So you think Christianity is easy!?

I’ve been avoiding this topic for months. Every morning I read the news, and every morning my bleary eyes are assaulted with words like ‘beheading’, ‘terrorist attack’, ‘kidnapping’, ‘hostages’, ‘explosions’, ‘suicide bombers’. Sure, there have always been reports of tragedies of one sort or another, but for many reasons these stories evoke a much more intense response than reading about devastating earthquakes and plane crashes. Lately it’s been getting particularly disturbing and depressing. Easier to avoid those articles. To not talk about them.

But in the past couple of weeks I’ve been re-reading CS Lewis’ Mere Christianity, and listening to a pod-cast series on post-modernism, and watched the movie Selma, and all of these inputs began to converge on this question of how to respond to ISIS, Al Quaeda, the Taliban and Boko Haram.

What would be a natural reaction? After the disgust and nausea over the events themselves, comes the natural response from deep inside our gut toward the people behind those events: horror, loathing, outrage, anger and even hatred. And then we start entertaining thoughts of revenge. And secretly cheer when we read about coalition retaliation missions and pre-emptive strikes.

That might make us feel good. But is that kind of response really consistent with our world-view(s)?

If you’re one of the growing number of post-modernists, you’ve stepped away from that Old World mentality that there is such a thing as absolute truth. For you, in this day and age, everything is relative. “What’s right for you isn’t necessarily right for me”. But that freedom comes with a price: you give up the right to cast judgement. You can’t any longer say “That’s wrong … it’s just obvious … you can feel it in your gut”, because you’ve thrown out any measuring stick by which that kind of call can be made. It might be wrong for you, but they’ll say loud and clear that it isn’t wrong for them. Sure, things would be different if they did that here in North America. Here, we have the laws of the land, and that measuring stick seems to look rather dimly on things like beheading people. But ‘over there’, they’ve declared a different measuring stick. Yes, those are new laws recently imposed by those aggressors. But history is full of examples of one group of people taking control over the land of another group and declaring “there’s a new sheriff in town now, folks”. Europeans have been notorious for this kind of thing (in North America, we’re still working out our relationship with the First Nations).

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t like it either. But I’m allowed to criticize it if I still believe there is such a thing as an absolute truth. Post-modernists have given up that trump card. You can’t have your cake and eat it too.

The same goes if you’re committed to an atheistic evolutionary position. Richard Dawkins says “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference”. If he’s right, then it is simply survival of the fittest And history will declare who’s the most fit to survive in that new ecological niche ‘over there’.

On the other hand, theists do believe in absolutes: right, wrong and truth. I may not be able to speak on behalf of all theists, but I’m certainly well acquainted with Christianity.

So what is the appropriate Christian response?

Do you start with a long list of Bible verses that speak of judgement, vengeance, retaliation. “An eye for an eye…“. Do you invoke concepts of ‘Holy War’ and ‘Divine Justice’?

Or do you go to those verses that promote more of a pacifist approach? It’s OK to die for your beliefs but not OK to kill for your beliefs. Realize, though, that pacifism does not mean do-nothingism. It means actually engaging the enemy face-to-face in a peaceful way. The way Martin Luther King did in mid-60s Alabama, and Gandhi did in India a couple decades before that.

Just don’t make the same mistake Dietrich Bonhoeffer made: starting off as a pacifist and ending with the take-matters-in-your-own-hands approach (for those who don’t know the story, he was a very well-known German pacifist pastor and theologian, but ended up getting the firing squad for being part of an unsuccessful assassination plot against Hitler).

If we’re looking for the right Christian response, perhaps we should look to what Christ would say, right? Although he felt every day the brutal occupation of the Roman empire, he never once said anything about resisting their many forms of inhumane treatment. Instead, he taught … and modeled … a very different response. “Love your neighbor as yourself”. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…” Unfortunately, ‘my neighbor’ includes my enemy. Ouch! What do I do with that!? I don’t know how to love them? I can’t just pretend they’re actually nice, respectable people!?

But CS Lewis held up a magnifying glass to what it was that Jesus actually said: to love that enemy “as I love myself”. CS Lewis continues: “how exactly do I love myself? Now that I come to think of it, I have not exactly got a feeling of fondness or affection for myself, and I do not even always enjoy my own society. So apparently ‘Love your neighbor” does not mean ‘feel fond of him’ or ‘find him attractive’…. you can’t love someone by trying. … In my most clear-sighted moments not only do I not think myself a nice man, but I know that I am a very nasty one. I can look at some of the things I have done with horror and loathing. So apparently I’m allowed to loathe and hate some of the things my enemies do.

