Why I Am A Christian

Why I Am A Christian September 14, 2007

Today the philosophy club at Butler University held a lunchtime discussion of Bertrand Russell’s famous essay, “Why I Am Not A Christian“. One criticism of the essay that I offered in the discussion is that it offers a no more sophisticated or academic a treatment of stories in the New Testament than fundamentalists would.

The story of Jesus sending demons into pigs is criticized. This story seems to me to very obviously be an example of political satire. This story from Mark’s Gospel is about the casting out of a ‘host’ of demons who call themselves “Legion”. The story is the equivalent of one that could have been told during occupied France during World War II, in which a French exorcist drives out a host of demons from a French man. The demons identify themselves as called “Panzer division” and beg not to be sent out of the country – the latter is exactly what these “Roman demons” beg Jesus in Mark! To make matters funnier, the demons take the role of (anti-)exorcist, invoking a higher power (God) to adjure (a technical term used in exorcism) Jesus not to cast them out. Then, whereas exorcists usually demanded a sign that the demons have left, the demons themselves ask to show they have departed by being sent into a herd of pigs – unclean animals according to Jewish Law. This is the icing on the cake – in the WWII parallel, the German demons would beg to be allowed to leave this French man and enter instead the opera company down the road that is performing Wagner! I discussed this passage in a treatment of satire as a neglected Biblical genre on my old blog once before.

Similarly, the other story he mentions is Jesus cursing a fig tree for not having any figs, when it wasn’t even the season in which to expect them. Most interpreters would suggest once again that the story is symbolic, with Israel the fig tree having failed to bear fruit and coming under judgment.

So why am I a Christian? A short answer would be that it was within a Christian context that I had a life-changing religious experience. But given that I do not espouse Biblical literalism and inerrancy, some might ask whether I am still a Christian, and my answer would be that taking the whole Bible seriously is certainly no less Christian than quoting it selectively while pretending to believe it all and take it all literally.

I find very helpful an answer to this question that Marcus Borg has also articulated. I am a Christian in much the same way that I am an American. It is not because I condone the actions of everyone who has officially represented America, or that I espouse the viewpoints of its current leaders. It is because I was born into it, and value the positive elements of this heritage enough that I think it is worth fighting over the definition of what it means to be American, rather than giving up on it and moving somewhere else. In the same way, the tradition that gave birth to my faith and nurtured it is one that has great riches (as well as much else beside), and I want to struggle for an understanding of Christianity that emphasizes those things. And just as my having learned much from other cultures is not incompatible with my being an American, my having learned much from other religious traditions doesn’t mean I am not a Christian. Christians have always done so. Luke attributes to Paul (in Acts 17:28) a positive quotation from a poem about Zeus (from the Phainomena by Aratos [sometimes spelled Aratus], about which there was an interesting paper at the conference I attended in Sibiu).

Why am I a Christian? Because I prefer to keep the tradition I have, rather than discarding it with the bathwater and then trying to make something new from scratch. When we pretend that we can simply leave the past behind and start anew we deceive ourselves: just look at the way China worshipped its ‘Communist emperor’ Mao with all the devotion and spectacle they offered to earlier ones. Even an atheist is in dialogue with the past, willingly or unwillingly. That is why (as Mary Doria Russell helpfully notes in one of her novels) atheists differ depending on what sort of faith they have cast aside.

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  • BSM

    Wish I would have known about that one. Russell’s essay–much like the Bible–was written in a different time and place. When he wrote it he was addressing the fundamentalists of his day. IMO opinion his treatment then was sufficient to turn them on their heads. In some cases it still is IMO.Some fundamentalists today are more sophisticated. However, the vast majority of fundamentalist-type churches are not. When I had the opportunity to lead Bible study some 15 years ago you’d be lucky if most would actually read prior to class. I suspect nothing much has changed. That’s why I jokingly started to call myself a trained parrot. I also tend to think that pastors etc. still face this problem and end up watering down their sermons into a nice 10 min. sound bite of fluff. While there are sophisticated approaches to Christianity (e.g. Ehrman, McGrath v. I & II, etc) I tend to think this view is mostly confined to academia. Re: Your fig tree commentary is a good example. While many scholars would agree that the story is symbolic, many modern-day fundamentalist pastors still would not agree. Why am I not a Christian? Because I believe that no matter how you interpret it, the truth claim is not true. For me, at least, it’s now a fascinating topic that I like to study but that’s about it.As for starting a new tradition I’ll quote Russell: “All movements eventually go too far.”:-)~BCP

