The Way Not to Talk About Christianity, Part I

Let me preface what is going to be of necessity a preachy post by saying that I deeply respect everybody who is an atheist, an agnostic, a Pagan, a Muslim, a Hindu, a practicing Jew, a Buddhist, etc. Religious identification or lack thereof is a person’s way of answering the most important, crucial questions about the meaning of life, death, morality, ethics, and so on. Far be it from me to declare any method of addressing these vital issues as inferior or superior to any other.

What I want to talk about is that, often, people discuss Christianity without even trying to understand what it is, and that makes them look stupid. I’m sure that scientists and all the smart folks who understand evolution must be sick and tired to death of hearing ignoramuses proclaim, “Well, if the theory of evolution were true and people did descend from monkeys, we would see all those monkeys going through the process of becoming human right now. But we don’t, so evolution must be a load of rubbish.” It’s perfectly OK not to understand evolution. What is not OK is to address this complex theory with childish simplifications and consider yourself smarter than people who do understand it.

It’s the same with Christianity (and probably every other religion, but I’m not knowledgeable enough to talk about other religions, so I won’t.) Again, one is perfectly justified in saying, “Christianity doesn’t offer ME any useful tools for understanding the world.” It isn’t OK, though, to come up with some half-baked explanation about why this religion must be stoooopid without even stopping to consider the possibility that the generations upon generations of theologians and believers might have already heard these objections and maybe have even addressed them.

So here are some of these illiterate objections I’m truly getting tired of hearing:

1. If the Christian God is supposed to be benevolent and all-powerful, then why did he allow for things like Holocaust to happen? If he didn’t stop it then he might either be not benevolent or not that powerful.

The number of times I have heard this inanity (often proclaimed proudly by pretty well-educated people) is overwhelming. I always feel deep vicarious shame when I hear this statement.

Now let me tell you why this is a very stupid thing to say. And, once again, please excuse my preachiness. I always thought I could make a really good preacher, so maybe in my golden years I will try myself in this arena.

The Christian God (a.k.a simply “God” for the purposes of concision) does not deal in collectivities. He isn’t a social scientist. Groups, nations, social classes, ethnicities do not exist for him.

Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all (Colossians 3:11).

This tells us that the Holocaust, a genocide of a huge group of people by another huge group of people, does not exist for God. God relates to each person individually, establishing a personal connection, a personal conversation, and a personal rendering of accounts with each person. The sum total of all these millions of individual conversations come up to events that we cannot fail to see as atrocious when we analyze them from the perspective of history.

You don’t expect a cardiac surgeon to conduct a triple bypass on an entire ethnic group simultaneously, right? Or to offer collective diagnoses to large groups of people? So why do you expect a religion that denies the very existence of a collectivity and that is all about intensely individual experiences to be a useful tool for a social scientist or a historian? Conversely, do you tell a sociologist that all her statistics must be wrong because your own experience is different from what her numbers show? Of course, you don’t (I hope) because you must surely understand that a sociologist does not address individual stories but, rather, draws general conclusions about groups of people. Such general conclusions can differ profoundly from your personal story.

Christianity as a system of beliefs simply cannot be used to analyze groups. It doesn’t work on that level. That is not its purpose. People who expect it to explain history or any interactions between masses of people remind me of that guy who asked, “Doctor, will I be able to play the violin after this operation?”

“I don’t see why not, given that we will just be removing your appendix,” the doctor responded.

“Oh, the miracle of modern medicine!” the patient exclaimed. “I never learned how to play the violin and now I will know how to do it!”

(To be continued. . .)

34 thoughts on “The Way Not to Talk About Christianity, Part I”

  1. If I am not mistaken, we are talking about the same god of the old testament? Just wondering, because it seemed to me that the main point of the old testament is the pact between god and his(?) people…
    Also, this is the same entity that could kill every firstborn in Egypt in one swipe, and who has a taste for “interfering” with history. I think the comparison with the surgeon is especially inane…

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    1. And this is a perfect illustration of the kind of ignorance I’m talking about. This commenter doesn’t even go to the trouble of finding out what the relationship between the old and the new testament is, yet experiences a profound need to have an opinion.

      Sad.