Hate the sin, but love the sinner. And show care for the sinner. After all, isn’t that what we’ve all been doing toward ourselves ever since we were born? You love yourself despite your faults, your selfishness, your weaknesses, your evils.

He taught something else on this topic. “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those that sin against us”. He modeled that too … while hanging on the cross.

And after loving them as we love ourselves, and forgiving them as we ourselves want to be forgiven, Paul (also very well acquainted with the Roman empire) pushes us one step further: “Do not repay anyone evil for evil … do not overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good”, and he quotes from Proverbs “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head”.

Who said Christianity was easy? Whoever said it’s just a crutch for the weak or an opiate for the masses had no idea what they were talking about. In fact, if you ask me, it’s the post-modernist response which is the easy and cowardly way to deal with this.

 

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11 thoughts on “So you think Christianity is easy!?

  1. Wow, are you stating that atheists have no standard of morality besides “anything goes”? Because that’s pretty damn offensive and absurd, but I had thought you were not of that opinion, so I’m confused.

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  2. I think what he’s saying is that by removing any absolute standard of behaviour based on absolute truths, this does, on the surface at least, mean we have to question why something is inherently good or evil.

    What would a standard of morality be based on if not an absolute truth. Let’s say it’s a respect for all life– why is life worth respecting? These are complex questions we all have to ask ourselves, and in lots of ways, it’s easier if you’re a theist.

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    • I agree, but I think what you are describing is a far cry from his statements that “I’m allowed to criticize it [beheading] if I still believe there is such a thing as an absolute truth. Post-modernists have given up that trump card.” In answer to that, I would say that I may not be religious, but that certainly doesn’t mean that I have given up my right to criticize beheading or any other wrongdoing. It is indeed necessary for me to re-evaluate my “measuring stick” frequently rather than just taking truth claims at face value, but I think it does a disservice to Theists to assume that they do not do the same thing. All responsible theists that I have known (and there are plenty) also re-evaluate their moral code frequently and repeatedly as they gain new experiences and learn new things. This is primarily because it is impossible for anyone (theist or non-theist) to be utterly unambiguously certain of the absolute moral rightness of anything. This does NOT mean that our morality is just pure guess-work.

      Furthermore, it is unethical and unwise to claim that “That’s wrong … it’s just obvious … you can feel it in your gut” is an acceptable form of “measuring stick” for morality. If being a non-theist allows me to reject this idea (again, many theists reject it as well) then I am very glad! This sort of thinking is responsible for countless atrocities and horrors committed in the name of morality, including murder, torture and genocide. If one has that gut feeling that something is wrong, the responsible and ethical thing to do is to attempt ascertain if there are more objective reasons to view it as immoral. In the case of beheading, I can immediately point to larger, more general principles that it violates (it harms people, it destabalizes communities, etc). This is not hard to do and, indeed, it would be horribly irresponsible of me NOT to do it.

      Where does this “I just know it’s wrong because I believe in truth” morality lead? It leads to my family telling me “being transgender is wrong; I don’t need proof or scripture, it’s just obvious” and then abusing and driving me away from them as a result. That is where “gut feeling” measuring sticks lead. It’s not a matter of absolute morality. I would venture to say that no theist truly follows complete absolutes (since most must admit there are ambiguities at times) and no non-theist has a truly relative morality (since most will feel that certain things are objectively negative). Pretty much everyone falls somewhere in between. Pretending that that is not the case is simply dishonest.

      Sorry for the long reply, Jason. Most of this is just expounding on why I think this article is wrong. 😛

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      • No need to apologize, and I appreciate your thoughtful approach.

        These are certainly broad strokes we’re all painting here, maybe yourself included? Quick-point comments tend to be exaggerative, rather than extremely accurate.

        Blessings to you my friend!

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  3. I honestly don’t mean to offend, and sorry if I did. I may aim for being provocative to get people talking and thinking, but I stand behind what I write.

    I’m not saying “atheists have no standard of morality”. Each may have their own set of moral standards, and if those match up well with the standards of others around them, that’s great. But if they’re different and there are no absolutes, then who among them can say which is ‘wrong’? There’s no ultimate standard.

    ISIS may behead people for reasons only they can defend.

    In the Kaulong tribe of New Britain, when a married man dies, his brothers or nephews are expected to strangle the widow by hand, and she seems to submit to this willingly.

    Or we could talk about the treatment of Jews in 1940’s Germany.

    Of slaves in pre-Civil War America.

    Of living victims sacrificed to the Mayan god Kulkulkan.

