Personal relationship with God

You might not have realised this, but Christianity is not a religion or a set of beliefs. It is a relationship with God. Or at least, a lot of Christians will tell you it is. I’ve been talking to some of them on uk.religion.christian recently.

The assertion that “Christianity is a relationship” is, at its most basic, a part of an apologetic or evangelistic technique. When talking to people who think that religion is a bad thing, the Christian attempts to convince the listener that Christianity is not like other religions, in fact, it’s so different that it’s not really a religion at all (one can presume that we were saved from claims that Christianity is “religion 2.0” by the fact that there was no Internet when people were thinking this stuff up). It’s the religious equivalent of the spammer’s claim that spam is that which we don’t do. robhu ran into this sort of claim recently. Not all Christians go along with this sort of word-game: hurrah for woodpijn, who is happy to admit that Christianity is in fact a religion.

It’s more interesting to hear people talking of a “personal relationship with God”. I think it means that the Christian relates to God in prayer a bit like they’d relate to humans by talking and listening (God being a person with whom such a relationship is possible, albeit a vastly superior sort of person). This gets you into trouble straight away. If, for example, all the people who claim have they such a relationship really did, they would all agree with each other because when the question of what God thought about something arose, they could just ask him. I’ve mentioned this in the past, but the most recent thread was started off when the Christians on uk.r.c told an atheist that he’d misunderstood Christianity by taking it as a set of beliefs, because in fact (you guessed it) “it’s a relationship with God”. I made my usual point that God doesn’t seem to have his story straight when talking to different people. A couple of posters responded that this was a simplistic view of a relationship, and that the things about which Christians disagree on uk.r.c weren’t very important to God. You can see my response to that.

Mark Goodge responded differently, by saying that he’d meant “relationship” in the sense that someone just is someone else’s son or daughter, regardless of how often they actually speak. Christians are God’s adopted children, even if they believe wildly different things.

As I said in my reply, I can see his point (after all, I thought liberals Christians were real Christians when I was an evangelical). But I wonder how that theology works: who is adopted, and how? Is everyone who claims to be a Christian adopted, including the extreme liberals, the Mormons, and so on? It’ll be interesting to see what Mark’s argument is here.

All the responses still leave the question of just how important believing stuff is to God, in the view of these Christians. The Christian church likes to have schisms on the very issues that the uk.r.christians spend a lot of time debating, so it seems these issues are pretty serious. I’ve certainly run into Christians who thought you cannot be an actively gay Christian, a Catholic Christian, a Christian who doesn’t believe that Jesus was God, or a Christian who doesn’t believe that God exists at all. If these things really are important to God, though, you’d have thought he’d tell his children his views. We must conclude that what God considers important is the stuff that everyone who is a Christian agrees on, namely that you should be nice to people, that Jesus was probably a good bloke, and that it’s important to gather with your friends every so often and sing songs (although not with musical accompaniment, obviously: Christians must be like popular 80s beat combo The Flying Pickets). On this basis, I think I could be a Christian after all.

Divorce and gay marriage

The Bible has much more to say on divorce and remarriage than it does on homosexuality. Ignoring the vexed question about what exactly the Bible does say about homosexuality (and the assumption implicit in the idea of “what the Bible says“, namely that the Bible is a unitary document which is to be read in the way evangelicals do), the New Testament statements on divorce are clearly and directly against both divorce and marrying a divorcee. Jesus describes the latter as adultery in all of the synoptic gospels. St Paul explicitly states that divorcees must not remarry.

There are a couple of exceptions to the rule: sexual malpractice of some kind (the Greek word which the New International Version translates as “marital unfaithfulness” here, and “sexual immorality” elsewhere, usually rendered “fornication” in the King James Version) and the case where a Christian has an unbelieving spouse and that spouse deserts the believer.

Nevertheless, my impression is that evangelical churches are more willing to re-marry divorcees (whether or not they would be subject to the exceptions mentioned above) than, say, Catholics are, while at the same time being steadfastly against gay marriage. I’ve been asking an evangelical about this on uk.religion.christian, after he made a statement which seemed to confirm my impression. He’s said some good things about repentance and forgiveness in regard to divorce, but hasn’t yet addressed the point that the second marriage itself is described as sinful by the Bible, so it’s hard to see how one can repent of a sin while one is doing it.

