My poor opinion of Christianity

I came across the blog of a young man who is studying Catholic theology and challenged his assertion that suffering is invariably a lesson from God. He replied with a polite but paternal note in which he did nothing more than reiterate the point I had challenged. I wrote a second time asking him to explain what he thought God’s lesson was for starving infants and abandoned dogs. He then accused me of showing contempt for God (or at least his version of God) and for himself (I had no intention of being disrespectful), and suggested that I not visit his blog again. I apologized for having caused offense, not because my challenge was unreasonable but because I expressed it bluntly.

I respect the right of the blogger to hold any opinion about anything as long as that opinion doesn’t cause him to infringe upon the rights of others. But what is his rationale in demanding that I show respect for the opinions themselves, and did he believe that he was doing as much for me? I daresay he would argue that my opinion was sacrilegious, and that reciprocity was therefore impossible.

I was not taken aback so much by his unwillingness to address my questions as by the vehemence of his response. His blog was about love and peace, and I assumed from this that he was loving and peaceful. This tendency to take people at face value is a failing in someone of my age and experience.

…I have a great many objections to Christianity, regardless of the version offered. I have made several attempts to be a Christian, it is true, but this was not because I assented to Christianity intellectually, but because I wanted the comfort it promised; and it was this attempt to squash my intellect that eventually defeated me. I might as well have tried to squash a coiled spring or a slab of foam rubber, objects that have infinitely more patience and tenacity than I.

Even so, I might have overcome my intellectual reservations if only I had seen Christianity delivering what it promised. Namely, if Christians have the guidance of the Holy Spirit, why isn’t this evident? I have known people who were strong and people who were weak; people who were honest and people who were crooks; but I have never observed that Christians were stronger or had more integrity than non-Christians. If anything, I’ve wondered if they were as good; my speculation being that Christianity might appear most attractive to those who are weakest of character.

The “defense” of Christians about why the guidance of the Holy Spirit doesn’t enable them to stand out as moral examples runs along the lines of, “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven,” but this doesn’t address the argument; it ignores it. In regard to the really bad things that Christians have done (inquisitions, religious wars, frightening children, burning heretics, etc.) I have heard Christians offer that atheists are just as bad (Communists being the example given). That Christians would attempt to mitigate the behavior of their fellow Christians by pointing out that it is no worse than that of the very people who they consider the lowest of the fallen strikes me as extraordinary. It also misses the point. Atheists don’t claim the benefit of divine guidance, and there is a vast difference in Christians persecuting people in the name of God versus atheists doing it in the name of Communism. I have yet to hear of a single atheist killing anyone in the name of atheism.

I don’t believe that the failures of Christians to live up to their own teachings is entirely their fault, and this leads me to another serious flaw of Christianity, namely that it is not grounded in reality. I’ll give an example. Jesus commanded those who are robbed of the jackets to offer the robbers their coats also. Does anyone live this way? Should anyone live this way? I see signs in church parking lots that read, “Unauthorized Vehicles Will Be Towed At Owner’s Expense.” What if, instead of towing cars, churches followed the spirit of Jesus and gave two parking spaces to everyone who took one parking space? What if, instead of calling the police when their houses were being burglarized, Christians helped the burglars carry heavy objects and gave them more than they had intended to steal?

There is practically no end to my objections to Christianity, and I don’t recall that even one of them has been answered in a manner that made the least bit of sense to me, this despite my very great desire to embrace the Christian faith. Yet, I have known many people who, though not Christians, expressed a great admiration for Jesus. Have they actually read all of the things he supposedly said? The part about abandoning your family and following him, or selling everything you own to buy a sword, or hiding the truth from those whom God doesn’t want to save?

There is the Jesus of the Bible and there is the Jesus of popular culture, and the Jesus of popular culture is kindly, patient, tolerant, peaceful, and forgiving. The Jesus of the Bible might have taught some of these virtues on occasion, but he was inconsistent in his teachings. He was also bad-tempered, humorless, prone to sweeping generalizations, intolerant of sects other than his own, disrespectful of his mother, had an adolescent zeal for offending his elders unnecessarily, insisted on teaching in parables even though his own disciples couldn’t figure out what he meant, and often acted contrary to what he professed to believe. Of course, most Christians seem to hold that Jesus meant for very little of what he said to be taken at face value. Well, okay then—I’ll leave it to them to interpret the words of their verbally challenged deity. Unfortunately, they can’t agree among themselves as to what he intended.