    All of these examples may seem strange and indefensible to our moral codes in 21st century Western society. But we have our own definition of humans who have no rights and can be treated as disposable (if you need the hint, think ‘pro-choice’).

    All of these are seen as completely normal, acceptable things to do within those particular societies. And who can judge them wrong if there are no absolutes (which is fundamental to post-modernism). And yet many post-modernists will still want the right to claim that they can judge something as wrong. Hence the hypothetical words that I put in their mouths: “That’s wrong … it’s just obvious … you can feel it in your gut”. But how can they justify that if they have no measuring stick to make that kind of determination?

    I agree with you 100% that gut-feeling measuring sticks are completely unreliable and can be horribly misused, even by misguided theists. Hence the need, in my mind, for something outside of our selves and our societies … something absolute.

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    • But what makes you think, if such a thing does exist, that a theist would be any more capable of knowing it? How is a theist the least bit better at knowing what this supposed “ultimate standard” is? All of those atrocities that you list were largely approved of by various theists (as well as various non-theists), because theists are just as much subject to the subjective interpretation of their culture as non-theists. Both theists and non-theists generally believe in some sort of standard of absolute morality, whether that’s God’s commands, or the sanctity of life, or something else entirely. AND both theists and non-theists are utterly unable to separate that “absolute” from at least some influence of their culture. For thousands of years, theists believed that the “absolute” standard of morality was inclusive of all manner of things that we no longer consider acceptable, and were exclusive of all manner of things we now find acceptable. This is because the subjective idea of what god does or does not approve is just as culturally defined as any other standard of morality.

      If you believe that there is an ultimate morality outside of human beings, I can understand that. But ultimately, whether there is or isn’t doesn’t practically matter if no one is able to objectively determine what it is. And theists are no more free from cultural constraints on their understanding than non-theists… not in the least.

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      • The following is a comment forwarded to me by Roland Kuehn, who asked that this be posted:

        As a teacher, this topic is more than academic for me. I have a 7 step paradigm for ethical decision making I use with my students.
        Level 1: do the good an moral thing to avoid punishment.
        Level 2: do the good an moral thing to get reward.
        Level 3 do the good an moral thing for social approval (peer pressure)
        level 4: do the good an moral thing because it is a rule.
        I then apologize to students on behalf of the adult world for encouraging them to live in such the extrinsic capricious moral world that limits them to levels 1 to 4. I then have my students move up to consider intrinsic ethical thinking: levels 5 to 7.
        Level 5: empathy (still a form of reward –restoring your emotional health but at least level 5 makes connection with the “other”)
        level 6: integrity (no reward –just do it because you are being true to the part of yourself that wants to do the right thing)
        But how do we know what the right thing is? Here I go to level 7 –an knowable absolute (sorry galactic explorer) but at least its one I can argue from both a religious paradigm and a secular paradigm
        level 7: love (unconditional commitment to the good of the other, no matter who the other is)
        Yes one can make a good argument that I needed religion for my absolute (my definition of love is the greek word agape which Jesus tells his followers is the only thing that matters.) But I can also argue it from a universal ethic perspective (most of the world agrees on this priority) or an evolutionary perspective (EO Wilson argues that cooperation/altruism is what gave humanity the evolutionary advantage to survive, thrive and evolve.)
        Back to Isis, they would not agree with my level 7 but the majority of their religion in some form does. And so I have a yard stick that I argue passionately for. And I must admit, at the end of the day, my passion for level 7 does not just come from an evolutionary narrative but rather the Christ story. But I make no apologies for that –my secular adaptation of the Jesus story means that I get to live out my calling as an act of devotion that makes me more loving and compassionate to all people.
        Contentious issues such as fundamentalist religious condemnation of homosexuality are easy for me to deal with as the Jesus that underlies my 7 levels does not condemn it. In fact when I am sharing my 7 levels with religious fundamentalists, I tell them a they should have only two words for gay people: “I’m sorry.”

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        • Interesting, and I would agree with him on pretty much everything he says. However, I don’t think he entirely addresses my problem and if he’s interested in discussing it further, I’d love if we could be put in touch because I’m curious what he has to say. “Love” is not a knowable absolute… at least not in any quantifiable sense. We can have an unconditional commitment to the good of another (without caring who they are) and still not know how to actually demonstrate that in any practical sense. Love is a feeling, at most a drive to act, but the actions that result will be very different depending on one’s own culturally and experimentally defined standard of behavior. One person says “I show that I love them by trying to save them from hell” and the other says “I show that I love them by letting them live the way they want to.” Who is right? That is not so objective. Is it the person who does less harm? How do we measure that? Is “less harm” a good standard for morality? Who gets to define “harm”? Who gets to define what “love” looks like when it becomes actions?

