the truth! Why doesn’t the movie actually engage with the atheists, liberals, and people of other religions which it depicts? Instead, it chooses to attack straw men and forge a counterfeit victory at the end in order to pretend it has done something of substance. This movie is terrified of real discussion, or else the movie would put such discussion on display.

So what is there to fear? Why can’t a movie about a philosophy professor quote even more than one philosopher? The only philosopher it does quote — Nietzsche, from whom the movie gets its title — is taken entirely out of context:

Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly: “I seek God! I seek God!” — As many of those who did not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter. Has he got lost? asked one. Did he lose his way like a child? asked another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? emigrated? — Thus they yelled and laughed.

The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. “Whither is God?” he cried; “I will tell you. We have killed him – you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.

- Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science

Yes, Nietzsche was an atheist, but his point here is much more subtle than simply to say that there is no God. The madman tells his audience that although many in Nietzsche’s time did not necessarily ascribe to belief in God, no one had even begun to parse the implications of the “death of God” for humanity and ethics. The madman is calling for humanity to seek out a new direction before it finds itself entirely lost, drifting aimlessly for lack of purpose.

But even if there is a God, the God of God’s Not Dead is dead in the way in which the madman intends, and the stench of this God’s death lays heavy like a fog over the evangelical culture which spawned this movie. The movie’s title only places a layer of irony atop the corpse of this dead God. That is, God is no longer necessary for the evangelicals who buy into the message of this movie. The word “God” remains as an element of language, but God as any sort of meaningful concept is almost entirely gone. The word “God” here means simply “my tribe” and all the euphoric feelings of belonging to a group.

Josh Wheaton only needs for there to be more people like him, and this need has blinded him from the reality of the people whom he wishes to convert. What horrendous self-absorption! What egoism! Are we to believe that the only thing everyone needs is to accept evangelical beliefs and to stick to a narrowly-define way of life? “God” is alive in this culture only as a word and nothing more. Thus, Josh’s adversaries are bad caricatures of reality, because his adversaries need problems that Josh can fix with evangelicalism, regardless of whether or not any such people exist outside the silver screen.

I understand the mindset. I was there. I remember telling my friend once that it was nice but ultimately pointless for her to go into the medical field if she didn’t help save the souls of her patients. I remember the warnings about Christian liberals — “cafeteria Christians” who picked and chose their beliefs, seemingly by their own preferences as far as I knew. I remember the apologetic coaching sessions about evolution and atheism and everything that was supposedly so bad about the world outside the Christian bubble. I even remember singing a song in children’s choir about how terrible evolution was supposed to be. For a long time, I bought into the whole thing. I thought everyone had a Jesus-shaped hole in their hearts and really just needed to convert.

But I listened. All the atheists out there, the Christian progressives, the liberals, the LGBT community, and so forth — I listened to them, and it turned out that life outside my little bubble was not at all like what I was told. The narrative inside the bubble was a cleverly-constructed lie hidden even from the liars. The death of God was invisible even to those who by their very actions had murdered God when they exchanged infinite passion for tribalism and conformity.

If there is a God, and I believe there is, He is not the corpse on display in the movie. The death of God in evangelicalism is immanent, yet it is as distant to them as the stars. The evangelicals who champion the message of this movie need to do a harsh reexamination of their values and ask themselves whether assimilation into Christianity really is the highest good. Maybe then will their blinders lift which keep them from seeing the truth which is right in front of them: the truth in the words of the atheists, liberals, Muslims, and all the rest of the people whom they inadvertently demonize and devalue through their hyper-focus on evangelism. Perhaps then will they realize that, despite our differences, we are all of us — atheists as much as Christians — engaged in the process of figuring out how to share a life here on this planet, and our common humanity unites us much more than our beliefs divide us.

We do not need the dead god which this movie offers. If we need a god at all, then it is a god who embraces all people as they are and leads us to pursue what is true and good in the world, not a god whose demands hide us from one another and set us apart.