  • As I have discussed with numerous atheists, because the ground of faith causes some action to be indicative of that against which Russell argues, it is not therefore by necessity that faith practiced in forms quite different (e.g. the liberal progressive strain) is a ground for the same set of reasons that provoke Russell and the like not to be Christian od theist in general. The problem with this and with Dawkins’ argument is a logical fallacy as well as a clear misrepresentation of faith and theological discourse and a mileading overgeneralization of faith as a monolithic ground for all possible actions that cause harm to others.The logical fallacy is a conflation of ground/consequent and cause/effect. That faith can be a ground for a range of hramful actions done by others is not to be reasonably doubted. Faith is also a ground for altruistic and rather profound demonstrations of love to others. These are two consequents for the same ground to which folks like Dawkins would have to assent since the evidence is clear in suypport of both.The logical problem comes when faith is then assumed on this ground/consequent argument to be a neccesary *cause* for harmful action even if practiced in the altruistic sense. Thus the argument that even the liberal/progressive view (even in a particular sense) is argued to enforce the problem of faith as a cause of harmful action. But an answer is not forthcoming if this argument is challenged, which I have challenged before to so many parroters of Dawkins and Hitchens among others, with the following question: If this is true, then please demonstrate how the work of Habitat for Humanity, which is clearly rooted in a specific religious conviction, causes or even contributes to the actions of a group such as God Hates Fags. This calls out the logical fallacy and the answer is not available on rational grounds but rather follows the logic of the fundamentalist to say “well it’s obvious and you are just making stuff up which is what faith gives license for people to do”. And the debate ends in the same way as it might with a Jehovah’s Witness (which my wife can’t stand when I engage them when the come to our doorstep!).The other fallacy is an assumption that faith is rooted in no evidence whatsoever and demands no critical investigation of its very principles. While it is true that many believers will not critically engage their faith, it does not mean that faith is therefore not demanding of critical investigation as *all* claims to certainty should. (Note logical fallacy #2: Is implies Ought). This is essentially Dawkins’ argument: Faith demands assent without criticism since it is rooted in no evidence at all. Thus there are clearly at lest two logical fallacies that are not investigated in the atheist corpus at the moment since they are assumed to be true a priori and the arguments never justify those a priori claims!The truth is that theology is the discipline of faith seeking understanding, and it is generally rooted in an initial experience of God. Theology is how we engage that experience and understanding. It is assumed that the experience is not evidence. Surely not in the scientifici sense. But I cannot scientifically prove my love for my children or my wife for whom I would gladly be tortured to save if life came to that end. We can argue this on genetic grounds to preserve genetic competition, but anyone with a child knows that it goes beyond any mere formula to explain the potency and reality of human love which does seem to go beyond mere evidential explanations for its existence. Why should it be different for the experience of koinonia or the presence of God?Thus an unreasonable proof is demanded of an otherwise rather reasonable articulation of human experience and this is where the current atheists are building a straw man and assuming that it is univerally true when it is clearly not!I recently posted a pievce on Dawkins that might interest you on similar grounds.Cheers. Hope your fall semester is off to a good start!

  • Anonymous

    enjoyed your post up until here:Because I prefer to keep the tradition I have, rather than discarding it with the bathwater and then trying to make something new from scratch.so people who don’t believe in your tradition, or god traditions are “trying make something new from scratch?” most people i’ve encountered who do not hold a belief in deities are usually pretty educated about history, about science, and about religion. the notion that something could be “started from scratch” is absurd. i respect your beliefs, but it seems the characterization your are sketching of people outside of your tradition is one of ignorance, or naiveté. did marx “start from scratch?” probably not. does any human thought? look at it this way, suppose you are right. suppose that a belief system not entrenched in a god-based tradition is starting from scratch? based on the logic of your argument, christianity would have had to have started from scratch at some point. now, based on everything that humans have learned since your tradition was forged, suppose for the sake of argument, a new tradition was being fomented from scratch. in this new tradition all of the 2000 years of accumulated human knowledge would be used to inform its creation. why not get behind the this potential tradition, nacent though it may be? we can even light candles for symbolism. knowing this new tradition would someday, extend and improve upon the existing tradition, would you get behind it? or would you choose to retain and dance around the nastier details of your previous tradition?now i don’t agree that this is how it works, but even if we are starting from scratch by abandoning outdated superstitions, i’m with it. but we wouldn’t be, i’d even let you keep the nice parts of the testaments in the new tradition. jesus and mary can be there. but there are aliens too. and laser guns. and robots. speaking of which, ever checked out the “book of urantia?” good times there.

