Tag Archives: faith

“What Is Truth?”

“What is truth?” is a question. You realized that, and you also realized that it is the title of this post. What you may not have fully registered is that the title is in quotes. I am not asking, here, what truth is. I am asking what the question is.

That may seem rather ridiculous. I say it is no more ridiculous than many of the things that people think, and say, and believe are true. At least I am not claiming anything significant. I am just observing that those three words, arrayed in that order, comprise a question.

But if you’d like, I can try to explain why the question would catch my attention. To me, there are two noteworthy things about it. First, it focuses on truth, and truth is commonly considered important. Second, it is the question that Pontius Pilate asked Jesus (John 18:38).

Pilate’s question has been interpreted in various ways. For instance, Wiersbe (2007, p. 303) observes that Pilate may have been either “sneering or sighing . . . we do not know.” Wikipedia, citing Wiersbe, suggests that Pilate could have been implicitly criticizing either the nature of Jesus’s trial or his claim to speak the truth.

Pilate’s utterance is probably why the question seems to be of interest especially to religious people. For example, at this writing, among the first 50 results in a Google search for that question, the large majority are patently religious — mostly Christian, but with a few Mormon entries and at least one that looks Hindu. Christian commentators (e.g., Rolheiser, 2011; Sancto, 2012; A Catholic Thinker, 2012) often consider Pilate’s question ironic, insofar as he seems to have been expressing uncertainty about truth while looking directly at the one who claimed, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).

These insights suggest a characterization. “What is truth?” is a question that matters to many Christians because it highlights the contrast between their religion and the Greco-Roman philosophical tradition. In that tradition, someone like Pilate could (and perhaps Pilate did) snidely or sincerely allude to the complexity of philosophical truth, while completely missing the presence or possibility of religious truth.

Pilate, presumably not stupid, was able to miss the significance of Jesus (as portrayed in the New Testament), just as many Christians fail to understand various philosophical truths, because the alleged answer to the question of truth was not provided in an acceptable form. In that light, “What is truth?” points to the phenomenon, witnessed recently in the polarization of American politics, in which a given event can be interpreted in deeply incompatible ways, depending on one’s prior mental and emotional needs and commitments.

It could seem reasonable to respond to this state of affairs by striving for an open mind, freeing oneself from the distortion of those prior commitments. Unfortunately, while that may make sense from a secular perspective, it could be the exact opposite of what faith requires. In response to Thomas’s doubts (John 20:29), Jesus said, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” The greatest faith, within this religion, may be that which is most extremely capable of disregarding or reinterpreting evidence, so as to conform with prior mental or emotional commitments.

From a secular perspective, that may seem like craziness. Playing games with reality is a good way to get hurt or killed — even more so when believers exult in their freedom to behave irrationally, by seeking out endless nonsensical sociopolitical perspectives that have little or nothing to do with faith. You can support the Bush Administration’s counterproductive wars; you can insist on keeping guns in your home as a political statement; you can fight against vaccines and taxes; you can claim expertise in climate science and other fields in which you have no training. But your faith does not require you do to any of that — if anything, it is directly opposed to most of it — and if you insist on looking for trouble, eventually you will find it.

It is neither considerate nor intelligent to behave as if you need not try to make sense to your neighbors. And yet one might say the same thing to the philosophers. At least the believers do have a relatively coherent response to “What is truth?” By contrast, among the results of my Google search, I found these words in the introduction to the Truth entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP, Glanzberg, 2013):

The problem of truth is in a way easy to state: what truths are, and what (if anything) makes them true. But this simple statement masks a great deal of controversy. Whether there is a metaphysical problem of truth at all, and if there is, what kind of theory might address it, are all standing issues in the theory of truth.

So, not a bad start, given 2,500 years to work on it. With religion as an obtrusively irrational counterpoint, it has been easy for the secular types to assume that they all agree on science as a superior alternative. Yet this is not so. Another SEP article (Oberheim, 2013) observes that Kuhn (1962) and Feyerabend (1962) were labeled “the worst enemies of science” because their philosophies supported doubts about the rationality of science. Oberheim says the sociology of science became a recognized discipline as a result of that challenge — and, again citing the SEP (Longino, 2015), research within that discipline has contended inter alia that “philosophical analyses of rationality, of evidence, of truth and knowledge, [are] irrelevant to understanding scientific knowledge.” Going further, Good (1999, p. 186) says that some views held by mainstream philosophers of science “have actually been serious hindrances” to the science of chemistry.

So the philosophers are not consistently on the same page with one another, much less agreeing en masse with the scientists. “What is truth?” thus leads us around to the suspicion that truth may be perceived in multiple ways, depending upon one’s perspective or purpose. And — as if to suggest that we might finally be approaching the actual state of affairs — that sympathy to multiple perspectives may irritate believers, scientists, and philosophers alike, insofar as all seem to think they know a lot about truth, and are prepared to explain it to me in detail.

If I had to venture a guess at this point, I might say that truth appears to begin with those statements that must be true, in order for a certain enterprise to proceed. For instance, you have to start by assuming certain things about Jesus, in order to proceed with the Christian project; and you have to assume things about language or the physical world, if you are to get anywhere in philosophy or science. The assumptions will seem well founded in some situations, less so in others; the assumptions of one project may seem much more solid than those of another; but their basis in reality typically becomes less of an issue, once you roll up your sleeves and get absorbed in the details of the project.

That seems to explain Balkin’s (2003) contention that “law creates truth” — that “[i]t makes things true in the eyes of the law. And when law makes things true in its own eyes, this has important consequences in the world.” For instance, what the law makes true regarding taxation is “not true and false from the standpoint of mathematics or natural science” but rather just “from the standpoint of law . . . in ways that matter to us.” The idea seems to be that you start with your own little corner of the world; you say and do things that seem true within that limited physical or mental space; and then, at some point, what you have been saying and doing begins to affect people and things outside of your sphere. As Balkin observes, that can become problematic:

As soon as law creates a category or an institutional structure, it is possible for things to become true or real in the eyes of the law whether or not they are judged true or real from another perspective– for example the standpoint of medical science, religious belief, or political philosophy. . . .

As in religion, philosophy, and science, Balkin observes that legal truth gives people “tools to think with” — “a way of understanding”:

When law “recognizes” a cause of action for sexual harassment, for example, it sees that such a thing exists as a legal wrong. At the moment the wrong becomes cognizable to the law, it becomes real to the law, whether or not it had been real to generations of individuals before that point.

Balkin suggests that other forms of knowledge, behaving in roughly similar fashion, include medicine, psychology, social science, and history. These ways of knowing can conflict because “truth and knowledge are shaped by institutional purposes.” For instance, to a doctor, a person who walks into a hospital’s emergency room is “a set of clinical problems to be tested, identified, diagnosed and cured” but, to a lawyer, that same person is “a potential tort suit.” Both perspectives may be correct, but they can be unrelated or even opposed to one another.

In words that also apply to religion, philosophy, and science, Belkin closes with these remarks:

Law’s construction of a social world and its development of the social imagination can do enormous good. But it always also has other effects. It always also serves other ends, including the empowerment of legal institutions and legal forms of thinking. . . .

My point is to focus on the ways in which legal concepts, legal thinking, and legal imagination colonize moral and ethical imagination. To do this, we must pay careful attention to the many ways in which . . . the moral imagination becomes ensnared by and held in servitude to the legal. Then the truth of law does not necessarily set us free. . . . Law’s power grows organically and relentlessly out of law’s colonization of social imagination.

With those words, “What is truth?” takes an ominous turn. No longer are we talking about a familiar conflict between the old antagonists, God and science, each comfortably sealed in its own self-congratulatory echo chamber. Now, much to the contrary, Belkin portrays truth as an aggressive, colonizing force, a weapon with which to take control of what people think and do. This characterization resonates: this is, after all, what religions and philosophies have always seemed to be hoping for.

