Many students desire to do God’s will, but struggle because they don’t know what God’s will is.
We’ve been talking lately about what it means to have meaningful lives and how to find one’s purpose in life. Last time, I mentioned that Christianity’s dominated that discussion for centuries. Indeed, this monopolization has progressed to the point where quite a few of them think that it’s downright impossible for a person to have either meaning or purpose in life without also believing whatever the Christians judging the matter believe about the supernatural. They’ve evolved an entire mythology around the topic of meaning and purpose in life–a very little of it official High Christianity theology type stuff, but most of it Low Christianity folk-belief type stuff. And all of it is dead wrong.
It can be hard to untangle all that indoctrination when people deconvert, because their entire framework for viewing their lives comes from a religion that they now know makes a slew of untrue claims. Sometimes that framework isn’t even verbalized, so it can take years just to recognize that this programming even exists, lurking behind our eyes and whispering all kinds of lies to us when we’re vulnerable. So I want to tear down the curtain separating us from the false wizard behind the scenes and show you those myths. Today I’ll start with one of the worst of those myths–and I’ll show you why it’s just as nonsensical as everything else Christians claim.
The myth I’m referring to is the idea that people can’t work out their own purpose in life–or find meaning in their lives according to their own judgment and discernment, so must get both of those things from a supernatural being. It’s a pernicious myth, and it does us no good at all to labor under it.
High & Low Christianity, As It Relates Here.
We’ve talked about “High Christianity” and “Low Christianity” before on this blog. That’s not an official distinction; it’s just my quirky little X-axis for categorizing the religion. I visualize it kinda like this:
This is a very simplified graph that I just threw together just now. Sure, we could definitely talk about what denominations go where, but this is just a very general illustration of what I mean. I think of Christian groups in terms of how controlling they are of their own members and non-members alike, and in terms of how much of that folk religion there is in the group.
Christians who find themselves on the Low Christianity/High Control-Lust part of that graph tend to be the worst of the worst. These are the turn or burn, fly or fry types that grind our gears the most. With very weak theological underpinnings to their faith, hardcore salesmanship figures in more prominently with that group’s retention and recruitment numbers–as Ted Crisp’s ruthless boss once noted during a sales talk the two of them gave for a nonexistent product:
Products are for people who don’t have presentations.
Veronica, Better Off Ted, “Jabberwocky“
If someone has a very strong sales game, then they can sell just about anything. They can even sell nothing at all! (Just imagine how good their evangelism game would be if they actually had a real, tangible product to sell.)
Even the mildest, most unassuming, most ivory-tower Christians still think that their god gives their lives greater meaning. Sometimes you have to read between the lines to see it, but it’s there.
For example, check out this UCC statement of belief and its insistence that their god totally calls people to do certain things. They’re not bad things, don’t get me wrong, and UCC Christians seem like pretty good eggs overall, but their page makes it clear that they think their god is the one doing the calling, not them.
Then we mosey over to the United Church of God, a thoroughly fundagelical outfit with distinctly idiosyncratic and weirdly overbearing beliefs (putting them on the Low Christianity/High Control-Lust quadrant), and discover that they have quite a lot to say about exactly what people’s purposes should be during their lifetimes.
The less theologically robust (by which I mean adherence to classical theology rather than homebrew doctrines like Oneness Pentecostalism, Saturday Sabbath, Biblical literalism, Creationism, Pascal’s Wager, and all that fun stuff) a group is and the more folk-religion it contains (speaking in tongues, dancing in the spirit, snake handling, weird ritual prayers and practices, dress codes especially for women, attachment to jingoistic nationalism, etc), the more comfortably that group sits at the Low Christianity table.