  • What I meant by ‘starting from scratch’ was simply the attempt to jettison all existing metaphors from religious traditions (some of which are certainly completely meaningless in our time and deserve to be discarded), only to try to create utterly new ones, which I have not seen successfully accomplished. Some people leave behind Christian God-talk (for instance) and to replace it put together a (not always coherent) hodge-podge of symbols from other sources, many of which (mystics in each of the traditions in question might argue) point to the exact same thing.Of course, new metaphors, updated metaphors are regularly needed. But what I had in mind was the fact that some people, disenchanted with a religious tradition, spend time trying to reinvent the wheel, when all that was needed was to fix it or stick a new tire on it. 🙂 I didn’t even have atheism in mind at all, and would have to think about the topic further before trying to address how it relates to this topic.

  • Robert

    Hello Professor McGrath,I’m curious, what your method is for distinguishing symbolic scripture versus literal.I think fundamentalist, inerrantist-type Christians are loons, but at least they have the virtue of consistency.

  • It is a great question, but I disagree with its premise. Fundamentalists do not have the virtue of consistency. They have dishonest claims to consistency. They will say the days in Genesis are literal (which they are, in one sense, but they are part of an extended metaphor of a divine ‘work week’), but the dome, the placement of two sources of light in the dome, and God’s apparent tiredness at the end of the week are not. They will quote Levitical references to ‘abomination’ and make signs that say “God hates fags” but never march around with signs that say “God hates shrimp“. Their claims to believe the whole Bible and take it all literally need to be critically analysed. When one does so, one finds that they are maintained on the basis of most fundamentalists not actually reading most parts of the Bible, and practicing a selective literalism while claiming to do so consistently.As for which parts are literal, it depends what you mean. The stories of the Exodus and conquest of Canaan may well have been intended by their author(s) as literal, but from a historian’s perspective they do not fit the archaeological evidence. So if you are asking how I know ‘what really happened’, then the best one can do is to use the tools of historical critical study to assess each piece of evidence.

  • Robert

    Professor McGrath, you wrote, When one does so, one finds that they are maintained on the basis of most fundamentalists not actually reading most parts of the Bible, and practicing a selective literalism while claiming to do so consistently.Would you name John Calvin among the selective literalists?So if you are asking how I know ‘what really happened’, then the best one can do is to use the tools of historical critical study to assess each piece of evidence.Correct me if I’m wrong here, but the tools of historical critical study do not make allowances for the supernatural. So alleged events like the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection would be deemed as fictional. I’m curious how you apply historical critical study to Christian foundational creeds like those above. Do you agree they’re mythical as well?

  • I think that if your faith is focused on taking the Biblical accounts of miraculous births as historical/factual, while claiming that all the other ancient stories of similar happenings are false, and probably believing that such things do not happen today, then you have a very problematic and arguably incoherent belief system.I think by comparing literature we can get a sense of why ancient peoples told stories about miraculous births – to highlight the specialness of an important individual.

  • Thanks for this post. I completely agree with your position. I was born into Christianity and I cannot shake it despite many attempts. It is a part of my life. I am left with the task of making sense of the myths and forming a faith that balances comfortable language with reason.

  • NoxiousNan

    I find your reasoning far more compelling than Tony Jones’, I must say. As someone who started out both Christian and American I completely commiserate. I found enough motivation for me to throw off the Christian mantle (and years later conclude I was an atheist), but have yet to do same with my country…not that I haven’t given it serious consideration from time to time. 🙂