Monday, December 05, 2005

Interlude: A dumb post on Washington Monthly

[This is a post for Don P, a poster on the Washington Monthly who said some truly stupid stuff about how Christianity is the vilest thing on the planet. If you don't care about my rebuttal, skip this post. Otherwise, read on.]

Don P, "the values and ethics of Jesus--not to mention the rest of Christianity's sacred writings--strongly support all the horrible things I listed" is an overreach. But your list of claims about Christianity, I can only assume is not a troll because you have argued for so long and vehemently in this thread. But they sound like a troll anyway, so you got me; I'll bite.

The first non-starter in your list is the meaning of the word "Christianity", as in "Christianity has traditionally oppressed women." One wonders what evidence could possibly disprove this sentence. Christianity is not a character in history; it is not a person. It is a hodgepodge of religions, streams flowing from a vast ocean. There are three enormous divisions between the traditions of Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant, and the subdivisions of Protestant are too numerous to count; if you want to throw Mormon and Jehovah's Witness into the mix, Protestantism has spawned whole new religions. The Quakers, Lutherans, Anglicans, Pentecostals, and Messianic Jews aren't even included in the above divisions.

"Tradition" also cuts broadly. Do we pay attention to the GWB Christian right or the backwater missionaries or the Sunday upper class publicity whores or the ritualized pre-Vatican II ultra-Catholics or the revival altar-call walkers or the pacifists or the soldiers or the dark poets? And that's just in the last few decades. How about a Japanese Catholic novelist educated in Europe in French literature who sees a certain resemblance between a view of Christ that emphasizes his weakness and Mahayana Buddhism? Is that not also Christianity?

Frankly, the varieties of Christian experience are unclassifiable as a whole, and take an especially vague character in the grand statements divorced of cultural and historical context that you've made. The form of the argument is so bad that I'm not going to list counterexamples. If you can't agree that Christianity is at least a mixed bag, full of sinners and saints like all of humanity, including atheists, Hindus, Muslims, artists, scientists, feminists, mothers, and favorite uncles, you're not only wrong, you're blind. e.g.

The most charitable spin I can put on your argument is that some statements in the Bible are so full of oppression and vileness and have twisted so many people to evil, that they are responsible for the ills of the human race. It would be quite a testament to the writing's power to move, for good or evil, that such a thing was true.

So let's examine some of your statements and see if the premise that "the values and ethics of Jesus--not to mention the rest of Christianity's sacred writings--strongly support all the horrible things I listed" actually have support in things Jesus said. I'll give examples of things Jesus did and said, and things that the New Testament Christians did and said, that cut against the grain of your worthless generalizations.

"Christianity has traditionally oppressed homosexuals... Christianity has traditionally oppressed Jews, Muslims and other religious minorities."

Jesus was silent on the subject of homosexuality generally, but had a lot to say and do for minorities. For instance, he frequently held up Gentiles, people who did not believe in Yahweh, as examples of great faith, like the Roman centurion and the Syrophoenician woman. He appeared to Peter in a vision and said "Let no man call unclean what God has made clean," which caused the early Jewish Christians to abandon their tribalism (they were "God's chosen people") and accept people of other backgrounds as brothers and sisters. He preached a parable about a Good Samaritan being more holy in God's eyes than a priest or a Levite. This would be like a neo-Nazi telling a positive story about a black man. This is also the same Christianity that proclaims loudly that "You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." The kinds of things he did not say were "Black people are inferior to white people" (unless you think the Mormons represent all Christianity, and even they changed it eventually) or "Jews are better than everybody". He spent his public life reviling the most religious people in his religion and had no respect for class.

I admit that the record of Christians through the ages toward minorities is mixed (witness the Abolitionists vs. the Race Rehabilitationists, or today's religious right vs. the Christian left).

"Christianity has traditionally regulated sex, marriage, reproduction and family life very strictly."

It's true Jesus did affirm the Jewish view that marriage is when "a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh." But he also said that a man's right to divorce his wife for any reason (which his culture promulgated) was illegitimate, and that divorce apart from infidelity was adultery. For the man this is stricter; for the woman this is safer. He elevated the rights of the woman in marriage to equal to the man's. Paul did this too when he said that "the wife's body does not belong to her alone but also to her husband. In the same way, the husband's body does not belong to him alone but also to his wife." And it's true that Jesus believed in sex within the confines of marriage but not otherwise. But I think his treatment of prostitutes tells us more about how important he thought issues of sexual sin were.

"Christianity has traditionally supported economic and political policies that produce large economic and social inequalities."

In Jesus we find a penniless preacher, not a political program. Remember, the same Jews that welcomed him in to Jerusalem on Sunday as the political Messiah who would free Israel and rule the new kingdom killed him days later after he preached in the temple square daily. What did he say, I wonder? There is some speculation that he freed the Jews from the very illusion you ascribe to Christianity; that it has a well-defined political or social program. When Pilate was trying Jesus for treason, he asked if Jesus was a king. He responded, "My kingdom is not of this world."

Your statement applies with more force to modern capitalism than Christianity, as in "Modern capitalism has traditionally supported..." You could also say "The Hindu caste system" or "Communist China" though.

"Christianity has traditionally taught the reality of heaven and hell, judgment and damnation, and that unrepentant sinners are cast into hell where they are punished for all eternity."

That's more or less true, Jesus talked about it a good deal. I'll give you the reality of heaven and hell, judgment, and damnation. Who exactly goes to hell and what exactly is going on there are subjects of considerable debate in the breadth of Christian tradition.

What I fail to see is how this meme has affected humanity. Unlike the others in your list, this is a point of theology without an obvious story of woe attached. Bach? Dante? Thomas Aquinas? They believed this story and it didn't seem to make them into serial killers. I believe this story and all I am is a Christian blog commenter who is feeling a bit snarky at the moment.

"This all seems to be considerably more consistent with James Dobson's version of Christianity than with contemporary liberal Christianty, which often seems to be little more than the Golden Rule dressed up in a bit of religious drag."

So let's be frank. You make sweeping generalizations about my religion, compare two sects to each other and decide that one is more faithful to the breadth of Christian tradition than the other, which breadth you show no signs of acknowledging or understanding. You would rather trot out the same tired cases and tropes of the evils of organized Christianity; as if every other society had no evils of its own! As if the evils of Christianity were beyond comparison! How is that less hidebound and anti-intellectual than the fundamentalists themselves? How am I supposed to intelligently come around to your views? Maybe I haven't been snorting the same propaganda.

hamletta said "I think comparing him to the whole of Christian history is dopey." You said "Why?" Well, the answer is that you can make broader generalizations the wider you draw your view, but the generalizations are more likely to be wrong. The devil is in the details, but God is in the details too. On a scale from dopey to inane, I give your generalizations a resounding 10.

So you ask, "Why? The claim was that James Dobson, and presumably conservative Christians in general, does not represent real or authentic or true Christianity. Why should we believe contemporary liberal Christianity is more real or authentic or true as Christianity than Dobson's variety?"

Well, I guess to answer that question we would have to take up a long comparative study and define things like "true Christianity" and "represent". I've made a few quotations and claims above that suggest my idea of true Christianity, and I could go on.

The dominant threads I might suggest as a starting point are "But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong." and "Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross!"

But it's sufficient just to say that the arguments are fraught with difficulty and intelligent people have disagreed for hundreds of years, so strong statements like yours are not credible.

So I'll let Billy Madison have my last word:

"Everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened to it. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul."

No comments: