TRIGGER WARNING: molestation, ostracizing, religious bigotry
It’s been a long time coming for me to write this editorial. In the past 3 months since my last post on this blog, I have had a serious amount of growing up to do, ranging from concerns about whether a teaching profession is something I really want to do, to asking myself about my disposition to my faith or my family? A lot of folks, including people who are closest to me, are confused about my intentions because there is a human drive to know why others believe or do what they do, especially when it is so abnormal to what they believe is right. In order to make my intentions clear, I’ve had to –frankly– take my father’s own advice and put in writing exactly what I want those higher up than me what I want them to do.
It’s official. As of last week, I sent in a letter resignation to my pastor. I am no longer a Christian.
To all the allegedly concerned, God-fearing Christians (with a big C) out there probably putting me in their thoughts and prayers, desperately asking that I reconsider or simply wondering why I did it, ask the me from 2007 when I was touched –rather inappropriately– on a “men’s retreat” that was affiliated with a college Christian organization, by one of the group’s intern leaders, and asked by that same organization to leave if I was uncomfortable and never speak about the atrocities to anyone else, why, WHY, I didn’t make that decision to stop being a Christian then! They even said to me that had I told anyone else, their precious religious organization would be marked as a cult, and honestly, even calling religion a “cult” today has never stopped any religion from thriving beyond that. Religion? Cult? They are but empty words.
So rather than tackle what some might think is a spiritual journey out of one Church and into another, or what am I going to do with my life without this “opiate of the people,” I’ve decided to tackle a much bigger question today: Can you uphold christian values without actually being a Christian?
Well the short answer? That depends on what you mean by “christian values.”
What is a Christian?
Before I get into a deeper conversation on what is meant by christian values, I think it’s important to define what exactly makes Christians “Christian” in the first place.
The most simple definition completely devoid of context is probably one that most of you automatically consider without question: a Christian is one who believes that there is only one, omniscient, omnipotent, and I suppose since we’re in the 21st century, loving God, who became flesh in the form of said God’s son Jesus Christ, who died to redeem all of mankind of their sin… or something along those lines. Not saying they’re wrong to believe that. Not going to argue how any of what I just said was possible. Humans have a long history of believing in all sorts of ideas to explain all kinds of phenomena, that the most pious of Christians have the ultimate blanket defense: you must have faith.
That doesn’t at all seem like what Christians really gravitate towards when they try to evangelize toward non-Christians, because I find more often than not that Christians use God nowadays as an argument for what exactly are sins, and why those who commit them without believing in the Christ are condemned to an eternity in a place filled with wailing and gnashing of teeth (you know, that place the West calls Hell). Well if we’re going to have a conversation about sins, and how literally everyone who has ever lived has committed at least one of them, then perhaps sin is where I need to find “Christian values?”
No, Christian values are wrapped up in the most hotly contested codex of the modern world: The Bible. And religious affiliations or lack thereof notwithstanding, I would argue that it still is an important text to read in Western society, even if you’re not a Christian. The reason being that the structure of the Western worldview is shaped by this one text that has survived over millennia, evolving to fit a variety of culture’s needs, to become the world’s largest religion to this day. Minor changes and adaptations are what ultimately help any faith to continue over time and speak to different walks of life. And because of these changes, we have the religious mess we have today, because those “Christian values” are not the same, even for two different Christians.
Christianity and the West
I went to a public high school in California. I’d consider the education I got to be relatively progressive, compared to others. By the time I graduated, it became recognized as an IB Diploma school, and I was one of the students who piloted the IB curriculum. So why do I bring this up? Because one of the few memories I had of that experience was reading the Bible over the summer before my 11th grade year.
Okay, maybe not the whole Bible (although I wouldn’t put it past some of my peers who would have done that), but at least the Books of Genesis, Exodus, the four gospels Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and finally Acts of the Apostles. We did this exercise as a school back then because biblical references from these sections of the Bible are deeply embedded in English literature and American culture, and as a class, we were going to view these stories in that contextual lens. This had been explained to at least one of my friends who was Jewish, and as far as I’m concerned, the curriculum of that English class for the rest of the year never once tried to enforce an established religion on us. But one thing we didn’t really discuss? Christian values.
And that was probably for the best, because even the mention of religious values back in those days, in a public school of all places, would have been considered taboo… or so I thought. The fact of the matter was that even at my school, the vast majority of the student body were practicing Christians and Catholics of all denominations, regardless of the school’s overall areligious establishment. But the whole is not the sum of its parts, and by no means does having a majority Christian student body make a Christian institution… I think?
The common conception here is to separate things that are categorically distinct. A public school free from an established religion also allows its students to practice whatever religion they want. It would therefore be considered coincidence that the school happens to have a lot of Christians, right?
If we were to assume that, then we wouldn’t have this conversation, because everyone would be considered a Christian, and no one would argue over not being one (only arguments over how to be one). This is because ideas that everyone in a specific culture agrees upon would not be interesting enough to even talk about. No one would question it. This is true for other world cultures that have an established religion and simply think of “ritual” or “belief” as a way of life. This is why some rather misguided institutions tend to lump philosophy and religion together as if they were the same, because they are rooted in the same type of discipline: a discourse on values.
But in the United States, we don’t do that. Because somewhere in the conversation about the question of religion and values did become separated by the notion of a separation of Church and State, which I’m not going to argue needs to be changed. I will, however, argue that the separation is a false one.