Thus, contrary to the Newsboys’ message to spread the word that “God’s not dead,” spread this message: “God is dead. God remains dead. And the Newsboys (along with so many others) have killed him.”

Posted in Christian Culture Issues, Metaphysics | Tagged , , , , , | 10 Comments

Is Jesus Worth Saving?

Disclaimer: as I’m covering a really tough subject, this post is really long, approaching the length of some of my undergraduate upper-level term papers. I’ve generally written shorter posts, but I’ve decided to lengthen my writing to give me more time to be thorough.

A Perplexing Problem

Despite maintaining Christian beliefs, I have wondered of late whether or not religion can ever avoid a natural proclivity toward evil. Before even asking if Jesus can “save” me, the question is, “Should I save Jesus?” That is, should I or anyone bother to salvage the idea of Jesus from its longstanding tendency toward cultural dominance to the exclusion and even subversion of outsiders? Not that I believe this is what Jesus taught, but this is how people use him. So, should I save Jesus? My answer for now is “I don’t know.” Jesus or really any god as a concept introduces so many problems that interfere dramatically with daily living, especially when people try to follow divine revelation, as I have outlined recently. When people suppose that some idea is the product of divine revelation, that idea is now incorrigible. People take this idea, close themselves off to reality, and do stupid, hateful things — things that they would never do in their right minds were it not for supposed divine revelation.

To compound all of that, the flow of time continually obscures the meanings of religious texts. Even though I know much of Genesis is myth and not historical narrative, maintaining this knowledge requires continual investment into generation after generation of scholars, not to mention educating churchgoers about developments in scholarship in spite of the fundamentalists who pervert learning with their boundaries on belief in spite of evidence leading outside those bounds.

So if we intend to save Jesus, he had damn well better be worth it.

This might all sound like a build-up to a dramatic conclusion where I tout the Big J’s wonderful attributes and consider this case closed. It’s not, and I hope any skeptics reading this find my ultimate conclusions less than cliche. I genuinely have a hard time answering this question. While I have been ruminating on this subject for a while, things changed when I read Zach Hoag’s post Three Reasons You’re Not Too Smart for Orthodoxy. The article brought to my attention serious problems with the usual methods of relating to our beliefs as Christians.

I lamented to Zach in the article’s comments that I did not share his optimism about the role of orthodoxy in the church. My critique was that even if we were to resolve the gay marriage debate and finally accept differences in sexuality and gender identity, there would very likely be another major culture crisis in 50 years’ time, and Christianity would fall flat on its face once more. I contended that without reinvisioning our relationship with belief altogether, Christianity will continually support injustice through its inflexibility.

As a result of Zach’s post, I began to wonder what it would be like to have what I call “sustainable orthodoxy,” where our beliefs compel us to progress past our current mistakes rather than chain us to how things have always been. Hopefully, by the end of this piece, I will have at least a rough outline of what it will require, though the feasibility of these requirements may still be up in the air.

On top of all this, atheist blogger and philosopher Dan Fincke wrote a post only a short while ago entitled Opposing the Jesus Meme. His stance on this has been to oppose even the rehabilitation of Jesus into anything positive, claiming that doing so only contributes to the “aura of holiness” which serves to support all the abusive and debilitating practices typically found in Christian circles. Supposing that Christians did in fact attempt to salvage Jesus, they may just wind up lending credibility to the ideas which they oppose.

When you add it all up, things really look poor, even if there is truth in the traditions surrounding Jesus’ teachings. Would the world be better off if we left the Jesus meme to die? Let me attempt a Jesus’ (rather than Devil’s) Advocate argument just to see where it lands us.

I will break this down into a few key segments. Two questions need answering: first, whether Jesus has anything to offer in the first place; and second, whether what Jesus has to offer is unique enough to risk lending credibility to spiritually abusive forms of Christianity. Having answered these, the question becomes what to do as a result.

