Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Systems, and the Practical Atheists They Produce



I was taught that the Scriptures could be studied and boiled down into discreet facts about God.  And that these discreet facts about God could be organised and systematised and that what gaps remained one could use God-given reason to colour in what missing puzzle pieces might remain.  The Scriptures, and the theology that was distilled from them, was the truth.  I grew up as a Christian in the safe confines of these tight systems - systems for doctrine, systems for church practise, systems for right and wrong, systems for In the Beginning and systems for the Last Days.

Systems are comfortable.  They exist ‘out there’ without me having to do anything about them.  They give one something to adhere to, a cause to which to belong, a movement to identify with, a mission to sign up for, a church to call home. But I learned the hard way and over many years that such systems are not what Jesus set out to establish.  Such systems are not the kingdom of God.  But they do go a long way to explain why there is such a disconnect in Christianity today between what people claim and what they actually do.

A couple of examples.  Students of mine, as part of an apologetics class project, were asked to get to know and interview people considered by Evangelicals to be outside the sphere of Christianity.  I wanted my students to go beyond the traditional boundaries of what passes  for apologetics and uncover what the real issues were keeping Kenyans away from Christianity.  In this case, I was totally blown away by what my students discovered.

This group of students was tasked with interviewing prostitutes in downtown Nairobi as to their attitude towards Christianity.  I’ll spare the story of their challenges in finding prostitutes to interview, as well as the ‘Yeah sure, that’s what they all say’ response they got from the women they finally found when they said, really they weren’t interested in sex because they were theology students.  What unfolded, when they finally sat down for a conversation (the students paid the women for their time since they were being kept from work), was an astonishing story.  It turns out that both of the women my students found to speak with were single parents.  Both of them had husbands who subjected them to abuse and who finally abandoned them.  Both women had no education and no means to support their families and turned to prostitution as a last resort.  When asked about Christianity, the women asserted that they were members in good standing of one of the large Pentecostal churches on that side of Nairobi.  When asked why they didn’t reach out for help to the church, they women said that Christians condemn women who no longer live with their husbands.  They were afraid of being kicked out of the church.  Not only that, one of the women claimed that one of the pastors had become a regular customer.  The church was so large that the pastor did not know that this woman he was paying for sex was actually one of his church members sitting in his congregation week after week.

Whatever else may be said about Pentecostals, they do have very strong and tight systems of doctrine and how one is supposed to act or at least appear to be (in church, at least), and can often take stands on morality, dress and behaviour that seem almost like American Fundamentalism redux to these Western eyes, at least.  But these systems exist ‘out there’.  Adherence brings membership, and membership brings belonging and identity.  But none of this touches the heart, nor does it touch relationships, or how one treats another person, or character.  So long as the offence is out of sight, one apparently need not worry.