That table is where we generally find Christians who are, shall we say, more disadvantaged in every way: less healthy, more dysfunctional, less well-socialized, more prone to living in violent or economically-challenged areas, less educated, less wealthy, and less optimistic about the future. These Christians are more likely to view a controlling leadership and coercive culture as acceptable–and to look down on leaders and groups that are not as controlling and coercive. And this last bit might just be me, but I’ve also noticed that this is the group that is the most task-oriented and transactional of all Christians, and the least able to manage themselves independently or self-regulate themselves–meaning that they have to be given careful, step-by-step instructions for things, they get really lost and frustrated if they’re not sure exactly what to do and how to do it, they don’t have a lot of emotional skills, and they have a lot of trouble expressing their negative emotions (like frustration) in constructive ways.
The Christians sitting at that table are likely to stay there, too. Even if they dimly recognize just what a broken system they inhabit, they can’t imagine any other way of doing Christianity. Whatever form of the religion they’re involved with, that’s the only acceptable form in their eyes. The most unforgivable sin there is to them is getting up from the table to seek another–or to bag the whole thing to go hide with friends in the stairwell during assemblies and pep rallies (not that I have direct–oh, screw it, you totally know I did that every chance I got, right?).
That table is also exactly where we find a serious love for the notion of divinely-handed out purposes and the insistence on an external source of meaning in life.
The puzzle pieces fit together so elegantly.
Myth #1: Your Meaning is Coming from Inside the House!
People who don’t have a lot of faith in themselves or their culture or their political leaders or the potential of their own children have a lot of fears and worries that other folks may not even understand. And they need to soothe those fears and worries somehow. There are a lot of people like that in our culture. They’re people who lack resources and the ability to get resources. They can’t and won’t improve themselves. They see such improvement as a snub of the only culture they’ve ever known, and they know deep down that for all the bowing and scraping they’re doing at the altar every Sunday night, they are still and always one paycheck or chronic diagnosis away from being homeless and watching their kids go hungry. That’s a level of helplessness that most people outside that tribe can’t really understand.
When there’s nothing real that these Christians can seize upon to help their situation, people will grab for even imaginary straws. I had a relative who kept sending me chain forwards by email–remember those? Well, I’d get one about once a week. “Forward this to ten people and you’ll get a check in the mail this week for exactly the amount you need!” and all that. This relative was, of course, Catholic (you can take it as read that all my relatives are Catholic), and as fervent as one could ask. But she couldn’t get over these stupid forwards.
I finally asked her why she kept sending them when she knew that magical thinking didn’t do anything. She paused, and finally replied, “You never know, do you?” She was a sweet young woman, but she had no faith in herself at all to affect her future or her present reality–so she indulged in a little magic on the side to try to help her odds.
In the same way, people who don’t have a very firm sense of themselves or who have had their self-reliance and self-assurance stomped out of existence by well-meaning religious control freaks either never learned the skill of figuring out their own meaning and purpose, or else they’ve shrunk away from that skill out of fears that it’s too proud or selfish somehow.
They don’t trust themselves. Sometimes they literally don’t even know what they want or need. They can’t make that phone call themselves. They need it to come from outside the house, or else they don’t think it’s valid, maybe even that their plan is automatically doomed to fail in some catastrophic manner.
The idea that there isn’t anybody calling from outside the house is scary to such people. It means that they’re alone–on their own–without a safety net beneath their feet.
It’s staggering to consider how much courage it takes to deconvert out from under that kind of indoctrination. More and more people are managing it, which means that we’ll likely see fundagelical leaders drilling down even harder on these ideas in the future to try to scare their flocks out of getting too close to the edge of the road ex-Christians stumbled onto.
Because as it stands, right now, I sure hear a lot of Christians panicking about losing all sense of purpose and meaning in their lives if they get too close to the truth about their religion. I’m not kidding. I literally hear this. Christians have been threatened with that exact loss for years–and it’s taken hold bigtime in their hearts. They really worry about this. And as with most phobias, there’s no way for the rest of us who’ve been through that struggle already to tell them that there’s nothing to fear really–that it’s just another made-up threat that Christians levy against dissenters to keep them in the pews long past the time when they’d ordinarily have left.
Yet Another Threat.