6 comments:

Big Bill said...

I did not mean any offense in my responses to you and apologize if I did so. I just do not wish to enter into any debates regarding religion as I have been involved in many of those before. The reason I responded to you the way I did is because I struggle in my own faith and challenge my faith enough on my own. If you want to discuss things with me, I have no problem with that. It just seemed to me like you had nothing constructive to say and that your comments were rooted in sarcasm. Perhaps that is a false assumption; I am imperfect. It seemed to me like you were invalidating my own personal experience.

I agree with many of the challenges you pose to Christianity and Christians as valid. The problem with the Scriptures is that there is not an agreed upon interpretative authority among all Christians. I want you to know that I am not trying to "evangelize" or spread my religion on here. If you read my latest post, you would see the great respect I have for many nonbelievers and skeptics. Also, I want to point out that the problem with Biblical interpretation is the inclination of a few to treat it as an actual historical text. How can it be historical when it is filled with so many inherent contradictions? The authors of the various books themselves never intended their writing to be actual "history", but were rather attempting to convey their own perceived theological realities. They themselves were not perfect and their writing was influenced by the times and their cultures.

I am not trying to prove inerrancy of the Scriptures. That would be stupid because it cannot be rationally demonstrated, just as the existence of God or a higher power cannot be proven solely by means of rational thought.

Yes, you are right. There is a lot of suffering in the world and we do not see God our a higher power taking any apparent care. This does not disprove the existence of a higher power, however. Just so you know, I am not a Catholic Christian because it makes me "feel good". In fact, this is seldom the case. I arrived at my faith is based more in intellectual thought rather than emotion. I realize that I am the exception as most believers are not like that. To me, Catholicism makes the most sense out of the problems and mysteries of the world. This is only my opinion.

I probably have just as many qualms with other Christians as you do. In fact, this is a huge reason why I switched fields after obtaining my degree in Theology.

Also, there is no single "Jesus of the Bible". It depends on who you are reading. Each Evangelist gave their own different portrayal of the person of Jesus. I can see how you might arrive at certain conclusions regarding the Jesus of the Bible. I don't really see him being intolerant of other sects or being disrespectful towards his mother, although I can probably guess which passage you are thinking of in reference to the latter.

The point is, I know that your own personal theology (everyone has one) is probably completely at odds than my own. It is only understandable as we have been shaped by different life experiences. I do not care that you do not agree with my religious faith. I do not believe in "evangelizing" the way fundamentalist Christians interpret the word. I respect your objections to Christianity. It does not bother or hurt me, I would just hope that a nonbeliever would respect my own PERSONAL reasons for subscribing to a certain set of religious ideals. Some do, but unfortunately some do not. Also unfortunate is that some believers act in this same intolerant way towards nonbelievers.

Anyway, if you want to discuss things with me, than I have no problem with that. I just ask that any discussion be approached with mutual respect. To me, the initial tone seemed not to have much respect for my own faith, which is why I reacted defensively. I apologize if this was not the case. The past few weeks have been stressful ones for me, as I am trying to hold down a job while pursuing a postgraduate degree full-time So, you can see, I do not condemn you or your opinion as sacrilegious. I respect it. Dialogue is absolutely useless if both sides cannot approach the situation with mutual respect of each other.

What do I think of my God's plan for dying children? I do not know. I think it is a tragedy that should never happen. This suffering is often at the hands of other human beings. My own beliefs about God is that he is all-loving. Yes, this does seem contradictory to the notion of suffering. I'll give you that, but because I believe God is all-loving, I believe he created human beings explicitly for the purpose of loving. To be human is to love in my opinion. The conflict with our created purpose to love comes with free will. After all, what good is love if it is not a choice? So, I think that God loves us so much that he wants us to choose to love him back and to love each other. As a result of this choice, suffering enters the fold. Most people do not choose love, they choose self-love which is contradictory in nature to the self-giving love I have been talking about. Because of this they treat other human beings poorly in pursuit of their own self-interest and cause these other human beings great suffering. So, in short, God does not intend for these people to suffer, it is a tragic side-effect of free will.

