Friday, February 24, 2012

Dangerous faiths

"The majority of mankind is lazy-minded, incurious, absorbed in vanities, and tepid in emotion, and is therefore incapable of either much doubt or much faith." -- T. S. Eliot
This last week, I heard a speaker say things that sent me back to my childhood, and not to any happy moment of it, either. The speaker was a Baptist minister, and he was extremely entertaining. His banter was quick, and his talk was full of self-deprecation, and there were one-liners from Comedy Central comedians, although I'm sure that neither he nor his flock ever watched such foul-language fare, and he brought such smiles to the faces of the congregation and so many laughs that it was very hard to hear the click when he pulled the pin on a hand grenade.

I was, am, and ever will be a crabbed, unnatural, and acursed audience. I am a critic.

"Of all the Causes which conspire to blind
Man's erring Judgment, and misguide the Mind,
What the weak Head with strongest Byass rules,
Is Pride, the never-failing Vice of Fools.
Whatever Nature has in Worth deny'd,
She gives in large Recruits of needful Pride;
For as in Bodies, thus in Souls, we find
What wants in Blood and Spirits, swell'd with Wind;
Pride, where Wit fails, steps in to our Defence,
And fills up all the mighty Void of Sense!
If once right Reason drives that Cloud away,
Truth breaks upon us with resistless Day;
Trust not your self; but your Defects to know,
Make use of ev'ry Friend--and ev'ry Foe."  -- Pope, "An Essay on Criticism."

As Umberto Eco says, in his piece on journalism, intellectuals are lousy friends, because they're not friends at all. They have to point at errors, have to pick at details, never leave things alone. This is why I thought having faculty go to sermons was a terrible idea from the beginning. The only thing that could happen is that someone would find a fault with what was said, thought, or felt by one of the parties.

This particular speaker was a star attraction, or an attractive star. His brother had been or is big news in politics, and there is some, eh, controversy attached. I, myself, was not tuning in for that, although if it happened, I'd probably have jotted notes. Earlier, there had been a talk entitled "Ten Things Christians Need to Know about Islam," but this was a "Personal Testimony."

Here's the thing. I will come straight out and say that the gigantic emphasis on conversion stories bugs me.

The brother's story (click on "His brother," above to see my point illustrated) shows how there is a tendency for a person's holiness to be directly related to his or her sinfulness. A person who was a gay drug dealing prostitute Pit Bull fighter who repents gets a large congregation, where the person who had been in doubt and comes to faith is yawned toward. This makes the "testimony" an act of entertainment and demands a dramatic structure to it.

What was Mary's conversion? What was Timothy's? What was James's? What was Peter's? What was Andrew's? The Magdalene and Paul are not all. This theology does not allow people to grow up in their churches. They all have to convert.

It's one thing to say that all are fallen by nature, but it's another thing to rip a single verse from Paul and treat it in a strange, strange way. If you want to understand virtually all of the Southern Baptist churches and evangelical churches, you're going to have to read this and understand it. I'll paraphrase after.
Know ye not, brethren, (for I speak to them that know the law,) how that the law hath dominion over a man as long as he liveth?
 2For the woman which hath an husband is bound by the law to her husband so long as he liveth; but if the husband be dead, she is loosed from the law of her husband.
 3So then if, while her husband liveth, she be married to another man, she shall be called an adulteress: but if her husband be dead, she is free from that law; so that she is no adulteress, though she be married to another man.
 4Wherefore, my brethren, ye also are become dead to the law by the body of Christ; that ye should be married to another, even to him who is raised from the dead, that we should bring forth fruit unto God.
 5For when we were in the flesh, the motions of sins, which were by the law, did work in our members to bring forth fruit unto death.
 6But now we are delivered from the law, that being dead wherein we were held; that we should serve in newness of spirit, and not in the oldness of the letter.
 7What shall we say then? Is the law sin? God forbid. Nay, I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet.
 8But sin, taking occasion by the commandment, wrought in me all manner of concupiscence. For without the law sin was dead.
 9For I was alive without the law once: but when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died.
 10And the commandment, which was ordained to life, I found to be unto death.
 11For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it slew me.
 12Wherefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good.
 13Was then that which is good made death unto me? God forbid. But sin, that it might appear sin, working death in me by that which is good; that sin by the commandment might become exceeding sinful.
 14For we know that the law is spiritual: but I am carnal, sold under sin.
 15For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I.
 16If then I do that which I would not, I consent unto the law that it is good.
 17Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me.
 18For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not.
 19For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do.
 20Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me.
 21I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me.. -- Romans 7
Now, if I were to render a concise version, I would say that it is:
  "Those of you who know the law know how the law has power over a man as long as he lives? A woman is bound to her husband by law as long as he lives, for example, but when he dies, she is free. If she marries someone else while he is alive, she's an adulteress, but not if he is dead. Just like that you have become dead to the Law by the body of Christ so that you may be married to another, to the one who rose from the dead, so that you can be fruitful for God. When we were part of the flesh, we only produced the fruit of flesh, which had sins working through the Law in it. Now that we are delivered from that law, which is dead to us, and we are new in spirit and not old in literal confinement.
"What can I say, that the Law is sin? God forbid. No, I had never known sin, except through the law, and I had not known lust except that the law said 'do not covet.' Sin, using the commandment, brought up in me all sorts of lust. Without the law, sin was dead. I was alive without the law once, but when the commandment came, sin arrived, and I died, and the commandment, which was created to give life, I found to give death. Sin, took the commandment and deceived me, and it killed me by the commandment.
"The law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good. Was the good made deadly? God forbid, but sin worked death by that which is good. For we know that the law is spiritual: but I am carnal, sold under sin. For that which I do, I do not allow. What I would do, I do not do. What I hate, yet I do. If I do that which I deplore, I consent to the law that is good. Now it is no more I who does this than the sin that lives inside me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh), dwells no good thing, for to will is present in me, but how to perform the good I cannot discover."