In such a setting, the question may be whether truth is your friend — whether the world is actually better off when you or I think we can answer the question, “What is truth?” The image comes to mind of two theologians or lawyers, fighting for years on end, to advance their own firm convictions as to the only permissible outcome of some dispute. When people think they have the truth, they dig in their heels. They become angry; they become hardened. This, it seems, is where wars begin.

Yet there is, perhaps, a response to such concerns. This post adopts a God’s-eye metaposition, standing above the fray, critiquing claimants to the prize of Truth. These various special-purpose forms of truth — legal, religious, etc. — do not generally seem so wise and true as to justify ignoring other forms of truth. In other words, by writing about these perspectives, I have implicitly taken the view that these are all just pieces of the puzzle. The heretofore unstated claim is that, approached honestly, “What is truth?” ultimately drives us toward questions and adaptations, rather than answers and verities.

Pilate asked, “What is truth?” We don’t know what he meant by that. And that is fortunate. Because what he achieved, by leaving us in limbo, was to exemplify the nature of the question. The query pushes us to keep asking him, and each other: Why do you say that? What do you mean? If the scripture is to be our guide, in this case it guides us to keep thinking about religious people, like Jesus; and about philosophers, like the Greeks and Romans in whom Pilate may have been schooled; and about the political and legal and other influences at work, in that moment of Christ’s Passion.

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About Christians Losing the Culture War

I have recently encountered several articles in which Christian writers talk about losing the culture war. This post focuses on a prominent example: an article in Time by Mary Eberstadt titled “Regular Christians Are No Longer Welcome in American Culture.” Eberstadt is promoting her book and, as this post demonstrates, she peddles falsehoods to excite the persecution narrative and stimulate sales.

I felt that Eberstadt’s title started off a bit strangely. What, exactly, is a “regular Christian”? Her article said she was referring to “American Christians who lean in toward traditionalism,” and she immediately restated that as “Traditional American Christians.”

But what is “traditional”? The answer is, it depends. For example, according to History.com, Rhode Island was founded by Roger Williams in 1636 as a religious sanctuary against “the orthodoxy of New England Puritanism.” It seems the Puritans were the original “traditional American Christians.” But a funny thing has happened since then: they have pretty much vanished, being remembered nowadays as just one source upon which other Christian denominations draw.

Today, Baptists and Catholics would surely be considered “traditional American Christians” — and yet these were actually among the nontraditional types rejected by the Puritans. In this regard, Eberstadt made the mistake, common in Christian writing, of ignoring the history of her own religion. What was traditional in the 1600s is gone now; what is traditional now will probably be gone some day. That’s how it works. We don’t speak Middle English anymore; we don’t live in log cabins. Times change. The Baptists and the Catholics found a place in New England precisely because someone spoke up for those who were not the traditional American Christians of that time and place — just as Jesus did for the outcasts of his day.

As just noted, Eberstadt implies that the “Traditional American Christian” is a person who “leans in toward traditionalism.” But that’s not necessarily true. The Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians — these are among today’s mainstream, traditional Christian denominations in the United States. But being a traditional American Christian in that sense does not necessarily make a person a traditionalist in daily life. Among the members of those denominations, you don’t see much interest in, say, a Mormon-style emphasis on modest, traditional clothing. Nor do the teachings of the mainstream denominations necessarily result in mainstream beliefs among their members. Churchgoers often say they listen to the sermon, but don’t necessarily agree with everything in it. Silver (2013) offers research on atheists who attend churches for reasons of family, social connections, and church-related activities. From the Lutherans to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christianity’s thousands (some say tens of thousands) of denominations and sects exist because of the fact dramatized in the “West Wing” TV show: people feel entitled to pick and choose Bible passages, emphasizing those they like, and ignoring (or inventing alternate interpretations for) those they dislike.

Eberstadt is herself an example of this nontraditionalism among people who might claim to be traditional Christians. According to Family Life (Rainey, 2002), Eberstadt’s role as a married woman is supposed to be as follows:

  1. Be a helper to your husband.
  2. Respect your husband.
  3. Love your husband.
  4. Submit to the leadership of your husband.

Supporting such conclusions, Family Life quotes numerous Bible passages, starting with Genesis 2:18, in which God’s stated purpose in creating woman was “to make a ‘helper suitable for'” the man. But that is a gentle way of putting it. Valerie Tarico cites the Bible as the foundation upon which traditional theologians described woman as “the devil’s gateway” (Tertullian) and “an instrument of death leading to all perdition” and that this is “why today she is placed below and that she bears within her ignominy and shame” (Calvin). Tarico further cites Bible passages stating that a wife is a man’s property; a daughter can be sold, and a raped daughter can be sold to her rapist; menstruating women are spiritually unclean; and so forth.

Eberstadt is no doubt a good person in many ways. But her concept of tradition depends on the selective, self-serving style of interpretation commonly taught in Bible study. One hopes that, somewhere in her writings, she has honestly admitted that, historically speaking, she is a liberal, not traditional at all — that, traditionally, she would not be voting, would not be telling men what to think, and would not have had an opportunity for higher education. She apparently wants to wrap herself in the mantle of tradition, without doing the hard work of actually returning to where tradition has historically kept women, in this country and elsewhere.

So I think what Eberstadt really means is not “traditional” but rather “conservative.” She doesn’t seem dedicated to a return to traditional ways. She just prefers a go-slow approach. And that is not necessarily bad. There will always be a tension between those who leap at opportunities and those who urge us to look before we leap. The leapers and the lookers can produce a beneficial balance. But this doesn’t make either superior. There are risks and advantages in both directions. Some people are rich or successful because they were careful; some are poor or unsuccessful for the same reason.

Conservatism is particularly interesting in Eberstadt’s “culture war” context. Let us be clear: Christians of her type are not suddenly losing a culture war. The more accurate statement is that they are always losing the culture war, because they are always fearfully clinging onto past ways, afraid of losing the advantages that they have enjoyed as established members of a dominant community, looking down on minorities and outsiders. Conservative churches are often depicted (and in many cases deserve to be depicted) as narrowminded, hypocritical, judgmental places where “our type” of people pat each other on the back for helping to preserve their own advantages and fantasies.

Slavery is an example. As conservatives — that is, usually following rather than leading social, political, and economic trends — Christians have a history of widely accepting and supporting slavery. As another example, for some reason, “Thou shalt not kill” has not resonated against the wars, murders, and other horrific crimes recorded in the Bible and practiced by Christians down through the centuries.

But, whoa, same-sex marriage! Now that is evil. More to the point, it is a new thing and, to a dyed-in-the-wool conservative, that tends to mean it’s probably bad. Again, it’s not that the knee-jerk conservative reaction is intrinsically wrong; it’s that many conservatives don’t seem to want to stop and think about their own habit of stopping and thinking. Let’s just pull the brakes on everything, and then be dragged into it anyway, kicking and screaming and feeling wronged. Consider the criteria by which Wheaton College decided who would be eligible to join its faculty in the 1920s (Cole, 2008, pp. 252-253):

To prospective instructors a questionnaire is submitted bearing such interrogations as . . . “Do you dance, play cards, attend theatres, attend movies, or associate with worldly people in other amusements such as are indicated above?”

We, today, might find this absolutely bizarre — that God forgot to put in the Bible that he did not want people to play solitaire or even watch movies about Jesus. And yet that was the conservative Christian mindset a hundred years ago — culminating in (among other things) the disastrous social experiment known as Prohibition. Not that anything was learned from that fiasco: conservatives needed to inflict it upon us again, once again at enormous cost to lives and nation, in the mindless War on Drugs. This is where conservatism becomes most dangerous: when it radically departs from tradition, in pursuit of a harsh and unrealistic dream.