I'm sure your will finds some parts of this reasoning which you completely disagree with and that's okay. For future reference, note that I sometimes do not respond well to bluntness and mistakenly take it for disrespect. I am not asking you to respect my opinions, merely that you respect my right and reasons to hold these opinions. My response to you was more out of what due to what I perceived in your tone in combination with the stresses going on in my own life.

I hope you can at least be satisfied that I have addressed your objections and not continued to completely ignore them.

Snowbrush said...

Bill, I was surprised to hear from you again. I am supposed to be at the neurologist's one hour from now, and I am tired from a night of tossing in pain--and dread of an ordeal that grows ever longer and ever worse--so I am not in a good enough shape to address much of anything you wrote. As you pointed out, we disagree. You acknowledge the validity of my challenges, yet you still believe. I can only understand your belief in light of my own failed efforts at belief, efforts which came out of desperation and consequently lacked integrity. I might well be entirely wrong in projecting such an interpretation upon you. In any event, I in no way mean to condemn you, and I am entirely open to taking another view of your own motivation.

I too took a fair amount of Bible and theology in college, but it was a fundamentalist college, and no serious challenges to Christianity were ever addressed. I had never met a "non-believer" (I lived in small town Mississippi), so I am a little envious of your awareness of what the challenges are. All I knew was that Christianity wasn't working for me, no matter how hard I tried, but that it was working (seemingly) for everyone else I knew, and I couldn't understand why God had favored them with the gift of faith and left me out.

Since I grew up hearing about hellfire, it became harder and harder for me to either embrace religion or walk away from it. I have succeeded in the latter, at least in regard to the narrow interpretation of Christianity that I grew up with. I still want to think there's a purpose to our lives, but I see no reason to believe there is--beyond the private purposes that each of us assigns to our lives, that is.

I thank you again for your letter. It was truly a gift. If any part of my reply has offended you, please blame it on my pain or lack of sleep, or even my desire to post an early response to your letter, and not on any ill will on my part, because, dear Bill, such is not in me.

snowbrush

Big Bill said...

I'm sorry to hear about your pain, but am very glad that you responded to me. Having explained your background, I can totally understand why you have the opinion you do regarding Christianity. Those types of people which have turned you away are the same which have persecuted me for my Catholicism all my life. I have had a few friends who came to be "saved" and then condemn me because I worship Mary or something ridiculous like that. Didn't you know that all Catholics are going straight to Hell, along with all the Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and nonbelievers? (note the sarcasm here)

This is something I have struggled with for a large part of my life. Unfortunately, Evangelical and Pentecostal Protestants have come to represent the mainstream of American Christianity in recent years. It is these types who tend to lean more toward the fundamentalist side. This brand of Protestantism does not fit into the historical context of Christianity. Like I said, the Bible was never intended to be taken as a literal history text book. They view it as a legal code when it is in fact a compilation of sacred LITERATURE.

Many Fundamentalists tend to place an emphasis on sensationalism. They go to church on Sundays in front of all the video cameras and the contemporary Christian bands on the stage and the big projection screen. It all amounts to entertainment value and is a sad thing. While I see some good to their emphasis on "feeling" the Holy Spirit, I believe this is a distortion of spirituality. It also places to great an emphasis on individual spiritual benefit rather than the betterment of society at whole.

I do not believe because I find church services entertaining or because it makes me "feel good". In fact, oftentimes it is a struggle just to feel the presence of God in my everyday life. I believe what I believe because that is what makes the most sense to me. Most importantly, I believe what I believe to be the Truth. If I believed only because it made me feel good without thinking as to its validity, then I would be living a lie, a lie I would hope no one else would be driven to live as well.

