Monthly Archives: January 2014

Ditching guilt

One of the best outcomes of my move from Christianity so far has been ditching guilt.

As a Christian I was constantly measuring myself up to some Christian superhero I thought I had to be. I was supposed to pray (briefly if necessary, but best on my knees and for a significant amount of time) and read my Bible (spending enough time with it to generate or receive some significant insight) every morning. I had to express my love to God somehow through worship too; this meant me thinking towards God “I love you! You are great!” I had to look at fewer persons lustfully than the day before and avoid touching myself. The list goes on.

I had concluded that feelings of spiritual inadequacy and guilt were feelings I was going to struggle with my whole life, because I indeed was spiritually inadequate. And I was resigned to this: everyone has his own cross to bear. I may continue to struggle with a notion of being inadequate or not good enough through my life, but for now I am so glad to be (relatively) guilt-free!

Some of my Christian friends celebrate with me my drop-kicking guilt to China (well, somewhere else, anyway). I know many good Christian people who want others to live guilt-free. I think it is possible to live mostly guilt-free as a Christian. I do not think I felt guilt because I viewed God as a Judge waiting for me to make a mistake. It is possible the guilt I felt (and may feel again) is more related to psychological issues (e.g. self-loathing).

Whatever the reason, since calling myself an agnostic I have not stressed about the following – praying, reading my Bible, worship, my sexuality, evangelism. And that has been great! It has been so freeing.

Questions: A) Here I have used “guilt-free” as an antonym for “guilt”. What opposite emotions/terms might you posit for guilt and why? B) If I still believe some acts I commit are wrong and believe god might exist, why do I feel so little guilt after my wrong-doing right now? C) Christianity could cause someone to feel more or less guilt than she currently does – how would you persuade a person to convert when she lives fairly guilt-free and has no wish to adopt a system which could add guilt to her life? D) Where do we draw the line between healthy guilt and unhealthy guilt in one’s life?

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Fear

Fear is part of life. It is an emotion we all know. We fear a hundred disparate things. Fear is a currency; we use it to manipulate others. Our politics -and arguably our media and economy – are driven chiefly by fear. And despite its ubiquity, fear is still a horror: it causes us to sweat and panic during the day and lie awake and curse our existence at night.

Fear is part of Christianity. Christianity needs fear.

Israel trusted the Pharisees to teach them how to please God and avoid Gehenna. (I am weak on first-century Jewish theology; please correct me if you can.) So the Pharisees claimed to have authority to declare who was righteous and worthy and who was not. They were metaphysical brokers who dealt in eternal life and death. In a culture where the layman had little to no access to the agreed-upon revelation of God, the layman had to rely on his religious instructors, like the Pharisees, and do everything he could to please them: he had no other alternative.

In Matthew 23 Jesus lambasts the Pharisees for their abuse of power. I think his most damning denouncements are “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces” and “You travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves”. Jesus sees the problem: the Pharisees are playing god and making people miserable with their demands. Jesus seems to want to free people from this oppression (23.2-12) but likewise relies on the fear of hell to “make a proselyte”. In Matthew 10.28 he instructs his disciples not to fear, describing God’s love, but adds that rather than fearing those who can kill only the body they fear him – presumably God – who can destroy both soul and body in hell.

I argue that Christianity needs this metaphysical fear, the concept of hell, to persist. If there is no hell, no damnation for the general populace, there is no reason to turn to religion; likewise, there is no reason to evangelize: no one needs to “be saved” from ultimate torment. Christianity is not unique in needing fear for its purposes but neither is it exonerated for this, especially since many of its adherents mistakenly believe fear is absent from their message of creation, fall and redemption. Consciously or not, Christians blithely damn the world to hell unless it follows their particular instructions (varying from group to group).

I do not claim the presence of fear in Christianity operates to obfuscate its falsehood; I claim it makes people miserable and impedes open inquiry to Christianity’s claims. If I doubt, if I do not believe, can I ever know God and be saved? Or must I believe first and try to understand later (fides quarens intellectum)? Best to not doubt, to not ask questions, to not push God’s buttons and ensure the salvation of my soul.

Questions: A) Can fear be avoided: is the structure of the universe such that fear will be a partial motivation in every decision (e.g. fearing poverty, I go to work)? B) I am getting at the interplay of ethos and logos in argumentation in this post (a theme considered in “Miracle?”). Is it possible to divorce the emotional response of fear from the proposition of hell in Christian dialogue? What alternatives do people have – Christians or not – to using fear in argumentation (i.e. manipulation by fear)? C) Do I miss the point – does Jesus’ message somehow transcend and avoid using fear?

Miracle?

Recently a friend asked me how I would respond if I witnessed a miracle, something that could only be explained with supernatural causes, right now.

I said first it would scare the shit out of me.

Then I would question it: I would want to know why god wanted to reveal a miracle to me, what god’s purpose was in doing that; I would want to know all the details – what really happened, and how, etc. I hate ambiguity. I learned this through studying language – I always want to know why there are the slightest exceptions to grammatical rules. This hatred also explains my very direct romantic attempts/approach: if I’m interested in someone I do not beat around the bush about it (usually).

I had to also confess to my friend that I could become completely bogged down in these questions, perhaps much as I am currently in my faith life. Perhaps I ought to let things be, but I cannot find myself able to do so.

Eventually I told him I would emotionally “shut down” to the experience. My friend said this – the emotional reaction – is what he wanted me to tell him about the whole time. I distrust my emotions. I have a history of clinical depression, anxiety (social- and stress-induced), panic attacks, slight-OCD and paranoia: after this deluge of emotion mixed in with my faith life it is hard to let myself trust or give myself over to my emotions ever. Because of this, I think it is possible I would seek a way to explain the miracle away so I did not have to emotionally respond to it at all.