I'm sorry to inflict so much Bible on you, but this is the basis of "sin nature." Google "sin nature," and you'll see how thick the hits come. It is one of the tenets of faith for Southern Baptists these days that the unconverted have a "sin nature" that gets changed into another sort of nature upon conversion. When I read Paul, I see a Jewish man wrestling with the concept of Jewish law and the capacity of human will. I see an educated Roman citizen wending through philosophies of the soul to try to understand his faith and experience and revelation in terms that would fit into the conversation. When I read it, I see it as a man saying, "My flesh is imperfect, and I do not have perfect control, and all things of the flesh are temporary, and the law is a law of the flesh." I see a dualism here between the physical man, or at least what the man perceives as physical (desire and want), contrasted with the affective and spiritual man. I see Paul arguing that, until we are saved, we can only hope for laws binding our flesh to keep us from barbarism, and our flesh's imperfections are such that we can even use that to be evil, but, once we are saved, we are putting all of our moral guidance on Jesus, whose standards are absolute and above the physical.

"Essence" can mean two things. There is a Platonic essence -- the template on which all items of a type are made, the core heart of a thing -- and an Aristotelian essence -- a set of characteristics that may have no existence anywhere but the mind, a concept of the universal quality found in all of a type. For these believers, sin nature is Platonic. It's the heart of humanity and deterministic. It not only limits our reach, but it makes us devils.When they convert, they believe that every part of them changes, because they are wiped clean inside and out, and they really are not driven by the same force as before.

Why do I read Paul this way and they that way? It's part of what I'm getting at with this post, and it's part of what ties my objection to what I heard this week in.

You see, if you already know what the answer is, then you can find proof of it in examples. Imagine that you already know that Jim down the hall is a racist. All you need to do now is listen to every word he says for it, and you'll hear it. If you know that The Declaration of Independence was written by Christians, then you'll easily find proof of that. If you are certain that a person who undergoes salvation is saved forever or not at all, then Paul's discussion of the nature of post-lapsarian man and the role of the Mosaretic law is obviously a discussion of how entirely a person is changed in capabilities after the conversion experience that also must occur.

Don't trust me on these things by any means. Click my links.

Polyptych of the Misericordia, by Piero della Francesca
 The speaker this week told the crowd that each of them had a conversion story to tell. This story was each person's own testimony, and it was a sovereign message. In that spirit, I have to note something else he said and why my own testimony conflicts with it.

He spoke of how true the Bible is. He said that it is, and I will try to do this typographical justice, INERRANT from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22 "and if they can get you to give up a single verse, they can take the whole Bible from you." Who "they" are was not stated, but, presumably I'm one of "them," as I would argue the above, for example. I would argue that Paul is talking in the context of Hellenistic philosophy and Judaic metaphysics and ethics as he attempts to explain a role for redemption, while they would say otherwise, and since they know in advance what the answer is, I am trying to "take" it. I am the enemy.

However, because the Bible is inerrant, he said that "all the answers" are in there, and "it answers you." He spoke specifically on the idea that a person could and should turn to the Bible when wondering how to meet the bills, when wondering how to perform a task, etc. He then said, "Christianity isn't a crutch. It's a wheelchair!"

I thought about that for a while.

The Rascal of Righteousness?

This man, I realized, was the very embodiment of what cost me my religion the first time.
When I was eleven, I lost my faith. I had been attending tent revivals every year, as well as church with my parents. I don't remember the latter, as the washed out United Methodist ministers gave sermons that amounted to "be nice." On the other hand, we had itinerant evangelists like Ford Philpot and Jimmy Swaggart come to catch us on fire every year at the revival. They offered up a 100% conversion experience, with altar calls that went for thirty minutes and sexually promiscuous teens getting saved on cue on the next to the last day. They had the most beautiful and handsome college kids as the most pious. They made it all infinitely desirable and impossible.

Everyone, especially at the Swaggart camp, had hysterical conversions, and all of them had extremely dramatic stories. They were whoring, drinking, wife beating, gambling, cheating, violent people until they found Jesus, and now they were so happy and completely saved that it was astonishing.

I was precocious, I guess. I had already read the entire Bible in King James. I knew my New Testament. I sinned every single day, and I repented, and not once did I get converted. Furthermore, I not once got flung to the rafters. I also didn't want to start drinking or beating on people in order to do that, either. I felt peace after repentance, but peace isn't want these folks had. Worse yet, I felt guilt. I felt a lot of guilt.

I wasn't in a wheel chair.

I felt certain that I had to love actively, else there was no salvation. I didn't give two poots in a paper bag over "works," but being prideful and greedy sure looked like things Jesus condemned and said that folks were damned for. I could only hear this "completely changed" thing so often, though, before I was forced to choose:
1. Either I was worse than them, and God was rejecting me, or
2. There was no God, or
3. There might be a God, but these jokers were liars or blockheads or in mass hypnotism.

I had indescribable spiritual pain. It was no easy thing to walk away, as I did when I was thirteen. It cost me much more than an ideal, too.

When, much later, I came back to faith, I came back with discernment. I also came back with a determination that there were times and issues where it was worth fighting. I wish no one ill, but these are dangerous things. These are not faiths, but certainties. These are not beliefs, but wishes. They spread because elected they make the ones who elect to believe that all Christianity requires of them is hating the people who disagree.

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