Apostasy (3) acquired incredulity syndrome

I’m reading Phil Zuckerman, Faith No More: why people reject religion (OUP, 2012)

Each of us has a story of faith. A journey, a pilgrimage, call it what you will. And that journey is multilayered, unique, complex and constantly unfolding. There are many factors that shape each of us – family, culture, geography, age, experience, education, friends, media …

Phil Zuckerman’s book tells of many different stories that have one thing in common; the people within them have rejected an earlier religious part of their life.

That’s a very broad theme, for there is no easily definable thing as ‘religion’ – as if all the world’s religions can be lumped together as having a core common theme. So maybe a better title to this book would be ‘why people reject religions’.

Chapter 2 and 3 are short and cover similar territory – that apostasy is often connected to what Zuckerman calls ‘acquired incredulity syndrome’ where certain beliefs of a religion are just not believed any more. For example:

Colleen, 21, American, rejected Christianity because she could not believe in a literal Adam and Eve.

For Max, 65, it was the idea of original ‘sin’.

For others it was a moral problem – the perceived immorality of God. For Robert, it was that only the few elect would go to heaven and the rest to hell. For Ivan, 33, it was God’s commanding of killing in the OT.

For Rose, 54, a doctor, it is theodicy, an inability to reconcile the (supposed) goodness of God with the amount of suffering and evil in the world – suffering she experiences every week at work.

Barry, a Catholic, lost his faith through the personal loss of divorce. ‘How could there be a God who says that if you do this all right, everything will be OK?’ [not sure where that theology’s to be found]

These are all Christian rejectors, Zuckerman talks of some others:

Bagrat, an ex-Muslim, also rejected his faith due to the problem of evil and suffering and Allah’s indifference to it.

David a former Jehovah’s Witness from Ghana, 58, rejected his faith because as his life unravelled he blamed God. ‘God wasn’t holding up his end of the bargain.’

For others apostasy followed from a conviction that prayer is unreal, that it does not work, and that therefore God does not exist.

And for others it is personal tragedy such as the death of a loved one. Zuckerman comments

“Such tragedies seem to produce an intriguing bifurcation. For most humans, the death of a loved one does little to erode their faith in God or love of their religion and can even make it stronger. But for others it leads them straight on the sparsely populated road to apostasy.”

Zuckerman draws three conclusions at the end of chapter 3

  1. Apostasy is often responsive to events – misfortune, tragedy, unanswered prayer. If certain events had not happened would many apostates still believe? What do you think are the main events that have caused people you know to have walked away from faith?
  2.  The doctrine of God is central to many stories of apostasy – God is viewed as immoral or untrustworthy, unjust. There is a sense of betrayal or forsakenness by God in many stories. It is the character and goodness of God which is under the most intense critical scrutiny and debate – Christians need to have thought through questions around ‘God the moral monster’ etc.
  3. Yet while personal misfortune and suffering may be a reason for apostasy on an individual basis, Zuckerman points out that this is not true on a macro level. Actually, it is in contexts of hardship, injustice, persecution and suffering that Christianity is strongest globally.

Does this suggest that some apostasy as least is due to a ‘soft’ me centred (Western) religion? Blaming God for misfortune?; faith an assumed guarantee of blessing?; little theological reflection about death, sin and suffering and so that when hardship comes, it is comes as an unwelcome shock and threat to our religious assumptions?

post-Christendom (12) the oxymoron of mono-pluralism

These posts on post-Christendom are based on a recently published paper of mine,  ‘Sex, Truth and Tolerance: some theological reflections on the Irish Civil Partnership Bill 2010 and challenges facing Christians in a post-Christendom culture’

I’m proposing 6 themes of Christian realism related to doing public theology in contemporary culture: this is the sixth.

Realism about the need to defend and argue for religious liberty

Christian Realism should, by definition, not equal naivety. Certainly post-Christendom will be significantly (and probably increasingly) less ‘hospitable’ to Christianity than Christendom. It is perfectly possible that an absolutist secularism will progressively encroach on religious freedom. Christian Realists will be aware of the spiritual ‘powers’ behind fallen human systems of thought and action.

Christians should be forthright defenders of religious liberty since deep in the heart of the biblical narrative is the pursuit of justice for the oppressed and the marginalised. Christians can make the case that agreeing boundaries to human behaviour leads to freedom, not oppression. For in a plural democracy not everyone can ‘win’ and it is destructive if one group does so.

