As parents, churches and schools, are we helping our children pack their bags for a successful life journey or are we making it more difficult by piling on excessive Christian baggage? These are very important questions because we are seeing an exodus of young people leaving the Church. We need to figure out if this is because we failed to equip them with the gospel or saddled them with “burdens they could hardly carry” (Luke 11:46). Unbelievable? recently addressed this issue with humanist Hannah Timson and Christian Tim Alford.
Christian Child Abuse
“I am persuaded that the phrase ‘child abuse’ is no exaggeration when used to describe what teachers and priests are doing to children whom they encourage to believe in something like the punishment of unshriven mortal sins in an eternal hell.” Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion.
While Hannah was a little uncomfortable describing her Christian upbringing as child abuse, she did feel that the symptoms she experienced were typical of those who had been physically and emotionally abused. She described how the damaging effects of Christian mantras such as “everyone falls short of the glory of God” and “we only find our worth in Christ” contributed to her feelings of guilt and inadequacy. She felt the Christian call to find value in someone else denied her intrinsic value and deprived her of her individuality.
I can relate to her story because my children continue to struggle with feelings of inadequacy and anger towards God, which are related to past school experiences where total depravity was emphasized over image-bearing; weeping and gnashing of teeth over wiping away every tear; and divine wrath over “God so loved the world”. Hannah and I both recognize that pastors, parents and teachers had good intentions, but that doesn’t negate the fact that harm was done.
Tim, on the other hand, was very enthusiastic about the gospel and said that his love for Jesus grows deeper every day. He emphasized the wonder of a God who created us in his image and loved us so much that he graciously died for us while we were still sinners. He countered Hannah’s concern about losing one’s unique individuality by pointing out that the God of the Bible personally knit us together in our mother’s womb and declared us “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139). God, rather than the enforcer of uniformity, is the Author of all individuality.
Another Man’s Treasure
We have all heard the aphorisms “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” and “one man’s junk is another man’s treasure”. While we recognize a certain amount of truth in these phrases we also know that, if taken to an extreme, they render all truth subjective. Hannah admitted that life in her humanist worldview was ultimately meaningless and that in order for her to have meaning she had to generate it from within. The problem is that if your worth is subjectively generated then nobody else has to value it. You may feel that you are beautiful treasure, but the world can just as easily dismiss you as ugly junk.
Tim pointed out that when our worth comes from within then it can just as easily be removed, but if our worth is determined by something outside of us then it can never be taken away:
“If we can ascribe value to ourselves from within then we can remove it from within, but if we are assigned value from something outside of us we can never take it away. Personal worth becomes transcendent worth.”
Hannah clearly has issues with the way God is depicted in the Old Testament and finds the problem compounded in the New Testament by a Jesus who, rather than distance himself from that God, proclaims that he is, in fact, God’s Son. She treats Jesus like he has a biblically transmitted disease and fears what may happen if she actually establishes a relationship with him.
Jesus, however, is not a vector but a victor, He is not a symptom but a salve. The Old Testament doesn’t cause the problem but diagnoses its severity and the New Testament doesn’t perpetuate it but reveals the overwhelming cost of fixing it. You can’t separate Jesus from the Old Testament when he so clearly found himself in continuity with it.
While every Christian has to reconcile the Old and New Testaments and harmonize God and Jesus, determining his existence is different than assessing his character. Hannah seems to share the sentiments of Richard Dawkins who famously called God “the most unpleasant character in all of fiction,” but why harbor resentment if God is just a mythical plot device? She may not like what she reads in the Bible, but she can’t dismiss God just because he doesn’t meet her divine specifications.
I admire Hannah’s call to teach children critical thinking skills because I believe that is sorely missing in American education, but I find it a bit surprising that the end point of all her thinking is happiness and not truth. Feelings are not facts and preference is not perspicacity. I think one could argue that Christianity is the most critical thinking worldview of all because it makes such a big deal out of pursuing wisdom and discerning truth, even going so far as to describe Jesus as the ultimate Truth.