Gay marriage is relatively new; we did not have it when the Constitution was written, 200+ years ago. But then, we did not have bicycles 200 years ago either. When the newfangled bicycle contraption did come into existence, it remained in the legal shadows: for seventy years, according to Wikipedia, cyclists were given “no legal right to use the roads or walkways.” In other words, the gay movement itself only started in the 1960s. We had gay people; we had marriage; we had gay people who wanted to marry. We just didn’t have a political environment in which that desire could be taken seriously. The question did not previously have political force. Now is the first time when it has become a real possibility on a national level. There is no golden past to go back to, other than the centuries when supposedly respectable Christians were comfortable with an arrangement in which gay people had to lie about who they were and what they wanted.

There is no legal right to force gays to endure a substandard existence. That’s what the courts have decided, now that the question has been squarely presented for consideration. But the more shocking fact is that there is no religious right to do that either. A growing number of mainline Christian denominations have concluded that the matter is not so simple. For one thing, if homosexuality were so terribly important, why would Jesus overlook it? In his famous Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said nary a word about homosexuality, but had strong words against adultery and divorce. Much the same is true throughout the Bible. So why aren’t Christians distinguishing themselves with a principled demand for laws forbidding adulterers or divorcees to remarry? Because that would be unpopular. Frankly speaking, it would cut too close to the collection plate.

Christianity purports to be following in Christ’s footsteps. But in fact it often does the opposite. Just like the Jews of Jesus’s time, so-called Christians like Eberstadt reject his concept of Messiah. In both cases, it was because he came as a savior, not as a conqueror. Specifically, Eberstadt wants victory in the cultural war. She cites abortion as an area in which Christians are losing. And yet what kind of “Christian” would be involved in such a struggle? Abortion was a reality in ancient Rome. Jesus himself was a survivor of Herod’s notorious Massacre of the Innocents. Jesus was eminently qualified and able to make abortion a big issue, if he considered it one. He didn’t. The abortion fight gets people upset and excited, but it doesn’t make them the least bit Christlike. Others have been trying to tell them this for the past forty years. But they just haven’t wanted to hear it. Being Christlike is not their priority; they would rather fight and attack people than seek the truth. And so we follow this twisted path to Eberstadt’s complaint about losing the culture war — to which the schoolyard retort is quite apt: if you can’t finish it, don’t start it. Stop inventing reasons to pick on people. Mind your own business. Or as Jesus put it, “Judge not, lest ye be judged.”

Eberstadt cites “school prayer” as another front on which today’s alleged Christians are losing the cultural war. Some want to force kids of all denominations to pray together in public schools. The underlying fantasy appears to be that most Americans are Christians and, as such, are apt to construe prayer in approximately the same way. If that fantasy had any truth to it, we would see those schoolkids’ Catholic and Protestant parents praying together in their churches. These people want to bully teachers and school administrators into achieving an ideal unity that they, themselves, do not even hope to achieve. And so Eberstadt would return us to the mindset of the Dark Ages: if you can’t persuade the Jews, Muslims, pagans, and agnostics through the strength of your ideas, then hammer them with the force of your laws. Forward to the Crusades!

Alternately, there is the quest for voluntary school prayer opportunities — “voluntary” in the sense that the kids will supposedly not be browbeaten into participating in it when, in point of fact, their parents are being forced to accept it. Once again, we have a muscular, coercive, conquering concept of Christian faith that involves shoving one’s beliefs down another person’s throat. It is more the mentality of the Spanish Inquisition than of the New Testament. People who are mindful of the religion’s history can plainly see that such efforts besmirch the name of the God who gets dragged into it. But people who are willing to see the religion’s history in that light are not likely to remain within it. The ones who are left seem, too often, to be those who don’t want to know the truth.

Eberstadt’s article contains a remarkable number of borderline and just plain false statements. An example of the latter: “Religious expression is under attack,” she says, because of recent events, “including the Supreme Court decision overruling Texas’ restrictions on abortion clinics.” That Supreme Court decision had nothing to do with religious expression. According to Fox News, conservatives criticized that decision on grounds that it “erodes States’ lawmaking authority to safeguard the health and safety of women and subjects more innocent life to being lost” (quoting Texas Governor Greg Abbott). There is not a single reference to “expression” in that Fox News writeup of the Supreme Court decision, nor in the writeup offered by the conservative Wall Street Journal.

Eberstadt complains that people like her can no longer count on receiving “civil criticism of people’s most-cherished beliefs.” That complaint is disingenuous. What are a Christian’s most-cherished beliefs? A search leads to such topics as the deity of Christ, his resurrection, and salvation by grace. Eberstadt’s article is not about anything of the sort. Instead, she offers the example of a teacher in New Jersey who was suspended for giving a student a Bible. She doesn’t mention that the act violated a school policy against distributing religious literature on school grounds. (If necessary, think “Koran” or “porn” or “hand grenade,” instead of “Bible,” to be reminded of why a school district might try to discourage teachers from creating unnecessary controversies involving middle-school students and their parents.) In other words, there are multiple problems with Eberstadt’s example: it’s not about uncivil remarks, nor about anyone’s “most-cherished beliefs”; it is not a deliberate suppression of Christianity (suspension would have been equally appropriate for an atheist teacher giving a student a leaflet attacking the Bible); and all of these facts are left unmentioned, in hopes of tricking Eberstadt’s reader into believing something that is not true.

Eberstadt wants to bemoan the disappearance of “civil criticism” among those who question her beliefs. Let me offer a clue: lying for the Lord is not going to promote the desired civility. She is jumping into combat on some of the nation’s most contentious issues; she is firing at the enemy — sometimes making statements that, as shown here, are downright nonsense — and then she is complaining that the enemy shoots back. If Eberstadt were to completely rewrite her piece in a spirit of Christian humility, with a visible commitment to be honest and fair in her remarks about her own beliefs and those of others, then (a) Time probably wouldn’t publish it, because it wouldn’t contain all this posturing on behalf of the self-styled righteous, and (b) on the other hand, readers not similarly minded might find it more difficult to dismiss her as one more phony self-congratulator.

Eberstadt admits the great difference between “the horrors of ISIS-led genocide against Christians in the Middle East and what Pope Francis calls the ‘polite persecution’ of believers in the West.” Regrettably, she goes on to muddle that with a complaint that “some American citizens are fearful of expressing their religious views.” Well, yes, and some people are fearful of leaving their bedrooms. The fact of fear does not demonstrate the existence of a genuine threat. When 63% of us are absolutely certain God exists and an overwhelming 77% describe themselves as religiously affiliated (to cite the numbers quoted in her article), it is doubtful that most American Christians experience anywhere near the persecution experienced by American atheists (~3% of Americans). Moreover, among Christians who do fear ridicule, some deserve it: to varying degrees Christians themselves ridicule others.

Simply put, Christian belief per se is not being widely persecuted, politely or otherwise. What Eberstadt characterizes as persecution seems, for the most part, to be just the logical elimination of theories that do not stand up to scrutiny. There certainly are reasons why an intelligent person would doubt Christianity. It has had its share of high-profile fakes and frauds. It makes excessive and false claims about itself. When your religion conflates its most solemn holy events with the Easter Bunny and with one of ancient Rome’s biggest party times, you can expect people to wonder whether it is for real.

Eberstadt offers a separate set of examples in support of her claim that “Some Christian institutions face pressure to conform to secularist ideology.” But that’s America. It is a secularist nation. We have never had a state religion. At times, the secular state and the religious preference are going to conflict. At those times, the secular state will tend to prevail, because the country does not exist to serve the religion. As a different example, some Jewish people treat the U.S. as if its purpose were to serve Israel. As with Eberstadt, their wish is not reality, nor should it be.

