Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Favorite Christian Misconceptions

This thread was mentally prompted by a couple different things, and by none of them in particular. I always think it's fascinating (and sometimes think it's depressing) to read/see/hear "outsider" views of Christianity (I don't mean that in a pejorative way - just to encompass the wide range of attitudes from "actively hostile" to "academically neutral" to "not a Christian, but find things to admire").

I think it's valuable to offer critiques of Christianity (or any religion), both from within and without the church. I feel like there are a few misconceptions that seem to repeat themselves when people do, though. I'm not sure if this is because the proponents of these critiques are unaware of their deficiencies with respect to Christian philosophy, or if they find those deficiencies unpersuasive (perhaps because Christians keep reinforcing these critiques by our actions?). At any rate, here are my favorite things that a lot of people seem to think about Christianity that shouldn't be (but maybe are too often) true:

Misconception 1: Position X Violates a Higher Principle of the Religion, Like Universal Love. I ran into this most recently in comments at Kaylee's livejournal. This argument goes something like this: Christians believe that behavior X is wrong. As someone who engages in behavior X, or sympathizes with those who do, this makes me feel hated. How can Christians hate on me when they and their god are supposed to love everyone?
Why I Think It's a Misconception: I think this probably stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of the implications of universal love. The distinction I would draw in Christian theology is that between loving someone and being pleased with them. Jesus loves everyone. That doesn't mean he loves everything they do. One of Esther Selene's favorite quotes used to be, "God loves you just the way you are, but he refuses to leave you that way." For the parents out there: if you found out your child was the biggest bully in school, would that stop you from loving your kid? Would you be okay with their behavior? Would you love your kid any less even if they couldn't see why bullying was wrong?
Why I Think It's Still Persuasive: Sometimes people use this one deliberately. They don't want to be loved so much as to have their choices validated. I think this tends to happen most often when the choices in question are closely entwined with a person's self-identification. Other times I think it's a genuine misconception. The refusal of this theme to fall out of public discourse despite the leaps of logic it requires makes me think that we must be reinforcing it. Sometimes we really are hating on people, no matter how much we insist that we love the person but hate the sin. Love of person does not imply love of behavior, as a logical matter. But it does imply it as a people matter. The ability to love somebody and not have that love be diminished because you disagree with the choices they make is hard, especially when you don't have the hormonal assistance of a parent-child relationship. But it's also critical that we learn to do this. Conversely, it's critical that we understand that "Jesus loves me" is not a blank check to do whatever we want.

Misconception 2: It's All Too Much To Live Up To. I saw this one most recently in Saved (which I liked quite a bit). This misconception has two stages. The first stage is to realize that Christianity requires people to live up to certain moral standards, which nobody can live up to all the time. The second stage is to reason that, therefore, the moral standards must be invalid or relaxed.
Why I Think It's A Misconception: From its earliest days Christianity has been premised on the fact that "it's all too much to live up to." It is precisely because it's all too much to live up, we have always argued, that people need Jesus. We have always said that realizing that "it's all too much to live up to" is a vital part of developing a mature, adult Christianity. Anything less is a boy's version of the religion, ungallant and deficient. Critiquing the religion on a problem posed by the religion itself without also critiquing the answer the religion offers to that problem is grossly unfair and argumentatively inadequate.
Why I Think It's Still Persuasive: To some extent I think this critique is essentially arguing that it shouldn't be too much to live up to. People don't want morals that they can't live up to; they want morals that they can live up to. This may be because they think that's the only way to get morally right with the universe (i.e., they understand the Christian position but reject the idea that Jesus can make good their moral deficiencies). Or perhaps it's because they think that's just how the universe is, or should be (i.e., they understand the Christian picture of the moral state of the universe but reject it as an untrue picture of the state of the universe). And some people, I think (particularly those who grew up Christian and are having to reconcile the faith of a child with the faith of an adult), are just shell-shocked to realize that all their good deeds and good intentions and good efforts don't measure up, because they thought that It's All Too Much To Live Up To only for, you know, bad people. Not for them.

These shell-shocked people, I should point out, are not necessarily massively arrogant jerks. A lot of them are just confused as to why have morals that nobody can live up to all the time, especially if they come from a church background where morals are heavily emphasized (sometimes too heavily emphasized). The shell-shock can be particularly bad if they hit this realization and simultaneously with growing out of the first misconception and realize that Jesus loves them even if they're morally deficient. If Jesus loves you anyway, why bother with morals at all? What possible point could there be to morals, if they aren't a path to getting right with the universe? And if your religion has nothing but morals, well ...

This confusion is another one of my favorite misconceptions about Christianity. I think it stems from a fundamental difference about what the point of morals is. You might say that morals are there to point people the way. The way to what? The way to what I'll call getting right with the universe. To being a good person. To harmonizing with the universe. Whatever you want to call it.

Christians think morals serve an entirely different purpose. Christians say it's okay that It's All Too Much To Live Up To because Jesus' grace makes up for our inevitable deficiencies. We say that we try to live up to those impossible standards anyway because ... well, there are lots of reasons we give, no one of which is really a complete answer. Because they're good standards, yes. Because it's not such a bad thing to have something to shoot for, lest we get morally complacent. Because it's important to reflect by our actions the nature of our god, since (rightly or wrongly) people judge our god not by what we say or what he does but by what we do. But my favorite reason is this: because God likes it.

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