Forgetting What It Feels Like…

I became a Christian when I was around 7 years old. It was at a summer camp for elementary schoolers. I wasn’t quite old enough to attend the camp, but my parents were part of the staff. I remember sitting around a campfire with a few dozen other kids singing songs and hearing stories about Jesus. The night ended with the typical “altar call,” one of many during the week I’m sure. It represented the culmination of the week’s efforts and the ultimate reason a group of adults would take kids out into the wilderness: to accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior.

This was no Jesus Camp, but there were certainly heavy doses of emotional “encouragement” involved. A beautiful outdoor night, a warm fire, soft music playing in the background, a heartfelt narrative about how we were probably feeling guilty for all the sinful things we had done in our lives and how great it was that a Jewish carpenter turned deity was able to take care of all that. It is acceptable to manipulate the variables to “help” impressionable, malleable children draw a particular conclusion—that they need to give their hearts to Jesus—when it is something Christians approve of, that affirms their own worldview. Further, when a child, unable to vote, drive, or make any other significant decisions by him or herself, makes what is supposed to be the most important decision of his or her life, this is presumed to be wholly autonomous and respectable, whereas nearly any other decisions made by a child at this point are likely to be dismissed as the product of immaturity.

In any case, I was feeling sufficiently guilty and emotionally depleted. After most of the kids had left, I remained at the campfire and a few leaders led me through the ‘Sinner’s Prayer.’ I was emotionally relieved at not having to carry around the burden of my own sins anymore. Of course, having grown up as a pastor’s kid, nothing much really changed. In the scope of things, I was a pretty good kid, and I already was at church Sundays, Wednesdays, and other times in between. But I’d gained two things: freedom from sin, and an eternal guarantee.

I remained a committed Christian for over twenty years. One of the things I find interesting about my exit from religion was that it was not nearly so dramatic. Of course, conversion is made instantaneous, at least in evangelical Christian circles, by the narratives we use to accompany it, ones that seem to emphasize the power of God to change people immediately, if only they are willing. Maybe it is God’s reluctance to let go, then, that marks the process of deconversion. Looking back, I can see at least a yearlong process of exiting from the faith, and if I consider all the variables involved, it was probably more like four years.

What surprises me now is that, several years removed, I am forgetting what it felt like to be a Christian. Those outside Christianity typically critique it for its logical contradictions or its collateral damage, but the advantage of the former Christian is that they lived the religion. As many evangelical Christians note, it is not a set of doctrine or dogma—at least not just these things—but a relationship. Misunderstanding the sincerity of this belief is understandable, if one has not experienced it, but it should be taken seriously, no matter how wrongheaded it ultimately is.

When encountering religious obstinance, over same-sex marriage for example, I increasingly find myself to willing to dismiss it as ridiculousness or hardheadedness. This may be the external result, but it also maintains the internally coherent worldview for many Christians. When a Biblical literalist notes that ignoring Scripture in one place means the entirety of Scripture is threatened, he or she is not making an argument about interpretation, but about the foundation of his or her existence. It is saying, “my world may crumble if I accept that change, and I’m not willing to take that risk.”

To a certain extent, that is true. The world as I knew it did crumble when I left the faith, but not in apocalyptic fashion. It was more like a building that, damaged through significant storms and left unprepared, gradually weathered to decrepitude and ultimately collapsed under its own weight. I don’t think the debris will ever get completely cleaned up, but it no longer serves a functional purpose.


Christians Make the Best Politicians

I watched a clip from Real Time with Bill Maher last night that featured the Reverend Jim Wallis. Maher tried to get Wallis to say that the Bible was ridiculously contradictory, and Wallis ignored the questions and emphasized how Jesus was the true hermeneutic for Christianity and that there are 2000 verses about the poor in the Bible. Maher looked like his tendentious self, and Wallis made it clear without words that he ignores much of the Christian tradition in order to further his aims.Screen Shot 2013-07-28 at 2.29.37 PM

There are some similarities between this dialogue and Cornel West’s critique of Obama last week. Yes, I understand that the President is a much more powerful person and is an elected official, but the similarities are based on—to use Bill Maher’s fairly crude analogy—how many turds you’re willing to allow in the pool and still swim in it. Maher’s take is that if there are any, you don’t swim. Yet that’s not a position most people take, unless they have absolutely no vested interest in the pool. Maher obviously doesn’t have any interest in Christianity, at least none that he knows of, whereas Wallis—and if you believe the polls, most of America—clearly does. So how dirty is the pool really?

