How To Love God Excerpt: Objection #2--You Don't Understand Grace
I'm still working on the analysis of how evangelicals tend to read troublesome Bible passages. But it turns out it's a complicated process, and I'm still double-checking everything to make sure I'm being accurate. In the meantime, here's a piece I wrote some time ago but haven't yet posted. It's from this earlier section titled Answers to Objections. (I've kept this as #2, but it's occurred to me that I actually need a fifth obejction, and it needs to be #1: "What gives you, an atheist, any right to tell religious people what to believe?" It's such an obvious question I almost missed it. But that'll have to wait for another day. Today, here's Objection #2.)
Bear in mind that, at this point in the book, I have just proposed a model of good religion (which amounts to decency, a breakdown of tribalism, and an increased capacity to love others wisely), and then propose to critique religions as more or less useless based on what their actions look like. (And I apologize that this section has some redundancy in it. It's late, and I couldn't yet figure out how to streamline it.) Now to the chapter:
OBJECTIONS ANSWERED #2: Your model of good religion misunderstands grace.
Another reaction I get from evangelical Christians specifically is that I don’t understand Christianity, since by focusing on the effects of religion, I’m judging (evangelical) Christians by their actions, and in doing this I’m ignoring the one real innovation of Christianity which makes it actually different from every other religion in the world: grace!
See, as conservative (and even liberal) Christians see it, most human beings, like the Pharisees as presented in the Bible, try to achieve salvation through “works”—doing good deeds, leading a clean life, helping the poor, et cetera. But this is pointless; God is perfect and can’t be impressed by one deed more or less. What Christianity teaches (they say) is that Jesus’ sacrifice paid the price for our sin, and a person enters into salvation not by “doing” anything, but by accepting Jesus Christ as their personal lord and savior—and then you don’t really have to do anything at all. (Though of course you will if you love Jesus; we get to this shortly.) Therefore Christianity is the only religion that emphasizes grace instead of works! (And also therefore, since I’m looking at Christians’ behavior in my critique, I’m not looking directly at their actual religion, but its mere shadow on the ground.)
This tale isn’t exactly true, but Christians believe it because they hear it from each other all the time, and they rarely look into other religions just to make sure. The uniqueness of Christian grace is relatively easy to disprove: just off the top of my head, Mahayana Buddhism and Sufi Islam both stress mankind’s inability to influence the spiritual world, and our own utter dependence on, and love for, the saving deity (Allah for the Sufis; any of a number of bodhisattvas for the Buddhist). This isn’t even counting all the religions (such as Taoism or Jehovah’s Witnesses) that don’t even posit a hell that anyone needs to be saved from in the first place. And in a way it stands to reason: given that most spiritual experiences are feelings of being overwhelmed by the numinous, any schema that relies entirely and helplessly on the goodness of the Other is a short conceptual leap away.
I hasten to add that depending on how you define “Christian grace,” it may indeed be unique. But this isn’t necessarily saying anything interesting. If you say, for example, “Christian grace is unique because only in Christian grace is God’s love made manifest by God actually killing a part of himself out of love for humanity,” you certainly have a point. But Sufism is unique because its adherents spin around. This sentence is unique in all of human history because it’s the only one that ends with the word “borftaglock.” Uniqueness is nice to have, but it’ll only get you so far, and it might be utterly useless in terms of pursuing meaning, as you can easily demonstrate by looking up “borftaglock” in a dictionary. [FOOTOTE: If there are any enterprising lexicographers out there who want to slip a definition in, may I suggest the following? “Borftaglock n. A word that has no definition. See also Catch-22.”]
If you mean something more specifically focused on actual value, you still run into problems. If, as I can easily picture, many Christians are going to read this and think, “But the Christian concept of grace is the best solution to the problems of mankind,” I’m going to want an actual definition of “Christian grace,” since the definition itself has varied over Christian history and geography—even the geography of the next pew over. But even if you’re claiming something really popular—say, “Christian grace is unique and the best because it posits Christ’s atoning death to pay the penalty for our sin nature and thereby save people from hell,” I’d want to explore each of those questions individually—is it better to believe in hell or not? To accept an atonement model of salavation? To believe in a sin nature? The mere assertion of uniqueness is nothing more than a staking out of turf; surely it would be wisest to first figure out if the turf is worth defending.
There’s yet a third form of uniqueness that might be asserted: you could in effect argue that Christianity is unique because “it’s the only religion I’m comfortable with.” The weakness of this as a compelling argument is so obvious I won’t belabor it. I only bring it up because many Christians essentially argue this without realizing that’s what they’re doing. There may be a log in your eye; I’m just saying.
So forget about whether or not Christianity’s version of grace is in any sense unique. Let’s talk instead about grace as I learned it, and as Christians actually use it. Because again, remember that what I’m asserting here is that religion can be judged based on the effects it has on its truest adherents, and I’m defending myself against the charge that in saying this, I’m misunderstanding the true nature of Christian grace, since we are saved by faith, and works are utterly secondary.
My response: Although this looks consistent on paper, surely it’s safe to suggest that just because Christians say that actions don’t matter, it doesn’t necessarily follow that they actually believe that actions don’t matter. In fact, what if Christians say that actions don’t matter so often precisely because they’re obsessed with actions and are trying to convince themselves they’re not?
