November 17, 2019

When All Else Fails

In today’s pluralist, spiritual-but-not-religious world, it’s worth asking:  Why Christianity?  A lot of people are asking that question these days, if not in words then in actions.  You know the statistics:  falling church membership, those who still attend not accepting the tenets of the historical faith, even growing atheism.  More people are content with a personal spirituality or with no spirituality at all.  Even Christian believers, if they are thoughtful, honest people, may ask themselves whether Christianity is objective truth or just what they happen to prefer.

If you’re even reading this, you have some thoughts about what purpose religion serves.  Well, what is the purpose of religion, and is religion in general, and one religion in particular, the only way to achieve that purpose?

Being a good person

This is certainly what many would offer as the foundation of religion.  All the world religions, and most of the philosophies, deal with what we have to do and how we have to live in order to be good people.  We have to align ourselves with the mandate of heaven, or follow the Five Pillars or the Ten Commandments; we have to recognize the balance of dharma and do works of mercy to people as well as rituals for God or gods; we have to embrace suffering and develop impassivity, or we have to embrace pleasures and revel in creation.  The stated goal of these religions and philosophies is to be better – to please God, sin less, be more in control of behavior, follow the rules more exactly, and (let’s be honest) look better in the eyes of neighbors.

But religion has hardly cornered the self-improvement market.  Secular systems also offer options for improvement.  Psychotherapy can make it easier for you to behave as you should in your society and in some cases is more effective at that than religion.  Physical training can make you stronger, healthier, and more attractive.  Wealth and success also promise improvements in both personality and circumstances.  There are courses, books, retreats, and advice any where you look, and some of them actually work to some degree.

So if it’s self-help you need, Christianity is not your best option.  In fact, if you look carefully, Christianity discourages its followers from simply trying to be good.  It even assures adherents that they won’t succeed at it.  And there are plenty of Christians illustrating the principle that their religion doesn’t make them good people, and plenty of people of other religions, or no religion at all, who are generous, humble, and wise.

Finding inner balance and outer peace

The message of Christianity here, as with being a good person, is disturbingly mixed.  Jesus tells us he brings peace but also a sword.  And Christianity’s track record in achieving world peace is – well, it doesn’t really have one, does it.  It probably has a better claim to bringing about inner peace, but even in that case Christianity can point only to a minority of genuinely contented individuals.  Most Christians are as frazzled and angry as the people around them.

If it’s inner peace you want, several religions focus more on that than Christianity does; so does psychotherapy.  And for avoiding outright war, you might as well go to the United Nations or the Hague as to church. So why not embrace instead the meditating Buddha, the Zen path to enlightenment, or the Baha’i effort to erase racial and national differences?

Achieving insight into the universe

Although this is offered as a function of religion, I’m not sure how many people are even interested in unveiling the secrets of life, the universe, and everything.  Most of my students, for example, just want to get a good job, provide for their family, and be comfortable – that’s enough.  But those who are driven by a search for truth are less and less likely to look for it in religion.  Science is the door to knowledge nowadays, according to many, and if science can’t explain something, they think, then it isn’t real.  (This is the attitude of average non-scientists, anyway.  I hear it a lot in the classroom and in other world at large.)  Because Christianity’s claims about the nature of God and humankind can’t be tested in a laboratory, they lack credibility.

But science has its failings, too, and those who have lost their – well, faith, for lack of a better word – in science may go to the opposite extreme from the laboratory in their search for knowledge.  They want the out-of-body, mystical, emotional experience that comes from, oh, gnostic initiations or hallucinogenic drugs.  The quotidian duties of Christianity don’t satisfy them for long.

In fact, pretty much anything you might expect to get from Christianity you can get from somewhere else, in some cases much more easily and thoroughly.

So why Christianity?

Because Christianity is for losers.

