Thursday, February 12, 2009

Instant gratification, Christianity, America, and kids, the last of which screws everything up.

So, I'm reading about the traditional Creationist view of instant, exclusively-God origins versus the theistic evolution view of gradual, God-initiated origins. The author is a theistic evolutionist (my term, not his, I'm generalizing here), and he was talking about how the introduction of the "human element" (perhaps the "soul" if you will) that enables mankind to use language and indulge in religious practices among other things was a gradual process, which subtly grates against the idea that we are specially designed by God to be unique and especially in God's image. It's not an absolute contradiction, but there is some discomfort.

Also, this was going to be a shorter post, because I'm doing my UScholars reading for tomorrow, it's almost 5am, and I work in three hours. But now I probably just won't sleep...anyway, that's beside the point.

I got to thinking about this gradual vs instant thing, and realized that this "instant gratification" creation that I grew up with was similar to another element of theology that I grew up with - "instant gratification" salvation. This is the idea of the sinner's prayer - that you're not a Christian until you say it, and once you say it, you're in. If you press hard enough, it becomes more elaborate, and it ends up being less black and white, but regardless, that's what I gleaned from my spiritual upbringing, since I didn't ask too many questions before I left home, for reasons far too numerous and loaded for this note. If you haven't read my other notes, and are confused or have questions, read them, or my snazzy new blog, which has them all nicely gathered. Anyway, the comfort in this black/white view, and the reason it's so prevalent, I think, is that it's easy - you don't have to worry about whether you're going to heaven or not, there's no uncertainty - you're either in or out. And as a bonus, it's really easy to get in - all you have to do is say the right words. Basically, as long as you involve Jesus, the fact that you're a sinner, and repentance, you're good.

Except if you don't really mean it. Or you're too young to understand fully. Or is that covered under some underage clause? And if it is, do you have to re-commit once you're old enough? Or does it just kind of transfer over?
What if you say it when you're four in the guest bedroom, following after your father so you can get to heaven, and then never actually follow up later in life?
What if you do follow up later in life, but realize that you're not entirely hunky-dory with everything you were raised with, and so you don't explicitly re-commit the same way?
Are you still in?
Do you get to go to heaven?
Or are you going to burn in hell for eternity?
And what's with this intense focus on heaven and hell, anyway? Isn't Christianity about more than some giant, supernatural Admiral's Club?

As you can tell, this is something I've struggled with, pretty hard. For more on that, again see my other notes (or, again, my blog). Strangely enough, though, I have largely settled on a more gradual, evolutionary, if you will, kind of salvation. That you're judged not on where you are on a journey, but where you're headed - not on whether or not you've crossed some fairly arbitrary line. Spiritual growth is not linear. The idea that it's a black and white, in-or-out scenario just doesn't sit well with me. That may seem like a cop-out, but I don't see any resolution unless you just don't ask questions, which just isn't an option for me. I think the seeming cop-out is a result of a misplaced focus on heaven and hell, as I alluded to earlier, and a result of a larger, more general tendency to want this instant-gratification spirituality.

It shows up in young-earth Creationism, salvation, churchgoing, Biblical literalism, and all kinds of places in the faith that I cobbled together during my first 18 years. Which makes sense, seeing as how I grew up in America, which is a very instant-gratification society.

But I don't think it's that easy. The Bible came way before we had any significant idea of how the world we live in came to be, and most of it was written thousands of years before modern science was even a twinkle in Francis Bacon's eye. Salvation, under much scrutiny, isn't a simple in/out affair. A lot of these things are not explicitly said (although some are), and some are even specifically contested (going to church doesn't make you a Christian), but they are nonetheless prevalent in mainstream American Christianity.

I think this is because Americans are lazy. Christianity does as much for you as you put into it, I would argue - not in a literal works sense, but in the sense that if I just, say, go to church, show up to youth group, memorize some scripture and the right answers to all the questions, sing some songs, go on missions, and believe what everyone tells me, It's not going to do a damn thing.

Sidenote for those who are shocked and/or offended: I considered stronger phrases, but settled on that. Swearing is another thing that I've come to see as less black and white. Swearing up and down, just because you stubbed your toe, or because you are late to work, is dumb, and rude. If used very sparingly, however, it can then indicate intense passion and emphasis about things you really care about. Using big words instead just seems to pretentious to me, and using a thesaurus doesn't make you intelligent. I use language *extremely* sparingly, because there are few things that I am *extremely* passionate about, and I don't want to dilute their power of emphasis by using them for lesser things, like a lot of people do. This, however, is one of the few worthy subjects. case you didn't get my drift, that's pretty much what I did. And it gave me a fantastic moral foundation and a pretty good starting point, but it could have been so much more, and it wasn't. Additionally, I now have to sort through 18 years of accumulated theology to figure out what is actually essential, what is negotiable, and what is unnecessary. Because with everything I've been told spiritually in the past, there is no way that it is 100% rock-solid, necessary theology.

