Monday, June 25, 2012

Christian Crudities: An Aesthetic Condemnation of Christian Myths

Christian theological assertions are illogical and highly improbable, but those faults have almost no place in a proper denial of those assertions. Religion is the irrational core of every worldview, of every belief system, mindset or way of looking at the world. It’s currently fashionable for so-called New Atheists to castigate mainly Christians and Muslims for the palpable irrationality of their religious beliefs, as though the issue that separates so-called secularists and theists were the Manichean conflict of Faith versus Reason. No non-autistic or otherwise sane atheist is a hyper-rationalist, a Data-like figure who turns solely to reason in all her affairs, never speculating, feeling, intuiting, trusting, or caving to higher powers. A viable defense of atheism doesn’t reduce to the following argument: (1) A worldview should be fully rational; (2) Theism is irrational; (3) Therefore our worldview shouldn’t be theistic. A person does not live by Reason alone. As the sociologist Emile Durkheim explained, you’re bound to form a religion around what you hold to be of ultimate importance. I’d add that only a machine truly cares about nothing, which implies that all people, all clever animals with primitive emotions and instincts are religious, although our religion needn't be theistic.

Indeed, those atheists who rest their case by showing that theists commit various fallacies and that their key assumptions are preposterous, reveal their irrational commitment to certain unexamined philosophical assumptions of their own, be they pragmatic, positivistic, or scientistic. The issue, then, isn’t whether a person should reject all religions as foolish, but rather which religions should be discarded. When you appreciate that logic and science stop short of fully justifying a worldview, that a human brain’s perspective on the world should be coherent, which means that a worldview should satisfy all of our cognitive faculties, including the rational and irrational parts of our mind, you should find yourself adopting subtler criteria in choosing what to believe at the philosophical or religious level. (For more along these lines, see Theism, Scientism, and Scientific and Philosophical Atheism.)

Now, Christianity happens to be execrable, but the pseudo-rationalist underestimates the religion’s inadequacies, by banally demonstrating that Christianity isn’t perfectly logical or scientific because, after all, the Bible contradicts itself and Jesus allegedly performed miracles. Proving as much shows only that Christianity fails as a mathematical proof or as a scientific theory, and such a demonstration would thereby in turn amount to a category error. Christianity contends for people’s religious commitment, and thus the religion’s inconsistencies and improbabilities are relatively insignificant.

The more loathsome aspects of the religion, to my mind, are ethical and aesthetic. What I mean is that the religion fails now, in modern and postmodern times, to uplift as a work of imagination; on the contrary, in the present context, Christian belief degrades a person’s character. When combined with modern myths and values--as every current, responsibly-held worldview must be--Christianity’s shortcomings are outrageous. The point, though, isn’t just that Christianity contradicts modern truths that should be taken for granted, which it obviously does, but that a synthesis of Christianity and modernism would make for an atrocious, wildly incoherent work of art that disappoints rather than fortifies. This is the Nietzschean point. What appalled Nietzsche wasn’t some assortment of petty cognitive defects of the religion, but the anachronism of Christian values, the anticlimax of the Christian narrative, the unethical effect of the religion which is to reconcile the gullible masses to secular excesses rather than energizing people with stories (myths) worth trusting.

In Christian Chutzpah, I develop this aesthetic case against the religion, focusing on the historical context, the main point being that Christianity dulls the senses and redirects the crucial capacity for shame, because the religion reconciles the believer to the most egregious betrayals which are the Church’s compromises with secular powers. The Christian feels only the inconsequential shame of failing to suffer like Jesus and is relieved by Paul’s assurance that faith is much more important than works, that a Christian needn’t be even slightly Jewish, let alone ascetic, because Jesus already carried out on our behalf all the good deeds we could hope to accomplish. Historically, this theology plays out as a rationalization of the Church’s betrayal of Jesus’ Gnostic rebellion against the natural world, and so associating with the religion’s present, grotesque shell has all the charm of a child being bullied by a man with a machine gun.

Now I want to expand on the aesthetic criticism by contrasting the content of Christian theology not with Church history but with modern ideals. I’ll emphasize the monstrous Christian deformities that emerge from that contrast and that repulse from an aesthetic viewpoint.