Christianity is not for the successful but for the disillusioned and hopeless.  Christianity begins where everything else ends.  When you’ve tried the therapy and the rule-following and the exercise routine; when you’ve been to Mecca, meditated until you’re stuck in the lotus position, or spent your savings on plush retreats in the California hills, and you’re still the same sinner you ever were – that’s when Christianity has something to say to you.  And what it says is that God understands that we are broken and we can’t fix ourselves.  And that’s pretty much how things are going to be in this life.

It’s true that the Son of God worked some miracles, that he “fixed” a few people, but not many.  Most people were and are left just as damaged as they were before meeting Jesus.  So he didn’t come just to fix us here and now, even though that’s what we’d really prefer.  He came to keep us company, to be God with Us.

Only Christianity shows us a God who is hungry and dirty, rejected, abused, and killed, all in solidarity with prostitutes, shake-down artists, adulterers, cheaters, and all the rest of us twisted by sin.  Christianity shows us a God who joins us in our fallen world to weep over the dead, and to sweat in terror in the face of his own death.   He is the sacrifice freely given in our stead, while we spit on him.  He is also the father who runs to greet us after we’ve tried all those other routes to happiness and success that have ended in the pigsty.  He is not far from us; he comes to us when we are still far off.  He does not require perfection by our own efforts.

God’s humility offends the people who are still convinced that they can achieve some form of goodness by their own efforts, and that the universe is set up to reward those who try hardest.  But those of us who have seen all earthly methods fail, and who know our own failure, can relax into the embrace of the shepherd, the loving mother, the longing father who knows our humanity and has blessed it by his presence.  If all the other systems for human perfection are working for you, then the God of failures, killed as a thief in a dusty and obscure corner of the world, has nothing to offer you.  But to me, he is hope and rest and peace.

Comments

  1. Beautiful. Just beautiful.

  2. Beautiful!

    • ‘in the days of our flesh’ it is difficult to comprehend a time when ‘the sea shall give up its dead’

  3. Christianity is not for the successful but for the disillusioned and hopeless.

    Then I qualify.

    When you’ve tried the therapy and the rule-following and the exercise routine; when you’ve been to Mecca, meditated until you’re stuck in the lotus position, or spent your savings on plush retreats in the California hills, and you’re still the same sinner you ever were – that’s when Christianity has something to say to you.

    I may have dabbled a little in one or two of these things (not the plush retreats!), and a few others, but I’ve never had the inner or outer resources to be all in on any of them. There’s a real sense in which I can’t say if they work or not, because I haven’t fully immersed myself in them. I only know that at this stage of the game I have even fewer of the resources required to make any of these things work, so I feel hopeless with regard to all of them; but I continue to wonder if some of them actually work for those who can fully commit, and that is a possibility I can’t dismiss just because I’m unable to actualize it. There”s no way for me to personally know.

  4. “God’s humility offends the people who are still convinced that they can achieve some form of goodness by their own efforts, and that the universe is set up to reward those who try hardest. But those of us who have seen all earthly methods fail, and who know our own failure, can relax into the embrace of the shepherd, the loving mother, the longing father who knows our humanity and has blessed it by his presence”

    “20Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21For since in the wisdom of God, the world through its wisdom did not know Him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.

    Jews demand signs and Greeks search for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Greeks, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      “20Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?

      Eeyore, that verse has been used time and time again to justify Holy Nincompoop Syndrome, where the more stupid and ignorant you act the more Holy and Godly you must be.

  5. Steve Newell says

    Christian Smith had the best description for many Americans’ religious views: “Moralistic therapeutic deism”.

    1. A God exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
    2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
    3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
    4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
    5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

  6. Christianity is declining in the West but what’s actually declining is its domination of culture and philosophy and politics. This is a good thing. Once it’s no longer to anyone’s advantage to pretend to be a believer then the barnacles and the leeches (pick your own metaphor) will begin to drop off. The living organism can then revitalize itself. Pay particular attention to the ones most perturbed by this purge. They tend to be the ones who love the church like Count Dracula loved Mina Harker.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Historically, the RCC actually gained a lot of influence when they lost their political power and feudal landholdings in the 19th & 20th Centuries.

