The Psychology of Apologetics: Rebellion
The concept of rebellion against God plays a central role in Christian theology. It defines the relationship of Fallen Man to God – i.e., we humans are said to be in a state of rebellion against God. It characterized Adam’s behavior in the Garden, and the result, human corruption, is now permanently embedded in our spiritual genome, so to speak. It results in our voluntary choice of eternal separation from God, according to the theology – unless, of course, an individual claims the “redemptive work of Christ” to restore her to a regenerate state. But this can only happen when the individual makes a free decision to submit her will to God and thus end the rebellion. C. S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity, makes the matter quite plain: “…fallen man is not simply an imperfect creature who needs improvement: he is a rebel who must lay down his arms.” (p. 59) Thus, our sinful, prideful self-will, our universal tendency to make the self the center of the self, rather than God – in short, our rebellion – is at the core of who we are, until we become Christians.
Evangelical Christian theologies differ on what exactly happens, and how, when salvation is attained, but they largely agree on at least three main basics: (1) that the proper relationship of creature to Creator is one of submission; what God says, goes. (2) That humans are corrupted through and through, and the ability to love God, choose the Good, and lead moral lives are all entirely lacking. And finally (3) voluntary submission of the will to God is required for salvation. I will address each of these in turn.
The human-God relationship
With regards to the first item, it should be pointed out that this particular “model” of relationship – submission – is almost always assumed, rather than argued. Doing what God says unquestioningly by submitting one’s will to God’s is considered axiomatically good. We might presume most Christians feel this to be self-evident, and have probably never even considered questioning it.
Yet if we take the metaphor of “God the Father” seriously, it becomes much less clear that abject submission is so clearly a virtue. That is, after all, not what we earthly fathers wish for our own children. We do not want them to do what is right because we tell them to; we want them to internalize the basic values and figure the rest out for themselves. We want them to be, in other words, ethically and intellectually mature. For my part I would consider that I had failed, as a father, if my own children forever sought to replace their will with my own. A Christian could reply, at this point, of course, that obviously I am not God, so the analogy does not hold. But it should be noted that even in other, nearby traditions, this model of the human-Divine relationship does not necessarily hold.
Liberal Christianity generally posits a “kinder, gentler” God, one less concerned with submission and more concerned with love, ethical growth, human dignity, and doing good for its own sake. And going back even further, there is a minor but distinct stream of thought within Rabbinic Judaism that suggests that humans have an intrinsic dignity, as beings created imago Dei, so much that we can, at times, call even God to account. Abraham and Moses both argue with God, Job demands answers from God, and a Talmudic legend even depicts God’s testimony as being dismissed during a rabbinic dispute over a point of Law when God tries to intercede. Delightfully, God is later shown laughing, saying “My children have defeated me!”
My point is not to argue for any particular alternative “model”. My point, rather, is that it is not at all a given that servile submission to a god is self-evidently the proper stance to take. It is not obviously crazy to see human beings as having some standing, even before the Almighty. When evangelicals treat it as obvious that we must simply passively do what God (allegedly) says, the unwary target is not likely to think to take issue with this assumption.
I suggest that this works by triggering in susceptible individuals a natural impulse to submit. This impulse is an echo of the last time in the individual’s life that such a relationship held – namely, when he was a young child. Young children (under 4-5) regard their parent’s authority as absolute, and yet, as every parent knows, they do rebel. This “rebellion” (e.g., the “terrible twos”) are normal and healthy and critical for development, of course. But it is not easy for them. Children must struggle for years to be able to manage the difficult feelings – guilt, fear, anxiety, shame, anger – that come with self-assertion, with saying “no”. Children that age have a poorly developed sense of self and thus cannot distinguish between feeling bad, and being bad. Eventually they come to make that distinction, but the memory of that relationship dynamic – of anxiously saying “no” to an absolute authority, and feeling bad as the result – becomes embedded in their unconscious. The evangelical apologist taps into this memory, and that is why their assumptions seem so natural. It is easy for us to feel rebellious, and equally easy to feel obedience is proper.
The evangelical thus can say: if God said it, you must obey it, like it or not. And many people are likely to accept the implicit assumption that God’s authority is indeed beyond question. But this, as I have shown, is a false assumption, for there are other possible models of relationship. Calling authority to account is not necessarily “rebellion.”
