Sunday, 14 October 2012

Repent And Believe

Recently, I attended an evangelistic outreach type meeting. Y'know, the kind where they hold an invitation, at the end of the service, and ask people to come forward to "accept Jesus as their lord and personal savior".  It's the first such event I have attended, since becoming an atheist nearly 3 years ago now.

As you might well imagine, such experiences strike me a lot differently than they used to.  For example, I couldn't help but notice how strongly the evening, as a whole, played to people's emotions.  Was church always like this, I wondered?  Perhaps it was, and I have just forgotten all too quickly.  Somehow that world feels so foreign to me already.  Quite frankly, a few of the personal stories, shared that night, were downright gut wrenching.  Anybody with half a heart would have been profoundly moved, by certain aspects, and I was.  It served to remind me, rather poignantly, of something I already knew (but sometimes forget); namely, that a lot of people come initially to belief in Jesus because of how it makes them feel.  I've written about this dynamic before, right here, but it was a good reminder nonetheless.

It was the invitation itself though, that really grabbed my attention.  There was nothing unusual about it, per se, in fact you might even say it was pretty ordinary (as far as invitations to accept Christ go).  The preacher focused heavily on the guilt that we all should feel, for having done bad things in our lives, and then moved straight into the "Jesus can forgive you" clincher. The line that I remember most, went roughly something like this, "by coming forward tonight you are saying to God 'I repent of my sins, and I believe that Jesus was your son'".  As the preacher continued on with his plea, it occurred to me that this simple line of his encapsulates one of my single biggest objections to the Christian faith.  

Let's look at the line again, and see if you can guess what I will take issue with.  (Keep in mind these probably weren't his exact words, but it matters not to my general point.)  Here it is again, "by coming forward tonight you are saying to God, 'I repent of my sins, AND I BELIEVE THAT JESUS WAS YOUR SON'".  Let me state my objection plainly...

The preacher was pitching repentance but, in so doing, he was smuggling intellectual assent through the back door.  

Now, you might be tempted to ask, so what?  What exactly is the difference anyway, between repentance and "intellectual assent"?  I might have asked the same question, only a few short years ago.  Let's think about it for a moment.  When Christians speak of the need for "repentance", what they basically mean is that the given person needs to feel badly for falling short of God's perfection.  So, to "repent" is to turn around, admit your wrongdoing, and head in the other direction.  That's essentially it.  But what on earth does this have to do with the purely historical proposition that Jesus was God's son?  I'll tell you what...nothing whatsoever.

On the rare occasion I bring this objection up to Christians, they tend to say something along the lines of "well, it's impossible to repent to someone that you don't believe in".  True enough.  But this is precisely my point.  Intellectual assent (belief) is a non-negotiable, according to basic Christian theology.  It may not be the only thing needed for salvation since, after all, "even the demons believe" (that there is one god), but it's certainly one of the required elements.  

Allow me to further illustrate my point...let's suppose that someone is generally o.k. with the idea that we're all imperfect, but they have serious doubts about whether or not Jesus was God, rose from the dead, or performed miracles etc.  Can such a person make it to heaven, without changing their mind on the factual claims?  I have yet to meet a single Christian who answers "yes" to this question (in fact, most give it a resounding "no").  In other words, a lack of intellectual assent (aka belief) precludes you from being a Christian.  Right?  But the preacher said nary a word, during the course of the sermon, about why we should believe the proposition that Jesus was God's son.  Not one word.  After all, Jesus could well have been something else, like just a man, yes?  So, what gives him (the preacher) the right to insist that people intellectually assent to something they haven't properly investigated; especially something so incredibly important, and controversial?  Isn't this bordering on the irresponsible?  Was he meaning to implicitly suggest that unbelievers go home, read up on the relevant research, and then come to an informed conclusion, on their own, when they feel ready to do so?  Quite the contrary!  In fact, he implored the audience members to make an immediate decision, to "accept or reject" Jesus, before it was too late for their very souls.  What's worst of all, to me, is that he did it under the pretext that they were merely admitting to having done some bad things in life.  (Who hasn't?)