1. Does Jesus offer anything at all?

This depends almost entirely on one’s interpretation of Jesus’ life and teachings, with much of the rest of your view on Christianity flowing out of this. As I see it, there are two primary interpretations, each with their various subtypes and nuances (I am aware that not all varieties of Christian belief will fit nicely into these two categories, but I have attempted to make them sufficiently broad to describe most commonly-held approaches to Christian belief).

The first interpretation considers Jesus as capping off the sacrificial system established by God in the Old Testament. Jesus came and completed a centuries-long process, sacrificing himself on the cross as a substitution for the death we should have endured. This is what I will call the conservative outlook on Christianity. It tends to view the Bible as a systematic revelation from God, where Jesus needs to fit nicely into place like the final piece of a jigsaw puzzle.

This is the interpretation which leads to all the aforementioned problems, because viewing religion as a systematized and final answer to life’s problems precludes the need for further investigation. There is a reason conservatives receive criticism for being prejudiced, and that is because conservative religion is prejudiced by its very nature. To be prejudiced is to assume one understands an issue prior to ever encountering it, which is exactly the structure of conservative belief.

The second interpretation views Jesus as a subversion or reinterpretation the systems established in the Old Testament. In as much as Jesus may have been a historical figure, he is also a mythical reinvisioning of the Jewish story which began (mythically) in Adam. Thus, we have the genealogies in the gospels tying us back to that myth and putting an unexpected twist on what it all means. The Jews wanted a political Messiah, and though Jesus was certainly political, he was not just for the Jews. Jesus took the Jews’ narrative of being a chosen people whom God would save from captivity, and he made that the story of humanity. This what I will call the progressive outlook.

This second outlook, I believe, has many metaphysical and ethical implications which are strikingly important, not to mention that I believe it is significantly more honest about the inconsistencies between the Old and New Testaments. Not only does this view preserve at least a modicum of intellectual integrity which conservative Christianity seems to lack, it also gives us two of the most important principles outlined in my previous post: cultural mediocrity and the importance of virtue over having the right beliefs.

These two principles are, I believe, readily discernible just from examining the world around us, but that is something of the point. Jesus came to dispel our artificial systems of exclusion to encourage us toward a more natural way of living. Whatever Jesus may have revealed, which is mostly unknown but can be inferred from trends within Christian tradition, it was not special revelation only knowable through God; it was a reorientation to the world which has always been there around us.

This being well and good, one might ask what supports the second view as the right view of Christianity instead of a reflection of liberal Protestant sentiment. Here, I will argue that the trajectory of the early church, at its inception, was toward inclusion. The sorts of things Jesus seems to have taught are, by my reading, very inclusive, but the early church certainly did not take inclusion as far as it could. In fact, as soon as it got the chance, it deliberately took a turn for exclusion, instead (I’m looking at you, Constantine).

Still, I count it as no accident that fairly inclusive sects have arisen throughout Christian history. While Christian hegemony in Rome set in very quickly, several of the Eastern Orthodox traditions remained very inclusive and nonjudgmental, today’s Russian Orthodox Church notwithstanding. Then, of course, sects like the Anabaptists, Quakers, and others have a long history of trending toward inclusivism.

Thus, I have no qualm about suggesting that Christianity, when it divests itself of the need to maintain political power, is inherently inclusive. What today’s progressive Christianity suggests about inclusion is, I believe, a next step in parsing out the implications of inclusion. And we take these steps because of the example set by Jesus, not because he gave us special knowledge, but because he helped us move past our prejudices to see what has always been in front of us.

It follows that atheism shares many causes with progressive Christianity, because both try to divest themselves of unnecessary prejudices in order to see the world as it is. Prima facie, it might seem the primary difference between the two is, obviously, God, but here God functions in such a way as to support an ethic and epistemology almost identical to that of an atheist. So while God is still a significant difference, the primary difference here is, in fact, the organized community and powerful vocabulary which Christianity provides through the church. In the ideal case, the church should foster ethics and sound reasoning, with participation in the church community building these virtues. Sadly, this is oftentimes not the case, which brings me to my second question.