Donald Miller writes in Blue Like Jazz that people do not walk away from Christianity for intellectual reasons but for emotional ones. I think it is important to recognize the role emotion plays in belief. Anyone who denies emotion affects belief – be they deist or Marxist or naturalist or Catholic – is wrong: it is a Modern dream that people believe things solely because they are empirical or rational. We believe things because of reason, we hope, but also because of the community we were raised in, the community and place we are currently in, the preferences we have, the emotions we have, the bodies we have, the wills we have. I think belief is largely a choice but maybe not even wholly a choice. Perhaps Paul was on to something when he said faith was a gift of God.

I hope to engage these ideas – the role of factors other than intellect, especially emotion or place, on our beliefs; why I have walked away from Christianity; etc. – further in future posts. But for now suffice it to say that I may not be open to a miracle even if I saw one. A different friend of mine said as much happened to him – he saw miracles while in Haiti but did not allow them to affect him or his faith at all. Jesus spoke to this: he said that many will see but not perceive or hear but not understand.

If so, what could I do in the event of a miracle? I think I could only respond as my conscience best dictated, trying to open my mind to the real possibility of the miracle but simultaneously relying on my best judgment and Ockham’s razor. I think I would be an uncomfortable incarnation of believer and devil’s advocate. I think I would be much as I am now.

Questions: A) Why do miracles always seem to be unverified by modern, critical methods? Is it because verifying them would somehow miss the point? Or is it because the only miracles that can persist are the unverifiable ones, the hoaxes? B) Why would God want to avoid verification? C) Can people blind themselves to truth? Or, can/does God blind people to God/the truth (i.e., am I Calvinistically-, soteriologically-fucked)?

“Theology!” said Mr. Straik with profound contempt. “It’s not theology I’m talking about, young man, but the Lord Jesus. Theology is talk – eyewash – a smokescreen – a game for rich men. It wasn’t in lecture rooms I found the Lord Jesus. It was in the coal pits, and beside the coffin of my daughter. If they think that Theology is a sort of cotton wool which will keep them safe in the great and terrible day, they’ll find their mistake. For, mark my words, this thing is going to happen. The kingdom is going to arrive: in this world: in this country….”
That Hideous Strength, C.S. Lewis

These are the words of the Reverend Straik in Lewis’ “Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-Ups”, That Hideous Strength. This novel is set in mid-20th century England (a fictionalized Durham, England actually) and about a husband and wife who find themselves on opposing forces as N.I.C.E., the National Institute for Co-ordinated Experiments, and a motley crew of Christians strive to win Merlin (yes, the wizard) to their respective sides. Here Straik is talking to Mark, the husband, about his eschatological beliefs and, in a sense, explaining why he is part of N.I.C.E., the force of evil in this novel.

Through these words we see that Straik is right about the coming divine judgment; but hinted in this section and more explicit elsewhere we see he is wrong about how the Judge works and who, in fact, the Judge is. Straik is ergo an antichrist. He knows some of the right words and even preaches them. But his god is not God. His god is one of might and wrath. His god gives signs of power. This is why Straik sides with N.I.C.E. – the being, “the Macrobe”, N.I.C.E. has established contact with performs tricks and seems to transcend our physical dimensions and even death. And this god’s demeanor fits what many of us know of power: he is merciless and bloodthirsty, demanding service and death even from his most ardent servants. But unfortunately for Straik, the being he has pledged to, though appearing all-powerful and the arbiter of justice, is merely a con, a trickster, the devil himself. [SPOILER! – His power pales in comparison to that of the true judge, who destroys N.I.C.E. via its own treacheries towards the novel’s end. In the end, the Macrobe demands a blood sacrifice and Straik, who as a shepherd should have died trying to save others, ends up fighting to save himself and eventually being overcome. – END SPOILER!] In more ways than one Straik shows the ironic truth of his words that merely knowing the truth about Jesus does not serve as a surrogate fleece to save a person on judgment day.

Before entering divinity school, I penned this quote into the cover of my journal. I did this to remind me of my beliefs before entering what my version of Christianity saw as a liberal theological school. Conservative Protestants love to emphasize faith in Jesus over external religious acts: it’s not going to church that saves you, but believing Jesus died for you, repenting and professing him. This quote can serve as a helpful reminder for theology students of any background to keep their focus on Jesus, a focus I have come to decide the New Testament encourages and demonstrates the more I have read the NT.

But I think this quote does something else. It challenges studying theology for the sake of increased theological knowledge by saying that knowing about Jesus is not enough. I am still tempted to think I will come out of seminary with some greater grasp on truth than when I entered, and that I will be “the better” for it, much as I know this is false. I think many of my classmates believe the same. This is worrisome. Not so much because I am currently concerned for our souls. It is worrisome because I fear inactivity, egoism, service of the self, waxing theologic in towers of ivory. Even if I do not return to Christianity or organized religion I want my too-self-centered life to be made of use for others. I want to teach and encourage students and help them feel good about themselves and their abilities. I want them to pursue truth.

This quote challenges me to strive towards a larger goal, one not of merely forming my own beliefs and thought but of using what I learn to better serve and love others.

Questions: A) Is the Western, academic theological pursuit – studying significant historic and contemporary claims about God to earn a living teaching others significant historic and contemporary claims about God – useless or morally bankrupt? B) If so, why and how should the pursuit be changed? If not, how is studying theology beneficial to serving others, spiritually and/or non-spiritually? C) It seems easy to love humanity and simultaneously hate humans. How do we apply our grander magnanimous aspirations to daily interaction with individuals?