She offers the example of Gordon College, which came under fire for policies that seemed to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. So, OK, let us review: you aren’t supposed to discriminate in America. We are all supposed to be equals here. Christians may not like it — they may want to shove the gays back into the dark — but fortunately their attitudes do not control the law of this land. Even so, on the particular issues in the Gordon case, a Christian lawyer’s analysis concludes that Gordon’s position has enjoyed the support of law, right up to the Supreme Court. That hardly points toward what Eberstadt decries as “an insidious intolerance for religion.” Another article suggests that, in fact, it is the school’s LGBT students “who feel they can’t say anything out of fear about what that will do to their college experience.”

In America, Christians have enjoyed virtually limitless opportunities to organize their practices, research their claims, market their views, and attack their opponents. After all that, if they still cannot achieve anything like the growing popularity of the first-century Christian movement that began with Jesus, it is fair to suggest that perhaps they are not really very much in touch with Jesus after all. In that case, Jesus made clear what he would say to such people: “I never knew you. Depart from me!” As the Matthew Henry commentary says about that,

Christ here shows that it will not be enough to own him for our Master, only in word and tongue. It is necessary to our happiness that we believe in Christ, that we repent of sin, that we live a holy life, that we love one another.

This article demonstrates the falsehood of arguments by which Mary Eberstadt tries to engage would-be Christians in fights that detract from the message of Christ. Replace people like Eberstadt with genuinely Christ-seeking writers who are committed to finding the truth, humble about what they know, and loving of others, and then let us revisit the questions of whether there is really a problem of religious intolerance in today’s America, and of whether followers of Christ should be jumping into a war to control the nation’s culture.

How I Came to Be an Ex-Christian

Contents

Pentecostalism
The End Times
Lying for the Lord
Fellowship
A Christian College
A Crisis of Faith
L’Abri
Give Away All That You Possess
Honesty

.

Pentecostalism

I was raised and confirmed in the conservative Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod in northern Indiana. This is not to say I was an exceptionally good child. I was probably more profane than most, got in more trouble than many, and fought many a Sunday morning battle with Mom over whether I had to go to church, the equivalent of a city block away from our rural home. Religion was not a subject a person would ordinarily talk about. It felt awkward.

In the summer of 1971, after my sophomore year of high school, I started reading the Psalms in the Bible, and continued into the book of Proverbs. I’m not sure why. I had heard of Jesus Christ Superstar, but I don’t recall being particularly oriented toward that sort of thing. Maybe I was just curious. Psalms and Proverbs would have been relatively safe for me: they didn’t have the overly religious feel of the familiar old stories about Moses and Jesus and such.

This Bible reading may have predisposed me to be interested when my friend Neal told me (probably while we were hanging out outside the church building rather than submit to the deadly tedium of another Sunday service) about the so-called coffeehouse, the Adam’s Apple, run by Calvary Temple, in Fort Wayne. I went with Neal to Adam’s Apple for the first time that October. It quickly became a habit: for much of the next two years, I attended the Apple frequently and Calvary Temple occasionally, to my parents’ dismay. It was not their brand of religion. Dad, in particular, felt that Calvary Temple was run by a fraud.

Adam’s Apple put a whole new face on Christian belief. In stark contrast to the stiff religiosity on display in the pews of Zion Lutheran Church, people at the Apple would hug each other. There (and sometimes at other places in the vicinity), a young audience would sit on the floor and listen, laugh, clap, and pray while regular musicians like John Lloyd and Nancy Henigbaum (“Honeytree”), and guests like Phil Keaggy and Larry Norman, would play. I’ve posted a video that captures some of the sounds from that place.

godspell

Pentecostalism can be pretty heady: speaking in tongues; saving souls for the Lord; believing that the Devil is constantly trying to snare you; telling my high school composition teacher that I was not going to college because the world was going to end soon. I could not waste time on flawed human knowledge when there was so much important work to do for the Lord in those End Times. I was street-witnessing (i.e., stopping passers-by to ask if they had found Jesus), not only in nearby towns, but also as far away as Dayton, Ohio (with the Adam’s Apple group), Indianapolis (with Campus Crusade for Christ), and the Warren Dunes in Michigan (on a church youth group camping trip). I had my Dake Bible; I read it from cover to cover a half-dozen times, and investigated countless cross-references among Bible passages; I memorized several of the shorter New Testament books verbatim. They called me Preacher Ray, there at DeKalb High School.

The End Times

These things were unfolding in the context of something called the Jesus Movement. Many of our leaders, in that movement, had been the long-haired “hippie freak” type. When they turned to the Lord, they became known as “Jesus freaks” or “Jesus people.” As a younger brother of two older siblings who had been more directly involved with the ’60s counterculture, I very much looked up to these colorful, interesting people and influences. The Jesus movement had an influence on the larger culture – in, for instance, the Doobie Brothers’ song, “Jesus Is Just Alright” and the Byrds’ “Turn, Turn, Turn.”

Reach Out New Testament_Page_1

Of course, the movement was also influenced by that larger culture. We had our rock and (more commonly) folk musicians singing our songs, just like our secular classmates did; our graphic artists were using Peter Max-type psychedelia; we had the “One Way” hand sign (an index finger pointing toward heaven) as a response to the two-fingered, V-shaped “peace” sign of those times. (The “one way” concept derived from a Bible passage, John 14:6, in which Jesus said that he provided the only way to God the Father. We knew that the two-fingered peace sign was Satanic, since we were (incorrectly) told it was based on the upside-down cross on which St. Peter was crucified.)

Other than that investigation of Psalms and Proverbs, I had never done much Bible reading. But now I discovered the book of Revelation and, wow, that was exotic. It had been pretty much ignored, in my Lutheran upbringing, and that seemed wrong. I found it very moving. A friend got a recording of a New York preacher, David Wilkerson, delivering a sermon on what God had told him, as later recorded in his book The Vision (1974, pp. 11, 28, 75-76):

A second vision came to me this summer [1973]. It is a vision of five tragic calamities coming upon the earth. . . . Never again in the history of the world will there be a time of complete confidence and trust in world economies. . . . I see a time coming when nearly all evangelical missionary projects, all religious radio and TV programming, and all incorporated missionary societies will be so closely monitored, questioned, and badgered that they will be cautious of expanding in any area.

The passage of 40 years has made clear that what Rev. Wilkerson predicted would occur “soon” did not, in fact, occur. Anyone who has lived through these four decades since 1973 – who has seen the Dow Jones Industrial Average keep hitting higher and higher peaks, who has witnessed presidential elections being heavily influenced by the Christian Coalition, who has observed the rise of the megachurch – may be inclined to question Wilkerson’s claim that God showed him the future. This certainly was not someone who zeroed right in on exactly what was happening, as one would expect from a prophet of God.

At the time, though, Wilkerson and other eschatological predictions convinced me that it would be foolish to invest years in college or otherwise to build a career, a home, or a future, when Jesus was going to be coming back very soon. Notwithstanding this impact on me, Wilkerson was better known for The Cross and the Switchblade, about the positive impact of the gospel on the life of former New York gang member and heroin addict Nicky Cruz. I met Nicky Cruz, when his touring took him through Indiana, and found it very exciting that the Lord was changing lives like his.

There were other dramatic developments in the Christian press around that time. The most electrifying story of doing battle with the Devil emerged in Mike Warnke’s Satan Seller. Warnke told of his extraordinary experiences as a Satanic high priest in southern California, before he found Jesus. He described how the Devil gave him power to cause buildings to burn by putting a hex on them (pp. 74-75), and to order demons to torment people and cause car accidents (pp. 105-106); he said that he had even witnessed astral travel (i.e., the instantaneous transfer of a woman into his living room, and then away again) (p. 87).

