Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Reasons not to be a Christian

I grew up in a White, non-denominational Christian tradition.  Yes, it is a tradition, even though the founders of this particular branch of the church were anti-establishment, ex-hippies.  "Ex" because after you became a Christian you were meant to stop smoking pot, drinking, put on some shoes and cut your hair, and you were convinced you needed to start voting Republican.  So that put a little bit of a damper on the "anti-establishment" bit, as well, only slightly more than if they had all been convinced to vote Democrat. Anyway, that's my version of how it all went down.  I wouldn't really know since I hadn't been born yet.

But these forefathers and fore-mothers were determined to at least not bring the establishment into church by establishing a recognizable liturgy.  I know that for a few reasons.  For example, I didn't know the word "liturgy" until I was in my 20s.  I grew up hearing that we weren't like those other stodgy churches.  The pastor would preach about how much better off we were than those other "dead" churches, because we had "the Spirit" and we sang worship songs for at least an hour, and also, we had electric guitars by the time the 90s hit.  It came as a shock when I realized that by the 90s, even the Methodists and Catholics had drum cages (because it's church, keep them in a cage, for God's sake) and electric guitars.  So we didn't have that going for us anymore.

Of course, I later realized that we did have a liturgy.  Just sometimes it was interrupted by the Holy Spirit, who is, according to this tradition, not at all interested in the order of worship, time, or the children's workers, who are stuck in the back rooms wishing, dear God, just someone come and get these kids, it's almost 1 p.m. And the more often we sang songs for almost two hours, the more we were convinced that God really like our type of Christianity best. 

Also, I realized that our liturgy was actually quite shallow and a little slip-shoddy when it came to theology since we had thrown out hundreds of years of church tradition in favor of an attempt at Christianized, Jewish dance songs.  If not for John Wimber and Delirious, we might still be hopping around, pretending to be Jewish. And somewhere in that time line, someone thought it was cool again to sing old hymns (with an electric guitar and drums, of course). 

If you are ready to string me up and burn me at stake so I won't receive a glorified body in the resurrection, please realize that this is a loving roast of my tradition (Ha! Pun!).  What I'm really trying to get at is the essence of why I believe what I believe.  Or why I don't believe all of the things I used to believe. 

I have read a few blogs recently that try to analyze why people do or do not want to be a Christian.  I don't know if I can relate to all of them, but I started to compile a mental list of all the "reasons you should be Christian" that I gained from over 30 years in the aforementioned tradition. I am getting to a place where I need to start parsing out the reasons I strongly reject many of these ideas, so this is an attempt at a list.  Also, I just read about negative theology, or defining what things are not in order to come to an understanding of what they truly are, so I think I'll give it a go. I'm just going to number the reasons and see where I get. 

*Note: I realize that the term "non-Christian" can be an exclusionary term, but it's the quickest way for me to proceed with the critique, so I hope you'll excuse it.  I don't think people who are not Christians are inferior to those who are.  

I am not a Christian because:

1.  "Christians are more moral than non-Christians."  

I have met too many people who are way kinder and more moral than many Christians I know, including myself.  Also, I personally know that Christians do all sorts of immoral things.  However, to this day I hear this type of logic, like "aren't you glad we are in this nice group of people instead of out there with those pagans who just don't know any better."  Anyway, the idea that "they don't know any better" or that non-Christians don't have any sense of morality isn't even consistent with Christian doctrine (if you know which book of the Bible this is in, then you don't need me to reference it here). And it's not fair to say that all those immoral Christians are not "really Christians," because who put you in the place of God, first of all.  And secondly, I could probably give you a few examples of people who you would say are "really Christians" and then also show you lots of immoral things they do.  Don't get me started.  If you become a Christian, you may or may not become a moral person. 

2.  "Once you get saved, all your problems will be resolved."

This one is especially attractive for middle-class Christians, and especially White middle-class Christians, because as it turns out, if you are middle-class, and you get involved in church, it's likely that you will experience an increase in your standard of living.  This happens for a lot of "nonspiritual" reasons.  For example, a concentration of a bunch of middle-class folks necessarily means that the wealth also concentrates, which means that people can help each other out in a pinch.  A church is the equivalent of a social club, which results in networking, and therefore, jobs.  And if you are White and middle-class a lot of other things just "magically" go well for you in life because of the color of your skin, not because of divine intervention. Bottom line--problems do not go away just because you become a Christian. Sometimes they go away because you are privileged. 