Hannah seems to assume that a world without God is the starting point for all of our critical thinking exercises. However, since many people believe in a god of some sort, it would seem to me that a better place to begin is with the statistically significant universality of spirituality, not the demographically challenged position of the atheist. Maybe our critical thinking skills would be better served if we spent more time trying to identify the spirit than arguing about whether or not he/ she /it exists.
Tim made the point that even if he were to defer Christian education to an “age of reason,” the culture observes no such moratorium. Television, the internet and social media would have a ten-year head start on the secular ‘evangelization’ of our children. Does Hannah believe that Christianity has exclusive rights to indoctrination?
Ironically, Hannah called herself a determinist but was angry because she was never given a choice about her faith. Critical thinking is great if we have the ability to make decisions but a waste of time if we don’t have the ability to choose.
Prescribing Therapy or Promoting Disease
Hannah and Tim both recognize that young people today are experiencing increasing levels of anxiety and depression, and that suicide and substance abuse are on the rise. But which of their worldviews prescribes the appropriate therapy and which promotes the disease?
If children are spiritually broken then I think it is malpractice to tell them that spirit doesn’t exist. Hannah may want us to believe that the real problem is a religion that tells us we are broken but I think the bigger problem is telling depressed young people that they are operating just fine.
Humanism is the community service wing of atheism. It is tasked with the responsibility of bringing purpose to a meaningless world. The problem, however, is that it is afraid to set its sights too high and has to settle for making man the measure of all things, but then finds it difficult to gauge its progress because the culture keeps changing the units.
Who do you say I am?
Tim asked Hannah who she thought Jesus was. Her response was quite interesting:
“The person of Jesus, if he was real, was at that time quite a revolutionary figure. I don’t think he was necessarily a bad person or necessary a bad influence in that society…this just happened to be the myth that was picked up by the people at the time…I don’t have a problem with Jesus himself (but) if he is the same God of the Old Testament then we’ve got problems because the God of the Old Testament was nasty.”
Jesus came to the marginalized, destitute and spiritually broken. He called out hypocrisy and the inappropriate exercise of power. He promoted peaceful protest by telling us to turn the other cheek and walk the extra mile. He even encouraged people to pray for their enemies.
Hannah countered that these universal ‘fruits of the spirit’ weren’t derived from a book written 2,000 years ago but were discovered through the practice of science and reason. I would argue, however, that while bits and pieces may have been practiced in diverse cultures throughout time they have never before been distilled in such a potent way as in the life of Jesus.
Interestingly, it seems everybody wants to claim Jesus as their own, whether as another god in their pantheon, the only truly enlightened being or the most outstanding humanist. So the question is not whether we want him on our side but rather who we say that he is. Since Jesus is universally admired it would appear that we can safely allow our children to take the Jesus lifestyle for a culturally approved test drive.
Pascal’s Wager Revisited
Tim asked an interesting question:
“If tomorrow the world was reset and suddenly everybody followed the way of Jesus, do you think the world would be a better place than it is now?”
What would the world look like if we all turned the other cheek, prayed for our enemies, and cared for the widow, orphan and stranger? Wouldn’t the world be a better place?
My daughter, who also struggles with Christianity, asked me why people don’t take Pascal’s wager more seriously. She didn’t mean in the traditional sense of looking at the eternal consequences of a bad decision, but rather as the earthly possibilities of a good decision.
It appears that being a Jesus follower has tremendous eternal and temporal upside regardless of whether or not you believe He is God. I doubt if anybody would look back on their life and regret the fact that they spent too much time acting like Jesus.
Let the Children Come to Me
Hannah and Tim both recognize that young people are leaving the church but offered different explanations. Tim feels that it is because we haven’t helped them pack their bags correctly while Hannah believes it is because we have saddled them with too much doctrinal baggage. Tim doesn’t want to hinder the children from coming to Jesus but Hannah doesn’t want them to go kicking and screaming.
While I was certainly more critical of Hannah’s position, much of what she said resonated with me and was consistent with the experiences of my children. I, however, don’t believe that the problem was too much doctrine, but too little gospel.
This Unbelievable? debate was a fascinating discussion conducted in a thoughtful and kind way and I encourage anyone interested in youth ministry or parenting to take a serious listen.