The simple reality is that there’s no evidence whatsoever that any supernatural beings exist, much less that one exists who fits the description Christians typically give to the deity they think they worship, much less that there exists such a being who gives out purposes to his followers and is the sole agent imbuing their lives with meaning. If Christians spent as much time finding credible reasons for why anybody should take their sales pitches and threats seriously as they do blustering out their impossibly gruesome threats and childish, greed-pandering come-ons, there’d likely be a lot fewer Christians to worry about.
Whatever cosmic force someone imagines exists that hands out purposes and makes life meaningful, if someone really believes that and wants to persuade others of the same, it’s really on them to come up with credible, persuasive evidence that this being exists. If the being doesn’t exist, then the whole paradigm for meaning and purpose suddenly goes hollow and implodes.
But instead of coming up with that evidence, Christians are content to keep honing and sharpening their threats–like they’ll find one that’s horrific enough to persuade just on the sheer basis of its creativity!
Moreover, the idea that a divinely-granted sense of meaning or purpose is superior to a human-derived one is the biggest load of hooey I can possibly imagine. There’s not really a way to measure that kind of thing, you see. Christians’ testimonies often do feature the trope of I tried to do everything myself and oh it was soooo inferior but now YAY TEAM JESUS! I have a new and improved and really for realsies purpose in life! But let’s remember that they are selling something with these testimonies–and that they are hardly disinterested casual observers of the drama that is their own lives.
I’ve mentioned before that often ex-Christians deconvert and are thrown into a tailspin for a bit because they believe that myth–but unless someone’s facing a problem that needs professional help to resolve, every ex-Christian I can remember has come through their deconversion with a firmer sense of both life’s ultimate meaning and of their ability to figure out a new purpose in life (or rejigger their old Christian-centric one to navigate a worldview based in reality).
That tailspin happens because we’ve suddenly lost our framework for conceptualizing meaning and purpose. When we feel ourselves entering that dark emotional space, it’s important to step back and ask where those feelings of having meaning and purpose actually came from in the first place, if our supernatural imaginary friend doesn’t actually exist at all. None of the other threats Christians issue have any basis in fact, and this threat, that we’ll just magically lose all these qualities that make us human and make us us–our morality, our purpose in life, our feelings of meaningfulness, our kindness, our love for our families and dear friends–well, this threat, too, has no basis in fact. We just need a new framework through which to view this stuff, that’s all, and frameworks aren’t supernatural. They can be built anew–and indeed sometimes they must be.
That period of time will probably still be scary, but maybe knowing this stuff will take the edge off of it for someone while that fear dies the natural dwindling through time and self-care that these fears typically face.
Waiting on “God’s” Timing.
Speaking of time, when I was Pentecostal myself I totally bought into the teaching that whatever people came up with for ourselves, it was always inferior to what our god could do for us. This teaching also declared that often Christians are so eager-beaver to rush forward to do “God’s” will that they sometimes misheard something and made a mistake regarding what that will actually was. So it was far better to pull back and wait to be sure than to rush forward and mess up that divine plan (because oh, it was so very easy to mess it up)–even if it took our god decades to make himself clear or get around to talking to us.
We called this period of agonized, impatient hesitation “waiting on God’s timing” back then and did a lot of praying and fasting (or at least said we did) to encourage our god to get off the pot and answer his goddamned emails for once. The only people who didn’t seem to experience this strange silence were giddy young couples seeking “God’s will” about whether or not they should marry. For some reason “God” always answered them right away. Everyone else had to wait–and often did for years, even decades.
While waiting, the Christian had to live in a sort of holding pattern. It was excruciating both to experience and to behold, because it was a vivid reminder that our imaginary “relationship” wasn’t as intimate as we liked to imagine. Back then, we didn’t have thousands upon thousands of websites and books all aimed at helping us figure out what “God’s” will was for us–or at least to make the waiting itself a little more bearable.
If a Christian did excitedly announce that why yes, they’d totally gotten their big purpose in life handed to them through prayer or a vision or whatever (divinely-granted life purposes were very popular topics for tongues interpretations in my church), that also fulfilled the function of a real live genuine miracle to us. Our god had totally broken through whatever barrier existed between his world and ours to communicate directly with his children! This was all the excuse we needed for a real live Jesus hoedown.