The Essence of Christian Theology

But first I’ll summarize the narrative in question, the so-called “good news,” as I understand it. The problem that this religion is meant to solve is our inability to relate properly to God. Most religions codify means of pleasing God, holding out commandments to obey and rituals to perform, such as animal sacrifices. These religions perpetuate injustice and keep God and his children at a distance, because they fail to deal with the fact that God is holy whereas we are inherently imperfect and thus sinful. Even those religions which catch a glimmer of divine truth end up as human schemes, corrupted by their sinful practitioners and heaping useless burdens on their followers. This was the New Testament’s point about the Pharisees (not the actual Pharisees but the characters in the Christian legend): the Jewish officials aligned themselves with Rome and kept the letter of revealed Jewish law while ignoring the spiritual intention behind the law. Instead of building the kingdom of God on Earth, the bureaucratic Pharisees supported oppressive political systems that kept people apart from God. The problem was that humans are inherently corrupt and liable to sin, that because we’re not gods, we can’t possibly live up to God’s standards. Even when God reveals his plan for us, inspiring prophets and lawmakers, people ignore or misinterpret the revelation. In modern terms, a Christian would say, this is because of our animal nature, which causes us to act as desperate, selfish beasts, not as the supernatural, altruistic beings we’re designed to be.

Christianity is supposed to have solved this problem. Instead of relying on human initiative, God came to our planet and paid the price of our sin, sacrificing himself and thus both extricating us from the burden of wrongheaded religious hierarchies and further revealing the thrilling truth of God’s benevolence. The Creator of the universe isn’t just perfectly powerful and knowledgeable, but he’s a loving parent who cares about his creatures and mercifully fulfills the requirements of justice by undergoing the punishment we deserve for the myriad ways we fall short of God’s glory. Indeed, according to Christian theology, Jesus was the only begotten Son of God, which means that he was both God and a man. Thus, when Jesus was crucified by some of the very beings he was trying to save from eternal agony in hell, his intentions were God’s and so we can praise God for his mercy, and his sacrifice was meaningful because Jesus’ human body permitted him to genuinely suffer.

Just as a human ruler can be surrounded by sycophants in a bubble of affluence and thus lose touch with his people’s miseries, God and humans had become estranged, and just as a king can reacquaint himself with his subjects by disguising himself and traveling among them, God dressed up as a human and lived amongst us. God literally walked a mile in our shoes, breaking bread with ordinary humans, to show us not just how an ideal human lives, but how much God empathizes with our plight. God’s Son, or human incarnation, felt our pain; however, instead of merely telling us so, he showed us by demonstrating both his divinity and his wretched sharing in the worst that the human condition has to offer. Jesus was shown to have been divine, by the wisdom of his parables and by the supernatural power of his miraculous prophecies and healings. But Jesus’ humanity was apparent in his poverty, his humility, and especially in his mortality, which is to say his capacity to suffer while being tortured and executed by the Romans.

The horrible irony of the Christian message is that God’s incarnation as a human revealed not just God’s identity but ours. God arrived to save us from divine retribution for our beastliness, and humans welcomed him largely by rejecting him as a foreign body. God’s creatures tortured and killed their creator, but this was God’s plan: knowing what he was getting into and how his created world would devolve, he used our wickedness to devise a way for us to be reborn: God means to shame us by demonstrating our moral failings. The Jewish and Roman authorities dutifully, if unknowingly, played their part by showing why we’re so helpless, because they couldn’t recognize holiness when it literally stared them in the face; on the contrary, they went to war against what’s most sacred, against the fleshly incarnation of the Master of the cosmos. They double-crossed noble, loving, and wise Jesus, turning him over to the cruel Roman Empire; they stripped and beat him, nailing his wrists to a wooden cross like an insect specimen in a museum--and just as biologists thereby exhibit the arrogance of the technocratic mindset that uses our capacity for quantification to exploit other species, the Jews and Romans showed why Jesus had to live in the first place, why they needed a saviour, because left to their own devices they’re forlorn, headed for the agony of everlasting separation from God.

The good news is that the human reaction to God’s incarnation wasn’t one-sided, since some people recognized Jesus’ divinity and saw the potential for a divine arrangement of human interrelations. Some Jews and gentiles followed Jesus even at the cost of their lives, giving up their livelihoods, their possessions, and their dignity in the sight of their ignorant neighbours and Roman occupiers. They fled after Jesus was executed, but continued to meet out of remembrance of what Jesus taught and what they came to understand that he represented. They formed small churches, they were persecuted by Rome, but a few centuries later the empire that had crushed Jesus was itself overcome by a wave of Christians; Constantine legalized the religion and so Christianity continued to spread. Christianity became not just the world’s most powerful religion, but the only one that deals head-on with the fundamental conflict that motivates all religions: we profane beings glimpse the sacred in nature, but are unable to live in harmony with it because, after all, the sacred and the profane are so contrary to each other. On its own, the profane can’t reach a state of perfection, but a perfect being can degrade itself, just as a fast car can travel also at a slow speed; thus, God took on a profane form so that he could save us from ourselves, from our estrangement from him and from our inability to satisfy his holy ideal.  

