In the nearly three years since I published Holy Nihilism, the best — or at least most thorough — critique I have yet received has come from an online acquaintance and friend (though the Godcast crew took a fairly good run at it too, despite somehow misunderstanding my position on moral intuition). It’s been almost a year since he worked through the first 3 chapters of the book (Introduction, Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3), so I thought I would take the time to address what was said.
It’s worth noting that the essence of my criticism of the truth of Christianity is not explicated until chapter 7, so off the bat, the critique is unfortunately incomplete. But there is still substance worth addressing.
The critique (which you can read in full by following the four hyperlinks above) begins essentially with an observation of a paradox:
CB’s main argument can be summarized as “Christians care for nothing or no one outside of their utility to their salvation.” CB’s criticisms of Christianity are grounding in the fact that he has two glaringly contradictory ideas of what Christianity is. He openly admits that what he perceives to be the behaviors of “most” Christians are actually not too bad and even admirable sometimes, but that they are not what he believes to be “true” Christianity. Now Occam’s razor would suggest that when literal millions of people who’ve spent their lives adhering to the tenets of a faith are living in a way that is contrary to what the outside observer says is the True way of their faith, that it is the outside observer who has gotten it wrong rather than the millions of faithful adherents.
While the suggestions of Occam can be useful in eliminating excessively complicated explanations from needless consideration, what we are discussing here is not particularly complex — nor even contrary to general theological opinion within the faith. Most believers recognize that the vast majority of Christians are not “good Christians,” and are variously hypocritical, distractible, naturally sinful, or otherwise fall short of the glory and perfection of the divine standard set before them. The point is, as it were, baked into the theology, which is why the theology exists in the first place: to presumably cure a disease of the soul which causes men to care about this world rather than about God. This “contradiction” is not a contradiction, but a reflection of the duality of man’s existence as a sinful man in a sinful world, yet still yearning for connection with God. There is no contradiction in noticing the intertwining of the City of God with the City of Man.
Mr. Bad continues by defining Christianity somewhat more narrowly than I did in Holy Nihilism:
First, I need to make something clear that CB doesn’t seem to understand. There is only one true Christianity. The Christianity that is founded on Apostolic traditions and authority. This isn’t my being elitist as an Orthodox, it is just a recognition of facts […] Much of what is understood as being “Christian” in today’s Western world, especially by unbelieving critics, is not in fact true Christianity, but a vague reflection of it by people who don’t hold to apostolic traditions.
Putting aside the contrast between my observation that Mr. Bad began by rebutting and the acknowledgment of the myriad of false Christian doctrines (and presumably, false Christians) he subsequently asserts as if it were a new point, there is an interesting argument here. Mr. Bad is asserting that “traditions and authority” are not just tools, but in fact essential ingredients in true Christianity, such that those outside of the traditions and authority are actually not real Christians.
I think this argument gets to the heart of the epistemological dispute that undergirds much of the argument here. Within the context of philosophical debate, arguments about the importance of authority and tradition place the essence of the subject beyond the reach of discussion, since the authority and tradition are themselves instantiated practices and opinions which were arrived at (here, “revelation” is still interpreted, and so arrived at intellectually in the same way) at some previous point. The appeal to authority and tradition may be theologically valid in practice, but it is a non-answer in the realm of exploring the actual substance of the matter in dispute, since behind authority and tradition is more argumentation.
I want to concede that there is a reasonable position to hold that deeper understandings can arise from participation and action in a tradition which cannot be conveyed by reason or argument alone. But this would appear to be a contradictory message within the context of a religion which did not begin with organic, folkish ritual, gradually evolving into a mature form over the course of generations, but rather a religion which began with sermonizing and open-air proselytizing, which is not only spread by, but in fact deifies “the word.” Logos — for whatever deeper meanings it may have in relation to order, reason, or the conceptual ground for being — has always been and remains linguistic in substance. This word requires no authority or tradition if what it conveys is objective; if such bases are required for the proper understanding of the word (which may be true), then the subjective nature of the word is exposed, and Christianity becomes a closed logic-loop. Such systems can tell us much about what is internally consistent, but nothing of what is objectively True beyond the scope of the system’s axioms (in this case, the subjective anchors for the key words).
It may also be worth asking: “how do we know that the authority and tradition received is true?” Couldn’t the historical lineages of discipleship be made up, modified, fudged, or even misinterpreted to create a false tradition, just as it is sometimes asserted that scripture can be misinterpreted or mistranslated? There is certainly validity in pointing out the dangers of a sola scriptura approach to Biblical exegesis, but authority and tradition are no more of an axiomatic guarantor of true connection than scripture itself. If anything, access to early manuscripts of the Gospel (even if only papyri fragments) provide something more stable and unchanging than an oral tradition. The point is that neither one is perfect.
