Posts Tagged ‘evangelical’

While I was editing some writing at a coffee shop a few days ago, one of the employees asked me what I was writing.  I replied that I was writing on Augustine.  He was very interested.  Well, last night his pastor stopped by to give him something.  Introductions were made and before I knew it the pastor and I were discussing religion.  He is an evangelical Christian and I view religious faith as an inherently personal matter.  I told the pastor that public utterances (and collective displays) seem to me to be at the surface, and therefore distorted manifestions of what is really much deeper (i.e., the soul’s relationship to God).  I told him that I thought there is much to much certainty regarding what people think they know about God (as evinced by stating the creeds as if they refer to known facts).  I even said I thought it rather presumptuous what people tend to assume they know about God (and then try to impose on others).  Well, as you might expect, this didn’t stop him from doing just that.  The manipulation (and self-absorption) was palpable.  I was astonished that even after I had made my statements he went ahead undaunted.   I felt disrespected (and ignored…or disregarded).  It was all about getting me to come to his church.  All about him.  Of course it was for God, of whom the pastor knows very well.   All I could do was let him speak; I had already decided that would be the last substantive discussion I would have with him.  I was left with a sense of the sheer presumptuousness and how blind the guy was to it…even as he presumed to know God with so much certainty.  Ironic to say the least.

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In Enchiridion (ch. 31, sec. 117), Augustine avers that “he who does not love believes in vain, even though the objects of his belief be true.”   For example, one can believe in the immortality of the soul, and this belief may correspond with there being such a thing as an afterlife, but unless one loves one’s neighbors–including one’s enemies–having the belief comes to naught in terms of going to heaven. 

I won’t belabour the point by pointing to noted Christians in history who have treated their neighbors with less than love.  The four popes of the crusades, for example, didn’t exactly love the eastern Christians in Constantinople and the Muslims in Jersualem.   When the crusading army entered Jersualem, it killed virtually all of the locals (whereas when the Muslems took back the city, they did not).    Unfortunately, when someone is charged with hypocrisy, he or she may lapse into rationalizations.   In general terms, a Christian might argue that tough love involves looking out for the other’s best interest even when the other objects.  Like the parent who takes the child for  a vacination, the Christian might view himself as actng to save the other’s soul over the objections of the other.  Burning witches, for example, could be said to purify their souls.   Love for the witch would be evinced in the concern for her immortal soul–freeing it from the cupidity of a sordid earthly existence. 

Such a rationale is problematic for a variety of reasons.  First, it involves a degree of presumption that goes beyond what being human can justify.  The Puritans of Salem who burnt witches can’t know for sure that burning them would purify their souls.  Moreover, acting on the basis of what one thinks is in the interest of another person’s immortal soul presumes that that one knows that interest.  Second, such actions as harm the person in this life cannot point to any precedents in Jesus’ example.  Indeed, acting to harm another is antipodal to Jesus’ example of compassion as consistent with the person’s well-being in this life.   Third, it is too tempting for human nature to throw a stone for any of us to be able to distinguish acting in the interest of another’s immortal soul from acting in anger or resentment. 

So the rationale doesn’t work.  It doesn’t matter if what you believe corresponds to something in reality; if you judge others on the basis of your belief and presume to override their contrary beliefs–imposing harm on them rather than having compassion and doing as they ask–your belief doesn’t matter.  If you pester another person to get them to be saved, you will lose your own salvation.  Having your believe in Jesus will be like confederate currency when you try to pay your way into heaven; you will be turned away.   Of course, whether there is such a gate, much less an afterlife, is a matter beyond my kin, so I use the example only to make a point.  Believing in Jesus can be your final obstruction to a salvific religious experience if you are not compassionate rather than judgemental.  

The parent/child “I know better than you what you need” rationale is extremely dangerous.  The problem here is that it can apply, though I would argue only within the realm of this world.  If someone unknowingly is about to fall off a cliff because they want to drive drunk in California, another person should stop him even above his objections.  The ends-justify-the-means rationale is problematic where the well-being is presumed to pertain to the other person’s after-life at the expense of one’s life here.  The problem is the nature of the belief in what is necessary for salvation.  But even if it were possible for a human being to know what is necessary for it, not acting in compassion in terms of this life effectively nullifies your having the belief even if your belief is true.  