Wallis suggested toward the end of the interview that all the significant recent social justice movements have involved people of faith. Maher reluctantly agreed, and then quipped, “So why can’t we have the good stuff without the bad stuff?” While I don’t think all significant social movements have been spearheaded by people of faith, it would be ignorant to claim that people of faith haven’t been crucially involved in many of them. That is obviously the part of faith that Wallis wants to hang on to, the part that  motivates him and others to do “good” in the world.

So the question is, can we afford not to have a candid conversation about the “bad stuff” too? Wallis knows the political climate is such that he cannot be forthright about Christianity’s many failings without alienating a good portion of his constituency from the social justice work he is trying to do. I would argue that whatever good Wallis comes from Christianity is actually coming from himself, and he is finding himself, his motivation, through the foil of Christianity. Of course he would disagree. But in any other enterprise, if a product were designed to bring about the results Wallis says it is and failed per capita at such a high rate, it would be abandoned, or at least drastically modified.

In other words, if Christianity is designed to bring social justice to the world—setting aside for a moment the vast range of meaning in that phrase—and the majority of Christians who have lived have done little to nothing to advance the cause of social justice, why maintain it? Of course, it is not so easy as to simply discard one of the most historically significant ideologies of human history. My point is that although Wallis is pushing social justice Christianity, that is not the only reason he is a Christian. If it were, then maintaining his position would make no sense. We should therefore, look past his single-issue promotion of the tradition.

Wallis would point, as many do, to the great people of the tradition who have done disproportionally great things. Is it more logical, then, to suggest that these few are the only ones who really understand what’s going on with Christianity, or that their uniqueness and impact must be understood in other terms apart from their religious devotion?

Reza Aslan—a UCSB alum like myself—was part of the panel on Real TIme as well, and he attempted to mediate Maher’s critique of the Bible by suggesting that all readers interpret the Biblical text in some way, so no one is actually a literalist when it comes to the Bible. This was in response to Maher’s comment that fundamentalists aren’t fringe religious participants; they just read the Bible literally. Aslan’s comment, while very scholarly, evidences his lack of stake in the issue by missing the point. He is correct that interpretation is key, but as I have noted before, that interpretation is socially circumscribed. What this means is that it begins to strain credibility to ignore or allegorize, for example, God’s approval of mass murder on multiple occasions in the Old Testament.

However, like Obama, Wallis is too invested to commit political suicide by being completely honest about the myriad contradictions in his position. He won’t outright deny them, but he won’t admit them either. Is that the most morally pure position? No. But it is likely a more fruitful one than the one his opponents, including myself, would like him to take. I guess I’m suggesting there’s more value for the rest of us in working to change that political climate than directing attacks at important leaders for not living up to our ideals.

I would be intrigued to see someone be as committed as Wallis, who seems to know how many questionable parts of the tradition there are, absolutely denounce those portions while still committing to the “good parts,” the Jesus-y parts that motivate many people. Could such a person gain any traction? I don’t know. Anyone who tries to change the world from a religious worldview is doing so for a couple possible reasons. First and foremost, they have had personal experience with it. Second, they recognize the power of religious symbols and institutions. Thus, few of those people see the benefit of nitpicking the traditions they are relying on to spread their message. That is left to those who don’t have any significant investment.

So who is going to move? Will those who see no value in religion acknowledge the good that has been done from religiously motivated people and work to maximize the effect of those? Will religious folk openly denounce the many dirty and embarrassing parts of the Christian tradition and reject those in the hope of getting buy-in from nonreligious folks? Or is the best approach the status quo, an all-or-nothing where things are emphasized or deemphasized, hidden or exposed, but the structure remains the same?

From experience, I know that the most deeply held convictions can change, but what is beyond is unknown until experienced. Our identities are fragile, and our self-understanding about what parts are important is fairly inaccurate, I suspect. Nobody likes a politician, but we’re all politicians.


Religion and Science: Which is Oil and Which is Water?