A realistic Christian response will therefore have a healthy distrust of the human propensity to seek control and impose one’s values on others. Christians should resist a ‘hard secularism’ that criminalises, marginalizes, denigrates or dismisses religious views as illegitimate and results in legal actions like suing people in court for holding Christian views or forcing Christians to retreat from religiously motivated service in the public square – especially if it threatens the rights and dignity of the weak, vulnerable and powerless by the assertion of competing ‘rights’ by the powerful.

One way of resisting is by coherent persistent articulation of the need for a truly inclusive pluralism and exposing the inherent flaws in an ‘illiberal liberalism’ that leads to the oxymoron of an enforced mono-pluralism.

Women and the church : Vinoth Ramachandra speaks out

Vinoth Ramachandra fires from the hip. Here is a passionate post articulating for full equality for men and women in church ministry and criticising the inconsistency of a male-led hierarchical position.

This is what men in the church who hold an ‘egalitarian’ view need to be doing – speaking out.

What he says here is nothing new. But it needs to be said and keep being said.The status quo of male priority in leadership within large swathes of evangelicalism (and beyond) is shifting gradually towards a mutual leadership position between men and women. Different people will have different interpretations of that shift. Some of course will see betrayal of the Bible and compromise with the spirit of the age.

I see it differently. I see the Spirit at work in liberating his people to serve and use their God-given gifts together within the body of Christ for the glory of God. I see the deeply embedded cultural assumptions underpinning male-only leadership being eroded under the probing searchlight of Scripture. I see a welcome reformation of the church at work. [And this being my blog, thse are purely my own views].

Here’s a clip of what Vinoth says:

Differences between men and women do not translate into different “roles”, but different ways of performing the same tasks. Contrary to popular opinion, nowhere does the Bible prescribe timeless, trans-cultural male and female “roles”. Nor does it envisage a one-man model of church leadership. Those “conservative evangelicals” who take these practices for granted show just how selectively they read their Bibles. None of the lists of spiritual gifts that Paul gives in various letters are gender-specific. If the Holy Spirit has gifted certain women with gifts of preaching or leadership, clearly He expects them to use them for the good of us all. As long as we suppress those gifts, we deprive ourselves of the Holy Spirit’s wisdom and deny His universality.

post-Christendom (11) realistic assessment of each issue

These posts on post-Christendom are based on a recently published paper of mine,  ‘Sex, Truth and Tolerance: some theological reflections on the Irish Civil Partnership Bill 2010 and challenges facing Christians in a post-Christendom culture’

I’m proposing 6 themes of Christian realism related to doing public theology in contemporary culture: this is the fifth.

Realistic assessment of each piece of legislation

Some groups opposed the Civil Partnership Bill because of its supposed threat to religious freedom. Catholic Bishops went as far as to say that ‘This Bill is an extraordinary and far reaching attack on freedom of conscience and the free practice of religion.’ Others thought this an unnecessarily exaggerated fear and would be interpreted as a self-interested pretence to oppose the Bill.

But the main reason many Christians opposed the Bill was a perception it would undermine marriage and be a stepping stone to same-sex marriage. And it is obvious that the CPB is intensely disliked by many sections of the homosexual community since it is perceived as discriminating against certain citizens on the basis of their sexuality. Only full equality in marriage will be acceptable.

The EAI statement frankly acknowledged this reality but argued that the CPB was a reasonable compromise for homosexual and co-habiting couples to register their partnerships and gain the associated legal rights. It was a civil ceremony, explicitly not a religious one, which ‘does not challenge the traditional understanding of marriage in Ireland.’

Others disagreed. Which view is correct is open to debate. This is an area of ‘wisdom’ and ‘judgement calls’ rather than obvious adherence to biblical truth.

A question here is how can a minority Christian community ‘protect’ marriage within a plural democracy? Is protesting against such legislation as the CPB ‘where it is at’? Should the state be defending and promoting marriage for social reasons (such as the good of children) even if not for moral ones?

post-Christendom (10) realism about political and cultural context

These posts on post-Christendom are based on a recently published paper of mine,  ‘Sex, Truth and Tolerance: some theological reflections on the Irish Civil Partnership Bill 2010 and challenges facing Christians in a post-Christendom culture’

I’m proposing 6 themes of Christian realism related to doing public theology in contemporary culture: this is the fourth.

Realism about one’s particular political and cultural context

For example, in Ireland, Christians doing public theology need to be realistic about the baleful legacy of Ireland’s recent past as well as political liberalism’s associated fear of privileging any one voice (especially a religious one) in the public square.