I think these churches are doing the right thing in letting compassion overrule “what the Bible says”, of course, but once you’ve done that, why not do it for the gays too? The reason why they don’t do that is, I cynically suspect, because they know what their members want: there are a lot more straight divorcees than there are gay people wanting to get married. As St Jack of Lewis pointed out, it’s very easy to condemn a sin to which you feel no particular temptation.

I read The Post-Evangelical when it was fashionable the first time, dahling

This is mostly a link dump of the stuff I’ve been reading lately, but I’ll try to say something interesting while I’m about it.

The Post-Evangelical

In the pub on Friday, my spy in the ranks of the enemy told me excitedly that she’d read a book I must read also. It turned out to be Dave Tomlinson’s The Post-Evangelical. So I went and read it again to see whether I agreed with what I thought 6 years ago, when I liked the bits about evangelical sub-culture but thought his epistemology was crap.

I still think Tomlinson is at his best when he is describing the pressure towards conformity in evangelicalism and pointedly remarking on the astonishing similarity between evangelical mores and those of middle-class society. There’s nothing wrong with being middle-class, in my book, but to elevate the most caricatured aspects of it to the status of a religion is probably taking things too far. Tomlinson’s thoughts about that weren’t new even in 2000, as Pete Broadbent pointed out (apparently Pete’s a bishop these days, so there is something the Church of England got right).

I still don’t know quite what his proposed alternative to both evangelicalism and liberalism actually is. It might be something which takes those parts of evangelicalism which aren’t the middle-class bits and uses them as guidelines rather than as axioms. For example, Tomlinson tells us that post-evangelicals don’t believe in Biblical inerrancy, but do retain the belief that God will speak through the Bible.

Or it might be an attempt to make the whole thing fuzzy, using, in Tomlinson’s terms, “poetic” rather than “scientific” language. Regular readers will know that anyone who behaves like a scientist and starts asking questions about what their religion actually means and whether it’s really true must end up an atheist. In that case, perhaps the best way for religion to survive is to avoid finding the answers to questions. If evangelicals are caricatures of the middle-classes, are the post-evangelicals and emerging church people caricatures of arts students, as holyoffice tells us (you’ll need to search for “The Emerging Church”)? I suppose I’d need to ask a real live post-evangelical to be sure: is there one in the house?

While I was looking around the web to see what other people had said about the book, I came across Maggi Dawn‘s blog. She’s currently the chaplain at Robinson college, but was one of the people who worked with Tomlinson in setting up a church in which meets in a pub. There’s a lot of interesting stuff in the archives of her blog. A couple of things which caught my eye were an evangelical critiquing the idea of a personal relationship wtih Jesus, and the story of how the Christian Union at Birmingham University fell foul of Student Union rules.

Textual criticism

Rev Dawn also linked to the Washington Post story on Bart Ehrman, a university lecturer on the New Testament. Ehrman’s a former evangelical Christian who became an agnostic after studying the history of the Biblical texts. The Post does a good job of evoking what it must feel like to be in his position.

The comments on the article on Rev Dawn’s blog rapidly dissolve into the standard liberal vs evangelical slanging match (“by this all men will know you are my disciples, if you flame one another on the Internet”, as Jesus once put it). There is an interesting question she poses there, though, which is why people who have left Christianity devote so much time to criticising it instead of moving on.

LOL furriesChristians

There’s something in Tony B’s comment, I suppose: even if you’ve decided it’s not true, there’s an intellectual fascination there, and the feeling that it’d be nice if all manner of things really will be well. But there’s also something like the stuff Sam Harris talks about. Even moderate religion gives cover to fundamentalists by making belief in an invisible friend strangely more respectable than believing in alien abduction or that Elvis is alive, and by propagating the idea that criticism of a person’s religious beliefs is taboo in a way that criticism of any other belief strangely is not. The latter is a defence mechanism evolved by religions, as Douglas Adams rightly says. People who’ve left a religion have already broken stronger barriers than that, so it’s not surprising that they’re occasionally a little outspoken (who, me?)

