I like Captain Cassidy over at Roll to Disbelieve. She’s a fantastic writer who seems to share somewhat of my distaste for confrontational debate tactics (she left a very nice comment on my mission statement for this blog) — I recall having several pleasant discussions with her on her blog and mine. Plus, I infer that she shares my appreciation for RPGs 🙂
She recently wrote what I regard as an excellent article, where she gives her point of view on the Christian doctrines of being born again and of the existence of an eternal afterlife. I say it is excellent not because I agree with her viewpoint (I, in fact, thoroughly do not, much to the surprise of no one) — but because it is, as most of her works are, brilliantly crafted and even, in the beginning, quite beautiful and poetic. I found myself legitimately moved by her ode to the purpose of life on this planet, which serves as a sort of introduction to her assessments of the aforementioned doctrines themselves. I thoroughly recommend that everyone give it a read from top to bottom.
I wasn’t a few paragraphs in before I knew that I desired to respond to her strong points and opinions, and as I read I took notes on the statements in particular I wished to comment on. I quickly found that my response fit better as a post on my own blog rather than as a comment on hers — for though I usually try to comment on others’ blogs for the sake of keeping the discussion on their platform, at the same time I do not wish to be inhospitable to her site by posting a novel in her comment section. Plus, posting my response here gives me the opportunity to plug her blog, which in my opinion is well worth a subscription.
The rest of this entry will be directed at the good Captain, in direct response to her latest article:
Hello Captain, I look forward to discussing with you again — it has been awhile 🙂
While I loved your post and found it brilliantly executed, I must say it ultimately made me a little sad, for two reasons: 1) Through your writing, I could feel the pathos in your own journey away from Christianity and the negative feelings your experience in the church have engendered, and 2) I felt the doctrines you discuss in your article were somewhat misrepresented, and if taken at face value might do more harm than good by taking away hope from those who are in the most need of it.
To the first point, I’m not sure if anything I could say would be helpful, other than that I’m sorry you had such a negative experience in the church. I hope yours is not typical, though I wouldn’t be surprised if it were to a degree, especially in the West, where everything has become so politicized and polarized. In any case, I hear your story and I respect it.
To the second, I may have a bit more to say.
When I say the doctrine of the afterlife has been misrepresented, I am referring to comments like this one:
Watch out for groups that claim to sneak you out of that universal experience, that promise to show you a way out of having to face those troubles, heartbreaks, problems, and situations….
I’m not sure what brand of Christianity is claiming this, that the promise of an afterlife (or even of a rebirth here in this life) is akin to a promise that troubles and heartbreaks and problems will magically dissolve. If there are such Christians, they must not have read James, or Paul, or Peter — nor can I imagine they would be familiar with the sufferings and troubles of the early church fathers or of any Christian since. If that is the promise of Christianity, then it is a deluded and a false promise indeed — and I think I would be justified in saying that myself and everyone else I know in the faith has been thoroughly ripped off. Fortunately, though, I believe I have good reason to interpret it another way.
The promises of Scripture, as I read them, don’t at all offer a false promise of escape from trouble — in fact, often the opposite seems to be the case, both from the warnings of the apostles and from the state of our current world, where Christians are being mowed down like grass in most other parts of the world. Rather, Christianity — for me, at least, and for many other Christians — offers a means by which troubles and sufferings can be contextualized. You have in the very article attempted, brilliantly, to do just this from a secular standpoint: contextualize suffering in such a way that the pain we experience in life isn’t altogether meaningless, but has ultimate purpose and crafts us into who we are. Well and good, but this isn’t contradictory at all to what James and Paul and the rest wrote about suffering — indeed, your perspective seems hand-in-glove in line with theirs when it comes to the context of suffering. Your perspective on this issue is nothing original, and certainly nothing I would need look outside the Bible to find.
I wonder, though, how beneficial this perspective would appear on its own to our earthly neighbors in the Third World whose daily sufferings so consummately eclipse ours in the West. It’s fine to speak to other Westerners about the awkward beauties of learning from our parents and stumbling through life as we find our way — though I don’t imagine someone being able to relate to that very well in a society where armed men can come into your home at any moment and blow your brains out because they don’t like your religion, or where rape is so rampant that a 10-year-old virgin girl is an unheard of thing, or where you’re in constant danger of contracting a disease that threatens to wipe you out in painful ways before you ever have the chance to appreciate the beauty of your life’s sufferings and how they have lovingly formed you into the person you are now. How do we contextualize suffering from the point of view of someone like that?