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  2. This reminds me of a peer-review we’re doing in one of my classes. One person said that in my paper I didn’t name any specific sects of Christianity (though I did mention the “fundamentalist Christian sect,” or pentecostal, as I later found out it was). I didn’t realize it was called pentecostal, or that I should call it revivalism (and we were dealing with only one fundamentalist sect in this paper). He said I was generalizing Christianity as a whole.

    I understand it was only the first paper, and people think differently, and I may not have been as clear as I thought I was, but that specific comment kind of rubbed me the wrong way. I didn’t refer to this sect as “backwoods,” as he suggested, because it wasn’t always rural. I tried to avoid making generalizations like that when dealing with an issue that was much more complicated.

    Now everyone in that class thinks I’m clueless about religion. Oh, well. Next time I’ll bring three copies instead of two and try to argue my point.

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      1. Actually, you probably wouldn’t. It’s “Science versus Religion in US History.” We’ve only really dealt with Pentecostalism, because that’s the basis behind the Scopes trial and such. Apparently I just made the mistake of not identifying the only fundamentalist Christian sect we’ve studied as Pentecostal. And the comment was from a fellow student, not the professor.

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      2. In my experience, there are more differences between specific Christians and specific congregations than between denominations as a whole. Yes, each denomination technically has a certain set of beliefs…but most people come to their own way of believing as they mature, which may or may not be in line with the official precepts of their denomination. And many of those people are more likely to find a like-minded congregation within their denomination than to switch. Or if they do switch, it’ll be to a basically-interchangeable denomination, like Methodist/Presbyterian.

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  3. Ah, theodicy! Why does evil exist / evil things happen if God is supposed to be good? Pardon me for being literary, but Milton gave a pretty good answer, I think, though I myself am not at all religious.

    For those who haven’t read Milton, it goes (and I’m simplifying): God created humankind to be actively good, i.e., to turn its energies and thoughts toward the decrees to love and obey Him and to tend His creation. Humankind fell because it, beginning with its founders Adam and Eve, turned away from the divine to earthly concerns, i.e., by eating the fruit that God had forbidden. Incidentally, the eating of the fruit as such did not give rise to knowledge of good and evil, as if the fruit were somehow magical. Rather, the act of disobedience constituted an act of evil, because it indicated a desire to satisfy oneself as more imporant than the desire to satisfy God, and so humankind came to know the relationship between good and evil. In short, this is the maxim that evil is not the opposite of good, because all things created by God are good, but the perversion of good by free agents created by God, i.e., humankind (also angels and Satan and that). Ergo, all evil things are humankind’s fault for being concerned with earthly over divine things, with themselves over God, and evil therefore cannot be laid at God’s feet. The responsibility is upon humans to use our faculties of reason to discern when what God has given is being perverted through human agency, and to turn from that toward what God desires of humans as revealed through Scripture. In this scheme, things such as the Holocaust are perversions of God’s grant to humankind of mastery over the earth and all things in it, in order to tend it with a mind to His glory, which in its perverse form manifests as a lust for worldly power and dominion that causes humans to kill and brutalize their fellows.

    Whether one actually believes something like this or not, for me the best part is that itcan be digested in an immensely pleasurable way by turning one’s full attention on one of the most beautiful and powerful poems in the English language!

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    1. Ah, someone else who loves Milton! Lovely to meet you, Helena. Are you at all interested in Milton’s other works — his prose pieces that deal directly with religion, social life and polity? The literature of the English Revolution, and slightly before and after, is a particular favourite of mine in the whole “how has religion shaped our reality?” spectrum.

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    2. But as a footnote to this, doesn’t Milton also assert that Satan’s fall and mankind’s lapse were all inevitable, as indeed the omniscient god knew it was? I always thought that little insistence gave the Miltonian god an aura of egoistic indifference to his creations — knowing their fate, yet not helping them avert it. One might, of course, argue that even god could not interfere with the scheme of things, but that would be a fallacy in this context, since Milton’s god is, along with omniscient, also omnipotent.

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  4. I care about the holocaust, so the argument that God doesn’t because he only sees people as individuals will not sway someone like me. So that’s millions of individual acts of evil that he failed to prevent? Oh yes, that makes it MUCH better. Now I can sleep at night.

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    1. The post isn’t aimed at converting anybody to anything, as I said. People should be free to uphold any system of beliefs. I’m just explaining what mine is.