I applaud you for having the strength to walk away rather than live that lie; it is a noble thing. It is hard to see purpose in this life, especially with so much suffering in this world. Recent philosophical thought has suggested the idea of existence before essence. In other words, we make our own purpose. I believe our purpose is to love each other and grow stronger as a community of humanity. While I recognize this only to by an ideal and not a practicality, I do not think that does not make it not worth striving for. I have fallen short many a time in my life. Disregarding the cliche, we can change the world with just one life. If I can change just one life in this world for the better, than I have made a difference and my life was worth living, because I can only concentrate on my individual actions.

I apologize for my lengthy comment. Hopefully you can see at least a shred of validity in where I am coming from and recognize that we do have some common ground. I would love to hear back from you if you get the time. Peace, as always.

Bill

Snowbrush said...

“Those types of people which have turned you away are the same which have persecuted me for my Catholicism…”

As I think you know, I grew up a fundamentalist in the rural South. In my town, there was one Catholic Church, a 1-8 Catholic school, and a home for the nuns who taught at the school. I was quite drawn to Catholicism because Catholics seemed mysterious with their collared priests, their nuns in habits, and their ornate church buildings. By contrast, my own church seemed awfully dull. Catholics also tended to have non-English names (the white South is very English in ancestry) like Bonfiglio. When I got a little older and started enjoying Clint Eastwood Westerns, I noticed that most of them contained churches and that most of the churches were Catholic. This increased my fascination. I suppose there were Protestant kids who gave Catholic kids a hard time, but I didn’t know of it. One of my best friends was a Catholic whose older brothers and sisters (and there were a lot of them) all became priests or nuns. Maybe Joe got his life straightened out later, but he was a hard drinker when I knew him, and he and I often got loaded together in his family’s car that had a little saint on the dashboard. No, I never felt prejudiced against Catholics as a kid, but when I grew up and discovered that they were as shallow and bigoted as everyone else, I lost much of my fascination.

“Didn't you know that all Catholics are going straight to Hell…, along with all the Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and nonbelievers?”

Along with liberals, infidels, Communists, and godless professors. Yeah, I heard that in church, but I never took it in. Catholics were just too deliciously exotic. Godless professors seemed exotic too, come to think of it.

“Unfortunately, Evangelical and Pentecostal Protestants have come to represent the mainstream of American Christianity in recent years.”

Oregon is comparatively unchurched. Catholic churches are about as common here and other churches, I would guess.

“They view it [the Bible] as a legal code when it is in fact a compilation of sacred LITERATURE.”

Yep, if the Bible isn’t all perfect, then every part of it falls into doubt—or so I was taught.

“They go to church on Sundays in front of all the video cameras and the contemporary Christian bands on the stage and the big projection screen.”

I would guess that “mega churches” are a passing fad. Truly I would. Young people will someday come to see them as superficial and materialistic, and then go on to the next fad, which will likewise start out idealistic only to become increasingly corrupt. That seems to be pretty much what happens to all (successful) human institutions.

“It also places to great an emphasis on individual spiritual benefit rather than the betterment of society at whole.”

Yes.

“I believe what I believe to be the Truth. If I believed only because it made me feel good without thinking as to its validity, then I would be living a lie…”

When you say you believe, yet you struggle against doubt, I just don’t get it. Peggy’s father is a devout Baptist. I asked him once if he ever had any doubts. He said that he once did, but that he ignored them as best he could, and they finally went away.

“Recent philosophical thought has suggested the idea of existence before essence. In other words, we make our own purpose.”

Isn’t that pretty much what the existentialists have held for several decades if not since Kierkegaard?

“I apologize for my lengthy comment.”

Please don’t. I mean, really, I am honored by it, especially now that I know how busy you are.

“Hopefully you can see at least a shred of validity in where I am coming from…”

Well, I think you’re right about our purpose being to love one another (not because it’s divinely ordained, but it’s because it’s the only way our lives can have depth), but who “one another” refers to, how much we are to love one another, how our love for one another is to manifest itself, etc. are not so obvious. Jesus said to love your neighbor as yourself. Okay, who exactly is your neighbor, and if you love him as yourself, how much do you love your wife and children? The Dalai Lama said that we should love everyone equally. Is it either possible or desirable to love people the same without regard to merit, relationship, or how long you’ve known them? How about people you’ve never met—should you love them as much as people you’ve known for years? Doesn’t loving everyone equally equate with not loving anyone terribly much?