Human beings are fallen creatures, according to Christians. Not only does that make us unable to live good lives on our own, some thinkers have even argued that sin impairs the very ability to reason. This borders closely with the concept of total depravity. In this context it is called the “noetic” effects of sin, noetic meaning “having to do with the intellect.” It means that our primary duty is to believe and be saved and submit ourselves to “God’s Word”, whatever our reason may tell us, because our reason is corrupt and faulty just like the rest of us. Thus, we cannot reason our way to God, or not reliably. If our reason does happen to point us to the conclusion that Christianity is true, then so much the better. But if it does not, we are to believe in the Bible and in Jesus, and ignore the false-god of our reason. To do otherwise is to make the self, or an aspect of the self (reason, human judgment), one’s “standard of truth”, and thus, one’s god. This, precisely, is pride, self-will, and therefore sin. And therefore rebellion.
This is insidious for two reasons. One, it attacks the very foundation of critical thinking, our autonomous reason. This is the only tool which might potentially, if allowed to work, enable a believer to examine fairly the claims of his faith system – and, potentially, to reject them. He is, in effect, instructed that he is morally culpable if he does not short-circuit his rationality if and when it begins to reach conclusions contrary to those of the creed. It effectively pits guilt (and fear) against rationality —- and since we were emotional creatures for many evolutionary eons before we were reasoning ones, guilt wins every time.
Secondly, claiming that humans make errors in their reasoning because of sin means that those who reject Christianity for allegedly “rational” reasons are really sinning, which is to say that are making willful – i.e., rebellious – decisions to run from God. Christians teach that man by nature hates God, runs and hides from God (like Adam), and does not want to face his “Judge”. Calvin taught all humans have a sensus divinitatus, an innate awareness of God, and thus no one has an excuse not to believe. There is no “inculpable nonbelief” for these guys. There is no rational, objective evaluation of Christianity – there is only submission or rebellion.
But, weirdly, this idea (the noetic effects of sin) has the effect of serving for the Christian as a kind of empirical test of this “God-and-rebellious-Man” theory of the world. For that theory essentially predicts that there will be many people in the world who do not wish to face the “Truth”, even though they “really” recognize it as “Truth” when they hear it (despite their claim to disbelieve). In effect, it predicts that many people will disagree with the apologist. Which, of course, they do. But from the Christian perceptive, this very disagreement is seen to confirm the truth of the theory! It is, after all, exactly what you would expect to see if it were true. Thus to disagree with a Christian is, in his eyes, to prove him right. “Of course you disagree – but that’s only because you are making your puny, flawed ‘reason’ your god. Isn’t that impudent and prideful? Are you saying you disagree with God?? You’re not ‘disagreeing’. You’re rebelling!”
Submission of the will
Finally, once the prospective target has accepted the idea that submitting his will to God is the only proper response he can make, and utterly necessary because of his corruption, and he finally sets about to doing it, he straightaway finds another problem. A paradox, really, but one designed to break the will of the believer by setting him to an impossible task.
For the goal is to empty oneself of one’s particular will and thus allow God to fill you with His will, and thus bring your soul back into alignment with God. But how can one choose, and enact by effort, to evacuate one’s own will? How can one, by force of will, stop willing? In trying to deny the will, one inevitably asserts the will. This is like pulling oneself up by the bootstraps. So, of course, the believer must necessarily fail at this. He cannot succeed in this task upon which, he has become convinced, his eternal life depends. In effect: he cannot, by his own decision, stop rebelling, because to do so he would have to stop wanting anything and want only what God wants. He realizes his helplessness to save himself.
This is, of course, exactly the position the apologist wants him to be in. For the potential convert is hereby broken. He now “sees” the truth of the Christian doctrine that you cannot save yourself. No one can be righteous, of course, because the standard is perfection, and because to do so would involve solving this unsolvable paradox. The target’s will is broken: he is convinced he is corrupt and that he faces a Judge, his capacity for critical thinking has been undermined, and his guilt has been brought to bear against his autonomy. And he sees no choice but to submit – indeed, cling to for dear life – to whatever salvation is presented to him.