- On Attacking Christianity
- The Nature of Christianity
- The True Fruits of the Spirit
- Christianity and Beauty
- The Effects of Christianity
- The Undesirability of Christianity
- Is it True?
- On Evil: Explaining the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
- Greater Spirits
Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.
– 1 John 2:15-17
My purpose is not to proselytize.
I have no interest in harassing those who have chosen a path and are happily set in their beliefs. If the reader finds the argument I propose compelling, I urge them not to go and thrust it upon their Christian acquaintances. As much as I enjoy debates, I have found that arguing with the unwilling is not only frustrating and fruitless, but tasteless. I hope that the persuaded reader will not poorly represent my purpose by violating this request.
My opposition to pushiness should not be construed as unseriousness about this subject. This is a book about spirituality, and not about politics (although there are certainly political implications). While pushiness may be considered by some as an effective means to some end in the realm of politics, there is no way to separate means from ends in the world of spirituality. Christianity is about the development of a particular spirit, which is to say, a particular character, and the means which any spiritual system advocates for its own propagation become habits of its disciples. These habits in turn forge a portion of those disciples’ character. Thus, there is no way to be pushy without becoming a pushy person: obnoxious, insecure, and distracted from personal achievement by the compulsion to influence others.
I am not persuaded by the arguments for political expediency. Such pushiness is often counter-productive, but I also believe that there is no need to push for an idea whose time has come. Perhaps it is time for this kind of criticism of the faith, and perhaps it is not, but in either case, pushing against the disinterested and the closed-off will not accomplish anything. In my experience, it is more likely to simply foul up relationships.
My intended audience is not the legions of faithful. If some of them happen to enjoy this work, all the better, but my target is someone different.
My reader is one who sees the trajectory of society and does not like it. They see an increasing isolation and separation, and perhaps this is most visible in our technology. New technology is sleek and impenetrable, hopelessly complex and seemingly driven by magic. We cannot hope to understand it all. The best most of us will be able to manage is to buy the newest models. This modern technology is a great gift, but a part of this gift can be a feeling of helplessness and dependence, as well as a profound disconnection from others.
Beyond the direct experience of the technology itself, this technology provides almost limitless connectivity with an equally limitless number of people. There is less reason to invest in any one relationship, because there are plenty of other fish in the sea. With the internet and transportation being what they are, the sea just got a whole lot wider. There is plenty of escape from our family and the problems that inevitably arise from prolonged proximity to other human beings. There is plenty of escape from reality… so long as you can push away the thought that there is also no escape from being watched.
This brave new world is a confusing place. Identities are a la carte. Formerly clear categories such as gender and nationality are blurred in ways that seem to totter between amnesia and full-blown psychosis. The traditional stepping stones towards maturity – moving out from our parents’ homes, graduating school, working a steady job, purchasing a house, getting married, having children, and so on – are becoming less common as “alternative” paths proliferate. But there are no benchmarks to measure how we are doing along these alternatives, or if these alternatives are even better than the older path that was discarded. The benchmarks themselves are what has been rejected.
To cope with the helplessness and aimlessness of this void, a great number of people simply stay drugged-up, alone, or both.
But critically, there is also a moral dimension to this world, an ethos that oils the machine and if the oil stopped then the machine would seize and everything would stop working. “Tolerance,” “diversity,” and a kind of universalistic semblance of love seem to make it all possible. This ethos goes beyond the non-judgmentalism of the hippies; it is a kind of anti-judgmentalism which actively seeks out things formerly judged “inferior” because diversity mandates it, and because such an approach demonstrates tolerance and universal love. These are the religious virtues of the secular novus ordo seclorum: love, tolerance, diversity. And equality.
While our addictions to technology may be the most obvious expression of the pathologies of modernity, it has been enabled by this moral dimension, which was set in place long before the invention of the first computer, let alone the creation of the World Wide Web.
My reader rejects the trajectory of this world. They do not like where it is going, because they do not like where it has already taken us. They want something else; a different vision with different values. And so they look to the past, to the traditions that preceded the present order.
For the purpose of a better life, of better relations with their friends and family, of a good marriage, of a nation they can be proud of, and a future they can believe in, perhaps they are considering Christianity.
It is a natural step to take. Christianity, after all, is the religion of our grandparents. It appears opposed to this modern order, and it offers clarity, certainty, simplicity, and a meaningful identity in an age that seems to undermine all of these things. It promises love and life, instead of the anxious ambiguity of “freedom.”
But my reader is not after simple convictions and certainty. After all, these attitudes can be held about the wonder of the globalized modern world, after all. The imperturbable, cheery optimism that comes with simple certainties can look a lot like naïveté at times, especially in the face of serious problems.
If my reader is like myself, the sight of these problems, and the sense that you are alone in thinking that there is a problem, can be troubling and demoralizing. There is nothing more lonely than seeing something wrong, looking around, and seeing only smiling faces, denying anything is amiss. Sometimes, it can be so lonely that you find yourself wishing to be stupid, so that you could go back to the blissful ignorance of simple certainties. But even if you wanted to, you cannot simply re-immerse yourself in the old belief that everything is fine and wonderful. We cannot go back to that childlike state. For my reader, simplicity and certainty and clarity and identity are not enough anymore.
My reader needs truth.
It is to you, my reader – and not to others who have no concerns on this subject – that I offer this argument against Christianity. The choice is not between Christianity and modernity, because the destruction of identity, the degradation of relationships, and the ever-increasing monotonous flatness of life without lasting attachments that increasingly characterize modern life all have ideological roots in the Bible. These problems of today are not some new spiritual alternative to Christianity. They are its manifestation. And we are not even at the end of the ride.
I am not so bold as to declare with certainty that my argument is definitive. I have trouble accepting that anything is definitive these days. But the interpretation I offer here is the only interpretation of the faith that satisfied me intellectually. The disturbing implications of this interpretation fell into place after arriving upon it, not because I went out searching for some reason to attack something. I believe that what I have written is true, but my hope is not that my reader will accept my position as an unquestionable and self-evident truth. It is offered but as a plausible explanation for why some things are the way they are today. This clarity is a necessary light to see a way off of our present course and, ideally, to a better path with a better destination.
If you, dear reader, are as I was (and remain): on the hunt for answers, for things to do and things not to do in order to live better, for explanations that make better sense of the world, and perpetually open to new ideas and new ways of viewing old doctrines, then it is for you that I have written this book. I hope that you enjoy it, and find it as stimulating in the reading as I did in the writing.
And if a friend should come with doubts and questions, troubled by observations about things being backwards in the world today, worried but unsure of how or why we got here, and if perhaps religion is what has been missing in society, then – and only then – consider sharing this title.
November 13, 2019
1. On Attacking Christianity
If there is no God, why do you spend your whole life trying to convince people that there isn’t? Why don’t you just stay home?
One of the more revealing questions asked of the late Christopher Hitchens was why he bothered to go after religion at all. If he didn’t believe, that’s fine. Why not just stay home?
In contemplating whether or not to write this book and put these ideas out in public, I have often asked myself the same question. There are plenty of criticisms of Christianity out there already. Do we really need one more? Should this really be said?
A kind of implicit apathy undergirds this question, and a strange thing happens if you begin to explore this apathy. Think about it: criticizing the question is akin to asking if religion is really worth fighting over, or even arguing about.
It is not a challenge ever posed by believers to their own missionaries (“do we really need one more of those?”). These missionaries don’t just stay home, but go to the ends of the earth, often at great personal cost and risk, to share what they believe is true.
Of course, unbelievers will pose the same question to these missionaries: “if God is so great, why can’t you just keep that relationship contentedly to yourself?”
From the outside, there appears to be a kind of passive-aggressive war of enervation in which both sides make their arguments, but spend much of their energy criticizing the other side for bothering to stand up for and advance their own beliefs. It is a strange and hypocritical kind of war; an emotional siege on the morale and spirit of the opponent, rather than a manly engagement with the strength of the opposing position.
Some people are naturally conflict-averse. To each their own. But those who leap into the fray in order to try and make others stop are something else. Their conflict-averse approach to argumentation, disarming and deflating one’s opponent by “concern-trolling,” is contemptible to me. It is evasive, patronizing, and dishonest. My aversion to it is not a belief, but a reactive feeling, like awe before a grand mountain range, or disgust at a decaying corpse. This dishonest and evasive pacifism is a hateful thing, and I suspect I am not alone in my irritation.
Both sides of the religion debate engage in this tactic. But this does not mean that this distracting, passive-aggressive method of attack is just a universal in human debate, something irrelevant to the topic at hand: Christianity. Indeed, I think that Christianity is the source of this “loving” means of debate, so successful in its propagation across the last two millennia that even its critics are essentially Christian in spirit. I will discuss “Christian” unbelievers in further detail later.
For me, the answer to the question “why attack Christianity?” can begin with a simple and straightforward answer: for the fight. Combat, in both its physical and intellectual forms, can be enjoyable. More importantly, it demonstrates the inner spiritedness that people possess, and through its exercise, they can develop, discipline, and grow this spiritedness into something truly admirable. Christian pacifism — in spirit, if not in literal practice — is antithetical to this admirable spiritedness which make courage and love possible. I have debated people and I have physically fought people, and often these conflicts result in a deepening friendship and closeness which did not exist before.
Conflict can be harmful and is sometimes deeply tragic. Some of the greatest suffering in the world is the result of violence which arose in conflict, and this harm is made all the worse when the origin of the conflict is some misunderstanding. But conflict is also an inescapable part of life, visible everywhere in nature. There will never be peace between the wolf and the deer, or between the salmon and the eagle. To embrace life, one must necessarily embrace conflict, with its joys as well as its sorrows.
By contrast, the Christian “just war” doctrine developed by St. Augustine — and inspired directly by the teachings of Jesus — essentially holds violence as permissible only when done in a spirit of reluctance.
What is evil in War? Is it the death of some who will die in any case, that others may live in peaceful subjection? This is mere cowardly dislike, not any religious feeling. The real evils in war are the love of violence, revengeful cruelty, fierce and implacable enmity, wild resistance, and the lust of power…
—Augustine of Hippo
It is clear from Paul’s letters that this attitude was not limited to physical conflict but extended to interpersonal and social conflict as well.
Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth.
— 2 Timothy 2:23-25
It is an admirable and perfectly Christian view to hold some things as worth dying for. But it has become more controversial to hold that some things might also be worth fighting for.
We are to condemn the sin but love the sinner, making “war” against a specific action, yet carefully separating the morality of the action from the morality of the individual responsible. To hate theft, yet still love the thief; hate murder, yet still love the murderer.
Though it has its origins in theology, this attitude is not limited to debates over religion. Try to discuss any of the hot political issues of the day, and you are likely to be psychoanalyzed and criticized, not for your position, but for some presumed character quality that must be responsible for holding such a dreadful opinion. The Christian-atheist is unlikely to tell you how you need Jesus, but he very well might say that you need to spend more time around diverse people, or have some empathy, etc. “War” — if it can be called that — is made on psychology behind the view, but not directly on the individuals who might subscribe to or enact that view. The proliferation of Christian values makes direct confrontation difficult in all but the most formally constructed debates.
I believe it is from this moral foundation that we get passive-aggressive, undermining comments about concern for one’s clear adversaries, dodging the questions at hand, and instead addressing the health and well-being of the adversary. After all, the Christian is enjoined to love their enemies, and to pray for those who persecute them. At a national and international scale, we can see this sentiment in the numerous failed wars on abstractions, like “terror” or “drugs.” Though they are, in fact, wars on institutions (al Qaeda and various cartels, respectively), it is packaged as a war against a “sin.” This may even be coupled with some tear-jerking marketing expressing compassion for the drug-runners and terrorists themselves, victims of the secular Devil: “circumstances” and their “environment.” Perhaps even victims of our own collective sins.
Thus, it is partially for the love of conflict that I attack Christianity. It is not merely conflict for its own sake, but conflict-tolerance as a prerequisite for learning, and for genuine, fearless love — true and human love, which Christianity undermines in its strange and circuitous fashion, as I will show.
I also attack Christianity out of gratitude, not only to the critics of the faith who were persuasive to me, but also to its best defenders. As much as I have enjoyed the works of Hitchens and Nietzsche, I have equally enjoyed the writings of Augustine and C.S. Lewis. I still regularly pay attention to the works of Robert Barron and Vox Day, not as some kind of oppositional research, but for their penetrating insight and thought-provoking commentary. As a beneficiary of the arguments passed on to me, I see it as a kind of duty to carry on the conversation. The majority of my intellectual education was attained by watching debates. For those of us who enjoy learning, or who enjoy the conflict of debate, new arguments are sustenance. It is only right to give back.
But the conflict and the joy of debate are not really the point of it all. The Christian approach to conflict is symptomatic of something far more troubling.
My thesis is that the trajectory of Christianity is towards a faith-based solipsism, a single-mindedness so absolute that no care for anything else beyond God and the spreading of his message matters. Every Christian care for the things of this world will only be instrumental towards this end, and will vanish as soon as the eschatological aim has been met. Even the divine conflict, such as Jesus’ promise that he comes not to bring peace but a sword, is a byproduct of this fanatical evangelism, a purpose that will divide families and destroy nations for the sake of the holy commission. Such a trajectory is, and always has been, a very long target, but one that is slowly coming to fruition, generation by passing generation. If the religion is false, then the result of its practice will be the generation of a culture of holy nihilism: an end to love and hatred, and the extinguishing of the thumotic passion planted by nature in our souls.
This subject is deeply important.
In this care for the importance of the matter, the believing disciple and I are allies against the uncaring majority, who, for convenience against truth, have persuaded themselves that God’s existence is of no real importance.
…Or at least, we ought to be allied in spirit. But what if this public apathy is an outgrowth of holy conflict-aversion? What if Christian blessings on the meek and the peace-makers are responsible for a general disinterest — even condescension — towards taking matters seriously enough to fight over?
The truth matters. The spirit matters. One’s attitude towards life, the universe, and one’s place within it all deeply matter, perhaps more than anything else. These things matter, and are sometimes even worth fighting for, not merely for the enjoyment of fighting, but because different ways of living are not equal. Living alone is not the same as living in a marriage. Living in the city is not the same as living in the country. Living as a Christian is not the same as living in any number of the variety of non-Christian ways of life, which are themselves not equal and equivalent to each other. These differences in lifestyle change who we become and who our children become. They may also change how much money we make, who we marry, whether or not we enjoy our lives, and perhaps even whether or not we live or die. Asking if these things are worth fighting for is to ask if life itself is worth fighting for.
Asking “why attack Christianity?” is to imply that it doesn’t really matter — that none of it, here on earth, really matters, because the value of the things of this earth is what Christianity speaks about. In this sense, the question “why attack Christianity?” is essentially Christian in spirit and it is this Christian spirit that I hold in contempt.
For me, this is reason enough to attack Christianity: that the world and life within it are not Fallen, but good; that the things in this world matter, and are worthy of love even though they are transient and imperfect; that combat can be a demonstration of love, and enjoyable in its own right; that the truth of the faith matters. Christianity puts a dimming shade over the experience of human life, reducing the importance, intensity, and meaning of our lives. For this, it should be attacked.
My criticism is not absolute; it does not describe most individual flesh-and-blood Christians, who are — to their own consternation — human, all too human. They still possess qualities that are distinctly un-Christian: a love for sex, physical beauty, and matters of the flesh; a concern about the future; a hunger for understanding; a tribal sense of love for family and country, which gives rise to protectiveness, distrust, and even hatred of those who might threaten them. Sometimes, a propensity towards and aptitude in conflict. These are the redeeming qualities of Christians, in spite of their Christianity.
My attack is not on the present moment, although Christianity’s negative effects can certainly be observed today. Primarily, my attack is aimed at the spiritual trajectory of these noble Christians: away from all that is admirable in humans, and towards the Christian ideal, a kind of blissful apathy for the things of this world.
Both believers and unbelievers alike ought to agree that Christianity fosters a unique spirit when practiced seriously. Many of us accept certain precepts or values without knowing exactly where they lead — so it is with the casual Christian, who identifies with the faith, yet does not understand it. He may never become a “true” Christian, but his decision may result in an authentic faith for his children, or his nation.
Is that good? Or is that bad?
Anyone who cares at all for their own spiritual development owes it to themselves to contemplate the nature of this Christian spirit and determine for themselves what is gained and what is lost by developing this spirit within themselves.
Given the scale of Christianity’s influence in the world today, to reject the importance of this question is a kind of nihilism.
But to reject the legitimacy of the question and simply accept the truth and goodness of God on faith alone; to reject conflict because nothing in this world is worth fighting over; to reject love itself as idolatry… that is holy nihilism.
It was out of an authentic desire to become a Christian that I took the time and effort to investigate this subject in detail. Christianity is often a very personal faith and is experienced intensely personally by its authentic believers. For this reason, and for honesty and disclosure, I will briefly share my own story in relation to the faith.
I was raised in a culturally Christian family. We went to church most Sundays, but did not pray regularly or study the Bible. In my mid-teens, I began to take my religion more seriously. I went to youth groups, read the Bible on my own time and completely through. Early on, I developed a preference for the Books of Wisdom — Job, Ecclesiastes, and Proverbs in particular. I even wrote my favorite verse — Philippians 4:8 — on a rock which I kept in my pocket, as a reminder to constantly reorient my thoughts towards the good. I was quite devoted.
But in high school, I was exposed to atheist arguments. The book I remember most vividly from my early atheist days was by a former pastor named Dan Barker, called Godless. There is a passage in that book in which he described feeling as though he had heard the voice of God guiding him down a particular road and so he followed that voice, drove down the road, and parked. And he waited. And waited. And nothing happened. After some time had passed, he gradually came to realize that the voice directing him was not God, but his own mind.
This story hit me hard because it was familiar.
Perhaps the single most embarrassing experience I remember in the early days of my faith had been a time in middle school that I sent a proselytizing massive group-email from an anonymous, Jesus-themed email account (email@example.com) made for this purpose.
The email was a pretty generic spam-message for the mid-2000’s. The subject line was “Something to think about,” and the content was the kind of feel-good spam mail with too many exclamation marks, assertions that other people love you and how much you mean to them, that good things will happen to you, and that inevitably ended with a command to send this email on to fifteen other people.
My aim was simple: I wanted to make people feel good, in the hopes that this might open them up to a conversation about what really mattered: namely, Jesus. This was my mission, and is in fact the mission of all true Christians:
Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
– Matthew 28:16-20
As a young teenager in the early days of the internet, I was not familiar with all the technical details of maintaining anonymity, and so I simply copied and pasted my entire contact list from my regular account into the anonymous account — as a carbon-copy, not blind-carbon-copy — and hit send.
It took one of my good friends about ten seconds to notice that my dad’s email address (which he knew) was labeled “dad,” and chastise me for my obnoxiousness.
Dude, Chris… chain letters are not cool.
I let the first one go, but seriously, learn some e-mail etiquette.
And yes, I can tell it’s you, Chris, even though you haven’t used that address with me before.
This may seem pretty mild, as far as childhood trauma goes. Perhaps no worse than stealing a pear, for example. But the embarrassment of discovery, coupled with the complete failure of a well-intended but obnoxious message (to date, I have yet to meet anyone who has ever actually felt uplifted by a chain-email of this kind), and the fact that this message had been inspired by a desire to share the Gospel all made it a surprising and humiliating experience.
There are two ways to interpret this scenario. As the act of an immature and thoughtless middle-schooler, it was both stupid and annoying, rightfully embarrassing, and a learning lesson in basic internet manners and proficiency.
But what if we were instead to view this event in terms of the relationship between a young man and God?
Like Pastor Dan Barker driving down that forsaken road, I had thought I was doing God’s work in sending that annoying little email. It didn’t hurt anyone, of course, but it revealed something profound: the voice in my head, telling me to spread the word by email, had not been God’s at all. It couldn’t have been, to have produced such a pathetic result — not merely for my own social standing, but for the tainted view that all of these people now had of Christianity: annoying, childish, and perhaps somewhat cowardly, vainly trying to hide in anonymity.
But if that wasn’t God’s voice — and I distinctly remember believing it was — then how could anyone know for certain that they really were speaking with the Almighty?
The voice I heard was not God. It was not even a “voice” in the sense one might describe a schizophrenic hearing voices (disconnected audio hallucinations). What I was hearing were my own thoughts. A thought would arise that aligned with my readings of scripture or my prayers and in my head I would retroactively give credit to God for that thought, thinking it was His voice I was hearing. Having been taught to speak to God and look for His answers, and having spoken with many others who claimed to have heard God’s voice, I simply latched on to the nearest thing — a thought — and ascribed it to God. I could not see the mental process at the time, but it is obvious to me now.
If you have read a popular fiction series – for instance, Harry Potter, or The Lord of the Rings – then you may be able to imagine what a particular character might say in a new scenario. Once you develop a grasp of who the character is, then it is possible to ask what so-and-so might do in some novel situation, or even in your situation. It is possible to imagine these characters having conversations with each other. We could imagine Frodo Baggins and Harry Potter conversing over their challenges fighting the forces of darkness, or Gandalf and Dumbledore simply sitting in peace, discussing wizard-matters. It is also possible to have a conversation with these constructed characters yourself. I say this; what would Aragorn say in response? The response not only comes to mind, but comes in that character’s voice.
Almost all Christian conversational experiences with God look like this. After reading enough of the Bible, the believer gets a sense of what Jesus or God would say in any given scenario. When the Christian finds themselves torn on what to do and they ask God for help, then the voice of God’s character from the Bible comes to them, in a God-like voice in their head. They have just heard from God. And this experience is interpreted as evidence for God’s existence. They will say “I have spoken with God,” sometimes in the tone of a challenge, as if daring you to deny their experience and call them insane.
But of course, God does not have to exist any more than any other fictional character in order to have such a conversation. Mental conversations prove nothing, and can take mentally normal and even intelligent people down all kinds of dead-end roads.
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. Without meaningful answers to prayer, I could no longer believe. And then, I began to feel intensely angry. This period of anger only lasted for a few months, but the intensity and sense of betrayal is hard to describe.
I was not angry “at God” — many Christians seem to always imagine this is how atheists go through life feeling. How could I be angry at God if my anger stemmed from the very fact that God did not exist? Yet many Christians persist in this belief, perhaps because scripture requires them to believe that the unbeliever hates God.
What I was angry about was the feeling of having been deceived, collectively, by my entire community. It was not that they were wrong, or even that they necessarily lied (as with the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus; much less is at stake with these) but that they seemed to have no interest whatsoever in the truth or falsehood of this religion, which profoundly influences which values one ought to develop, and who one should aim to become. They accepted evidence for the belief in God that would prove a milk-jug was God – both answered prayers in the same fashion – and passed this on to their children as if that was good enough, when not merely life was at stake, but eternal life. To invest so much value in such a flimsy and baseless belief was itself a kind of internal humiliation. I couldn’t believe that I had believed this with such fervor, that I had allowed others to convince me of this religion.
After a few months, I got over this anger, and for the rest of my high school and early college days, I was what one might call a “reluctant atheist.” I wished that I could believe, could un-see what I had seen, and wished all the best for those who did. I simply could not join them in their belief.
In college, I discovered Christopher Hitchens and became a more overt and aggressive atheist. This was, in many ways, the least interesting part of my own spiritual development despite continuing to learn more about Christianity and other faiths as well.
Only after reading the works of Joseph Campbell — a mythologist and literary scholar who identified the “monomyth,” sometimes called the “hero’s journey” — did I begin to wonder if I’d been misunderstanding the nature of religion this whole time, taking it too literally, and missing the moon by watching the proverbial finger.
It was at this juncture that I decided to try again at Christianity, with the mindset that I had been wrong about certain religious matters before, and was perhaps wrong about other things as well. It seemed to me that by default, the best religious place to start would be where my parents and others in my community were. This approach seemed humble to me, and that place, spiritually, was Christianity. So off to church I went.
But as I re-immersed myself in the faith — determined to take it seriously — two facts became clear.
First, Christianity cannot be taken as mytho-poetic narrative in the way that Hinduism and other forms of paganism can be. It has that dimension in many places, but the core tenets of the faith are intrinsically literal. The claim that Jesus rose from the dead is a historical claim, not a psychological one. The belief in Heaven and Hell are not poetic interpretations of states of being in the present world; they are claims of actual places where we will go after we die. In this vein, Bishop Robert Barron criticized the popular Dr. Jordan Peterson for “gnosticizing” Christianity:
What worries me a bit is what worried me about Joseph Campbell, what worried me about C.G. Jung, whom I read years ago with great interest, but I’ll call it the gnosticizing tendency. That is to say a tendency to bracket historicity and to uncover the sort of hidden wisdom in these texts. Now whether you do it philosophically, as the ancient Gnostics did, or you do it more psychologically as Jung and Campbell and Peterson do, the danger is a bracketing of the historical reference in these biblical texts. […] It matters immensely for Christian theology that certain things happened — that Jesus really is the incarnation of the Logos. It’s not just an archetypal story full of wise patterns of meaning, but that God really became one of us, that God really died on the cross, and that Jesus rose from the dead through the power of the Holy Spirit. Those are not just archetypal symbols; those are facts of history.
— Robert Barron
It should be of interest to protestants that even a Catholic — known among many other denominations for their less-literal interpretation of scripture — can see the danger to Christianity of too much mythologizing. I do not say “danger” generally — this danger is not to the individual disciple, but to the faith, because the religious foundation of Christianity cannot survive such interpretation. It has invested itself too heavily in a literal promise of eternal life. If a person realizes that Christianity does not really offer that, but instead offers some vague concept of contentment in the present, then the magic of Christianity vanishes. The spell, as another modern atheist put it, is broken.
The second fact that I had to face was that my reason for choosing Christianity was not valid within the worldview of Christianity itself. Even Old Testament scripture lays the groundwork for this kind of attitude, juxtaposing the Jewish God with the God of one’s ancestors.
“Now fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your ancestors worshiped beyond the Euphrates River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”
– Joshua 24:14-15
Grammatically speaking, it is more helpful to think of this concept literally: the “Gods your ancestors worshipped across the Euphrates” is better understood in theological terms as “your ancestors as Gods.” Following the decisions of one’s ancestors is to put their decisions above Yaweh, treating them as Gods, perhaps as much as the gods they worship.
In other words, both of my reasons for choosing Christianity — the importance of non-literal truths, and the humility to follow my family over my own intuitions — were wrong, according to the faith itself.
All worldviews must begin with properly basic beliefs — views that are self-evident; unchallenged foundations upon which people can orient themselves like a navigator around true North. For myself, the goodness of the world is self-evident enough. It is more evident than the evilness of mankind or of the world, and certainly more self-evident than the existence of a very particular creator God. Yet what appears to be self-evident contradicts scripture, which teaches that the world is fallen and evil. And if the believer is to audaciously chastise me for trusting my own judgment, then on whose judgment should I trust them or their book? Who can decide in my place, if not myself?
I understand that the world is complicated. Much that appears contradictory is, in fact, perfectly logical, and the problem is one’s own knowledge set or perspective. But as a matter of values and actions, integrity has always been attractive — living in a manner that is consistent with one’s values. A life lived with integrity may still be inconsistent, may still fall short of ideals, but always strives towards greater consistency.
Christianity pits authenticity against integrity. It tells you not to trust your own wisdom, yet requires you to choose God, on the basis of faith without sight. No one else can accept God’s grace on your behalf. It commands you to trust in what cannot be seen, and discount what you can see plainly… and yet seeks credit for all of the good in this world that we have been instructed not to attach ourselves to.
In my heart, I know that family is good. That the nation is good. That care, truth, honor, and beauty are good. That I am good. Certain things in this world are good — not because they bear the mark of God, but because they are beautiful and excellent and worthy of love, respect, and attention in and of themselves. They do not need to be “perfect” to hold these qualities, nor do they need to be objectively better than analogous families and nations and other things in the world to deserve this appreciation. By their nature and their relationship to me, they are intrinsically worthy of respect, attention, and love – in short, of worship. A beautiful object need not be the most beautiful object in the universe to warrant admiration. Some things are simply “good.” This fact is more obvious to me than any other moral principle. I think it may even be more basic than the existence of evil.
To respect this essential fact and to live accordingly would not be to live with integrity as a Christian.
To live with integrity as a Christian would require me to reject my authentic feelings toward the world — this, in fact, is a Christian duty. It requires me to be someone other than who I am, who I was made as; it requires me to be “born again,” into a new identity and spirit, one which blows like the wind, invisible, unattached to anything — good or bad — in this world.
A Christian may lack integrity or authenticity and still be a Christian. I do not want to play any ‘no-true-Scotsman’ games here. Conversely, the Christian may display both of these virtues, and live as an authentic believer with integrity, gradually re-forged in the image of their God, and in doing so, cast away the weights and fetters of this world entirely. But what the Christian cannot do is claim to value the good things in this world—family, nation, good food, meaningful work, love, sex, fighting, friendship, the works — while maintaining that their faith is truly authentic and lived with integrity.
At the very least, they cannot reasonably expect to be likely candidates for Heaven. Aside from not being the greatest fan of hypocrisy himself, Jesus promised that the luke-warm would never be accepted into God’s kingdom:
So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I will spit you out of my mouth.
– Revelations 3:16
The case I wish to make – having sought with sincere effort to understand Christianity in order to become a Christian – is that any degree of faith short of absolute and complete dedication to God, to the exclusion of all else, is lukewarm faith.
It is not enough to be a “mere Christian.” If the doctrine is true, and the Christian God exists, it is eminently clear that he has no time or interest in the half-hearted, the fence-sitters on the border of Dante’s Inferno.
Christianity is not wrong when it says that where your treasure is, there your heart will be. By placing their hope in a place beyond the reach of this evil world, the Christian hopes to escape the possibility of heartbreak. God, they believe, will never let them down. But putting your heart in the afterlife does not protect your treasure. It simply prevents you from having one in the first place.
To be authentic, Christianity requires a complete and absolute devotion to God. Other things may come out of this absolute devotion — perhaps a loving family, perhaps a good career, perhaps a nation to be proud of, or a skill by which you might inspire others. Reality demonstrates quite clearly that these things are certainly possible in a Christian life.
But the joy one might ordinary derive from these things is theologically dangerous, a temptation — almost a sin unto itself. The innate goodness of things in this world cannot be acknowledged or appreciated in their own right — only as secondary reflections of God’s own glory.
I will expand on this further in my discussion of Christian theology.
