Crawling from the Wreckage

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I’m occasionally accused of criticising only evangelical Christianity. It’s an easy target, I’m told, and I should spend some time investigating the more sophisticated and respectable version of Faith: intellectual, liberal Christianity. In fact I already have, and have written about it before. This ‘respectable’ version of the Faith is every bit as dishonest and intellectually lazy as its more excitable counterpart.

It has always seemed to me that evangelicalism and fundamentalism do at least take the most indefensible parts of the bible seriously. They may ignore them when it comes to applying them (loving enemies and giving to all who ask, for example) but at least they accept them, if only metaphorically, as part of ‘God’s inerrant and infallible Word’. Intellectual Christians on the other hand sidestep what they find uncomfortable, selecting only that which fits with what they think the Faith should be:

A Loving Father? Then we’ll disregard the parts where God is clearly anything but.

A wise and compassionate Jesus? We’ll pretend the bits where he’s cruel, ignorant and just plain wrong aren’t really there (or are later additions to the gospels; the mistaken beliefs of the early church.)

Church as inclusive community? We’ll have some of that and ignore all the unhelpful nonsense about most of humankind being destined for eternal torture. (That, after all, is just Paul, or whoever, getting carried away.)

I know they do this, because when my own faith was in its death throes, I did too.

Back in the early ’90s. I’d given up on evangelicalism but desperately wanted to salvage something of the Faith that had once meant so much to me (even as it completely messed up my life.) I wanted a God of Love, so persuaded myself there was one – disregarding what I knew of the hateful, unsavoury aspects of the God of the bible. I also really wanted Jesus to have some meaning; if not as personal saviour then as one who exemplified a purposeful and compassionate life. To do this I had to overlook Paul’s theology of a vengeful God, hell bent on punishing everyone.

In the end, however, I had to be honest with myself and accept that the nice God I was trying to believe in was no more real than the nasty one. What I wanted had no bearing on the nature of God, nor on whether he existed. Similarly with the nice Jesus, who could be unpleasant and unreasonably demanding as well. I was being entirely selective, as most Christians are, about how I constructed my own personal Jesus.

Hanging on to fragments of faith was futile. I could no longer sustain the cognitive dissonance required to embrace the parts of Christianity that made me feel good, inspired me or made me kinder, while ignoring the downright nasty bits. If I was experiencing the good things (and I was) I had to accept they were coming from somewhere other than Christianity; if I was to go on experiencing them I had to acknowledge that and cultivate them by other means.

It seemed at first that this would be difficult outside of a church but in fact there are numerous groups committed to helping and inspiring others, without the superfluous and irrelevant presence of religion. It simply isn’t necessary to hang on to selected scraps from a discredited belief system; life lies, in abundance, elsewhere.

This is why I have no more respect for intellectualised, liberal Christianity than I have for evangelicalism. There is nothing intellectual about the cognitive dissonance needed to be an ‘intellectual’ Christian. It is, in the end, a largely content free version of Faith, the spiritual equivalent of a homeopathic remedy. I mean, really: why bother?

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It all comes down to feelings and subjective experience

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Argue with Christians (Hi there, Jim! Hi there, Don!) about the veracity of their faith and they will tell you it’s true for two reasons: the Bible and their own personal experience. ‘Christianity is true and Jesus is real because the Bible says so – and, whatsmore, I feel it.’

Or, as William Craig Lane likes to put it, the inner witness of the Holy Spirit testifies to the truth of Christianity. It’s a beautifully circular argument: ‘Christianity and its holy book are true; I know this because the Holy Spirit who lives in me tells me so; I know the Holy Spirit lives in me because the Bible says he does; therefore, I know Christianity and the Bible are true because the Holy Spirit tells me so’.

But equally, Mormons claim that they ‘know’ a completely different set of improbable beliefs are true because they experience a ‘burning in the bosom’ that tells them so. Roman Catholics say their faith is true because they experience Christ through the Eucharist, while Muslims know theirs is true because they have a real sense of Allah’s presence.

All of these spiritual convictions are not, as a liberal theologian like Karen Armstrong might claim, evidence that there is Something-Out-There that loves and communicates with us, but more obviously that human beings’ brains are adept at creating whatever ‘inner witness’ is required to support the beliefs and convictions they have arrived at. William Lane Craig concedes this when he acknowledges that

Anyone (or, at least any sort of theist) can claim to have a self-authenticating witness of God to the truth of his religion. But the reason you argue with them is because they really don’t: either they’ve just had some emotional experience or else they’ve misinterpreted their religious experience.

In other words, any experience of ‘self-authenticating witness’ enjoyed by believers in faiths outside Craig’s own brand of Christianity is at best mistaken, at worst fake. But then, how can anyone know, Craig included, that his own conviction isn’t just as much an emotional flush or mere subjective experience? Why is his conviction any more real than that of other kinds of believers? Ultimately, Craig can only say, “because it is”:

a person (possessed by the Holy Spirit) does not need supplementary arguments or evidence in order to know and to know with confidence that he is in fact experiencing the Spirit of God.

In other words, the true believer knows his experience of the Holy Spirit is real because his experience of the Holy Spirit tells him it is. And round the argument goes, though no amount of assertion makes a subjective experience an event in objective reality.

It is impossible for Craig, or any other Christian, to demonstrate that an entity he imagines inhabits his brain, no matter how convincing its presence may seem, has any existence anywhere other than in his brain. What the person who says ‘I believe’ is really saying is that they have no evidence at all for what they are claiming. If they had, they wouldn’t need to believe it; they would know it. They would, whatsmore, be able to point to independent, external evidence for it.

The Bible makes a virtue out of not knowing, of believing when there is no evidence.  It calls the resulting cognitive dissonance, ‘faith’.

Adapted from my book, Why Chrisitans Don’t Do What Jesus Tells Them To …And What They Believe Instead.