This wouldn’t make Christians who do this silly or stupid; it would make them human, with ample precedent. In fact, something like this has a tendency to infect American thinking at every turn. My favorite example is the Dr. Seuss classic How The Grinch Stole Christmas. As you’ll doubtless recall, the Grinch hates the Whos because they’re noisy (and, presumably, publicly happy) on Christmas. So he steals all the presents. And then, just as he’s about to dump everything off Mt. Crumpet, he listens…and discovers that The Who’s Christmas has proceeded without the presents at all. “What if Christmas, he thought, didn’t come from a store? What if Christmas, he thought, meant a little bit more?…” Impressed by the Whos utterly spiritual sense of giftless celebration, The Grinch’s heart grows three sizes, and he brings all the present back. Hooray!
I don’t remember how old I was when I first thought, Wait a minute! If the lesson is supposed to be that we don’t need presents to celebrate Christmas, why does he bring the presents back at the end? Wouldn’t it be best if the whole sled just fell off Mount Crumpet and the gifts were lost forever? And yet, the only reason the story registers as a happy ending is that the Whos get all their gifts back. The answer, it seems to me, is that we’re witnessing an exorcism: we want presents, but we’re afraid we like them too much, so we tell each other a story where a group of Whos earn the right to enjoy their presents by first proving that they don’t actually need them at all. (We could do the same thing, if given the same choice!, we tell ourselves. Thank God we’ll never actually be offered the choice.) Watch the movies and you’ll see the same pattern over and over again. American Pie tells the tale of four high-school seniors who are obsessed with losing their virginity by prom night. So all year they try and try and try, with comic misadventures, up until the actual night of the prom, when they say, in essence, “to hell with this; it was a stupid idea anyway.” And then, having proven that they don’t actually want to get laid, they all get laid, just like they wanted. You’re not allowed to get what you want until you presumably want something better or more important. Just look around; you’ll see the message on TV or in the movies this very week. I can practically guarantee it.
So what if Christianity is something like this—a way for intensely judgmental people to indulge in their desire for moralism, but to conceive of it in such a way that they first clear their throats and claim that moralism isn’t really the point? I’m not saying this is the case—though surely even Christians will recognize the subgenus homo christianus phariseeus—but for the sake of thoroughness I have to at least float the possibility.
What I can say with some authority is that the evangelical Christian lives inconsistently in response to the doctrine of grace. And this may be why it gets repeated so often and so loudly: like the Trinity, it might be a way to temporarily unify, through repetition and sleight of mind, a system that’s basically incoherent and in constant danger of unraveling. There’s only one way to find out: let’s see what it looks like in practical terms.
I repeat: To hear Christians say it, regular religion is man’s quixotic attempt to reach God through human action—feeding the poor, loving one’s enemies, etc. Christians, by contrast, simply accept Christ’s sacrifice and God’s forgiveness, and then, out of gratitude, the Christian feeds the poor, loves her enemies, and so forth. That’s the story on paper.
Don’t you believe it. I was a Christian, and I know how it works, and I would like to poke at the premise a little, since I never looked at it closely when I was espousing it the first time around. I’m doing this, not to attack Christians, per se, but to examine the exact dimensions of a belief, instead of simply accepting what it says in the brochure. Because, as we have seen and continue to see, orthodox religious theory does not always match the orthodox practice.
As evangelicals tell it, when they accept Jesus Christ, they stop trying to impress God with mere human “works”—being good—and instead obtain salvation and forgiveness by, in the common phrase, accepting Jesus Christ as personal Lord and Savior.”
In practice, of course, Jesus’ gift of salvation has to be protected from abuse. Because if the brochure-version theory is correct, a cartoonish reading of it would have someone accept (freely!) God’s gift of salvation, and then murder thousands of people and then still go to heaven ahead of his neighbor who never accepted Jesus at all, even if he also never murdered even a single soul. The theory—faith alone saves—has to have a subclause added, because we all feel we know the difference between genuine faith and someone trying to pull a fast one. For starters, the person who genuinely believes shouldn’t, we feel, be focused on looking for silly loopholes.
Some people do believe the cartoon version of this faith-alone-saves argument, but it’s usually reserved for diehard Reformed types. Mainstream evangelicalism, on the other hand, generally goes in another direction: faith saves, but it has to be the right type of faith: authentic, sincere, motivated from love rather than self-interest, etc. As a popular presentation has it, “faith alone saves, but saving faith is never alone.”
In other words, to really be a Christian, you ought to be at least aware of the problem (your own sinfulness) and care enough to want to do something about it. And then, of course, actually do something, even if it’s something as minor as improving your quiet times or cutting back on swearing. Anything else would look understandably suspicious. By their fruits ye shall know them.
The question, then, is: how is this actually different from the way any other major religion gets practiced? For a Muslim, the act of saying “inshallah” is enough to mark one as a Muslim—but it requires the actual familiar trappings of full-on Islam (praying, ritual washing, tithing, etc.) to make someone “count” as a Muslim in good standing to the community at large. Baha’is are easygoing, but even a Baha’i is expected to at least come to the meetings. However much religious traditions try not to focus on mere behavior, nevertheless devout people are still expected to behave. It’s hard to imagine how any other arrangement could work.
What I’m saying, in essence, is that first, I do in fact understand the theory and practice behind grace. I just don’t think it’s particularly unique, and I think shouting “grace!” loud enough is a way that many Christians cover up the works that they really are more comfortable doing, but don’t dare believe is important. Even if we posit that there’s an ideal form of grace to be practiced somewhere that would be wholly different from anything any religion has come up with (I don’t believe it, but let’s pretend), it remains irrelevant to my discussion because I’m talking about how to observe and fix problems with things religious people actually do. Most devout people from most religions act roughly the same and have the same do-unto-others idea of morality. When this breaks down in the name of religion—when tribalism, intolerance, and willful ignorance rears its head—then I believe something’s wrong, no matter what label you attach it to.