I’ve got a theory

Some of you are apparently riveted by the postings on religion. I’ve not been discussing much on LJ lately, but the monster thread on uk.religion.gjm11 continues, and I’ve been taking part in that.

cathedral_life posted a response to gjm11‘s original announcement, and we got into a discussion about why evangelicalism is often attractive to scientists. We also talk about what I see as the inevitable conflict between science and religion when they both make claims about the physical universe.

There’s also a fair bit of talk from various people about cathedral_life‘s statement that salvation is a corporate rather than individual affair, so much so that she feels individuals don’t have the authority to say they are no longer Christian. (From the thread link, you’ll have to scroll the left frame to see the arrow indicating the point in the thread where cathedral_life posted. Google is a rubbish interface for reading Usenet news, so if you’re really interested in the group, get a proper newsreader.)

I also assert that evangelicalism is like bunnies.

I deconverted years ago, dahling, before it was fashionable…

gjm11 is someone I’ve known for years, initially through the uk.religion.christian newsgroup, and then through LiveWires. He’s a very clever man. Since my own loss of faith, I’ve sometimes wondered about the very clever people I know who are Christians (gjm11 among them), and how they manage to sustain their faith in the face of (what I see as) the serious intellectual flaws in Christianity.

Unbeknown to me, gjm11 had been thinking hard about it for a while, and recently announced that he is no longer a Christian. He has an essay on the web where he outlines some of the main reasons for his deconversion. The enormous thread on uk.religion.christian which followed his announcement is, I think, interesting to anyone who wonders about how people get, keep and lose faith.

A common argument from the uk.religion.christians is that the religion is about a personal relationship rather than purely about the truth of Christian doctrine (note that when they say that Christianity is about a relationship, Christians are using a special meaning of the word “relationship” of which you’d not previously been aware). gjm11 points out that although Christianity certainly isn’t just doctrine, if the doctrine cannot hold, the rest collapses. It’s clear that not everyone follows the chain of reasoning to its end in that way, though: some people say, if not in so many words, that even though they know it doesn’t make sense logically, they’re going with it because it feels right.

Wild theorising: I know a number of people who read sciences or mathematics, who came into Christianity through evangelicalism and then left Christianity later. These are people you’d expect to see reason as important. It seems to me that they reasoned themselves in and reasoned themselves out, in some sense: Cambridge’s evangelicalism is modernist in the same way that science is, so it is appealing and satisfying to scientist types. Unfortunately, it doesn’t stand up to logical analysis, so they later reject it for the same reason that they accepted it, and so evangelicalism is hoisted by its own petard.

And so to bed.

Just Read The Instructions

I much prefer old, depressive-to-rival-Leonard-Cohen Counting Crows to new, happy Counting Crows.

It’s quieter now all those weddings and barbeques have subsided for a bit. Me and she had a lovely evening with Gareth and Emma the other night. Gareth is the Scourge of Uk.religion.christian, putting nutters to flight with his rapier-like logic. Or something.

I remember mentioning Leonard Richardson’s Guess the Verb interactive fiction game, Munchkin, and opportunitygrrl (whose interests include geology, interplanetary video feeds, Mars, and Christina Aguilera).

Speaking of interactive fiction, I remember I promised terriem some links to IF works recommended by S. terriem also pointed me at Kingdom of Loathing, which I’ve not tried yet. I played through Slouching Towards Bedlam and enjoyed it, although I did have to resort to the help a couple of times. Still, the story’s the thing in this one, not the puzzles so much.

S also recommended 9:05 (which is short and funny in a twisted sort of way), and Spider and Web (which I’ve played a little way, and which is apparently longer). Get them from Home of the Underdogs in their IF section. To play them, you’ll need an interpreter which runs the files. On the Mac, I got Frotz from Fink for the .z5 files and MaxTADs for the TADS ones. This page lists IF interpreters for Windows. There’s a selection of Beginner’s Guides to help with the conventions of the medium.