I’m going to start my deconstruction in Chapter 1 page 9-11, where CB discusses the Christian attitudes toward violence and arguing. This criticism is a frankly unfair, as CB’s main argument against Christianity is that we care for nothing and no one outside of their utility to our own salvation. Yet here he is criticizing Christianity for caring for the individual who has wronged us. It is arguing both sides of the coin against Christians.
Beyond this, it is not an accurate representation of Christian morality. Scripture is clear that people who are evil or unrepentant are to be hated and cast out until they change their ways.
These six things doth the Lord hate: yea, seven are an abomination unto him:
A proud look, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood,
An heart that deviseth wicked imaginations, feet that be swift in running to mischief,
false witness that speaketh lies, and he that soweth discord among brethren.
Mr. Bad lists further verses, but as with this one, none directly address the questions of violence and conflict. Proverbs 6 describes God’s affect, but Romans 12:19 says “do not avenge yourselves, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine’ says the Lord.” God is not an axiomatic model for Man in action — his ways are not the ways of Man, and Man is not God. The affect of God in Proverbs 6 says nothing about what a Christian should do, or even — necessarily — what a Christian should hate. For Psalm 139 describes King David sharing his heart and venting his feelings to God, saying he hates those who hate God with “a perfect hatred.” But he then concludes by asking God to search his heart and to clear anxious or offensive thoughts while guiding him on the path of life. The Psalm recognizes potential spiritual dangers even in righteous hatred for Man, but these dangers do not exist for God.
My argument (which Mr. Bad slightly misunderstood) is not that Christians are unwilling to make arguments — and certainly not that Christians are unwilling to attack ideas, which they do with vociferous regularity. Rather, the criticism is that they only do these things in relation to the spirit and to ideas that guide the spirit. When Mr. Bad says “…we are by no means expected to be doormats, or fools, or ignore reality,” there is actually a very real sense in which he is incorrect, at least if “reality” is limited to the physical realm (which is the context of this question). Turning the other cheek as explicated by Jesus, and passive non-resistance as modeled by him, portrays a deeply powerful animosity with the world itself — one might even say a “fighting spirit” unironically — but this energy is limited to the realm of the spirit, and in its most pure form (i.e., the form modeled by Jesus), does not express itself in the world of reality.
For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.Ephesians 6:12
Mr. Bad of course points out that “The Roman Army was staffed by Christians as early as the 2nd century. Hardly meek pacifists.” This is true, but it is also true — as pointed out by Dr. Ryan Reeves — that the early Roman persecution of the Christians was due, in large part, precisely to their pacifism, which the Romans viewed as anathema and inhuman. The eventual acceptance of Christianity by the Romans does not represent an acceptance of the core of Christian spirituality as preached by the earliest church, but rather a compromise and accommodation of Roman sensibilities. This compromising approach to establishing theological doctrine lies at the core of the extra-scriptural “tradition,” and perhaps foreshadows a theology seemingly founded entirely on the doctrine of equivocation to emerge from the Catholic Church many centuries later, lead by a soldier-monk of Roman spirituality named Ignatius of Loyola.
One could argue that physical warfighting presents itself as an opportunity for developing the spirit of a warrior, apart from the physical violence and care for the world. It would be reminiscent of some of Augustine’s sayings about war, and the actual evil in war through the eyes of God rather than in the terms of earthly metrics. But the example of the early Church (and Jesus) repeatedly illustrate that this kind of compatibilism is not necessary for true Christian spirituality, and the desire to make them compatible might reflect earthly attachments which are not Christian in origin or nature.
Let’s move into the realm of experience.
On pages 16 – 26 CB gives his background as a young Christian and what ultimately caused him to lose his faith. When CB was in middle school he felt as though God was telling him to send out a scripture in a prayer chain email. He did so anonymously, but he was embarrassed when someone found out it was him and this embarrassment led him to doubt that God had spoken to him. He came to the conclusion that if he had mistaken his own inner thoughts as the voice of God then everyone who has heard God speak must have done the same. This experience and his conclusion were cemented when he read about a similar experience in an Atheist book called Godless by Dan Barker.
But his conclusion is in fact a logical fallacy. Hasty Generalization and Causal Fallacy. I don’t pretend to be educated in logic or philosophy. I had to google these. But I am smart enough to see the failure of logic on my own. CB mistakenly believed that his experience was universal. If I can’t do x then no one can.
To be clear, the Middle School incident was not the direct cause of my first deconversion. It was a tethering experience that I only later interpreted in light of unbelief. I remained a believer (and, indeed, became a much stronger believer) in the months and years after the embarrassing email.