It's a sad statement that I was able to, as a preacher's kid, even, make it through my childhood on cruise control theologically and spiritually. It is largely my fault, but my job was made a lot easier by the fact that in America particularly (the rest of the Western world to a lesser degree), "Christianity" is easy. Really easy. Like, braindead simple. It's arguable that you would have to almost make an effort to not be a "Christian."

Now, is everyone who calls himself a Christian really a Christian? Most assuredly not. 84% (or whatever statistic you quote) of people in America claim to be Christian, but far, far less than that are active Christians. I don't think I would even categorize myself in the latter category, at this point, or any other in my life.

So what is my point? What is the solution? Should Christianity be harder?

Yes. I think so. Christianity should be hard. It should be intellectually challenging, emotionally challenging, and spiritually challenging. Now for some devil's advocate Q&A that I've done for myself, that might mitigate some kickback, or at least explain where I'm coming from:

Q: Wouldn't that result in less Christians?
A: Most definitely.

Q: Is that a bad thing?
A: No. It would get rid of the massive amounts of chaff that show up in church on Sundays and don't do much else. And before you get all up in my grill about calling anyone chaff, I'm not. Whether you're chaff or not isn't my call.

Q: But what about those people who do become Christians simply by going to church? Wouldn't they just be "chaff" and never become Christians?
A: This isn't an easy one, but it's helpful to do a miniature paradigm shift. I like to think that people become Christians by seeing and witnessing other Christians in real life, and are then educated and ministered to by church. Church should not, in my opinion, be an evangelism center. For those that need it, there are rallies, Billy Graham style. But the way that people become Christians should be through existing Christians, living their lives, and sharing their joy. Church does not necessarily a Christian make, and, I think, is hard-pressed to a Christian make alone.
Now, I've heard tell of people becoming devout Christians because someone told them they were going to Hell. I'm sure there are devout Christians who started out just going to church. I would like to think that if there were more sincere Christians and less chaff Christians, those people would find Christianity without church. If not, then those are very different people than I am, and I don't pretend to understand them.

Q: But wouldn't it still result in a net loss of "real" Christians, if there was less of the Christian atmosphere?
A: Maybe, maybe not. Firstly, if you define "real" Christians as "people that are going to heaven," you're missing my point. I bet there will be people not in Heaven that a lot of people think should be, and probably people in Heaven that a lot of people think shouldn't be. The point being, Christians as whole, I think, would be more devout and less hypocritical. They would drive less people away, but also bring less people in. But of these less people, a much larger portion would actually be legitimate Christians. So where do the numbers land? I don't know. And I don't really care. Christianity shouldn't be a numbers game, and trying to make in into one royally screws everything up.

I think that's about all the Q/As that I can think of at the moment.

Now a quick rejoinder: all this is great for adults, but kids throw a huge wrench into the works. As having kids becomes less of a nebulous, distant event, and more of a palatable, possible happening, I've been considering how in the world I'm going to raise them. And although I've done a lot of thinking, and settled a good bit for myself, I haven't a clue how I'm going to raise my kids. I want them to have a strong moral foundation like I did, but don't want them to be able to coast like I did. How does one do that? Go to church yourselves, and start bringing them when they start asking questions? Raise them in the church and make them ask questions? Say to heck with it, and hope they figure it out? I haven't the foggiest. And as I've mentioned before, I'm grateful for the way my parents raised me - it's working out in the end, and it definitely gave me a good start. But if possible, I want to avoid the late start. The typical thought is that kids just can't understand such things until they're old, so you have to spoon-feed them until they're "old enough." But why, when we stop spoon-feeding them food, can't we stop spoon-feeding them theology? What is "old enough" anyway? Does spoon-feeding them long-term mess things up down the road, when you stop? Is the lack of understanding because of nature - the inherent capabilities of kids, or is it a circular nurture thing - because we spoon-feed them, they can't understand?

I don't know.

And I won't, until I'm a parent, and even then, I probably won't know until after I've gone too far to change course.

Being a parent sounds really, really hard, and I've heard it's a thankless job.

So to my parents: Thank you. Immensely, and truly. I know you did your best, and I appreciate it. Truly, and a lot. It did incredible things for me. The fact that I'm not copying it verbatim is anything but a slam on how you raised me. It is instead my own best effort, different because I'm coming from a different place than you were when you were raising kids, and trying to copy your methods when I'm a different person would most definitely mess everything up. Hopefully, my kids will turn out at least close to as well as I did. Which is scary, but it's the best I can do.

Here goes nothing.