Some thoughts on the Theology of Jerks. Earlier this week, there was some minor amusement over Christian scholar Richard Beck’s claim, at his blog Experimental Theology, that Christians (presumably he means fundamentalists) are lousy tippers:
Take, for example, how Christians tip and behave in restaurants. If you have ever worked in the restaurant industry you know the reputation of the Sunday morning lunch crowd. Millions of Christians go to lunch after church on Sundays and their behavior is abysmal. The single most damaging phenomenon to the witness of Christianity in America today is the collective behavior of the Sunday morning lunch crowd. Never has a more well-dressed, entitled, dismissive, haughty or cheap collection of Christians been seen on the face of the earth.
We can snicker all we want, but Beck does make what I think is a pretty radical statement for a lot of self-identified* Christians (italics mine):
…I was trying to push back on a strain of Christianity I see in both my students and the larger Christian culture. Specifically, when the student said “I need to work on my relationship with God” I knew exactly what she meant. It meant praying more, getting up early to study the bible, to start going back to church. Things along those lines. The goal of these activities is to get “closer” to God. To “waste time with Jesus.” Of course, please hear me on this point, nothing is wrong with those activities. Personal acts of piety and devotion are vital to a vibrant spiritual life and continued spiritual formation. But all too often “working on my relationship with God” has almost nothing to do with trying to become a more decent human being.
The trouble with contemporary Christianity is that a massive bait and switch is going on. “Christianity” has essentially become a mechanism for allowing millions of people to replace being a decent human being with something else, an endorsed “spiritual” substitute….
The point is that one can fill a life full of spiritual activities without ever, actually, trying to become a more decent human being. Much of this activity can actually distract one from becoming a more decent human being. In fact, some of these activities make you worse, interpersonally speaking. Many churches are jerk factories….
Going to church, well, that is working on your relationship with God. But, as we all know, any jerk can sit in a pew. But you can’t be a jerk if you take the time to treat your waitress as if she were a friend, daughter or mother.
Or as a human being. But I’ll get back to that. Beck again:
My point in all this is that contemporary Christianity has lost its way. Christians don’t wake up every morning thinking about how to become a more decent human being. Instead, they wake up trying to “work on their relationship with God” which very often has nothing to do with treating people better.
What seems to freak out the theopolitical right about ‘secular humanism’ isn’t the secularism, it’s the humanism. Not that they’re particularly happy with atheism**. But that’s easy for them to write off (and some will try to convert you). But humanism, particularly religiously-based humanism throws them for a loop because there aren’t simple things one can do and believe to ensure you are right with God.
Humanism is hard, since it requires thinking through the consequences of belief. It is hard because principles often conflict, and there isn’t always an easy answer. Humanism is hard because beliefs–and the actions stemming from those beliefs–must be judged by something more than “How firmly do you hold this belief?”
Beliefs, values, ethics are judged by difficult things like “Did you create a more just society?”, “Did you reduce suffering?”, “Did you stop man from oppressing and mutilating his fellow man?”***
Worse, humanism means that some things theopolitical conservatives are taught, such as views on abortion and homosexuality, might be wrong. And given how dearly ‘pop Protestantism’ holds those shibboleths as organizing principles, that’s too terrifying for them to contemplate. Because suddenly everything then has to be reexamined from a perspective different from one of simply following laid-down edicts.
So, when you hear theopolitical conservatives decrying secular humanism, remember: it’s not the secularism that scares them, it’s the humanism.
*In my experience, people who call themselves “Christians” and not a particular denomination (e.g., Methodists) are almost always either evangelicals or fundamentalists, and typically theopolitically conservative.
**Speaking as a moderately observant Jew, they’re typically not too happy with us either.
***That so many
people of faith ‘religious’ people supported torture is one of the great abominations of our time. When Camus told Spaniards in Franco’s Spain, “Christians, your Church has deserted you”, he didn’t know the half of it.