Wednesday, December 10, 2014

On Being a Skeptical Christian

Um, I'd like to talk to you about my grade?
When I was a young student in college working on my BA, I had a computer science professor with the last name of Smith.  Coincidentally, during my time in school the movie "The Matrix" was released, which as you can imagine was a very popular movie amongst a classroom full of computer nerds, and was even appreciated by Professor Smith.  One day, Professor Smith was speaking directly to one of the students in the classroom with the last name of Anderson, and the professor did his impression of Agent Smith when he addressed "Mr. Anderson", and at that moment the entire class simultaneously realized the irony of Professor Smith doing an Agent Smith impression while addressing Mr. Anderson.

Professor Smith had a tendency to repetitiously use certain techniques in his exams in order to drive home a lesson that he felt was very important for a computer programmer.  Two such lessons come to mind for the purpose of this post.  One of these lessons was on the importance of acknowledging our assumptions.  Often in Professor Smith's exams, he would give us a word problem that we needed to provide the solution for, but he would leave out some key piece of information.  Without this piece of information, the correct way to address the problem could be "A" or it could be "B" (or possibly, there might be many other letters you could add after these options).  If a student answered the question simply with method "A" or "B", Professor Smith would mark down their answer to this question.  However, if the student began the exact same answer with the words "assuming [some assumption] is true...", there would be no markdown.

This is what I do all day.
Another lesson Professor Smith taught through his exam questions was called "be the computer".  Such questions would start out by instructing us to answer with what would be displayed on the screen of a computer at the end of executing a block of code that followed.  The method of answering such problems would be to "get inside the mind" of the computer and understand what happened in the logical "brain" of the computer as the result of each line of code.  Professor Smith was very tricky, however, and the students had to keep in mind that every single line of code was very important, and if you messed up on one line you would very likely come out with a completely different answer than the "correct" one - so in order to try to earn mercy, it was advisable to "show your work", much like in math tests.

Now one might question why I bring up these analogies in a post titled "On Being a Skeptical Christian".  I am going to answer this, however I must start by stating the problem which I am attempting to solve.  To do this, I must first remind my readers of a phenomena I have written on before titled the "Rise of the Nones".  Simply stated, the "Rise of the Nones" is a statistical phenomena researchers have noticed where there is a very sharp rise from generation to generation of people who self-identify on religious surveys as "none" (meaning that they do not identify with any of the other religious affiliations provided).  More recently, there are some whom have begun to add nuance to this phenomena as they've discovered that a significant number of these "nones" are actually "dones" - they are formerly highly active members of churches whom for whatever reason left the fold, usually due to frustrations or not having certain needs met through their religious group.  As you can imagine, many churches would like to figure out how to bring these "nones" and "dones" back. 

Unfortunately, I feel that all too often they are going about it in the completely wrong way - and the reason for this is that they are refusing to acknowledge their assumptions.  This can be demonstrated very nicely in the following video from the documentary "Lord, Save Us From Your Followers":

One of the reasons I think Christians refuse to acknowledge their assumptions is that it puts them in a vulnerable position.  It is much easier to insist that a certain assumption is true than to start in a very basic position and work your way up, and additionally it is a scary experience to consider that your assumptions might be incorrect and to try to imagine other possibilities and where they might lead.  And so what all too often happens with the "nones" and "dones" when a Christian enters into a discussion with one is that the Christian makes a number of assumptions as to why this person has become a "none" or a "done" without having ever sat down with this particular person and listened to them describe how this occurred in their own words.  So the Christian instead sits down and begins an argument with a number of assumptions in their head and is baffled when they discover that the "none" or "done" finds none of the arguments satisfying.  But the reason why this occurs is very simple: Christians must learn to recognize and challenge their own assumptions before they seek to challenge (or assume that they know) the assumptions others are making no matter how vulnerable this makes us feel.