A second example.  A young Christian husband found his attempts to accommodate his blustery, strong-willed wife by subsuming his desires to her strongly asserted preferences and by self-consciously taking a servant’s posture towards her in the hope that she would remember the same Scriptures and reciprocate.  Reciprocation never occurred. Instead the need to control and dominate began increasingly to characterise her interaction with her husband.  This often took the form of rages and outbursts of temper, during which the husband would be accused of being selfish, of being incompetent, of not caring for his family.  None of this was true, but sadly, as this was the only input he was getting and coming from someone whom he thought cared for him, the man began to believe what he was being told.  Confronting the abusive behaviour head on led to more conflict and only made it worse.  So he tried to stop the abuse by accommodating.  His psychological perspective was limited at the time, and by trying to avoid conflict he paradoxically became the enabler of his partner's abuse.  Accommodation seemed to work.  It would quiet the storm for a week or two, only to see some small inconsequential issue blown all out of proportion signalling the onset of a renewed blizzard of verbal blows.  The constant verbal pummelling kept him off balance and nearly drove him mad, and finally lead to increasingly severe depressive illness.  What was perhaps most terrible about what was happening in this family was that the man felt he had no place to turn.  He had agreed to marriage counselling at one point, but discovered in the course of the ‘counselling’ that his wife had persuaded the counsellor that she was right and that her husband was a jerk and the cause of all their problems.  This experience understandably turned the husband off from seeking more ‘counselling’.  The husband was repeatedly told that he was the one who needed to change.  Only the problems he was supposed to fix were never specified and were a constantly moving target, like goal posts suddenly shifted just as the player is kicking the ball.  As the years went by and the treatment he received at the hands of his wife only got worse, the man felt he had no recourse but to gut it out.  He belonged to a conservative Christian mission that sent couples home who were exposed as having marriage troubles.  He was part of a conservative Christian faculty that would not tolerate that kind of trouble.  And so for fear of the consequences he chose not to seek help, until he experienced a major episode of his depressive illness.  This time he reached out for help and found it in a very gifted psychiatrist.  It was under her care that he began to understand what was happening in him and to him.  First, he began to understand all of his wrong ways of coping.  He had tried to avoid conflict, and then he had self-medicated when the pain of that conflict felt too great.  One of the great problems is that for most of his life he had felt that his self-medication was the problem.  He never allowed himself to think that his relationship problems with his wife were the actual root, first of his melancholy, then of his wrong efforts to cope, and finally of his depressive illness.  Having grown up in a broken family, he simply could not allow himself to admit that his own family was failing.  Sadly his wife, not willing to admit that she bore any responsibility for how this marriage went, excoriated him for admitting to his attempts to self-medicate his pain, calling them grounds for divorce and then later making them her justification for kicking him out of the house.  He was never allowed to return.  And while he took the initiative to seek a divorce (seized on by his former wife as evidence that she was the true victim in this marriage!), he did so only after multiple attempts to engage his wife on what he felt were the real issues facing them both in their marriage led to further abuse and ridicule.  All of this was going on even though the husband and wife were members of solidly Evangelical ministries, both with impeccable theological credentials, both were ordained ministers, both educated at the highest levels and both missionaries.  But not a single one of those systems did this couple or their marriage any good.  They were both able to exist as part of these ‘Christian’ systems without allowing a single one of them to touch their hearts or their marriage.  The former wife has carried on in Christian ministry, totally convinced of her rightness, with a devoted following, totally oblivious to any perspective on the matter but her own.  The former husband, as he emerged from his depression and began to understand the dynamics that had so shaped his life, experienced a crisis of faith.  While still a Christian, he abandoned the systems that provided such misleading security and is pursing a spirituality that is helping him to heal his battered heart and to learn anew how to love God and love his neighbour. 

A third example.  I am often given the task of teaching Systematic Theology.  Given my issue with Christian systems, the fact that I am regularly given the responsibility of teaching them I find bemusing.  Nevertheless, my goal is to help students find out what they believe, and to ask enough hard questions that they are forced to think about not just the good things, but the short-comings of a particular doctrinal perspective.  All of my students come into the class with systems, whether they acknowledge them or not.  And more often than not, they leave with the same system intact, though hopefully they have been challenged to think more deeply about what they believe.  These same students, at both institutions where I teach, when given the opportunity to write a research paper will, more often than not (at least according to my most recent experience with research papers), cheat.  Whole paragraphs, even whole sections, and sometimes entire papers are downloaded from the internet and presented as if the work is the student whose name is on the cover page.  Thirty two of forty students in two of my classes egregiously plagiarised their papers last January.  Fifteen of twenty-two students at my other school took varying amounts of material from the internet without giving due credit for it.  These are all Christian students, who all go to their respective chapels, sing their respective songs, prayer their respective prayers, and then go about their studies as if their Christianity has nothing to do with how they actually behave.

In all this I am trying to get my mind around the vast difference that seems to exist between the systems to which Christians so ardently adhere and their actual behaviour -their lives as they are lived.  Except for the gazillion churches that exist everywhere in Nairobi, one might not ever guess that such a thing as a ‘Christian’ actually exists here.  The same is true throughout the US.  The term I’ve used before is that we are ‘practical atheists’.  We live as if God doesn’t actually exist.  For all the noise about the Bible among the more conservative Christians, I’m increasingly convinced that most have never actually read it, and certainly not taken what they have read to heart.  Is it too harsh to say if they had, we’d be living in a different world, we’d be going to different churches, we might be living in different marriages?  And that’s just among those who profess to have a ‘high view’ of Scripture.  Again, another example of a comfortable system that actually doesn’t touch how we live.



My examples are admittedly dark.  And discouraging.  It is sort of where I am and where I’ve come from and what I struggle with.  I more than anyone wish it were not so.

Never too late?