In such a context there is a need for humility, listening and dialogue by Christians, given Christianity’s negative associations with self-interest and power in Ireland.

Whether you agree with it or not, it’s clear that the EAI statement on Civil Partnerships was very aware of this context:

Evangelical Christians have no automatic right to have their views preferred to those of others. Nor do we have a duty to try and impose Biblical morality on public life by force of law … It is the essence of the Christian faith that it is freely chosen, never imposed. It is a tragedy of church history that the church ever thought it could use the power of the state to impose Christianity on people.

As Christianity moves to the margins of Irish public life, evangelical Christians cannot assume that their views will be either heard or understood, especially given their status as a tiny minority of under 1% of the population.  Legislation like the CPB therefore raises questions for Christians in terms of how and where they are engaged in building relationships with government, politicians and with individuals and organisations within the homosexual community. On this point John Stackhouse proposes,

I do not intend … to encourage a secularist evacuation of all religious institutions, symbols, values, and personnel from public life – not at all. Instead, we Christians should be taking the initiative to surrender those privileges that no longer make sense in a post- or semi-Christian society and instead use our shrinking cultural power to establish new relations of religion/society and church/state that will benefit all participants, including religious communities and state institutions, without unjustly penalizing or privileging any. Indeed, we should use what influence we have left to help construct the sort of society in which we ourselves would like to live once our power to effect it has disappeared … How unseemly it is for Christians to fight in the courts and legislatures for what remains of the dubious honors and advantages of Christendom. There is no more prudent time to do unto others as we would have them do unto us.[1]

Is this sort of approach an example of weakness in the face of colder cultural attitudes towards Christianity? Or is it, in an Irish context, a wise refusal to subscribe to the increasingly unrealistic and historically damaging ambitions of cultural transformation?

[1] Stackhouse, Making the Best of It, 345-6.

Christianity, nationalism and violence (2): the necessity of Christian non-violence?

This post is written at the kind invitation of Scot McKnight for Jesus Creed. It is reproduced here.

Being from Europe and writing a post for Jesus Creed, I thought it would be appropriate and interesting to explore European and American attitudes to nationalism and violence. No more feisty conversation partner than Stanley Hauerwas in this one:

In an article called ‘War and the American Difference’ he   engages with Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age.

Europeans generally are quite reticent about national identity. That they are so Taylor attributes to the experience and memory of the First and Second World Wars that devastated Europe. He observes that war, even wars that seem “righteous,” now make most Europeans uneasy. But that is not the case with Americans. Americans’ lack of unease with war may be, Taylor suggests, because they wrongly think there are fewer skeletons in the American closet when compared to the European closet. Yet Taylor thinks the reason for the American support of war is simpler. “It is easier,” Taylor observes, “to be unreservedly confident in your own righteousness when you are the hegemonic power.”

To Taylor Hauerwas adds this,

I think Taylor does not make articulate — to use one of Taylor’s favorite words — the relationship between American civil religion, our assumption that we are a “religious nation,” and why war for most Americans is unproblematic. War is a moral necessity for America because it provides the experience of the “Unum” that makes the “pluribus” possible. War is America’s central liturgical act necessary to renew our sense that we are a nation unlike other nations.

In other words, ‘the war on terror’ means that Americans have a common enemy that unites them nationally. War is a moral good. It is the pursuit and defence of ‘freedom’.

And further down Hauerwas says

If I am close to being right about the place of war for sustaining the American difference I find that as a Christian I wish America as a nation was more “secular” and the Christianity of America was less American. Put differently I wish America was more like Europe. For I fear the Christianity of America, a Christianity that from a European perspective seems vital, is not capable of being a political challenge to what is done in the name of the American difference. In short, the great difficulty is how to keep America, in the proper sense, secular. (my emphasis)

His point here is that Christianity in America (as I was arguing in my first post has been the case in Ireland) has been co-opted as a support act for the state. He concludes that in America, a central task for the church therefore is offer that prophetic critique to nationalism, war and violence.  For the church to offer an authentic Christian political theology will require

a recovery of the church as a polity capable of challenging the presumptions that the state is the agency of peace. In short, if the analysis I have tried to develop concerning the American difference is close to being right, it should make clear that a commitment to Christian nonviolence is the presumption necessary for the church to reassert its political significance. (my emphasis)

Such a position is deeply radical within a culture which exalts and celebrates the military power of the nation-state, one nation under God. It calls all Christians to active non-violence as followers of the Prince of Peace who explicitly rejected the sword. It  is, I think fair to say, calling on all Christians to view violence as a morally illegitimate option for a disciple of Jesus, the Prince of Peace rather than swallowing the myth that violence can be a redemptive good.