Lying for the Lord

Warnke’s fraud would finally be exposed, many years later, by Christian journalists. But at the time, stories like his and Wilkerson’s fed both my commitment to God and also, over time, a subtext of uncertainty. There did seem to be a dramatic difference between their experiences and mine – a difference that I was unable to surmount despite enormous efforts in Bible study, self-scrutiny, prayer, and fasting. For some reason, I was just not having out-of-body experiences, seeing visions, or otherwise encountering firsthand the incredible supernatural power that people kept telling me about.

I did, however, have a different type of experience reminiscent of Wilkerson and Warnke. One time, years later, in a discussion with my co-workers in a Mormon-owned photocopy shop on upper Broadway in New York, I heard a very apt phrase. It was not one that we evangelicals had used, but it did speak to the problem. That phrase was “lying for the Lord.” I knew the experience well enough. As I discuss further in another post, we who tried to persuade people to join our religion would often make claims that weren’t true, or would advance arguments that did not jibe with our own beliefs and our actual experiences.

For instance, we would tell people that they could place their burdens on God, that Jesus would give them clarity and peace. But if they did take our advice and ask Jesus to enter their hearts and lives, they would soon find themselves transitioning into a Christian lifestyle of complexity, struggle, and anxiety. No peace for you! There was the Devil to worry about, as just noted, and the End Times developments in the daily newspaper to speculate upon; there was the Bible to read and interpret and apply, and assorted faith-related interpersonal complexities to deal with, and temptations to fight, and things to pray for, and anti-Christian schemes to detect, and so on ad infinitum. You would seriously not believe the number (and the astounding, frequently preposterous range) of things that seemed to be going on in the heads of myself and (even now) my Bible-believing Christian friends.

Of course, there are all kinds of people in this world. There are calm people in every profession, every religion. Generally, though, our worldview was not a path to Bob Marley-type mellowness. Yet we went right on speaking as though our lives did prominently feature an idyllic peace – and, adding to the stress, we expected ourselves to be enjoying that sort of thing, even when there was no reasonable prospect of it, given the many things we had to worry about. And yet, on the occasions when we did happen to experience a bit of it, we saw it as proof that we were on the right track.

Part of the explanation, I think, was that we were not allowed to doubt, and as a result we did not tend to critique our own upbeat claims about faith. This meant that, in the spirit of Wilkerson and Warnke, and perhaps as an unwitting invitation to habitual liars, we really didn’t have many constraints on telling people whatever might sound good. It was supposed to be like that for us; it was going to be like that for us; we just hadn’t quite gotten there yet.

Fellowship

Despite these shortcomings, let me emphasize that being a born-again Christian teenager was a fantastic experience — not in every way, but definitely in some important ways. I have never experienced fellowship like that which I experienced in our high school prayer group. Some of it was definitely mixed up with naivete and virginity; it was probably more fun for me than for some, given my status as an informal leader; maybe it resonated for me particularly, as an echo of the insular community of my childhood; but, still and all, it was special, and most of us seemed to be together in it.

On that foundation, temporary though it was (with many of us pairing off into couples, approaching graduation, and otherwise eventually drifting away from the shared group experience), we had some really great social and spiritual times. For starters, when I stopped going to my exploratory teaching gig in a nearby elementary school (in a profound fit of senioritis that the high school’s administrators never did detect), I discovered that I was left with a 100-minute lunch period. The other members of our prayer group would cycle in and out of the cafeteria, according to their individual schedules; but I was there the whole time, anchoring our group’s table and getting to see virtually every other member of our fellowship on a daily basis. Talk about redeeming the time! My expanded lunch break did not seem to irritate any teachers, as I had done when Mr. Stackhouse discovered that my midafternoon independent study hour was functioning as naptime in the library. In all regards, this extended luncheon opportunity provided an edifying social addition to my high school experience, and of course I must enthusiastically recommend it to future high schoolers.

It was also really special to have a life of semi-mystical experiences — looking up at the nighttime sky and thinking about God and eternity, believing that shooting stars signified love between me and the preacher’s daughter (don’t ask me where I got that connection), finding meaning in the sunsets and the trees and the waters. Everything was so rich. Sometimes even the secular song lyrics were like words directly from God: “Are you reeling in the years / Storing away the time.” Admittedly, some of the most intense experiences were on the dark and spooky side, involving the power and presence of Satan that many believers seemed so preoccupied with. Was I really alone, late on a snowy, moonlit winter’s night, as I warmed myself in our darkened kitchen?

In all this fellowship, I had experiences I have not had since, like when four of us guys got together, all with guitars, and spent a night singing and praying, talking and thinking, in an empty church lit only by a candle. There was another unchaperoned all-nighter, sponsored by a local church for the benefit of a couple dozen Lutheran high schoolers; but this time our adventures ran the gamut from solitary prayer in the sanctuary to rambunctious physical games (not limited to hide-and-seek) around the church grounds. Somebody probably caught hell for letting us tear the place up like that. And yet, on another level, this stuff pretty much kept me out of trouble. Of the three country boys I was hanging out with before I got the Jesus fever in my junior year, one is dead, one suffered serious brain injury in a suicide attempt, and the other nearly died in, and is profoundly impaired due to, an alcohol-related automobile crash. I might have survived anyway, without the Christ-oriented lifestyle, but then again I might not.

A Christian College

So those were some aspects of my experience as a born-again believer. Meanwhile, for better and worse, life went on. After graduating from high school in May 1973, I took a job, running a drill press in a local factory. In my free time, I was dinking around on my guitar, reading the Bible, and hanging out with fellow Christians. My parents were afraid that I was not going to get a proper education. Finally, in August 1973, Mom told me that they would pay the tuition if I would attend a Lutheran college.

Some months earlier, I had visited what was then Concordia Lutheran Junior College in Ann Arbor, Michigan; but, as noted above, I had decided not to apply. But in late July, the union organizer at the factory demanded a decision on whether I was going to pay the membership fee and join the union. I thought about it and finally said no. Despite enjoying the occasional horseplay, I was a very diligent and productive worker, and that did not seem to impress the stolid union members who had been standing at those machines for years. It was not the place for me. I was going to have to find a new job, or something. So now, as other recent grads started to peel off for their various campuses, it seemed I had probably better rethink this college thing. With just a few weeks of summer left, I applied, was accepted, and entered Concordia’s pre-ministerial program.

Concordia was certainly a religious place, but it was not pentecostal. I don’t remember exactly how that struck me. I will have to try to reconstruct the situation sometime. I think I must have been transitioning to a more thoughtful kind of belief, perhaps in reaction against the more dubious aspects of the Jesus movement. For whatever reason, I suddenly rediscovered an interest in being a good student, after years of a public school mental hiatus since leaving the one-room schoolhouse. Being at college, or perhaps being able to study religion, motivated me to take extra courses and also to test out of a couple of classes. Through such efforts, I completed most of the coursework required for the two-year degree in that one year. So there was no point staying around for a second year, accumulating credits that would not move me closer to a bachelor’s degree. Several years later, I sent Concordia a transcript from elsewhere; they granted some transfer credits; and on that basis they awarded my associate’s degree.

So now that I was finishing that first year at Concordia, there was the question of where to continue my education. I decided to transfer to Indiana University (IU), where I would qualify for in-state tuition rates. There, I continued in my ministry-oriented studies: I enrolled in second-year courses in German and ancient Greek, started Hebrew, and also took a couple of philosophy courses and a course on the New Testament.

