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The assigned problem and the solution

May 1, 2009

On a previous article I wrote (about this shocking conclusion that Mormonism can’t be Christian because…get this…Mormonism is a religion and Christianity is not), I’ve gotten some insightful comments from the author of an article I linked (the one who made the original claim).

The most interesting thing to me was first his persistent that Christianity was not a religion, when…it’s really silly to suggest that it isn’t. I mean, even if Christianity were not a religion or should not be a religion, I don’t see how people argue against the idea that it couldn’t have have spread as far and as fast but for the fact that it has had some strong central organizations propelling it (the Roman Catholic Church, Orthodox church, etc.,) Even with the Protestant Reformation, the movement still created strong churches. It wasn’t a willy nilly relationship-with-Jesus-and-that’s-it.

But, that’s neither here nor there. After his first comment, since he seemed willing to try to proselytize (a lot of people always want to do that), was to ask him to provide me with compelling reason why I should care. Since apparently, moving away from Mormonism is a good first step, but that whole atheism thing — too far. So, let’s go: why should I be looking for a personal relationship with Jesus that’s not the religion called Christianity?

His “final thoughts” were:

As long as you see God, whether you believe in Him or not, as only connected to this reality through religion, or process; you will never find Him. There is no flow chart to salvation. It is not divided up into phases or steps. There is no compelling logical argument that can convince any of us of God or our need for Him. Yet our act of Faith in Him is not contrary to reason. It is self preservation. Anyone that wants to save his life, must lose it.

Salvation from eternal separation from God (hell) upon death, only comes from believing. And believing is placing trust and hope in someone else. That someone is the Lord Jesus Christ. It is relationship to God that saves.

Atheism is a lonely place to be. Religion is also lonely. Process is lonely. None of them requires relationship with others. It is the safe thing to do. Trusting in others is a risk. Take the risk and Trust in the Lord; He will never leave you or forsake you.

The first thing that is strange about this is that people in religions, who believe that God is connected to this reality through these religions, claim to find God all the time. And then there are people who don’t find God regardless of how they believe God is connected to reality or not. The whole God-human connection is already suspect and fuzzy. He points out that there is no compelling logical argument for our need for God, BUT WAIT…it is still reasonable to have faith…because we seek to preserve ourselves.

I questioned Jonathan on his argument styles…these are clearly born from a Christian religion and a Christian tradition that he has learned. One need not present the “problem” and the “solution” in this way, unless one is trained to from experience with a particular religion.

For example, Jonathan sets up the problem. We need to “preserve ourselves.” We need to seek “salvation from eternal separation from God upon death.” I don’t know if I need to really clarify this out, but my question is simple. Why? Why is this a problem? Why is eternal separation from God a problem? I think Jonathan takes this problem for granted because he already believes in God, and in particular a certain branding of God (that is propagated by a religion called Christianity) that suggests that this is the problem.

But don’t fret…because Christianity also has the solution. You can save yourself by losing yourself.

I would suggest that if Jonathan is really not just following a religion, then he wouldn’t *need* to come to this situation or accept this prescribed solution. But because he indeed does follow a religion, he has these kinds of attitudes. So, this problem (and its solution) aren’t convincing to me, because I don’t take these claims for granted.

But he has the audacity to say that atheism and religion are lonely, but the relationship with Jesus is not.

Let’s check this out. In atheism, whatever philosophy you have (humanism, objectivism,  secular existentialism, whatever) you affirm life. Because it’s what you have. You affirm the people you deal with every day, because they are what you have. You deal with people. You build relationships with people…tangible people.

Even in a religion, you deal with people. They are fellow brothers and sisters in the faith. Your religion gives you a conduit between dealing with the immaterial and dealing with the material. So even when you are building that relationship with whomever, it is for concrete benefits in this life (and not JUST the hopes of something after death).

But this relationship-with-God? This seems life-rejecting, because instead, you’re focusing on this problem that you have been taught…what happens when you die? How can you fix that? And your solution is to turn in trust and faith not to your fellow people but to some higher power who can’t even be inclined to show his face on a regular basis to everyone.

