Alan K. Henderson's Weblog


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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A Duel Of Wits Between Unarmed Opponents

The other day, James Taranto linked an exchange about Christians between atheists Christopher Hitchens and Heather Mac Donald. Their failure to understand the nation's dominant religion is rooted in a common fallacy. First, Hitch:

[Rick Warren] is a relentless clerical businessman who raises money on the proposition that certain Americans—non-Christians, the wrong kind of Christians, homosexuals, nonbelievers—are of less worth and littler virtue than his own lovely flock of redeemed and salvaged and paid-up donors.

Next, Mac Donald, whose argument states, as Taranto interprets, Christians must not really believe all that stuff."

But here's another possibility: Do modern Christians still believe with the same fervor as in the past all those unyielding doctrines of eternal damnation for the unbaptised and unconverted? They sure don't act as if they do. If they really were convinced that their friends, co-workers, neighbors, and in-laws were going to hell because they possessed the wrong or no religious belief, I would think that the knowledge would be unbearable. Christians surely see that most of their wrong-believing personal acquaintances are just as moral and deserving as themselves. How, then, do they live with the knowledge that their friends and loved ones face an eternity of torment? I would expect a frenzy of proselytizing, by word or by sword.

In previous centuries, when religion had the upper hand, religious differences meant more. But ours is a world dominated by the secular values of tolerance and equality. Either believers live with an extraordinary degree of cognitive dissonance between the inclusive values of their society and the dictates of their religion, or they unconsciously mitigate those bloody-minded dictates as atavistic vestiges from a more primitive time.

These writers will never begin to understand Christianity as long as they entertain the false notion that the faith shares the common human assumption that human value is a variable, set by the individual's balance sheet of rights and wrongs. In his actions and teachings, Jesus set human value as a constant - all are equally valuable to God.

If human value is a constant, then what is the variable that determines entrance to Heaven? That would be reconciliation.

The newest of my blog traditions draws a helpful parallel:

Christianity makes a radical claim about the relationship between believers, nonbelievers and God: we're all family. God created the souls of all, thus he is the father of all, believers and nonbelievers alike. All of the children have gone astray - but some have reconciled with him while others have not.

When one is faced with the earthly parallel - being in good standing with Dad while some of the other siblings aren't - one is charged with three tasks: to build and maintain the relationship with Dad, to build and maintain the relationships with the wayward siblings without doing anything that interferes with the paternal relationship, and to act as a bridge between the wayward siblings and Dad. That third task is tricky; there will be occasions to discuss the rift outright, but most of the time it involves nothing more than being a positive influence to that sibling.

Christianity works the same way. Loving God doesn't mean giving up on non-Christian friends.

They oughta do a few lunches with Charles Colson. A guy who ministers to convicted criminals knows a lot about Jesus' take on human value.

Mac Donald asks a useful question: if Christians are so certain that nonbelievers won't get into Heaven, why don't they put out greater effort to address the situation? (The claim that baptism is a heavenly entrance requirement is mistaken, despite some denominations' claim to the contrary.) It's simple - many Christians fear rejection, or fear persecution, or lack the confidence in knowing how to convincingly spread the Gospel. Humans are the products of multiple influences; just because one is a Christian does not mean all other influences are negated. Ask Paul of Tarsus how this manifested itself in Corinth.

This dovetails with another of Mac Donald's remark about spreading the Gospel "by sword." I am uncertain whether she is exhibiting a prejudice regarding the psychological nature of proselytizing faiths - that the mindset necessarily has forceful tendencies - or she believes that Christianity really does allow for forced conversion. If the latter, she has Jesus confused with subsequent followers who took from outside influences ideas anti-Christian ideas called them "Christian." (Hegelians call this intellectual flummery thesis-antithesis-synthesis - which, sadly, Hegelians do not recognize as flummery.) Jesus and his immediate circle preached the church as a peaceful and voluntary association. Force played no role in bringing people into the church - although they could be forced out if they were sufficiently disruptive, as any voluntary organization woudl do.


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