Monday, December 28, 2009

The Absurdity of the Better Christian Gambit

The man’s words bothered me on several levels as he explained how he went from being a committed Christian to being a secular humanist. He was much happier in his chosen belief system, he said, than he had been as a Christian. He went on to describe the many ways he now reaches out to help others.

Then this man said something that really stuck in my craw. “I’m a much better Christian now than when I was a Christian.” It took me a while to understand what it was about this statement that bothered me. Eventually I perceived two issues I had with it.

Firstly, the man essentially implied that it was the fault of Christianity itself that he was, by his own admission, a slacker when it came to loving and serving his fellowmen when he was a Christian. Why had he chosen that course of action back then and what was it about his conversion to secular humanism that changed this?

It can hardly be argued that the former belief system was inferior to the latter in encouragement to treat fellow beings selflessly. There is nothing in the Christian faith that caused this man to be a poor practitioner of Christian behavior during his tenure as a Christian. Thus, the man’s statement is an indictment against himself rather than against Christianity.

But far more important is the stunning implication that this man has apparently never understood the most basic and central tenet of Christianity. Through years of church attendance, of participating in the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, and of praising Christ in song and prayer, it seems that this man never grasped what Christianity is all about. It was also apparent from his statement about now being a better Christian that he still failed to understand what it means to be a Christian.

Although various Christian denominations state it in different ways, they all essentially teach that being a Christian means accepting the idea that no person can ever be considered good on his or her own merits. There is too much bad in even the best of us for that to be the case. The only way any of us can ever hope to become truly good is through the merits and grace of the perfect Son of God, Jesus Christ.

Through the Atonement of Jesus Christ, God offers us the free gift of compensation for all of our problems, inadequacies, imperfections, and poor choices. We simply agree to accept this free gift. That is what being a Christian is all about. It is preposterous to claim that having rejected this gift, one is now a better Christian than before rejecting it.

But what of the Christian behavior that my secular humanist friend touted? It cannot be denied that Christ calls His followers to a high standard of behavior. Indeed, loving God and loving one’s fellow beings top the list of Christ’s commandments. How is it possible that one that professes to be a Christian could apparently do worse at fulfilling those Christian commandments than many non-Christians?

The answer to this is two-pronged, but based in a single principle. True Christianity concerns itself primarily with matters of the soul. Physical and temporal matters are important too, but mainly with respect to how they affect the soul. Secular humanism, by definition, is chiefly concerned with observable temporal effects. This helps explain why measures of either system by adherents of the other tend to fall short of satisfying advocates of the system being critiqued.

Back to the two prongs of Christians failing to be Christ-like. First, there are those that claim to accept Christ but do not actually receive His teachings. These people deceive themselves. They are not actually Christians in the most secret chambers of their hearts; where it really matters. They may succeed in hoodwinking others into thinking they are Christian, but Christianity teaches that all accounts will eventually be settled appropriately in the eternal realms so that the effects of all deceptions will be addressed.

Second, the purpose of ‘Christian behavior’ is ideally as an outgrowth of what is already going on in the soul. That is, one follows God’s commandments out of a love of God and His children. Christians also sometimes engage in such behavior to motivate the soul, so that it can work both ways. Or perhaps, more correctly, it can work cyclically in an upward spiral.

My little daughter is fond of writing love notes to me and my wife. These notes are simple and sometimes spelled eclectically. But they are infinitely precious. My youngest son goes through stages where he is very conscientious about performing simple acts of service for my wife and me. My daughter’s notes and my son’s service would not amount to much if measured on the scale of what is expected of an adult. But taken in context, they are an extremely important demonstration of love.

Similarly, our acts of obedience to God are often grossly inadequate when measured against divine perfection. But when proper motivation is present, such acts are precious expressions of our love for God and for our fellow beings. The idea is that we do our level best, and then no matter how pathetic our attempts may be, Christ will apply His Atonement to make up for the rest.

I would not expect this sentiment to be meaningful at all to a secular humanist. After all, that system of belief sees no need for a spiritual Savior whatsoever. And that’s fine for them. The main point here is that it is ridiculous for a secular humanist that does not accept or apply the Atonement of Christ to claim to be “a better Christian” than anyone, including one’s former self.

Given that Christians measure service to others on an entirely different scale than secular humanists; it is also as silly for a secular humanist to claim to be better than a Christian at Christian behavior as it would be for a Christian to claim to be better at secular humanist behavior than a devoted secular humanist. The equation simply does not compute.

My ex-Christian friend probably made his ‘better Christian’ comment in a bid to justify his shift in belief systems. While his claim may have satisfied himself on some level, it was actually a farcical statement that failed to bolster his position. No doubt my friend left his Christian faith behind because he found belief in secular humanism more compelling. But it would be better to simply say that than to make assertions based in absurdity.

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