For me, the question of whether or not to remain Christian boiled down to this: how authentic and honest did I want to be? Do I acknowledge the true weight of what is being asked of a sincere Christian disciple and attempt to live it out despite the costs? Or do I simply ignore what I have read and understood, and pretend that what all the average, nominal Christians are doing is good enough?
I’m sure somewhere in the Bible, God promises us that the way to Heaven is broad, and accommodating to most, perhaps even everyone… (These, by the way, are the safe crowds that will assure me that I have misunderstood the text, perhaps even that I am taking theology too seriously — I have heard it said!)
One cannot acquire the heart of God without sincerely and wholeheartedly caring about whether or not the religion is true. Or perhaps only those who care about the truth, and sincerely believe in its truth, can truly achieve a relationship with the Christian God.
But to speak in this way would be to presuppose the answer to the very question which is most important to investigate thoroughly.
Is it true?
The question is of utmost importance but is deceptively complex. To answer it, we need to explore in detail what Christianity actually is.
2. The Nature of Christianity
In order to avoid confusion, I will define what I mean by “Christianity,” since there are many people who describe themselves as “Christian” and may even claim to speak on behalf of their supposed faith who are actually no such thing. We will discuss these curiosities a little further along.
I define Christianity in the following manner:
Christianity is a religion derived from the Bible, and which aims at reunification with the God Yaweh through the development of a relationship with his son, Jesus, in the hope that the practitioner may be granted eternal life with God after they die.
It has become bizarrely popular among contemporary Christians to reject the idea that Christianity is, in fact, a “religion” at all. This is based around a conception of “religion” which centers exclusively around tradition and ritual. Christianity, these Christians say, is a relationship. Aside from the fact that Christianity does contain important traditions and rituals rituals, this is not the only nor the best definition of “religion,” which is itself a broad and controversial subject. But as a baseline, the Oxford dictionary defines religion as “the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods.” A relationship of the Christian kind is therefore not something opposed to religion but is a variety of religious spirituality. Christianity is a religion.
I believe that a Christian is someone who can recite the Nicene creed and mean it, even if they do not necessarily understand it or know it by heart. It reads as follows:
I believe in one God,
the Father almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all things visible and invisible.
I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the Only Begotten Son of God,
born of the Father before all ages.
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father;
through him all things were made.
For us men and for our salvation
he came down from heaven,
and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary,
and became man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate,
he suffered death and was buried,
and rose again on the third day
in accordance with the Scriptures.
He ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory
to judge the living and the dead
and his kingdom will have no end.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son,
who with the Father and the Son is adored and glorified,
who has spoken through the prophets.
I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.
I confess one Baptism for the forgiveness of sins
and I look forward to the resurrection of the dead
and the life of the world to come. Amen.
I do not believe this is a particularly high standard, and while most believers will probably not understand every aspect of it, they will nevertheless have little difficulty in trusting the truth of the more arcane parts if they have truly accepted the veracity of the core. If you believe in God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, three-in-one; if you believe in the historical truth of the Gospels, particularly of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, and that his death may bring you eternal life, then you are a Christian. If you disbelieve in any one of these tenants, then you are not a Christian.
But how does one judge authentic belief and differentiate between “true” Christians and frauds?
There are many who say one thing, and do another. Rather than base our definition of a believing Christian upon what is said, I think it will be more helpful to define the Christian on the basis of their actions. Theologically, we would have to measure the Christian’s heart, but since we cannot do this, actions tend to serve as a better barometer of the heart than words alone.
To this end, a believing Christian is the sort of person who does, has done, or is setting about doing, the following:
- Has been baptized
- Attends church weekly
- Prays daily
- Reads scripture regularly
- Regularly seeks forgiveness for their sins
- Makes an honest attempt to treat others as they would treat Jesus
- Does not worry about this world
I trust that most believers will accept this conceptualization of Christianity as an honest representation of what the faith is truly about and what a sincere Christian looks like. This definition is not derived from the present culture of Christianity, but from the text of scripture.
Understanding the relationship between belief, action, and spirit — or “character” — is critical to understanding the nature of Christianity. Indeed, the Bible itself uses actions as a metric for gauging your heart. Jesus says that you can distinguish true prophets from false by their fruits, and Jesus’ brother James says that religiosity without action is “useless”. His point is not that actions are what make you good, but that you are almost certainly deluding yourself if your actions do not match your beliefs. And of course, Paul gives to us the “fruits of the spirit,” character qualities that are visible through action (or inaction) in those who are truly living through the Holy Spirit:
But the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things, there is no law.
— Galatians 5:22-23
This is where the passage is ordinarily terminated. And here, it sounds quite positive: what isn’t to like? But these are values that are shared by many people. We have not distinguished what makes these values specifically Christian — indeed, one could hardly call these values at all. They are simply measurements for sincerely holding values. But they are a good starting point, and we can understand why these are the fruits of the spirit by going one verse further:
Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.
— Galatians 5:24
It is difficult to overstate the significance of this verse. It amounts to an entire dismissal of the relevance and importance of everything in this world: the cities, the environment, the animals, the people, everything strong, authentic, beautiful, and lovely, all of these are things of the world and of the flesh. They are transient and passing and attaching oneself to them would be to allow yourself to be blinded by the “God of this world.”
To understand the fruits of the Christian spirit as we see them today, and where they must inevitably lead, we must understand the theology that runs through the gospel. By the fruits, we shall know the true Christian, we are told, so let us work backwards from the fruits and their cause to the spirit and values of Christian faith.
The fruits of the spirit are what they are because they are the natural psychological result of sincerely believing in the Christian worldview. This worldview holds that this life is a transition-stage and, ultimately, of no intrinsic consequence. Its relevance is only in how we foster — or neglect to foster — a relationship with our Creator, which will determine where we go after we die. This period after death is what is significant.
We can see this laid out clearly in other parts of the Bible as well. When Jesus speaks with Nicodemus, he says that a man must be “born again” in order to see the Kingdom of God:
Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
— John 3:3-8
To be born again means that you must first die. This is the meaning and purpose of baptism. One can no more live two lives than serve two masters and so baptism is the drowning of your old self — the self of the flesh and of this world — and the emergence of a new self. It is a ritual reenactment of the crucifixion in which Jesus dies in the flesh before being re-born in the spirit.
The purpose of Christian spirituality is to die in the flesh. It is to kill off all of one’s attachments to the flesh and to this world.
From this, we can see how the fruits of the spirit — love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control — all follow from the theology of Christianity. These traits are valued by others too, but only in Christianity are they valued in absolute terms: “against such things, there is no law.” Non-Christians hold these attributes as admirable in a contextual fashion: they are good when it is appropriate for one to demonstrate them but are inappropriate at times as well. It would be considered inappropriate, for example, for a non-Christian to feel joy at the funeral of a family member, or patience in the face of oppressive tyranny. But the worldview of Christianity makes these otherwise inappropriate reactions not merely possible but desirable because they are demonstrations of one’s sincerity and strength in the faith.
To the sincere believer, this world and its flesh is temporary and therefore hazardous because it is so distracting. We get caught up in caring about the petty goings-on in our lives and forget the big picture. The life after death is of such great importance that this world is of no significance whatsoever by comparison. And yet, it is in its own way of great importance, because it is in this world that we either forge a relationship with God, or neglect to. But within Christianity, it is only in this regard that this mortal life has any significance whatsoever.
We can see this spirituality illustrated a few centuries after Jesus’ death.
In 410, Rome was sacked by the Goths, leaving many Roman citizens wondering if perhaps the rise of Christianity — and concomitant decline in Roman paganism — was somehow responsible for their inability to defend themselves. Many were considering returning to paganism.
Augustine of Hippo, an African bishop and prolific apologist, argued against this position in an interesting fashion: he argued that the old Roman Gods would not have saved them, but he does not say that the Christian God would have. Instead, he says that Christians simply don’t have to worry about that sort of thing — the sacking of cities — because they don’t care:
If those who lost their earthly riches in that disaster had possessed them in the spirit thus described to them by one who was outwardly poor but inwardly rich; that is, if they had ‘used the world as though not using it,’ then they would have been able to say, with that man who was so sorely tried and yet was never overcome: ‘I issued from my mother’s womb in nakedness, and in nakedness I shall return to the Earth. The Lord has given, the Lord has taken away. It has happened as God decided. May the Lord’s name be blessed.’ Thus a good servant would regard the will of God as his great resource, and he would be enriched in his mind by close attendance on God’s will; nor would he grieve if deprived in life of those possessions which he would soon have to leave behind at his death.
— Augustine, City of God
If the believing Christian is sufficiently detached from this world as to be indifferent to the sacking of his city, to the theft of his property, and even to his own murder, then what earthly treasure could motivate care for anything at all in this world?
Most modern Christians seem to neglect this absolutism in spirit, settling for a kind of care for the world partially mitigated by a vague presumption that they’ll go on in heaven after they die. In my experience, even pastors feed this popular dilution of the faith; I imagine this is for purposes of relatability and better reaching their flock to bring them slowly closer to God. I suspect this is a better strategy than old-fashioned bluntness about what’s theologically what. But ultimately, even the best pastors cannot completely avoid Christian theology and when they make the mistake of revealing the true nature of their faith, it can jar the casual believer and undermine the illusion that the basis for a good life in the present is a religion that shuns the present world, even including yourself:
Christianity, for people, in terms of human experience, begins by me saying: ‘I’m denying who I am, and I’m ready to become a new me. I’m ready to become a new ‘I.’ I’m ready to start fresh.’ Here is God saying: ‘all that you are, I want to replace it. The core of who you are, your old person, I want it to be gone.
— Mike Fabarez, Focal Point Ministries
I stumbled across this particular sermon on the radio and it was the first time that I heard a pastor admit what Jesus had made clear in his teachings: that family is a form of idolatry.
What’s an idol? Anything that usurps the supremacy in my life that’s not the supreme person. Anything that I’m devoted to as an ultimate devotion that isn’t the one who deserves our devotion. Something that plays God in my life. For Orange County, it’s your kids. Your career. It’s your pattern of life. It’s the comforts and conveniences of what you’re used to, and what you want, and you would have that be your ultimate priority. Usually, it’s our families.
Whatever your idolatry is, real Christianity is going to begin by cleansing you of sin and getting rid of idolatry. And I’ll cleanse you; I’ll fix that; we’ll let God be God in your life. And that’s going to mean a complete self-denial. You as a person and the control-center of who you are has to go away. I will give you a new heart.
As said before, those who think they are defending the political “right” by standing for “God, family, and country” commit the same error as those of the political “left” who think that Christianity mandates the promotion of social justice and other organized efforts to redeem the world. They put God on a list with other values, making idols of their own belief-system. Further, they believe that God’s mission and aims have anything whatsoever to do with this world.
It is true that lists can be hierarchical. I care about my job and my family, but I do not care about them equally. But God is not like other list-items, fitting into its appropriate position of importance. God is not merely of first importance: he is the sole object of importance. Consider what Jesus says about worry:
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?
“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
— Matthew 6:25-34
This scripture lies at the heart of Christian spirituality, and requires that Christians do more than just put God first: there must be no other Gods at all. No other loyalties or values, except as reflections of one’s fealty to the one, true God. All else is vanity.
To illustrate, consider the example of Dave Ramsey, a prolific Christian personal finance educator, and an excellent one at that. My wife and I have benefited greatly from taking one of his courses, which was designed around worrying about the future. “Worrying” is not the ordinary word people use when they refer to budgeting and financial planning, but most planning that isn’t habitual is the product of serious concern about the future. Ramsey argues that money problems are a major cause of divorce, and he is correct. His courses save marriages by reducing worry over money in the families that apply his methods.
But to care about reducing worry for your future is, itself, a kind of worry. It is taking concern about one’s finances and family, directly in contrast with Jesus’ admonition not to worry about such things. The scriptural attitude is that we ought to focus our attention on God and God will provide everything else. He may not provide what you expect or what you want but he will provide what you need. Trying to anticipate and plan for the future is to take your life into your own hands, rather than entrusting it to God. It is the sort of thing that might get you accused by certain Christians of “thinking that you are God.”
Related to this, Dave Ramsey is fond of saying that the “love of money is the root of all evil,” not the often misquoted “money is the root of all evil.” But in reality, Christian theology comes much closer to the latter than the former. It is true that the Bible specifies “love of money,” but this seems emphasized in order to miss Timothy’s point, and to give Christians room to make a comfortable living for themselves and to afford good things – nice cars, boats, ATVs, guns, travel, whatever they desire, and can afford… so long as they tell themselves that they do not really love money. But James spells out the heart of Jesus’ message in explicit, almost poetic language:
Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure in the last days.
— James 5:1-3
The last line is a reference to Matthew 6:21 and 2 Corinthians 4:7-9, the idea that the treasure of Christian faith is not in this world, but in the world to come. Therefore, the true Christian seeks after his treasure in heaven and establishes his heart there rather than in this world. This makes all investments in the pleasures of this world an investment against the hereafter. So the Christian ought not to worry — about money, about relationships, or about anything else, regardless of what Dave Ramsey may say. They must fear the Lord, and nothing else.
This is what Paul means when he talks about the fruits of the spirit: a context-free sense of peace, even when we ought to feel concern; joy, even when circumstances warrant sorrow; love, even when love itself demands hatred. Any attempt to argue that Paul means achieving the fruits of the spirit through appropriate planning, psychology, good relationships, and therapeutic common sense is sophistry, by-passing God Himself in the process and mistaking the fruits for the goal of Christian spirituality.
Indeed, it is not the love of money, but the love of anything which is the root of all evil — “evil” being sin (thoughts and actions which separate the believer from God). Consider Paul’s attitude towards sex and marriage:
Now for the matters you wrote about: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” But since sexual immorality is occurring, each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband. The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife. Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. I say this as a concession, not as a command. I wish that all of you were as I am. But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.
Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.
To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife.
To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.
But if the unbeliever leaves, let it be so. The brother or the sister is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace. How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or, how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?
— 1 Corinthians 7:1-16
I include this passage at such length so that I cannot be accused of taking such a verse out of context. And indeed, there is clearly a greater context. Despite the first sentence clearly condemning sex as immoral, Paul condones marriage only as a “concession” which is the lesser of two evils. There are those who try to reconcile this passage with contemporary Christian support for marriage by claiming that Paul is quoting the Corinthian attitude — “it is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman” — and tepidly disagreeing.
But whether Paul is quoting the Corinthians in that opening verse is irrelevant because of the explanation that he gives: sexual relations are a temptation and a distraction from the only truly good object of love — God.
I have heard pastors try to say that God supports sex because he invented it, and that it is not good for man to be alone. This is rather euphemistic interpretation of the text. I am unfamiliar with any passage describing God’s creation of sex.
But even if this could be inferred from the text without too much carnal wishful thinking, it still is not necessarily biblically valid. Although God made creation, he is not held responsible for human action after Adam and Eve’s disobedience, known theologically as “the Fall.” It is entirely possible that the first sex occurred after their expulsion from the garden. Genesis does not give us details of such things. But even if the first sex was in the Garden, the Fall changed what was permissible and prohibited for humans, beginning with their continued presence in the Garden. They were prohibited from eating from the tree of life, against which there was no rule against before, and they were cursed to toil and work the ground, which they were not compelled to do prior to eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil. God declared all of His creation “good,” but this declaration was voided by the intervention of sin. Now the world is fallen, not good, but evil. Whatever state of nature may have existed prior to the Fall simply does not apply to the present state of man, precisely because of the Fall.
In any case, suppose we could simply give God responsibility for sex because it is in our nature, and claim that it is therefore morally permissible. What would that make of God when it came to such impulses as lying, theft, and murder, which God also seems to have created us with these?
The obvious and only interpretation of Corinthians 7:1-16 is this: the ideal which Paul has correctly identified is to love God with a single-minded focus. Like money, sex distracts us from this single-minded love and brings out our inner animal. But because our sexual appetite and obsession might increase if we are abstinent, it may be better to be married so that we may periodically purge our lust. The lust itself—in whatever form and towards whichever flesh-bound recipient—is sinful. According to Paul, sex is not the worst thing, but it is bad. I can see no other way to honestly interpret the text.
The Christians who would disagree with this interpretation can take it up with the Son of God himself:
The disciples said to him, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.”
Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.”
– Matthew 19:10-12
Only with this single-minded attitude is there is no danger of idolatry, in one’s family or in one’s spouse.
With this perspective, the Christian might even begin to wonder if it is right to love any of these people at all! After all, they are not only distractions, but are all — without exception — disobedient, sinful, and generally rotten:
None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks God. All have turned aside; together, they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.
— Romans 3:10-12
Your spouse is not good. Your parents are not good. Your children are not good. Your friends, your family, your country, all of these are worthless.
How, then, do Christians love? Clearly, they do, and indeed, it is theologically mandated that they do. Let me explain how this can be.
According to Genesis, God created man in his own image. This makes people — all people — into “image-bearers” of God. Others are reminders of God’s presence and carriers of his nature, albeit in a state that is heavily mitigated by sin. This is why the Church — and its constituent members — are considered the “body of Christ.” Together, they are, in a literal sense, a manifestation of God himself.
Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body — whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free — and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.
— 1 Corinthians 12:12-13
For where two or three gather in my name, there I am with them.
— Matthew 18:20
And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.
Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels:
For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink:
I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not.
Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee?
Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.
— Matthew 25:40-45
The Christian loves other people as a proxy for loving God. They are, in a sense, not really loving you, or at least ought not to be. They are expressing their love for their Creator by respecting His craftsmanship and image and recognizing a likeness between themselves and you. But this love expressed towards you has nothing to do with you. It is alien and unlike the varieties of love that non-Christians are familiar with which are always personal in nature. It is universal love; the fruit of a spirit grounded not in this world, but in the afterlife and in one’s relationship with a Creator God.
In short, there is no room for identity, for attachment to any earthly things, or even for acknowledging the goodness of other people within the Christian faith. There is only absolute devotion to God. Anyone who advocate half-measures, balance, compromise, or who lives the “Sunday-Christian” lifestyle are not true Christians — not loving God with all of their heart, all of their soul, and all of their mind. They are like the seeds scattered in the rocky places, which grow quickly in faith, but wither away in the sun without roots.
You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.
— James 4:4
I believe that when people see the danger of Christianity, they see it when they meet sincere Christians — rare though that may be. The monk who has rejected this world for life in the desert. The quiet regular at the local homeless shelter. The sign-waving person in the street. Their dedication and strangeness makes the sincere Christians a different kind of person. To me, they seem at once tragic and admirable. The strength of character required to be an authentic Christian is more demanding than most “Christians” can comprehend.
But if the “Christian” has entered the faith in hopes of getting a better life for his piety, the authentic Christian shatters all illusions of that kind. They care nothing for this world.
But the half-hearted majority do not understand the forfeiture of moral authority that occurs when they accept the faith in a cultural form. How can a lay Christian respond if their minister says, “God says that you must be willing to abandon, or even kill your own family?” Will he say, “you are wrong?”
He cannot. Our hypothetical minister is theologically correct.
But I speak of Christian values as if they are all conscious and thought-through. Christianity has been dominant in the West for well over a thousand years. Its culture was ubiquitous and normalized, such that one need not be a believing Christian to have been strongly influenced by Christian theology. A self-proclaimed unbeliever may hold beliefs that they think are normal, even obvious, without any idea that his belief is solely justified by a Christian eschatology. We can call these people “value-Christians.”
The value-Christian is distinct from the “cultural Christian” in his relationship with the narrative and cultural trappings of the faith. The cultural Christian supports the religion. He may not believe it (or may not believe it very strongly), but he goes to church, at least every once in a while. He celebrates Christmas with an emphasis on the Christian — rather than the pagan — elements of the holiday. He feels at home in the Christian world. By contrast, the value-Christian may reject the narrative entirely. He could be a strong and ardent atheist, denouncing “superstition” and religious tax-exemption, etc. But he nevertheless upholds the Christian spirit without knowing its source. He cares for the poor (or claims to). He is morally against judgmentalism. He dislikes the rich. He believes that everyone is deserving of dignity, because… why?
Even the disproportionately secular Founding Fathers of the American Republic leaned upon the logic of a (Christian) Creator to justify the endowed rights belonging to all men:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…
– Declaration of Independence
This illustrates the one, inevitable, and most definitive of all Christian values, and the most prominent identifier of the value-Christian.
But I am getting ahead of myself.
I have so far described “authentic Christians,” “cultural Christians,” and “value Christians.” But this short list doesn’t actually encompass all of the shades of Christian identity that exist.
Many people are familiar with the “take the good parts” Christian, a person who often genuinely believes, but believes that it is best to be the moral judge of the Bible’s contents, rejecting the “bad parts.” For example, many modern Christians emphatically accept the Christian admonition to forgive, but reject the Christian prohibition on homosexuality.
In addition, there are those we might call “my pastor is Jesus” Christians. They believe the faith — sometimes quite strongly — but rarely if ever bother to actually read the Bible, ostensibly the best source of communication between God himself and his disciples. If there is a conflict between Biblical scripture and the words of their pastor, the “my pastor is Jesus” Christian is likely to take the latter over the former.
But my favorite shade has its own sociological name. They are called “Moralistic Therapeutic Deists,” or “MTD” for short — a more cohesive variant of the “take the good parts” Christian. Identified by the sociologist Christian Smith, the MTD holds five central beliefs:
- A loving creator god exists
- This god wants people to be nice and fair
- The purpose of life is to be happy and feel self-assured
- This god does not necessarily need to be involved in one’s life, except when he is needed to solve a problem
- Good people go to heaven when they die
When asked, the MTD will likely self-identify as a Christian. But obviously, they are wrong. Points 1, 2, and 5 aggressively omit half of the picture within Christian doctrine, while 3 and 4 are, theologically, flat-out wrong.
In addition to the cultural Christian, all three of these variations of Christian may self-identify as Christians, despite not actually being Christian by the standards of our definition from the beginning of this chapter (belief in the Nicene creed, demonstrates most of the seven “gauging” actions).
It is the nature of polemical debates of this kind that when an assertion is made, it is often answered by pointing to exceptions and claiming that the assertion is too narrow, too particular, perhaps even cherry-picking. I expect that such will be the case with my description of Christianity. Many Christians do not match the description of what a Christian looks like. Am I then missing the mark? Am I chasing after some straw-man, while the majority of Christians repeat the classical apologetic line: “I don’t believe in that God either”?
I mention these modern heretics — the “take the good parts,” the “my pastor is Jesus,” and the MTD — to narrow the field of people who can claim to speak on behalf of the religion.
I can remember an illustrative little example of this problem from my Middle School years. I was standing in line behind a girl, who was complaining to her friends about how her religion forbids the celebration of birthdays or Christmas. Trying to cheer her up, I decided to chime in, saying “at least you aren’t Muslim—Muslims have to pray five times a day.”
To my surprise, an Arab girl a few feet behind me jumps in and says, “that’s not true! I’m a Muslim, and I don’t pray five times a day.”
It seems like a classical case of the “no-true-Scotsman” fallacy — someone makes a generalized, descriptive claim, “no Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge,” to which someone else offers a counter-example: “my uncle Angus lives in Glasgow and he puts sugar on his porridge.” The instigator then reframes his assertion: “no true Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.”
But this form of argument is a fallacy because it incorrectly identifies the markers of what makes someone a Scot. It may be a cultural norm not to put sugar on one’s porridge in Scotland, but if one violates this norm, it doesn’t invalidate your heritage and nationality. By contrast, if someone were to say “no true Scotsman is born in New York,” we have something that may not actually be fallacious. If another were to say “well my uncle José Garcia lives in Edinburgh, and he was born in New York,” the statement falls short of rebutting the claim because the identified marker — a Scotsman is (probably) born in Scotland — is correct.
Thought the Muslim girl who corrected me was probably a “true” Muslim, I was nevertheless correct about her own religion, and she was wrong. Muslims are expected to pray five times a day. The prayers even have names: Fajr, Duhur, Asar, Maghrib, and Isha — each with their own unique blessings for performance and consequences for neglect.
What is important here is identifying what the basis is for being able to say that someone is “right” or “wrong” about their faith. Is simply being a believing member enough to be “right” about anything said regarding the doctrine and nature of the faith?
Such a standard would presume that there could be no incorrect way of understanding or practicing the faith. It would simply make the religion in question into anything, everything, or nothing. But it doesn’t mean anything, everything, or nothing to be a Christian, just as it doesn’t mean anything, everything, or nothing to be a Scotsman.
The good-parts Christians and Pastor-worshipping Christians and MTDs may sincerely believe that they are Christians. But they are not good spokesmen for their professed religion because their beliefs are disparate from each other, and disparate from the ostensible foundation of their faith: the text of the Bible.
Christianity may be more than merely the Bible, but it is nothing without it. The Bible conveys the story of creation, of the Fall, of Man’s proverbial time in the wilderness, of the birth of Jesus, God’s son sent to Earth as a man to redeem Mankind, of Jesus’ life, trials, betrayal, crucifixion, and perfection through all of these ordeals, of his resurrection after three days in the tomb, and of his promise to return. This is the story of Christianity, and no other source — written or otherwise — conveys this story which was not itself the product of the Bible.
When a Christian (or sympathetic defender) tries to define Christianity in such a manner that contradicts Biblical scripture, the Bible is not wrong. They are wrong.
Now pointing to the Bible is necessary if one is to understand Christianity, but it is not always sufficient. It is a very complex book — a collection of books, actually. Many are different genres of literature, and cannot be interpreted in the same fashion. Many sections are deeply enmeshed in the context of the time of their writing, and some passages are—or at least appear—contradictory. It is no easy task figuring out exactly what it is telling the believer to do.
Fortunately, many brilliant minds have dedicated their lives to studying the text in order to properly understand it. These are titans of intellect, theologians that have sometimes been elevated to sainthood, or even called “Doctors of the Church” for their role in shaping Christian understanding of their own religion. My own interpretation relies at least partially upon two of the four ancient Church-Doctors: Saint Ambrose, and Saint Augustine.
I am perpetually surprised by the casual dismissiveness with which self-professing Christians wave away the obvious implications of biblical scripture, or the interpretations of the most brilliant believing minds ever applied to understanding that word. To the degree that they are familiar with these at all, they seem to just simply avert their gaze if true theological authority conflicts with their own experience of Christian life. It is as if for them, what self-professing Christians do is a better guide to what Christianity is about than the word of God itself.
But enough about poor representations and heresies. I have laid out my own definition of Christianity and my sources for this definition, which are the Bible and some of its greatest and best interpreters. This religion, as defined, is the religion I am writing about — not a “good story” designed to trick people into being nicer, or some overarching social narrative that serves to bring society together, or any other such utilitarian interpretation of the faith offered by defenders of Christianity. Such interpretations describe a different religion altogether than the one taught by Jesus, Paul, and the Saints and Doctors of the Church for the past 2,000 years.
3. The True Fruits of the Spirit
What distinguishes Christian values from pre-Christian ones are their decontextualization. The ideal Christian, for example, maintains hope no matter what. For him, hope is not an emotion and a reaction to likely or unlikely future outcomes, but a virtue to be cultivated — always and in all circumstances. As we will see, some of these values have become secularized, losing sight of their origin, yet still held their place within society’s moral paradigm.
These values naturally lead to certain habits and behaviors, just as valuing “health” would naturally lead towards behaviors like eating nutritious food and exercising. It is the values and their subsequent actions — and ultimately not in the underlying beliefs — that unite the authentic Christian, the cultural Christian, and what I will call the “value-Christian” in society.
I have already described authentic Christianity, cultural Christianity, and some of the shades between these two. But value-Christians are a different category altogether, and will require some explanation.
There is a joke about a man getting accosted in Northern Ireland. He’s grabbed at gunpoint by a masked man, who asks him “are you a Catholic or a Protestant?” The confused and terrified man replies, “actually, I’m an atheist.” The masked gunman ponders this a moment, then asks, “well, are you a Catholic atheist, or a Protestant atheist?”
Behind the apparent absurdity of the question is a serious observation: religious identity is often a matter of loyalty and culture, not belief. Modern, Western atheists are, by and large, Christian atheists, more than they understand. The importance of this is difficult to overstate. They believe in human equality and the intrinsic value of human life, not as natural instincts, but as overarching moral axioms. Their challenge to Christianity is often nothing more than a claim that the faith fails to sufficiently adhere to these axioms. Yet these axioms are Christian in their origin. Western Humanist values are outgrowths of Christian values. As an arch bridge is built over a supporting scaffold, and once complete, the scaffolding can be removed and the bridge stands alone, so were Western humanist values built on the scaffold of Christianity. Both sides are loyal to the same values: the only question is whether or not those values can stand on their own without the underlying metaphysical beliefs which gave birth to them.
Ultimately, this is the great failure of the New Atheists — Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens. Their collective criticism of Christianity was from an essentially Christian position — that it was insufficiently liberal, that it was not kind enough to the poor and the destitute, that religion was not peaceful, that it did not treat the children well. To hear their condemnations of Christianity is almost to hear a modern re-telling of Jesus’ sermon on the mount: blessed are the poor, the mourning, the meek, the peacemakers, and the persecuted, and damned is the Church for its failures in these regards.
Practically speaking, the modern emergence of Social Justice is just a secularization of distinctly Christian values.
The value-Christian is the one who accepts Christian values (qualities of the beatitudes, fruits of the spirit), even if they reject the theology on which these values are based.
I do not mean to suggest that Christianity possesses a monopoly on the qualities and values for which it claims credit. People saw the wisdom in virtues such as forgiveness long before Christianity gave its own unique theological justification for it. As an example, we can see the reconciliation between Priam and Achilles in the Iliad, in which Priam forgives Achilles for killing his son Hektor, and Achilles finally lets go of his anger over the death of Patroklus. The story of the Iliad predates the New Testament by approximately a thousand years. Christianity, in other words, does not own forgiveness, even if forgiveness could be considered a “Christian value.”
Rather, what can make forgiveness a uniquely Christian value is the absolutism of its goodness. Achilles’ fault was not his rage per se, but his refusal to let go of his anger after the Chief who had slighted him — Agamemnon — attempted to make amends. Appropriate forgiveness is a classical value. The obligation to forgive immediately, and never to hold on to anger in the first place, is a Christian one. It is not the Christian’s job to enforce justice, after all. That is God’s domain.
More to the point, the true Christian attachment to his values has nothing to do with any aesthetic or practical utility associated with these qualities. Their concern is — or ought to be — primarily with God and the afterlife. They value these qualities and take on these virtues not because it seems better to them, because of effects of holding these values and qualities, but because it brings them closer to God’s nature. This may or may not have anything to do with utility in the present. As previously mentioned, the values and habits are merely indicators of these more important matters.