Presumption is puffed up, whereas humility is amenable to compassion, which is neighbor love being realized in practice.   As Paul writes, love is greater than faith and hope (I Cor. 13:13).  The end of God’s precepts is love because God is love (Rom. 13:10; 1 John 4:16).   Consider the distance between burning someone and lying down one’s  life for him or her(see John 15:13).  

It is interesting how the very people who insist that Jesus’ resurrection must be taken literally are apt to view John 15:13) as somehow metaphorical or figurative…as though satisfied by or standing for any small sacrifice.  Speaking directly to such people: you desire for such convenience undoes all of the importance you place in holding your belief that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and that salvation requires a personal relationship with Jesus.  Yet in your presumption you conveniently blow off this possibility. 

How far the insiders are from what they claim to adore…and how close those they label as  outsiders!  This is a major theme in Mark, where the strangers “get it” while the disciples continually miss the point.  The last are in fact first, and the first are far behind–looking down on the rest of us.  I don’t view myself as in either party, but somewhere in the middle, shaking my head in utter contempt for the puffed up self-proclaimed Christians who show but little love for others.  Meanwhile, I see the outsiders “getting it” but not knowing it, and I want to wink at them so they might take their rightful places and see the hubris in the front row–those whose feet are typically washed on Holy Thursday by the so-called servants of Christ (i.e., insiders washing insides, a form of incest).   How can such clean feet have such bad smell?  The clean are dirty, and the dirty clean. Now here is the point–have compassion on both, not just for the dirty!  It is the clean, rather than the dirty, who are most naturally constituted to be the enemy.  While it may be tempting to burn the clean to put them out of their misery, such behavior cannot be rationalized, at least by the teachings and example of Jesus.  So it is not enough to love the dirty; one must love not only where it is not convenient–one must go on to love one’s enemies…or one’s Christian belief makes no difference even if it is true.  

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Hanna Rosin has written a piece called, “Did Christianity cause the crisis?” in The Atlantic (vol. 304, issue 5, pp. 38-48).  She describes the current prosperity gospel, which, it seems, contributed to the sub-prime mortgage collapse and ensuing financial crisis.  Unhinged from their economic realities, many evangelical Christians who had hitherto only been able to rent decided to go for huge houses because “nothing is impossible with God,” and “God makes the true believers wealthy.”  These Christians could cite 2 John 2: “I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health.”  Unlike the Christian emphasis on virtues such as self-discipline and industriousness that characterized the evangelical titans of the Gilded Age such as John D. Rockefeller, the modern evangelical relies on grace as a kind of spiritual luck applying to risky financial activities.  Little attention was paid to the predatory mortgage-lending industry, which would make contributions to the megachurches for each congregant who signed up for a sub-prime.  Hence pastors preached the believer’s right to the good life as if Jesus had been a friend of money (ignoring what he did to the money-changers).   In any case, the irrational exuberance of the housing bubble may have had in it a component of irrationalism from religion–people taking leave of their senses (and their responsibilities) and being utterly blind to it under the subterfuge of a divine sanction. 

Stepping back to grasp the phenomenon from the perspective of the religion, it strikes me that the too close a friendship between Christianity and the good life eviscerates the distance between the faith and the world.  In other words, the Kingdom of God penetrates the world rather than acts as a check or alternative.  No longer are the last first and the first, last.  No longer is there an eye of the needle for the camel–rather, the doors are wide open.  And no longer must the rich man walk away from his treasure to follow Jesus.   God and mammon effectively fuse,  adding power to self-centeredness by clothing it in gilded robes.   This is particularly evident in the preachers–the scandals alone, such as that of Jim and Tami, attest that something has been amiss.   In other words, there is something downright odd about a minister or pastor living in luxury: Christianity become too convenient for its own good. 

Stepping back even further: Is it inevitable that a religion goes through a life-cycle of sorts during which it becomes decreasingly distinct and increasingly feckless vis a vis the world?   If so, are we witnessing perhaps the final centuries of Christianity?