  7. Only Christianity shows us a God who is hungry and dirty, rejected, abused, and killed, all in solidarity with prostitutes, shake-down artists, adulterers, cheaters,…
    This is well said and is indeed what God in Christ does. But to what purpose, to what end? Is this Christ’s ultimate purpose?

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Better than lobotomized worship bots in a never-ending Heavenly church service.

      Because that was the way it was presented to me when I was in-country.

    • dep,

      In Eastern Christianity, Christ’s ultimate purpose is

      1) to show us (and tell us) what God is really like – humble and loving even when being killed, and how to live like a human being – simply, humble, kind and in solidarity with all those seen as “losers”;

      2) to evacuate Death of its power, through fear of it, to enslave us to sin (Heb 2.14-15) by going into death and gutting it from the inside, then rising from the dead, and bestowing on us his Spirit for the power to do #1 as we continually turn to him. In his resurrection to life we have the promise of our own resurrection to fully partake of the life of the age to come (on a restored earth), which we already provisionally experience from the time we’re baptized into Christ.

      The Incarnation is so important for both of those – has cosmic ramifications – but is hardly considered in Protestantism other than a way for Jesus to get a body so he can be sacrificed. It is SO much more.

      This isn’t deferred hope for everything to suddenly be okay once we get to fluffy-cloud Heaven, and it doesn’t deny the goodness of the created world. It gives us inner peace and helps us live peacefully and contentedly with others, if that’s what we really want to do. It’s not easy – some things inside us have to be put to death, and sometimes we might have to live in hell on earth, for various reasons. No matter what, Christ is always with us, and we are in him, and in being in him we are in the Godhead themselves.

      There is no other answer to Ivan Karamazov’s complaint and the Grand Inquisitor’s accusations than the kiss of Christ. If that’s not enough, then nothing else matters.

      Dana

  8. Randy Thompson says

    “So why Christianity? Because Christianity is for losers. Christianity is not for the successful but for the disillusioned and hopeless. Christianity begins where everything else ends. ”

    Excellent.

    Thanks for this.

  9. Christianity will always be a beacon to the lost and the desperate. Even if Christians tire of Christianity it will continue to be vital because the living Christ is in it.

  10. Rampaging Chipmunk says

    This is gonna sound flippant and crass, but basically, the last two paragraphs paint a picture of Christianity as a cosmic coping mechanism for people who have discovered that life can and often does suck. They turn to a potentially imaginary friend to make them feel better and give them hope that things will be better when they die. And this is the big selling point for Christianity. (And when comparing to other options, “selling point” is an unfortunately appropriate term.) That could easily just be my skeptical and deconstruction-tending brain reading negativity into something when it isn’t actually there, but whatever. Honestly, the only two motivations for picking Christianity that make sense to me are fire insurance and the personal preference component mentioned in the first paragraph. It seems to me that any other reason can be deconstructed and rendered inert. I’m short on time so I can’t elaborate further, but I welcome any responses challenging my post.

    • RC, I hear you. Maybe because I’m feeling a lot of life sucks lately, but yes. And I don’t feel motivated by “fire insurance”. Maybe because I’m busy in the here and now and that seems far off? but mostly because it feels like a fire around here now and firefighters are few and far between.
      I was the worship leader (person who leads liturgy, readings, etc) at my church Sunday. The guy that did the sermon (not the usual person) spoke only of believing so that we’d get to heaven. Nothing about God here with us now, nothing about love. Just a carrot, dangled far off for people starving right here.
      Church and church people seem tone deaf mostly. And yet, I am unable to write it all off.
      Where am I? Yelling into the wind, expectantly. Lord help me.
      Cultural influence? probably. but the yell is coming from my soul.

      • Karol, (and Chipmunk)

        maybe what I wrote above to dep will have something for you.