But this is not usually how they market their faith. They posit that Christian qualities are good even by secular standards, if ever they grant that standards might be possible within a secular worldview. A common evangelical argument claims that Christianity makes people moral and trustworthy, and that without a belief in supernatural punishment or reward after death, society would simply fall apart. A uniquely Catholic position begins by attempting to associate the Church with beauty:
I think the best way to evangelize — and Evelyn Waugh caught it — is to move from the beautiful, then to the good, then to the true. And to get that backwards is often to evangelize very ineffectively […] If you begin with the true, ‘here’s what you should believe, here’s the truth of things,’ hackles go up, almost automatically. ‘Who are you to tell me what’s true? It’s true for you, not true for me. I got my own right to decide what’s true.’ Or maybe even worse, you begin with the good: ‘what you’re doing is wrong, here’s what you should be doing.’ No one likes to hear that. No one ever likes to be told that he or she is doing something wrong. So beginning with the good, moralizing, tends also to raise the hackles. However, you begin with the beautiful, there’s something non-threatening, there’s something winsome about beginning with the beautiful.
— Bishop Robert Barron
In other words, beauty is used to get past defenses, implying an association between Christianity and beauty. But this association, as we will see shortly, is not theologically justified. It is just a tool – a kind of trick – to reach people, appealing to their sense of the good here on Earth.
This dishonesty is among my four criticisms of Christianity: apathy, shamelessness, dishonesty, and contempt for beauty (a subject I will address all on its own in the next chapter). And speaking of appealing to non-Christian standards of the good, all of my criticisms are grounded in the same standard to which C.S. Lewis alludes in Mere Christianity: that of innately understood dimensions of right and wrong.
This idea of innate right and wrong actually pre-date Christian philosophy. Among the earlier examples is that presented in Sophocles’ play Antigone, in which it is argued that a “higher law” permits the proper burial of loved ones, regardless of any human law which may prohibit this classically sacred act. In pre-Christian world-view, what exact actions are “right” or “wrong” are more difficult to define and often contextual, but this does not necessarily make the pre-Christian view relativistic. It just makes the worldview more complicated, with “right” and “wrong” often existing on a continuum, rather than a binary.
Nevertheless, there is remarkable consistency on the basics of right and wrong around the world and across time. Men are expected to be men, women are expected to be women, rape, theft, and murder are prohibited, and cultural traditions are to be respected. When something goes against these universal standards, it feels wrong. No explanation or justification is necessary.
It is by this intuitive standard that Christianity can be judged. It is by this standard that the most powerful arguments for belief in Christianity have been made, and it is by this standard that I make my arguments against the faith.
Christianity fosters a blissful apathy towards all things of this world. It discourages concern for the opinions of others, for justice, indeed, for the relevance of anything of this world except insofar as it might serve as a tool to aid in the development of the spirit.
Neither of these are apathy per se, because these attitudes are driven by a serious care for God. But it does foster a kind of functional apathy, ignoring the world and directing the believer’s attention incessantly upward. There is an Orthodox classic called The Way of the Pilgrim, in which the protagonist seeks to learn the internal prayer of the heart, so that he may follow the command of scripture and pray without ceasing, as the believer is instructed to do:
“I have heard that it is necessary to pray without ceasing, but I do not know how to pray without interruption and I cannot even understand what is meant by ceaseless prayer. Please explain this to me, dear Father.”
“I do not know how to make this clear, dear brother. But wait, I have a book which has an explanation,” and he brought a copy of St. Demetrius’s Spiritual Instructions for the Interior Man and indicated which page I should read. I began reading the following: “The words of the Apostle, ‘Pray constantly,’ are to be understood as referring to mental prayer; the mind can be constantly fixed on God and communion with him.”
— The Way of the Pilgrim
To accomplish this goal, the narrator learns to say the internal prayer of the heart — “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me” — in time with the breath, and repeats this thousands of times a day. The effect, over time, was the fostering of an internally generated joy that did not depend upon his circumstances. A joy that was de-contextualized, removed from the physical world of the flesh. He had no reason to care for that world any longer.
Naturally, most Christians are not so extreme in their own religiousity. For this reason, most Christians do not come across as apathetic. It is a credit to their humanity — if a discredit to their faith — that they tend to care about the local school, the football game, the traffic revision committee-meeting, and so forth as much as anyone else.
Yet even the lay believer is not untouched by this holy apathy. It comes in many forms. There is the otherworldly cheerfulness that certain evangelicals and some Mormons possess, deriving from their certainty in their place in heaven after they die, and in their relationship with God. Think about it: if you had a relationship with the Creator of the universe, and you knew you were never going to die — in fact, death would only bring better things for you — what on Earth could there be to feel sorry about? Another variety is a kind of fatalism which sees everything as a “part of God’s plan,” a plan which is going to turn out how it’s going to turn out, so there’s no use in interfering. It’s not like you know best anyway, unworthy and sinful mortal that you are. I have run across this type a few times, and get the sense that they tend more often to be female Catholics, but that is merely my own observation.
Then there are “reformed moralists.” Usually non-denominational evangelicals, these men and women come from rough pasts, often sporting tattoos and piercings inherited from their “previous life.” Perhaps they were on drugs. Perhaps they were in a gang. They are not usually theologians: instead, they hate who they were with a single-minded passion, and have credited God as the only thing that could have saved them from their own poor circumstances. For these people, the Christian spirit is a uniquely emotional belief: nothing else matters than God.
Except there is a paradox. The reformed moralist’s favorite thing to do is to tell other people how important God is. Their motivation is a noble one: they don’t want other people to go through what they did, and they hope that if other people hear their story, they will turn to Jesus before they make poor decisions in their life. They are often quite up-front about this mindset. Yet here, they are claiming that nothing matters except where you go after you die, driven by intense emotional feelings tied to outcomes here on Earth.
All three of these types (and there are others) demonstrate degrees of Christian apathy towards the things of this world, which comes straight from the Bible and from the heart of Christian spirituality. As seriousness in Christian faith increases, care for the things in this world decrease.
Perhaps a case could be made that some people do care far too much. I would certainly agree that this is sometimes true. But I don’t think anyone would be willing to say that people should not care about anything at all in this world.
And as I will show later, the people who “care too much” often aren’t motivated by what they claim to care about. Their case is far more similar to the Christian’s than it may appear.
Christianity undermines honor and promotes dishonor among its believers.
In today’s age, honor is a misunderstood and somewhat ambiguous concept, so this will take a bit of unpacking.
In his book Why Honor Matters, philosopher Tamler Sommers argues that honor fundamentally has to do with one’s identity within a group. That could be a Bostonian as a member of his city, or a Navy SEAL as a member of his team, or any number of other memberships within “honor groups,” and the honor code – the beliefs, values, preferences, and expectations that lead to honor within the context of the group – will vary from group to group. Thus, “honor” can look like many different things, leading some scholars to dismiss it as nothing at all. But seen as a pattern, honor isn’t nothing. In every case, no matter the circumstance, honor begins with caring about the opinions of your honor group, and aims at glory and prestige – “honor” – within that group context.
In short, “honor” is reputation – specifically, reputation within an honor-group. To be deficient in honor is to have a fairly low reputation within your group, but the honor-deficient man may still care about his reputation, and desire to move up. This desire for renewed honor makes even the honor-deficient man trustworthy to his group. Conversely, the honored man has brought great value to his honor-group, either in physical value (such as money) or reputation (such as winning an award). Honor is not just some running karma-tally within the group; it establishes your value as a person. The man without honor is not necessarily hated, but is probably ignored. He has no value.
A society in which honor permeates social interactions is said to be an “honor-culture.” In many ways, we cannot escape the draw and attraction of honor, but today, we clearly don’t live in an honor-culture. We have a different foundational belief in our identity and in human worth — one which sees individuals as individuals first, and not as members of a group, and which takes human value as intrinsic, rather than something earned and specific to the individual.
This alternative to the honor-culture of old is called a “dignity-culture.”
In philosophy, dignity is a theory of human value. Dignity holds that a person’s worth is not earned or relative, but intrinsic. Whereas honor is personal, dynamic, and set within the context of the honor-group, human dignity is impersonal because it is not earned by any behavior of the individual. It is static, and universal. Honor sees human beings through a lens of relative value. Dignity sees “value” as an inhuman gauge for human worth.
In the kingdom of ends everything has either value or dignity. Whatever has a value can be replaced by something else which is equivalent; whatever, on the other hand, is above all value, and therefore admits of no equivalent, has a dignity.
– Immanuel Kant, Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals
The fact that we live in a dignity-culture, and not an honor-culture, can be seen in the very first words of the Preamble to the United Nations’ “Universal Declaration of Human Rights:”
Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world…
But “honor” and “dignity” are not merely differing conceptions of human worth. They also represent differing methods for resolving disputes.
In an honor-culture, conflict was resolved between the parties in question. If Bob claims that he has been wronged by Allen, then Bob’s honor depends upon his willingness and ability to confront Allen and make things right. If Allen really did wrong Bob, then his own honor suffers in the eyes of the group. But if Allen admits his fault and makes amends, or can prove that he didn’t wrong Bob, then he will be seen as a fair and honorable man. A reputation for honesty and fairness goes a long way in being believed if you are accusing someone else of wrongdoing, or in being believed if you are accused but innocent.
In a dignity-culture, conflict is not to be resolved between the respective parties, but between the accused party and the state. Indeed, to by-pass the state and resolve things at a lower level is its own kind of wrong, because the state is responsible for protecting the dignity of its citizens. A wrong against a citizen, then, is not just a crime against that individual: it is also a crime against the state. If Charles robs David, then David would be wrong to go and steal his own valuables back from Charles; that right belongs to the State alone. But Charles is not just the enemy of David now: he is an enemy of the state. He must make amends to the state, not to David (although the state will likely return David’s stolen belongings).
One of Sommers’ main arguments in his book about honor was a case for “restorative justice.” Sommers believes in the necessity of the state, but also thinks that something has been lost by allowing the state to intervene on our behalf in matters of conflict-resolution. Because the state jumps in, the possibility of reconciliation is mitigated. But worse than that, the possibility of justice itself evaporates.
Let us imagine that a hypothetical man rapes a woman. For the sake of comparison, let us imagine only two hypothetical outcomes. First, after the rape, the woman reports the incidents to the authorities, the man is arrested, and then tried for first-degree rape. In the second hypothetical outcome, the woman shoots the man.
Which one of these outcomes is “just?”
We have been well-trained to imagine the former as more “just” because it is legal. It is the dignified thing to do. But many people cheer on the inside when the wronged party gets to play some part in righting the wrong—when the woman gets to shoot the rapist herself, rather than leaving it to “the authorities.” It feels more just because it is. Most people understand that true justice requires the feelings and opinions of the victim to be considered in righting some wrong, and perhaps to participate in the righting, should it be appropriate. When that righting is taken from the injured party and given instead to some “objective” third party, the victim is twice-wronged: first, by the initial injury, and second, by the denial of justice that the state imposes in a dignity culture.
Dignity cultures are not more just than honor cultures. They are only more practical. Classical honor societies could, if left to their own devices, spiral into horrific blood feuds that blow up small disagreements into all-out wars.
But in the 20th and 21st century, we have learned that dignity cultures can also start wars that cost tens of thousands of lives, motivated by the compulsion to preserve the dignity of peoples all over the world.
Where does this concept of dignity come from?
It comes from Christianity.
Specifically, it comes from Christian theology. Without the idea that all individuals are “image-bearers” of God, there is no justification for belief in the intrinsic and unalienable dignity of all people. For most people, a genocidal psychopath, a child-rapist, or a serial murderer and cannibal would have given up any and all value they possess. They are not merely worthless, but worse than worthless: they are a drain and a threat to society, worthy of destruction. Is it “just” that such people might find their way to heaven if, later in life, they discover Jesus and develop a relationship with him? I don’t think such an outcome would be just, nor would it be honorable, although it might demonstrate the dignity of human life imparted by God to all of his creation.
There are historical cases of the concept of dignity emerging prior to Christianity – in Ancient Greece, for example. But dignity was always a compromise. It was acknowledged as a dilution or even foregoing of justice in favor of a less violent and more pleasant outcome. In these cultures, honor was retained, but some of its less desirable side-effects (namely the blood-feud) were at least mitigated.
Anyone who has seen The Godfather will understand this pragmatic kind of dignity. When Don Corleone hears of Sonny’s death and calls for a truce with the other five families, it is purely out of a desire to protect his other son, Michael. There is no illusion that the peace has anything to do with “justice.” It’s not personal. It’s strictly business.
In Christianity, all of this is inverted, even including the word “honor” itself.
A whole-hearted relationship with God requires the complete rejection of care for your reputation among other people. It requires caring only for what God thinks of you, because in the end, that is all that really matters if you believe in the Christian heaven and hell. For this reason, Christianity rejects honor, and sets its own spirituality firmly against honor and the sense of justice that humans innately have—the sense that if a hell exists, rapists would go there, and decent people would not. Instead anyone who has a relationship with God goes to heaven, regardless of what they have or haven’t done. Anyone who does not have such a relation goes to hell.
Christianity also extends its dishonorable nature into conflict resolution. Like the intervening judicial system that Sommers complains about, the Christian God intervenes in conflicts between individuals, denying the right of vengeance, not because vengeance is wrong, but because is it not the individual’s right, but God’s:
Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”
– Romans 12-17-19
Notice how “honorable” is used in this passage. In all honor-cultures that have existed, honor begins by hitting back when hit. This is how “reputation” develops, and expands outward from this primordial necessity of reciprocal violence. Honor begins with fighting back. But in this passage, Paul uses the term “honor” to describe the exact opposite spirit of honor. Paul’s words are in line with Jesus’ admonition from the sermon on the mount: turn the other cheek when struck, love your enemies and pray for them. But this is not honor.
Honor can be thought of as the group-given right to pride. The honorable person may or may not show the pride that he has earned, but for the honorable person, the privilege exists, and may be exerted without censure or disapproval (so long as the pride does not extend beyond one’s honor). It necessarily follows that an ethos which forbids pride also forbids honor, even if the honorable man might choose not to boast of his accomplishments. But within Christianity, no such right exists. All pride — all acknowledgment of self-worth belief in a right to boast of one’s accomplishments — is repeatedly denounced in strong language:
But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”
– James 4:6
Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.
– Proverbs 16:18
When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with the humble is wisdom.
– Proverbs 11:2
One’s pride will bring him low, but he who is lowly in spirit will obtain honor.
– Proverbs 29:23
Everyone who is arrogant in heart is an abomination to the Lord; be assured, he will not go unpunished.
– Proverbs 16:5
For all that is in this world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions—is not from the Father but is from the world.
– 1 John 2:16
This denunciation is what we would expect from the theology. If God is responsible for all good in the world, and if we are all deserving of damnation, what right would we have to be proud? If no one else’s opinion really matters, what would be the purpose of honor? Would honor not be a dangerous distraction?
Notice again how, in the Proverbs 29:23 verse, the word “honor” is used, but in a manner which reverses its meaning. Here, “honor” seems to imply “God’s favor” — this is the closest thing to “honor” that could be valued within the Christian worldview, but it is not honor.
In The Way of Men, Jack Donovan distinguishes “deficient honor” from “flamboyant dishonor” in the context of male groups:
Flamboyant dishonor is not a failure of strength or courage. Men who are flamboyantly dishonorable are flagrant in their disregard for the esteem of their male peers. What we often call effeminacy is a theatrical rejection of masculine hierarchy and manly virtues. Masculinity is religious, and flamboyantly dishonorable men are blasphemers. Flamboyant dishonor is an insult to the core values of the male group.
Flamboyant dishonor is an openly expressed lack of concern for one’s reputation for strength, courage, and mastery within the context of an honor group comprised primarily of other men.
While Donovan’s description specifically deals with male qualities and virtues, the principle of flamboyant dishonor can be applied in a broader sense to mean any ostentatious disregard for the opinions of your peers.
This rejection of honor and embrace of flamboyant dishonor is not just biblically sound, but a biblical imperative:
For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.
– Galatians 1:10
The fear of man leaves a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is safe.
– Proverbs 29:25
It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in man.
– Psalm 118:8
Woe to you, when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets.
– Luke 6:26
Nevertheless, many even of the authorities believed in him, but for fear of the Pharisees they did not confess it, so that they would not be put out of the synagogue; for they loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God.
– John 12:42-43
Two archetypal examples of dishonorable Christians come to mind.
First, there are those who we might call the “Proud Weakling.” I have not chosen this label to be demeaning, but to match the character here with a particularly relevant scriptural passage:
But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.
– 2 Corinthians 12:9
The Proud Weakling is often a former gang-member or drug-addict. Perhaps they were a former prostitute, or merely a loser. Whatever the case may be, the Proud Weakling has moved on, and credits Christianity with their rebirth. They hate their older, pre-Christian self. But because they believe that Jesus has taken that hated, worthless, older self and transformed them into their loved-by-God present self, they cannot help but brag about their weaknesses.
“I used to be a gang-member, but Jesus helped me out of that. Nobody is beyond saving!”
“I was homeless and an addict. No one loved me, not even myself. But Jesus never gave up on me.”
The Proud Weakling shares their shortcomings and failures with shameless, flamboyant dishonor. They take pride in their lowness. They have read their Bible.
These Proud Weaklings can sometimes be very uncomfortable to be around. A number of times, I have heard them telling their sad story of early abuse or sex or drugs or crime, and then they say how God saved them and made something of their life, and how nothing else could have achieved that (how do they know?). And somewhere in there, they attack all the social standards that condemn these behaviors — if not explicitly, then implicitly. After all, if they are loved by the one true God, then who am I to judge them for my failures and poor decisions? Who is this world to have a negative opinion of them, and why should they care? They think that instead, I should listen to what they have to say about God!
The second archetype of the dishonorable Christian is what I will call the “Willful Alien.” The Willful Alien may not have done anything shameful early on in their life, but this seems to bother them. They understand that the approval of the world is associated with disapproval from God, and so they go out of their way to flagrantly trespass upon societal norms of what is considered decent, polite, or acceptable behavior. Perhaps they hold picket signs, proclaiming the coming end of the World. Perhaps they aggressively confront strangers on the street. Perhaps they choose offensiveness as their medium for social disapproval, arriving at funerals or parades to tell everyone that God hates America, or the military, or homosexuals. These Christians often make other Christians cringe, but who is to say who the truer Christian is? To the non-believer, authentic faith may be indistinguishable from insanity – not according to me, but according to the Bible:
If we are “out of our mind,” as some say, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you.
– 2 Corinthians 5:13
The Willful Alien takes pride in others’ perception of their insanity. They reject honor like the Proud Weakling, and because of this, both have a stronger claim to be a disciple of Christ than the average “Christian.”
At its core, the faith attacks honor and promotes dishonor. It removes
Despite the Christian God being described as the “way, the truth, and the life,” Christianity promotes a very tenuous relationship with the truth among its adherents. To be clear, Christians as a group have always struck me as honest people. I do not accept the atheistic attempts to prove with data that unbelievers are just as trustworthy as Christians if not slightly more so.
What I aim here to address is not the honesty of individual Christians, but a particular kind of dishonesty within the language of the faith. I sometimes think of it as “Christianese” though I have also heard it described as “church-talk” or even “prayer-talk.”
In practice, Christianese is the result of injecting theological interpretations on everyday occurrences. Anyone who has been around the administrative side of a Church staff is likely to be familiar with this phenomenon. Instead of saying “we chose to move to Texas because Frank had a great job opportunity there,” the fluent Christianese speaker will say something like “we prayed about it, and we really feel like God was calling us to move to Texas and pursue this opportunity to serve Him.”
From an outsider’s perspective, this theological spin on ordinary activities and decisions is almost intolerably pretentious and transparently untrue. But within the culture of the faith, it is just how people speak at many churches. For the Christian, it is not “false,” because Christianese words and phrases often have multiple meanings. ‘To hear God speak to you’ might mean to hear a loud, ethereal voice literally reach out to you and command you to do something… but it can also mean that you had a good idea, and doesn’t God deserve all the credit?
These two things are not even remotely alike, and yet you can hear pastors describe the power and authority in God’s word — say, for example, in Job 38 — and the very same day, hear other Christians who listened to the same sermon (perhaps even the same pastor!) describe in uncertain tones how they feel as if God might be calling them to do something… but they’ll have to pray more about it to be sure.
I myself don’t even think about it anymore. I have been around fluent Christianese speakers, and for me, the translations are automatic. “Pray about it” means “think about it;” “called to do X” means “I think the right decision is X;” “blessed” just means “fortunate” or “it worked out according to plan” (but you can never take credit for the plan, unless it fails).
This is all relatively harmless, maybe even a little charming. Any community that is consistent with its own values is — at least in that regard — admirable to me, and if Christians are going to love the lord with everything they have, you would expect it to influence their language.
But the equivocation is not limited to social-talk among churchgoers. It extends into the theology itself, which impacts the values and culture beneath that theology. In my opinion, the two particularly demonstrative manifestations of this sort of equivocation relate to family and to truth itself.
Consider the way in which “brother” or “brother and sister” are used in the New Testament. Whenever the phrase refers to one’s biological siblings — your real brothers and sisters — it is meant negatively. You are to leave your siblings, or to not invite them to dinner-parties, or to hate them, or to expect betrayal from them. By contrast, the very language of “brother” and “sister” is only used positively when it refers to other believers — not to actual family. This is rampant in the writings of Paul, but Jesus speaks in this way on occasion too.
I have already covered my thoughts on Christianity and the family; the point is not to repeat my opinion on the subject, but to observe the way in which language is used in an inherently dishonest fashion. Why do they call other believers “brothers” and “sisters” when they are not? If they are all like siblings and if the appropriation of family language is metaphorical, then isn’t it strange that Christianity would condemn loyalty to the family as idolatry, while at the same time use positive associations derived from the language of family as a metaphor for something good?
The language of family is not just metaphorical in Christianity. It is equivocation.
This may seem like a trivial example but it is difficult to exaggerate the profound moral and cultural effects this has had. Moving words like Henry V’s “St. Crispin’s Day” speech might never have existed without a cultural basis for the loose application of family-identifiers. More importantly, calling people “brothers” and “sisters” has entered politics, in a way that is only accepted because of the precedent set in Biblical scripture for loose language of this kind. If I were to call an Algerian man a “fellow citizen,” people would point out that I was factually wrong, and perhaps suspect that I might be trying to erode the boundaries of what citizenship actually means. But if I were to call that same Algerian man a “brother,” it would be accepted as a figure of speech grounded in some higher moral truth.
I believe the moral truth in this thought experiment is that eroding the boundaries of the family is worse than eroding those of the state. Family boundaries exist for a reason: families have a biological vested interest in their members in a way that strangers simply don’t and family members who have grown up together will know each other better than others. It is delusional to believe that the incentives of biology and familiarity can be overcome by religious ideology and the dilution of the meaning of “family” by aggressive appropriation (coupled with an attack on the actual family) is a danger worth taking seriously.
On truth, Christianity has a particular word that it likes to use. That word is “testify.”
In Biblical Greek, the word is μαρτύριον (martyrion), and it is translated both as “testimony” and as “witness.” For example, in John 15:27, Jesus says: “And you also must [martyreite] for you have been with me from the beginning.” The advantage of this particular verse is that it demonstrates what we normally mean today when we speak of “testimony,” which in law, refers to oral or written evidence given under oath. If this oath is broken, the speaker is guilty of perjury, and can be punished by the law. In effect, testimony is speech that is warrantied. It is speech made with skin in the game. As such, “testimony” is a high standard of speech and is considered reliable in a way that hearsay or other gossip is not.
There are three problems relating to modern Christians giving their “testimony.”
First, the stories given by Christians about their encounters with God and how he has changed their life invariably involve an inordinate amount of interpretation. An addict who believes that he has been assisted by God in becoming clean may in fact be correct, or he may be wrong. All he can say in a proper testimony are the facts: “I was addicted to alcohol. Then I spent time around a bunch of Christians at AA. They prayed for me. Then I stopped drinking.” There is no interpretation in this story. This is true testimony, in the original and contemporary legal sense, and the hearer might, of their own volition, conclude that God helped the speaker.
But this is not what Christian testimony sounds like; not today among modern Christians, nor even in some of the early texts. While some verses like Acts 4:33 continue to use the term in its proper sense, we can see a creeping in of a different sense in the very same book:
He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead.
— Acts 10:42
This is not a command to “testify,” but to repeat what has been told to you. Worse, it is a command to repeat what you have been told as if it was testimony—as if it was your own experience, as if your personal honor was on the line regarding the veracity of your claim. But this is not the case. You did not personally witness what you are being told to testify about.
There is no problem with offering interpretations, ordinarily. But in the context of “testimony,” it becomes an issue. Interpretations are guesses; hypotheses about what the best explanation is. Often, they cannot be known for certain and they cannot be claimed as true under oath in a legal context.
This leads us to the second issue with “testimony,” which is that there is no accountability. By giving their “testimony” of how they were saved, the modern Christian is essentially offering a warrantied promise of the truth of what they say. But there is no basis for this audacious standard, because the truth can only be verified after one dies. As with family, Christianity appropriates the language of strict, legal truth, and applies it under the guise of metaphor to give weight to implausible and unverifiable claims. In this strict legal sense, all Christians who give in their “testimony” claims which are interpretive, or which they did not themselves see with their own eyes, are committing de facto perjury. And yet they are commanded to exactly this.
The Hebrew word for “swear” in Isaiah is תִּשָּׁבַ֖ע (tis-sa-ba) meaning to take an oath and it is only used in one other place in the Bible. In Leviticus 5:4, the term is used in reference to people who take an oath without realizing it. One imagines the scenario to be something akin to the Bronze-Age equivalent of agreeing to some unusual Terms of Service for your phone or ISP without reading the agreement, and only later realizing that you have promised to do something which you had not intended. The context is clearly legal in nature, which makes the “swearing” in Isaiah an appropriate prelude to the “testimony” we hear about in the New Testament.
But this is not how modern Christians use the term. They use the same word — “testify” from Acts 10:42 is διαμαρτύρασθαι (diamartyrasthai) in Greek, which means “to give solemn evidence,” or “to testify.” Yet they do not “testify. They simply “declare,” as the sort of person referenced in Leviticus 5 might have done without knowledge. They are repeating what they have been told, and not what they have seen for themselves. This approach is made explicit by perhaps the most pernicious and corrosive verse in the entire Bible, in relation to truth:
Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
— John 20:29
True testimony is impossible with such an attitude. It outsources responsibility for the factual nature of what is said to an outside source (God), rather than taking the responsibility for the truth of their words upon themselves.
I think that John 20:29 inadvertently also gave rise to the horrendous butchering of another word: “faith.”
In ordinary contexts, “faith” doesn’t mean believing without reason. It means grit, loyalty, even stubbornness. It is not blindly grabbing the rope without knowing why, but holding on, even when — in darker moments — you feel yourself losing the will to keep your grip, or questioning why you bothered to grab on in the first place. It is in this context that “faith” in marriage is understood. We do not remain “faithful” for reasons we do not understand, but trust on authority; we do it for reasons we understand perfectly well, but which might feel hazy or elusive in moments of distraction, temptation, anger, or despair.
Most Christians — if asked to define the faith will jump to Hebrews 11:1, which defines faith as the “assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” But as poetic as this is, its meaning is ambiguous. In practice, most Christians interpret this in light of John 20:29—believing without having seen, rather than believing what you saw, despite not currently seeing what you once saw, or understood. This transforms “faith” from steadfast resilience into crass gullibility.
But the mercurial Christian attitude towards “truth” is much more foundational than quibbling over the precise usage of certain words — however important those words might be.
Christianity is grounded in once central equivocation, one massive intellectual sleight-of-hand that is so ham-fisted, so audacious, and so absurd that it is a miracle that anyone with a concern for “truth” fell for it in the first place.
It simply defines God as truth:
Jesus answered, “I am the way the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
— John 14:6
I missed this upon even recent readings of scripture because I simply assumed that the Greek used for “truth” was Λόγος (logos), which is related to truth, but is a more complicated concept. In the pre-Christian Greek of Aristotle, “logos” was a rhetorical principle, the logical basis on which an argument stood, and one of three pillars of persuasion (the other two being ethos, or the character of the speaker, and pathos, the appeal to emotion). As with all things, Christianity appropriates and modifies the definition of logos, and identifies it with God.
But Jesus is simpler than that. He does not claim that he is logos, but ἀληθείᾳ (aletheia), which is simple, literal, “truth.”
Anything that a Christian says when inspired by God is, by definition, inspired by “truth,” and therefore, “true.” The circle is completed, and presuppositionalism — the Christian apologetic approach which begins with the assumption of God’s existence — becomes a mere language game. ‘We cannot have an argument without a shared preference for truth; but God is truth; Q.E.D.’
The origins of true testimonialism appear to lie in the militaristic raiding societies of the heroic Bronze Age — “heroic” not meaning “moral,” but defined by “heroes” who set out to take prizes from the unknown (often other tribes). Heroic quests had to be undertaken with groups of men under circumstances where high degrees of trust were mandatory. If someone was promised a certain portion of the treasure taken or glory earned as a reward for their participation in the heroic undertaking, the promise had to be kept or the promise-breaker’s reputation would be destroyed. In such a heroic, militaristic society, your reputation was your life — was arguably greater than your life, for it would influence how others viewed your children as well. Your word was your bond. When a hero made a “boast,” such as what Beowulf promised to do to the monster Grendle, their words were not an empty brag (as we think of boasts today), but a serious utterance, much closer to an oath, and warrantied with their life. ‘I will do this or die trying.’ And in reciting the words and deeds of others, this honor in maintaining a trustworthy tongue remained, to the point that an allegation of dishonesty might even be cause for a duel. ‘The words I speak are truth, warrantied by my sword or my life.’ That is true testimony.
Interestingly enough, the linguistic origins of “testify” literally come from the word “testicle, owing to the tradition of witnesses and oath-takers holding each other’s genitals. This practice was named by the Romans but was not invented by them; baboons have been observed performing similar rituals when forming aggressive alliances against other males. They literally had each other by the balls. And from this pre-human observation, we can see the warrior-pirate origins of “testimony” in function. Linguistically speaking, there is no testimony without skin in the game. This may explain why the ancient etymological origins of truth made no distinction between loyalty and factuality — a relation we still see in usages like “being true” in the context of marriage. The linguistic differentiation between these two concepts only arose later, implying a key association between the two, both in their meaning, and in their relationship to each other.
