Monday, August 2

On Not Getting The Hang-Uv-It


I realize now -- when it's 'way too late -- that I could never get the hang of Christianity.

Full disclosure:  I was a practicing, observant, believing Christian for the first 55-plus years of my life:  the guy who never missed church, could be relied on to lead a Bible study, teach a class, chair (or just be a member of) a committee, etc.  You know the drill.  Bottom line:  as a Christian, I’ve made my chops. Probably many times over.  But I stopped perhaps a dozen years ago. Now … to clarify … the following is not intended to assert that every practice and every belief that follows is an essential part of Christianity. They’re not. Some are essential; others, subcultural. But they are of a piece with every part of the Christian subculture I’ve ever been personally involved with. So this is why, after 55+ years of trying, often with levels of gut-busting effort that sometimes eventuated in periods of dangerously black clinical depression, I finally gave up, stopped busting guts, scrambled into the sunlight out of (what, for me, was) Plato's Cave of Illusion, and concluded that I simply did not fit in, never would fit in, and could not fit in with actual, as-lived, in-the-flesh, as-practiced, boots-on-the-ground Christianity. Anyway, make of the following what you will:

o God is always right, and I am always wrong.

Christianity – all forms and denominations of Christianity -- always, in ways of varying degrees of sophistication -- seemed singularly anxious to maintain the principle that, in any situation requiring moral distinctions, God was / is always right and I was / am always wrong. I repeat:  always … as in no exceptions.  (To be fair, I should acknowledge that, after World War II, a whole sub-tradition of Jewish theology developed that radically disagrees:  post-Holocaust / -Shoah “protest theology,” e.g., David Blumenthal, Zachary Braiterman, Richard Rubinstein, Eliezer Berkovits, et al., whose work I do not engage for lack of space, other than to say that there is no Christian counterpart.) Among Christians, this lust to absolve God often leads to the defense of the Bible’s assertion that the character of God – in both Testaments – is such as to at least condone, often to advocate, and sometimes even to command genocide, rape, and equally heinous crimes, and this apologetic is sometimes advanced by mild and gentle people of good will who would otherwise consider genocide and the like unforgivable.


o Addressing issues like the above requires only the response “Yes, it’s a mystery”

Admittedly, this point is almost entirely anecdotal. But the pattern is consistent enough to deserve separate mention.  I have discussed matters like the above (e.g., the genocide of the Amalekites, the Shoah itself, et al.) with Christians, and if the discussion proceeds long enough, at some point, the person I am talking to almost always responds with (some cognate of) “Well, yes, it’s a very profound mystery”, usually with a shrug of the shoulders and upturned palms. (I suppose I should, as has become my custom, pause here and say that I do not regard stories like the Amalekite genocide as necessarily historically factual, but that they are at least theological parables describing the character of God -- rather like the story of the young George Washington chopping down his father's cherry tree.) Again, this response, assuming the discussion proceeds this far, assumes forms of varying degrees of sophistication.  I’ve even had people tell me, in different words, “Well, you have to stop thinking and just believe” or, synonymously, “ … and just have faith”.  And please understand:  I have encountered this response from people with multiple academic degrees, sometimes in some theological discipline(s) or other.  Problem is “It’s a mystery” is not an answer.  It’s a question masquerading as a declarative sentence.

o Pretending to put "God in the dock"

“In the dock” refers to the open-phone-booth-like area where the accused stands in a British criminal trial.  Every so often, I notice that a Christian writer, often (though not always) a conservative evangelical, will write a book that puts “God in the dock” and purportedly argues the case against God.    (In fact, C. S. Lewis used “God in the dock” as the title of the first such book I ever read, and that I still consider the prototype of the genre.)  I say “purportedly” because, having read many such books, I have found that with every book in the genre, including Lewis’s, the common strategy is to exculpate God through special pleading, i.e., by “baking into” the question the answer itself. (If you want to read an exceptionally sophisticated example of this from a conservative evangelical author, I would suggest Philip Yancey’s Disappointment with God.) This is accomplished by recourse to “cherry picking” (see below) and / or some form of appeal to “It’s a mystery” (see above). There may be exceptions, but I am not aware of any.  If God really were “in the dock,” and if the author really were a defense attorney in a criminal trial, then the author would be “facially” guilty of jury- or evidence-tampering. Finally, as with Jewish protest theology, it is worth noting that, when Jewish authors put “God in the dock,” they often really do put “God in the dock,” so the verdict is not pre-ordained. E.g., the late Elie Wiesel did in his The Trial of God, which is evidently a thinly fictionalized account of an actual trial of God that convened in a Nazi death camp.


o Cherry picking

It is child’s play to give the Mariners a perfect baseball season simply by (1) counting every game the Mariners win as a … well … as a win, while simultaneously (2) not counting any game the Mariners lose by attributing each loss to some freakishly improbable factor beyond the Mariners’ control (bad weather, incompetent officiating, faulty scoreboard … etc.). Result:  a perfect season – to mix a sports metaphor, like Don Shula’s 1972 Miami Dolphins, of fabled memory. This is known as “cherry picking” and theodicy would be impossible without it.  A plane carrying 400 passengers crashes; 200 are killed; 200 survive. A common, in fact cliché, reaction is to thank God for preserving the lives of the 200 survivors. That the other 200 did not survive is usually passed over in silence, or by pleading “mystery” as previously described.  Again, there are versions of this account of varying complexity and sophistication. But they all – I know of no exceptions – amount to playing essentially the same kind of game I played in my hypothetical perfect-baseball-season scenario.  Christian theodicy has not been kind to outliers, exceptions to the rule, and countervailing evidence. Which is precisely my problem with getting the "hang-uv-it":  I never learned the abstruse theodical art of ignoring countervailing evidence. In fact, and even more to the point, counterexamples always had a certain fatally seductive charm for me.