But Mr. Bad misunderstands the argument. My point is not “if I can’t hear God, no one can” — this would, as he correctly points out, be a logical fallacy. Rather, it is a point about the broader difficulty in distinguishing one’s own inner thoughts from the perception of God’s actual voice, and the blurring of the lines between these which is possible, as evidenced by it happening. This is not a point unique to me; pastors and priests all across the world regularly preach about the dangers of listening to voices that often misrepresent their true identities. Demons, for instance, might sound like the voice of a dead and beloved family member. It is implied that they cannot take on the identity of God, for a priori theological reasons, but neurologically there is no reason this could not be done as well. My argument and point in bringing up the story is that the very possibility throws the experience of “hearing God’s voice” into question, at least when it is taken as evidence of the truth of God’s existence.
Note that it is still theoretically possible for people to actually hear God’s voice, and for the point to remain strong. I had taken the experience of hearing God as evidence of God. The revelation that that voice could just be me doesn’t mean other people might not genuinely be hearing from God. It is a point about the parameters of experiential evidence.
This is also one of those places where his experience was informed by a poor imitation of Christianity. You see, in many of the Charismatic, Evangelical, and Non-denominational churches they put a dramatic over-emphasis on the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Basically, they teach that every Christian is capable of having all the gifts that are represented in scripture by Christ and the Apostles. We can all be prophets, we can all be miraculous healers, we can all be evangelists. This is actually the opposite of what scripture says about the supernatural gifts of the Spirit.
This is a valid point, and poorly-understood Christianity — taught to a credulous congregation — can lead to disillusionment from imitative Christianity that is understood as the real thing. I can only assert that prayer is universal among all Christian denominations, and that to me, it is an open and unresolved question whether a believer can expect some kind of answer from God in prayer. Jesus says:
Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.Matthew 7:7-8
If the disciple asks to hear from God with sincerity, humility, and love, it seems directly scriptural not that he can, but that he should expect to hear a response. The idea that he cannot expect to actually hear God, and that such an expectation is in fact just Charismatic and Evangelical over-emphasis on “Gifts of the Holy Spirit” (which are traditionally not particularly supernatural, as listed in Isaiah 11:1-2) seems more like post hoc rationalization.
Even Mr. Bad’s offered passage, describing the division of the gifts of the spirit, fails to mention hearing the voice of God:
For to one is given by the Spirit the word of wisdom; to another the word of knowledge by the same Spirit;
To another faith by the same Spirit; to another the gifts of healing by the same Spirit;
To another the working of miracles; to another prophecy; to another discerning of spirits; to another diverse kinds of tongues; to another the interpretation of tongues:
But all these worketh that one and the selfsame Spirit, dividing to every man severally as he will.”
This, of course, does not prove his interpretation wrong and mine right. But it doesn’t demonstrate any kind of scriptural backing to the claim that hearing from God is a unique spiritual gift reserved only for a select few.
Now, Mr. Bad does make a good argument when he says,
If God spoke to all of us, he wouldn’t need the Apostles to write their letters to the churches. In fact, God only speaks to a very few people in scripture. His Prophets, the Apostles, and a couple others. And when God speaks in scripture it is always audible. Often it is done through an angel or a vision, but it is never done so in a way that can be mistaken for our own inner thoughts. There is almost always a literal voice.
This is certainly true in the context of the Old Testament, where Man was separated from God. But the point of Jesus’ sacrifice was to tear the veil of separation and offer a path of reconnection with God. Jesus is not just a path to salvation, but to reconnection, for salvation merely means the restoration of connection and communion with God in the greater context of the arc of the Christian story.
Perhaps more importantly, the position of unevangelized Paul describes in Romans 2 illustrates the redundancy of Apostles and even proselytizing, which is performed not primarily for the benefit of the hearer, but as a spiritual exercise and demonstration of faith for the evangelist. It is written that the law is inscribed in the heart of all men. So long as man can listen to his own heart in prayer, it is legitimate to say that he can expect to hear from God.
Of course, my experience was that God does not answer prayer.
On Page 22 CB makes this statement “Without meaningful answers to prayer, I could no longer believe.”
Now this is actually a true argument, that if God doesn’t reveal Himself through prayer, what evidence do we have that He even exists? But he again commits the fallacy of believing that his experience is universal. If God doesn’t directly answer my prayer he hasn’t answered anyone’s prayers. His experience isn’t universal. Nearly every Christian will have a testimony about God answering prayer. Just ask them.
This brings us full-circle to the already discussed matter of confusing internal thoughts with the word of God, and the trouble of discernment. I won’t bore the reader by repeating what’s already been said, but I hope the closed logical sphere is becoming visible. The assumption of axiom A leads logically to conclusions B and C, but B and C appear exclusive. Normally, such a position would simply lead to the rejection of the axiom, but if the axiom cannot be rejected, increasingly tortured interpretations of B and C (or even A) are required to save the intellectual model.