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This morning, I read the introduction of Karen Armstrong’s A Case for God.  I had seen her on a talk show last night.  Her basic argument is that the modern advocates or apologists of the dominant faiths in the West (e.g., Judaism, Christianity and Islam) suffer from an “unskillful” practice.   She claims that the scientific tenor of Western society since the 1600s has transformed the approaches to religion to stress cognition (i.e., belief) and rationality in way that renders religious narrative, or myth, as reduceable to a factual and historical basis.  For example, did the historical Jesus really walk around after he had been crucified?  Was he really a poor carpenter?  Was Mary a virgin physiologically?  The historical German method of interpreting the Bible led the way in this line of hermaneutics, but the twentieth-century fundamentalism (e.g., evangelicalism) was not far behind with its literalness.  

In contrast to the dominant modern rendering of religion in terms of cognitive belief affirmations of fact and historical literalness, Armstrong claims that religion is about practice.  Such praxis, she  maintains, is geared to compassionate (i.e., feeling with) humility.  Although she claims that all religions aim at this practical goal, it is so close to Jesus’ teachings and example that she might be projecting a Christianity-based understanding onto religion itself.   Also, in practically reducing religion to practice, she may be reacting against another extreme (the cognitive-literal approach).  In other words, her rendering could be viewed as partial rather than synopic.   For instance, she claims that the metaphysical claims in a religion should be read as that the ethical practices have meaning.   In my view, she comes very close to reducing religion to ethics, which is something liberal Protestantism has been criticized for doing.   Take, for example, “God is love.”   I interpret this as teaching that love is the source or basis of existence.  Even though our acts of love (and feelings!…which Armstrong also discounts relative to conduct) involve “God is love” being actualized, there is also the sense irrespective of one’s conduct that existence itself is love.  I take the transcendent wisdom of the latter to be just as important as conduct in religious terms.  

I take religion to be a multifaceted phenomenon that does not reduce to practice or creedal belief.  Even though Armstrong may come up short in this respect, she makes an excellent point that the modern understanding of religion is presumptuous (e.g., assuming we know more about God than we are entitled as finite beings to be able to know) and ahistoric.   On the latter, she means that we have not sufficiently studied ancient and medieval interpretations that would place our modern cognitive and literal approach in relief as rather narrow and, indeed, out of sorts with the nature of religion.   That is to say, if faith is not primarily about cognition or empirical knowledge of past events or persons (e.g., Moses, Jesus or Mohammad), then the dominant modern approach is “unskillful” or misplaced.  It is ironic that moderns who may be so far off would presume to know so much about God, citing revelation.   Of course, even perfect revelation would have to make its way through our own limited and imperfect eyes or ears, and neuropathways/rationality.   Especially where a religion is reduced to its cognitive factfulness and empirical truth, our own limitations become quite salient.  

I must admit I have been astounded (and frustrated) at the presumptuousness evinced by finite human beings who assume that the perfection of revelation runs perfectly through them as if they were innert permeable membranes rather than filters.  In actuality, if the revelation was written without cognitive affirmation or literalness being assumed throughout, a “believer” who reads scripture in such terms could be distorting it without realizing it because of ignorance of the writers’ perspective.   Of course, jthe fact that someone had to write down the revelation makes it difficult to maintain that the revelation itself is perfect.  That someone taking himself to be a believer would not only assume that he has the truth but also seek to actively impose it on another human being with different beliefs is a rather emetic phenomenon.  It is a package built on stilts…yet presumes it can run!   That one human being would say to another, “No, your faith is wrong…Here’s mine…it is true” reminds me of self-idolatry (i.e., taking oneself to be God, or reducing God to a projection of oneself). 

 Observing the modern context of presumptuousness even as religion is understood and portrayed so differently than it has been understood historically, I wonder if the problems discussed by Armstrong are remeable.    Can arrogance and presumption designed to bypass human critique by being based on God’s revelation be rectified by humans?  It seems to me that the tools brought to bear on this problem would simply be dismissed–which is part and parcel of arrogant presumption.   It could be that the only efficacious correction possible would have to come from within the “unskilled” themselves.  This would involve a person recognizing and coming to terms with his or her own presumption as presumption.   It may be far more likely that an approach to religion in line with the nature of religion will have to wait for a new epoch–perhaps one less enamored with rationality and empirical truth (i.e., “Just the facts”).  

