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 , , , , , | 8 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

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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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Deconstructing the Debate: Ken Ham, Conspiracy Theorist

debate-nye-ham

Young Earth Creationism on Trial

The biggest evolution debate in some time took place this past Tuesday between Bill Nye the Science Guy and Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis. Bill Nye argued for naturalistic origins of life, whereas Ken Ham represented the position of Young Earth Creationism. You can still watch the video here, though I’m not sure how long the link will remain valid. Though many beforehand felt the debate was a mistake, things probably went as much in Bill’s favor as one could imagine. If I had to pick a winner, it would definitely be Bill.

(Short note: if you’re unfamiliar with the subtleties of Young Earth Creationism (YEC), it is remarkably different from Creationism in general. Where Creationism only requires supposing a creator, e.g. God, YEC supposes that the Earth is roughly 6,000 years old and that all plants and animals were created more or less as they are over the course of 6 24-hour periods when God created the world.)

I certainly have my opinions on specific points, but the specific points were rarely all that important by comparison to the structure of the debate itself. Instead of focusing on these specifics, I want to deconstruct what Mr. Ham said in order to illustrate that he is little more than a conspiracy theorist preying on common fears in order to make his position look like a refuge from the hostile world outside.

Hijacking Science

Right from the start, Ken claimed that secularists had “hijacked” science; in fact, this is a key component of his first major point. While this is a specious claim of its own right, its place at the start of the debate is particularly telling. It shows that Ken hopes to frame the debate as some sort of anti-god conspiracy against good-natured Christians. Keep this in your mind as you read the rest of this article: Ken Ham’s first move is to try to incite you toward fear of others.

But think about the claim for a moment. If evolution is part of a secular conspiracy to “hijack science,” then these secularists must obviously be trying to keep it a secret. Conspiracies involve small groups of people behind closed doors trying to manipulate others in a way that works in the conspirators’ favor. Such a thing is easy to imagine if your concept of science is Richard Dawkins and a few other elite militant atheists scheming to end religion. And of course, to illustrate this hijacking of science, Mr. Ham does indeed quote from Dawkins’ website and from Discovery.com, giving his audience a series of quotations that they will likely interpret as hostile gestures on the part of scientists.

An Impossible Conspiracy

But think of the reality, not the perception put forward by the culture war. The reality is that there are thousands of scientists getting their PhDs every year. According to statistics from the National Science Foundation, there were roughly 10,000 scientists getting their PhDs in the natural and life sciences in 1982 just in the US alone. This figure increased to around 20,000 by the year 2012. Over those 30 years, you have somewhere between 300 and 600 thousand scientists who all contributed original research to their respective fields. Original research! That means they performed studies which helped confirm findings or falsify hypotheses. If just one of these hundreds of thousands could falsify evolution, he or she would be famous in an instant.

Once you factor in people with bachelor’s or master’s degrees in such fields and people like Mr. Nye who received undergraduate degrees in related fields and ended up working in science, Ken Ham’s conspiracy angle is absolutely incredible. The number of people who would have to be involved in some sort of secular conspiracy is staggeringly large to the point where it would be utterly impossible to maintain secrecy. A conspiracy of this sort would be public knowledge in a heartbeat.

But allegations of conspiracy on such an enormous scale are not only implausible; they are also curious. Why does Ken Ham need to implicate so many people in collaborating to “hijack science” for secularism? Well, it’s the structure of his argument. He needs to make you doubt science so he can get you to buy his snake oil. Once you think the secularist boogeyman is coming to get you, it’s much easier to get you to take refuge behind a wall of assertions that “there’s a book,” aka the Bible, with all the answers, as Ken reminded us at several points near the end of the debate. Never mind all the people who disagree with Mr. Ham’s interpretations of that book.

The rest of Ken’s argument, at least insofar as it concerns science, is just technobabble, i.e. using big words to fool his audience into thinking he knows what he’s talking about. Ken has to make us think he knows what he’s talking about, but he doesn’t. If any of his claims held up, then someone would publish them in a credible scientific journal. And again, I’ll point out the ludicrousness of trying to claim there is some sort of plot to keep scholars from granting recognition to Ken’s distinctions. It’s simply an impossible conspiracy.

The God Card

Then there is the theological part of this debate. Bill appropriately didn’t try to venture into those waters, because he knows he can’t. For Ken, though, this is his trump card. No matter how many impossibilities Bill may demonstrate, no matter how many pieces of evidence he may show, Ken’s followers have a conundrum: how can they abandon their positions without giving up on God?

Ken applies the same strategy here as he did previously: incite fear. While a great many Christians do not accept Ken’s model, Ken would have us believe that they are all slandering the Bible. I’m not sure how many people noticed, but the diagram Ken used to illustrate death before the fall had all sorts of horrifying images: smeared blood, a pile of skulls, etc. Views other than Ken’s are not just wrong but evil and scary.

Just as he did with science, Mr. Ham’s theological argument absolutely depends on depicting legions of credible, intelligent scholars and theologians as conspirators in some horrific evil. Nonsense, I say. It is nothing but nonsense and slander.

A Fearful Man

Ken’s whole debate hinges on whether or not he can instill enough fear in his audience to make his nonsense solutions seem like a welcome solace from the supposed horrors of the outside world. If he took this approach knowingly, I would call him diabolical, but my inclination is that he has taken this course in earnest. Thus, Mr. Ham exhibits all the classic signs of a conspiracy theorist.

My plea to whoever reads this is to see through Mr. Ham’s fearmongering. Have some faith in your brothers and sisters in humanity that they are following where the evidence leads and making sound judgments.

If you are a Creationist, ask yourself, what is Ken doing if not trying to make you fear the world outside his word? Why is he trying so hard to make you distrust everyone but himself? This behavior is troubling, to say the least. Thus, even more than any of evolution’s many evidences, this is the problem Young Earth Creationists must address: the model Ken Ham espouses doesn’t appear to be anything more than a conspiracy theory thought up by a fearful man.

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