01/20/13

And We Created God in Our Image…

What if humanity was not made in the image of God, as Genesis tells the reader, but God was made in the image of man? I was confronted with this question by the first thinker I read who directly challenged the “truth” of Christianity. Now it is commonplace in evangelical Christianity to highlight the difference between man-made and God-made elements of religion. There are postmodern theologians who do this so well I can’t even tell what it is they are still hanging on to, or why they continue to use Christianity as a life narrative (I’m thinking of some aspects of the Emerging Church movement here, and this is the camp I identified with for a couple years). Even within broader evangelical circles, though, it has become easy for the postmodern Christian to dismiss long-standing ritual aspects of Christianity or traditional stances on political hot-button issues, declaring them to be concerns of man and not God. This has more to do with contemporary cultural trends than actual study of Christian history or the Bible.

Discerning between authentic religion and historical accretions is not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about the core, God himself. If it were the case that theology was anthropology, that the study of God was actually the study of man, how would this have happened? (You’ll notice the gendered language here that passes unnoticed more often than not in religious circles. It seems much more important to me to draw attention to the strongly patriarchal orientation of Judaism and Christianity by maintaining the use of masculine pronouns for God and humanity than softening the blow with gender-inclusive terms.) In this paradigm, man exists and becomes aware of his existence. With the knowledge of that existence, he also becomes aware of its finite nature; in other words, he was born, and he will die, without exception. He sees the limitations and possibilities within himself compared to others. Some are stronger, some weaker. Some are more intelligent, some…not so much. Within that social environment, man sees the potential for what he can be. He envisions the ideal, the potential of the maximization of all these variable qualities that make him up. This ideal provides both a goal and an image for self-reflection, because the ideal is a perfected image of himself. It negates or minimizes the limitations of finiteness.

In the founding of any great institution, however, the arbitrary nature of its foundation, the fact that its principles are unjustifiable in any universal sense, is erased. So the anthropological connection between God and society is lost, and when the individual contemplates the ideal, he thinks himself to be contemplating something wholly other. Rather than thinking of God as the perfection of all the qualities of humanity, he thinks of God as the opposite of himself. He is all-knowing, my knowledge is finite. He is perfect, I am imperfect. He benches infinity, I can only bench 225. In contemplation on God, then, the individual can feel reinvigorated, imbued with a sense of value or self-worth, or ashamed of the discrepancies between himself and God.

Ludwig Feuerbach wrote the Essence of Christianity in 1841 at the age of 37, where he expounded these ideas, explaining Christianity (the only significant religion on his radar at the time) as a mirror of the ideals of mankind. Man, he claims, needs an object, and those we revere in history devoted their lives to the realization of that object, which in all cases was an objectification of their own natures. For most, however, to know God and know him as other is a source of disunity, causing unhappiness. Feuerbach’s aim was thus that we should uncover the mask under which we separate the idealization of man and pursue it directly, not as theology, but as anthropology.

There is much more to Feuerbach’s work, as he engages many of the major theoretical and ritual aspects of Christianity to test his general theory. I will return to some of these later. However, it is worth noting that even if one refuses the idea that God could be created in the image of man and concludes that God must exist, the practical result is much the same. We engage in a continual project of reconstruction, driven by the influences of our social and cultural environment, to maintain an image of what this wholly other divinity is like. The emotional significance, the emotional “proof” of divinity, is far more influential than its lack of verification. In other religious traditions, different deities exist for different functions. Consult Mars for war, and Venus for love. In Christianity, God must take all those qualities on himself. You will notice how the god of a particular denomination strongly reflects the group who worships him. The god of Pat Robertson or Fred Phelps keeps score and kicks ass. The god of others is more flowers and puppy dogs. Are they the same god, different gods…or creations of God in our own image?

01/7/13

Deconversion: The Turning Point

“Well, I realized that the question of whether or not Jesus was divine wouldn’t change the way I live my day-to-day existence.”

I was sitting at the local coffee shop with the pastor of the church I had attended for nearly three years. I had been dropping hints that I was experiencing some significant shifts in my “Jesus paradigm” (in his words), and he wanted to meet and talk about it. I was on the church leadership team, after all, and led worship at least once a month, and helped set up and tear down the sound system nearly every week in the elementary school cafeteria where the church met.

It was a calculated response. I could have responded to the, “So, where are you at?” question in many different ways. But my response was sincere and I thought it would be the clearest and most concise way to convey my thoughts. He was unprepared for my answer. He probably expected me to say something like, “I think Jesus actually was more concerned with the poor than the rich” or “I think Jesus might have been pacifist.” The surprise on his face at my response would have been humorous were it not such a serious moment for both of us. Overall, though, I was relieved. It was the beginning of the end of one phase of my life, and the start of another, though I didn’t realize the full ramifications of it at the time.

As the conversation continued, it was clear that he and I were now in completely different worlds. At one point, when I turned the conversation around and asked him why the same question mattered to him, I knew he could give any number of responses. He blurted out in astonishment, “Because He conquered death!” Why would I want to disregard the fact that because of Jesus, I get to spend eternity in heaven? If I stayed in the club, death would have no effect on me. And the only way that could work was if Jesus was divine, because that’s how God made the rules. The fact that continuing to believe in a Christian heaven while disavowing the only way to get there would be an untenable position was temporarily lost on him. In any case, my concept of heaven had departed long before the divine Jesus did.

I can’t remember how exactly the conversation ended, but he promised we would speak again soon. A lot of changes took place in the ensuing weeks. He took me off the leadership team and the worship team, but I continued to attend the church with my family (and run the sound board and help set up and tear down, because presumably I could not directly corrupt others in the church in those positions—and there weren’t enough people to do them).

A couple months later, though, I received a phone call from the pastor just “checking in.” He asked me in a roundabout way whether I was planning to continue attending the church for much longer. I had still been figuring things out. More than that, I didn’t want to jump ship at the first sign of trouble as I had seen and heard so many other church members do in my lifetime.

“Here’s the thing,” he said. “When I’m up there speaking, and I see you out in the audience, and I know where you’re at, it makes it hard for me to do my job.”

I was both surprised and a bit amused at that point. “Well, if you tell me not to come any more, I won’t come,” I replied.

“No, no, no. I’m not going to bite the bullet for you. You have to make that decision on your own.”

Why did you call then?, I wondered. “I’ll think about it.”

“Matt, I just want you to know, I love you man. I want the best for you and your family.”

“Thanks.” I never went back to the church again.

I ran into him a few times in the following months. Before, I’d helped him move, helped friends craft a video for his anniversary, attended his father’s funeral, and gone to a movie with him. After, though, it was just pleasantries. The love was lost, I guess. The church only lasted for about six more months after we and another important family stopped attending. I never found out just how significant our departure was in the death of the church, but in my more vain moments, I guessed it was significant. Anyway, he moved to lead a much larger church in a much larger area. I’d helped him go back to his roots. At one point in my informal excommunication process, he’d told me, “I thought I was pretty progressive, but you’ve helped me realize I’m a fundie [fundamentalist]!” I didn’t know what I was, but I wasn’t comfortable being a Christian anymore.

Of course, much more went into my process of deconversion, just as much more goes into conversion than being knocked off a donkey by the voice of God, but when you look back, you identify a turning point. This was mine.