A Crisis of Faith

That New Testament course at IU would play a pivotal role. As I discovered, people did not necessarily take an evangelical view of the Gospel in that big, secular university. I suddenly found myself as the stereotypical Bible-thumper, raising my hand to explain to the religion professor (Dr. Sampley, as I recall) how he did not have the proper view of Jesus and the biblical text. He was an agreeable guy, ready to listen to what I had to say. After class, on a couple of occasions, I gave him fundamentalist tracts and other materials to read, so that he would understand where he was mistaken; and then, after the next class session, he would explain to me why my materials seemed to be leaving questions unanswered.

The reasonableness of his approach threw me off balance. By midway in that fall semester, it was beginning to seem pretty obvious that I had taken a lot of things for granted. I had just accepted the Bible as being straightforward and obvious, and was now discovering that people who did not come from my religious background might not share that impression at all.

That was extremely disconcerting. I did understand the professor’s reservations. So it was not, as I had imagined or had wanted to believe, a simple matter of introducing people to God and letting the Holy Spirit work magic in their hearts. There were also these intellectual issues. And I did not have answers for them. I had not been certain how my pre-ministerial education was going to play out anyway; now it began to appear that it might not play out at all, certainly not until I could get past these barriers to faith.

Meanwhile, the previous summer, I’d had an experience that threw another wrench into my college education. I had taken the Greyhound bus to suburban Los Angeles, and had stayed with my older sister and her husband — along with my older brother, who had moved out there to join them some months earlier. That had been a lot of fun. So now, as the Indiana skies turned literally and spiritually gray and cold for me, it seemed that I might as well do my spiritual rethinking in sunny southern California. With a considerable sense of academic failure, I decided to drop out. When I told the religion professor of this decision, on my last day in his class, he looked at me and said just one word: “Courage.” His way of wishing me luck. A cool dude, all around.

So I left Bloomington and caught a train for the coast. But life is never simple. In L.A., it develops that my sister is letting two godforsaken Jehovah’s Witness ladies visit her living room on a weekly basis, and I am therefore obliged to argue Bible passages with them. Of all the irritants found in weird cults and heathen religions, I felt, this was perhaps the most annoying of all: that people didn’t have enough common sense and decency to recognize when their beliefs were just ridiculous, and were thus unable to straighten themselves out. These weren’t intelligent religion professors with compelling questions; these were just heretics who, in my view, were obviously misusing the scriptures. It was absurd that these people actually claimed that *I* was the one in error. My arguments didn’t have the least effect on them. So I got exposure to a different kind of reaction to the Bible: that not everybody who reads it is going to be a rocket scientist, and that some of the rocket scientists who do study it extensively will come up with unexpected and incompatible interpretations that their followers will cling to tenaciously.

I shouldn’t convey an impression that these occasional interactions were the sole source of doubt for me. Doubt was an inevitable thread throughout those years. It had been convenient enough, back in high school, to dismiss the doubters and the heretics, the songs like “Spirit in the Sky” and “Jesus Christ Superstar” and Tull’s “Hymn 43.” The music was good, but the message was flawed; and besides, as I say, it wasn’t as stimulating as the more directly Satanic stuff, like the Eagles’ “Witchy Woman” and (so we imagined) almost anything by a group that would dare to call itself Black Sabbath. For me, the surreptitious, truly evil nature of doubt was captured especially well in C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters. And yet, despite the romantic energy of these stimuli, over time the more corrosive kind of doubt was that of the everyday American life, out there in what I considered “the so-called real world.” People out there didn’t seem to have much interest in this stuff. For some reason, the Lord was simply not smiting any Sodom and Gomorrahs. I wasn’t seeing plagues; nobody was even coming down with the pox. It was as though L.A.’s endless strip malls and McDonald’s restaurants might have a better grip on reality than I did.

L’Abri

Just in case, I did in fact get a job at a Mickey D’s, right there in my neighborhood. I also got a partial tuition refund from IU, slept on the floor in a utility room at my sister’s house, and saved my pennies for a flight to Switzerland. That next step occurred in February 1975. Switzerland was where an evangelical minister and thinker named Francis Schaeffer had set up shop, creating a Christian commune called L’Abri (French for “the shelter”), in Huemoz, a village up in the Swiss Alps. I had been reading Schaeffer’s book, True Spirituality, and I had come up with a long list of questions for him. So now I flew over to meet him.

Unfortunately, he wasn’t there. It seems that, if you are raised in the middle class, with experienced travelers to ask (or, nowadays, if you have an Internet), you learn that you are supposed to arrange these things in advance. So now I know this. At the time, however, the only people I knew who had ever been to Europe were World War II veterans and one local farmer who had been in the Army in the 1960s. They hadn’t needed to make reservations. So I just figured I was going to Schaeffer’s place; he would be there; and I would ask him my questions.

What happened instead was that I got to harass his assistant pastors, nice evangelical ministers who no doubt found me bothersome. My questions were apparently not easy to answer and, in fact, neither they nor the accumulated Francis Schaeffer materials in the L’Abri library (such as it was) seemed to have even begun to grapple with most of the things I was asking about. I was perplexed that these questions, some of which now seemed obvious, had apparently never even crossed the minds of these people who were supposedly advising thoughtful Christians from around the world.

After hanging around L’Abri for a while, mostly living on bread and jelly (and tripe, my new discovery, which tasted good at first, after a couple of weeks without much real food, but didn’t taste so good when I bought another can of it), I finally got admitted into L’Abri’s program of study, which I could have waltzed right into if I’d made reservations like the American Christians who had done this properly. But they still had to pay as much to live in one of the L’Abri buildings as I was paying in my humble hostel a few blocks away, and they also had to slave in the communal garden. Since there did not seem to be any prospect of getting answers to the questions that had taken me there, it seemed time to move on.

One of the other Americans was also leaving town, heading back to his mom’s home in a fishing village called Looe, on the English Channel, in Cornwall. I invited myself along with this guy, name of Ron, and that was the end of L’Abri for me. As it turned out, Ron’s brother was named Randy; Randy spent all his time in his room with his guitar and a huge tape recorder, trying to prepare an album for a record company up in London; and a couple years later, one day in New York, I turned on the radio and heard Randy VanWarmer singing “You Left Me (Just When I Needed You Most).” Ron later told me it hit No. 3 on the pop charts. Eventually, Randy even had a Greatest Hits album. So, you know, good for him.

Give Away All That You Possess

After several weeks of thinking, hiking along Cornwall’s craggy cliffs, and debating, alone and with Ron, I landed back in Chicago with about $10 in my pocket. I took the South Shore railroad as far as I could, and then hitchhiked and walked all night to make it to my folks’ place north of Fort Wayne. Before flying to Switzerland, back in February, I had driven from L.A. to the folks’ place; but then, too caffeinated to sleep, I had decided to drive over and see a friend. That was not a judicious decision. I fell asleep on the way and hit a tree. Kind of a close shave: awoke at the last second and cranked the wheel, thereby shearing off a fender instead of my head. So now I had to repair the VW and head back to L.A.

When I did get back to Los Angeles, my sister’s husband wasn’t terribly eager to have my brother and me stay there anymore. It was time for us to find our own places. Maybe I could have done better than my new job at another McDonald’s, or at least I could have worked two jobs to afford an apartment. But I was still concerned about spending eternity in hell for my doubt, and was thus still devoting a huge amount of time to Bible reading and agonizing over the logical inconsistencies I was finding in the Bible and in the commentaries of Christian writers. I was still attending various churches from time to time, hoping that maybe I was overlooking something; maybe somebody would have answers that would clear up everything and prevent my concept of Christianity from being simply false.