(Granted, the denominations that are further to the lower side of that graph aren’t quite as twitchy about the whole idea of divine purposes and whatnot. They’re content to say that yes, there is a plan, and yes, people do have divinely-granted purposes, but they’re not usually jerks about it. They can relax; this particular part of the discussion isn’t about them.)
So as you can see, this reliance on a god to magically hand someone their big purpose in life and to give their life meaning had a lot of valuable functions in a Christian’s life.
A Control Mechanism Like No Other.
A Christian’s cultivated reliance on an external source of meaning and purpose has an even more valuable function in that Christian’s leader’s life, however, as you might guess. It’s one of the more sinister sides to the controlling flavors of Christianity.
I touched on this briefly in the last post, but I’m going to develop the idea further here:
When someone isn’t allowed to come up with their own meaning in life or purpose in life, then they by definition are relying on an external source for those things. Christians imagine that their god is that source. But if there is no such being, then only two things are possible: either they’re getting it all from their own heads, or they’re getting it from one of their fellow Christians.
Even if that Christian is making up their own meaning and purpose, they have to have those things validated by their peers and especially by their leader. My pastor regularly had to bat down people who apparently heard their god totally wrong about what he wanted them to do with their lives–like he batted Biff down once when Biff decided that “God” was telling him to move us to Waco to join an honest-to-dog Koresh-style cult.
When one of us plebes received a “word from the Lord” revelation about our lives, we had to run it past a pastor or one of the other elders of the church. It was done very informally, but the process was all but set in stone. Once the divine purpose had been run past those earthly goalkeepers, they’d decide if it was indeed “of the Spirit,” which means
coming from their god acceptable to them, or if it was “of the flesh,” meaning that it was just something the Christian wanted that normally was off-limits wasn’t acceptable.
If the assigned task was in keeping with our group’s doctrinal stances and fit a variety of other parameters (some I can guess at; others I still don’t quite see decades later–maybe sometimes it was totally arbitrary), then the elders would put their stamp of approval on the idea and then the Christian who’d “gotten” that task was free to set about it. We couldn’t just haul off and start without that approval or we’d be “in rebellion,” which is Christianese for the state of operating outside of the pastor’s approval (or the Bible’s, which was the same thing really, since the pastor was assumed to operate within the Bible’s approval all the time), which is almost the worst thing you can accuse a fundagelical of.
As I look back at how I experienced the Christian version of meaning and purpose, I just shake my head as I consider exactly how self-serving it all was for my denominational leaders. Everything about the idea of meaning and purpose served their purpose. Remember last time, when we were talking about how women’s purpose was basically to get married and squeeze out as many babies as they could, and their meaning in life was derived from how well they obeyed and served their male masters throughout their lives? Isn’t it just astonishing that so many Christian women fall for that and then break themselves trying to fit into that mold because they think a god has made them in a way that ensures that literally the only way that women can find meaning and purpose in life is through following the Religious Right’s assignment of gender expression?
Why does this god seem to have so much trouble communicating clearly with people who ache desperately to communicate with him?
How does anybody see this whole situation and still think a god was involved with any of it?
No Gods Were Harmed in the Writing of This Post.
I hope I’ve shown you just what a crock the entire notion of divinely-granted meaning and purpose is. Whatever someone thinks they have in that department, they came up with it themselves–or got the idea from someone else. No supernatural agents are required, which is good, because none appear to exist.
We’re going to look at a tragic and widespread example of what happens when Christians buy too much into the notion of divinely-granted meaning and purpose–and what happens when they’re wrong, because I think their example will help us to examine how we can start assembling a functional worldview for ourselves that fits our lives and helps us achieve our goals.
And I’m also planning a review of I’m Not Ashamed, that Christian movie about the Columbine massacre. I’m totally sure it won’t be a pandering, fallacy- and error-loaded piece of manipulative Jesus trash. /s
See you soon!