What do you make of Hauerwas’ call for all Christians to active non-violence?  And his case that America, and many Christians within America, have a troubling lack of unease about going to war.

Christianity, nationalism and violence (1)

I’ve written this post by kind invitation for Scot McKnight’s Jesus Creed and it is reproduced here.

Being from Europe and writing a post for Jesus Creed, I thought it would be appropriate and interesting to explore European and American attitudes to nationalism and violence.

In Ireland we are entering a ‘decade of centenaries’.  In this post I would like to make a general proposal and ask a question of American readers.

The general proposal is this: the story of 20th Century Ireland was shaped and framed by what Walter Wink, following René Girard, called the ‘myth of redemptive violence’. You don’t have to swallow all of Wink’s theology to agree with his main point; the myth of redemptive violence is that violence in the service of the nation is not only necessary, it works; violence is ‘worth it’ and therefore violence is to be remembered, honoured and eulogised within a nationalist narrative.

Here are some of the upcoming centenaries in Ireland:

– In 1912 practically every Protestant man and woman signed the Ulster Covenant against Home Rule. Some in signed in blood; most signed in churches on a Sunday morning. The Covenant promised to resist Home Rule ‘by all means which may be found necessary’. The formation and arming of the Ulster Volunteer Force gave shape to this threat.

– The 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin against the British by a small minority of Irish republicans led by Padraig Pearse. Pearse developed his own distinctive ideology of violence in the form of ‘blood sacrifice’ deliberately echoing Christ’s self-giving death at the cross. Pearse died his desired glorious death in front of a British firing squad.

– 1916 also saw another form of ‘sacrifice’ in the form of thousands of ‘loyal’ troops of the 36th Ulster Division at the Battle of the Somme. Hence ‘loyalism’ versus disloyal Irish republicanism.

– The 1919-21 War of Independence against the British, followed by the 1921 Partition of Ireland into the Irish Free State (later a Republic in 1949) and Northern Ireland. The war against the British was remembered and immortalised within Irish Nationalism as the heroic overthrow of the Empire by the righteous underdog with God on her side.

– Bitter and bloody violence exploded within Irish Nationalism as it divided over the Partition of Ireland. The Civil War of 1922-23 would cast its shadow over most of 20th Century Irish politics. At its heart was the refusal by a minority to accept the compromise of Partition. In their eyes, violence was justified in the name of the pure, whole and undefiled Irish nation.

– That shadow would darken with the re-activation of violence against Partition in the brutal campaign of the IRA from 1969-c.1998 (and off and on up to about 2004).

– A campaign that was opposed by violence in return by the British armed forces and the sectarian paramilitary violence of the Ulster Loyalists.

My point here is not to enter some blame game, but to say that pretty well every group implicated in this violent legacy of the last 100 years in Ireland continues to feel justified in what they did. The myth of redemptive violence is deeply rooted in Irish culture.

And while churches (mostly) consistently opposed violence, they tended to be ‘chaplains to their tribes’ rather than uncomfortable prophets. Only a minority offered a robust critique of the myth of redemptive violence and the dangers of nationalist idolatry.

Still today in Ireland there remains an ambiguity about the relationship between Christianity, violence and nationalism. Many Protestant churches have Union Jack flags in their sanctuaries. They identify themselves in a host of ways with the political narrative of Unionism.  Many Protestants continue to affirm the idea of ‘For God and Ulster’. Similarly, the Irish Catholic Church is deeply embedded in the political narrative of Irish Nationalism. The Irish Catholic Church blessed and sanctified the entire project of independent ‘Catholic Ireland’, a narrative that is built around the myth of redemptive violence.

This entwining of religion with narratives of power and violence in Ireland has been, in my humble opinion, a disaster and a curse. It is a form of idolatry that has deeply damaged the authentic witness of the church as followers of a crucified Messiah who rejected violence.

So, if that’s the Irish story, here’s my question to Jesus Creed readers.

How pervasive is the entwining of power, nationalism , violence and religion in America? And how captive is the American church to the idolatry of nationalism (where religion serves the nation as a chaplain to the tribe rather than offering prophetic critique)?