I’m trying to be constructive. Really, I am. I’m trying to stay positive and optimistic about the prospect of forging a common vocabulary and finding common ground with progressive Christians but right this minute I’m getting very discouraged.
See, it only works up to a point. We start out in agreement on a number of things. For example, we agree that a secular government (which is what we have in the U.S.) shouldn’t disallow marriage between two people of the same sex just because of a religious objection. We start out speaking a similar narrative about being inclusive, about personal autonomy, and about human dignity. We even start out agreeing that it’s barbaric to tell people they will be posthumously tortured if they don’t believe the right things or if they use their genitals incorrectly. We’re on the same page so far. That’s awesome. Feelin’ good about that.
But then I suggest that human beings aren’t broken—they aren’t sinful or lacking something essential to their wholeness—that they just are what they are and they’re not “supposed to be” something else and then the conversation changes. I’ve just touched on something bedrock for them, immovable. Apparently for them, many things are on the table for reconsideration but not this. They feel compelled to say something is fundamentally wrong with human beings or else the conversation cannot go forward. For them, this is a non-negotiable.
The wording itself is not so fixed. It can be put any number of ways without bothering them too much. But this belief—that the human condition is fundamentally flawed—is so central and necessary to their way of thinking that its constant reinvention only proves its importance. It is guaranteed to be reincarnated again and again into myriad varieties and expressions over time. But remain it must, for it is the foundation and framework for every retelling of the Christian message. If you take away human inadequacy, you take away the basis for the Christian faith.
If you don’t believe me, then try it sometime. Try to suggest that we are fine the way we are. Not perfect, mind you. Not flawless or infallible. But not fundamentally messed up, either—not broken, not wounded, not inadequate—and watch what happens next. They won’t have it. You can’t take this away from them. It is too precious. They’ll start straw manning you, saying things like “Well, speaking for myself, I know I’m not perfect. Are you saying you’re perfect?” That’s also a false dilemma. Why are our only two options either “broken” or “perfect”? I reject that framework because it is a setup. You’ve been sold a bill of goods.
An imposing social structure (which also happens to be a lucrative industry) has indoctrinated you into thinking a certain way about yourself. It has drilled into you a way of framing and interpreting your own experience which demands that you perpetuate this negative self-talk. It needs you to think you’re broken—messed up—so that you’ll buy what it’s selling. It is a system with a life of its own and it will fight to maintain its own survival. These conversations go the way they do precisely because that system has done such a good job of drilling this core principle into its subjects. You are not as you should be. Call that whatever you want: broken, wounded, flawed. The word you choose isn’t important. What matters is that you see yourself as needy. It’s imperative to the survival of the system.
GOOD NEWS THAT ISN’T SO GOOD
Yesterday I stuck my head into an ongoing conversation within a group of (mostly) progressive Christians to see if some kind of mutual understanding could be reached about this. The conversation host asked if there were other ways of talking about the human condition besides saying that we’re “broken,” at least in part as a response to reading my post “How to Love an Atheist.” The ensuing conversation left me nauseated and discouraged. The short answer to her question was “No.” The overwhelming majority of the responders (and there were hundreds, so I may have missed a few) just searched for substitute words to say the exact same thing she was trying to avoid saying. Some suggested “wounded,” some said “imperfect” or “flawed” or “incomplete.” In virtually every case weakness, failure, and inadequacy were the central theme.
I think what annoyed me most was the way they kept romanticizing their self-deprecation. Progressive Christians recast old ideas with new and flowery verbiage like master artisans crafting a sculpture or painting a painting. It’s an art form. They excel at finding prettier ways of restating Classic Christianity in an effort to recontextualize it for a modern generation. In theory I applaud their efforts. In practice however, I got sick to my stomach. They clearly want so much to make their message not sound critical, but there’s just no way around it. Their “good news” is inextricably predicated on bad news, namely that you’re not as you should be and that you need to be something other than what you are.
They really are trying, though, bless their hearts. It’s not their fault they’ve inherited an anti-humanistic theology. Even in its most positive and affirming expressions, the progressive Christian gospel offers you a goodness that is derivative. Rather than seeing you as the source of your own capacity for good, they insist you can receive someone else’s vicarious goodness, because clearly you need it. “Apart from me, you can do nothing,” Jesus said. There just isn’t any way to spin that which won’t make you look at least a little pathetic. Even their generous acknowledgement that people have good in them stems from the notion that it could only be because we were “fearfully and wonderfully made.” Always the credit goes to someone else. I really don’t think this is much better. It seems to me that on the matter of self-image we haven’t really progressed all that much.
“Oh, but if you only realized that we see ourselves just as needy and flawed as you!” No, that does not make it better. The problem isn’t that I think you think you’re better than me. The problem is that you think so lowly of both of us. This really isn’t healthy. You’ve been taught to see yourself this way so thoroughly that you’ve internalized its critical voice and have made it the voice inside your own head. It’s like you met an emotional abuser who was so winsome and attractive that you brought him home to live with you so that he could be a part of your daily life. Now for you he can do no wrong. You’ve learned your lesson well. Any wrong is always your fault, never his. And don’t anyone else dare say anything bad about this inner critic, for he is your closest companion. You just don’t know what you’d be without him.
I tried to find common ground with this. I promise I did. I’m giving it my best shot. But if this is what even the progressive Christian message is going to be selling, then I’m not buying. I have come to recognize this voice of self-loathing despite its various disguises and I’ve seen it for what it is. It’s not healthy, and it’s not good. I’ll have no part in it.
Yesterday’s conversation host once criticized Evangelical churches for responding to the steady hemorrhaging of membership they’re experiencing by rearranging furniture and putting more gel in the worship leader’s hair. An accurate critique. But to me, this is not much different. I’m seeing scores of articulate and thoughtful people pouring themselves into rewording the message of human inadequacy, now with more attractive language, and it’s getting me down. I’m not seeing real progress there. And maybe that’s because this truly is a non-negotiable for the Christian faith. Perhaps there really is no way within this framework to truly maintain human dignity (and I don’t mean a derivative one, I mean an authentic one). Perhaps they have to insist that people are broken and just keep finding prettier ways of saying it because without something to save us from we would never need a savior. If that’s how it’s going to be, then we humanists can still link arms and fight for justice and charity in the world but these conversations will never go well if they go too deep.
I have much more to say about this issue of low self-image and the Christian faith, but I’ll save that for my next post. Tune in next time. In the meantime, repeat after me:
I am NOT your project. I do not have space in my life for people who can’t accept the person I am because they think I am lacking something essential to my life. Find someone else to fix. I am not broken.
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