In more agricultural societies, language tended more towards placation and respect. In pursuit of social harmony, polite lies would have been tolerated, even encouraged. Trustworthiness was less important to survival than not starting trouble, and so “testimony” as we understand could only have arisen later, and then, only by import. It probably would never have been properly understood.
But this agricultural world is the soil from which Christianity grew, and the heaven desired in Christianity is a reflection of this same culture — eternal song and thanksgiving, in harmony with other believers, rather than the orgy of the Islamic paradise, or the drinking and fighting of Valhala. Christian culture is simply not the right environment for testimonial truth to grow.
Their insistence upon the use of the word reflects a uniquely Christian attitude towards language, one that is not just divergent from testimonial truth but in some sense its antithesis: that reality is spoken into being.
The word made flesh.
Jesus is not an alternative to the Pharisees, always trying to trap him in his words, but their king: teacher of the law, the son of the father who speaks the world into being, who was there at the beginning.
Even the stated nature of the Christian God demonstrates this tendency. God is literal, but also metaphorical… but still literal; flesh, but also spirit; human, but also divine. The line between a false dichotomy and equivocation is often a thin one, but when all “good” things are called by one name, a name which excludes anything bad, and all of the stories appear as elaborate depictions to justify this absurd method of categorization, it begins to seem as if Christianity is nothing but one enormous word game: a religion designed by sophists, such that they can circularly prove that they are right, no matter what. ‘Everything “good” is God.’
The belief that reality is given form by words is the ultimate justification for dishonesty — for describing what is not — because it holds that what is untrue now may become true through speech. The confidence that Christians have that their beliefs are true, despite not having evidence, that they are going to heaven, despite not knowing the mind of God, and perhaps even the classification of hope as a virtue, are all indicative of the belief that speech gives rise to truth.
True speech is descriptive in nature; it perceives first, and then describes what is seen. By inverting this order in the foundational creation myth, Christianity undermines the very concept of truth as we understand it today, and as it was understood prior to the arrival of Jesus.
By manner of speech, by false testimony, and by a backwards metaphysical understanding of words and creation, Christianity inclines its believers towards dishonesty. Thankfully, this dishonesty is largely limited to the way in which Christians will interpret events in their lives, always retroactively giving God credit for all sorts of earthly events, or to blame Satan for his worldly influence and temptations.
Look you now, how ready mortals are to blame the gods. It is from us, they say, that evils come, but they even of themselves, through their own blind folly, have sorrows beyond that which is ordained.
– Zeus; Homer, The Odyssey
There are certainly worse cultures of dishonesty throughout history, but as a matter of personal taste, this petty dishonesty of Christianity is shameful. And it may be the bridge to dishonesty of a more malicious and unrestricted nature, when the theological constraints of belief eventually crumble, and the culture created by the faith bursts forth untethered.
4. Christianity and Beauty
I have described three of the four criticisms of Christianity — apathy, shamelessness, and dishonesty. All of these are indirect and functional in nature, and none of them are unique to Christianity specifically. Buddhism, for instance, can also induce a kind of apathy. Certain strands of Paganism can be shameless in nature, and Islam explicitly permits dishonesty in certain cases.
But my fourth criticism is unique to Christianity, and that is Christianity’s strange relationship with beauty.
The impetus for thinking about this was the recent burning of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Officially, we don’t know the cause of fire, but records indicate that arson claimed well over 800 churches in France in 2018 alone. The official explanation — that the fire was accidentally caused during renovation work — came out seemingly within minutes, long before an official investigation could be conducted, and smelled like a placating story meant to keep people calm long enough to forget about their sadness and anger. We may never know the true cause, but whatever the reason for the blaze, a grand and monumental accomplishment in architecture had been irreparably damaged.
Among those Christians of a more political bent — those whom might be in danger of political idolatry, perhaps — there was a healthy dose of sadness and anger at such a loss. But among the more religiously-inclined, I noticed a strange apathy. They seemed to be sad in the way that ordinary Americans are when a vaguely familiar celebrity passes away. “Oh, yeah, what a shame. Now about lunch…”
From a theological perspective, I can understand a general apathy towards things of this world. But a disinterest in the destruction of one of the great monuments to Christianity itself was surprising to me.
In pulling on this thread, I became aware of a very bizarre relationship between Christianity and beauty in general. On the one hand, Christian artists have been responsible for some of the most extraordinary works of art, architecture, and music in history. Cathedrals, statues, frescoes, symphonies, all kinds of beautiful creations have been inspired by the Christian faith and its stories. Yet at the same time, Christianity has demonstrated a tolerance for ugliness, and worse, a shunning of earthly beauty.
One need only look at most modern church buildings to see this trend. I have seen churches that, in architecture, more closely resemble an office building or a retail store than a place of worship. Their signs and insignias often toe the line between simplicity and crudeness. The artwork that decorates these buildings is often immature, and the church-goers seem to delight in the immature, childishness of the attempt at “art.”
The subject of music is a particularly illustrative example of Christianity’s relationship with beauty because we can see its transformation here in the present cultural moment.
I was recently made familiar with a genre of music called “Christian Hip-Hop.” The sound is like ordinary rap, but the subject matter is Christian theology. The artists I became most familiar with were called Shai Linne and Lecrae. Both of these artists can be listened to online, but to give a brief feeling of what their music is like, imagine the general sound of Nas reciting these lyrics:
Story number two about a girl named Sue
Raised in the ‘burbs not far from Saint Lou
Sue’s intelligence was prodigious, she wasn’t religious
In fact she thought Christians were all superstitious
She thought their arguments were inconsistent
Didn’t find them convincing – full paid scholarship to Princeton
Freshman year she had a roommate named Kristen
In God’s providence, Kristen was a Christian
She gave Sue a copy of Mere Christianity
Through reading it, Sue got convicted of her vanity
When she discovered the love of Christian sisters and brothers
for each other is when the Lord grabbed a hold of her
The congregation is waiting for the next reply
Preacher said, “Sis stand up and testify”
Sue said “Jesus made this heathen new
Wanna know my testimony read Ephesians 2!”
If you repented of your sins- Testify
If you’re trusting in Jesus- Testify
If you believe in His death, burial and resurrection
Testify (say what?) Testify
– Shai Linne, “Testify”
Or picture the generic sound of angry gangster rap, but replacing the usual talk of guns, girls, and clubs with this:
Lord kill me If I don’t preach the gospel
I’m still in my 20’s but I’ll die if I got to
Already dead – so forget my flesh
I done been crossed over see the full court press
I’m a full court mess if the Lord don’t use me
Running from my trials thinking everything’s groovy
If the Cross don’t move me then I don’t wanna breath no more
If I ain’t seeing Christ partner I don’t wanna see no more
Rep every day withouth worrying about bruising
I been to china mayne I seen some real persecution
If U didn’t know em would ya life look the same
Can they tell you value Jesus by the way you rep his name?
Man what’s the point of living if I’m living for myself
Lord empty out my life before I put you on the shelf
So for God I go Hard I dont’ wanna die tonight
It’s too many people living who aint heard about my Christ
Go hard or go home
Go hard or go home
Lord use me up
Lord use me up
– Lecrae, “Go Hard”
It is not because of a disdain for rap, but because of my sincere enjoyment of it that this music makes me cringe. I grew up listening to Eminem and Tupac, and still occasionally enjoy them today. The sound of rap works because it is congruent with the usual subject-matter of the lyrics, which is usually a combination of the harshness of life and glorying in one’s own power, in spite of that harshness — especially in one’s lyrical prowess. The world of rap is a tragic one, where defeat and death are certain, but the possibility of glory lurks between here and the grave. American gangster-rap is, in this way, perhaps the most Homeric of all forms of music, and touches on something older and more powerful than even the more refined melodies of classical music.
But Christianity interrupts this congruency between the primitive sound (rap music often lacks a melody, possessing only a rhythm and a riff) and its primordially engaging subject-matter. It injects the Christian “fruits of the spirit” — love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control — into a musical sound that is inextricably bound up with the culture of the gang. Rap is the sound of violence, of honor, of tragedy, power, personal competence, self-reliance, and sheer will. It is antithetical in its sound to the message of Christianity: that the individual is unworthy, but victory is certain, and all glory belongs to God.
Christian hip-hop as cringey as it is because of this incongruence. It is a kind of violence to the genre, appropriating alcohol to mix with water, and destroying the integrity and diluting the usefulness of both.
Yet artists like Lecrae and Shai Linne are clearly talented. They are skillful lyricists, and are familiar with the genre of music. Why would they create something so incongruent and awful?
Fortunately, they tell us the answer. Their purpose is to reach people; to proselytize, and to share the Good News. The reason that they are using rap specifically is because it is what they are familiar with, and more importantly, it is an accessible conduit to a particular demographic: those who listen to rap music.
The trouble is that Christian rap doesn’t work. But to Christian hip-hop artists, this isn’t really a problem. If hip-hop were to die, they would not care. Some explicitly blame the gangster culture from which hip-hop emerged for their own poor early-life decisions, prior to becoming a believer. Turning the genre back against itself appears as a kind of vengeance against that culture. But their aim is not to create good music; their aim is to create music that is good enough to get attention, attention which they can then redirect towards God.
Once I felt this realization, I could never experience Christian artwork in the same way. Before, I understood artwork as communion between the artist and the viewer through some medium, and this communication was predicated upon some shared set of values or ideals. But with Christian artwork, the goal of evangelization (which is really a command to evangelization) corrodes the basis for communion in the artwork itself — the source of beauty — and seeks to replace that basis with something else: God.
One could imagine a Christian argument that God is the source of all beauty, and so a devotion to God not only makes beautiful art possible, but encourages it. But this argument undoes itself. If God is the source of all beauty, then no other source is necessary for the experience of beauty… and in fact, other beauty may even become a distraction from the beauty of God the creator. All art and worldly beauty, after all, is of the world. While modern cultural-Christians who are heavily invested in the world may try to make these two masters work together, the example of the earliest and most dedicated disciples of the faith depict a much different attitude:
Legend recounts that after hearing the voice of God, the Christian hermit Alexandra sold her house, shut herself in a tomb and never looked at the outside world again, while her fellow hermit Paul of Scete slept on the floor of a windowless mud hut and recited 300 prayers a day, suffering only when he heard of another holy man who had managed 700 and slept in a coffin.
Such austerity has been a historical constant. In the spring of 1137 the Cistercian monk St Bernard of Clairvaux travelled all the way around Lake Geneva without noticing it was even there. Likewise, after four years in his monastery, St Bernard could not report whether the dining area had a vaulted ceiling (it does) or how many windows there were in the sanctuary of his church (three). On a visit to the Charterhouse of Dauphiné, St Bernard astonished his hosts by arriving on a magnificent white horse diametrically opposed to the ascetic values he professed, but he explained that he had borrowed the animal from a wealthy uncle and had simply failed to register its appearance on a four-day journey across France.
– Alain de Botton, The Architecture of Happiness
If Christianity were suspicious of the distracting power of beauty, then why would it create objects of such great beauty, along with such ugliness?
For the same reason that Christian rappers make their music: to proselytize.
The beauty of European art and architecture is not the result of Christianity, any more than the “lyrical theology” of Shai Linne is mandated by the gospel. Both were influenced by Christianity, but left to its own devices, Christianity never have created these things. It would have us contemplating the beauty of God, with no need or desire to create representative material beauty, as the early hermitic monks held. Beauty of the world and of the flesh is antithetical to the beauty of the spirit, which is all that matters in Christianity. Even beauty of the body is to be shunned:
Daniel said, ‘If the body is strong, the soul weakens. If the body weakens, the soul is strong.’
—Benedicta Ward, The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks
Of course, many monks did create beautiful artwork, as well as scientific research (and perhaps most importantly, brewing alcohol). But this brings us back to the incredible beauty of Christian artwork and architecture. Both Notre Dame and the best tracks in Christian hip-hop are the product of the mandate to evangelize. They are the product of “Christianity-plus.” In Europe, Christianity, plus the values and aesthetics of the culture being evangelized to. In urban America, Christianity, plus the values and aesthetics there. The local culture serves as a vector through which Christianity can be delivered to the population. But the creations of Christian evangelists are not the product of Christianity. Rather, they are the product of Christianity’s attempt to subvert and take hold of the target culture.
Had Europeans not already valued the kinds of art and architecture that they did, we can be sure that the creations of Christian evangelists in Europe would look quite different, just as we could be sure that Black-American evangelists would not use hip-hop as a theological medium if American blacks were not invested in that genre of music.
This is not a simple tautology: ‘if they had been different, they would have been different.’ Merging aesthetics and blending of styles happens all the time. What makes Christianity unique is that it brings nothing to the table. In its platonic ideal of pure spirit, it cannot contribute any unique aesthetic of its own. It may model art in the fashion of its own stories, but it has no style of its own, as the Egyptian or Greek Pagans did, or as the Chinese Daoists did. It can only seize what others have created, either by crediting God with all creation or by attempting to out-do everyone else within their own domain.
This second method — we can call this “out-doing the locals” — is where all of the magnificent Christian artwork comes from. For the purpose of proselytizing, the Christian artist composes their work for an audience seeking beautiful artwork. But at the critical moment, the purpose of the performance is to say: “this work is nothing. What really matters is the love of Jesus.”
Christian artwork is, at its core, an emotional bait-and-switch. In this way, it is an attack on earthly beauty itself. It attempts to out-shine all other beauty, and then denigrate itself relative to the overwhelming power and beauty of God, and the effect is a denigration of all earthly beauty as worthless.
Naturally, it would not be a religion of the God of the Word if some Christian apologists did not attempt to argue for the existence of God on the basis of beauty.
First, the Christian must defend the theological validity of iconography and artistic imagery, for in the early days of the Church — particularly in Byzantium — Christians were iconoclasts. Not only would they prohibit the veneration of artwork, but they would actively destroy it, and even kill those who attempted to defend icons.
Fortunately, John of Damascus (675 – 749) argued that really, Jesus is an icon — a work of art, we might even say:
An image is a likeness of the original with a certain difference, for it is not an exact reproduction of the original. Thus, the Son is the living, substantial, unchangeable Image of the invisible God (Col. 1.15), bearing in Himself the whole Father, being in all things equal to Him, differing only in being begotten by the Father, who is the Begetter; the Son is begotten. The Father does not proceed from the Son, but the Son from the Father. It is through the Son, though not after Him, that He is what He is, the Father who generates.
— John of Damascus, Apologia of St John of Damascus Against Those Who Decry Holy Images
Given the legalistic nature of the arguments, one wonders how children may have been allowed in ancient times, if iconography is forbidden and if children are icons — likenesses of an original with a certain difference. In fact, one wonders how any creation may have been permitted with such a laxity in interpretation — or, perhaps if the initial prohibition had any real meaning at all. One gets the sense that Christians interpret the early prohibitions as attempts at restraining the heart, for they believe that sin occurs in the heart, and not necessarily in the deed itself. But if this were the case, why the clear-cut rules about actions and objects in the first place?
I must admit, the wordplay does not persuade me — nor do the other arguments offered by iconophiles at the time, such as a hairsplitting distinction between “idols” (representations of gods) and “icons” (representations of men). When the prohibition is against “[making] to thyself a graven thing, [or] the likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or in the Earth beneath,” the differentiation is an irrelevant one. Allowing for artwork at all seems to me a rationalization for doing what is explicitly prohibited, both by the law of the Old Testament and by the example of Jesus.
And even if the law were somehow made irrelevant by Jesus (many modern Christians love this belief for the freedom it gives), the obsolete law still reflects a current and living guide for the heart — a guide which says that beauty and artwork is to be avoided and distrusted. Law or no, the spirit does not change. Perhaps this is why Christians began returning to iconoclasm and plain, “pure” faith shortly after the Bible became accessible in local languages. The Puritans, for instance, often forbid poetry, artwork, and even music.
But I am glad that in the end, the hunger for beauty in the human soul won out, and permitted such a shaky argument to gain precedence in the Catholic Church. Without John of Damascus, there would be no Notre Dame, nor any of the other wonderful works of beauty that came out of Christian Europe. But all this just goes to show that given enough time, and with enough distance from the source texts and traditions, Christianity can eventually come up with a theological rationalization for any practice they wish to retain or adopt. To me, this seems primarily to the credit of humanity, and not to the teachings of Jesus, Paul, and the Old Testament.
Given the early Christian hostility to beauty — or at least to depicting beauty, lest we fall in love with our own creation and forget God — it is audacious on its face to claim that beauty demonstrates God’s existence. But it is said. The argument is simply a variant of the argument from design: that the appearance of things in the world implies a designer, as the ordered structure of the world bears a likeness to the things created by men. We simply ‘know’ that it is created, based upon familiarity with the quality of created things. But this claim itself has no objective basis. This is not to say that it is false; it is to observe that it is intuitive in nature. We will return to the subject of intuition later; for now, it is sufficient to observe that there is nothing that is clearly objective about the argument from design.
And beauty itself is far from an objective attribute. Working within the trades, I have gained enough skill as an amateur carpenter and electrician to identify when something has been well-constructed and when it has not. This perception is a skill that was developed over time, and what is “beautiful” to me in these fields is often a matter of appreciating ingenuity in putting something together, rather than comparing it to some objective standard of abstract “beauty.” It is not obvious how a sub-panel, for example, might be beautiful to someone who knows little about electricity. But to someone who has worked in the field, a clean panel with wires separated and laid out in straight lines, it can appear as a small masterpiece. The skill of the creator is apparent in the final product, and sometimes, this manifest skill is so magnificent that it makes one smile in recognition of greatness. This is beauty, at least of a kind.
My example happens to be man-made, but the beauty I describe is only apparent to those who know what to look for. In looking under the hood of a vehicle, I would be hard-pressed to distinguish a good car from a bad one, but I have seen others whistle at the impressive design of a good engine — or cringe at the poor design of another. The point is that beauty is associative in nature.
A woman is beautiful if certain aspects of her appearance are associated with fertility; a spider’s web is beautiful because its geometric structure can be associated with architectural efficiency and symmetry; a tiger is beautiful for the raw power visible in its graceful musculature. But the spider’s web would not be beautiful to a fly, nor would a woman appear beautiful to a tiger. The web would appear terrifying to the spider’s prey (assuming they could see it and react with human emotions), and the woman would appear more like a steak than as some object of beauty to a hungry big cat. There is no escape from the importance of meaning in beauty, even if this meaning is not immediately obvious. By its nature, beauty cannot be “objective” in a grand sense. It is inescapably associative.
And if beauty is associative in nature, how can a God have created things to be objectively beautiful? The claims that God’s creation is “good” and demonstrative of his perfection in their beauty are objective claims, but the associations that give rise to the experience of beauty are inherently subjective. Some are more universal than others (certain traits in the female form, for instance), and this may indicate some inherited, built-in associations. We like to call such universal forms “objective” beauty, because among people, such a description is useful and accurate enough. But these “objectively” beautiful forms would hold no beauty for a star-fish, or the ocean, or the Universe. The “objectivity” we refer to colloquially does not match the scale of God’s existence, and collapses into meaninglessness when “objective beauty” is spoken of in this way.
In any case, the argument that design is evident in beauty reverses the process by which the experience of beauty emerges, a process which we can see and experience for ourselves in the course of a single lifetime. Sometimes, in the course of a mere few months. When you learn how wood is joined together to last, and how difficult that can be, carpentry which passed unnoticed before suddenly acquires beauty (or ugliness). God is unnecessary for the development of a sense of beauty in this way, and in fact makes the idea that beauty could have been created “objectively” in some historical moment into an absurdity.
But Christianity’s opposition to beauty runs deeper than mere history and concern about distraction from the “supreme beauty.” To dig down to this more foundational conflict, we have to delve a little bit deeper into the nature of beauty.
Beauty is a tricky phenomenon to understand and describe. The entire philosophical study of aesthetics is devoted to the attempt at understanding the nature of beauty and art, and there is not much of a consensus on either topic. Many, having observed that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” — what is beautiful to one person may not be as beautiful to another — simply conclude that beauty doesn’t exist, or at least that nothing can really be known about it because it isn’t objective. But if beauty is understood as an experience — a response — rather than an attribute, then the diverging beauty responses to different stimuli can be re-unified and understood again under one label: “beauty.”
Like the proverbial tree falling in the forest, the painting isn’t intrinsically beautiful alone. Its beauty is a function of its creation of a “beauty” reaction in my mind.
What qualities tend to create this reaction?
They are two: harmony and tension.
Art — or any object which might be judged aesthetically — must have harmony in order to be beautiful. Without harmony, the experience of an object or a scene or an event will be chaotic and stressful. The experience of randomness isn’t “beauty.”
But harmony isn’t enough. Harmony alone is boring and we quickly move on to pay attention to more interesting things. We see something with balance and stability, acknowledge its presence (likely permanent) and move on.
The experience of beauty, which pulls us into looking closer and gazing with wonder upon the object in question, requires tension. It requires some sense of instability, impermanence, motion, or change. The dynamics of motion naturally catch our eye and hold our attention, at least until we can gauge whether the motion is a threat.
Harmony in motion is thing of wonder. The laws of inertia and entropy tell us that things tend to continue as they are, and left to their own devices, degrade. But something which moves and changes while retaining its nature — the balance between the parts; the internal harmony — captures and holds our attention. It draws us in and strikes us as “good.” It is in this harmony in the tension that beauty is possible. For any given person this will not be a sufficiently precise definition, as this dynamic of harmony under tension will manifest in more or less familiar and recognizable fashions for different people. But all experiences of beauty correspond to this relatively unique dynamic.
There are alternative theories of beauty, of course. Arguing from hand-axes and Pleistocene savannas, philosopher Dennis Dutton argues that “beauty” is an evolutionary adaptation born out of an attraction to things which are advantageous to us. But in either case, beauty — be it an abstract balance of tension and harmony, or a signal of evolutionary benefit — signifies life. To be more precise, it signifies good life; life that is vibrant and healthy.
We see a ballet dancer at work, moving across the stage. Her form is itself beautiful, and her movements graceful and somehow “right.” She turns and twists, but then! she appears to tilt, falling, losing her balance… only to catch herself at the last possible moment, demonstrating that the loss of balance had, in fact, been planned, and showing a far superior sense of balance than a dancer who merely kept upright at all times.
Harmony in tension.
When I was younger, I studied and practiced the art of bonsai. It is a Japanese name given to a Chinese art, popularized in America courtesy of the The Karate Kid. But bonsai isn’t just about growing small trees. It is about cultivating small trees that resemble a very particular kind of tree found in the wild. Chinese scholars would venture into the mountains to escape the crushing bureaucracies of the courts, and there found small trees growing in the crags of the cliffs. These trees hugged the contours of the rocks, enduring cold winds and sparse nutrition and water, surviving on the edge. The scholars were so enthralled by these trees that they took some of them home, and then invented methods of creating trees with this appearance, using small pots and wires and shears and pulleys.
The beauty of the trees that inspired bonsai were beauty on the edge. The asymmetrical balance of the bonsai (characterized in the Japanese tradition by a distinctive scalene triangular shape of the foliage mass) represents harmony in tension; survival in the face of the harsh mountains in which these trees were found.
The great works of art — Greek statues come to mind — depict motion with static mediums, such as marble or paint. “Beautiful” architecture has a sense of balance and motion, despite being stationary. The pyramids of Giza are awe-inspiring in their own way, but they are not “beautiful” in the way of the Taj Mahal, whose appearance defies architectural convention (tension), but does so with symmetry and grace and curved lines that give the structure an almost human feeling. The themes of great music — like Bach’s fifth Brandenburg Concerto — can dance and change, and then fall away like a ballet dancer appearing to lose her balance… but then return to their theme and restore harmony, and do so with grace that did not seem possible at the climactic moment of change from the theme.
Harmony in tension.
Theologically, such a harmony under tension is impossible for Christianity. The creator-God is absolutely good, and his adversary — Satan — is the source of all evil. Between God’s three aspects — the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit — there is harmony without tension. Between God and Satan, there is tension without harmony. While Satan rules the earth, the world is fallen. Nothing is good. Nothing is harmonious. But before Satan’s deception of Eve, and after his containment in the final battle, everything is good. Everything is in harmony with God, and every knee will bow. There is no tension.
If beauty is truly found in harmony within tension, then the very nature of a singular, overarching, and all-powerful God precludes the possibility of what we experience as “beauty.”
Harmony is nice and ordered, but it is not the same thing as beauty. It is perhaps for this reason that many people, upon hearing the biblical description of heaven, actually find it rather boring and undesirable:
After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”
Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
“Therefore they are before the throne of God,
and serve him day and night in his temple;
and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence.
They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore;
the sun shall not strike them,
nor any scorching heat.
For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of living water,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
– Revelation 7:9-17
Heaven and the paradise that preceded the Fall are both depictions of harmony without tension. Everything was “right” with the world, if “right” is understood as harmony without tension. But nothing happens. This view of moral goodness holds that morality is opposed to beauty, because beauty requires fragility or impermanence. It requires tension which Christianity holds to be sinful by nature, since tension with God is separation from God.
To put it bluntly, Christian morality is boring.
Boring is not beautiful.
Christianity aside for a moment, many philosophers have argued for a kind of “objective beauty,” beauty from the standpoint of the cosmos itself. In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig makes a comparable argument for the objectivity of “quality,” of which beauty would be one expression. After dividing “quality” into two types — “Romantic” quality, which is based in emotion, and “Classical” quality, which is founded in reason — Pirsig makes the case that the experience of quality occurs prior not only to our subsequent interpretation of the nature of quality, but indeed, prior to our understanding of what we are experiencing in the first place. “Good” and “bad,” as events and feelings, precede the thing itself. In this way, quality is argued to be in a sense more real than reality itself. It is therefore more “objective,” and provides a philosophical basis for “objective” beauty, which Pirsig introduces by way of French mathematician and philosopher Poincaré:
Poincaré made it clear that he was not speaking of romantic beauty, the beauty of appearances which strikes the senses. He meant classic beauty, which comes from the harmonious order of the parts, and which a pure intelligence can grasp, which gives structure to romantic beauty and without which life would be only vague and fleeting, a dream from which one could not distinguish one’s dream because there would be no basis for making the distinction. It is the quest of this special classic beauty, the sense of harmony of the cosmos, which makes us choose the facts most fitting to contribute to this harmony. It is not the facts but the relation of things that results in the universal harmony that is the sole objective reality.
Pirsig’s writing is possibly the best fiction to come from America in the past hundred years, and his classic is still my favorite novel. His observations and explorations on quality are very worth reading. I only select his argument as a particularly well-made exemplar of a much greater school of thought which argues for a greater school of thought advocating belief in objective beauty (of which Christianity is a large component). All of which can be rejected in the same way.
“Classical” or “divine” beauty, of which romantic beauty is a reflection, is argued by philosophers and theologians to be at the basis of all other varieties of beauty. Without the essence of beauty, there could be no unique variations of beauty. Thus, beauty understood philosophically is a kind of “objective” beauty.
The chief forms of beauty are order and symmetry and definiteness.
– Aristotle, Metaphysics
But this philosophical understanding of beauty and its conclusion do not prove any objective basis for beauty. In these cases, philosophy has simply become its own medium for beauty — much like music or paint or sculpture — with its own standards of excellence. A strong philosophical argument is one that appears unassailable. A beautiful philosophical argument might be one which appears challengeable, but which in fact holds up under cross-examination.
“Classical beauty” is beauty within the domain of philosophy. As a philosopher, I enjoy philosophical beauty, but this enjoyment does not make it objective. Truly objective beauty would create the experience of beauty in all sentient creatures, not merely in philosophically-inclined humans. And such a beauty does not exist.
It is tempting to say that those who do not appreciate the objective beauty of a line or a circle (as Socrates gave as examples of objective beauty) simply do not understand. But such an argument applies to all other mediums of art as well. Those who do not understand gangster rap, death metal, modern art, or motorcycle maintenance only fail to appreciate the excellence found within these mediums for the same reason that the non-philosopher fails to see the beauty in a straight line.
In the end, there is no basis for belief in objective beauty—and this is in no way to diminish the reality of beauty within the variety of spheres of excellence within which humans strive. A belief in objective beauty simply is not necessary to appreciate such accomplishments, and may in fact detract from the beauty which really does exist in our subjective world, provided we acquire the knowledge to see it.
Christianity is theologically and historically opposed to beauty. When it does pursue beauty, it does so to redirect attention from real objects of beauty and instead towards God. It attacks the relevance and value of earthly beauty, and at the same time, tries to give God credit for all earthly beauty, even as it condemns it as the property of Satan — material of the flesh and of this world.
Here, on the subject of beauty, Christian apathy, shamelessness, and dishonesty merge into something truly ugly: an eschatology of nothingness — a hermit’s cell; a coffin; a mud hut — masquerading as all that is beautiful in the very world they are condemning.
5. The Effects of Christianity
Many people treat Christianity as a kind of useful myth; perhaps not “true,” but it compels people to do what is right and it gets good results. This is a particularly popular argument in predominantly European societies, where the Christian is immersed in “good results,” at least as far as poverty levels, crime, and corruption are concerned.
In such circumstances, the association between good things and Christianity is natural. But Christianity is not an exclusively Western faith. At the time of the Rwandan genocide, Rwanda was the most Christian nation in Africa. Indeed, most of Africa — constantly suffering from war, corruption, starvation, and disease, to a degree matched by no other continent — is heavily Christian. Latin America is also very Christian, and is substantially less well-off in the usual measures alluded to when speaking of “good results” than more atheistic countries in Europe. Indeed, even in Europe, the most Christian nations — Romania, Greece, and Moldova, respectively — can hardly be considered the gemstones of modern Europe. The more one considers the scale of Christian influence, the harder it is to justify any causal relationship between Christianity and socio-political success.
But even the better-off North-Atlantic societies deserve closer scrutiny, especially with an eye on their trajectory, rather than their present state.
I am not a demographer, nor am I an expert in political science or political affairs more generally. However, there are three particularly illustrative issues that seem to plague nearly all Western Nations with confusion and conflict. All of these issues, though complex in their political details, are simple in their theological origin, and can be shown to be false within that origin. These issues are wealth inequality, immigration policy, and gender relations.