3.  "Christians are happier than non-Christians."  

I have been a Christian for a long time and I am not always happy.  In fact, I have lived through long periods where I was clinically depressed.  I know many Christians that are super miserable with their lives, and they're even more miserable because they believe that Christians are supposed to be happy all the time, so they feel like a failure.  So I say, it's either always true, or it's false. Christians are not generally happier than non-Christians.  But if you look at again "nonspiritual" psychological evidence, there might be a case to say that people who belong to a church (or another social club) are more likely to have a better outlook on life due to extended social ties and regular interaction with other people.  Additionally, I do believe to some extent in the power of positive thinking, so if your local church promotes this in any way, it's likely to improve your general outlook on life.  Unless you're also dwelling on what an evil sinner you are.  So it could go either way. 

4.  "Christians are going to heaven and non-Christians are going to hell."

This one is the big one.  Even though I have heard a handful of pastor-type people critique the "fire insurance" view of the Christian faith (as in, the ticket to escape the the fiery judgement), I still feel like this becomes the major argument for being "saved" and getting other people "saved."  We preach the gospel because "people are going to hell."  When life gets bad, "at least we aren't going to hell."  When someone dies, "at least we will see them in heaven... except if they're in hell, in which case you'll never see them again."  Okay, no one actually ever says that last line, because that would just be mean, but I think that it wouldn't be a stretch to say that's what many people are thinking.

At this point in my life, I don't know who is actually getting into heaven. I'm not sure I understand what we mean when we say "heaven," to begin with.   And there are some parables that Jesus told that indicate that we might not have a good grasp on who is ultimately "in" and who is eternally "out."  There are also parables that indicate that everyone might get in at the last minute (which is sometimes more disturbing to Christians than the idea that the whole world might be going to hell).  In any case, since I don't really know, this is not really a convincing motivation for me anymore.

At this point, many Christians will say that I am not a Christian, and so therefore, they shouldn't listen to me.  That is their prerogative.  But if you will hear me out, I think you will understand that I am saying that the "fire insurance" theory falls tremendously short of the mark.  To steal a line from all those sermons I've heard, "If we only got saved to escape hell, we might as well kill ourselves right now."  Seriously.  You either believe that or you don't.  Please don't kill yourself.

So what is my motivation to "be saved" and from what am I "being saved" if I just take hell out of the picture?  (And isn't that such a relief to be able to do?  Realizing the fact that my belief  about hell doesn't change whether or not it exists?) So moving forward, I have to engage in the exercise of deciding why I still call myself a Christian and why I would recommend it to someone else regardless of what I believe about eternal punishment.  

I am a Christian because... 

1.  The idea of heaven on earth is... there are no words to describe it, actually.  We need peace, love, and joy in our world so badly, and Jesus made some promises about heaven looking like that.  And then he said that the kingdom of heaven he was talking about, the one with love, joy and peace, was actually among us.  What the world needs now is love, sweet love.  Well, here it is.

2. Jesus Christ blessed the poor and condemned the rich.  Even if I am the rich person that he condemns, something about that makes me want to hear that rebuke and repent to enter into the blessing.  His good news had everything to do with a new kingdom and a new king, not about imagining a more compassionate version of upward mobility.  It is fundamentally a social gospel, but it's about the creation of a new kind of society that we may not have seen before. 

3. Forgiveness is nothing short of amazing.  I will admit that this might be the one area where Christianity could corner the market.  Jesus Christ demonstrated a type of love and sacrifice rivaled by few. Even Ghandi gave props to Christ.  It was the Christians that he didn't admire, most likely because they were not showing love and forgiveness.

4.  I can't shake the feeling that there is a God, he is good, and he likes all the people and the world he created.  I know I said all that stuff about becoming a Christian not being a guarantee of wealth, but I do think there is something to the idea that God provides for people.  I think I have examples in my life, and anyway, I know there are plenty of examples among the poor of the earth to indicate that this is not a middle-class person phenomenon.  In fact, I instinctively feel that the blessing to the poor is partially about miraculous provision.  This is something that the wealthy may not be able to experience, including myself many times. 

That's all I've got for now.