When you hear the stories of Christians in situations like that, they cling to the promise of a heavenly afterlife because it’s all they have. It’s the only way they can contextualize their suffering in a way that doesn’t lead to despair. Would you take that away from them based on the strength of your personal belief that what they believe is false? Are you that sure that you’ve put your chips on the right color that you would take the last ounce of hope from people whose chips happen to be on the opposite color, hope that their lives and the sufferings they have undergone have actually meant something, have had some significance?
Because if this is all they get, if naturalism is true, if all they can expect is the rottenness of this life and then nothing — then their lives are meaningless, and they know it.
I fail to see where the harm lies in believing in an afterlife. If, at the end of the day, everyone ends up having to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune anyway (and we do, regardless of creed), what bearing would a belief that after life things will be different have on that? Naturalists, it turns out, also believe that things will be different after we die, that there will be no pain or suffering or betrayal or anguish — because there will be nothing. It often seems the humane thing to do to “put someone out of their misery” if they are undergoing fruitless, continual suffering — in essence, what is the difference, then, in the two outlooks? The promise that things will be better when you die is the common thread in both of them, and I don’t see how they are harmful in either case.
Now, moving on to the doctrine of being born again in this life:
I find it interesting that you almost seamlessly integrate your discussion on these two doctrines, which to me are quite distinct — though one is, in a way, a shadow or a type of the other. As far as I know, the promises that are given in Scripture concerning the afterlife are not meant to be applied to the new birth — the latter is an inner transformation that points, imperfectly, towards a much more complete fulfillment in the afterlife. Nowhere in Scripture (again, as far as I am aware) is the promise made that our flesh would cease tempting us to sin after our baptism, or that the sufferings we can all expect to go through by living as broken people in a broken world will magically disappear. Along these lines, you make a list of all the things Jesus doesn’t do after someone is born again — and I say, if He did these things, they would actually detract from your beautiful portrayal of what life is about. Why would He do such a thing?
You are, in fact, absolutely right when you say that baptism doesn’t make someone a completely different person, with no temptations or struggles — just as a marriage ceremony doesn’t magically turn someone into a faithful spouse. If God did not respect and value the wisdom and maturity that comes from living one’s life to the full, He would just rapture us the moment we got saved. This life isn’t about protecting and isolating ourselves from the world, but living it, dammit! And I can’t speak for anyone else, but I know for a fact that I am living my life more fully now with Christ than I ever did before Him.
Speaking of my own story: Something else you discussed was the fake-ness of Christians who claim that their struggles all disappeared the moment they gave their life to Christ. And though I do know of a few examples of this sort of thing happening in a limited sense (e.g. addicts who in a moment left their drug of choice cold turkey and never had the desire to go back), I agree that this is not the typical situation, nor is it a realistic expectation. However, I would not go so far as to conclude, from this, that nothing happens — for myself, my situation was the opposite of what you presented, where Christians are “great at pretending they were better, while their intimate friends knew the truth.” My closest friend at the time of my conversion, who wasn’t a Christian, once gave me the greatest compliment I ever received: “I may not believe in your God, but there’s no denying the change in you.”
So, in closing, you say this:
Don’t talk to me about the incomprehensibly childish desire to start one’s life all over again. I wouldn’t be reborn even if it were possible. I don’t want to be “a new creation” or a “child in Jesus.” I need the terrible lessons I’ve learned, the skills I’ve gained through navigating troubles, the mistakes I’ve made, and yes, even the losses I’ve suffered. They weren’t fun to go through, but they made me the person I am today.
I will not surrender my maturity, experience, and hard-won wisdom to someone else just because it’d really help them out if I would.
And I say in response: Christ is asking no such thing from you. This is not the deal He is offering. He doesn’t want to take your experiences and your hardships from you — He has led you through those experiences from the beginning, He orchestrated them to the very ends that you so wisely recognize and appreciate. It was His plan that we go through struggles and trials in our lives, in order to make us more mature and more ready and able to receive the blessings He has for us.
This is, of course, my personal interpretation based on my beliefs, and I don’t expect you to agree with them — however, hopefully it illustrates that not all Christians, at least, interpret the implications of the doctrines of heaven and rebirth in the way that you do.
Peace to you, and thanks for your thoughts!