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…
Few of those who walk away from evangelical Christianity can avoid struggling, at least to some degree, with the problem of apologetics. Christians devote endless amounts of resources to producing arguments for their faith; indeed, many of us spent much time and energy mastering these very arguments ourselves.
Apologists often present themselves as just defending their faith – rational argumentation – but I suggest their activity is better understood as a form of the ancient Greek art of rhetoric. I.e., they do make arguments, but ones specifically designed to get people to change and make decisions. Apologists are indeed quite (pun intended) unapologetic about this. Their goal is, if not to convince you to convert (only God can do that, they say), then at least remove any intellectual barriers that may be holding you back from conversion. In other words, they don’t just want to persuade you they are correct in their assertions; they want to win your soul.
Accordingly, their arguments are designed to have psychological force, not just (or even mainly) logical force, and this is what I would like to address in this article and the ones that follow. It has been very helpful in my own de-conversion to bracket aside the issue of trying to refute them and instead look at why these arguments can get under your skin so effectively – to vivisect them and look at their psychological and rhetorical innards, as it were…
A number of months ago I wrote pair of posts called Why Doesn’t God Make Things Clearer? and God and the IRS. They touched on what has become a intellectual cornerstone of my own personal transition out of evangelical Christianity, namely, “divine hiddenness” – the idea that God, if there is one, does not seemed to have made things very clear for us.
But as we say in Texas, there is more than one way to rope a steer. (Actually, I think I just made that up. But it’s pretty catchy, yeah?) Here, I’d like to make this same point a little differently, and, hopefully, more entertainingly.
So let’s start with the basics: people disagree about God. They disagree about God’s existence, and, even among those can agree on this much, they disagree about God’s alleged nature.
But how is this even possible? How can there be so many different religions, creeds, theologies, churches, sects, and denominations? Especially if God, as is alleged, wrote a book to lay it all out for us! And if he did write us a book, then why are their so many, many views about what it really means and what it tells us about this God? This state of affairs does not seem to obtain with the IRS, where the instructions for its basic form, 1040, are intricate, perhaps, but overall pretty clear. To the point: if there is one Almighty God, and this God has one single, simple message of salvation for us all, then why doesn’t he just write the damn thing down – clearly?..
So the other day I was watching my son eat lunch.
Of course, “eat lunch” sounds much more, well, contained than anything usually accomplished by most 22-month olds. He grabbed big spoonfuls and/or handfuls of his mac & cheese and shoved them, fist and all, into his mouth, depositing most of it, losing a bit, and in the process coating his face, hands, hair, shirt and table in gobs of that inimitable nuclear orange cheese sauce. This was something that did not bother him at all. I found myself wishing I could focus on anything in the world as well as he focused on his mac & cheese. This kiddo really likes to eat.
And he had not a shred of self-consciousness. He did not care how he looked or how messy he was. He simply enjoyed his meal, and with a singularity of innocence and pleasure that makes sappy, sentimental parents like me want to weep. He had no awareness in the world that I was watching him, or indeed of anything else at all. He was entirely immersed in the immediacy of his experience, with no thought to what anyone else thought. I found it both striking and beautiful.
And it got me thinking about this matter of “self-consciousness”. The capacity to lose self-consciousness – to be present and fully immersed in the messiness of one’s bodily existence, and to live (if only briefly) without pride, shame, or false modesty – is a rare quality…
Epilogue – I have now completed my series on existentialist ideas as they pertain to fundamentalist and evangelical Christianity. It was an exceptionally brief tour of a complex and rich philosophical tradition, but I hope I have helped impart a somewhat clearer picture of what the existentialists were trying to say: life is sad, sometimes, and frightening, and often difficult, and there is no philosopher’s or theologian’s balm that will anesthetize the pains of life. We are thrown into a world not of our making, not designed to meet our needs, and we find ourselves alone, with no one in charge, and utterly responsible for what we do. We find we grow, and grow old, and that life is thereby a series of losses – friends, parents, youth, pets, potential, eventually life itself. These things are all a part of being human.
But in that very anxiety before loss and our own deaths, in the duty to self-create, in our loneliness and vulnerability, lies our salvation – for in forsaking the illusions we wish we could believe about life, we find we are truly able to see life, for the first time. And what we see is breathtaking: the stunning preciousness of life, and the indescribable beauty of the world and of those around us. All we have to do is face our fears, make our peace with the uncertainty and “groundlessness” of our lives, give up on the fantasy that someone, somewhere will recognize our own specialness enough to swoop in and save us from life’s pain. Then, and only then, can we really begin to live…
Meaning - Finally, the issue of meaning resonates powerful among many de-converts, and existentialists addressed it in great depth. Yalom here usefully distinguishes between cosmic meaning and terrestrial meaning (individual, “local” meaning – the meaning of my life, not of all life). His focus is on the latter, as cosmic meaning tends to be the purview of religious systems. Indeed, existentialism rests on the assumption that there is no cosmic meaning to life; there is only terrestrial meaning.
The tension we face is that, perhaps alone among the animals, we seem to hunger for meaning, we want to be told our lives serve a larger purpose – but they don’t. Yalom notes Camus’ observation: human beings are meaning-seeking animals in a universe that is meaning-neutral. There is no grand design to the world and hence, no meaning “out there” to be discovered. Yet we seem constituted, as creatures, to seek meaning anyway. Camus calls this state of affairs “absurd”, and it’s not hard to see why.
One can deal with this dilemma by seeking ready-made meanings in a system, such as fundamentalism, and there are few things about such totalizing ideologies more seductive than this aspect of them. How sweet the thrill in playing a part of the Greatest Story Ever Told! The Master of the Universe wants you!…