Tuesday, May 19, 2015

"The System"

Image source.

This post, Faith in the system, or faith in Jesus?, by Chaplain Mike, brings up a very important point about American evangelical Christianity. Mike says that, as he was watching a documentary about creationism and evolution, he was struck by how the creationists seemed to see Christianity as a "system" where all the parts must be correct or else it's a slippery slope into the downfall of society.

He says:
The evangelical Christianity that this documentary displays, and I might add, the evangelical Christianity that I spent most of my adult life studying and teaching, is not, in the final analysis about Jesus, except insofar as Jesus is a part of the system. It is faith in the Bible that is more fundamental. It is believing in the system that is crucial. They are not just making a claim that reading the Bible aright leads to Jesus, it’s more than that. It is that the Bible is a divinely given systematic presentation of an entire worldview that must be believed in its entirety for one to be a faithful Christian (along with having “accepted” Jesus, of course). Indeed, beyond that, if we allow one crack in the wall of this system, society itself will become subject to moral decay, chaos, and ultimately destruction.
And THAT'S the problem. If you just believe in Jesus, that's not good enough. It's the whole entire "Christian worldview." Evangelicals insist that if one part is rejected, then, logically, you'll eventually end up rejecting everything.

According to evangelical Christianity, this entire system is connected with ironclad logic. You believe in Jesus, therefore you believe the bible, therefore you believe that evolution is false, abortion is always wrong, gay is wrong, women are lower than men, etc. Supposedly, the logical connections between all these topics are so completely airtight, that if you stop believing in one of them, they all must necessarily fall.

You see this all the time in creationist arguments. Someone asks "Why is this so important? Why does it matter if Christians believe in evolution or not?" and the answer is "The bible SAYS God created the world in 6 days- if you don't believe that part of the bible, what's to stop you from rejecting other parts too? If you don't believe Adam was a real person, then what about the passages in Romans where Adam and Christ are compared? If you don't believe Adam was real, then logically, you can't believe the resurrection was real. Oh you may say you can, but eventually you'll be doubting that too."

There's an appeal to logic at every step. A, therefore B, therefore C, therefore D. Where "A" means Jesus, and all the other letters are whatever political issues and culture wars are popular in American Christianity at the moment.

And actually in some sense it is all connected. This is why you get people genuinely baffled over the question "if we stop believing in hell, then what's the point of being a Christian anyway?" That's why I say I've actually changed to a different religion- because I rejected one part of that interconnected web, and eventually it did all fall.

But you know what didn't fall? Jesus. Love. Resurrection.

Christianity is about Jesus. Full stop. If you want to follow Jesus, then you are a Christian. As for all that other stuff, you can argue about it, you can interpret the bible in one way or another, you can make a strong case, but the logic is not airtight. There is no "A, therefore B, therefore C." In reality, it's "A, therefore you can argue based on this set of facts that B should probably be true." But if B turns out to be false, it's okay. We still have Jesus.

When you believe in the "system", you have to live in fear of new information. You always have to "defend the faith" when you encounter a new idea- because the system explains everything, so anything outside the system must be wrong. You can't honestly examine an idea on its own merits- no, you already know you can't believe in it, you already know it must be wrong.

(If only we had been given a spirit that does not make us a slave again to fear...)

But Christianity is supposed to be about Jesus. Just Jesus.

Jesus is bigger than one culture's interpretation of him. And Jesus' love, salvation, and justice are strong enough and real enough to reach everyone, whether or not they believe the "right" things.

Where is your faith- in Jesus, or in your own interpretation of what a "Christian worldview" is supposed to look like?


  1. That is a great insight. I've never seen it quite that way before, but it explains a lot about evangelical reasoning.

    Years ago, at a science fiction convention, someone confronted me with what he was smugly certain was the hypothetical situation that would demolish my faith: "What if archaeologists found bones that they could prove, using science, were definitely the bones of Jesus? That would prove that he didn't rise from the dead! So where would your 'faith' be THEN, huh?" I said, well, that would be an unpleasant surprise, but my faith is not about the body of Jesus; it's about the soul; I know Jesus is alive and real because I know him and I can feel his presence spiritually, not because of what happened to his physical body 2,000 years ago. Finding out that the miracle was a lie would be depressing, but it wouldn't make the Jesus I know any less real.

    Later I told my uber-Catholic relative about this, thinking we would have some common ground here and maybe even share a laugh at the guy's misunderstanding of our faith. But she said that her faith depends on believing that such a terrible discovery could never be made (because it's true that the bodily resurrection did happen), and in this fictional scenario she would have to become a Jew! Apparently, to her, bodily resurrection is so much The Point that without it, there'd be no reason to be a Christian. I was amazed...and glad I'm not her.

  2. That's interesting- this makes me wonder which parts are so important that you would lose the whole faith without them. I guess for me, I believe in a literal resurrection, but if that was disproved, it wouldn't be the end of the world- I'd have to rethink some things though. (But we shouldn't be afraid of new evidence- we can keep reworking our ideas and making them better.)

    When we talk about scientific theories, it's important that they be falsifiable- we imagine what kind of evidence it would take to disprove the theory. If we think of Christianity as an overarching worldview, then it also makes sense to talk about what kind of evidence you would need to show it's false. If you disprove a literal resurrection, then you disprove the whole thing.

    But you said you know Jesus is alive because you can feel his presence spiritually. If that's the most important part, then it's okay if some of the other parts are disproved.

  3. To me, the main points of Christianity are the Way, the Truth, and the Life: the ideas and attitudes taught by Jesus and the application of them to the situations we each face in human life. The virgin birth, miracles, and resurrection are things I've gradually come to believe are true, but I see them as more like evidence that Jesus was an unusually special guy, not just another prophet, and really deserved our attention more so than any other human who ever lived--those things happened so that people would pay attention and keep telling the story of Jesus for millennia, but those things are not the main point; the main point is listening to what he taught.