To further illustrate what happens in an argument between a Christian who is refusing to acknowledge their assumptions and a "none" or "done", I would like to go back to the "be the computer" problems I described.  I would like you to imagine that the problem on the exam was written in such a way that the code could have been written in more than one language.  For those of you familiar with computer code, try to imagine a problem that could be either javascript or some .NET code (VB or C# perhaps).  For those of you who are unfamiliar with computer code, try to imagine a sentence that is written in such a way that it could be either Spanish or French (these two languages, sharing the common ancestor of Latin, are quite similar at times).  If we assume the script is written in one language, it might mean one thing, but if we assume that it was written in another the meaning might be completely different. 

This is an extremely useful analogy, not just for imagining how a Christian should try to communicate with non-Christians who do not share their assumptions, but also for understanding how a Christian of one denomination who makes certain assumptions when interpreting the Bible should try to communicate with a Christian of another denomination who has come to completely different conclusions about the same passages based on a different set of assumptions.  One of the biggest problems I think is contributing to the endless division within the church is the fact that we've bought into the lie of the "plain reading of scripture", where we pretend that it is possible to enter into reading scripture without any assumptions at all, and that this results in "pure" conclusions without any interpretation at all.  One of the difficult lessons I feel Christians must learn is that they are only and always interpreting everything they see, hear, and read, and that this interpretation is always the result of assumptions they are making.

One idea I'd like my Christian readers to try to understand is that when you refuse to acknowledge and/or challenge your own assumptions, you are engaging in what I would call the Imperial version of Christianity - perhaps we could call this "post Constantine Christianity".  You see, prior to Constantine, Christianity was a small minority of outcasts and rebels that stood in defiance of the dominant culture of their day.  They did not have the luxury of insisting their assumptions must be treated as self-evident truth like Western Christians (who are the dominant culture of our day) do.  So when dealing with non-Christians, the early Christians would often appeal to popular non-Christian philosophers, much like Paul did on Mars Hill.  In this manner, Christians would "speak the language" of non-Christians by finding common ground and then leveraging it in order to understand each other. 

Western Christians have a very hard time understanding how to do this because we live in an environment where Christians (or at least people who self-identify as Christians) represent the vast majority of our society.  And so, because of our very priviledged status we feel that we can plow on through with our assumptions without ever acknowledging or challenging them and simply disregard those who refuse to do the same.  This is, I feel, one of the main contributing factors to the "rise of the nones", and the answer for a Christian to combating this problem would be, to paraphrase in summary form Philippians 2:5-8, to take on the attitude of Jesus by humbling ourselves and emptying ourselves of all assumptions in order to serve those who do not share our own assumptions.

Learning the lesson of acknowledging and challenging our assumptions, and the lesson of "be the computer" are, I believe, the first step in communication not only between Christians and non-Christians, but between Christians and former Christians, as well as between Christians of one denomination and another.  And the solution to the problem of challenging all assumptions lies in learning how to become a skeptic.

Now the word "skeptic" often has negative connotations within certain Christian circles - namely ones whom really do not like to challenge or even acknowledge their own assumptions.  And in some circles, the term has been quite misunderstood and misappropriated.  So I must start by defining what a skeptic is not - a skeptic is not someone whom arrogantly insists that all their own assumptions are self-evident truths while insisting that all your assumptions are self-evident falsehoods (the word "lies" would often be used by such a "skeptic").  Rather, a skeptic is someone who comes to a discussion between parties with differing views with the goal of discovering all the assumptions and challenging all the assumptions as equals.  This means not only discovering and challenging the assumptions of those you disagree with, but it also means applying the same vigorous standards in discovering, acknowledging, and challenging your own assumptions.  This is very difficult for an "Imperial Christian" who is used to entering into a discussion with an athoritative stance - a "trump card" that can be used to end the discussion in the favor of that "Christian".  "Imperial Christians" are used to being able to quote chapter and verse (usually preceded by "THE WORD OF GOD SAYS...", spoken in a very sanctimonious tone) and having disagreement shut up instantly.  But we must remind ourselves that this was not how Jesus acted, as Philippians 2:5-8 says.  Jesus did not expect everyone to bow to his tyrannical authority and to shut up and listen without providing any objections.  Jesus was not part of the authority structure of his day, but rather he challenged the authority structures of his day as an outcast.