The Need for an Aesthetic Appraisal of Christian Myths

So much for my most charitable presentation of the Christian message. Now, the typical New Atheist would recite a litany of Christian howlers: Jesus probably didn’t live even as an historical figure, let alone as an incarnation of the ultimate creative power; the notion of a god-man is incoherent; the Bible is quite errant, so it doesn't adequately support any of Christianity's extraordinary claims; there's never a good reason to believe that a supernatural event has occurred, as the philosopher David Hume showed, so Jesus’ miracles probably didn't happen; there’s no original sin, so there would have been no need for God’s self-sacrifice; the notion of an anthropomorphic deity is preposterously vain for anyone to take seriously; a deity who prepares the punishment of hellfire so liberally is a demon deserving of scorn rather than worship; Jesus’ and Paul's ethical teachings are inferior to those of the ancient Greeks, so Christianity fails even to uphold human wisdom. All of these criticisms are reasonable, but none is decisive. When the New Atheist finishes arguing those cases, the edifice of Christian theology will remain as influential as before, and this isn’t just because Christianity has grown powerful, thanks to its long history. The underlying reason a religion becomes so powerful, in the first place, is that it satisfies a demand and this isn’t the demand for a logically airtight belief system or for a reliable hypothesis about how a natural process works.

To see the futility of pretending to dismiss Christianity solely on rational grounds, you need to appreciate the depth of our irrationality, of what Hume called Reason’s slavery to the passions (emotions). Observe how even the average scientist, engineer, mathematician, or analytic philosopher, let alone someone who’s less likely to uphold the Enlightenment creed of hyper-rationalism, can be brought to tears after her reading of a craftily-written sad novel. Again, notice how virtually anyone can be terrified by a sufficiently scary movie or be compelled to pump his fist in the air when watching his favourite sports team score the winning goal. As cognitive scientists have shown, what happens is that our instinct to read each other’s minds and navigate our social environments can spill over, causing us to anthropomorphize everything from words on a page, to images on a movie screen, to groups of people like sports teams or political parties. We cope with the inhumanity of natural patterns by humanizing them. Sure, we have the rational capacity to abstract from our preference for a human-centered world, for a heaven in which we all get what we want. But again, no sane person is both fully and constantly rational, that is, hyper-rational.

And so my point is that if we cherish arts and sports, for example, so we can vent our emotions or hone our skills at social interaction, we can also feel strongly about a theological narrative, whether it’s that of Jesus’ salvation of humanity by his sacrificial death or of humanity’s utopian triumph over natural forces by the power of technoscience. Thus, even if Christian theology fails utterly in rational terms, even if Jesus never lived at all, there is no personal God, and the Christian creed is full of holes, the theological narrative can persuade on the level of metaphor, as an emotionally satisfying story like any other powerful work of fiction. Millions of Christians believe, at the very least, that even if their religious creed were literally false, humans are so tragically misguided that we would slay God in the flesh were there a personal Creator and were he to so manifest himself. And that counterfactual contention is plausible and indeed sobering. Besides the Church’s earlier power over people’s bodies, which was lamentable, here then is the source of the religion’s power over people’s hearts and minds: the Christian narrative has undeniably succeeded as a work of fiction that rose to the level of myth, taking hold of people’s imaginations and stirring their emotions.

The irrational commitment to Christianity--which is of apiece with our attachment to our favourite novels, movies, sports teams, political parties, or anything else we anthropomorphize and irrationally celebrate--can withstand every logical refutation, every disconfirming experiment. After all, even the cognitive scientists who understand how our capacity for anthropomorphic projections works engage in the practice, emotionally identifying with their favourite fictional characters. Even a physicist who speaks the mathematical language of nature can use pornographic images for sexual gratification, and even a biologist who understands the chemical properties of love hormones can find herself falling in love. Likewise, a theist who suspects that her theology would fail as a mathematical demonstration or as a scientific argument can have what’s commonly called religious faith

This is why we should examine the aesthetic merit of Christianity, treating its theology as a story told in the context of the modern narrative of reason, freedom, and progress. Can Christian theology now sit well with those who have had modern values thrust on them in the wake of the Age of Reason? Does the creed inspire and uplift, engaging with our emotions in a way that helps us cope with modern challenges? In other words, does Christianity make us better human beings in the modern context? I emphasize the latter because art and other outlets for our irrational side aren’t used in a vacuum: what engaged the imagination of someone two millennia ago in Palestine might be passé today in Europe or North America; what myths were naturally regarded as sacred in one culture may be alien and ridiculous to another.