In all of human history, modern Western nations stand head and shoulders above all others in terms of raw wealth creation and accumulation. Moreover, Western nations provide a fairly high degree of social mobility — not everyone can necessarily rise from the bottom to the top with ease, but the move is at least possible. In most societies in history, this mobility was not merely difficult, but impossible. Western Nations — and America in particular — have gone to historically unprecedented lengths in removing legal and even social barriers that might impede people from rising to whatever station they might be able to achieve.
But it is becoming increasingly clear that mobility may never have been the aim. The underlying purpose of economic mobility was the possibility of achieving equality in wealth, on the assumption that people are, in fact, more or less equal, and that in a fair society, wealth distribution will correspond to this presumption of equality.
Needless to say, it hasn’t. In fact, mobility seems to have actually exacerbated wealth inequality in America.
The problem has not been with systemic barriers built into society or anything of the kind. The problem is that the foundational assumption is wrong. Human beings are not equal. They are not equal in age, in height, in strength, weight, intelligence, athleticism, or almost any of all variety of aptitudes and qualities. They are also not equal relationally. My biological brother means more to me than a stranger. My wife is more important to me than other women. My daughter is more valuable to me than other children. These inequalities are not “earned” or “deserved” by these individuals; they simply are.
In what sense could people be described as equal, even theoretically?
I believe that the Enlightenment philosopher John Locke captures what most people imagine they mean by equality:
…there being nothing more evident, than that creature of the same species and rank, promiscuously born to all the same advantages of nature, and the use of the same faculties, should also be equal one amongst another without subordination or subjection.
— John Locke, Second Treatise of Government
In other words, “equality” means that we are all the same in our essentials, and that therefore no one should be subjugated under another.
While I admire the independent spirit of Locke’s position, the logic is appalling. Where else do we simply dismiss details in evaluating the worth of an object? Who, when out shopping for furniture, might say to themselves “well, this chair has four legs and is made of wood; that chair has four legs and is made of wood; they’re basically the same, and neither carpenter could have anything to learn from the other…” And subjugation is separated from superiority — i.e., one person may be superior in details, but his essential similarity still negates any legitimacy in subjugation — then is Locke implying that essentially superior organisms should subject inferior organisms? If so, why would equality in essentials actually change this, and oblige us not to subject our equals?
Even some of the assertions (“there being nothing more evident”) are dubious. Are all people of the same rank? Do we all possess the same advantages and faculties? Adults and children are treated differently, in a political context: the former can vote, the latter cannot. Felons and citizens without criminal records are also treated differently, as are — if we are being frank — politicians and ordinary civilians. The list goes on ad infinitum, and Israeli historian Martin Van Creveld provides a more thorough demolition of the practical possibility of equality than I would care to here. As evident as the political default of equality may be to Locke, it is even more evident to the rest of us that humans are different from each other. In philosophy, “equality” means “sameness” — the mathematical definition, which gives us “one plus one equals two.” Whatever Locke is trying to get at, equality may simply be the wrong word.
Locke’s own position still feels reasonable (who is for subjugation?), but the argument offered as justification makes no sense. It is as if he has started with a conclusion and worked backwards to try to justify it.
But where did he arrive at such a conclusion in the first place?
As it turns out, Locke himself was a Christian. And not merely a Christian of his day, but a serious believer whose political views were strongly influenced by Christian theology. It is here in Christianity, and not in some post hoc attempts at rationalization, that we see the true origins and justification for the belief in equality of any kind.
Only with an understanding of Christian theology can we understand where the doctrine of “equality” can even be entertained, let alone accepted. The disputes over wealth-inequality derive from a broader theory of moral equality — of equality in “deserving” wealth, regardless of one’s aptitudes and capacities. And this theory of moral equality has no theoretical basis outside of the twin Christian concepts of the imago dei and original sin. We are all equal in our sins, equally worthy of condemnation for we all fall short of the glory of God, and at the same time, we are all equal as image-bearers of God.
For those who have been raised on the value of equality, it can be difficult to step back and see the problem with accepting the truth and goodness of human equality. But to these same people, the first problem we are addressing here — wealth inequality—is most likely already very familiar. Wealth inequality creates enormous amounts of strife and discontent, much of which is connected to a sense of entitlement. And talk about hard work and risk and so forth doesn’t really help either. If someone else has more than I do, the extenuating circumstances which might explain the origin of that inequality hardly relate to the fact of the inequality if we both “deserve” an equal share of this. Because the equality described by Christianity is innate, our actions cannot really change that equality.
Of course, Christianity can hardly be blamed for the economic application of this attitude. They are, after all, taught to shun the love of money. But even so, an economic example of radical equality exists in the Bible, and it isn’t very different from what modern equality advocates envision:
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius[a] a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’ And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’ And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ So the last will be first, and the first last.”
— Matthew 20:1-16
That is what true equality looks like: the last will be first, and the first will be last. The best will be brought down, and the worst will be raised up. Given the diversity of human aptitudes, it is what equality logically must look like.
As with beauty, the ideal of equality is hostile to excellence generally. This is one of the great costs of equality: it tends toward leveling, and hammers down the shining peaks of excellence among mankind. While communism may have accomplished this aim more completely than any other ideology, its impatient brutality left the world with a bad taste in its mouth. It was for this reason that history chose to discard communism, and not capitalism. Dialectical materialism works in mysterious ways.
But communism only died because it was impatient. The millions of deaths incurred by starvation and labor camps were not the only cost. Another cost was the destruction of excellence as an ideal, because in a world without private property, there is no sense of ownership of one’s work — no responsibility, no pride, no burning desire to create work that demonstrates your own quality and competence as a person, because what you create will not be “yours.” In modern time, the appropriation is not just physical, but psychological too. “You didn’t build that” is a shorthand version of an argument from causality: because everything you used to build was, itself, given to you, you don’t deserve credit. You may even deserve punishment if you attempt to claim credit.
This is a theological argument dressed in secular robes. It is exactly the Christian argument which ascribes all good to God, but merely replaces “God” with “society,” or “history,” or even “causality.” But the moral insinuation is dependent upon a presumption of equality which can only be defended in a monotheistic worldview wherein all individuals are equal as image-bearers of God. Without a moral presumption of equality, causality is merely an explanatory tool; with equality, it becomes a bludgeon, aimed to beat down the successful, be they the Pharisees in Roman Judea, or the Bourgeois in industrial Europe.
In fact, equality and the debate over wealth is only one of many aspects of liberalism that descend directly from Christianity. Philosopher Curtis Yarvin — better known by his pseudonym, “Mencius Moldbug” — argues that there is actually no functional difference between modern globalist liberals and Christians. For historical and theological reasons, he identifies modern liberalism as a distinctively American and particularly ecumenical brand of Unitarianism that he calls “Ultracalvinism.” Ultracalvinism has four features, all of which are explicitly Christian in origin:
First, ultracalvinists believe in the universal brotherhood of man. As an Ideal (an undefined universal) this might be called Equality. (“All men and women are born equal.”) If we wanted to attach an “ism” to this, we could call it fraternalism.
Second, ultracalvinists believe in the futility of violence. The corresponding ideal is of course Peace. (“Violence only causes more violence.”) This is well-known as pacifism.
Third, ultracalvinists believe in the fair distribution of goods. The ideal is Social Justice, which is a fine name as long as we remember that it has nothing to do with justice in the dictionary sense of the word, that is, the accurate application of the law. (“From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.”) To avoid hot-button words, we will ride on a name and call this belief Rawlsianism.
Fourth, ultracalvinists believe in the managed society. The ideal is Community, and a community by definition is led by benevolent experts, or public servants. (“Public servants should be professional and socially responsible.”) After their counterparts east of the Himalaya, we can call this belief mandarism.
— Curtis Yarvin, “The Ultracalvinist Hypothesis: In Perspective”
Points one and three are explicitly founded upon the premise of Christian equality, while the second and fourth are more specific to the protestant strains that gave us the Puritans.
Modernity has made life extraordinarily comfortable and safe. Mostly as a result of technology, we have cars, computers, medicine, enormous supermarkets with cheap groceries, and more entertainment than we know what to do with. Some people believe that the comforts of this lifestyle are the product of a work ethic that is also Christian in origin. Specifically Calvinist, in fact. Calvinists believe in predestination, and election is not something that can be “earned,” but may be “revealed” in how one lives one’s life. Thus, the hard-working and productive man appeared more likely to be among the elect. Calvinists became known for working very hard, earning a lot of money, and spending relatively little.
But this work ethic was never about the material comforts we now enjoy. It was, in fact, against these. Now that the theology has been dropped, one can only wonder whether the work ethic will continue, as more people begin to wonder if all of their hard work is really worth the trinkets and toys they can buy.
A common social complaint in the past several decades has been the manner in which fathers often don’t spend enough time with their families, that they are too busy working. Men have always had to work, sometimes for hours that seem inhumane by modern standards, and for very little pay in return. But in times before the 20th century, this sort of labor was often necessary to survive. Today, many men seem to work incredible hours by choice. It is easy to imagine a wife and children being more forgiving to the man who has to work long hours, rather than the man who chooses to, for money that the family doesn’t need… at least not as much as they need him.
Is all the technology that has come from this extraordinary work ethic worth it? When discussing technology in any terms other than wonder and gratuitous flattery, it is easy to slip into talk of medical technology, lives saved, and so on. But the attraction and pull is not the preservation of life, which in the aggregate, is probably more greatly harmed by sitting millions of people down to commute countless miles to then work ergonomically unnatural desk jobs than helped by the technology those desk jobs make possible. The draw has always been the decadence and entertainment. Expensive cars, flavored lattes, and colored television with soap operas and reality shows. These are what the cultural Christian works hard for, the result of a protestant work ethic divorced from the worldview that created it, and at the cost of family time that he wants to value, contra his own inherited religious tradition.
And if the equality he champions — for reasons he cannot explain — ever becomes politically accepted, he might not even be able to afford nice things, even after all that work. All his earnings will simply be siphoned off in taxes and given to “those in need.”
Wealth inequality has always been with us, and probably always will be, because inequality is a fact of life and wealth follows value. But by creating a false presumption of equality, Christianity divides society against itself, driving resentment against the rich and successful. Where it does not flatten excellence, it encourages work for its own sake, in a mad race to prove to themselves and to each other that they might be going to heaven when they leave all of their wealth and work behind. Instead of appreciating human excellence and enjoying its fruits within the proper constraints of duty and obligation, Christianity requires the serious believer to dismiss the importance of excellence in the here and now, and also to ascribe all credit for true excellence to God. All greatness must be pursued “for the glory of God,” and will be pursued by fewer and fewer people as the demands of Christian theology gradually lose the competition with “fallen” human nature, which is to say, with our inescapable neural and physiological inheritance, which pursues the good because of its value in the here and now.
Christianity itself predicts this outcome. The world is fallen, will remain fallen, and will only get worse with time. That is why it must “pass away” and become made new.
For those who value the hereafter higher than the now, and who believe a glorious deus ex machina is imminent, the tragedy of this self-fulfilling prophesy is of no concern.
But for everyone else, the Christian ideal of equality has made wealth inequality a serious and burning concern, which otherwise would not have existed. Everyone cares about wealth acquired through deception or other injustice, but it takes a belief in human equality to hold that the disparity alone constitutes injustice. And only with Christianity can any kind of belief in human equality be justified.
Christianity is not just individualistic and egalitarian in nature; it is also deeply viral in nature. It compels its disciples to spread the good news to all the nations of the earth. This has motivated missionary work since the earliest days of the church.
As a matter of pure personal preference, it is abhorrent to me that all nations of the earth should practice the same religion. Having studied a variety of religions, I find reasons to pursue aspects of some, or to reject others entirely, but the sheer variety out there makes the world a more interesting place, fertile with new ideas and possibilities and visions. These varied and often conflicting ideas will clash, sometimes overpowering each other, sometimes avoiding each other, and sometimes synthesizing something new out of the old. These outcomes may be “good” or “bad” by any given standard, but I think the freedom and variety derived from this variety is a good thing. Like populations in general, individuals are different from each other, and so a greater variety in religious traditions allows for both nations and individuals within those nations to pursue religious traditions and roles which are more authentic reflections of their own nature.
But the development of these threads of religious and cultural tradition require a degree of isolation. And Christianity cannot abide by this. The Christian evangelist, after all, is his brother’s keeper. And fellow image-bearers of the living God, we are all “brothers,” and so the evangelist cannot abide to see any soul perish within his power to save.
For an example of the existential seriousness of sin and forgiveness in Christianity, consider this summary from the recently canonized cardinal John Henry Newman:
The Catholic Church holds it better for the sun and moon to drop from heaven, for the earth to fail, and for all the many millions on it to die of starvation in extremest agony, as far as temporal affliction goes, than that one soul, I will not say, should be lost, but should commit one single venial sin, should tell one willful untruth, or should steal one poor farthing without excuse.
— Saint John Henry Newman
The Catholic Church and the Protestant churches vary on many matters of dogma and theology, but on the absolute importance of sin and forgiveness, they are in general agreement. Given this perspective, how much more important does evangelism become! What earthly negative outcomes could outweigh this obligation?
The evangelical obligation within Christianity compels an openness, not only to one’s own people going abroad to religiously conquer others, but also to other people coming in, if such a movement might allow for the saving of souls.
Based upon the clearly apathetic views of Jesus towards this world — including its governments, culture, institutions, and values — and the even more explicit and precise indifference articulated by Augustine, on what grounds can the Christian object to such movements of people? I have personally heard pastors welcome the advent of large-scale immigration precisely because it makes evangelism easier. To the Christian, the important identity of the foreigner is not their nationality, their culture, or even their present religious loyalty, but their relation to the one God as his unique creation, alike in this regard to all other humans.
“You are to distribute this land among yourselves according to the tribes of Israel. You are to allot it as an inheritance for yourselves and for the foreigners residing among you and who have children. You are to consider them as native-born Israelites; along with you they are to be allotted an inheritance among the tribes of Israel. In whatever tribe a foreigner resides, there you are to give them their inheritance,” declares the Sovereign Lord.
— Ezekiel 47:21-23
Whatever the effects may be on the souls of the hitherto unevangelized, the effects of rapid, large-scale migration are always negative, at least for the host population.
Economically, large-scale immigration increases the labor supply. When the immigrants come from a nation with a lower standard of living, the workers will invariably be willing to work for lower wages, at least for the first generation or two. This decreases the wages of the host labor force.
Culturally, immigrants will bring their own art, traditions, religion, and even language with them. The cultural divide between unlike peoples tends to generate dislike, distrust, and even hostility.
Rapid, large-scale migration can even destroy a host nation. Through dilution, replacement, or conquest, migratory populations have historically wiped out host nations many a time. Sometimes, this does not even appear to have been intentional, at least not in the degree of completion. When Cortez conquered Mexico, most of the killing was not done by the conquistadors’ rifles, but by the disease they carried in their bodies, which the Spaniards had developed immunities to, but which the natives had not. The same story played out further north, where the English and French settled. Had millions of Amerindian tribes not been wiped out by smallpox, it is conceivable that they may have fended off the White invaders. It is doubtful that the Europeans in North America had truly intended to conquer the native tribes already there, but in the end, that was the effect, regardless of their intentions.
It is pointless to morally condemn invading populations for moving to another place. People have always moved; sometimes entire nations move to flee from a more serious threat. The moral fault is not with the guest population moving, but with the host population refusing to protect its own interests. No one would call a cougar “immoral” for chasing a deer, but there would be something truly wrong if the deer did not run or fight to save its life.
But again — and it is worth repeating! — of what value would life be to a deer who is promised immortality in exchange for loving his predator?
I am understating the problem, because the connection between Christianity and large-scale migration is not merely one of permission. Rather, it is the heart of Christian identity which created the problem. In pre-Christian times and in culturally un-Christian cultures, it was both intuitive and natural to look after one’s own people first. Almost every past culture held a traditional obligation to hospitality and care for travelers passing through, but that hospitality had its limits, especially if the guest had the audacity to declare he was staying for good. But Christianity destroys this distinction between “us” and “them,” between “neighbor” and “foreigner.” By complete identification in the spirit of God, all distinctions between nations and peoples break down. What, after all, is the parable of the Good Samaritan, if not an evasion from the very important distinction between “neighbor” and “not-neighbor?”
On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
– Luke 10:25-37
This is, in fact, a generally misunderstood passage, and the point — as I read it — is not that everyone ought to emulate the Samaritan. The perspective of the story is from that of the beaten man, and so we are left to conclude that the depicted members of his own tribe are, in fact, not his neighbors. The Samaritan is a neighbor as a function of his actions (really, of his heart), and Jesus’s command to “go and do likewise” is not a command to emulate the Samaritan, but to act in accordance with the law established in the beginning, but with a more ambiguous and diluted understanding of who one’s neighbor actually is.
Here too, we can see the dishonesty of Christian language creeping back into the fold and making the parable into a seditious one. Helping another in need may make you a good person, an ally, or a friend, but these are not the same as a “neighbor.” Language is an organic thing, and I could appreciate a poetic turn of phrase that is not literal, but metaphorical… except that what Jesus is explaining is a question of law. He is saying that one’s “neighbor” is not a function of proximity, which corresponds to the more general New Testament notion that family is not a function of blood. All identity — nationality, neighbor, or nephew — comes down to identity in Christ, perhaps even in seeing the hand of the creator in those who may not yet have accepted Christ.
When I see the insanity of “Good Samaritan” politicians, who put the welfare of refugees and foreigners higher than the welfare of their own people, I sometimes wonder how they can get away with such audacious disregard for their national obligations without receiving the traditional mob-justice reserved for traitors. But it seems more likely that these politicians are largely opportunistic sociopaths: they bear no malevolent will towards the public, nor empathy for the millions of foreign beaten men, suffering on the roads elsewhere. They are creatures of power, and only say what they say, and propose the bills they propose, on the basis of what will get them in office and keep them there. Their moral Good Samaritanism is not a product of a good or evil heart, but an outgrowth of the moral framework of their constituency.
That framework is Christian.
And so the politicians compete to out-do each other as “moral” in the framework that the public has constrained them with. Not only is it suddenly reasonable to bring in millions of refugees — both to proselytize and for the opportunity to treat the least among us as one might treat Jesus — but it is considered cowardly to consider the costs that such a migration might impose on one’s own country. For “perfect love drives out all fear,” and we are to love each other as we would love God.
Thus, Christianity simultaneously creates the problem of mass-migration and theologically disarms its opponents from bringing up reasonable, “worldly” concerns about its possible ill-effects in the present world. It falsely treats the citizen and the foreigner as equals and denies the relevance of any practical concerns such a conflation might have for one’s true neighbors.
From observation alone, it would be impossible to deduce that men and women are “equal” to each other.
To start with, men and women vary in biological function: women bear children. Men do not. Perhaps because of this key difference, men are slightly larger and significantly stronger than women. Men, it seems, are disposable, relative to women, because eggs are biologically expensive and raising a child is a time and energy-intensive undertaking. Sperm, on the other hand, is all but free. A single man could, in theory, impregnate thousands of women. The reverse simply does not work. And so the more dangerous tasks — hunting, fighting, building, etc. — fell to men, and our bodies and minds adapted to the demands of our respective roles.
To say that men and women are not “equal” is not to say that one sex is “superior” to the other. They serve different roles for the preservation of the same lineage, and to even begin discussing one as “better” or “superior” to the other is to commit a category error like comparing apples to oranges. The two are symbiotic opposites, and neither can exist without the other. To talk of one as “better” than the other would be to imagine that a part of something could be superior to its whole.
But today, it is commonly accepted that men and women are, in some sense, “equal.” What sense is this, and how did it come to pass?
Naturally, both men and women were created in the image of God, so there is a theological basis for equality — literally from the very beginning.
However, where the Bible and gender are concerned, it is quite a bit more complicated. Let us begin with a few key passages from the New Testament:
Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing — if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.
— 1 Timothy 2:11-15
The women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.
— 1 Corinthians 14:34-35
But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.
— 1 Corinthians 11:3
Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word
— Ephesians 5:22-23
In Ephesians, Paul describes something like a healthy balance between the sexes — an exchange of love and respect — though it is clear that the woman is obliged to submit to the man, for the man is above (superior to) the woman, in what appears to be a manner comparable to the superiority of God to man.
But in Timothy and Corinthians (also written by Paul), the emphasis is more clearly upon the superiority of man over women, and not the reciprocity between complimentary roles.
The Bible is not short on praise for women. Indeed, Song of Songs is practically pornographic in its depiction of an ideal wife. There is Galatians 3:28, which proclaims the eradication of distinction between male and female in togetherness with Christ. And of course, there is the example of Jesus, who seemed to treat women with a familiarity that was wholly foreign and uncomfortable among first-century Jews.
The apparent contradiction is obvious. Holding women both as equals and as inferiors to men, simultaneously, doesn’t make sense. Something has to give.
Given that Paul is speaking primarily to real-life churches that are suffering from a variety of difficulties, I think the most likely explanation for this contradiction in gender-talk is that Paul is attempting to correct against the disastrous errors of equality in this world. This is tricky to do, since the doctrine of equality came from the teachings of his faith, including his own words.
Fortunately for Paul, the equality of Christianity is grounded in the spirit — in God and separation from God — which makes it possible to separate this equality from the real-world, and perhaps to save the earthly churches from the disastrous earthly consequences of a belief in actual equality. But in order to maintain the faith, this must be done without disturbing the belief in spiritual equality.
It is tempting to say that Christianity is oppressive to women, or “hates” women, but this would be unfair because in fact, Christianity looks down upon all humans as unworthy sinners. Nevertheless, Christianity clearly seems to favor men, depicting women as subordinate to men in the manner and proportion that men are subordinate to God. Given the distance between sinful man and God, one can imagine the degree of theologically-justified superiority of the male to the female.
So why would such a gap be necessary? If Christianity is guided by spiritual equality, where does Paul’s disdain for women come from in the first place?
I think it is best to start with the conflict between nature and belief. The pull of nature is very strong. It is obvious that there is an inherent inequality in the way that men evaluate women, especially where beauty is concerned. Likewise — to the consternation of men across the ages — there is a complicated but clear inequality in the way that women judge men, driven also by beauty, but also by power, wealth, and confidence. Christians are also human, and the premise of Christian equality butts up against the reality of inequality. Spiritual equality does not pan out in reality, and while this may not matter in the hereafter, it has an effect on the here-and-present churches, occupied as they are by flesh-and-blood humans. For a church to survive and function in the city of man, it must find some compromise between the competing demands of the spirit and the flesh.
Both men and women feel this divide, but there is a gendered inequality in the openness to ideological filters between men and women. Men tend to be more mechanically-inclined and logical than women. This fact is often portrayed as a complete and whole good in men’s favor, but very often, it means that men are more likely to persuade themselves of something absurd because it appears to make sense in the abstract.
This means that women could be a greater threat to the doctrine of Christian theology, if their less-filtered intuition was allowed to influence the heavily logical teachings of the early Church, contrary as it was to the natural intuitions of humanity in general — female intuition being more stubborn in natural instinct than its male counterpart.
Perhaps, then, the wisdom of women’s bodies posed too great a threat to the concept of equality for the church to ignore. For the preservation of equality before God, women had to be made unequal, and inferior before Man.
Behind your thoughts and feelings, my brother, there stands a mighty ruler, an unknown sage-whose name is self. In your body he dwells; he is your body. There is more reason in your body than in your best wisdom. And who knows why your body needs precisely your best wisdom?
– Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra
Whether or not this speculation is accurate, the living contradiction itself remains: women are somehow equal yet inferior — to be respected but also kept silent and obedient, inferior beings that they are.
I cannot imagine a more perfect recipe for the greatest intellectual lunacy of the modern age: Feminism.
Feminism is a movement defined by two central beliefs: first, that men and women are equal; second, that for all of recorded history, men have conspired to control women, at the expense of women, for the general benefit of men. This conspiracy is colloquially called “the Patriarchy.”
Both of these beliefs are false, but one can see a cause for suspicion of their truth within Christian theology. And if the premise of equality is accepted, then the belief in a gender-conspiracy follows almost necessarily, merely from the observed presence of a distinction in the treatment of the sexes.
As with liberalism more generally, feminism can only be understood as an outgrowth of Christian morality, but detached from the theological basis from which Christian morality sprang. Grabbing hold of the absurd notion of equality, and with equal grip, of the heavily-controlling verses of Paul — speaker of the faith that dominated Europe for centuries — it is easy to see how female resentment could accumulate, and then — when the age of the printing press arrived — metastasize into something truly cancerous.
Feminism has been catastrophically destructive to the Western family, in terms of reduced empathy between the genders, divorce rates, decreased fertility, and — ironically — less sex. It has made both men and women less happy… and yet, perhaps, it reflects a kind of resentment worthy of respect and further thought.
Historically, women have never been warriors, and only rarely been rulers. These were roles reserved for men, on the basis of their biological design for the demands of those roles. However, women did serve roles as prophets, doctors, seers, priestesses, and matriarchs, whose opinions were valued, and whose influence was often great. They possessed a uniquely feminine variety of power, and with it, worked for the benefit of themselves, their lineage, and their nation, just as men worked towards the same ends with a uniquely masculine power.
In an older age when families had as many children as possible, and in which the woman stayed home while the man went away to work, we can imagine the power of women was dramatically amplified by their influence over their children, who were both more numerous and less exposed to competing, outside influences than today. The role of mother was, in itself, a kind of queenship, to a degree we can hardly imagine today. Motherhood must have been — in a true and experiential sense — power.
But Christianity robs women of the social influence they once had, in their social and spiritual realms of expertise. By placing the child in the care of God and the Church first for spiritual instruction, it robs the mother of her power exerted through her children (power which was often — and ideally — wielded for the benefit of her children). And in its distrust of the flesh and bodily instinct, perhaps Christianity fears woman, who is not merely more naturally intuitive in knowledge of such things, but is also a symbolic embodiment of these qualities to men.
In a culture that denigrates the entire female gender so blatantly, what kind of self-respecting woman of beauty, intelligence, and familial ambition could not resent Christianity, or “the patriarchy,” (which is closer to existence than God himself)? And to add insult to injury, these modern women have been taught to pursue qualities valued in men as though men and women were equal: aggression, career ambition, and a certain disdain for the opinion of others — even, in some cases, the pursuit of a more masculine fashion and physique. And when men of quality continue to prefer more feminine women, it is easy to see how women might feel tricked, or worse, that the entire society is, in some murky and malicious manner, rigged against them.
In short, the Christian invention of human equality seems to have created its own overreactive kind of misogyny, which both disdained the gifts of women and created the monstrosity against nature that is feminism. On its face, the Christian attitude towards the genders is unnaturally asexual and suspiciously fearful of women.
Having written at length about women, I would be remiss to neglect mentioning at least some of the damage Christianity has done to men.
Honor is a core component of masculinity, and I have already described the impossibility of honor in a worldview where all interactions with others are mediated, as is the case morally and spiritually within Christianity. But there is a deeper and more powerful cut that Christian theology delivers to men as a group, one that relates to love and hatred.
I once asked a Catholic priest if there was any room for hatred within the faith. His answer was “no.” He said that Christians may hate the sin but must love the sinner; there was no room for hatred against other people, who are — of course — made in the image of God. But what struck me was his reasoning. He said that whenever we are inclined to hate, it is because the object of our hatred reveals some weakness within ourselves, and we hate that revelation. In reality, we hate ourselves, and the object which reveals that weakness within ourselves.
In hindsight, it seems clear to me that given his explanation, identity and trust in God removes all possibility of hatred in the Christian worldview, because what can harm God? What can reveal a weakness in an all-powerful creator?
But by instinct, men love things other than God alone.
For men, one of the greatest expressions of love is combat. This is, no doubt, true of women as well, particularly where the safety of children is concerned. But as a generalized rule, it is especially true of men, because violence has always been a part of men’s role as men, in a way that it has not been for women. Throughout all of history, men have demonstrated a love for their family, their city, and their nation — not by going off to die, but going off to kill. The possibility of death was real, but the purpose was not to die; it was to protect against a threat. Male violence is, and always has been, an expression of love. Hatred of the enemy is, and always has been, an expression of love. Perhaps this could be a love of self — as alleged by the priest — but this is often not the case. If a man’s young daughter was raped, I could not imagine the disconnected, unempathetic, arrogance required to suggest that the man’s hatred for the rapist is merely a reflection of his own insecurity, or was somehow selfish, or a revelation of personal weakness. The violence a man is willing to do for others is intimately tied to his love for others.
This is even true at a chemical level: oxytocin is tied to love and warm feelings, but is also closely correlated with hatred, xenophobia, and schadenfreude.
Enter Christianity, and with it, perhaps the cleverest perversion of moral psychology in history:
Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.
— John 15:13
Death is permitted here, but not violence. The ideal is not the warrior, but the martyr — Jesus accepting his death and peacefully cooperating with his own execution. After all, how could someone “lay down his life” if he is, at the same time, fighting for it?
The martyr-ideal is genius because it captures the most romantic aspect of the protector-ideal, which is the possibility that the man fighting to defend his family or his city might die in its defense, and that he is willing to bear this risk. That is nobility of a classical kind. It embodies the emotional association of what is so attractive about the protector, while in fact prohibiting the violence that makes the man a protector.
What Jesus says in John 15:13 is descriptively false, however romantically appealing it may sound. We can phrase it more precisely and accurately: ‘Greater love has no man than this: that he destroys what imminently threatens what he loves, even at the risk of his own life.’
But Christianity prohibits hatred and the violent action that hatred inspires. Some understandably believe that it prohibits violence altogether. Even where it does not expressly forbid violence, it encourages a spirituality which is antithetical to the possibility of violence.
In this way, Christianity rips out the heart of masculine love, leaving in its place a male soul that is meek, merciful, peace-making, persecuted, poor in spirit, and — perhaps as a result — mourning. It corrodes the fiery spiritedness in men that made them men, which made them loveable to women, and admirable to other men.
It leaves me wondering if the feminist hatred of men might not come from the patriarchy at all, but rather from the enfeeblement of the men who are supposed to love and protect them, but instead love God and resist the temptations of hatred and vengeance — and with these, resist the possibility of the deep, masculine love that so many women want more than anything else.