But then again…in the end, I guess I can understand how someone wouldn’t want to associate with the organized masses calling themselves Christian. There is a brand decay going on because of the unChristian-like behavior that some Christians exhibit.

UPDATE: Christopher has compiled some of his excellent ideas that he commented on this post into a post over at his blog, Mild-Mannered Musings.

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  1. Atheism does require trust in others. You have to trust that the world’s problems can be solved by mutual cooperation, without the intervention of a deity. You have to find meaning and purpose for you life in other people rather than in a deity. You have to trust that the religious people among your friends and family will be understanding with respect to your move away from faith. There’s plenty of trust involved in being an atheist. Jonathan just doesn’t realize this because he’s never allowed himself to step inside a paradigm besides his own.

    You’re exactly right that the phrases and conceptual framework Jonathan is using were taught him by his religious tradition. What’s more, the Bible was created by the Roman Catholic Church through a “process”, and the Bible is a religious text or structure that frames and defines Jonathan’s relationship with Jesus.

    It has been very interesting for me to study religious history at the academic level, if for no other reason than to see how the language and symbols we are taught shape and define our experiences. It is an old adage that Catholics experience Catholic miracles, Mormons experience Mormon miracles, and evangelicals receive a check for exactly the right amount just when they need it most. That only scratches the surface. I’d be willing to bet that millions of people in nearly every theistic tradition would claim to have a relationship with God, but that all would describe that relationship in very different ways and offer very different examples of the types of experiences that confirm them in their faith. Buddhists would talk about enlightenment and being filled with God’s unspeakable light. Mormons would talk about their burning bosoms or the priesthood blessings that cured their cancers. Catholics would talk about the healing offered by the Holy Virgin or the deep comfort they find in reciting the rosary. We all stand in a tradition and all of our experiences are shaped by that tradition and understood through its lens. Even atheists often tell their de-conversion stories in a format remarkably similar to the “testimony” narratives in their former religious traditions.

    These are not just examples of people using different language to describe the same experience. The language of our birth– the language we have learned all our lives– actually defines how we experience and understand the events themselves. An experience only has meaning for us in memory, and memory is at least partly couched in and shaped by language. Check out this page on reconstructive memory and schema theory and you’ll get a feel for the problem. Basically, the issue is that when we remember an event, what we remember is not the event itself but rather the interpretive schema through which we make sense of the event and give it meaning and significance.

    So to Jonathan I would say, nobody can exist in a vacuum or without a tradition. If you had no language, how would you express your experiences? How would you even understand what had happened to you? They would just be empty, meaningless events. There would be no understanding or reasoning. There would be no communication. There would be no relationship. I have no problem with people claiming that they have a relationship with God. In my opinion, that’s fantastic. Just don’t pretend to be free of the influence of a religious tradition. And don’t pretend that there is something qualitatively different about the way you carry on your relationship and the way other religious people do the same. Blessings,


  2. Sorry, that was long-winded.

  3. Thanks Chris, for the comment (I don’t mind that it’s long-winded, because I’m long-winded too).

    For about 95% of your comments, I completely agree, but then there is just a slight place I disagree.

    It is about the role that language plays. Now, of course, I recognize that language colors our perception of events in a powerful way. But things also aren’t necessarily so deterministic. Have you ever tried to search for just the *right* word but you couldn’t find it? I experience this rather frequently and I think most people also do it.

    But you see…this would be impossible if without language, we could not express our experiences. Rather, we still know what we FEEL and we still know that all of the synonyms we can possibly think of aren’t quite right.

    So perhaps, the situation is that language is partially more for the other people than it is for ourselves. We know what we felt, because we felt it. But to get other people to know what we felt, since we can’t transfer our emotions, we come up with languages, which aren’t that great at transferring emotions either, but they are better than nothing.