Christian Misanthropy versus Modern Progressivism

I’ll illustrate with an aesthetic evaluation of some key elements of Christian theology. Take, for example, the part of the story which Christians seem to care about most, the idea that the Almighty degraded himself by living as a mortal man and suffering out of compassion for us. The subtext of the Christian story of God’s self-sacrifice is that God offers us a backhanded compliment. On the one hand, we’re supposed to be worth saving, but on the other we’re incapable of saving ourselves. The New Testament tells only half the story when it says that God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whoever believes in the power of his sacrifice should have everlasting life (John 3:16). Anyone who could love a depraved world’s potential to be good must loathe its actual depravity. The unstated corollary, then, is that God must have contempt for our choice to sin so abominably that we become unable to save ourselves from everlasting punishment. Jesus’ sacrificial death symbolizes not just God’s mercy but his contempt for what his prized creatures have become. After all, God could have paid the penalty for sin in private, without shaming us with a public demonstration of his moral superiority. By transforming himself into a human and living the perfect life, according to the Christian story, God effectively humiliates us, showing that we all along had the power to live well but always choose not to do so. With his supposedly sinless life as Jesus, God is like a business manager who, frustrated by his receptionist’s poor typing skills, shoves her out of her chair and types his own memos at record speed and with no errors, publicly shaming her while assuring everyone that he does this only to edify.

To preserve God’s underlying benevolence, the Christian apologist (in both senses of the word) typically distinguishes between God’s love for the sinner and his hatred for the sin. It takes no more than a moment’s reflection now, though, to see why this distinction has never made the least bit of sense and is thus a ham-fisted attempt to sell the Christian narrative. A sinner is a person and sin is ungodly action. The sinner chooses to act well or badly and the action is the result of that choice, the mental command that causes the hand to feed the poor or to steal someone’s wallet. Thus, hating a sin is like hating the rock you trip over. We anthropomorphize and emotionally react to inanimate objects or events because we have primitive programs running on our naturally selected brains. God would have no such excuse. If someone chooses to sin so abundantly that the person deserves everlasting torture, the proper target of hatred for those offenses is the sinner, not the offenses themselves which after all are just mental images, bodily movements, and their effects. So if we’re so wicked that we’re unable to please God and we’d torture and execute our saviour, God must be much more ambivalent about us than the orthodox summary of the Christian narrative suggests. The only way God could love us in spite of our original sin is if we’re not responsible for our imperfect nature since, after all, God would have made us that way. Of course, with that assumption in place, the whole Christian story would unravel since then we wouldn’t deserve punishment in hell or need Jesus’ sacrificial death. (As everyone knows who’s raised a child or owned a pet, when a creature develops from an early age into a monster, that does speak badly of the creature’s parent or owner. Our tendency to sin might thus indicate that God has been the quintessential absentee father.)

Again, priests and preachers like to emphasize our worthlessness by saying that God’s self-sacrifice was done out of “grace,” meaning that we do nothing to earn a way out of perdition, but that God chose freely to intervene out of compassion. This formulation likewise assumes both that we could be so wicked as to deserve hell and that God punished himself in front of us purely out of unconditional love. But love for whom? For the unrepentant sinners who arrogantly live by our own lights instead of praising our Creator at every opportunity, who are so corrupted that we’d each kill or at least shun that Creator if only we were given the chance? No, in terms of narrative logic, that story makes no sense, meaning that it can’t grip our imagination or stir our emotions. God’s boundless love must be for himself, for his greatness which he demonstrates by doing our job for us, by showing us how it’s done and then taking the high road, pretending that he doesn’t act out of jealousy for our pride. This interpretation is consistent with the rest of the abysmal story, that for Jesus’ sacrifice to work, we have to confess God’s greatness and our worthlessness, we have to attribute all good things to God, avoiding pride like the plague, in which case we’re reborn as proper children of God and Jesus’ heavenly Father comes to resemble a typical human despot who’s naturally been corrupted by his absolute power.

