Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Not the Christianity I Knew, Part IV

Okay, so... I've talked a little about the enormous varieties of disbelief and deconversion, and where I fit into all that; I've said that my own exit from Christianity was a relatively gentle departure. I've talked a little about the fact that people tend to judge things based on their own experiences, and I've talked a lot about my experiences in and around the Episcopalian Church. In particular, I've talked about how strange and limiting Biblical Literalism seems to me, and how I was taught that the Bible, while still the word of God, should be considered in light of tradition, reason, and experience. Now, let's see if I can tie all that together.

There are people who object to this sort of moderate, balanced approach to Christianity. They say that if the Bible really is the Word of God, then it must mean everything it says, exactly the way it says it. Otherwise, you end up picking and choosing the things you like, the parts of the message you agree with - "cafeteria Christianity". If you're going to do that, why bother using the Bible in the first place?

Interestingly enough, I've heard this from both fundamentalist / evangelical Christians... and from outspoken atheists. And in both cases, I think it says more about the speaker than it does about either the Bible or Christianity. I suppose that's just another way of saying "I'm normal, it's the rest of the world that's odd" - but I stand by it nonetheless.

First of all, there's an element of all-or-nothing thinking, there. Considering what the Bible has to say in terms of reason, tradition, and experience could become a matter of just choosing the parts you like... but it certainly doesn't have to. There's some middle ground there which frequently gets overlooked, either accidentally or deliberately.

Secondly, I'd argue that everybody interprets the Bible in light of reason, tradition, and experience - it's just that some denominations don't like to admit it. ("Oh, we're not really part of a denomination. We just read the Bible." I was sitting in on a youth group meeting in one of those churches, and the youth leader started talking about prophecy, the Rapture, and future history. What did he pull out to support the lesson? It wasn't a direct reading of the Bible. It was one of those bizarrely convoluted Scofield reference charts.)

Thirdly, the Bible itself supports a more moderate approach. Consider Matthew 22: 37-40: "On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets." Which two commands? Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself. If some specific law seems to violate either of both of these commandments, then you're either reading it wrong, or applying it incorrectly... and, to crib from Fred Clark again, you're probably trying to turn the Bible into a rulebook.

So, obviously, I think it's a mistake for believers to dismiss the more moderate and/or liberal sorts of Christianity as insufficiently Christian, insufficiently devout, or insufficiently correct. And, insofar as the reasoning is the same, I think it's a mistake for nonbelievers, too.

But for nonbelievers, I think it's doubly problematic. Not only is the logic suspect, but the practical considerations... Well, look at it this way:

I don't think we're ever going to get rid of religion, at least not in the broad sense of the word. One or more specific religions might fall into decline and eventual extinction; or, more likely, society-at-large might rein in their less acceptable behaviors. (Consider the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and their early embrace - pardon the term - of polygamy.) But religion in some form - some belief in the Unseen Forces That Govern Our Lives - seems to be a universal in human societies. Anywhere you find people, you find religion. Maybe the race will outgrow that, but frankly I doubt it.

And, to be honest, I'm not at all sure that the end of religion is a desirable goal. I'd like to see an end to the more pointless forms of tribalism; I'd love to see the more authoritarian personalities robbed of the ability to claim divine sanction. But religion overall? I'm not sure about that at all. How much would that change people? Or, to ask that question another way, how much would people have to change to be rid of religion? What underlying qualities would we have to lose, or transform, or re-channel? Would people without religion even be recognizable as people? I don't know, and I suspect the question is even more complicated than I'm suggesting here.

So, basically, I don't think we're ever going to get rid of religion. Even if I'm wrong, and religion really is a source of great evil, I think we're stuck with it. So, that being the case... Well, there are plenty of atheists who would like to promote less religion; there are even some who hope someday to see no religion. I'd like to see better religion: religions with more tolerance, religions which respect the conscience of the individual believer, religions which accept - even revel in! - the contributions of science to human knowledge.

For that reason, I think that atheists (and other nonbelievers) do themselves a disservice when (and if) we insist that if someone is going to self-identify as a Christian, they have to take the entire Bible at face value; or they have to accept everything that (some value of) Christianity has historically taught; or even that they must know everything there is to know about scripture (or near enough) in light of their particular denomination.

In a lot of ways, lukewarm Christianity - comfortable, familiar, not-too-well-examined Christianity, Cafeteria Christianity - is a good thing. It leaves room for advances in science. It leaves room for evolving (hopefully improving) morality. It doesn't insist that it has - and more to the point, that it understands - the whole of the Truth. It doesn't threaten anyone who disagrees with an eternity of fiery punishment. And to insist otherwise, to insist that this sort of approach isn't legitimate... I think that plays directly into the hands of those who would conscript the religious impulse for their own benefit.

That may not be Christianity as you know it. But it is Christianity as I knew it.


  1. While I generally agree with you here.....at some point every Christian, no matter the stripe, must say "The Bible says."

    With "the Bible says" comes authority.

    Without the Bible Christianity would not exist. A monotheistic religion might, but not Christianity in particular. Christianity rests on a foundation of Jesus the Christ.No Bible, No Jesus.

    This then poses another problem for the liberal. If they accept what the Bible says about Jesus, on what authority or rational basis do they reject what else it says?

    I think a case can be made for Progressive Christianity. True liberals however are atheists and agnostics who don't want to lose their pension. :) I have far more respect for the fundamentalist and his literalism than I do the liberal who wants Jesus but hems and haws about everything else.


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  3. I see your friend is back ...

    Have you read Scott Adams' book "God's Debris?"

    I started kind of reading this off and on at around the same time I saw your essay postings. Made for an interesting combination.

    Your post also reminds me of how similar the Catholic church is to the Episcopalian church. (So similar, as a matter of fact, that Episcopalian priests were once allowed to become Catholic priests, One of the priests at the church my wife went to was one of the few that was married, with children, he was formerly Episcopalian. I met another one at a church in McKinney) Even though we have that whole Catechism thing, the two are remarkably similar in their views on the Bible and its interpretation. Often Catholics are just as lax about proselytizing. We just simply let the others be. This was not always the case, though ... there was that whole inquisition thing, after all. :)

  4. @ Bruce - "This then poses another problem for the liberal. If they accept what the Bible says about Jesus, on what authority or rational basis do they reject what else it says?"

    To be honest, I don't have a simple answer for that - but then, it's not a simple question, either. The short version is that the Episcopal Church relies on a process which they call "discernment". (The link goes to the best description of it that I've found so far.) It is, basically, a process of weighing the contents of the Bible against the context in which they were written, the needs of the community today, and the urgings of the Spirit. There's also a lot of underlying differences (I think) in how they view the role of the Bible in Christianity - not every message in it is necessarily addressed to us, today. (God may be eternal and unchanging, but humanity surely isn't.) If you're interested, read the article; it has a lot more depth and detail.

    As a side note... I don't mean to hold up the Episcopal Church as an example of How To Do Christianity Correctly - they have plenty of problems of their own. I use them as an example because that's my background, and because they do illustrate something that I think is worth pointing out.

    @ Mike - No, I haven't read that. Most of my real-life reading is fantasy and/or science fiction; it's only online that I start digging around in religion, politics, and suchlike.


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