The attempts in the twentieth century to reduce religion to terms extrinsic to the nature of the phenomenon may be a symption of a broader societal decadence (which includes arrogant presumption, ironically).   If I am correct in my thesis here, the old saying “You can’t fight ignorance” would be relevant.  When confronted with an arrogant and ignorant person, I suppose all we can do is remember our own limitations and try to be compassionate.   The nexus of arrogance and ignorance issuing in presumptuous claims may simply be the front gard of a suffering and insecure person.   Reducing him or her to the shock wherein his or her faith turns against itself and freezes up may be deserved, but it would hardly be compassionate.

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Awhile back, I got snagged into going to a bible study.  I contained myself…even participating in a way that impressed the members of the group.  I was really surprised, however, when the study leader said, “Now, this the the correct interpretation.”  Of course it was his interpretation.  To my reckoning, an interpretation cannot, by definition, be true.   It would be like saying “the sky looks beautiful today” was a fact.  The emphasis of the evening was on the raison d’etre of the Old Testament being to point to the coming of Jesus.   Substantively, the group leader gave the definition of Christ when defining Messiah (the Messiah is not the annointed one).  I realize that formal education is not–and should not–be a prereq for the ministry, but if a minister is going to define terms he is obliged to get them correct.   

 One of my concerns regarding born-again Christians is that they stress a cognitive belief in Jesus’ identity and a personal relationship with Jesus so much that they can come off as hypocrits in how they relate with other people.   That is, they stress belief and personal relationship with jesus so much that they might tend to drop the ball in being generous with other people.  Absent a promise of attending the Christian’s church service or allowing the Christian help with one’s decision to accept Jesus and build a relationship with Him, the born-again Christian might be rather indifferent to the person’s requests for help.  The mix of presumptuousness and not being helpful to others is what I’m getting at here.  That a person could be so presumptuous in terms of what one knows of religious truth and yet so utterly clueless on how selfish and miserly one is in relating with other people…that is, how someone could be so clueless and yet presume so much…is a mystery to me.

In going to the bible study (which I was pressured into), I didn’t think I would convince anyone to adopt my beliefs; rather, once in the study I tried to take on their perspective and help them in their own terms.   In fact, I raised a question that assumed their belief system and led to interesting discussion among the participants.  Although not intended as such, my question led all of us to a paradox wherein an apparent logical contradiction need not invalidate our understanding of the divine because the latter transcends human reason.  The two apparently opposed stances on the same question suggested by two group members could both be valid, and this paradox need not invalidate the underlying truth. 

Indeed, the presence of paradox in a religious matter demonstrates the absurdity of “the correct interpretation.”   We, as human beings, are inherently limited–hence so are our cognitions and perceptions.  In having faith, the emphasis can be on the glancing out beyond…rather than on the nature of “the object” that inherently transcends the limits of human cognition and perception.  

My critique of born-again Christianity is that it is oriented to the nature of “the object”..an inherently presumptuous enterprise given human nature.  Relative to the divine, we are all human beings and therefore in the same condition.  For some of us to presume that our truth is superior to those of others is mere artifice and pretension.  Such artificial distinctions that benefit ourselves are in actuality projections of our egos.  We are all human beings.  Fundamentally, we are in the same sandbox when it comes to playing with God’s sand.   Let us not take our our castles for divine edifices.  We have only to wait for the next wave to discover the actual substance of our truths.  

To presume so much for ourselves…and to be so little.  Such is perhaps the human condition.   Yet surely it is not set in stone tablets.   Presumption, being of our own making, seems without our limited ability to eradicate.  The problem is: it can be like a hard wall when efforts are made by others to make it transparent. If a person can come to see his or her presumptuous, I believe he or she will want to shed it like an old coat.  But attachment to “truth” can be like a straight-jacket and thus resist any external or internal efforts to loosen its grip.  That none of us have a monopoly on truth means that our efforts to reduce human presumptuous are inherently compromised.  How can a compromised tool cut through a stone wall?   Even as they don’t seem to me to be inevitable, both the wall and the dull drill can be said to be part of the human condition.  I do believe, however, that the problem of presumptuousness in humanity’s approach to religion (and in general) can be solved, though the solution eludes me.  Tu be sure, it is a tough nut to crack.

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