The Christian subtext of God’s misanthropy is unappealing in its own right. Mind you, misanthropy within reason is thoroughly justified, since we are appalling creatures, but Christian misanthropy is absolute. According to the Christian story, God sacrificed himself because we suffer from original sin, which means that even though we somehow have the freedom to be as sinless as Jesus, we’ll always choose to sin if left to our own devices. In practice, we never redeem ourselves and our only hope to avoid God’s wrath is the miracle of divine intervention. This implies not just that we’re miserable sinners, but that as far as the natural world is concerned we’re hopeless; at best, we have the metaphysical potential to save ourselves, thanks to our alleged supernatural capacity for self-control (our freewill), but naturally we’ll always disappoint. What’s aesthetically unappealing about this is that it renders the Christian narrative anticlimactic. As Christopher Hitchens would say, if the character of God the Father is that of a duplicitous egomaniac who intends to save worthless, wicked creatures mainly to demonstrate his superiority and to remake us into slaves after we’re chastened, the promise of Christian salvation becomes exactly as tempting as the offer to be a citizen of totalitarian North Korea.

More importantly, this absolute pessimism about human nature conflicts with modern optimism about human progress. With no help from divine revelation, modernists during the Renaissance, the Scientific Revolution, and the Enlightenment surely proved that we can create exciting new cultures and can learn how the world actually works and gain more control over the natural forces that threaten us. But the aesthetic point is just that there’s no compelling story to be told that combines the modern narrative of human-centered progress with the Christian story of how God decided one day to humiliate us so that we might be transformed into obedient children obsessed with singing God’s praises.

The root of the conflict is that Christianity assumes a static view of human nature, whereas modernism assumes an evolutionary one. Again, according to Christianity, we can’t improve our situation except in some abstract metaphysical sense (without supernatural freewill, the Christian narrative doesn’t even get off the ground); that is, human nature is completely corrupt, but we have an immaterial spirit that technically has power over that nature (over our mind and body), even though we never choose to live in a spiritually laudable fashion. This is why Jesus was supposedly the only human who perfectly followed the spirit of God’s law with no help from God (of course, Jesus was God, but no matter...). Ancient Christians took not just human nature but the whole universe to be static: the outer, heavenly realm was one in which the stars or gods never waver in their orbits, because they’re perfect and thus changeless.

The modern view of nature is, of course, very different. Nature evolves: stars are created in nebulae and eventually they’re destroyed, as are whole galaxies; the physical laws of nature may be mere environmental properties in an evolving multiverse, as opposed to timeless dictates; biological species change into each other over time, as Darwin explained; and human history can evidently progress on its own at least in certain respects. So a modernist would say that our capacity for change and indeed for progress rests not on something as remote as a ghostly spirit, but on our connection to the natural world. Because we’re naturally selected, we acquired the power to understand how many things work, and because the forces of natural selection are blind, they have to live with the consequences of their handiwork, as it were. Those forces endowed us with some freedom from our basic genetic programming, which is how the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution were possible. Were we governed by a jealous god who prefers us to be humble rather than proud of our accomplishments, he could change his mind about having given us Reason and he could lobotomize us. Alternatively, he could wait until we’re all dead and surprise us with his displeasure by consigning most of us to hell, like a jerk.

Whatever those facts may be, the aesthetic point is that modernists (liberals in the classic, non-corrupted sense) trust in the natural potential of human progress, whereas there’s no room in the Christian narrative for that potential. The Christian story is presently told with modernism in the background for all people educated in industrial or postindustrial societies. The prospect of combining modern and Christian myths, to forge a coherent, presently-viable Christian worldview is so daunting that few even try to harmonize them. Modernists tend, then, to be lukewarm, secularized Christians, if not atheists or more philosophical mystics in some Eastern tradition. When Christianity and modernism are combined, the result is a hideous bastard tale, like Joel Osteen’s prosperity gospel. Osteen concedes the benefit of what human greed can produce, namely material wealth, while he disingenuously attributes that success entirely to God--as though Jesus’ perfect Christian morality lay in anything other than his renunciation of natural possessions, let alone wealth, so that he could dedicate himself to altruistic endeavours.

Theistic Anthropomorphism as Childish Twaddle

For another example, take the bedrock theistic assumption that there’s a personal god who therefore could expect us to live well, sympathize with our inability to do so, and sacrifice himself for our benefit. Even were there such a god, only a Philistine could presently be moved by a theistic tale of his exploits, just as an adult must revert to a very silly frame of mind to enjoy playing with her children’s toys. As I said, we all irrationally anthropomorphize the outer world, personalizing the patterns we detect. Spiders spin webs, birds fly, fish swim, and humans over-socialize. But no bit of anthropomorphism is as conspicuous as the theist’s, especially when judged in the modern context in which the world has been remade by the application of rational methods. Infants look all the more childish when their behaviour is compared to an adult’s, and so theistic anthropomorphism is all the more clearly an over-extension of our drive to socialize, when we indulge in such obsolete metaphors even in the Age of Reason.