In a bid to make more than minimum wage, I bought a couple of run-down VWs and gradually fixed them up to resell. My finances would basically cover rent for a garage on Cherry Avenue in North Long Beach, where I could do autobody repairs on one car indoors while leaving the other outdoors. The indoor car kindly shared space with me. I had a couch in there, one that Bob (a fortyish Volkswagen mechanic) and I had rescued from the alley behind his house, and I slept on that. I had a board propped up on some crates; I used that as my desk. There was a bathroom at the Douglas Burger down the street, not to mention a cute redheaded employee whom I was too shy to approach. Once in a while, my brother, living downtown, would let me use his bathtub.

For about three months, I lived in that garage. I spent many hours rereading and rethinking Bible passages. I wrote out my thoughts, hoping that seeing them in black and white would make things clearer.

I kept trying to figure out a solution, but eventually realized there just wasn’t one. As detailed in another post, I was trying to make the Bible into something that it wasn’t, something that it didn’t even claim. Like many fundamentalists, my faith was more in the Bible than in God. Behaving like the religious experts that Jesus warned against, we had converted the writings of ancient writers into legalistic texts, adding chapter and verse numbers that God had apparently forgotten to include. And we used that revised text to place burdens on people that they could not bear, like those described in this post — burdens that intelligent, goodhearted people would appropriately reject.

Honesty

We went through all kinds of mental gymnastics to try to persuade ourselves that the Bible, a patently flawed book, was perfect. We did that because that’s what we wanted, not because of any specific instructions from God. We held to this approach even though it required us to ignore the Bible’s obviously imperfect processes of formation, transmission, and translation. We basically decided to accuse God of something inconsistent with his supposedly perfect nature. It was like the police charging a man with a crime when everyone could see that he was nowhere near the scene. In the end, we made God look like an idiot, and we took pride in behaving likewise. If there was a God, then this was blasphemy; it was just plain wrong.

What I concluded was this: it was impossible for an intelligent individual to have an honest belief that the Bible was the literal Word of God. As a fundamentalist, I had essentially been telling people that God would put you in Hell for all eternity if you earnestly sought the truth and faced up to the problems that I had encountered. In the end, I concluded, that was not right. There might have been a god behind that sort of threat; but if there was, it was not a good one. If anything, it seemed that we, in our pride and arrogance, had decided we were smarter than the Prince of Darkness; that we had been completely fooled; and that we were doing all this hard work just to make things worse. We wouldn’t listen to reason, and that made us the perfect patsies for whatever nonsense might come trundling down the pike.

As described above, I had been trying to find a way out of this for quite a while, and I was continuing to devote a lot of time to it. But at a certain point, I just couldn’t afford to do that anymore. Along with the ongoing emotional and intellectual turmoil, my financial situation was desperate. I got a nudge on Christmas Day, 1975. I got sick, maybe because of the autobody chemicals, and the Douglas Burger was closed. I found myself barfing in the alley back of the garage. It was a moment of clarity.

More than four years had passed since my first visit to the Adam’s Apple. During those years, I had experienced excitement and fellowship, and also theological study and religious disputation. During the past year especially, I had confronted and endured emotional upset: a fear of losing both my eternal salvation and all those marvelous experiences and beliefs. The trip to L’Abri had been an extraordinary yet failing effort to obtain answers that a divinely inspired scripture would have made plain — and now the encounter with L’Abri itself was nearly a year in the past.

The essential facts were before me. I did not seem to be overlooking anything significant. It was time to decide how to proceed. And after that Christmas Day experience, I did proceed. Within a few weeks, I returned to full-time college student status, at California State University, Long Beach – once again taking philosophy and German courses, but this time without religion. Ultimately, my religious beliefs coalesced into agnostic polytheistic fundamentalism.

 

The Universal Scripture Wiki

Some of the claims that religions make are unique to them, and to the religions and sects that derive from them.  The specialness of the Jews and the divinity of Jesus are examples.  But many of the things found in religious scriptures are, or could be, shared among multiple viewpoints.  One need not believe in any god, or follow any religion, to support a commandment against stealing, to agree with the sage advice found in a proverb, to accept a historical account of some ancient event, or to feel the emotions captured in a psalm.

Moreover, even the narrowest religious content is subject to adaptation.  One does not have to be a believer in the Bible to echo its sentiments toward one’s own preferred god(s).  And when religious people use their own scriptures, they often do so in diverse ways.  Christians have fought wars over things like the significance of Communion, and present-day believers within a given religion, denomination, or sect can be divided over such topics as abortion or the qualification of priests.

In short, the nonbeliever-believer dichotomies commonly cited these days (e.g., atheist versus Christian) conceal a more complex reality.  The people who claim to believe in “the Bible, the whole Bible, and nothing but the Bible” often turn out to be quite selective about what they really believe within that scripture; and meanwhile, as suggested above, the people who supposedly do not believe in a scripture probably do sympathize with much of what appears in it.

These observations raise the possibility of developing a universal scripture.  Not everyone would agree with everything it said, but that is true of the Bible or any other scripture.  Not everything that it said would necessarily be consistent with other things it said, but that, too is familiar:  people will sing songs or adopt beliefs that can be somewhat unclear, illogical, or self-contradictory.  Religion is not science.

In essence, people who turn to a scripture have a right to home in on what they want or need in a particular situation.  With a universal scripture, as with any other, scholars could still debate technical points; indeed, people could probably continue to engage in substantially the same kinds of activities that any existing scripture supports:  counseling, analysis, reflection, and so forth.  A universal scripture would thus provide substance for skeptical, uncertain, or nonbelieving users who may wish to contemplate or advise upon spiritual matters in moments of crisis.  It might, in fact, provide a common ground, supporting efforts by noncommitted mediators to assist in the reduction of tensions among warring religious factions.

It seems that a universal scripture could bracket content that would only interest people of a particular religion.  An example of bracketing would be to say that the following chapter presents the story of Jesus, as understood by his followers.  That is, bracketing would take a step back from the content, perhaps offering it with various elaborations and caveats (e.g., “On this point, Roman Catholics believe that …”), rather than simply presenting it straightforwardly as a part of the scripture, as might be appropriate with history, proverbs, and songs.

It goes without saying that the potentially clunky, uninspiring way in which a lawyer might phrase such matters could be open to more inspired treatment by poets and other gifted writers.  In other words, this would hopefully be a scripture, not an encyclopedia.  Technical commentary about a given passage would best be relegated to a supporting role, in footnotes, concealable sidebars, or accompanying documents, to make room for creative wordsmiths who might offer more personally meaningful, liveable phrasings.

Before the advent of the Internet, it would have been impracticable to attempt to meld significant portions of the world’s scriptures into a single book.  A wiki can now accommodate a project of that nature.  An important goal of the wiki might be to work toward getting people on the same page, so to speak, with respect to various religious topics that now tend to be walled off in separate fiefdoms.  So, for example, if the universal scripture wiki has a major section called “Songs,” it might serve to introduce Christian songwriters to adaptable content from other faiths.

A universal scripture wiki would surely require decisions on such matters as structure and format.  There would be many challenges.  Some might require years to work out satisfactorily.  Nonetheless, a source of this nature could be enormously valuable in many ways.

What Is a “Christian”?

This item was originally posted on October 15, 2011 on my other blog.  It drew a few comments there.  I have left the empty post and those comments at that location.

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I had someone ask me, today, what a Christian is.  I decided to look it up.  I started with the Oxford English Dictionary (OED); but when I boiled down its many meanings into those involving religion specifically (as distinct from e.g., a part of the historical titles of kings of France), I wound up with more or less the same list as I could get, from Dictionary.com, without a paid subscription:

  • a member of a particular church or denomination; or
  • a person who believes in Jesus Christ; an adherent of Christianity; or
  • a person who exemplifies in his or her life the teachings of Christ.