For the lay person, I can understand the temptation to allow one’s eyes to glaze over when confronted with abstract terms and concepts. They make the subject sound distant and irrelevant. But when actions follow from the implementation of ideas discovered in abstraction, one cannot simply cannot identify the source of those actions without resorting to abstract language. The problems imposed by Christianity are not philosophical in nature (e.g., “Christianity makes it difficult for us to define ‘love’”), but are material and clear as ice: massive immigration, political resentment, and gender insanity, along with all of the lesser problems associated with these. The difficulty is in seeing the connection between concrete reality and abstract theology. In order to perceive such a connection, one must be able to understand and even speak the theological and philosophical language that motivates this action. When the cause of a pattern is hidden in esoteric language, it is easy to imagine that these things just kind of… happen. Ex nihilo.
Christians are very often the first to point out the insanity of whatever current trend is befouling the public. Conservatives lean towards tradition, and there is a tradition of civic sanity that predates Christian theology. But when those conservatives express absolute loyalty to a God that cares nothing for their tradition, their nation, their marriages, even their lives — except for the sake of their soul — they cede the moral high-ground to the most pure expressions of that God’s will. They are choosing to fight a losing battle for control of a world that, according to their own faith, they should not care about in the first place.
The effects of Christianity are destructive. But — again — this is no problem for the believing Christian. It only immanentizes the eschaton — brings about the final unfolding of the divine plan and the end of the world. The classical picket slogan, “repent, the end is near!” is best thought of not as a prediction, nor even quite as a threat, but as an attempted invocation; an attempt to end the world in the same manner that it was supposedly brought about — by the word.
Because this world does not matter. Nothing in this world matters. The effects of Christian doctrine on resentment over wealth, on immigration, and on schisms between genders are all matters of this world, and do not matter. At least, they do not matter to the believing Christian.
But perhaps they matter to the rest of us. To those of us who live in this world, and whose treasure is not in some afterlife. To those of us who care about the destructive effects of a nihilistic faith like Christianity and who would seek some way to improve things, rather than to lean in to the badness of life and hold out hope for some future life to come.
6. The Undesirability of Christianity
I have, so far, made the case that Christianity is deeply destructive, both to the individual spirit and to society generally. Ultimately, the discussion of Christianity ought to center around the question of its truth, a point which we are moving towards.
I must admit that the truth of Christianity is a complex subject to grapple with, and I apologize in advance for the technically difficult nature of my own arguments to come. Given the head-bending complexity of the question of God’s existence, I feel obliged to forgive and empathize with the skeptical agnostic who looks on the strange mixture of historical fact and mythological fancy, and simply throws up his hands and says “I don’t know.”
For the same reason, I can almost empathize with those who simply go with the old saying, credo ut intelligam; “I believe so that I may understand.” If you are uncertain, after all, you may as well make a choice.
But this step is too systematic, too built-in to the theology to be a humble decision made from uncertainty. It is a choice that is all but mandated, and preached with certainty — or is supposed to be, if one has faith. To seek the relationship before belief is the theological equivalent of “we have to pass the bill so that you can find out what’s in it.” It evades the serious and difficult task not only of determining whether this God is to be believed, but also — by extension — what is being believed. Believing so that one may understand what one is actually believing might actually be logically impossible, and is certainly suspicious on its face. Who would ask such an absurd request?
Most casual Christians, however, don’t seem to care whether or not God exists. They just believe — not with the certainty of an evangelical, or with the quiet humility of a monk, but they believe as they believe in the existence of other planets, or in quantum mechanics. They accept God’s existence like a scientific theory, but without any interest in understanding how the theory was arrived at, or even how science works. The authority of it is good enough for them, because it doesn’t strongly affect their day-to-day decision-making (though the cleverer ones are quite good at spinning their life story in a manner that gives God an ex post facto presence).
“Why bother believing in God, if his existence is uncertain, or if you don’t really care?” one might reasonably ask. The practical answer is simply this: it makes people happy. The Christian story promises eternal life and the joy that comes with a personal relationship with the creator of the universe.
Given the negative consequences I have outlined that follow from such a belief, this may seem like an extremely weak justification for faith. But again, though the effects are clear, the links between theology and these effects in the world are murky.
‘Is holy nihilism really behind mass migration?’
‘Is imago dei seriously the cause of feminism?’
Such doubts are natural to the Christian, as they would be to most people. Against abstract arguments, they have their lived experience within the church. And in this lived experience of “Christianity,” they have no difficulty in pointing out the corrupting influence of the World upon their faith. No one argues that child molestation, for example, is an outgrowth of Catholic doctrine. That happens in spite of the faith, not because of it.
But these same Christians turn a blind eye when the influence of the world is something “good.” The good things in this world are powerful and their value is deeply ingrained in our psychology, such that most Christians live with one foot in the City of God and one foot in the City of Man. They may be patriots, family-men, soldiers, and in all variety of other ways, people of this world… and yet also Christian, and never see the conflict. In fact, from their experience, they may even believe that this mixture of spirit and world — of God and Man — is what being “Christian” means, even though the hope and the aim of Christianity is for the world and the City of Man to pass away completely.
Imagine such a person looking at a complicated world full of contradictions and paradoxes and misinformation and confusion. They do not know what’s going on, and have the intellectual courage to admit that they do not know. “Bad” things happen and “good” things happen, but the “bad” sometimes leads to good and vice versa. It is hard enough to draw any causal conclusions about anything. In such circumstances, the skeptical and undecided man looking for an identity might simply choose the worldview which, for him, seems the better story.
Which view of the world is more interesting? Which perspective makes you happier?
Often times, Christianity looks like the better story.
In my experience, this is a surprisingly common justification for joining the faith.
But is Christianity really the better story? Is the Christian destination worthgoing to in the first place? Is it possible that the bait with which Christianity lures people into its fold is not even desirable?
The promise of Christianity is eternal life, which was lost in the garden of Eden due to man’s disobedience. All of the religion centers around this purpose: re-attaining eternal life (God being the creator of all life; re-connection with the father is reconnection with the source of life). We are supposedly “dead” in our sins, but Jesus conquered the grave — death — by rising after his own crucifixion, and this overcoming of death is the basis for belief in the “good news:” the promise that we too may have eternal life, if only we accept Jesus’ living self-sacrifice and develop a personal relationship with him in humility and gratitude.
It is not an exaggeration to say that all of Christianity hinges upon this possibility — this promise of immortality.
But we humans were built to die. One may even be tempted to say “designed” to die.
Some animals are not constructed in this fashion, among them certain jellyfish, sea turtles, and the Greenland shark. They are “biologically immortal,” which is not to say that they live forever, but in principle they could live forever. Only sickness or violence kills them; not age alone. By contrast, humans come into this world with an expiration date. Eventually, our body will destroy itself. Alzheimer’s, cancer, heart disease, these are all natural byproducts of the body’s natural metabolic processes. In this, we are like our other mammalian relatives, all with life-expectancies that correspond with our metabolisms.
Perhaps we are poorly evolved. Perhaps we have been cursed by a loving God. Both of these are possible, but the most parsimonious explanation is simply that it is advantageous to die.
Obviously, this advantage cannot be to the individual. Rather, the advantage of death is granted to the lineage and to the species. Death permits evolution and adaptation. We are born as sponges, soaking up everything in our surroundings, and as we age, we harden. For most people, that sponge will have turned almost to stone by their thirties. The process of maturation is a closing off of possibilities; an investment in a narrower set of paths and perspectives. This may be adaptive in the moment, but eventually, the moment will pass. Our moment, as individuals, will pass. Even beyond our own choices, the adaptations of the body — our genetic inheritance—are limited in their ability to change, no matter how adaptive and “plastic” the brain might be. This kind of rigidity permits the retention of knowledge gained in youth, and of certain physical attributes within a generation, but it prevents adaptation to changing circumstances. And circumstances always change.
The desire for immortality is the desire to be something other than what we are. If the expression may be pardoned, what we have been made as. This desire is itself a source of unhappiness, which mirrors a happiness we see all around the world when people accept that they are not isolated individuals. They are individuals, but they are not merely individuals. They are a part of something larger than themselves, a cell of a greater organism, which they have been called upon to carry forward one more generation.
And perhaps ugliest of all, the desire for immortality, if achieved, may swiftly morph into a mirroring desire for stasis, a nostalgia for the present moment, or the moment of our childhoods, in which all variation, change, and adaptation is to be stifled. I think that the universal condemnation of the “lich” character — the human that becomes immortal by storing its soul in some inanimate object — that we see in literature touches on this note. Why is the desire for immortality held to be evil? Why is it condemned in Genesis?
And the LORD God said, Behold, the man has become as one of us, to know good and evil; and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever:
Therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the Garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken.
— Genesis 3:22-23
Christianity is forced to appeal to Justice in order to justify the condemnation: Man disobeyed God, therefore, man deserves death. But there is a simpler, more basic, and less legalistic answer: immortality imposes upon everyone else a tyranny of the decrepit and of those nostalgic for something that nobody else cares about. After all, everyone else is the greatest source of change, so to preserve his own contextual place in the world, the immortal one must control everyone.
Our very nature is contextual, and that context is both the environment we live in — including the time — and the lineage, to whom our life and death are valuable. I call this lineage the “Anwei,” a more personal term for something more personal than a technical, scientific label like “lineage.” For me, the Anwei is a God of a kind, a transcendent spirit with whom one actually can have a relationship. But my anthropomorphization is not necessary to understand the contextual nature of human existence, which is a point upon a very long and meandering line. As individuals, we are deeply and profoundly products of our time and place. To imagine ourselves living in another era, in another culture, is to imagine another person entirely, and not oneself. It is not merely that our experience of another context might change us in some way; it is that we are quite literally created by these contexts.
The desire for immortality reflects an abandonment of this context. It demonstrates a kind of existential narcissism. The promise of eternal life plays upon this narcissism, and cuts against the contextual nature of the human individual. Immortality is only attractive because we have become disconnected from our source — not Yaweh, but Anwei, the lineage. Perhaps this is the result of excessive introspection, or ease of travel away from one’s family and land of origin. Perhaps it is the result of cities and urban life. Whatever the reason, our contextual disconnection does not change the fact that we have an existential context, even if we are not aware of it. Within this context, death is no cause for fear, and immortality is not only unnecessary, but undesirable. The promise of everlasting life is an invitation to deny one’s own context, one’s nature, and perhaps an invitation to kill that which was biologically immortal before: the lineage.
Thus, from the very beginning, and at its very essence, Christianity is unnecessary and irrelevant. Its promise of immortality, of overcoming death, only appears desirable to those who do not see their own context, their part in a being greater than themselves which is immortal. These people still possess an inborn desire to preserve their lineage, but lacking vision and connection to that greater whole — or perhaps denied it — they mistake themselves for the Anwei.
And, like a dealer coming to the assistance of a faithful addict, Christianity facilitates this blindness, and even fosters it, divorcing the individual from his family, his nation, and the world that is his context. “Honor thy father and mother,” yes, but this obligation is meaningless within a greater theology that obliges one to divorce oneself from one’s family for Christ, and to honor one’s neighbor just as one might honor one’s family anyhow.
Is it really worthwhile to accept the possibility of immortality in exchange for separation from one’s family, nation, friends, and values, and beauties here on earth? This is the offer, but something feels reminiscent of all the stories of people selling their souls to the devil for some petty advantage. It’s never worth it in the end.
The more theologically-inclined Christian understands that it isn’t about “what makes you happy,” but about what is right: God created you, and so it is right to love God — assuming, of course, that God exists. But for those who are just looking for the better story without much understanding or interest in theology, separating yourself from all that is good in this world for the sake of personal immortality is a pretty weak story. It’s the story of a crowd-following sell-out, almost antithetical to that of Jesus himself, who gave up his own life for something greater out of selfless care. Within Christianity, no human can actually follow Jesus’ example. All they can do is accept his offer, and lamely spread the “good news.”
It may interest certain Christians to hear that the “life” promised in John 3:16 is not βίος (bios), or “biological life,” but ζωή (zoe), “life of the spirit.” This means that the promise is somewhat salvageable, if life in Christ is to give us eternal vitality and animating energy. But curiously, this does not necessarily imply an afterlife. It does not fit with Jesus literally rising from the grave three days after his crucifixion, let alone extending a promise of physical immortality to others. We might die, and stay dead, with no “soul” living in after the cessation of our body, and with this literalistic interpretation the promise may still have been kept, although most Christians will have been unfamiliar with its language. Perhaps unfamiliar with that Christianity too, lacking a literal afterlife, be it heaven or hell.
So when evangelists or their pamphlets ask you, ‘do you know where you’re going after you die?’, as almost all of them do, they are either deeply misunderstanding the central promise of their own faith, or they are inviting you into further disconnection from your true source and context — a context within which death is not conquered, but rendered an irrelevant concern. Christianity, in short, offers itself as a cure for mortality as though mortality were in itself a bad thing, when it is in fact a necessary and good component of our design.
Within this view of life, Christianity loses all of its appeal, leaving one to wonder what sort of God might offer as his greatest gift to man a pathology wholly unsuited to the situated nature of man. Death is the ultimate climax and opportunity for beauty in a man’s life, and in the construction of the story of his life.
The offer of immortality, of the removal of this climactic conclusion, does not make for a better story or a more interesting life.
It makes for a lame and boring one.
7. Is it True?
And if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins.
– 1 Corinthians 15:17
Everything that I have said so far, all of the destruction, the separation, the undesirability, if everything I have said is true, it would be of no importance if the Christian God exists.
For all of the reasons Jesus and his disciples have given over the past millennia, why would the destruction of the world matter if eternal life with God awaits on the other side?
On the other hand, if Christianity is false, then Pascal’s infamous wager — the idea that it is the better bet to believe in God because the consequences for unbelief are higher if he does exist than they are for belief if he does not — actually cuts evenly in both directions. The relative value of what is lost in this world seems smaller than eternity, but only for one who has eternal life. For mortals like us, with maybe eighty or ninety years to live, the preservation of the things we love in this world are urgent and important because of their urgency. We only have so much time. If we aren’t destined for the afterlife, then our family, our nation, and our short life on this earth is all we have, and it becomes all the more important to make the most of these.
Always taking all sides, the Bible actually illustrates this point of relative value very well:
And he sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the offering box. Many rich people put in large sums. And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny. And he called his disciples to him and said to them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.
– Mark 12:41-44
With the importance of truth once more emphasized, let us finally address the question: is it true?
Let me begin my argument by looking at perhaps the single best argument advanced in defense of the truth of the faith.
The arguments for God are old enough to have names. The argument that something cannot come from nothing, for example, and that the universe therefore must have some cause which is not itself caused: this is known as the “cosmological argument.” The argument which says that the world contains the appearance of regularity and design, which implies a cosmic designer: this is called the “teleological argument.” These have been discussed at great length elsewhere, but are ultimately uncompelling. Virtually no one comes to the faith through them; they simply serve as intellectual ex post facto justifications for belief arrived at through other means. And they are not particularly persuasive intellectually either. There is no valid logical move from an abstract belief in an “unmoved mover” and the knowledge that this being happens to be — of all possible deities — the God of Israel. And the teleological argument rests upon intuitions which the very theology it aims to support undermine. More on this shortly.
But the argument that I wish to explain in more detail is a rather esoteric philosophical construction known as the “ontological argument.” Despite its dependence upon logic alone, I believe this argument — especially in its moral form — actually does persuade people, even if they cannot give a technically precise summary of the argument itself.
“Ontology” is the study of being, of natures and essences of things, and of definitions. In the context of theology, ‘the ontological argument’ attempts to prove the existence of God as a matter of definition.
This argument originated with St. Anselm in the early 12th century, and was modified by René Descartes using mathematical analogies in the 17th century, and again by the logician Alvin Plantinga in the last few decades.
In its most basic form (Anselm’s), the ontological argument begins by observing that there is a continuum of greatness, and along this continuum, there must be something beyond which nothing greater can be conceived. The argument posits that existence is a quality of greatness—that between two otherwise equally great things, but of which only one exists, existence makes the existing entity greater. Therefore, the greatest conceivable thing must also exist. We call this God.
A problem which many people noticed with this form of the argument is that it allows for the existence of all sorts of unlikely things, depending on how we imagine them. But in spite of this apparent flaw, there is a core of seriousness which has led many highly intelligent people to the faith. With some tweaks, Anselm’s argument becomes something more interesting.
Suppose, for instance, that we divide all entities into two categories: “necessarily existing,” and “possibly existing.” A necessarily existing entity is something which must, by nature, exist in all possible worlds. Gravity, for instance, might be a necessarily existing entity. A possibly existing entity is something which could exist, but might just as easily not exist. The chair I am sitting in, or the book you are holding, are both possibilities, not existential necessities.
Given the nature of God, he must be a necessarily existing entity if he exists. Thus, the question of whether or not he does exist becomes a question of whether or not he could exist, because if it is possible that he could exist in some world, then it logically follows that he necessarily must exist.
Most people are willing to grant that the existence of God is at least possible, even if they are a little skeptical.
If it is possible that God exists, then God exists; it is possible that God exists: therefore, God exists.
It stinks a little of wordplay and sophistry, but it is at least compelling on its surface.
My favorite rendition of the ontological argument, however, is something I have pieced together from listening to Christians, who seem to revolve around this argument. It is, in my view, the strongest version of the argument, and it goes as follows:
We all can see “evil,” and can distinguish it from things that are merely “bad.” Things which are evil are, somehow, objectively wrong. This knowledge of evil is intuitive and visceral, without any a priori justification necessary. The existence of evil implies a continuum and an opposite ideal, an objective good. Logically, there must therefore be some greatest possible good which exists, on this continuum of objective good and evil. That greatest existing good, we call God.
We see a variation of this argument set forth in what has arguably become the most popular and accepted Christian apology in the last century: Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. Lewis opens his book with the observation of a perceived objective standard of right and wrong, which can be seen in the way that people argue with each other. Even if they deny the reality of this objective law in some cases, they will nevertheless appeal to it in others. Everyone seems aware of this standard, even without being explicitly taught its rules.
Lewis observes also that everyone falls short of this appealed-to objective standard, which means that this law is not descriptive (like the law of gravity), but prescriptive. It tells us what we ought to do, rather than what we actually do. Such a standard — objective, yet prescriptive — seems to imply a law-giver. But the stronger argument is that the objective, prescriptive reality of moral truth logically requires a God as the furthest possible point on an existing continuum of moral perfection.
Lewis seems to anticipate the critique of the ontological argument described above: that it equivocates, swapping the Christian God with a theoretical component in a logical equation with none of the historical and psychological attributes ascribed to Jesus. He does not posit this moral-ontological case as a proof of the Christian God, but rather as proof of some higher power. The case for the Christian God in particular comes later, and is essentially a matter of narrowing down which story from among the religions on offer best fits the pinnacle of objective good described in the moral-ontological argument.
The Dis-Ontological Argument
The classical argument against the existence of God is the “Problem of Evil,” which asks how a perfect and loving God could create a world that contains evil. It is most succinctly summarized by Epicurus’ trilemma:
Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?
The moral-ontological argument attempts to flip this problem on its head, saying that the existence of true evil — things that are objectively morally wrong, not just “bad” according to subjective opinion — not only does not disprove God, but in fact requires his existence.
Such a maneuver is necessary in order to avoid the Problem of Evil. But in making this move, apologists like C.S. Lewis lose track of their premises, opening themselves to what we might call the “dis-ontological argument:” the argument from purported nature against the existence of the Christian God.
From the beginning, the apologist depends upon our moral intuitions and their trustworthiness when he talks about objective moral standards. What else could he be referring to when he speaks of “some kind of standard of behavior which he expects the other man to know about”? In his now famous debates with atheists such as Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, Christian philosopher and apologist William Lane Craig makes a similar argument on the basis of intuition for objective morality:
If God does not exist, then objective moral values do not exist. By objective moral values, I mean moral values which are valid and binding whether we believe in them or not. Many theists and atheists agree that if God does not exist, then moral values are not objective in this way.
Michael Ruse, a noted philosopher of science, explains: “The position of the modern evolutionist is that morality is a biological adaptation, no less than our hands and feet and teeth. Considered as a rationally justifiable set of claims about an objective something, ethics is illusory. I appreciate that when someone says ‘love thy neighbor as thyself,’ they think they are referring to something above and beyond themselves. Nevertheless such reference is truly without foundation. Morality is just an aid to survival and reproduction and any deeper meaning is illusory.”
Like professor Ruse, I just don’t see any reason to think that in the absence of God, the morality which has emerged among these imperfectly evolved primates we call Homo sapiens really is objective. And here Mr. Hitchens seems to agree with me. He says moral values are just innate predispositions ingrained into us by evolution. Such predispositions, he says, are inevitable for any animal endowed with social instincts.
On the atheistic view, then, an action like rape is not socially advantageous, and so in the course of human development has become taboo. But that does absolutely nothing to prove that rape is really morally wrong…
– Dr. William Lane Craig
It sounds quite forceful. But Lewis and Craig and other apologists who lean heavily upon some variation of this moral argument rely heavily upon moral intuition. It seems wrong, and we want to find some case to validate this feeling.
This is not to diminish the value and validity of intuitions at all — quite the contrary. Our knowledge of the world is never complete or perfect, and so intuition about which facts and premises are most reliable is necessary for any action or conclusion (and implementing such actions and conclusions are often necessary to acquire more information anyhow). There is no escape from the necessity of intuition.
But for Christianity, intuition isn’t just a practical necessity. The believer’s knowledge of God’s existence depends upon intuition. If we can conceptualize God by intuiting the “evil-ness” of things, and inferring an opposing objective good, then the God hypothesis is the product of moral intuition.
This fact brings the observations of the Problem of Evil back to the table, but with a difference. Rather than judging God for his incompetence or neglect, the existence of moral wrongness — not only in the world but within the Bible — requires us to turn our focus on the trustworthiness of intuition itself. It requires us to examine the relation between theology and our own dependence upon our moral intuition.
The problem is that the Bible does not permit this. In addition to calling everyone sinful, worthless, untrustworthy, deceitful, foolish, and all variety of other invective, scripture explicitly separates personal agency from wisdom:
Whoever trusts in his own mind is a fool, but he who walks in wisdom will be delivered.
– Proverbs 28:26
Naturally, the source of this wisdom is not in the individual, nor is it even in “experience,” but lies solely in God.
But as I showed in Chapter 1, it is no easy task to distinguish between what comes from God and what comes from some other source. One’s own thoughts are often mistaken for God’s word. Personal intuition and divine revelation are distinguishable only by interpretation, and this interpretation must be performed by a sinful, worthless, untrustworthy, deceitful, foolish individual.
Either moral intuition is valid or it is not. It cannot be invalid to whatever degree it opposes Christianity, but valid in whatever capacity supports the faith.
Again, the point is not to judge the morality of God, which could be true independent of our own moral judgment. The point is to see whether the God described aligns with our moral intuitions. If his nature does not align with our intuition of good and evil, then one of two conclusions must follow: either our intuitions are so wrong that the very arguments for his existence—which are themselves based upon moral intuitions! — cannot be trusted, or the very concept of God becomes incoherent. In either case, the Christian God could not exist.
It is at this point that I would like to return to Luke 14:26, where Jesus tells his followers that they must hate their family.
If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.
– Luke 14:26
By itself, this seems morally counter-intuitive, and this is putting it mildly. To me, hating one’s family approaches objective evil.
Perhaps Jesus is simply speaking in a relative fashion. God is so important that by comparison, the true disciple would “hate” his family, even though in fact he loves them. I have heard this interpretation made, and always wondered what might happen to the faith if every verse was interpreted so acrobatically.
As I have shown, Christianity requires an absolute devotion, and Jesus says that we cannot serve two masters:
No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.
– Matthew 6:24
Nor can you serve both God and family. Or God and anything else.
Notice that the hatred Jesus describes here is not relative — as in ‘you will love one so much that it will be as if you hated the other by comparison.’ The hatred alluded to is not some metaphor, but the inevitable byproduct of a conflict in loyalties. In the most gracious possible interpretation of Luke 14:26, hating one’s family means rejecting all loyalty to one’s family in favor of love for God.
This, I submit, is bad. At the very least, it is morally counter-intuitive.
This is not just a single verse taken for a spin by a critic. This dynamic reflects the nature of Christian spirituality espoused throughout the Bible, and Jesus even emphasizes this particular point about family later in Matthew:
Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law — a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.
— Matthew 10:34-36
If you love your family more than Jesus, than you are not worthy of him. Your family and your God cannot both be your master.
These are not just words. Jesus’s disciples left their families to follow him, as did the soldiers of the first crusade a thousand years later when Pope Urban II enjoined them to go fight and die in a distant land by quoting the words of God:
But if you are hindered by love of children, parents and wives, remember what the Lord says in the Gospel, “He that loveth father or mother more than me, is not worthy of me.” “Every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands for my name’s sake shall receive an hundredfold and shall inherit everlasting life.”
— Urban II, Speech at Clermont, 1085
I do not mean to belabor the point. Family is not the be-all and end-all of life, important as it is. Other things matter too. But I will press on, because without overwhelming proof, most people would not be willing to believe that at its heart, Christianity is, in fact, anti-family. They have accepted Christianity’s claim to credit for all that is good in this world, even while it condemns this world and everything within it as bad.
Jesus’ words about family jump out with more unnerving contrast when we consider his admonitions about enemies:
You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
— Matthew 5:45-48
We are, in other words, to love our enemies and to hate our family.
Suddenly, the popular interpretation that our hatred for our family is “relative” or otherwise hyperbolic seems a weak. Is the “love” for our enemies also relative? And if so, relative to what? To God? To our families? To how we otherwise might hate our enemies? The last would be the most generous, but the generosity undercuts the power of the language. Jesus does not say to “hate them, but not as much as you otherwise might.” He doesn’t even say to ignore them. He admonishes his followers to love them, and to hate their families while they’re at it.
This runs contrary to a Moralistic Therapeutic Deist’s “understanding” of the faith, but follows directly and predictably from the equality inherent in the twin doctrines of original sin and imago dei in true Christianity. Love your enemy and hate your family: through these corrective duties, the believer separates himself from his earthly identities and attachments.
Hatred is active. It is not a relative state of affairs, but a kind of negative focus on something that is a threat to what you love. It is related to disgust, and it is directed towards mind. The hatred we are to feel for our family is a hatred of sin, a hatred of separation from God caused by the idolization of the family.
To hate our family is to reject the affinity we naturally feel towards them, contra the equality Christian theology tells us we are born into as image-bearers of the Father and sinners against him. To love our enemies is to embrace that equality in the only identity that matters in Christianity: that found in Christ.
I know the mind of the Christian apologist; I have listened to him for years now. He is already wondering what the Greek word was which was translated as “hate,” and if perhaps it was really something milder. But the word is μισεω (miseo) and means “hate,” pure and simple. It is used seven times in the Bible, and in each case, any meaning other than “hatred” in its fullest and true sense would destroy the passage. You are, in other words, to hate your family in the way that John says the world hates Jesus:
If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates (μισεῖ) you.
– John 15:19
This point is not finished.
Hatred is an emotion, a psychological state that prepares the body to commit violence. A claim that Christianity compels its followers to hate their families would not be compelling without some evidence of its completion, some theological example of this principle reaching its logical conclusion.
This example not only exists, but begins at the very beginning.
In Genesis 22, God makes an unusual request of Abraham:
Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love — Isaac — and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.
— Genesis 22:2
As everyone knows, when Abraham raised the knife to kill his son, God intervened and offered a ram in place of Isaac. How generous. But what a commandment! Even if Abraham was spared from the commission of the act, God still tested him, turning his loyalty to his family against his loyalty to God. To one who loves both, such a request may seem twisted, but to the one who loves and trust God absolutely, there is no contradiction. There was no room for love for his family in the first place.
Perhaps no one wrestled with this story as thoroughly and deeply as Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard — himself a man of deep and serious faith. In his writings on this peculiar story in Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard grapples with the possible emotions an ordinary person might have undergone in such an experience: feelings of separation, from God or from family; feelings of lost innocence; perhaps of having failed some test — that the test was perhaps an ethical temptation, and that Abraham ought to have refused to kill his son, perhaps even killing himself instead, and on this, Abraham failed by drawing the knife…
From the story of Abraham and the sacrifice of Isaac, Kierkegaard concludes that Abraham’s greatness derives from the absoluteness of his faith. He passes through resignation to failure, and from the other side of this resignation — that he will not have a son, due to his wife’s age — he comes to expect the impossible. He expects a son, in spite of the impossibility. He expects the be the father of a nation more numerous than the stars, who will be a blessing to all the world, and he expects this even while preparing to kill his son. This is the “leap of faith.” One could argue that it is faith itself, and not the nation of Israel, which has been the greater child of Abraham.
Holy madness is not unique to Christianity. Its aspect is captured in the Germanic God Wotan/Odin, and is alluded to in Plato’s Phaedrus, where Socrates praises divine inspiration and the love which flows from it as superior to rational friendship. Kierkegaard himself makes the connection, saying of Abraham: “thou who first didst know that highest passion, the holy, pure and humble expression of the divine madness which the pagans admired…” (Fear and Trembling, “Panegyric”).
But in the Pagan world, divine madness was inspiration from a God or Goddess. The madness that caused fathers to sacrifice their children was not the same, and was a curse, hated by the Gods, not an admirable demonstration of faith.
When Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia, his grotesque act brought the wrath of nemesis back on himself; he was murdered by his wife upon his return.
Agamemnon’s actions fit a pattern of familial madness which began with his ancestor Tantalus. Tantalus doubted the gods’ omniscience, and so he murdered his son Pelops and attempted to feed his meet to the gods at a dinner. It was for this reason that Tantalus was condemned to the underworld to stand hungry beneath a fruit tree, whose branches would always recede from his grasp, “tantalizing” him. The Gods abhorred the sacrifice of a child, and punished the perpetrator with a creative torture.
Agamemnon’s own father, Atreus (son of a divinely revivified Pelops), followed in this evil tradition. After murdering his half-brother in childhood, he became engaged in a power-struggle with his twin brother, Thyestes. Atreus killed Thyestes’ sons and cooked them, then tricked Thyestes into eating them. After Thyestes had eaten, Atreus revealed the origin of the meat with the boys’ saved hands and feet, and Thyestes was banished for having consumed human flesh. Atreus was king.
Things didn’t get better. Thyestes consulted an oracle, who persuaded him to have a child by his daughter, Pelopia, and that the incestuous child would then take revenge against Atreus.
Pelopia and her father Thyestes did have a son — Aegisthus — who eventually did kill Atreus. But not before Atreus had two more sons. One of whom was Agamemnon. As with his fathers before him, his filicidal act brought divine retribution, not divine love.