Of course, this means we’re much more likely now to regard theistic statements as wildly false. But the aesthetic point is that these statements about God’s personality, his moral deeds, his war with demons, and so on, really do become as emotionally compelling as a tale intended for children. Because of the unavoidable modern context, there’s an unfortunate parallel juxtaposition between the child’s unlimited anthropomorphic projections and the adult’s partial rationality, on the one hand, and the theist’s personalization of nature’s ultimate creativity and the modernist’s ideal of hyper-rationality, on the other. The New Testament does modern theists no favour by accentuating this conflict, with its prescription of childlike qualities: Jesus says that those who inherit the kingdom of God are like children (Matt.18:3) and Paul repudiates the natural wisdom of the world, comparing it with God’s spiritual wisdom which seems foolish to arrogant pagans (who we’d now call secularists) (1 Cor.2:13-14).

Likewise, the sort of Christian paternalism I criticize in the previous section exacerbates the current tone deafness of Christian theology. In the present individualistic era, when we’re fed a steady diet of capitalistic propaganda, promising happiness if only we consume enough products, we’re not going to be genuinely moved by the deeply misanthropic idea that we’re all hopelessly headed for hell unless we abase ourselves before the egotist who made the universe and who rubbed our noses in our wickedness a couple millennia back. Sure, consumerism is grotesque and the masses cry out for an alternative, for a postmodern myth that can guide us in spite of our rampant skepticism. Fundamentalist religions and New Age cults can fill the void, but no postmodern religion has emerged which truly ennobles its followers, in my view. Certainly, the orthodox Christian story can teach us nothing about our predicament.

Children live in a fantasy world that they haven’t yet learned to distinguish from reality, regarding everything they encounter as extensions of themselves. This is because their evolutionary task is to passively download information from their parents; instead of being fully-formed individuals, they have a window opened in their minds, as it were, so that they can be trained. But that window allows not just for unimpeded parental input, since the child’s personality, too, spills out into her experience of the outer world so that everything seems to her magically imbued with life. We can’t say in a positivist spirit that the ancients generally were more childlike than modernists, that history recapitulates the developmental arc from human infancy to adulthood. The ancient Greeks as well as the Hindus, for example, were skeptical of theistic anthropomorphism; Hindus used theistic metaphors purely for the utilitarian purpose of developing certain emotions. Still, our irrational drive to socialize tends to be given free reign when unchecked by the well-motivated use of a competing mental capacity. The Scientific Revolution gave a boost to Reason, picking up where the ancient Greeks left off, and technoscientific progress now dignifies the sort of objectivity that’s anathema to childlike personifications of the environment.

What this all means, from a purely aesthetic standpoint, is that theistic narratives feel embarrassingly retrograde and even dehumanizing. Even though it’s fallacious to automatically attribute value to natural developments, including the child’s physical and mental growth into an adult, we all surely believe, for one reason or another, that that growth is necessary and ultimately for the best. Granted, we can suffer nostalgia for childhood innocence, but we tend to share the modern faith in the benefits of godlike human creativity, which requires the power that comes with understanding how the world works. When an adult regresses to an infantile state, acting ignorant or even wearing a diaper, whether because of a mental illness or a sexual kink, the adult’s behaviour is invariably kept secret--partly out of the embarrassment felt for what looks like the ultimate cowardice. So when the theist becomes engrossed in tales of a personal hero who acts throughout nature for the greater good, what looks like the shameful abandonment of adult sensibilities is off-putting. We’re all irrational at times, but we also have the capacity to think objectively, and when theists brazenly feed their inner child with the most extreme anthropomorphisms even in the shadows of the most stunning edifices of Reason, the gut reactions should be feelings of shame and disgust. Theistic myths just feel misplaced and artificial, even though they inherit the illusion of still possessing the power to exhilarate, from their glory days of yore. Instead, these myths no longer uplift as much as they stultify and then require elaborate rationalizations to preserve the theist’s dignity in the modern world. 