Bill said...

I think the important thing to remember is that you will find bigotry no matter where you go. Just because some people who identify with a particular group are bigots does not mean that every member in that group feels the same way. Something I have been trying to illustrate is that people are all the same whether Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, or Atheist. There are many compassionate individuals who adhere to a particular worldview and have open minds. I think the best way to judge a group is by the attitudes and actions of the best of its members. There are just as many fundamentalist secularists as their are fundamentalist Christians, but there are also plenty of good people who identify with secularism just as their are plenty of good people who identify with Christianity. I know plenty of fellow Catholics who are shallow, but I also know many who are deep and compassionate towards humanity. This world would be a much better place if all of the "good" and compassionate people could come together irregardless of religious profession or lack thereof. As you probably know by know, I am a very big advocate of pluralism in opposition to fundamentalism, whether it be of the secular, religious, or political kind.

I think the Bible is inerrant as regards FAITH and MORALS, not science or anything else. As I believe it to be a work of spiritual literature, I find it of utmost importance to interpret it in light of its historical, cultural, and other contexts.

I do not know if I used the exact words "struggle against doubt". I thought I said "struggle in my faith", which is very different. You may be right, though, and that is a valid point. A person with a strong and genuine faith will constantly challenge and question it. It is important to challenge one's beliefs, as this is the only way a person can grow in them and become stronger. My faith struggle is not really about doubting the existence of God our the truth of Catholic Christianity so much as it has to do with spiritual experience. My faith is deeply intellectually. My strongest spiritual experiences come when I am engaging in intense theological discussions or reading a great work of theology. The more I learn about my God, the closer I feel to him. Unfortunately, because my mind is constantly at work, I have trouble focusing on one thing as my mind jumps from topic to topic. This makes acquiring a sort of spiritual experience difficult.

I was thinking exactly of the Existentialists. To me, I guess, recent means twentieth century. I was particularly thinking of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Sartre.

One that last paragraph, I may require more reflection. I can completely see your point. It can be somewhat difficult in explaining various aspects pertaining to faith with you. I am completely enjoying myself. My big issue is that when I discuss certain topics with people who do not identify with or relate to faith, I try to limit my explanations somewhat. What I mean is that if you were to talk to another believer, they might spout out a bunch of biblical verses or something of the sort. I stray for that because it is completely pointless to do something like that with a person who does not accept the Scriptures or the notion of a personal God in the first place. Some aspects of faith can be very difficult to approach without talking about personal faith itself. I value both faith and reason as being equal and complementary means towards acquiring knowledge, but recognize the ineffectiveness and pointlessness in approaching such a discussion from the context of the former.

I apologize if some of my responses are not always fully satisfactory. Just understand that I make a serious attempt not to approach such a conversation from a context of faith. If both parties do not accept its validity,then there is no point in using it. This can make explanations difficult at times. I hope this makes sense. I do not know how to state it more clearly and moreover, recognize that my explanations requires more lucidity.

It has been a pleasure. It really does sadden me to learn about your medical predicament and I really hopes things get better for you. Have a good weekend and I look forward to future discussion.

Bill

Snowbrush said...

"I think the important thing to remember is that you will find bigotry no matter where you go."

Get outta here, guy, I'm old and jaded. I know that no group has a market on any virtue. (Just jibing you here in good humor, I hope you know.)

"I think the Bible is inerrant as regards FAITH and MORALS..."

I don't know...I think about stoning people for adultery and witchcraft, and so on...I just don't know how to proceed, Bill. You wrote about the difficulty in discussing Christianity with someone who doesn't accept Scripture... From my end of the field, it's a challenge to discuss it with someone who accepts faith as equal to, if not superior to, knowledge, at least in regards to religion. Even though I took in your point about not using faith, I look at something like your belief in the inerrancy of the Bible in regard to morals, and I see different and even contradictory moral standards in the Bible, and these differences only make sense (as I see it) within the context of faith.

I thank you humbly for your thoughtful letter. I will give more thought to all this.