God Told Me To Do It

“Hell is an outrage on humanity. When you tell me that your Deity made you in his own image, I reply that he must have been very ugly.” -Victor Hugo

I’ve been emailing one of my Christunfrends on the subject of hell. Hell is the dark underbelly of orthodox Christian belief. Christians are, with some notable exceptions, a nice bunch. Remember the natives of the planet Krikkit? In Life, the Universe and Everything they believe in “peace, justice, morality, culture, sport, family life, and the obliteration of all other life forms.” As I’ve said before, evangelicals are sometimes a bit like that. Only instead of the obliteration of all other life forms, we have the eternal conscious torment of non-believers in Hell (annihilationism being viewed as suspiciously liberal by people like Reform).

<lj-cut> When I was a Christian, if asked, I’d have said that my non-Christian friends were going to Hell. But, like my correspondant, I’d not really faced what that meant. Most Christians consider Medieval pictures of fire and pitchforks a little passé these days, but regardless of that, Hell is conceived by Christians as the total absence of anything good. Choose your own favourite candidate for the worst thing that’s ever happened, and it’s worse than that. Forever.

The justification for an infinite punishment for a finite crime is supposedly that it’s not really a finite crime at all. God is so perfect that the smallest offence against him is as bad as the largest. Or he’s so good that nothing sinful can come into his presence. The latter explanation of the mechanics of damnation absolves God of personal involvement in sending people to Hell, as it’s logical necessity which means that nobody can join God in heaven without the aid of Jesus.

My friend, and presumably other Christians, respond to the thought that their friends are damned with gratitude that Christians are saved, and also with an increased zeal for evangelism. What’s missing from this is a question about how their friends’ fate can possibly be just. If the latter explanation is true, why does God sustain consciousness in the damned? And if he doesn’t deliberately sustain it, why are the damned conscious, as we’re told that in him we live and move and have our being?

And if the former explanation is true, why is he so goddamned tetchy? We have Christians who are supposed to be longsuffering, patient and kind, serving a God who is second to none in his sociopathic perfectionism (“Using an adaption of Anselm’s Ontological Argument, or otherwise, prove this statement about God is true. [20 marks]”). As Terry Pratchett points out in Small Gods, the prophets are better than the gods they serve.

I was attempting to understand how someone can thank God for salvation in the face of the knowledge of the fate of their loved ones. There are a couple of possible explanations. One is that Christians just haven’t thought about it very much. That was my experience. As Andrew Rilstone writes about another unpalatable evangelical belief, the fact that my nonchristunfrends were going to hell was just “one of the three impossible things you had to believe before breakfast in order to hang out with a nice group of people, sing songs and occasionally get a faith-based-buzz”.

The other explanation is somewhat darker. If a Christian honestly faces the reality of hell and thanks God anyway, my impression is that it’s rather like the Stockholm Syndrome, where people who are kidnapped, held hostage or otherwise placed under extreme duress come to love their captors and thank them for any small act of kindness (I’m not the first to have come up with this idea, of course).

S (who, ironically, usually plays God’s Advocate in these discussions 🙂 points out that the true history of the Stockholm bank robbery doesn’t reflect the Stockholm Syndrome as described, and that accusing someone of suffering from the syndrome is a convenient way of dissing your political opponents. I suppose the penultimate paragraph of this article is what I’m talking about. Call it what you like, but, as alluded to by the paragraph beginning “I trust my master”, “Normally, when people say things like ‘You are His possession, he can do whatever He likes with you’, the next sentence is ‘What is the safety word?'” (quote from Steven Carr in uk.religion.christian. I must say I rather like Gareth’s response. And don’t look so innocent, you’ve been around LiveJournal for long enough now.)

Alas, if these Christians are right, this is not a game and there’s no way out. I might be vainglorious, but I’d prefer the Miltonesque “Satan” over such a God any day.

Speaking of which, The Torygraph has a transcript of a discussion between Archbishop Rowan Williams and Philip Pullman, author of the His Dark Materials trilogy. Williams is a counterweight to the sort of Christianity which makes me glad I left the church. Perhaps there’s hope for us all yet.