Likewise, I believe that if Christians want to offer any solution to the "Rise of the Nones", they must first acknowledge that for many years we have not been outsiders, but have been part of the Imperial structures of our day - in other words, we've forgotten what it is like to be an outsider.  And as a response, we must humble ourselves and seek to understand the outsider.  In order to be able to communicate to the outsider - whether he or she be an atheist (either formerly Christian or never Christian), agnostic, Hindu, Buddhist, Jew, or any other religious affiliation - we must first understand the outsider's point of view with such familiarity that we can "be the Atheist/Agnostic/Christian of another denomination/Hindu/Buddhist/Jew/Muslim/whatever", as it were, and thus understand what words and ideas mean to them

Coincidentally, immediately after I had finished writing the first version of this post, someone shared a post from the atheist/former Christian Neil Carter's blog that echoed many of the sentiments I had just written down, and one part really stuck out:
It’s not really a conversation if nothing I say is being heard.  It’s not a conversation if they keep spouting off programmed sentences and quoting Bible verses as if the words have the same magic for me that they have for them.

If we want to be able to communicate with people who are not like us, we've got to stop pretending that everything that was magical for us will be just as magical for them, and we've got to understand their point of view first.  This is why I have sought to be a Christian Skeptic and to challenge my own assumptions, and this is why so often other Christians have accused me of being more merciful to Atheists than fellow Christians (I've even been accused of being a secret Atheist before).  But in my mind, because of the humility of Jesus as outlined in the Philippians passage I've been referring to, I believe it is inherently part of being his follower that we "become the outsider", and to me this involves "being the computer" and "acknowledging the assumptions".

The Tower of Babel and Christianity
Before I close, I would like my readers to consider one final analogy.  I would like you to try to understand the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel as a parable - a word picture that teaches a moral.  I would like you to consider it as a parable about Empire.

The human race has always been diverse, and will most likely always be.  Empire occurs when one group within that diversity is able to set up structures that allow them to dominate others.  And for a time, these Domination Systems seem to be a success.  So those who are part of the structures of domination seek even more power - like the builders of the Tower of Babel, they seek to reach the heavens themselves through might and power.  But along the way, they discover that they are not so unified as they believed.  They discover that even within their own group, there is diversity.  And as the habit has always been to cast out and/or destroy diversity, the insiders of the Domination System begin to fight amongst themselves for control.  This is, I believe, what the picture of the confusion of language in the story of the Tower of Babel points to.

And this is an important picture for Christians today.  With Constantine, Christianity began to resemble the Domination System of Rome.  We created creeds and cast out those who did not completely agree with every little thing that the insiders decreed to be truth.  In this way, Christianity sought to destroy diversity and became another Domination System.  And this worked for a long time, until Christianity discovered that not all of the insiders agreed with one another.  Since then, Christianity has experienced division after division, and now there is an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 denominations.  We are discovering that when we use certain language with the assumption that everyone around agrees on what that language means, we are mistaken.  Our language has been confused, much like the builders of the Tower of Babel, and now our tower is falling with the "Rise of the Nones".  And the answer is not for one group to dominate all the others, but to learn to stop acting like the Insiders who are far to used to their control - we must give up our control and become outsiders.  This is the lesson Jesus exemplified, summarized in Philippians 2:5-8.

In closing, I'd like my readers to consider these words by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian who died in Nazi prison, from his book "Life Together":
The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship consists in listening to them. Just as love to God begins with listening to His Word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them. It is God’s love for us that He not only gives us His Word but also lends us His ear.  So it is His work that we do for our brother when we learn to listen to him. Christians, especially ministers, so often think they must always contribute something when they are in the company of others, that this is the one service they have to render. They forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking.  Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking where they should be listening. But he who can no longer listen to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God either; he will be doing nothing but prattle in the presence of God too.  This is the beginning of the death of the spiritual life, and in the end there is nothing left but spiritual chatter and clerical condescension arrayed in pious words. One who cannot listen long and patiently will presently be talking beside the point and be never really speaking to others, albeit he be not conscious of it. Anyone who thinks that his time is too valuable to spend keeping quiet will eventually have no time for God and his brother, but only for himself and for his own follies.
The next post explores a practical application of the principles explored regarding skepticism and Christian theology.

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