To be perfectly clear, I don't mean to imply there was deceitful intent, in the way the gospel was presented that evening.  On the contrary, I think the preacher's message was actually quite representative of how the Christian message is very typically packaged.  I've heard hundreds of salvation sermons throughout the years and, as best as I can recall, only a tiny handful of them have so much as *mentioned* issues relevant to the historical claims of Christianity. Even in those rare instances, often the "facts" are given a shallow, Lee Strobel-ish sort of treatment.  It may sound impressive enough, to the totally uninitiated, but (unsurprisingly) the counter arguments are rarely broached in any serious way, if broached at all. (I led many people to Christ myself, while I was a believer, and usually via "The Romans Road".)

I couldn't help but wonder, as people stepped out to get "saved", how many of them were versant in the historical research pertaining to Jesus.  Had they sufficiently considered, for example, the evidence pointing to him as a failed apocalyptic prophet?  (For a taste, see here, here, and here.) I strongly doubt it.  In fact, I doubt that most of them would even have known what an apocalyptic prophet was.  Regardless, they were tacitly assenting to the belief that Jesus was God's son by going forward.  Given that the sermon focused almost exclusively on repentance, the brute reality is these sorts of intellectual questions were, rather ironically, likely the furthest thing from their minds in that moment.

In Christianity, the belief often just comes as part of the package deal.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Hearing From God

September tends to be one of my busiest months of the year, if not my busiest, which is why it's been so long since my last post.  I will (hopefully) be able to put a little more effort in here, moving forward.

This time around I'd like to offer a few of my current thoughts on how Christians hear from god. You see, I have a Christian friend who recently experienced a major professional disappointment. I don't want to get into the details but, suffice it to say, a project they were working on did not turn out the way they had hoped and expected it would.  I did my best to be encouraging, even complimentary, since I felt they had done an excellent job on the project (regardless of the outcome).

But here was the really interesting subsequent conversations my friend indicated that, despite the initial disappointment, she was ultimately o.k. with the failure of the project itself. What was confusing her now was one question, and one question only, namely "where is god in all of this?" (Her words.)  I had to admire her candor, and willingness to be vulnerable.  After positing this question, my friend shared with me about how she felt god had spoken very clearly to her, during a Christian event, telling her to move forward with this particular project.  Prior to that point, she said, her focus had simply been elsewhere.  In other words, she would not have pursued the project, to begin with, had she not felt that god was literally telling her to do so.  

So, what happened?  In my observation, there are three ways (possibly more) that Christians internally process these sorts of scenarios.  Let's look at each of them, in turn, and then I'll offer a few thoughts of my own...

I Didn't Hear From God Correctly

I suppose one possibility is that my friend simply didn't hear from God correctly.  Perhaps the physical sensations, that she says she felt, were nothing more than a chill in the air because the room temperature was too cold that night.  Or maybe the devil was trying to deceive her, by pretending to be god.  I hear Satan does that sort of thing sometimes.    

God Wanted To Teach Me Something

Another extremely common response, in the wake of such disappointments, is to claim that god's ultimate goal was to teach the believer something.  It is true, after all, that we often learn and grow as a result of our failures.  Would any reasonable person want to deny this?  On top of that, according to the Christian worldview, god's ultimate goal is to mold us into his character.  Given this, the "success", of this or that earthly initiative, is not really his main concern at the end of the day (even though it might sometimes be ours).

God Wanted To Test My Obedience

Even in those cases where the believer might feel as if they didn't consciously learn anything, from the experience, they still have an out.  It remains possible, even after every other potential avenue has been exhausted, that god simply wanted to test the given believer's willingness to obey.  Would my friend follow through, on what god had clearly asked her to do, or wouldn't she? The choice was hers to make (and god was watching).  Perhaps this whole situation was primarily intended as a test of her faith.

So why do I, as an atheist, and former Christian, now reject each of these interpretations?  Let's go through them again...

I Didn't Hear From God Correctly

The problem with this one, as I see it, lies in the fact that there are no unambiguous "hearing from god" criteria, in Christian circles.  I mean, how is one to know whether or not they are hearing from god "correctly"?  Isn't it something of a crap shoot?  (Excuse the term.)  Believers will typically encourage one another to match these sorts of personal revelations to the Bible (to be sure they are, at the very least, not anti-Biblical) but, other than that, how is one to know?  Can a Christian ever be entirely confident that they have indeed heard from god?  If so, how?