So, for example, some say “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved”; some say that “faith without works is dead” (i.e., if you don’t live a Christian life, your claim of belief is probably false); some say you have to be baptized or confirmed — in general, or into a particular denomination or sect.

In practice, these several different ways of being a Christian have produced tens of thousands of different Christian denominations, sects, and cults.  These varieties of Christianity have emerged for various reasons.  Some are due to historical developments (e.g., the split of the Roman Empire); some were formed by charismatic leaders who decided to break off and go their own way; many emerged from doctrinal disagreements.

As an example that may combine all three of those sources of dispute, it seems that Martin Luther, founder of the Protestant denomination in which I was raised, believed that the papacy was the Antichrist.  This can sound bizarre to people from some contemporary denominations who are forever running around, looking for reasons why Mikhail Gorbachev, Ronald Reagan, Barack Obama, or other politicians are the Antichrist.  Either way, people have been playing the guess-who’s-the-Antichrist game throughout the history of Christianity, targeting individuals as diverse as Arius of Alexandria; an unspecified Jew from the biblical tribe of Dan; various individual popes; and Czar Peter the Great.

That example may illustrate how scriptures — intrepreted creatively by people with all sorts of different fears, hopes, ideas, and agendas — can give rise to an endless set of reasons why those who belong to one so-called Christian sect can violently disagree with other so-called Christians.  Violent warfare among Christians began in the early years of the various churches.  For example, starting within a few centuries after Jesus, the Arian variety of Christian belief was murderously suppressed.  Since those early centuries, wars about “true” Christian belief — wars in which one kind of so-called Christian killed another — have claimed countless lives.  The 16th and 17th centuries were especially notable for that, but they weren’t alone; it has continued right up through the horrific atrocities committed by “Christian” armies fighting each other in Yugoslavia in the early 1990s.  Of course, so-called Christians have also prayed and sung and quoted the Bible on behalf of the troops that they have sent off into non-religious wars down through the centuries, thus trying to implicate God in the outcomes of everything from the medieval Crusades to the American invasion of Iraq.

Murder in the name of Christ appears to be especially common among people who think they know exactly what they are talking about.  In other words, it’s more difficult to justify hating people for their failure to understand Christ in the “proper” way, if you approach faith from a humble and questioning perspective.  People cannot do that, unfortunately, when they fear that they would go to hell for honestly admitting and investigating their doubts.  This results in an regrettable situation in which many so-called Christians try to make the Bible — particularly the New Testament — into the Word of God, when it is very obvious that God, himself, made no such claim.  It is also hard to imagine any such thing about the New Testament when you learn a little about the ugly fights regarding the question of which books should be considered part of the Bible.  (That question remains unsettled.)  Calling the Bible “holy,” as these people often do, appears to represent willful blindness to the realities.  Once again, the supposedly good God is dragged into a process that has plainly been very human.

These remarks may begin to indicate that the three approaches to the definition of “Christian” listed above are only the most superficial summaries of the countless ways in which alleged Christians actually do define themselves.  These remarks have focused especially on the first and second of those approaches to definition.  Basically, someone can claim to believe almost anything, can cook up some reason to claim that their belief makes them “real” Christians, and can use that putative reasoning to justify horrible acts in God’s name.  It’s not just the random crackpot who shoots an abortion doctor, nor even the “Onward Christian Soldiers” mentality that imagines God playing a role in religious wars.  The same mindset appears in the average “Christian” suburbanite who thanks God for giving them a life in which they can buy things made by Asians earning pennies a day, in manufacturing processes that wreck the environment.

I haven’t yet said much about the third of those three briefly summarized approaches to the definition of a Christian.  In that third approach, the emphasis is not upon the lawyerly demand for a rigid text, contrary to Jesus’s own advice, nor upon the mystical notion that there is a magical thing called “faith” or “belief” that somehow rises above reality.  To clarify how the third approach to definition differs from the second one, consider the famous claim that there are no atheists in foxholes.  The concept is that, if you put someone in a situation where other people are trying to kill them, they’ll remember how to pray quickly enough.  In other words, what people say they believe is not necessarily what they really believe — and they, themselves, may not know the truth of the matter until they find themselves in a sufficiently harrowing situation.  But that knife cuts both ways.  Consider, for instance, the people who suddenly discover a belief in abortion when it is their own wife, sister, or daughter who was raped or at risk of dying in childbirth.  The point is, so-called “belief” — an idea held loosely in mind — it not necessarily what a person really believes.

In the third approach to defining “Christian,” as noted above, some people have been called Christian because they try, in some sense, to practice the teachings of Christ.  It is impossible to be exactly Christlike — not only because, supposedly unlike Jesus, we are all born sinful but, also, because Christ’s example doesn’t always fit.  Nobody is able to walk on water.  People can’t pay their taxes by pulling coins out of the mouths of fish.  In America, nobody is going to be able to die on a cross for preaching the coming of God’s kingdom.  Although the New Testament makes it sound easy, Christianity does not in fact seem to be a religion in which people can cure blindness by waving their hands around, much less raise the dead.  Another reason for the impossibility of Christlikeness is that it is self-contradictory — that in various regards it requires people to do or believe opposing things.  Moreover, in some ways it is not even desirable to be Christlike.  For example, Jesus cursed a fig tree that had no fruit, when figs weren’t even in season.  It can take centuries before humans are able to invent plausible explanations for such antics — explanations that God himself, supposedly involved in the writeup, didn’t see fit to provide — and there is no way of knowing whether such invented explanations correspond to what actually happened.

Defining a Christian in terms of Christlike behavior can bring endless quandaries.  Does a person become a Christian by trying to buy the SUV that Jesus would have bought?  That question, somewhat laughable in itself, does illustrate that the New Testament does not remotely contain enough material to provide meaningful insight on the many questions that have always complicated people’s lives, never mind the especially complex questions of current times.  If one must sell everything and give it to the poor and follow Jesus, as he reportedly advised one person to do, where does that leave the would-be follower who is responsible for looking after his/her own family?  Does Christlikeness really require people to treat their own mothers and siblings as strangers?  Some of these are the sorts of difficulties that one would expect, in any effort to convert first-century ideas and stories into meaningful guidance for very different lives two millennia later; some are pecularities about the message(s) of Jesus.

The usual response to this sort of concern, from people who really want to emulate Jesus, seems to be to treat him as a sort of early Gandhi or late Buddha — to extract, that is, those parts of his reported messages and stories that seem most readily convertible into vastly different current terms, more or less consistent with one’s personal inclination.  This appears to be a relatively philosophical approach to Christlikeness, where being Christlike is somewhat like being Aristotelian:  you find your guiding philosopher, you master his/her worldview, and then you reconfigure it into something that works for today.  It’s not necessarily a bad approach, though this, too, can wind up being quite remote from what others consider the real story of Jesus and from what it really means to be a Christian.

So I have at least provided some thoughts on what appear to be the three major ways of defining what a Christian is.  This is a blog post, not a peer-reviewed article.  I realize that there is much more to say, and also that there are probably errors of various sorts here.  Nonetheless, this post seems adequate for the basic purpose.  The ability to choose among several different ways of defining a Christian appears to mean that you can find some reason to call yourself a Christian, if you want to.  Like so many other terms, “Christian” seems to be a vague word that means what people want it to mean, for purposes of saying, believing, or doing what they wish to do.  It seems that the same person can even mean different things by the word, for assorted purposes arising at various times.  Under such circumstances, maybe the best one can do is to offer a very vague, general definition:  maybe a Christian is someone who tends to draw from a collection of linguistic strategies in order to cite Jesus, or some religious or political authority arguably derived from Jesus, as the justification for his/her inclinations.

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