We see this with certain scientific theories, which Thomas Kuhn famously pointed out. Criticisms pile up and pile up and fail to “falsify” a theory in the scientific community — despite doing so logically — until the contradictions become so absurd that the foundational theory can no longer stand and collapses, leading to a momentous “paradigm shift.”
But all of theology seems built upon this kind of rationalization. And there is no point of absurdity that causes a collapse. Divorced from empirical checks on a fluid use of language, entire systems of equivocation and intricate flow-charts of heads-I-win-tails-you-lose scriptural doctrine emerge that sustain themselves entirely upon complex commentary united by nothing beyond the shared assumption of the axiom in question: the Christian God is true.
Mr. Bad brings up non-linguistic answers to prayer, and offers by way of example his own medically unlikely (indeed, “miraculous” sounds about right) conception with his ex-wife, who had no fallopian tubes and required expensive invitro fertilization. He concedes that “there is room for skepticism here,” but that the sheer volume of stories of answered prayers of this kind speak to a broader pattern.
To me, the broader pattern is part of the problem.
The story I shared in Holy Nihilism of my faith finally breaking was not an unanswered prayer per se, but rather an illustration of how most people interpret prayers being answered:
In my Junior year of high school, I finally admitted to myself that I no longer believed. I saw a presentation showing how the usual Christian story of God answering prayers with “yes,” “no,” or “wait,” was a meaningless bit of sophistry, how a milk jug must necessarily answer prayers with one of these three answers as well, and my doubts grew beyond my ability to bear.
The problem is that vast majorities of people are — as I had — interpreting events as answers to prayer post-hoc. Then, their interpretation becomes their evidence for God’s existence.
An unlikely pregnancy becomes “miraculous” and “an answered prayer” because it was preceded by prayer. This prayer becomes evidence, and this evidence becomes a part of a broader pattern, which stands as stronger evidence than a single anecdote.
One could launch an entire subprime mortgage crisis on such a process.
Let’s move on to family.
Mr. Bad says,
The reason why CB has concluded that Christianity commands us to ignore our own wisdom is explained in the 2nd part, where he says that we hold the world to be fallen while he understands that some things in the world are inherently good. The trouble is that not even CB really believes that anything is inherently good, but rather subjectively good. By CB’s given standard, the Alaskan Wilderness is inherently good because it is pure and beautiful. But I saw a movie that was based on a true story called Into the Wild about a young man who flees society to live out in the Alaskan wilderness, but finds it cruel and unforgiving as he slowly starves to death. There are an abundance of such stories where people die horribly at the hands of nature. Nature might be pure and beautiful, but it cannot be said to be truly good, as it is itself completely indifferent to us or our morality.
Family is also not inherently good. My friend, the author Moria Greyland Peat, wrote a book called The Last Closet, which details the physical and sexual abuse she and her brother suffered by being raised by her homosexual parents. Her family was not good at all.
First, let me admire the juxtaposition. While I strongly disagree that Christopher McCandles’ final thoughts were most likely of the cruelty and merciless indifference of nature (although I readily agree that this is the truth), McCandles happens to serve as an excellent example of the cruelty and dysfunction of family and its effects.
That notwithstanding, my position is that family is good, so let me defend it.
There is no example of a “good” thing on earth for which we cannot imagine (and perhaps have not seen) some corrupted and harmful version. Physical strength is a virtue, but strength can come along with drug abuse, imbalance in life, dysmorphia, envy, and pride. These potential vices do not negate the virtue of strength, as Aristotle describes in Rhetoric:
And if it be objected that one who uses such power of speech unjustly might do great harm, that is a charge which may be made in common against all good things except virtue, and above all against the things that are most useful, as strength, health, wealth, generalship. A man can confer the greatest of benefits by a right use of these, and inflict the greatest of injuries by using them wrongly.
The goodness of family is not absolute, just as the goodness of anything else is not absolute. If there is any ethos I hold from scripture, it is that described in Ecclesiastes 3, of the seasonality of all things:
To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.
Implicit is that there must also be a wrong time, a limit on actions which are right and good because their goodness is contingent upon time. To the Christian, this may be a reason to reject everything earthly as “not good” simply because the goodness is not absolute (indeed, I believe this is scripturally warranted). But for most people, something being essentially good is not contingent upon it being absolutely good. Strength is good. Honor is good. Wisdom is good. Family is good. Pleasure is good. There are corrupted shadow-forms of all of these, and these corrupted vices do not negate the essential goodness of the virtue.
This may be partially my fault. In describing family as “inherently good,” I may have left my meaning open to misunderstanding. It isn’t unreasonable to assume “inherent” to mean “absolute.” I make this clarification in other writings, particularly Letter to Anwei, but let this be my clarification that the argument is that family is essentially good, just as Aristotle described the virtue of rhetorical skill as essentially good even while acknowledging the potential for abuse.
I will continue this response in a future post.