God Wanted To Teach Me Something

This is especially tricky because, as I already pointed out, we do often learn things through failure. There's no doubt about that.  In my friend's case though, the project in question was actually quite similar to one they had undertaken previously.  As such, even after it was over, my friend didn't feel as if they had learned anything new, per se.  They pursued it anyway because, in their perception, god told them to pursue it, period.

God Wanted To Test My Obedience

Christians have this bizarre way of taking things that "should" cause them to doubt, and flipping them around into faith building exercises.  For example, if God feels silent, in your daily quiet time, it's not because he isn't there.  It's because he wants to see if you will still remain faithful, even in the midst of the silence.  Or, when a loved one dies of cancer, god is quietly asking, "will you trust me now?"
When caught up in this mode of thinking, as I once was, there is literally *nothing* that counts as a strike against your faith.  You've re-structured all of life's events, both good and bad, into a giant faith affirming, totally unfalsifiable paradigm.  It's not unlike the way Christians view god's potential answers to prayer; namely, yes, no, or wait.  But given that those are the only three options, even in theory, how would a believer ever come to the conclusion that prayer doesn't work?  Perhaps it explains, in part, why so few of them do come to that conclusion.  

I'd like to close by telling you what I suspect really happened, in my friend's case.  I'm not claiming to know for absolute certain, of course, but if you'll humor me I'd like to give it a whirl...

I think my friend probably felt torn, about whether or not to pursue this new project, but was leaning in the "no" direction initially.  The clock was ticking, on the potential for implementation of the project, so on one level they knew that a decision would need to be made on it fairly soon. Something was said, during the course of the evening, that my friend took to be a word straight from god to them.  Every Christian knows what I'm talking about here.  It's like you are the only one in the room and, somehow or another, god has given the speaker just the right words to say. Those words were meant for you, of that there is no doubt in your mind.  God not only wanted you to attend the given event, he even orchestrated in advance the words that would be spoken (knowing, of course, that you would be there).  This is pretty rad stuff.

Circling back to my friend, these words caused an emotional reaction in her, at a deep level, leading to physical shivers and the whole deal.  I believe most of this happens beneath the level of conscious awareness.  Due to her worldview, she naturally interpreted her reaction as a primarily spiritual (rather than primarily emotional) effect, it was god telling her to pursue the project.

I should also point out that, from my purview now, this sort of thing is another clear example of patternicity + agenticity.  The speaker in question likely said something reasonably vague, that could be applied to any number of situations.  (Think fortune cookies, horoscopes, or even the prophecies of Nostradamus.)  Depending on their emotional state, many in the audience (perhaps not all) will hear these words and apply it (internally) to their own situation(s).  This first part is called patternicity.  In other words, they have established a connection between what was said, however general, and a very specific and personal situation.  The second step, of course, is to attribute this new mental connection to an agent; namely, in this case, the Christian god that the audience members already believe in.  So, the full pattern goes like this: a) vague, but inspiring, statement made, b) vague statement internally applied to personal situation(s) = c) god must be speaking to me, through one of my fellow human beings, about my personal situation.  In short, it's a false pattern applied to an intentional agent.

I don't realistically expect Christians to immediately abandon their worldview, if/when they get confused about whether or not god has spoken to them in a particular scenario.  My goals here are a little more modest.  What I would like, and don't see as unreasonable, is for them to at least consider the fact that natural explanations *might* be more plausible.  Maybe god's voice is confusing because he doesn't speak at all.  And maybe he doesn't speak because he isn't real. Maybe your perceived "relationship with god" is a product of factors internal to your brain, and nothing beyond that.  Maybe, just maybe, it has always been this way.

I realize it's still a very tall order.  (Believe me, I've been there.)  

These are the things I wanted desperately to say to my friend, but couldn't, since she believes that I am still a Christian.  Instead, I just did my best to be supportive, and I shied away from offering the sorts of pat answers I suspected she was getting from some of her other friends.