The Modern Shell of Christianity

The upshot is that Christianity isn’t just absurd, from a modern, rational viewpoint; the religion’s creed also makes for a bad story when told in the context of the modern one of how Reason empowers us. Instead of being encouraged by a coherent worldview, modern Christians are forced to create mental compartments, awkwardly abandoning one story for the next as the situation dictates, moving from Church to the workplace, for example. Never mind that Christianity fails utterly to meet modern epistemic standards; as far as our irrational side is concerned, Christian metaphors are stale and ineffective, as Bishop Spong said. A religion that’s long overstayed its welcome, Christianity runs up against the modern and postmodern zeitgeists. But like Muzak spilling out of speakers everywhere, the Christian narrative is still told and retold, enchanting hardly anyone. To be sure, there are still so-called Christian missionaries and other altruists who feed and clothe the poor, but who is to say whether they’re inspired now by the Christian message or by the modern story of human-created progress? Both are in the atmosphere and only the latter is supported by recent history. The Church and its myths remain, but Christian institutions have lost their political power and so they must compete with the modern myths that serve the dominant social classes and that best explain recent historical upheavals. That competition is devastating to the current literary value of Christian stories.

Just as many early movies are historically great, in the sense that they’re highly influential for later filmmakers, Christian myths should obviously be appreciated for their historical importance. But the fact that an artwork once had the power to move people for the better, to speak to their sensibilities and reassure them or broaden their perspective, doesn’t mean the art retains that power under all circumstances. Indeed, the books or movies that move you when you’re young often seem crude and paltry when you later encounter them. For many sociological reasons, there are currently around two billion Christians. But the most popular art is seldom the most tasteful. Kitsch, for example, is highly popular. And the current aesthetic value of Christian fictions is less than nil: in their exoteric formulation, at least, Christian stories are embarrassingly irrelevant, besides being obviously false. 

Now I don’t expect that anyone will abandon Christianity after reading this aesthetic condemnation of the religion. My aim is only to identify the queasiness that I assume virtually every educated person feels when contemplating the Christian narrative. That suspicion that the gospel is vacuous, that the Church is like a colossal used car lot, that Christians are literally kidding themselves? That’s your good taste telling you to appreciate worthy art instead.


  1. Interesting, but the sense of Christianity presented here is decidedly Western (which is to say, Augustinian). I would be interested in a response from you regarding an Eastern Orthodox sense of the Christian narrative.

    1. I don't know as much about the Eastern Orthodox Church. As I understand it, though, the main doctrines of the two churches are similar if not the same, and the differences between the churches were largely political. Can you tell me where an Eastern Christian would disagree with the section above, called The Essence of Christian Theology? That section's my shot at summarizing the core of Christian teachings. Do the Western and Eastern Christians disagree about that core?

      Would you say that the Western church has compromised more and is less in line with what Jesus wanted? I think only the monks or ascetic priests are anywhere close to being like Jesus, but that would apply both to Westerners and Easterners. And where do the Eastern Christians disagree with Augustine on core doctrinal matters (Trinity, original sin, just war, etc)? I'm not up on the differences, so I'd have to look into them.

    2. The differences are far more than political. The Orthodox Church has a very different way of *thinking* about God, Jesus, and his work than the Western Church (I group here the Protestants and the Catholics, since their essential thought descends primarily from an Augustinian construction of Christianity).

      Short of going into all the differences, which would take quite a bit, the Wikipedia page offers a helpful brief summary of the Orthodox understanding of the Christian narrative:

      "At some point in the beginnings of human existence man was faced with a choice: to learn the difference between good and evil through observation or through participation. The biblical story of Adam and Eve represents this choice by mankind to participate in evil. This event is commonly referred to as the "fall of man" and it represents a fundamental change in human nature. When Orthodox Christians refer to Fallen Nature they believe that human nature is open to acts of evil, and not that the humaneness joins with evil. They reject the Augustinian position that the descendants of Adam and Eve are actually guilty of their sin. As a result of this sin, mankind was doomed to be separated from God. This was mankind's ultimate dilemma. The solution to this problem was for God to effect another change in human nature. Orthodox Christians believe that Christ Jesus was both God and Man absolutely. He was born, lived, died, and rose again by the power of the Holy Spirit. Through God's participation in humanity, human nature is changed thus saving us from the fate of Hell (Orthodox reject the idea that Christ died to give God "satisfaction", as taught by Anselm, or as a punitive substitute as taught by the Reformers). The effective change included all those who had died from the beginning of time – saving everyone including Adam and Eve. This process, to Orthodox Christians, is what is meant by "salvation". The ultimate goal is theosis – an even closer union with God and closer likeness to God than existed in the Garden of Eden. This very process is called Deification or "God became man that man might become 'god'". However, it must be emphasized that Orthodox Christians do not believe that man literally becomes God in His essence, or a god. More accurately, Christ's salvific work enables man to become "partakers of the Divine nature" (2 Peter 1:4); that is to say, man is united to God in Christ."