Now let me be clear: I am glad to be a leftist in the political realm, and I think it’s fabulous that there is a freedom of religion in the United States, because with freedom of religion also comes the freedom to not have a religion, hence why this whole conception of atheism is even a talking point. However, one thing that Western civilization likes to neglect is that their values have centuries of being closely tied to Christianity that those who think they can separate Church from State can fool the rest of us into thinking that their values weren’t carried over.
Why do I think it’s important to read the Bible for Western society, even if you’re not a Christian? Because without that historical context, you would have no grounds to criticize where the West has gone wrong. And honestly, this is both the desire and fear that Christian conservatives should have, if their desire to get every kid in America to read the Bible in school would entail: the realization that their religion is not perfect.
And as crazy as it is for me to say it, I wouldn’t have a problem with that.
The Root of Christian Values
Now that I’ve got the contextual, personal reflection shenanigans out of the way, time to answer that Christian Atheist paradox that I started with. Can you uphold christian values without actually being a Christian? I’d be in the camp that is committed to saying “yes,” but that comes with some very disturbing implications.
The philosopher John Gray recently published his book on 7 Types of Atheism, and then followed up with why 5 of them aren’t all that great. In summary, the 5 he didn’t like shared one thing in common that the other 2 seemed better by default, because 5 of them merely replaces a faith in God with a faith in something else, which isn’t necessarily wed to Christianity, but certainly acts like it. The 2 kinds he was okay with were pantheists whom have opened themselves to a plurality in mysticism, and a very Schopenhauer-esque view that entails this idea that progress does not exist or has no meaning. These forms of atheism, Gray believes, carry values that get the furthest away from the Western worldview that is tied to Christianity, and more than likely closer to forms of faith that the West has effectively swept under the rug in its centuries of crusades and colonialism. If Christian values are effectively Western values, those two would truly be saying “up yours” to Western culture.
Well, by these definitions, I suppose my disposition would be closely related to the humanist (I guess?). The argument is that humanists effectively act in bad faith, because all the work that was once ascribed to God is simply transposed to the work of humanity. Seriously? Maybe I’m wrong, but I thought that the qualities of atheist existentialism were a humanism, as both Sartre and Beauvoir had argued that our very existence depends on the presence of others, and it was denying this fact that acts in bad faith! But Gray appears to be saying that such types of atheism are effectively Christian-like. Would they be upholding Christian values?
No. Because there is one value that I have learned from my youth that would remove them from the set of Christians in the world, as would myself as well. I was raised in a United Methodist church, and of all the points of scripture that was upheld in that faith is Luke 10:27, the “Greatest Commandment.”
In a conversation with who is effectively a Hebrew sophist, Jesus is asked what, of all the laws, is the greatest commandment. Being a faithful Jew himself, Jesus replies with not one, but two laws taken from the Book of Deuteronomy: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind, and you shall love your neighbor as you love yourself.”
The first part is self-explanatory: be faithful to God in your entire being, such that everything you do is worthy of loving God (whatever that means). Well. That rules out pretty much every atheist in the world, because loving God is simply something that doesn’t even cross an atheist’s mind. That being said, that second one is definitely the tougher one to digest: what does it mean to love your neighbor as you love yourself? Luckily Jesus explains this in parable (as he does) about the Good Samaritan.
Long story short, the parable of the Good Samaritan is one of the Bible’s most controversial scripts, because Samaritans in Jesus’ time were effectively “the other” in Jewish society, that ethnic group that was effectively treated like the enemy. Yet in this tale, it was not the two allegedly pious practitioners of the tale who stopped to save an unidentifiable man that was just beaten and robbed on the highway, but some Samaritan guy that did instead. What Jesus was effectively communicating was that one’s “neighbor” was not just others who belonged to the same community (the two pious passersby didn’t bother to stop because they could not be certain that the man was their “neighbor” and ignored them), but that it also included the oppressed, like the Samaritan.
This leads to what I think was once a Christian value, but has since become a universally accepted Western value devoid of Christianity: that we have a responsibility to all our neighbors, diverse as that may very well be. And Jesus was not saying this as if it were some kind of radical thought either. Throughout the Old Testament, the Hebrew people are constantly reminded, time and time again, “remember that you were once strangers in Egypt,” a reference to this root that they were once the minorities of a much grander society, that people of God had a frequent history of, well, forgetting that the moment they had power.
I bring this all up because I find that a lot of Christians today have forgotten this very point, and focused on mundane rituals and values instead.
Logic dictates that the greatest commandment, according to the Gospel of Luke, that there are two laws that are equally the most important: love God, and love your neighbor as you love yourself. Now I could say something problematic like how I feel like Christian bigots who hate others are really saying just how much they hate themselves, but I feel like I have at least a little bit more dignity than that. What this commandment does say though is that if you are doing one but not the other, then you really aren’t a good follower of Jesus Christ, something that I would argue is the very definition of Christian values.
And here, I arrive at my conclusion. My neighbors are diverse. And they are more than just your typical white protestant Christian. They are black, brown, and Asian. They are Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, and a pantheon of other faiths. They are queer, in a growing alphabet soup of more identities that challenge the construction of a gender binary. They are the poor, working class. And they are the physically and mentally disabled. In the tireless responsibility of every member of our growing society of the 21st century, we need to stop acting like stewards to those who are not like us, and protect and heal each other from people who legitimately threaten the livelihood of others. That is a responsibility that I will uphold as an educator.
To say that atheists would not uphold christian values is kind of a baseless argument. Of course they wouldn’t if that faith purports the necessity that one is also to love God. That’s fine. But if even the greatest of Christian values purports that one will also love others, then I’m afraid that there are a lot of Christians who aren’t very christian either.