2. Is what Jesus offers unique enough to merit saving?

In reality, the church ends up being a vehicle for many abusive tendencies and irrational ways of thought. So, if we can have what Jesus offers while avoiding the trappings of a culture which is prone to abuse, then all the better, right? Should we all go be secular humanists? Maybe. There is a lot here to consider.

First off, I believe virtue stems from participation in a community. Only to the extent that we feel we belong to a group do we reorient ourselves and our desires to fit into that group. Individualism by itself is, I believe, a great evil, alienating people from one another and ending with the complete dissolution of meaningful ethical choices. Philosophically speaking, my thoughts run alongside Alisdair MacIntyre, for any who care (i.e. virtue is an excellence relevant to a given society, not a timeless and immutable principle).

For example, consider science as a profession. Within the context of individualism and narrow-focused self-interestedness, it makes very little sense to be a scientist: you likely won’t make loads of money, you’ll have to study very hard to be any good at it, and much of your work could be fairly tedious. But within a community, you understand that your work contributes something worthwhile to the society, and thus you have a sense of accomplishment and belonging. The work is worthwhile because it helps people whom you value.

Though many churches do not, in fact, value science, the pulpit already exists a powerful platform which, used well, could transform and revitalize culture. This is, essentially, what Neil deGrasse Tyson has done through his reboot of the Cosmos series, using his place in the spotlight to draw people into the wonder of science not strictly as an academic activity but as a human activity. This sort of thing is precisely what we need and also what the church is so well equipped to do if it could only set its values straight. Because after the Cosmos series ends, Neil will resume his usual activities, and while he and others may make occasional public appearances, there will be little else to invite people into the science community.

Excellence in scientific study is one among many virtues the church could very well promote if it could pull its head out of conservativism with its apologetics and exclusivism. This is not just what the church could do but also what it should do if it wishes to adhere to the inclusivist and life-affirming trends which birthed it.

The problem in all of this is that even if we do experience a period of revitalization and renewal of virtue, we could very well relapse into religious fundamentalism at a later time. There is little to guarantee long-term renewal, especially given that inclusivism largely died within Christianity almost immediately. How can we expect Christianity not to repeat its own mistakes if we do not change its intrinsic structure? Is the Christian message unique enough to merit the risk of relapse, even if we should repair the damage today?

Here, I am at a loss to answer either way. On the one hand, I think Christian inclusivism is exactly what the world needs. Most of my thoughts on ethics today consist of inclusion and cooperation versus exclusion and othering, which is how I read the Gospel. Whatever mistakes Christianity may have made, we do not have to bind ourselves to those mistakes and may in fact admit and move past them. We need people in the world who champion such inclusion.

On the other hand, with Christianity’s history, it would be extremely easy for someone 100 years from now to dredge up Christian fundamentalism and revive it under the pretense that he/she has rediscovered “true” faith. Cue the crowds, the manipulation under spiritual pretenses, etc. We would have another Mark Driscoll or John Piper (or worse, a Fred Phelps) reincarnated for the 22nd century.

The Way Forward

Instead of answering affirmatively that yes, Christianity is worth saving, I will instead suggest some things that would need to happen for this to be the case. First of all, we need to increase the level of historical literacy within lay Christianity, establishing this not only as a thing some churches do but an integral part of Christian tradition. Every new church group that emerges these days believes that they are doing things exactly as Christians did it in some mythical time of the Good Ol’ Days, pretending their distinctively western, post-Englightenment views of the Bible and faith are the True Christian views. If you spread the facts, people will eventually disabuse themselves of such notions. There is a reason we don’t have to shoot down flat earth theory or geocentrism with each passing generation: people know enough not to give these views any consideration.

Additionally, those participating in the revitalization must state explicitly that inclusivism is key to Christianity. In the Gospels, this message comes in the form of various stories which shatter common Jewish expectations of being the Chosen People, showing that God loves and cares for all people in spite of their religious backgrounds. That message often flies right by contemporary readers. Today, we must re-express that sentiment in more intelligible terms for our cultures. We need new parables and new statements that affirm the fundamental importance of inclusivism.