o Not considering "Ockham's Razor"

During my 2+ years as an MDiv student in Seattle University’s School of Theology and ministry, I was repeatedly astonished by how few of my fellow students -- graduate students, all -- knew what Ockham’s (or Occam’s) Razor was.  So back in the Late Cambrian era, I wrote a “Skeptic’s Collection” column about it. Ockham’s Razor is not a literally universal solvent. But Brother William’s razor is sharp enough that there is an impressive range of theological and theodical argumentation that can be shaved away by the instrument, from arguments about where the Universe comes from to arguments about where human goodness and altruism – and even the human moral conscience – come from.  They all have in common that such questions can be adequately addressed in terms of finite, human, “horizontal” causes with no necessity for invoking supernatural, “vertical” causes.  E.g., the laws of physics and chemistry suffice to account for the Big Bang and the evolution of the human species, and 10,000 years of experience living in organized societies suffice to account for the existence of universal ethical principles like the prohibition of murder and the incest taboo:  a moral conscience is a social acquisition.


But regarding the latter, I must say that here we encounter one of the more unfortunate results of monotheism, any monotheism:  the tendency to take attributes of human goodness, human altruism, and human compassion and attribute them to God.  (This is exemplified in the old clichéd joke about the guy in the flood who, waiting on the roof of his house, rejected help from the boaters and helicopter pilot, and chose instead to wait on God to help him.) I don't know that I would go so far as to argue that this "theft of goodness" is an unavoidable and essential aspect of monotheism, though I think I could make a pretty good case based on the other orthodox attributes of monotheistic deities (the usual "omnis"). But, essentials aside, as a matter of practical, boots-on-the-ground fact, there is a strong tendency among all monotheisms to siphon the fuel of human goodness from the human species' "goodness tank" and into God's. (Oh-by-the-way question:  why does God's "goodness tank" need replenishing? One thinks of the Prophet Nathan's parable to King David, in II Sam. chapter 12, about the rich man who stole his poor neighbor's single sheep to make a feast for the rich man's friend.) Hence Martin Luther's memorable description of human beings:  "dung covered with snow".  I can forgive creationism. I can forgive intelligent design. I can even forgive -- with strenuous effort -- reactionary (not merely conservative) politics. What I cannot forgive in (much? most? all?) of Christianity is its historical tendency to alienate human beings from their own innate goodness and altruism in the interest of maintaining theological orthodoxy regarding an "omni-benevolent God. That will not be forgiven in this world or in the world to come.

So ... OK ... point made:  I don't fit in, and have wasted 2/3 -- probably more like 3/4 -- of my 67-and-counting years trying to do so.  One of the reasons I and people like me don't fit in is the lack of a venue in which the above issues can be surfaced and discussed.  There are venues for other purposes. For example, I feel much more simpatico when Diane and I -- as we did just recently -- attend a dinner meeting of the local chapter of Keck Telescope supporters and hear Dr. Alex Filippenko from Berkeley entrance us with a back-and-forth-participatory Sagan-esque discussion of dark energy, where I felt quite free to ask what must have been achingly naïve questions about WIMPS, the inflationary Big Bang, supersymmetry, and the Standard Model. But theology, ethics, and theodicy? Nope. Sorry. Can't get there from here. Ain't gonna happen, not unless I'm prepared to pay several hundred dollars per quarter to audit courses in those subjects, and to listen to others engage in discussions from which I, as an auditor, would be excluded. In my experience, trying to have these discussions in a church setting is like trying to crash some sacred rite in a Masonic temple.

So I sit outside and try to comfort myself for not being a son of the Widow.

James R. Cowles

Image credits
Straight razor ... Hort Burkhardt ...  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported
Cherries ... Dara Kero, Tokyo ... Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic
Person hang gliding ... Pixabay (no author cited) ... CC0 public domain
Portrait After Velasquez's Pope Innocent X ... Francis Bacon ... Fair use


  • First, it may seem like a description of “waste of time” is appropriate. But you would not be the absolutely wonderful person you are without the journey. So even though the journey is painful, we are who we are because of it.

    I am reminded of two principles of peacemaking that we don’t really embrace either in our culture or specifically as Christians (your pre-now experience).

    1. The only change you can create is in yourself.
    2. Go where it is easy.

    Christians, and I am one, think we can change the world. It is embedded in our theology “create disciples for the transformation of the world.” The colonialistic fall-out has been so harmful that I think we need to recapture the personal change.

    But how much easier would your life have been if the church taught, “Go where it is easy.”

    • About to fly out of Amsterdam for Keflavik, then to Seattle. (Life is just a mad social whirl … Renton one day, Tukwila the next, Burien the day after. Oh I know it sounds glamorous & exciting, but … GAWD!!!! … it all just seems so EMPTY sometimes! As I said, Part 2 next week (my experience in St. Nicholas Church, Galway … to whatever stammering extent I can cast it in words.

  • […] Last week’s “Skeptic’s Collection” column probably seemed like my final word about why I never got the “hang-uv” Christianity, period. This week’s column is intended to provide a corrective gloss by way of a sequel. It is true that I never got the “hang-uv” institutional, creedal Christianity, and to that extent, and regarding that “dialect” of Christianity, that is indeed true. I never had, and still do not have, the “hang-uv” Christianity under that understanding. But a few years ago, while visiting the town of Galway, on the windswept west coast of Ireland, I had what I can only call a mystical experience – a term that, as a “para-professional skeptic,” you will know I do not use lightly — that completely altered my orientation toward religion in general and Christianity in particular. Anyway, make of the following what you will … […]

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