What are your thoughts about why you are or are not a Christian?  What do you think of my reasons?

5 comments:

  1. LOVE this. to your first few points...

    1. it was thinking deeply about this that drove me away from the church many moons ago. christ's most poignant parable on this is, obviously, the good samaritan. think about that story! it wasn't the religious leader, it wasn't the devoted ascetic, it was "the bad guy" who did the moral thing. so as far as moral choices by the people who are supposed to be doing the right thing, i'll always look to christ's message.

    2. as someone who didn't grow up in the tradition you did (i was raised methodist), i've been fascinated by the conservative, evangelical, non-denom fascination with "being saved." it implies that becoming christian can be traced back to a single act. i think that really short-changes the idea of improving in one's walk with christ. in my tradition, we focus on the idea of sanctification...that we are all striving (wherever we are on that journey) towards christ. most of us never get to where we want to be, but that doesn't matter. the point is, "are you moving towards christ or settling?"

    3. anyone who thinks being a true christ-follower is supposed to make life easier is in for a big surprise. christ invites us into his love, but also into his suffering. when happiness and material wealth are equated with "blessings" from god, we're one step shy of a dangerous prosperity gospel.

    4. we don't know what happens when we die. period. i think we frequently miss out on the excitement of the kingdom come by worrying about the kingdom yet-to-come. as you say, god deeply hopes that we will join him in bringing about heaven on earth. how empowering is that?!

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    1. It reassuring to know others have grappled with these issues. I know there are other reasons people wrestle with believing in God, such as whether the Bible is a reliable source, etc. Maybe I will get to those topics later, but my biggest issues have been with the "implicit" message in the sermons, advice, and practice of my tradition. Also, good to know it's not just my tradition. :)

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  2. Paragraphs 2-4 are great! I may have to steal some of those descriptions. :) I would suggest that while I agree with you that your first three numbered points aren't even in agreement with Christian orthodoxy (that is, Christian doctrine isn't even in agreement with those statements, let alone based upon them), and certainly aren't reasons to become a Christian, the answers to those points are lacking a focus on the core of what Christianity actually is (the good news of the cross). Negative theology, as an approach, is useful, but it can only be helpful when the right questions are asked. Saying that the gospel of Jesus Christ is not "Everyone gets a free BigMac" is a true (and negative) statement, but tells me nothing about what the gospel actually might be. There needs to be a affirmation of the truth setting the context for us to make any sense out of why it matters that the gospel isn't about free meals. (Note that the traditional Creeds, which came of Councils that essentially practiced negative theology are worded with positive affirmations to set the context. The negative statements merely clarify how the positive ones can be properly interpreted. That is, the declaration needs to be in the form of "I believe X, which doesn't mean Y, nor does it mean Z" (where Y and Z are typically opposing means of trying to explain away a paradox/mystery inherent in X) rather than merely "I don't believe Z."

    On points 1 and 3, I don’t think the comparisons being made are (or ever could be) meaningful. It might mean something to say that had Bill not become a Christian, he would be more depraved and evil now instead of having become incrementally more like Jesus. But it’s meaningless to say that Bill is more or less (righteous/happy/take your pick) than Bob. That is, the Holy Spirit changes us from whom we were, not from whom someone else was. People have different personalities, histories, etc. and simply can’t be directly compared in any meaningful sense here. If Bill was a harsh and greedy man before repenting, then if he’s a Christian he should through the work of the Holy Spirit become progressively less harsh and greedy, etc. as he becomes more Christlike, but may never be as mild-mannered as Mary, who was born with a much more personable temperament. That doesn’t mean Mary is free from sin – she may be quite self-centered, judgmental, vain, etc. It doesn’t mean that she’s more or less righteous or sanctified. The comparison that makes sense is Bill on his own vs. Bill, having taken on the righteousness of Christ, or Mary on her own vs. Mary, having taken on the righteousness of Christ. Bill vs. Mary is unanswerable.