      Notice that this narrative understands the accomplishment of Christ and his Crucifixion quite differently than the narratives presented by the Catholic and most classical Protestant understandings.

      Other differences abound, too, between the Orthodox and Catholic theological traditions, ala Hell, which, in Orthodox thought, is not considered a place of torment or prison, but simply the experience of God's presence by unbelievers (other Orthodox theologians hold out for the hope of universal salvation, citing some of the early church fathers who did so, as well).

      As to whether it's more in line with what Jesus wanted, it's a strange question. I'm not sure we can approach a "historical" Jesus, since the only Jesus we have is mediated to us. The Orthodox tradition certainly lines up with the understandings of the early church patriarchs in a way that no other church tradition currently does, and thus could be construed as a stronger extension of the "normative Christianity" that some have argued rose in those early periods.

    3. The main difference here is that the Orthodox don't think of Jesus's death as a sacrificial punishment. Following Paul, though, Westerners also speak of the need for the Holy Spirit to change our nature through faith in the efficacy of Jesus's death and resurrection. Just as Jesus died to his old body and was raised to a new one, we die to our "old man of sin" and experience a hint of our resurrected body in the present life when the Holy Spirit comes to inhabit those who have faith in Jesus. That's the alleged mechanism that connects Jesus's crucifixion with Christians: faith invites the Holy Spirit to transform our inner nature. I didn't go into this in the article's summary, but my point was more fundamental and universal, I think: Jesus came to bridge the divide between God and his favoured creations.

      The other differences look more like details. What's the relevance of the difference between the views of original sin? Either way, there's a separation requiring God to save us from hell. And whether hell is a prison where we're punished or a less pleasant experience of God, it's still something we'd want to be saved from and it still reflects separation from God. The Orthodox seem to think more about godlikeness rather than reward and punishment, and indeed the Western metaphor seems more exoteric while the Orthodox view is closer to what Huxley called the perennial religion. Still, the basic narrative is the same.

      How important is faith, though, to the Orthodox? Wikipedia speaks of the "effective" change, but if we were all saved by Jesus's transformation, hell would be empty or nonexistent. So we must have been only potentially transformed by Jesus's death. Faith and the Holy Spirit must also be needed, which I believe is the Pauline and Western view.

  2. "What's the relevance of the difference between the views of original sin?"

    Perhaps less significant to an outsider, but believe me, it has a big role to play in the day-in, day-out profession of the church and the attitude towards its believers. Which is to say that the *experience* of faith is significantly different between Orthodox and Western traditions, in the sense that Orthodox Christianity spends much less time attempting to cultivate a deep, inbred guilt complex. In short, the Orthodox view is such that it could never be taken to the extreme of Calvinistic total depravity, this constant self-persecution over failure.

    "And whether hell is a prison where we're punished or a less pleasant experience of God, it's still something we'd want to be saved from and it still reflects separation from God."

    Well, the separation is purely internal. The difference is in their perception of God's presence: for the believer, bliss, because he has come to love God, for the unbeliever, this nearness is not bliss, because he has not come to love God.

    "How important is faith, though, to the Orthodox?"

    Faith is important to the Orthodox, though, as in the Catholic tradition, significant weight is placed upon the sacraments as a means of experiencing the grace of God, which distinguishes this from the "faith alone" ethos of the Protestant traditions.

    Again, there are univsersalist Orthodox priests and theologians, so there is not uniform consensus on th salvation question. But yes, redemption is often understood as a cooperative process between both God and man.

    1. The Orthodox view may have some advantages over the Western one, but I still think my critique here is general enough that it likely addresses the basics of both kinds of Christianity. The anthropomorphism and misanthropy vs progressivism charges still stick, I think. But I'll look more into the Orthodox side and see if I can come up with something more specific to say.

  3. Even with your more appealing and humane Orthodox version, to this misotheist we are still talking about a Failed Deity at best. At worst, a game playing entity that is so alien to our monkey brained psychology that I question how we are supposed to worship or love It. Especially given how the texts themselves directly state that It CREATED evil and suffering in the beginning. The Fall of Humanity did not create evil, the Omniscient deity did.

    The only version of Christianity that answers the Question of Evil at all is to me the Gnostic one that posits an imperfect fragment which is inherently flawed and yes, evil.