It was Menelaus, Agamemnon’s brother, who broke the family curse, seeking reunification with his family (his wife Helen) rather than hating and sacrificing them for expediency in power, conquest, or mere curiosity.
One could argue that in the entire saga of the Trojan War, Menelaus was the only major figure to live “happily ever after.”
In contrast with this pagan abhorrence of unnatural and evil actions such as the sacrifice of a child, Christianity holds that anything is possible with God. Which is to say, anything is permissible under God’s direction.
I spoke earlier of the difficulty in distinguishing God’s voice from one’s own internal dialogue. The most terrifying of Christians is the one who claims to have no difficulty whatsoever in distinguishing the voice of God. It is such a person — if he is being sincere — who might suddenly and without warning kill and consume a child, or worse, if the voice instructs him to, as it did to Abraham.
There appears one grasping handhold, a final, possible moral escape from the terrifying implications of absolute Christian devotion: Abraham didn’t actually kill Isaac. He was saved from having to perform the act. So God would never really command such a thing! Surely, he would not truly command me to hate my family in such a fashion!
Consider, then, one more example of pitting loyalties of family and God against each other. In the story of Job, God does not command Job to murder his family. He simply allows Satan—at this time, a kind of prosecutor in God’s court—to kill them off:
… there came also another [servant], and said, Thy sons and thy daughters were eating and drinking wine in their eldest brother’s house:
And, behold, there came a great wind from the wilderness, and smote the four corners of the house, and it fell upon the young men, and they are dead; and I only am escaped alone to tell thee.
Then Job arose, and rent his mantle, and shaved his head, and fell down upon the ground, and worshipped,
And said, Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither: the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.
— Job 1:18-21
The cause of their death was a bet between God and Satan over whether Job’s loyalty to God was sincere, or merely the product of happy circumstances.
Job’s story is not a demonstration of the need to actively hate one’s family, since Job was not told to kill his children. Nevertheless, it still demonstrates the tension between God and family which the faith finds and pushes on. Jesus insists on being first, and may expect dramatic proof of this loyalty. Hating one’s family — at least as a tool of emotional and spiritual separation — is the price of entry.
You shall worship no other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.
– Exodus 34:14
Does this match our moral intuitions?
Eventually, Job’s faith was rewarded with a new family, with health and more wealth and cattle and so forth. But in order to reach this level of faith, he had to pass through Kierkegaard’s “infinite resignation.” He had to relinquish all hope, all attachment and love for his family and belief in his own salvation. Only after this resignation would faith restore these things.
…Or perhaps it would not. With faith, it would not matter what happened in this world.
In other words, true Christian faith requires us to reject what we may think is “right.” What strikes us as “objectively” moral.
At this point, I hope the reader can already see the moral-ontological argument undoing itself within Christianity.
But focusing on Job would be to miss the great act of filicide in the Bible: that of God himself.
In the single act around which all of Christianity revolves, God sent his own son to die in place of others.
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life
– John 3:16
Loving the world that hated him, and in action hating his own family for this love, God made a single human sacrifice meant to redeem us — or at least those among us who would accept this act on our own behalf.
But unlike Abraham, God did not withhold the knife. He sent his son to die an excruciating death by crucifixion. And when Jesus cried out on the cross “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” his Father looked on in silence as he died. Like Agamemnon, God was the arranger of his own child’s sacrifice — 34 years in the making, and perhaps an eternity in the planning.
The God of Christianity is not a God of family and tradition, as many modern Christians imagine. His name is jealousy, and to even put such values as “family,” “nation,” or “tradition” in the same list as “God” is to miss the comprehensiveness of God’s demands upon his disciple’s loyalty. A Christian cannot be for “God, Family, and Country,” for one cannot even serve two masters, let alone three.
But more than this, Christianity is not even about morality. To say that God is the source of objective morals is to entirely miss the point of faith, and worse, to misunderstand God’s nature. To deduce the Christian God from “objective” morality is even more backwards than trying to justify morality without gods.
My presupposition is simply this: that family is good. Not absolutely good, not even good all the time; I do not need, nor do I believe in such a proposition. But generally speaking, family is good: emotionally, socially, financially, and — of course — biologically. It is a good master to submit to, and a worthy object of love among many. In short, Family is a good God.
Family is good: this is a moral intuition that is equal or greater in strength than our intuition that evil exists, upon which the ontological basis for belief in the Christian God rests. If evil does exist, then the hatred of one’s own family and lineage is certainly with the domain of evil, as is the sacrifice of one’s own child.
Christianity does not allow for this presupposition. Therefore, Christianity and its God are at odds with the moral intuitions upon which belief in an objective morality are based. If the Christian God exists, it is not — as Christopher Hitchens argued — that the divinity is owed an indictment. Rather, it is our own moral intuitions that would require an indictment, which must necessarily include restraints against making grand generalizations about “objective” good or evil.
But it is upon these very intuitions that the argument for the possibility or necessity of the Christian God is based.
As the source of “goodness,” God is asserted to be the source and measure of objective morality. But the existence of morality itself can only be inferred from our intuition, and the existence of God deduced from this morality. The God proposed in the Bible defies many of these moral intuitions within scripture, and defies all of them in potential, with sufficient faith.
Logically speaking, the God of the Bible destroys his own epistemological foundation: moral intuition. If evil does not exist then Christianity is false and there is no God. If evil does exist, then there is no Christian God because he does not conform to the very moral intuitions upon which our belief in his existence was built.
This brings us back to the ontological argument offered by Plantinga, that God is a necessary being, rather than a possible being, and so if it is possible that he exists, then he must exist. Most people, afraid of delving too far in, seem to split the difference and grant a half-way, “reasonable” position: ‘sure, he could exist.’ But the ontological argument in general — and Plantinga’s version in particular — grant no room for this, just as C.S. Lewis’ famous trilemma granted no room for half-way measures. And this all-in gambit cuts both ways. If God does not exist in one particular world, then he does not exist in any of them.
And in a world of objective morality, a God who is the source of objectivity in that morality must match the intuitions from which the existence of objective morality is inferred. This God must conform to the nature of intuitive morality, and no amount of historical speculation over supposedly empty tombs or arguments about the age of a shroud are even relevant because the ontological argument applies even if one was persuaded by historical evidence. The relevance of the historical argument is contingent upon the belief in a fallen world, which is itself a moral intuition. If the world was not in need of redemption, then all of the historical evidence in the world (which is to say, not very much) in favor of Jesus’ existence and resurrection and so forth would not matter. Our need for salvation is the basis for any belief in the importance of Jesus’ existence, and the belief in the necessity of divine salvation is not historical, but moral. It still all comes down to moral intuition.
But the God of Christianity does not conform to these moral intuitions.
Interestingly, the teleological argument — that we can presume God’s existence on the basis of apparent design in the world — also succumbs to this dis-ontological argument, because the judgment that something appears “designed” is itself an intuition — not of a moral nature, but moral intuitions are not the only kinds of human judgments which the Bible enjoins us to distrust. They are merely the most common in religious debate, due to the prevalence of the Problem of Evil. But theologically speaking, all intuitions of this kind are to be distrusted. The believer is to trust God’s wisdom over one’s own, not just in matters of morality, but in matters of truth, and in all other things besides. Thus, using our intuition to establish the existence of this God through the appearance of design does not get us any further than morality.
In any case, the judgment that the apparently-designed is “good” in its design is a moral intuition.
If our intuitions are trustworthy enough to surmise the existence of an invisible creator-deity, how are we to distrust our intuitions on something as basic as the goodness of family?
For the philosophically-inclined, this brings us back to the question as to whether objective morality can exist without some kind of God. The answer depends greatly upon how one defines God, but a simpler place to start is simply questioning whether or not objective evil actually requires an equal and opposite objective good. It is conceivable that opposite objective evil is a broad-branching divergence of possible subjective goods; while nothing is completely good for all, some things seem truly bad for all. In this way, the possibility of morality, and the affirmation of our intuitions about evil, need not require an objective “good-giver” like Yahweh. This is a subject I will address in greater detail in the next chapter.
But as for the Christian God in particular, we have our answer.
By his nature alone, we know that he does not exist.
8. On Evil: Explaining The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
I am not writing this book to attack Christianity merely for the sake of tearing down what others hold dear. Nor do I tear at what others hold dear lightly. I know what hatred is, and I do not hate Christianity. But even if I did, I might simply avoid it and hold back from criticism if Christians were drawn in by the faith as such. They are attracted to Jesus because of his teachings — fair enough. Live and let live.
But many an American loves things that I love as well. He values his family, his nation, his cultural history, and he sees some things as truly, morally wrong. Moreover, he strives for a degree of authenticity — a degree of honesty, integrity, and consistency which descends as much from the Greek pagans as from the Puritans. He has become convinced that without God, there cannot be objective morality to justify his abhorrence of evil and his desire for the good, and so he adopts Christianity. It is the religion of his fathers. It has become associated with family and country. Although he cannot see the exact connections, it seems to be consistent with his identity as an American.
But most of all, Christianity provides an explanation for the evil he sees in the world — evil which the atheistic and mechanistic worldview that has been presented in the West as the sole alternative to Christianity does not seem to account for.
If I am to criticize Christianity, I feel compelled to offer a competing account of what evil is, distinct from the merely “bad,” and how it fits into the moral universe we inhabit.
On its face, it seems odd to me that Christianity should be a refuge in the face of evil, given its attitude towards the things which most ordinary people would consider “good.” As we have seen, Christianity does not tolerate competing deities. As objects of loyalty and love, things like family and nation are idols — false Gods in the eyes of the Lord. God may have created the nations, but the Lord may also take away (‘blessed be the name of the Lord’). God created everything in this world, and none of his other created things were meant to be worshiped — especially not his greatest creation: us. The Christian is to respect the authorities of this world, but never to mistake the powers instituted by God for God himself, where love and loyalty are concerned.
When Captain Von Trapp gets up and sings “Edelweiss” at the end of The Sound of Music, he is expressing a spirit of patriotic love that is shared by many Americans, but for which Christianity provides no foundation. To the contrary, such a love is diluted, depersonalized, even forbidden if it tempts the believer towards the sin of idolatry.
This resistance to patriotism would not stop a believing Christian from opposing the Nazis as Von Trapp did—after all, the Nazis themselves were guilty of idolatry for their own nationalism (among other sins). But this Christian opposition would not be to replace German occupation with a free Austria. To the Christian, neither Germany nor Austria are the Kingdom of God, and both Germany and Austria could be dangerous spiritual distractions from their true loyalty. They are institutions of man, perhaps ordained by God to administer here on this earth, or perhaps not. But in either case, God’s kingdom is not of this world. Better perhaps to pluck out your eye, or chop off your hand — to abandon love for one’s nation altogether — than to risk losing one’s soul in Hell. Better to drop all concern for political concerns such as “who rules on earth.”
But this puts the average person in a difficult position, because rejecting Christianity does not leave the family-man and patriot a whole lot better off. For starters, how can he account for the existence of evil if there is no God? Is everything truly permissible? Is anarchy and barbarity to follow, without some mechanism for moral accountability instilled in his fellow countrymen?
This is a serious argument offered by many Christians, but it rests upon a conflation between the Christian God and all other possible Gods. They claim that you cannot be good without God, defining a “God” as something that one worships (this definition includes idols and other ‘false gods’). With this definition, the idea that one cannot be “good without God” becomes almost tautological. Yet once this premise is granted, they change definitions. “God” becomes the Christian deity exclusively, all others being “false.” “How can you be good without the Christian God?” is a much different question, and is actually circular in nature, beginning with a Christian moral framework when there are in fact many competing moral frameworks one might choose from. Some of which I believe are superior to that of Christianity.
I am not an atheist. I have my own primary deity (about which I have written elsewhere), and many others besides which I observe in a more or less classical pagan fashion. I read Homer in much the same way that Christians regularly read scripture, although my understanding of the deities therein is not literal in the manner that the Christian interpretation of God must be.
I am not necessarily recommending this for everyone; I only mention this to demonstrate the audacity of Christian wordplay at work.
When “God” is defined as some ideal of quality and worth which provides a standard of “good” and “bad,” the Christian cannot then exclude all possibility of morality from the non-Christian framework. They have already granted it be identifying other Gods, and only attempt to slander the ethics and moral theories which might arise from these deities with pejoratives. In any case, one does not need a Christian understanding of good in order to understand evil. We just need a standard of good. Any God or set of Gods will suffice for this purpose. I will spend more time on the discussion of Gods in Chapter 11.
But before getting into that, let us delve a little deeper into this idea of “evil.”
Imagine a leopard is chasing a deer. If the leopard catches the deer, it is bad for the deer, but good for the leopard. If the deer escapes the leopard, it is good for the deer, but bad for the leopard. If a forest-fire breaks out and kills them both, that is bad for the leopard and the deer. But what could happen that would be good for both?
In the world of nature, there is almost never a “win-win.” The circle of life turns on the fuel of death. Life feeds on death; death feeds life. On this spinning wheel, death is bad, but it is not “evil.” Evil is something else. It is not something that can simply be calculated in a utilitarian fashion.
Modern liberal thinkers are often materialists. They do not think in terms of “spirit,” and sometimes not even in terms of “responsibility,” only cause-and-effect. In a mechanistic world of this kind, “good” and “bad” can only be measured in utility—in the pleasure and pain of different experiences. Things such as “purpose” or “duty,” or even more abstract concepts like “beauty” or “coherence” or “complexity” cannot be accounted for, and are either ignored as morally irrelevant, or else reframed as relevant only in regard to their respective utility.
Within such a worldview, “evil” — if the word is even used — simply means “really bad.” For the deer being chased by the leopard, getting caught might be an evil.
But something feels wrong about calling a predator on the hunt “evil.” Bad, certainly — at least if you are the deer. But humans distinguished “bad” from “evil” because the two are meaningfully different. They are spiritually different — they represent different transcendent forces with different purposes. The “bad” of the predatory cat seeks survival and self-interest—it just happens to do so at the expense of local ungulates.
“Evil” seeks something else.
Darwinian materialism talks of self-interest, survival and reproduction, and so on, but we have all know of people who have done things that are malicious and cruel, and are not in their own self-interest — certainly not in their Darwinian, biological self-interest. The school-shooter; the suicide-bomber; the serial-killer. Many people are “bad,” but some people are evil.
Some historical examples come to mind.
Elizabeth Bathory tortured and killed around 650 girls, in a variety of ways. Often with needles. She would drink their blood, as well as bathe in it, and may have eaten some of them too.
Caligula was a psychopathic emperor. He murdered children and forced their parents to watch. He forced husbands to give up their wives for his pleasure, and slept with his sisters. He enjoyed sawing and filleting people, as well as chewing his victim’s testicles.
Vlad Dracula not only killed tens of thousands of people, including many of his own subjects, but did so in the most excruciatingly painful fashion of the time: impalement. He was known for cutting off and sometimes keeping sexual organs of victims. He roasted children and forced their parents to eat them.
There are modern examples too.
In 1905, Carl Panzram committed his first arson at the age of 13, and didn’t improve from there:
In my lifetime I have murdered 21 human beings, I have committed thousands of burglaries, robberies, larcenies, arsons and, last but not least, I have committed sodomy on more than 1,000 male human beings. For all these things I am not in the least bit sorry. I have no conscience so that does not worry me. I don’t believe in man, God nor devil. I hate the whole damned human race including myself.
And within living memory, there was Udei Hussein, who made a hobby of driving around Baghdad looking for weddings in order to rape the bride. That was when he wasn’t sticking power-drills in people’s bodies or murdering acquaintances with electric carving knives.
These people are not merely “bad.” They are not simply failing to accurately identify what is in their own self-interest, or causing incidental harm to others in pursuit of their interests. Their actions betray a total disregard for their self-interest; if they happen to wind up temporarily better-off, it appears incidental, or even accidental. It is a motivation that we recognize intuitively, and it is terrifying. “Bad” doesn’t cut it.
Christianity has an account for this spirit of Evil, in the person of Satan. When someone sees evil like that of Hussein or Panzram, mechanistic and materialistic accounts often feel inadequate and hollow. It seems as though something spiritual is at work, something much darker than evolution-gone-amok.
Evil is not something that can be calculated on the basis of suffering alone. Millions suffer from natural catastrophes, and yet no one considers them to be “evil,” bad as they may be. A tsuami or an earthquake are “bad,” but they are not “evil.” Evil is something that is intuitively recognized, and which seems to defy easy definition. But the label of “evil” always connotes some kind of intent — a conscious will to destroy the good. “Badness” for its own sake.
It should be observed that most people do believe in evil. Even intellectual critics of the concept of evil, like Friedrich Nietzsche, often approximate its meaning in characterizing motivations like resentment and vengeance:
Thus do I speak unto you in parable, ye who make the soul giddy, ye preachers of equality! Tarantulas are ye unto me, and secretly revengeful ones!
But I will soon bring your hiding-places to the light: therefore do I laugh in your face my laughter of the height.
Therefore do I tear at your web, that your rage may lure you out of your den of lies, and that your revenge may leap forth from behind your word “justice.”
Because, for man to be redeemed from revenge — that is for me the bridge to the highest hope, and a rainbow after long storms.
Otherwise, however, would the tarantulas have it. “Let it be very justice for the world to become full of the storms of our vengeance” — thus do they talk to one another.
“Vengeance will we use, and insult, against all who are not like us” — thus do the tarantula-hearts pledge themselves.
“And ‘Will to Equality’ — that itself shall henceforth be the name of virtue; and against all that hath power will we raise an outcry!”
Ye preachers of equality, the tyrant-frenzy of impotence crieth thus in you for “equality”: your most secret tyrant-longings disguise themselves thus in virtue-words!
— Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra
The fact that the word “evil” was often used to justify resentment (evil) seemed reason enough to Niezsche to do away with the term. To him, “bad” covered everything important. Culturally, this may even be useful, but for those questioning the reality of evil, Nietzsche’s own description of vengeful people actually approaches what most people imagine when they think of what is meant by “evil.”
Objective evil does exist, but the moral objectivity of evil does not necessarily imply a singular, opposite peak that is objective good.
This, I believe, is the great moral fallacy at the heart of all Christian reasoning.
Intelligence is also like this. All stupidity is similar in its slowness, but forms of intelligence wildly diverge. Some highly intelligent people are gifted with words; others, with tools, or spatial understanding, or abstract conceptualization. Some brilliant people can work with numbers, and not much else. There are many kinds of intelligence, which makes intelligence functionally subjective. Stupidity, on the other hand, is similar — to borrow a metaphorically appropriate term, stupidity is “base.”
TV is the epitome of low art in its desire to appeal to and enjoy the attention of unprecedented numbers of people. But TV is not low because it is vulgar or prurient or stupid. It is often all these things, but this is a logical function of its need to please Audience. And I’m not saying that television is vulgar and dumb because the people who compose Audience are vulgar and dumb. Television is the way it is simply because people tend to be really similar in their vulgar and prurient and stupid interests and wildly different in their refined and moral and intelligent interests.
— David Foster Wallace, “E Unibas Pluram”
I would add that beauty is similar in structure as well. There are many different standards by which something might be beautiful, and each manifestation of beauty in accordance to a particular standard may not appear particularly beautiful by another standard. Some standards may be broader in scope than others, but there is no singular, universal, objective standard of beauty.
We can symbolically visualize morality, beauty, and intelligence in the shape of a tree. At the lowest level, there is evil, ugliness, and stupidity. This is the trunk — a singular and unified point. As the tree rises upward and away from these objective and negative qualities, the tree diverges into many branches and twigs, each bearing leaves and flowers and fruits of their own. These are the points of brilliance, beauty, and goodness. But because all of these qualities are determined against some standard, and because standards vary in accordance with the needs of varying circumstances, the natures of the branches will differ from each other. What is truly beautiful may not appear as such to people on a different branch. The same goes for intelligence, and even moral judgment. Herodotus famously made this observation when it came to the proper manner for the burial of the dead:
One might recall, for example, an anecdote of Darius. When he was king of Persia, he summoned the Greeks who happened to be present at his court, and asked them what they would take to eat the dead bodies of their fathers. They replied that they would not do it for any money in the world. Later, in the presence of the Greeks, and through an interpreter, so that they could understand what was said, he asked some Indians of the tribe called Callatiae, who do in fact eat their parents’ dead bodies, what they would take to burn them. They uttered a cry of horror and forbade him to mention such a dreadful thing. One can see by this what custom can do.
— Herodotus, Histories
Indeed, the proper method of respectful burial had become so important at that time that neglecting it was imagined as evil. But the entire point of Herodotus’ comparison, of course, is that as bad as it may be in either culture to perform the rites of the other, neither was clearly “evil” in an objective sense.
Here, we can more clearly see the distinction between “evil” and “bad.” As our tree of standards branches out on many limbs, there will always be as many ways to fall short of the ideal standard as there are to succeed. In all likelihood, there are probably a great deal more. There are many more ways to ruin a meal, to make a mistake while performing music, or playing a sport, or to fail in achieving virtually any goal than there are ways to succeed. These arise from a few common sources: inattention, ignorance, or sheer inability, to name a few, but their direction is always out along the branch. To call something “bad,” after all, is to judge it against a standard. As standards proliferate, so too will the ways in which we might fall short of those standards.
But because these diverging standards are the ways in which things can be “good,” we can see via negativa the emergence of a meaningful concept of evil: the hatred of all standards.
It is to Christianity’s credit that it captures this essence in the story of Lucifer, whose sin was hubris — pride in the face of the Gods. That this sin was known and understood centuries if not millennia before the time of Jesus shows that Christianity is not necessary to understand this idea, but the reiteration of a tried and true moral concept is hardly a criticism.
It is worth unpacking the manner in which Christianity gets at least this concept correct.
Satan is not merely “the accuser,” but is also known as the “father of lies.” It was his job to serve as a kind of prosecuting attorney in God’s court, at least as depicted in the book of Job. Accusations can be used to correct, but can also be used to undermine, not just an individual, but a particular standard. In my own experience, charges of “hypocrisy” are almost never aimed at the individual, but rather the standard to which the individual holds. They usually seek to make out a standard as impossible, ridiculous, or contradictory. And lies reject the standard by which all other standards require: truth.
Satan’s zeal in his condemnation of all that exists is what defines him as evil — the manifestation of the desire not just to destroy good things, but to destroy the very possibility of goodness. Evil seeks to sever the limbs from the trunk, destroying divergence and the various standards of good, leaving only “objective” neutrality. Evil stands outside of the standards of Good, and seeks to use the standards against themselves.
Where Christianity goes astray, however, is in defining God as an equal and opposite pole on a singular continuum of good and evil. Christianity says that there is only one Good, and that all variations of “good” that we see are shadows and reflections of the one true good, and evil is what tries to distract us from this singular good. But this view misunderstands the mechanics of goodness — in beauty, in intelligence, and in everything else — and calls various forms of good “evil” because they are in competition with the “one true Good.”
We live in a Christian culture, and Christianity has claimed a monopoly on the understanding of evil. Atheists often lean into this, denying the reality of evil, and yet evil clearly exists. For this reason, the moral impulse towards Christianity is understandable. We can sense things which are truly evil in this world, and so it is natural to lean in the opposite direction, and to assume that opposed to evil is something which is objectively good. But this does not follow. Christianity — or even a general theory of objective good — is not necessary to understand and appreciate objective evil.
It is tragic, then, that the supposed objective good which Christianity offers requires us to reject all standards but one… and then defines those who fall short of this standard as evil, for opposing the one true God:
Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.
— Matthew 12:30
In its opposition to evil in pursuit of the one true Good, Christianity comes one branch away from itself becoming a trunk of evil, seeking the destruction of all limbs but its own.
But we do not need Christianity to explain evil, and we do not need to reject evil just because we reject Christianity.
For me, I think it is actually better understood without the false opposition of God and devil.
9. GREATER SPIRITS
If you stop being Christian, I’d recommend you become pagan.
– Rober Sakolowski
It is a vicious tragedy that Christianity leaves the impression upon its adherents that, should they abandon the faith, they will be left with nothing spiritual or transcendent. Perhaps this is not entirely Christianity’s fault. The most prolific and public of criticisms aimed at Christianity in the last several decades have not come from other religions, but from atheists that reject religion completely. It is only natural that Christian apologists should—correctly—point out the downsides of such a worldview and depict their own position in opposition to their unbelieving antagonists, rather than to the various other religious worldviews.
Nevertheless, the impression is there. For many Christians—including myself, when I was a younger believer—the choice is not between various spiritual worldviews, but between Christian belief or Christian unbelief. It’s not that modern Christians are particularly intolerant of other belief systems (indeed, they seem to go to tremendous, almost embarrassing lengths to befriend Muslim and especially Jewish acquaintances). It just seems that for many, spirituality and Christianity became conceptually intertwined to the point that they become confused, and indistinguishable to each other. Should the Christian come to doubt his faith, he may remember the real downsides of a wholly materialistic, un-spiritual life, and conclude that it is probably better to remain Christian than to become an unbeliever, regardless of his own doubts. Conversely, the ex-Christian might even feel a kind of obligation to reject all religions “equally,” out of this same confusion. Thankfully, this latter scenario is not as common as the former, but I have seen it, especially among the followers of the New Atheists.
But there are spiritual alternatives to Christianity.
It is worth elaborating on what exactly is meant by “spiritual.” Spirituality is communion with spirits. Any other definition is feel-good sophistry.
The nature of these spirits, however, may vary. In Christianity, spiritual life is found in communion with God. This is why daily prayer is so important in Christianity, more important than reading scripture, and even more important than attending church. Indeed, both scripture and church attendance are important precisely because they are, in their own way, communion of a kind—God being present in both his word and in his disciples. But both of these are less direct than prayer.
Spirituality in other traditions is not especially different in its mechanism from Christianity. People have been praying to Gods, reading and reciting holy texts, and gathering in meetings to praise the Gods together for thousands of years before Christianity. Indeed, Plato’s Symposium can be understood as a kind of church meeting in honor of Eros, the God of love. Homer’s recitation of his poetry was thought of as scripture of a kind. At the very least, Homer thought so: perhaps that is why, at the end of the Odyssey, Odysseus kills the priest Leiodes, but spares the poet Phemius, as if to imply that the creative spirit of the artist is closer to divinity than the static retention of art from the past.
The value of spirituality is that it gives the individual an external source of direction. Without this direction, the individual may feel as if he is not going anywhere, or, feeling the seemingly arbitrary and existentially meaningless nature of making important decisions by oneself, for oneself, the individual may not feel inclined to do anything. The unspiritual life is empty. Many people live weak spiritual lives, communicating with certain spirits without recognizing the fact, or without understanding which spirits they are serving. Such people are at greater risk of becoming spiritually enslaved—as one might see in a particularly virulent political activist. Alternatively, they might live ineffective lives, passively pursuing certain spirits, but unable to grasp and articulate their nature, and thus, unequipped to advance in the service of these spirits.
Consider, for example, the man who wants to serve Mammon—wealth. I myself tend towards the Christian dislike of this particular God, but let us suppose for the sake of grasping the concept that our subject desires to become wealthy. This desire is, in its own way, a very basic form of worship. “Worship” is derived from the Old English weorthscipe, but is better understood etymologically as a compound: “worth-ship”—the quality of having worth. As an action, “worship” is merely an acknowledgment of value, a giving of attention and respect. Thus, when Christians say “no one but God is worthy of worship,” they are reiterating the heart of Christian monomania. When a man gives value and attention to gaining wealth, he is worshipping Mammon.
But if the man does not recognize the nature of the spirit, he will have a hard time gaining its power. He does not understand what it is like, what it wants, or what might cause it to turn against him. Even if he manages to grasp these things in the abstract, they will be difficult to act upon because they are abstract ideas, not visceral realities to him.
But Mammon—wealth—has a spirit. It has a nature of its own, which can be understood and spoken with, should someone wish to do so.
Mammon is a dragon—stubborn, jealous, and absolute in his decisions… and yet sometimes appearing fickle in his objects of desire, for his possessions are representations of value, and as such, are interchangeable. The dragon depicted in Leighton’s Perseus and Andromeda is shielding Andromeda from the light of Perseus. He is protecting her, but not because she is a beautiful woman. To Mammon, she is merely something of value.
Mammon is vigilant, observant, but also possesses good taste, and knows the value of things. It is Mammon who, in seeing Diomedes and Glaucus exchange armor in Book 6 of the Iliad, takes the time to observe that Glaucus’s armor was worth ten times that of Diomedes, and so in the exchange, Diomedes came off better. For everyone else, the strangeness of that meeting—two enemies who discuss ancestry and the friendship of their ancestors in the midst of a battle—would occlude any interest in the relative value of equipment. But Mammon always has one eye open, turned to matters of value and accounting.
If we wish to see a true worshipper of Mammon, we might look to John D. Rockefeller. In his later years, the oil tycoon developed an extensive personal museum, but his most prized object on display was always an unobtrusive little red book—his accounting book, in which he kept track of all things financial in his early business days.
In most ancient traditions, the gods are like Mammon in nature—not exactly metaphorical, but neither are they literal in the monotheistic manner. Thunder is Thor, though Thor is not only thunder. Thunder is an expression of Thor’s power—a manifestation of a concept, a real phenomenon which expressed a concept, which is also a God. In Thor’s case, “heavenly power” is a rough description of the concept. Lightning and thunder are is most obvious forms.
This kind of talk—describing concepts and ideas as “Gods”—may sound like mere anthropomorphization, describing non-human things in human terms. But this criticism may just as easily be reversed. Who is to say that we did not objectify Gods into mere concepts? From what we know of ancient societies and anthropology, it seems likely that humans first came to understand complex concepts like “power” and “love” and “the city” in deific terms. This was not because of some compulsion to make everything into a person. It was because it works better.
By analogy, consider the manner in which masters in the use of memory organize their thoughts. Remembering abstract information like names, dates, numbers, or ideas is extremely difficult. These masters don’t remember this information directly. Rather, they first convert the abstract information into visual information, and in doing so, can more quickly retrieve a far greater amount of information. Cicero described this technique as the “method of loci” in 55 B.C., thought the method is more commonly known today as “memory palace.”
This method works because humans are better at spatial reasoning than abstract reasoning. Though we may be better than all other animals in the realm of abstract thought, our animal nature still puts a far heavier emphasis on relative location, movement, distance, and so forth than it does on such things as “epistemology” or “truth.” Most often, our best ideas come to us through experience, and we only retroactively use abstract processes to categorize and generalize our experiences, so that we might better predict future events.