This may require an explicit statement of separation from religious conservativism in order to prevent any sense of legitimacy from bleeding out of progressivism. This, of course, could be a tricky venture and would need for there to be some sort of way to avoid the pitfalls of the ever-splintering Protestantism. This could be fairly easy given the acceptance of cultural differences within more progressive churches — what would be an irreconcilable split in a conservative church could easily be a difference of opinion or taste elsewhere. Still, one would need to be mindful of such a thing.

Lastly, we need to reorient Christian epistemology away from its dependence on special revelation for making judgments about the world. As long as we are looking to our Bibles to understand the world rather than engaging with the world directly, we are using the Bible improperly, and we will continue to have these same problems. The Bible must inspire us to correct injustice in the world (see my post about the Bible as an icon); it cannot tell us the exhaustive list of all that is good and bad in an ever-changing environment.

If all of these things together can happen, then Christianity is worth rescuing by my count. It could be a dynamic and powerful force for good. If these things are impossible, then let Christianity die as a cultural force. The point of life for a Christian progressive is not to hold to the right beliefs but to live seeking goodness. If Christianity can’t do this, then let someone else take up the mantle for championing truth, love, and justice. If Christ must die again to bring the same restoration he sought at the first, then so be it. God will be dead, and Christians will have killed him.

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Roots of Progressive Christianity: 3 Basic Elements

RootsTitle

Understanding Changes in American Christianity

It seems religion in America is undergoing a paradigm shift. Though evangelicalism and other conservative/fundamentalist sects of Christianity managed to incorporate previous culture changes like gender and racial equality, the social justice topic du jour — gay rights — is proving rather irreconcilable, thus giving religious progressives a chance to share their opinions on the public stage. If you look back, groups like the Quakers and the United Church of Christ have been around supporting progressive causes for quite some time, but they are the exception to the rule, and they have rarely if ever had widespread cultural recognition.

For people like me who associate religious fundamentalism with fostering spiritual abuse, this is a relief. Maybe religious progressives will finally receive some respect. Fundamentalists criticize us for going too far in our beliefs, whereas skeptics accuse us of not going far enough. It’s lose/lose. Because we can rarely catch a break, many people are unfamiliar with what progressive Christianity entails, seeming to many to be strange or even dangerous. So, with that in mind, here are some explanations and brief defenses of some common beliefs associated with Christian progressives.

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Not Every “Cost” is Equal

Conviction Comes with a Cost

Most everyone who leaves evangelical culture knows the cost of doing so: the social alienation, the accusations, the demonizing, etc. What hurts most is that the people who hurt you are often those who were once close to you. You find out that their allegiance is to their theology before it is to their humane treatment of other people.

Rachel Held Evans chronicles a bit of her own experience with this phenomenon in a powerful piece a few days ago entitled The Cost. I love her work, and I sympathize with her on almost all counts. I know what it’s like to be the subject of gossip and backstabbing. I’ve lost an enormous amount just for deviating from the evangelical norm.

Where I depart from her is in her final paragraphs. After talking about the cost of her own convictions, she states, “the truth is, their convictions come with a cost too.”

Well, yes. Any sort of conviction comes with a social cost among people who don’t accept that conviction. Strongly-held convictions like racism, sexism, etc., all come with a great social cost, no matter how pleasant you are about the way in which you hold them. Now consider some of the destructive convictions in evangelicalism: homophobia, unwarranted suspicion of scientists, the demonizing of progressive theology, and so forth. Why should progressive Christians like Rachel Held Evans and I suppose that we are being hypocritical if we see our own suffering as more worthwhile than that of evangelicals?

Not Every “Cost” is Equal

We should be understanding, but not to a fault. Evangelicals have good intentions, at least generally speaking. They want to do God’s will, and they’re often trying really, really hard to do it… and wrecking everything in their path as a result. So we can say we understand where they’re coming from, because most of us were there once, too. And we can say we understand that it is painful to hear people disaparage your views. Where I draw the line is in trying to equate that sort of pain with the pain that comes from leaving evangelical culture.