    But I agree. It would be incredibly strange for someone to have a feeling — let’s say we call this enduring feeling a relationship with God — and then use one particular set of symbols and language to describe it, but then reject that he is part of that religious tradition. My question to Jonathan: why does he cling to a Christian interpretation? You’re right, all kinds of people have incredible experiences, but they each have different interpretations and symbols to use, and it’s precisely because they *are* influenced by particular religious traditions.

  4. Hey Andrew,

    What you’ve hit on is actually a very sticky philosophical problem that people have been fighting about since the nineteenth century and are still fighting about today: the extent to which experience is prior to language. There are some philosophers who feel that all experience occurs entirely through language and cannot be experienced otherwise. There are other philosophers who believe that experience is pure and unmediated, and we only name things for the purpose of communicating with others.

    I think both views are oversimplified. There’s truth to your statement that we sometimes experience things we don’t have a name for. But we don’t only name things for other people’s benefit. We name them for our own benefit, because it’s only in language and schemas that we can make sense of things and make them meaningful for ourselves. And once we’ve named something and fit it into our conceptual schema, anytime we recognize that thing in our experience we will bring the schema to the experience as an interpretive lens. The experience may in some cases challenge the schema, but just as often the schema will color and alter the experience. And quite often, experiences that we don’t have schema for just get ignored or discarded until somebody names them.

    So is our experience determined by tradition and language? I agree with you that it is not entirely so. But it is at least partly so. And in truth, we’d have a hard time functioning if that weren’t the case.

    I think we’re probably mostly in agreement.



  5. Hey Andrew,

    To add to what I said above, I think the relationship is even more deterministic when it comes to religious experiences than when we’re talking about normal, everyday experiences. The reason for that is that religious experiences are shaped not only by texts and schemas and language, but also by a religious communion and ritual. Unlike everyday experiences, where the object being perceived is concrete and may arrive unexpectedly, religious experiences are somewhat ethereal and must be conjured through prayer or ritual or art. My experience of speaking in tongues was a great example of that. I saw people modeling the behavior, I was expected to exhibit the same behavior, I worked myself into an emotional frenzy, I had very definite expectations about the experience, the people praying for me were voicing their own expectations, and having the experience brought me a certain amount of prestige in the community. Thus not only did I have a long history of linguistic and biblical training about tongues, but the experience itself was “conjured” in a very intense communal/ritual setting. To say that my experience was determined by my/our expectations would be an understatement.



  6. I see what you mean with your latest comment, especially about the role that prayer, ritual, and art play in conjuring religious experiences.

    It seems to raise more questions about Jonathan’s (my commenter from before) position…that ritual and ‘process’ aren’t where you find God at all. If not, then what of the many instances of communal meditation, worship, prayer, etc. that people attribute as what allowed them to reach the divine?

    It seems to me that if Jonathan wants to deny that (which I think he does, just from the comments from my other article), then he makes a case that spiritual experiences in general are suspect. Which, if he wants to go there, I don’t have a problem with it, but it seems to hurt *his* position, not mine.

  7. Hey Andrew,

    Yep, I agree. I suspect he arrives at his position only by defining his communion’s rituals and processes as something other than rituals and processes– which, of course, is just special pleading. Always a pleasure to read and interact on your blog,


  8. He’s not the first one to make this argument.

    I believe Timothy Keller in his book “The Prodigal God” makes the same point in passing about Christianity in general.

    He backs it up by appealing to primitive Christianity – a faith with no temples, no rituals, and no tangible God that anyone of that time period could recognize as such. He states that the new Christian faith was such anti-matter to the Roman state religion that the Romans actually called early Christians atheists.

    I found it rather self-serving. I think a lot of the lack of what he terms “religion” was more due to confusion than choice on the part of the first apostles. There was a temple for early Christians – it’s just they didn’t have the resources to “claim it for Jesus.” There were religious rituals. There was an authority structure. And the Christian God was actually, in some ways, a little closer to the Roman gods than modern Evangelicals like to admit.

    Sounds to me more like an excuse for being self-centered and anti-social and calling it “faith.”

  9. Wow, interesting, Seth.

    I think I would have to suspect that what you say in your fourth paragraph and last paragraph are more the case than anything else too, though.

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