    The Bible also never suggests that becoming a Christian means our problems in this life are solved. Quite the contrary, we're promised repeatedly that we will suffer in this life and take up our crosses to follow Christ. We are promised that the problem with more eternal implications - our sinful rebellion against God - is solved, but not that we'll have an easy life on earth. We're promised that God will be faithful and reward us in eternity for enduring persecution here. We're taught that the Holy Spirit brings peace that is beyond understanding in the midst of our troubles. But anyone who claims we won't have troubles in this life is teaching something other than the gospel of Jesus Christ that Paul recorded for us in the new testament.
    On point four, I will point out that while the details of "heaven" and hell aren't spelled out in the Bible, it is quite clear in Scripture that people who continue in rebellion against God are walking their way into eternal torment of some sort, and that those of us He's chosen to save are promised a much more pleasant life of eternal communion with God in the new earth. Francis Chan's treatment of this topic in Erasing Hell is excellent, for those interested in further reading. It may not be a reason to believe, but this one at least does intersect with Christian belief.

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    1. The negative theology is, for me at this time, an attempt to separate out, and in the process, hopefully come to some positive statements. I don't know when I will suddenly become theologically positive, but I have hope. ;)

      I agree that the points I brought out are antithetical to the doctrine widely understood and embraced by most Christians. I also know that theory and practice don't always match up, and that the implicit message is sometimes stronger than the explicit.

      I liked your other examples about each person being on a continuum of themselves. Very C.S. Lewis.

      Speaking of Lewis, I found a quote of his: "We do know that no one can be saved except through Christ; we do not know that only those who know Him can be saved through Him." I am not entirely ready to throw out any doctrine of hell, but I just don't have much use for it right now. Maybe I will come back to it later after I figure out what "heaven on earth" is supposed to look like. Because we certainly have a sense of what "hell on earth" is.

      Thanks for your thoughts!

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    2. I'm glad you have hope. :)

      I completely get what you're saying about not having an immediate application of the doctrine of hell. As for the existence of hell, Jesus took it as a basic assumption in various conversations he had with people, and that assumption of it as a premise holds through the rest of the new testament too. I don't believe it because it's useful or directly impacts my life (though knowledge of salvation is certainly an inspiration for worshiping the savior); I believe it because it's clear in the Bible (and in the witness of the doctrines of the Church) that it is true. But it's not something that I think needs to be dwelt on; I'll agree with the Truth when a false teacher denies it, but I'm not on board with fire-and-brimstone street preachers either - they seem to miss the point even if they have some of their facts right.

      I would advise caution about going too far with "heaven on earth" - consider inaugurated eschatology (already/not-yet): while the kingdom of God has been established and is present on the earth in the Church, it is not yet fully consummated, and will not be until Jesus' return. The tares mature alongside the wheat until the final harvest ... it's easy to hold our present circumstances up to the standard we're given for eternity in the new earth and say that they fall woefully short. And it's not wrong to recognize that they do fall short and strive for something better. But we also can't place our hope in reaching that ideal through our own efforts before the final judgment God has promised - such false hopes would just crush us.

      Looking at "heaven on earth" and "hell on earth" as a step along the path to the new earth and hell in eternity is certainly valid though. If we conceive of them as evidence of the directions people are moving with respect to their relationships with God, that's another very Lewis-esque thought too (though certainly not original to him): c.f. The Great Divorce. And while the world at large is not living in the kingdom of heaven yet, we are, and we should live accordingly - which will certainly have positive impacts even on those who don't.

      It's also true that theory and practice don't always match up, but people falling short of their ideals is closer to being proof that the ideals *do* exist than that they don't. The dichotomy between our inborn sinful nature and the new spiritual one we have in Christ is found throughout the new testament - e.g. Romans 7 - but that people are (however slowly) having their minds transformed into the image of Christ's is evident in that they struggle at all: if they wanted to remain in a life of self-indulgent sin rather than repenting, the fact that they do so would be no weight on their consciences. The Vicarious Humanity of Christ is a great theological principle to remember when wrestling with these issues, I think: both on the positive and negative side, our identities really are replaced by Christ's - he really lived and died on our behalf - we thus participate in his death and die to our old sinful nature and participate in his perfect human life and gain his righteousness. The same already/not-yet aspect of inaugurated eschatology above really plays out here too in progressive sanctification. As Christians on earth, in this life, we're living in the midst of a dichotomy. Our old selves really were crucified with Christ, yet that won't be fully consummated during our lifetimes here on earth. Our new life in Christ has, likewise, been established, but not yet fully consummated. It's only in eternity that we will be able to fully appreciate the new life he's given us!

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