        Your soul’s cry is real. I believe Christ hears it, and is with you; he heard my soul’s cry, and led me in a path I did not even know existed, that came at me “from out of left field.”

        Longing for something more is why most of us are here at iMonk. You’re in good company 🙂

        Dana

        • Dana, Are you being affected by the power shut off in Northern California?

          • Maybe… There’s so much iffiness about this – so much depends on the weather, and the mood of the Grand Poobahs of PG&E. So far, my town is not scheduled for power outage, but it may happen anyway because of the vagaries of The Grid. More rural areas might be more likely to experience a shutoff in my county. Farther south, where it’s more populated – much greater inconveniences. Supposedly the shutoff will not last more than 48 hours. We’ll see.

            It’s dry, but not as hot as 2 years ago and the wind is not roaring from the east. It’s PG&E (and SoCal Edison probably as well) covering their a$$es. Again, iffy, iffy, iffy.

            Thank you for asking.

            Dana

    • All I can think about are the “losers” that Jesus brushed up against (“losers” as in “no hope in their current culture”), and how those interactions were those people’s turning points. Lepers, the blind, the paralytic, hemorrhaging women, convivcted adulterers, etc… Meanwhile, the “winners” of the world tend to bristle against that Good News, to their detriment.

      Maybe it takes getting to the point where a person has nothing to lose that they make the connection of “Oh, this Jesus guy is a loser’s only real hope.” In fact, I was just talking with someone today that I imagine the person least likely to accept Jesus is the one whose life is going great.

      • “I have come not to call the righteous, but sinners.”

        “It is not the healthy who call for a doctor, but the sick.”

        If you think that you don’t need grace, or you want to give something in order to get it… then it’s not Good News for you.

  11. senecagriggs says

    The New England Primer

    In Adam’s fall
    We sinned all

    • I go with what the Bible says over the New England Primer. Ezekiel 18:20 says “The child will not share the guilt of the parent, nor will the parent share the guilt of the child.”

      • Apples and oranges.

        Ez; I don’t have to follow in my father’s path. I can find salvation.

        Adamic fall: We all need a Savior

        • Not really Apples and Oranges in my opinion. In the story in Genesis Adam brought death but not condemnation to all who were born after, each of us has our own sins to deal with. That in Adam we all fall was Augustine’s invention based upon his weak understanding of original languages and misinterpretations of the book of Romans.

          • Actually, when I look across all the Christian traditions past and present it seems to me that it has become the Gospel of the pick-and-choose.

        • And probably I am as susceptible to that as anyone else 🙂

  12. Got back from my annual check-up today. Some numbers good; others not. Could do to lower my B.M.I. Creeping close to diabetes. Doc said to get some strength training in maybe 3x per week. Eat the colorful fruits and veggies. Oi, it’s work just to live.

    I’m not terribly fond of getting older. The outcome of mortality becomes ever more pronounced. I am a future corpse.

    “But to me, he is hope and rest and peace.”

    Thank you, Damaris Zehner, thank you!

    • “I am a future corpse.”

      Well put.

      • Christiane says

        ‘dust thou art’, true, true

        HOWEVER, there is also THIS from Job 19:

        ” For I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that He shall stand at the latter day upon the earth:
        And though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God:
        Whom I shall see for myself, and mine eyes shall behold, and not another”

    • Rampaging Chipmunk says

      I recommend Athlean X for lifting stuff and smoothies for assisting with eating fruit and veg. Toss some frozen blueberries, a frozen banana, some frozen kale, some protein powder, and some healthy nuts like almonds or walnuts into a Nutribullet blender and you have a surprisingly delicious and healthy food.

  13. I think to me it’s about discovering ones place in the story. (And that there even is a story). I guess that would most closely align with your category of “understanding the universe”, though science and story don’t really mix.

    I believe that if Jesus’ resurrection means anything, it’s that there is also hope now, not just in some future by-and-by. I guess this goes back to Daniel’s question about detectable differences.