      I also want to remind everybody that in the Christian way of thinking death is not a tragedy and suffering isn’t punishment. And evaluation of other people’s lives in a religious perspective is unacceptable.

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  5. Clarissa, as a Hindu who went to a Christian school and studied Christianity, I applaud your effort to reconstruct anti-Christian rhetoric, but I don’t think the individual/collective argument particularly holds.

    The Old Testament, certainly, is all about a community/nation of a chosen few. The New Testament promotes a more personal relationship with god — forbidding showy public prayer et al — but even more, it promotes a behavioural code for the populace, tries to construct a better, more equitable society. The god may have been personalised and made more mellow, but point of his existence is still to build a community.

    Even much later, when the personal, unmediated relationship with god became the cornerstone of a new Christian revolution, it was still a deeply political movement, aimed at restructuring society by removing perceived ungodly ills. So I’d say the role of god has been always been that of the social glue, to hold together large numbers of people — who may have individual relationships with him — with a common set of rules inspired by his holy ideal. To overlook one for the other doesn’t quite capture the essence of Christianity.

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  6. I do enjoy Milton’s prose, especially for how snide he can be in the middle of all his erudition, though I always seem to find there’s a learning curve almost every time I pick it up, as I have to get my brain in a position to parse his weirdo syntax.

    From a perspective less astonishingly Puritan than Milton’s, the God he envisions definitely seems to lack in affection or even presence. He claimed that God, who is omnipotent, could but did not intervene directly in human affairs, because (a) that would defeat the purpose of having created free rational agents, and in consequence (b) after the Fall, divine intervention to prevent catastrophe could do nothing to redeem humanity for our original disobedience and selfishness. That redemption relied upon (a) the willingness of humans to interpret Scripture rationally and “correctly” (which requires a whole lot of philosophical and theological study) and by following it know what God wills of us and do that, and (b) the heroic sacrifice of the Son of God on humankind’s behalf, in which He became human in order to prepare the rest of the race to follow him back to Paradise. The very possibility of disobedient free agents to be redeemed is supposed to show God’s ultimate love and mercy. As for the Fall being inevitable, that is true, but only from God’s perspective and in human hindsight. Milton’s God, being eternal, sees all creation at once, not as an unfolding sequence but as if all time and space were laid out on a table for Him to view in totality. Think about that long enough and it’s like to make your ears bleed.

    Anyway sorry to babble on. Besides being all hey-looka-me-I-done-read-Milton, I think I’d hoped to show that the argument Clarissa quoted against Christianity is not only lazy and smug but it’s had its answers for hundreds of years. Incidentally, Clarissa, what you’ve said about God not being a social scientist is actually pretty Miltonian. Because God is eternal it’s quite true that “groups, nations, etc.” do not exist for Him. Rather, God reveals Himself to each individual, and that it is each individual’s responsibility to reason oneself closer to God, and not to blame God for bad shit that happens.

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      1. You’re absolutely delightful 🙂

        And as a sci-fi fan, the temporal aspect is another reason why the Paradise Lost fascinates me so much. He spoke of living outside time et al before sci-fi and comics made it something all the cool kids knew. Plus, there is that instance of heavenly sliding doors — I know forget exactly where it is in the text, but it does give the impression tech. fantasies in lit. are not as new as we tend to think 🙂

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      1. Good luck! He was also pretty (what we might now call) feminist for his time, since he argued that men and women were equally rational agents (although women were still subordinate to men…he could only go so far back in the day). His poetry’s much easier than his prose, IMO. Here’s the opening sentence from one of his most famous tracts, just so you know what you’re up against.

        “They who to states and governors of the Commonwealth direct their speech, High Court of Parliament, or, wanting such access in a private condition, write that which they foresee may advance the public good; I suppose them, as at the beginning of no mean endeavor, not a little altered and moved inwardly in their minds: some with doubt of what will be the success, others with fear of what will be the censure; some with hope, others with confidence of what they have to speak.”

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            1. Well I will admit that he was incredibly full of himself and that he thought God loved England best, so if you do venture into his corpus be prepared for a lot of talk about himself and how awesome England is.

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              1. But it is totally awesome, so he’s right. 🙂

                I only visited once, a long time ago, but what a cool place! The only problem was that people seemed to eat very little, and I was constantly starved. 🙂

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