I will continue to use the word “fundamentalist” to describe blind adherence. I will call people “bigots” when they dehumanize others through their commitments to Scripture, even if they do so with a polite tone of voice. I remember being on the receiving end of these terms when I was still an evangelical, and as much as I resisted it at the time, I know that the experience was a necessary part of my deconversion. It showed me that what I was doing and saying was not just the incorrect answer but that I was morally in the wrong.

I remarked in my last post that I have sometimes dismissed others unfairly, and I’m sorry that I have done that. Like Rachel, I have assumed things about people’s experiences, and that is hurtful, too. But the balance I strive toward is to demonstrate graciously but sternly the horrendous wrongdoing I see present in evangelical culture. I don’t feel sorry for using what some might think of as harsh words or for telling people my honest opinion of a view for which I have no respect.

Actions Have Consequences

So maybe evangelicalism comes with a cost, but it is the cost of existing against reality and goodness. The pain is supposed to be there to tell you you’re going the wrong way. When your belief system requires you to make horrendous assumptions about others — that scientists are all conspiring against you, that gay people aren’t really gay — your insulting actions have consequences. It’s like burning your hand when you touch a hot stove.

By contrast, the cost we face when we leave evangelicalism is the cost of others trying to force you into an arbitrary belief system that you can’t possibly accept, even if you tried (and believe me, I tried). The pain we face from the alienation and shaming is unnecessary and wrong. People try to justify it however they can, but they are denying reality. Recently, I had someone tell me semi-privately (comments of another person’s article) that the suffering I face is a result of my sin. No, I know why I’m suffering: people chose to do terrible things. It’s not God’s judgment.

Conflict with Integrity

Now of course, we should be as gracious as we can, even with those who hurt us. The goal is not to conquer the evangelicals; the goal is still to love. Sometimes, that love requires us to take a harsh stance. But just as they cannot force us to believe as they do, nor can we force them to believe as we do. We must exist and conduct ourselves such that people are free to choose what they believe, and we must have faith that our beliefs are sufficiently compelling to draw people of their own accord. We must not engage in the same sort of social manipulation tactics (“evangelism” they call it) to pressure people into joining our club.

If we as progressive Christians engage in this conflict with integrity, never assuming things about our opponents and never forcing them into our ways, then we can indeed say that the cost of evangelical conviction is of little moral value by comparison to our own. It is there because it is supposed to be there, and I do not feel as though there is a “log in my eye” when I chastise other believers for their actions.

With all this said, let me reiterate that I am a big fan of Rachel Held Evans, and I have nothing against her project. This is a minor — but important — piece of constructive criticism.

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A Disheartened Christian

doubtI wanted this post to be about all the great things I’ve found in progressive Christianity — all the wonderful, life-changing things that set us free from the bondage of pseudo-religious hegemony. I wanted to be hopeful and helpful to people seeking truth in a landscape full of lies.

That post may come, but I just have to say… I’m tired. I’m tired and frustrated and maybe even a bit bitter. I see hatred among Christians time and time again, even from people close to me. I see people patting themselves on the back for abandoning their friends, reassuring themselves with out-of-context verses. I see people ruining their lives with religion, headstrong in their belief that the terrible things they do are God’s will.

I’ve seen progressive Christians throwing insults like poison darts at the people who don’t live up to their standards. I’ve probably thrown a few of my own. And I must admit, after so long of having been abandoned by friend after friend after friend over issues of belief, I just want it to be over, and sometimes dismissal is a welcome alternative to engaging those who act as my ideological enemies. Sometimes, I fail to love.

“You will know them by their love for one another,” the Bible says. What love? Tribalism is not love — of course we love the people like us, or we would hate ourselves. Sometimes we think we’ve come so far with our technology and culture, but if you break down the pretense, so many of us are still throwing pointy sticks at each other and fighting over territory.

“You will know them by their love for one another.” That is such a haunting verse when there is so little love. This Christian is worn down. Will there ever be rest?

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