          As such, the “knowable absolute” of “love” is really completely meaningless unless it is applied to concrete actions. It can be a guide, but it is a guide that has misled many, many people. It is also a guide that is always read through a cultural filter. It’s for that reason that I think most theists and non-theists do not have either a completely morally absolute system or a completely morally relative system. We all tend to fall in between… holding up certain standards as moral standards, but also recognizing that the way that we put those standards into practice is very subjective. I do not think that theists have any better handle on that than non-theists. Being able to claim “all good things come from God” does not help you actually apply those things to real life and it does not make you more qualified or capable to develop a healthy morality. Am I making sense?

          Thanks for forwarding this my way. 🙂

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  4. Certainly provocative and I have to take issue with your point that being “committed to an atheistic evolutionary position” means you have given up your right to criticize the actions of others. You quote Richard Dawkins, who, like many atheists is a Humanist. Humanists “seek to live ethical lives on the basis of reason and humanity”. “Think for themselves about what is right and wrong, based on reason and respect for others” and “Believe people can use empathy and compassion to make the world a better place for everyone”. The universe being blind and indifferent has no bearing on how we should treat each other as a society or our right to criticize the action of others on the basis of reason, empathy and compassion. I suspect most with an “atheistic evolutionary” position simply see morality as a development of being human, rather than something absolute imposed by a supernatural entity.

    Indeed, much of the difficultly with being a Christian (or any theist for that matter) appears to come in interpreting what these supposed absolutes might be. The Christian absolutes of the inquisition; the “Abolitionism is Atheism” movement of pre civil war US, or more recently, businesses refusing to serve homosexuals “on religious grounds”?
    On the bright side, could the obvious improvement from burning at the stake and slavery to refusing to sell wedding cakes have anything to do with an increased secularization of society?…..a discussion for another time perhaps.

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  5. I would be very cautious about holding out Richard Dawkins as a poster-child for Humanism. Wasn’t he in the news a short while back over the “Abort it and try again” comment? And something more recently to do with Muslims and Muslim countries? And some controversy a while ago about mild pedophilia which wasn’t so bad because it “didn’t cause any lasting harm” to the recipients. The same one who said in an interview that he “could not condemn people of an earlier era by the standards of ours … Just as we don’t look back at the 18th and 19th centuries and condemn people for racism in the same way as we would condemn a modern person for racism”?

    I could go on, but he’s a perfect case for my point … the more you accept relativism, the less you can declare something as “wrong”.

    As for the point about “atheistic evolutionism” … that term wraps together two completely different things. The first half refers to a world-view, the second half to a mechanism. You can have one or the other, or both, or neither. My point in this blog post is that if you believe things just happened by accident (the mechanism) and that there was no morality behind it (the world-view), then it doesn’t matter if one group of people treats another group of people horribly, any more than it doesn’t matter that one species invades a niche and displaces indigenous species to the point of extinction, or that a seal partially crushes the skull of it’s prey so that it can continue to play with it and/or to teach it’s young how to hunt.

    And just so I’m not misconstrued, I don’t for a minute believe that theists in general, or Christians in particular, have a perfect grasp on morality. We certainly screw up all the time, often atrociously. But we do have a belief that there is a such a thing as ultimate right and absolute truth, and that they can be found by persistently seeking them. We also believe they can be found in a person, and you’re right that the trick is in trying to connect with that. But I also think that he delights in our trying to do so … in the process we’re chipping away at the rough edges until we see his image created in us.

    We all, together, need to keep searching for it. And I think we can learn from each other … theists and atheists of all stripes. In fact, that was the point of my more recent blog post (“One year after Ham vs Nye – we need to keep talking”). It won’t be an easy expedition (hence the title of this blog post), but one thing humans are known for is setting impossible goals and reaching them, or at least continuing to strive in the hopes that they will.

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  6. I would never claim Dawkins as a poster boy for anything (bloody-mindedness perhaps?). I was indicating that many who hold both atheistic and evolutionary viewpoints support the idea that there is an inherent human morality that is natural rather than supernatural in origin. I suppose atheist Humanists find it no easier, nor more difficult, to lead moral lives than their theistic counterparts. Both have to deal with tricky philosophical issues.
    I still fail to see the logic that belief in a supernatural morality trumps a natural one when it comes to criticizing how humans treat each other or in determining how we can build the best possible society.

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