Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Stood up by Jesus?

Joshua Sullivan at Think Atheist has some complaints about the oft-heard evangelistic slogan "Christianity isn't a religion; it's a relationship". As a former participant in that end of Christianity, I think I can shed a little light on the subject for him.

First, where and when did this meme come from? I became a fundamentalist in 1972 (I'm now fully recovered, thank you), and I encountered the slogan within a year or two after that. So I think it's safe to say it was invented by at least the early 1970s.

Notwithstanding my conversion to goofy religion, I wasn't completely stupid, so I never took it in a completely literal way. The evangelical Christianity I was inducted into was, among other things, about God and the afterlife and other "religious stuff", so obviously it was by any normal definition, a religion. I understood the "relationship" slogan as an attempt at what we now call "re-branding" -- in this case, that Christianity wasn't this stereotype of a tedious ceremony that took place once a week in stuffy old buildings where you had to sit very straight and be very quiet while wearing uncomfortable clothes. It was (according to the sales pitch) a happy, dynamic thing -- a ongoing "relationship with Jesus", a "walk with the Lord" (cue a certain sappy hymn on this theme). Keep in mind the spirit of the times: the counter-cultural churnings of the 60's had not yet petered out; the Jesus Movement (ie. the Christian branch of the hippies) was going strong. So it makes a lot of sense that the times would create a Christianity that, whatever else it might be, certainly wasn't your parents' boring old religion.

In that context, it's not a bad pitch, either: like any good slogan it tries to capture a provocative idea in a way that has some punch, and of necessity leaves out a lot of nuance. Of course, there are more than a few enthusiastic amateur evangelists out there who treat that slogan the way they treat the Bible: it's literally true, and we'll just re-define "religion" so it only refers to other folks' god-talk -- not ours.

But back to this notion of having a "relationship with God". It takes (at least) two to have one of those, doesn't it? And Communication is Very Important (so say all the relationship books, and it turns out that even applies here). So how is that supposed to work, when one of the partners seems a bit....invisible and intangible, so to speak?

As explained to me, our half works when we pray. And we know Jesus is listening, if for no other reason than that it goes with the omniscience thing. Sprinkle with a few appropriate Scripture passages, and we've got the uplink side covered. (I work in wireless telecom. "Uplink" is one of the things I get paid big bucks to spend all day worrying about).

But what about the reverse direction? (Another good chunk of my salary comes from worrying about "downlink").

Well to start with, sometimes God even answers prayer -- the thing you asked for happens! Giving little gifts is always good for a relationship, right? Of course, more often than not, his answer is "No". 'Cuz like, that particular thing wouldn't be right just now -- it's "not in his perfect will for you". But it's way cool when he says "Yes", and that makes up for the other times.

Can you say "confirmation bias", children? Of course you can.

But God is also supposed to speak more directly than that. Some of the more cynical people on my side interpret this to mean that Christians have auditory hallucinations. While that obviously happens to some believers (and in more Pentecostalist circles may even be accepted as a genuine Word from God, instead of a neurological issue that should be treated by a competent doctor), that's not the main way it's understood in the calmer waters of mainstream evangelicalism. It's much subtler. In the groups I hung out with (mostly Navigators), the idea seemed to be that while you were reading your Bible (which you are presumed to do faithfully, every day), a verse might "stand out" in some way, or while praying you might get a little "feeling" that God wanted you to know or do something, and that was God speaking to you. (I don't know what you're supposed to do if the "stand out" verse is, say, one of the more obscure ceremonial laws in Deuteronomy. I suppose that rarely happens, as even the most devout Bible-reader must sleepwalk through those passages. Really, there are whole chapters in there that are simply unreadable.)

It's pretty obvious that this process of listening for God's Little Hints is open to all sorts of free-associative and autosuggestive effects. Feeling a little low-level guilt about some minor thing? There's probably a Bible verse that will bring it to the surface - Yep, God wants you to repent of that! Wondering if you should pursue a particular course of action? Again, there's probably some verse that, if squinted at in just the right way, can be made to apply.

Funny that it never seemed to happen to me. I think that, even at that young age (ie. late teens), I just didn't trust this sort of subjectivism. I knew that my inner monologue was capable of tossing up all sorts of random stuff, and there was no reason to take any of it as anything more than the usual stream-of-conciousness noise. If Jesus wanted to be heard over that, he'd just have to speak louder. Which as far as I could tell, he never did.

Maybe it would have helped if I had taken up Buddhist mediation techniques, which are supposed to be good for learning to quiet the internal mental noise. But in those days, I think I regarded that sort of thing as Satanic, and thus definitely verboten. Ironic, that.

So as far as I'm concerned, I tried to to have a relationship with Jesus, but he never showed. Nowadays of course, I realize there's a very good reason for that....

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