In this same manner, what we now call “concepts” were almost certainly first understood—and today, still best understood—as Gods. This is because as good as we may be at science, our capacity for social understanding and dealing with other people is far older, more intuitive, and more powerful. We understand humans, and the complexity of hierarchies, relationships, and power-dynamics from millions of years of selective pressure as mammals organized in packs.
In terms of which is more “real,” science and its method of categorization is the more artificial and constructed kind of relationship than the more natural anthropomorphic understanding of the forces which some call “Gods,” and others call “concepts.” The scientist actually has very little ground on which to say that someone is “wrong” to imagine the ocean as Poseidon; all they can say is that such a view would be “unscientific,” which is true enough, just as the religious believer might say that the scientist’s presentation of temperature charts and fish populations and so forth is unmemorable and unhelpful in terms of grasping an understanding of the nature of the ocean. Both have their place, but each is unintelligible to the other. They operate by different standards entirely.
Such general understandings of the natures of these forces are uninteresting to scientists because they are not easily verified and replicated by data—how would one measure the “nature” of something, anyhow? But for non-scientists, the scenario is almost never controlled, and information is always incomplete. As valuable as science is in providing accurate predictions in particular circumstances, it is often quite useless in orienting ourselves towards the “Gods” of the world. For the sailor, the inhospitable, desolate, and intemperate ocean cannot truly be grasped by charts alone. For the purpose of action in an uncontrolled world with imperfect information, these forces are best understood in the manner that humans understand things best: as Gods and spirits who possess a kind of character, one that has a personality that allows people to approach these forces with the correct attitude, be those forces the City (Athena), the Sea (Poseidon), wandering inspiration (Odin), the story-weaver (Anansi), the Sun (Apollo), or a particular river or mountain (in the case of Mt. Fuji, Konohanasakuya-hime). Even ordinary animals may be treated as if they possessed a spirit. The Native American practice of thanking a hunted animal for allowing itself to be killed and eaten is an essentially spiritual act, and one that seems somehow more personal and appropriate than thanking God for selecting that animal to die.
What I am describing might be labeled as “ur-paganism”—eternal paganism, or polytheistic traditionalism distilled to its essence. This worldview varies in form and features from place to place, and people to people (Hinduism is by far the largest remaining variety). But apart from these differences, several aspects unite these varieties of paganism in opposition to Christianity, and other forms of monotheistic universalism:
- Non-literal deities
- Cyclical view of time
- Morally holistic
Aside from unifying ur-paganism in most of its various forms, all of these characteristics are at odds with Christianity, which can be summarized by the following mirrored characteristics:
- Literal deity
- Linear time
- Morally dualistic
Let me unpack each of these points.
Literal Deity vs. Non-Literal Deity
Ur-paganism begins with the literal (lightning, the sea, etc), and reaches an understanding of these phenomenon in non-literal terms. Christianity takes the opposite approach, beginning with the non-literal—perhaps even the un-graspable—and attempts to understand this wholly and completely other by literalizing it. Whereas pagan Gods are understood as personalities associated with real phenomena in the world, Christianity requires its disciples to believe that God is essentially a kind of person, associated with—and indeed, proved by—a variety of abstract and non-literal concepts.
In this way, the difference in relative understanding of the natures of God(s) demonstrates not only a difference in the kind of relationship the believer has with the spiritual realm, but also shows a difference in fundamental attitude towards the world. Being representations of real phenomenon, worshipping the non-literal deities of ur-paganism represents an affirmation of the real world from which these deities were ascertained. By contrast, the literal God of Christianity derived from abstraction—“the word made flesh”—necessarily represents the opposite disposition: a rejection of the real world, and the non-literal deities through which it is understood.
Linear vs. Cyclical Time
The Christian view of history has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Some Christians even hold a “young Earth” view—that the world is only about 4,000 years old (such a view is perhaps the pinnacle of Christian linearity), but all Christians believe that at some point, the world and the universe “started.” It is this belief that allows for the interesting “prime mover” argument from causation.
But ur-paganism rejects the premise. It holds that the universe always was, and that creation and destruction come in cycles. The Norse “Ragnarok”—where the Gods fight against the giants and ultimately lose—is not the end of the world. Rather, it is the end of the current cycle. It is the end, and therefore, the beginning, of a new circle. In the ur-pagan view, history has no beginning and no end, only recurring seasons of death and renewal.
Here too, there is a juxtaposition in attitudes toward the world. The ur-pagan understands the cyclical nature, accepting the good and the bad alike as necessary parts of life (but not without joy and sorrow in their appropriate contexts). By contrast, the Christian looks forward to the reign of God, but is told that this will not come to pass until the present world falls away. Thus, the Christian hope for the return of Christ is a hope for the end of the world, of this life, and for the completion and conclusion of history. It is not so much that the world hates Christianity, as Paul suggests: Christianity hates the world. It seems that gradually, parts of the world began to pick up on the animosity from this new cult.
Universal vs Contextual
The ur-pagan view of people, culture, and morality, is essentially bottom-up in nature. It begins within the context of a particular population, in their own place and time. What is right and wrong, what is sacred and profane, what is valuable and unimportant, are all established within this context.
The Christian view—having as its foundation the “solid rock” of the abstract God—has a context that is complete and absolute in scope. God is beyond time itself, is everywhere, and was the creator of all peoples. Because Christian morality is viewed in relation to God, there is no room for context in determining right action within Christianity. What is right and wrong are relative to God, who is beyond all context. Thus, Christian morality is absolute and universal, the same to all people in all contexts. There is no allowance for differentiating between different cultures, and what might be preferable or superior to a particular people, relative to another. As it is said, there is neither Greek nor Jew, man nor woman, slave nor free, but all are one in Christ.
Dualistic vs. Holistic
As a byproduct of universalistic morality—or, perhaps, of its transcendent source—Christian morality is essentially dualistic. Certain actions and attitudes are always right, while others are always wrong. Thou shalt love, thou shalt not hate; thou shalt forgive, and thou shalt never seek vengeance. Thou shalt always worship God, and never worship anything, or anyone, else. Because of the transcendent and absolute source, wrong action is not just “unwise” or “bad”—it is considered evil, “sin,” disobedience against God. It is important here to remember that the actions are not the important part in Christian morality. They are only useful insofar as they gauge the heart, and the heart is either in love with God or it is not. That which comes from the former is good; that which comes from the latter is evil. These are maters of definition within Christianity.
Thus the world appears as a Tolkein battleground to the Christian, with the forces of righteousness arrayed against the forces of sin. The enemy are orcs and ghostly demons, monsters that are irredeemable. Of course, the reality of mankind is that even our most malicious enemies are more human than their depiction. And so, to the Christian, there can be no human enemies. After all, they are image-bearers of the one true God. “The enemy” is a spiritual force, the Deceiver and his demons.
The ur-pagan view—composed as it is of many interacting Gods—gives no absolute and clear answers. There are “more wise” and “less wise” decisions one might make, and of course, real, objective evil still lurks in the shadows. But because of the subjective nature of the good, and its various antagonists, the ur-pagan view is generally less like a Tolkien battlefield, and more like the clash of armies as seen by Arjuna:
Krishna! as I behold, come here to shed
Their common blood, yon concourse of our kin,
My members fail, my tongue dries in my mouth,
A shudder thrills my body, and my hair
Bristles with horror; from my weak hand slips
Gandiv, the goodly bow; a fever burns
My skin to parching; hardly may I stand;
The life within me seems to swim and faint;
Nothing do I foresee save woe and wail!
It is not good, O Keshav! nought of good
Can spring from mutual slaughter! Lo, I hate
Triumph and domination, wealth and ease,
Thus sadly won! Aho! what victory
Can bring delight, Govinda! what rich spoils
Could profit; what rule recompense; what span
Of life itself seem sweet, bought with such blood?
Seeing that these stand here, ready to die,
For whose sake life was fair, and pleasure pleased,
And power grew precious:- grandsires, sires, and sons,
Brothers, and fathers-in-law, and sons-in-law,
Elders and friends! Shall I deal death on these
Even though they seek to slay us? Not one blow
The point here is not that ur-paganism is averse to bloodshed—far from it. Krishna persuades Arjuna to fight, and he does. The point is that conflicts are not battles between good and evil, but between two conflicting goods. Like the war between the Trojans and the Achaeans, conflicts in the real world are rarely between “good and evil,” nor are they won by “good” actions and lost by “evil” actions. Ur-paganism accepts the complexity of morality, shunning what is objectively evil, but without believing one’s enemies to be “evil” simply because they are opposed to oneself. And, critically, ur-paganism does not reject viewing an enemy as an enemy, simply because they are not “evil.” The ur-pagan can respect his enemy, seeing him even as a human, even as good, while at the same time hating him and fighting against him with all of his might. To borrow the curiously pagan verse from the Bible, there is a time to love and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace
Because they are subjective, “good and bad” are not “either-or” within ur-paganism. Often, it is “yes-and.” In Christianity, however, the transcendent basis for judging good and evil means that everything that is good is “objectively” good, and he who is not with Him is against Him.
Life-Rejecting vs. Life-Affirming
Between ur-paganism and Christianity, the difference in general attitude towards life is more of a culmination of these other various differences than it is its own unique feature. Yet the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The Christian indifference—even disdain—towards life, in spite of its many pleasures and distractions is the mirror opposite of the Pagan love for life, even in the face of suffering and doom. Some pagan traditions hold that in the end, the forces of evil win at the end of the cycle, but are still worth fighting against—not because the victory of evil is impermanent, but because the struggle is worth participating in for its own sake.
James Joyce once said that “if Ulysses is not worth reading, life is not worth living.” Different people have different tastes, and Joyce may not be for everyone, but the eponymous title and its reference to “much-suffering Odysseus” captures much of the existential attitude of ur-paganism. Life is full of suffering, but on the other side of enduring that suffering, there is glory, joy, and meaning.
Christianity sees not just Man as fallen, but the World. Sin is the cause of much suffering, and ultimately, death. Because of sin and death, life itself needs redemption, and it is only through Jesus’s conquest of death that life is redeemed. But this redemption is not of the present life, but of the life that is to come. Life in this mortal coil is unredeemed, and remains unredeemed. Only in the Kingdom of Heaven, in the “life” that is to come after this life has come to an end, is the redemption fulfilled.
Thus, ur-paganism accepts and embraces life, whereas Christianity rejects this life with indifference, even hostility.
Ur-paganism is not the only spiritual alternative to Christianity. It is also worth mentioning that Christianity is probably not the worst form of spirituality. The point in elaborating upon ur-paganism is not to promote ur-paganism, but to destroy the notion that without Christianity, there can be no spiritual life or religious worldview at all. Not only is Christianity not the only form of spiritual life: it is not even among the better religions.
To the individual practitioner making the transition, these older faiths can feel inauthentic, much as one might imagine a Bantu man would feel in attempting to practice Japanese Shinto. But Christianity would have felt inauthentic in a similar manner to our own ancestors who converted—indeed, it may have been inauthentic. Who knows how many converted for political practicality, social convenience, or even for money. One can easily see how a cynical and insincere acceptance of certain principles could, over even a couple generations, transform into something sincere and serious. There are authentic traditions that reach back further, to older times, which populations around the world had been practicing for thousands of years prior to the advent of universalist religions like Christianity and Islam. When it comes to congruence between religious practice and the heart of a people, nothing will truly resonate better than those practices that co-evolved with those people over millennia.
This is the end of my argument. It does not make me happy to side against Christianity; although I enjoy argumentation for its own sake, I would much prefer to be on the side of my parents, grand-parents, and great-grandparents, defending “my” faith against atheists, or Muslims, or challengers of any kind, and leveling criticisms in return. But as I have shown, Christianity does not allow such considerations to the sincere believer. And whatever I do in matters of the heart, I wish to be sincere above all else.
Christianity is not a sustainable path for those who care about their family, their nation, their lineage, their history, or even life itself. It has taken many generations to achieve the effects it has—establishing liberalism, confusing the genders, facilitating invasive levels of migration, cultivating shamelessness, dishonesty, and apathy on individuals, in approximate proportion to the environmental severity of faith—and it will take many more generations for what Nietzsche prophesized over a century ago to fully come to pass: the great atrophy of man.
Its signs are already visible today, to those with the stomach to notice. By modern standards, the accomplishments of men in the past were truly phenomenal. In wisdom, in memory, in intelligence, physical strength and endurance, these ancients were comparative Olympians. Modern man believes he is better than his ancestors because he has, at his disposal, the internet. This, he thinks, means that he is more intelligent—can, in his own mind, see a connection between two concepts, or accurately deduce conclusions through observation. Merely to state this is to notice the absurdity. Our world has become more interconnected, and with this interconnection, economies of scale shift into high gear, creating more things for less money. Some of those things are intellectual in nature… most of which (and much more!) are accessible on any computer in the world.
But with this access comes a decreased ability to create for oneself. It is inefficient. So far as I can tell, the jury is still out on whether or not industrial society was a net-good for the human animal. Even medical arguments—always quick to mention the modern tools and diagnostic procedures available to doctors and surgeons, and all the lives these save—usually neglect the damage caused by the pharmaceutical industry, which seems to dissipate and spread out pathology, rather than resolve it. A disease caused by poor diet is treated with drugs, which then cause several severe side-effects, requiring their own drugs. This pattern can extend over generations, given the way that one’s own diet can effect the health of one’s children. Does anyone dare to declare that all of the anti-depressants, birth-control pills, and the variety of other drugs we take today, to compensate our thyroid issues, or joint pains, or stomach problems, or cholesterol, will have no lasting harmful effects upon the next generations? It seems like only yesterday that the dangers of lead and asbestos were finally recognized. In fact, Greek and Roman physicians had observed the mental effects of lead nearly 2,000 years ago. Nevertheless, lead paint was not banned in the United States until 1978, and leaded gasoline was not phased out until the 1980s. Asbestos, similarly, was not phased out until the 1980s. The delay in seeing the effects make them more dangerous.
Christianity is much like this lead or asbestos poisoning—difficult to see the effects, at first, but over time, making thought and breath more difficult… unto the seventh generation. For our technology, for our medicine, and for our newfound, universal, interconnected, internet-like religion, we are not better than our ancestors. Though we have more toys, we breathe and think shallower than they.
No doubt, we are not short in exceptions. The benefit of possessing seven billion individuals is that there is no shortage of statistical outliers—athletes and geniuses of immense beauty and talent, who we like to identity as representatives of “our” generation. But the reality is that the divergence is growing. The preponderance of morbid obesity, of physical and emotional weakness, and of a contented acceptance of helplessness and dependence (such things are necessary in an industrial society full of computers, cars, airplanes, and data-manipulation operations that make Kafka-novels look straightforward) are evidence of a great weakening of our species. The very public exceptions hide the reality: our character is shifting. Slowly, subtly, it is deforming, becoming less like our most noble mammalian cousins, the pack-animals: lions, wolves, gorillas, and orcas. Instead, we are becoming herd-animals, like sheep, cows, or gazelle. It is a different mindset, not “better” or “worse” in some grand, objective sense (contrary to what Christianity may claim), but subjectively worse in that it is a departure from what we are as humans. In the long run, it is unlikely to work, and will simply result in the lambs being enslaved or slain by the remaining lions.
But such an outcome is difficult to see, because our view of history seems to have been infected too by the Christian attitude. It has become linear, obsessed with a belief that there is a “beginning” and an “end.” That end was supposed to be liberal democracy, but the failure of multiculturalism and the growing unrest in Europe is demonstrating the point. There is no end in history, and what has happened before will happen again. We are not beyond war and enslavement. As unlikely as they appear in this static moment, they are ubiquitous throughout history.
The best way to live is to live with freedom, because freedom is the state within which quality arises, and in which virtue can be developed and demonstrated. But freedom is not a “right” that any other species or people will respect. It will be taken away with the alacrity of a hawk snatching a rabbit, should the opportunity provide some benefit to another at little cost. Freedom is a state of being and an experience of power, contextual and relative to objects in the world. Mathematicians talk about “degrees of freedom,” a concept we might understand by observing that a talented musician is less free than an equally talented musician who can also drive. The skill relative to the instrument provides a “freedom” over that instrument—power. Freedom, it turns out, is not just an absence of political oppression, but something gained through the development of power. Put another way: the opacity of a musical instrument we cannot play may not be so different from “oppression,” where our desires are concerned. The apparent difference is merely this: where political control is concerned, people find much hope made of appealing to various contingencies for “justice” against oppression, but such an appeal cannot be made to a guitar.
In reality, both are external forces possessing a particular nature, and freedom comes from understanding and accounting for that nature—perhaps mastering it, to the degree it is possible.
Against this, Christianity offers “freedom” for the spirit, which is to say, the feeling of freedom for the individual.
As we see the weakening of man, in conjunction with ever more audacious incursions on individual freedoms and growing threats and dangers against our nations and our families, it is becoming more important with each passing year to remember the source of our freedom and of our power, so that it might be preserved. This is the natural instinct of any organism that comes under attack. After 9/11, you could not pass a street corner without seeing two or three American flags. Identity is the source of power, and power is the source of freedom, which is valuable in this life because this life is valuable.
None of this is accepted in Christianity.
Christianity corrodes everything that is food for the legacy. It poisons the well, even if it does so slowly, bit-by-bit, over the generations. It takes away food for the lineage, and offers in its place identical words with different meaning—red-painted rocks in place of the strawberries, like those designed to deter the birds from eating our food. And only Christianity has the audacity to say its stones are better than the fruit of life!
There is no freedom in Christianity. What there is of “freedom” is a word-game, a self-deluding equivocation that facilitates the feeling of freedom by connecting the disciple to a non-existent—and therefore, invincible—being. But this escapism is not sustainable over time. The sad “freedom” of today’s Christian may feel a lot like Muslim enslavement tomorrow, or worse, a weakening, decrepit, resentful existence many, many generations hence, after the hatred for human beauty and strength has corrupted the lineage itself.
I sometimes wonder, while reading Nietzsche, if his hatred for Christianity came from a hatred of himself. The man loved his father—a Lutheran minister—and his father died when young Friederich was only six. Perhaps he felt some of that theological weakness in himself. Perhaps he put it all together, alone, in the nights of his chronic poor health and weakness, or his absolute failure with women. What is abstract, liberal, Christian “freedom” to such a man? To the involuntarily celibate, the weak, the ill, and the suffering, “freedom” is a joke, and they are the punchline.
It is for such people that taking the steps away from Christianity, for taking personal responsibility and pride in their own accomplishments, rather than giving them to God, is the first step towards true power and freedom. There is much we cannot control, but over some things, we do have power, even the weakest among us. In a world where change happens over many generations, and where dramatic, real-world effects emerge from the inner spiritual life, a resolution as simple as speaking truthfully can have profound effects.
To these ends—even to these values—Christianity is no ally. It is seductive drug, tolerable in mild doses, but always compelling the user towards absolute embrace and dependence. It condemns life itself, and like two incompatible metals, the friction gradually corrodes one or the other. It destroys the qualities and virtues derived from life, those that are naturally attractive and admirable, while building up in their place imposter-virtues with imposter-names. Careless, shameless, dishonest, subversive to life and a blanket on the fire of the spirit, it is a contemptible religion.
I only hope that in defending their faith—the faith of their family and of their nation—Christians may one day realize that they demonstrate more life and spiritedness than their own savior. For their loyalty, for their ferocity, their appreciation for beauty and greatness, for their love, and for their hatred, the Western Christian man is more worthy of love and respect than the God who lets himself be killed just to set an example of how we are all to live—with our minds on the nothingness to come after.
But it is nothing like the spirited Christianity in the time of Beowulf, and my lip curls in disgust at what might pass as “spiritedness” in seven generations more of Christian saturation.
Whether or not there is enough time to save ourselves from a complete transition to herd-animal, slave, or sad-sap, hell-bent on self-erasure, I don’t know. It seems a worth at least attempting to resist, if nothing else for the challenge of it (our own particular chains of life may depend on it). But such an effort cannot be possible without care, without honesty, and without spiritedness. Christianity does not permit these. It is the great nothing, the holy nihilism that offers itself in place of the struggle and challenge of life. It is a dressed-up Silenus, companion to kings and true Gods, but hostile to life and to everything good within it.
 I am here speaking to fellow Americans.
 A “concern troll” is one who opposes something but pretends to support it under the guise of ‘helpful criticism.’ The most common examples are cases where anonymous members of online communities speak up only to explain how the group as a whole is, for whatever reason, pursuing their aims in the wrong fashion.
 Matthew 5:43-48
 Matthew 10:34-36
 This is still one of my favorite Bible verses.
 This scripture is known as “the Great Commission” in theological circles.
 Romans 1:28-32.
 Joshua 24:15.
 John 20:29
 John 3:8
 Matthew 23:13
 Hebrews 10:23
 Matthew 7:13-14
 There is some theological disagreement between denominations over whether one can know with certainty if one is heaven-bound. By my reading, I believe that certainty is unjustified, and so I say “hope,” and not “knowledge,” because none are deserving of heaven, and we cannot know the mind of God, or even our own hearts. Only God can know that, and so we cannot know with certainty whether or not we will enjoy eternity with Jesus or if we are hell-bound.
 Matthew 7:15-20
 James 1:21-26
 The “God of this World” is Satan; 2 Corinthians 4:4.
 Matthew 7:15-20
 1 Timothy 6:10
 James actually alludes to fraud as the source of wealth for the rich here, but this is theologically secondary. Christianity holds the heart as the basis of sin, not the action. This is why Jesus says that lust is as bad as adultery in Matthew 5:27-28. The sin of defrauding your workers of their paycheck, then, is not the act of theft, but the love of money which motivates the act. The act itself is irrelevant to the sin of the heart, and so a rich person who accumulates their wealth without fraudulence, but out of a desire to earn money, is just as sinful in the eyes of the Lord.
 Genesis 2:18
 1 John 4:20
 Genesis 1:26-27
 People who go to church on Sunday, but who otherwise display no signs of inner faith or devotion to God.
 Matthew 22: 37
 Matthew 13:3-9
 Genesis 22:1-2
 Worldview concerning death and the end of things.
 Jefferson, the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, was Deist, as were two of its four editors: Benjamin Franklin and John Adams. Only Roger Sherman was a confirmed believer (and quite devout; a professor of religion in fact). The religious beliefs of Robert Livingston are less certain, although he was referred to as a “sincere and devoted Christian” by a pamphlet written 35 years after his death.
 (1) A deceitful prince of darkness also exists; (2) this God wants people to have a relationship with him, which may involve being nice and fair, but such humanistic virtues miss the real point; (5) Bad people also burn forever when they die.
 (3) The purpose of life is to return to having a relationship with your Creator – happiness and self-assuredness are not the point, and may even distract you from your true purpose; (4) The entire point of the Christianity is to have God deeply involved in every aspect of one’s life.
 “Christianity is a religion derived from the Bible, and which aims at reunification with the God Yaweh through the development of a relationship with his son, Jesus of Nazareth, in the hope that the practitioner may be granted eternal life with God after they die.”
 A reminder: the authentic Christian is the serious believer; the cultural Christian is the half-hearted believer who accepts the stories and symbolism of the faith, but does not practice seriously; the value-Christian is the unbeliever who has rejected the stories, but who unknowingly accepts the values and attitudes that can only be justified by the faith.
 1 Thessalonians 5:17
 Sommers, Tamler. Why Honor Matters. Basic Books. 2018.
 Donovan, Jack. The Way of Men. Dissonant Hum. 2012.
 John 14:6
 Matthew 19:29; Mark 10:29-30
 Luke 14:12-13
 Luke 14:26
 Luke 21:16
 Matthew 25:40
 There are 36 instances in the New Testament, including Matthew 23:31, Luke 11:48, John 1:7, 1:34, 3:11, 3:28, 5:31, 5:36, 5:39, 7:7, 8:14, 10:25, 15:26, 15:27, 18:23, 18:37, Acts 4:33, 10:42, 10:43, 18:5, 20:24, 22:5, 23:11, 26:5, 26:22, Romans 3:21, 10:2, 2 Corinthians 8:3, Galatians 4:15, Philippians 1:8, 1 Timothy 6:13, James 5:3, 1 Peter 5:12, 1 John 1:2, 4:14, and 5:7.
 For more on the subject of testimony as warrantied speech, see the works of philosopher Curt Doolittle.
 Acts 10:42, Acts 20:24
 Interestingly enough, the Greek transliteration from the Hebrew being quoted is not martyrion, but ἐξομολογήσεται (exomologestai), which is variously translated as “confess,” “give allegiance,” “give praise,” “acknowledge,” and even “explain.” The word is only used once in the entire Bible.
 John 1:1
 John 1:1
 Matthew 22: 15, Mark 12:13, Luke 20:20
 Matthew 27:37
 Genesis 1:3
 John 1:2
 John 12:31
 The doctrine of taqiyya permits dishonesty for the sake of preserving one’s safety in the face of persecution, which sounds reasonable enough, although quotes from Islamic figures such as Abu Ad-Darda seem to give a more general permission for deception: “we smile in the face of some people [unbelievers] although our hearts curse them.”
 Tupac knew how to incorporate religiosity into his music in a way that not only did not ruin it, but improved it. Given Tupac’s own life, it is hard to imagine him being a serious Christian. More likely: in his attempt to speak about things that mattered to him, the metaphorical use of language drove him inclined him towards more profound metaphors for profound subject matter. There is no higher metaphor than God.
 This should not be confused with rap that contains Christian themes. One of my own favorite hip-hop tracks is “Only God Can Judge Me,” a song which utilizes Christian expressions, and reflects a Christian cultural identity, but which is not itself about theology (it also happens to be among the earliest musical references to the great critic of Christianity, Friedrich Nietzsche).
 Matthew 28:18-20, 2 Corinthians 5:18-20
 Exodus 20:4, Deuteronomy 4:15-17, Psalms 97:7
 It may not be immediately clear that Satan and the snake in the garden are the same being. However, Satan is referred to as “the father of all lies” in John 8:44, so if the snake deceived Eve with a lie in Genesis 3, then Satan must have had a hand in the matter. Thus, the snake is best understood as a manifestation of Satan.
 Pirsig, Robert. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. 1974. HarperTorch.
 For me personally, this is one of the reasons I find myself drawn to the ontological argument.
 Even at present, only Zambia has a higher percentage of Christians than Rwanda.
 van Creveld, Martin, Equality: The Impossible Quest. Castalia House, 2015.
 Parker, Kim. The Biblical Politics of John Locke. Wilfrid Laurier University Press. 2004.
 Certain Difficulties Felt by Anglicans in Catholic Teaching, Volume 1, Lecture 8
 Galatians 3:28
 This would not be to imply that there is no conflict between men and women. Males and females generally have different reproductive strategies, and in their collective efforts to capitalize on those strategies and maximize their own chances of genetic success, they may put pressure on the strategy of the opposite gender.
 Genesis 1:27
 That said, many scholars argue that this is in fact a metaphor for the body of the Church, which is a metaphorical bride for Christ. How the vivid sexuality fits into this metaphor, I leave to the reader to ponder.
 Ingraham, Christopher. “The Share of Americans not having sex has reached a record high.” The Washington Post. 31 Mar, 2019. Web.
 This line of argument was rightly mocked when made by a Senator. Curiously not so when made in the context of religion.
 For more on this subject, see my book Letter to Anwei.
 This is a rough summary of Plantinga’s modal logic-based formulation of the ontological argument.
 “Apology” refers to a philosophical defense, not an admission of wrongdoing. The practice of defending the faith through argumentation is known as “apologetics.”
 As quoted by David Hume: Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779)
 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity. 1943.
 This particular verse (Matthew 10:34) is often alluded to by politically right-of-center Christians who believe that Jesus is authorizing militance and violence, perhaps even violence in defense of the nation. From the context of subsequent verses, however, it is clearly a metaphor for division, specifically division of the family against itself (and as we have heard, a house divided against itself cannot stand). This is not a point favorable to nationalism.
 John 3:20, “evil μισεῖ light;” John 7:7, “[the world] μισεῖ me because I testify that its works are evil;” John 15:18, “the world μισεῖ you;” John 15:19, “therefore the world μισεῖ you;” John 15:23 “he who μισῶν (mison) me μισεῖ my Father also;” 1 John 3:13, “if the world μισεῖ you;” and of course, Luke 14:26.
 Genesis 22:12 indicates that this is clearly not the case: “He said, ‘Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing that you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.”
 The ancient Greek peoples sometimes ate their burnt offerings, although the Hebrew peoples and their Mesopotamian ancestors were less likely to do so, preferring to burn the sacrifice completely (“holocaust” means to consume completely by fire).
 Kierkegaard makes a big point of Abraham’s faith being grounded not in the hereafter, but in the present world. This, however, does not extend to modern Christians, because Abraham’s faith was in God’s promise, which to him, was a promise of things which he was to receive in this life. God’s promise to Christians today is not like the promise made to Abraham, but is a promise of eternal life in a new kingdom after death and the passing away of this world.
 “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46).
 Lewis posited that logically, Jesus had to have either been evil, crazy, or the Son of God. From scripture, there is no way for him to be “a good moral teacher” or anything of that kind.
 As it happens, the historical arguments are fairly weak.
 Deuteronomy 32:8
 Romans 13:1-2
 Matthew 5:29-30
 Robertson, C.B. Letter to Anwei. 2018.
 A fairly standard example of this kind of thinking can be seen in The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris. Free Press, 2011.
 Panzram, Carl. Panzram: A Journal of Murder. Amok Press. 2002.
 Nietzsche uses the term ressentiment, a French word describing a psychological state of frustrated hatred, which often leads to displacement.
 There actually is measure for general intelligence — “g-factor” — which is supposed to describe an individual’s generalized cognitive ability, but this measure is, by design, de-contextualized from the real-world. People with very high g-scores might still appear to be functionally stupid if a specialized aptitude raises their net g-measure, while in their actual day-to-day life, they operate outside that sphere of high specialized potential.
 Isaiah 14:13-14
 John 8:44
 In the myth, Andromeda is actually a sacrifice to the monster Cetus. Her value, therefore, is as food.
 For more scholarly information on paganism generally and European paganism specifically, I highly recommend the work of Tom Rowsell.
 For this reason, one could say that Aristotle was essentially Pagan in nature, whereas Plato was essentially Christian.
 Galatians 3:28
 Leviticus 19:17
 Romans 12:19
 Ecclesiastes 3:1-8