Saturday, November 27, 2004

Are You a Christian?

I grew up in a household where the correctness of Christianity was a given. However, as I grew up, I began to realize that Christianity was many things to many people, and that many intelligent and thoughtful people entertained reasonable doubts about Christianity. Consequently, I began a lifelong quest to figure out what Christianity really was and whether I could in good conscience consider myself a Christian.

Like most people whom I knew growing up, my earliest attitudes about Christianity were informed not by deep reflection, but by the social norms that a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant male encounters while growing up in a middle class suburban neighborhood in Southern California. For all intents and purposes, this type of Christianity was simply a moral code of the common man, more or less bereft of all but the most common traditional Christian symbolism and rituals. Missing from this secular brand of Christianity were the conflicts that one typically finds between religion and science.

Growing up in Southern California, I experienced Christianity as a system of shared values through which I was socialized and schooled in the commonly accepted traditional notions of right and wrong. It wasn't until junior high school that I first realized that the Theory of Evolution had brought the validity of the Bible into question for many people in Western Culture, thus bringing the validity of Christianity into question for many people. Even so, the underlying assumption that Christianity was synonymous with morality remained more or less intact for me, and it took me a few more years to reach the point where I was prepared to perform a critical examination of my Christian faith.

As fate would have it, my parents enrolled me in a Lutheran high school when I entered the tenth grade, and getting a recommendation from my current pastor was part of the matriculation process. As a matter of course, getting such a recommendation involved attending church services on a regular basis for the first time in many years. Moreover, attending a Lutheran high school involved attending chapel services two mornings a week at school and religion classes virtually every day. None of these religious activities invoked a religious epiphany, but they did prompt me to ponder theological questions and think more about what Christianity really was.

Strangely enough, my first true religious epiphany came when I was reading a book by Erich Fromm entitled Man for Himself: An Inquiry in the Psychology of Ethics. Truth be told, it was not a single religious epiphany that I experienced, but a series of religious epiphanies brought about by Fromm's critical analysis of various moral value systems, what Fromm referred to as his "science of man." As a precursor to his science of man, Fromm offered his interpretation of the biblical story of Adam and Eve as an illustration of authoritarian ethics, an interpretation that gave me a template for the interpretation of scripture as Christian mythological allegory.

Before I encountered the work of Erich Fromm, I encountered an essay by Clarence Darrow entitled Why I Am an Agnostic. While I was greatly impressed by Clarence Darrow's essay, it left a huge gulf between the authoritarian values that had always been part of my Christian socialization process and the rational humanistic values that were advocated by Fromm. For me, Fromm's work provided a necessary intellectual bridge between these disparate value systems. Consequently, in lieu of simply rejecting traditional values, I was able to filter out the propaganda and find common moral ground with other people based upon reason and thoughtful reflection.

Equipped with the intellectual tools that Fromm's work gave me, I explored the Bible as a source of traditional Christian wisdom, and I found more questions than answers. To wit, I came to realize that even the most authoritative version of the Bible was incomplete, inaccurate, and controversial; I also came to realize that there were sources of Christian wisdom other than the Bible. Even so, notwithstanding all of the rational doubts that I entertained and still entertain about the Bible, I came to realize that the vast majority of people who consider themselves Christians consider the Bible to be a canonical authority on Christianity.

If there is a book in the Bible that informed my Christian values more than any other, it was the Book of Job, from the Old Testament. In a previous blog post entitled Why Does God Let Good People Suffer? I mentioned that whenever I encounter a self-described Christian, I ask them if they have read the Book of Job, and then I ask them for an explanation as to why an all powerful and benevolent God would allow Satan to persecute someone who was as virtuous and blameless as Job was. As I stated in that post, it is rare that I get a thoughtful or considered response.

By the time I get done discussing the Book of Job with the average self-described Christian, I can see that said Christian is going through an agonizing reappraisal of his or her Christian faith. With very few exceptions, such people are profoundly disturbed to find out that God gave Satan permission to persecute Job. In my humble opinion, this type of uncertainty is the beginning of true religious wisdom. I also believe that if people started their reading of the Bible with the Book of Job, they would continue reading it.

To be clear, I entertain rational doubts about the accuracy and completeness of the Bible, and I do not accept it as a canonical authority on the Christian faith. Rather, I see the Bible as a narrative exposition of Western Culture's constantly evolving understanding of the nature of God. To this end, I see Jesus Christ as a reformer of a vengeful legal code that is exemplified by the treatment that Job received at the hands of the prosecuting attorney known as Satan, and I believe that the only way to obtain salvation is for people to transcend the self-righteous lust for vengeance that is so common to people who call themselves Christians.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

but the Bible isn't western isn't it?
It is mostly Hebraic in origin.
-Paul Heherson M. Balite

8:30 PM, July 16, 2006  
Blogger Internet Esquire said...

Point very well taken. However, the early Christians who wrote the books found in the New Testament were part of the Roman Empire, which was clearly part of Western Culture.

8:55 PM, July 16, 2006  
Anonymous Tim (Random Observations) said...

I hate to point it out, but all Jews were part of the Roman empire. That location didn't automatically make them enthusiastic backers of all things Caesar.

You're also wrong when you try to link Roman culture at the time with "Western" as we think of it now. Roman culture was thoroughly pagan, not Western. Values we think of as "Western" -- opposition to lifetime slavery, the equality of souls outside of position, linking deity and morality (Roman gods were anything but moral), honoring mercy and charity, belief in the possibility of "progress" -- these are all Judeo-Christian values which stood in stark contrast with Roman/pagan ones.

Finally, on Job: I'm saddened but not surprised to find out that "self-described Christians" have never considered the story of Job. But I hear the same thing: A former Christian suddenly notices evil or suffering in the world (which they'd apparently never noticed before) and decides that a "good" God could never allow that. After fifteen or whatever years of being a Christian.

I wish people would think these questions through a bit, up front. They'd save themselves a lot of time. I mean, don't they believe in a God who allows his own son to die, quite painfully, due to nothing he's done wrong?

Personally, I'm not troubled. God tests everyone, morally, and that includes letting them experience pain. The story of Job is an extreme example which makes a mundane point: Who hasn't experienced pain? We either admit the universe is inherently immoral, or we try to argue that all pain must be a form of moral punishment (as Job's friends did, and as the doctrine of Karma implies) or we we must accept the third option: that pain exists, but that a good moral force will straighten things out in the end, and make even the worst experiences more than worth our while -- such that we, if asked from our later perspective, wouldn't have taken it back, however we hated it at the time.

The story of Job depicts this as happening physically -- Job receives back many times more of everything he ever lost -- but Jesus says the same thing regarding heaven. Look at his many statements that his followers will receive pain, beatings, sufferings, etc. but will be repaid many, many times over, making it more than worth the comparatively small trouble.

I'm not asking you to believe that. But there's nothing immoral about allowing someone to undergo pain if they later, upon learning all relevant information, would also have agreed with the decision.

2:54 PM, February 18, 2008  

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