Religion and science are domains that don’t mix well. The reasons these continue to be the parameters of the debate on religion in the public forum is baffling to me. I suppose one practical reason for this is that it brings out the extremes on both sides. Creationists  (many of whom believe Earth is only six thousand years old) use Neo-atheist denials of religion as proof that they are blinded to Truth, and Neo-atheists often use Creationists’ refusal to believe facts as evidence of their ignorance. It’s not surprising that warning scientists of damnation does no more to convince them than does browbeating Creationist Christians with archaeological evidence does to persuade them. The rest of us in the middle are led to believe we must choose one or the other.

There’s a clip I often show in religion classes when I’m talking about textual interpretation that usually segues nicely into a nuanced discussion about ways to interpret text, but it also addresses the religion versus science debate:

Religulous is a funny movie, but it is also a painful movie. Since those segments of the population who are the subjects of the film are not going to be watching it in any large numbers, we who watch are either already convinced of the insufficiency of religion, or consider ourselves more religiously enlightened than those depicted in the film. The juxtaposition of the Catholic scientist and Biblical Creationist Ken Ham sets us up to root for the scientist. His agreeable nature seems refreshing. A Catholic priest in another portion of the film even scoffs at the idea that other Bible stories such as the virgin birth might be literally true.Yet for hundreds of years it was the Catholic Church that denied evidence of material reality when it contradicted Scripture, so they are relatively new to this role.

One can see a certain systemic logic to Ham’s approach. If one accepts the premise that the Bible must all be true to be at all true, then it seems one must advocate for the creation story in a literal sense. It provides a good example of the logical consequence of holding strictly to one method of interpretation to find truth. Of course, no holds a strictly literal interpretation of the Bible, or else we would still be wringing birds’ necks for atonement and making women sleep outside every month to avoid contamination. Biblical literalism is, so far as I know, nonexistent. (On the other hand, the word “literal” in common speech has become essentially its opposite. If I hear, “Whoa. I literally almost died” while walking on a college campus, what I am to understand is “I almost died in the most figurative sense of the word.” But I digress…) Reading Ken Ham’s blog, though, you will notice quickly that the motivating factor behind his claims is fear of the complete loss of morality without God giving us moral standards. As we know, this is a common reason for a normative interpretation of Christianity. Until I left the church and my standards didn’t disappear, I thought that their primary support was my Christianity too. The idea simply ignores history, not to mention the millions around us who live moral lives.

If one were to make the claim that it is better for the church to adapt to a scientific culture, as Catholicism and some other mainline denominations have, rather than insist upon direct contradiction of the evidence of the scientific community, I might agree with you. These organizations have been around long enough to see that certain advancements in science will not be going away anytime soon, and have adjusted to accommodate them. However, there are other areas where they are as intransigent as they have ever been (homosexuality, gender roles, abortion, etc.).

I understand that there are some political decisions involved when one sees discrepancies with religion. I went through phases from questioning believer to disgruntled believer to cool, on-the-fringe, not-like-you believer, to non-practicing believer, to cool enlightened agnostic, to unbeliever (at least so far as the dogma of Christianity is concerned). However, I know of others who have taken the role of reforming-from-within. One example would be Roy Bourgeois, a recently defrocked Catholic priest who has long advocated against the US training of foreign soldiers to commit massacres against their own populations. The Church did not speak out on this, but when he in recent years showed his support for women in the priesthood, it began a process that ended in his removal from a position of authority in the Church. He continues to push for reform. I know of other theologians who are attempting to radicalize Christianity theologically and philosophically while remaining firmly within its bounds. The question we have had to answer is, “What is the best way to get my message out and make change?” There is not a correct answer to that question.

The point I am trying to make is that I am concerned about those who use (or advocate use of) science as an exit point from religion. The domains have some overlap, but are largely exclusive. Each reigns supreme within its bounds; the problems come when they try to legislate outside their borders. When, for example, religion claims to have the last word on global warming, we should be as concerned as when science discovers the key to happiness. (Yes, I know religion doesn’t have the keys to happiness, but neither is science presenting a unified front on global warming.) I don’t know of many converts from science to religion, but I know of some who cite a form of scientific knowledge as a motivating reason for deconversion. If held loosely as a method of skeptically examining reality and choosing the best (not right) course of action, the scientific method is a valuable tool, but used as the hermeneutic key to reality with the optimistic hope that it will someday unlock all the world’s secrets, science functions much the same as religion. Neither is the Wal-Mart Super Store of answers.