Category Archives: Evangelical Christianity

Judaism: Wisdom of the Old Testament Prophets

I continue to search for the good in religion. I often criticize  religion , but I acknowledge there is a lot of good stuff there too. In fact in all the religions I have looked at there is good.

People brought up in Christian homes tend to downplay the importance of the Old Testament, and with it Judaism. Christians often see themselves as superior to the Jews, just like they do to all other religions. But is this disparagement fair? I would suggest it is not.

For example, Christians often say that the Jews believed in an “eye for an eye” while they went beyond that to “turning the other cheek.”  There are some statements in the New Testament that support that assertion. Yet there is also the clear fact that in the New Testament a God is described who would place non-believers into eternal torment. That goes way beyond an eye for an eye, but in the wrong direction. That is not turning the other cheek, which we are told to do. That is revenge, an entirely ugly emotion, of the worst kind. In fact think about revenge that goes on forever!

It is rarely a wise approach to evaluate any religion by statements made by its competitors or critics. It is much wiser to look at the religion first hand or at least listen to what sympathizers say.

The Mosaic phrase “an eye for an eye” first appears in the Old Testament in Exodus 21 where it is promptly followed by the statement, “If he knocks out his servant’s or his maid’s tooth, he shall let him go free for the tooth’s sake.”  That is an odd statement, but at least it demonstrates that the Law of Moses never just applied the principle of an eye for an eye  mechanically. The emphasis is on the spirit of the provision, namely that the law does not respect persons. By that is meant that all are treated equally. An eye of one is worth the eye of another. No more no less. All people are equal before the law, kings and paupers. That is not a bad principle, and tempers the more harsh sounding an eye for an eye. Of course, in ancient times, limiting the avenger to an eye for an eye rather than a life for an eye was already a huge improvement over  common punishments.

I also really like the statement in Leviticus 24, “You shall have one law for the stranger and for the native, for I am the Lord your God.”  Equality again is the rule and it is a fundamentally important law right to this day, enshrined as it is in our Canadian constitution.

In practice of course, Christians have been no better than adherents to other religions in denouncing revenge and retaliation. Look at the tortures inflicted on heretics during the Inquisition for example. An eye for an eye would have been an enormous improvement.

Nietzsche, for example, who is often criticized by Christians, and others, had a much better approach. He said the noble person was the one who was freed from revenge. He had his Zarathustra say, “that man be delivered from revenge, that is for me the bridge to the highest hopes.”

In the Old Testament there is actually strong evidence of the importance of a keen social conscience. This sets apart the Old Testament from the sacred writings of many other religious texts. In fact the social conscience  is implicit from a belief in God according to the Old Testament.

In Leviticus it says, “You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason with your neighbour, lest you bear sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself.” That is pretty good moral advice. In fact, I would suggest as good as such advice ever gets. Of course all the Old Testament  requirements are not equally sound. That passage is immediately followed by one that you shall not let your cattle breed with another kind or sow your field with two different kinds of seeds. Why is that important? So admittedly, I pick and choose. I do that with all religions. It is my belief that we have to exercise our critical thinking.

But there are lots of good things too in the Old Testament. Leviticus 33 says, “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” Once again profound. this is just another version of the Golden Rule.  I think t shows how religion is what connects us to each other, not what divides us. If it divides us, it is not religion. That is my fundamental principle.

Elsewhere in the Old Testament the prophet Malachi asks a profound question: “Have we not all one father?  Has not one God created us?  Why then are we faithless to one another?” (2:10) Or consider Job who asks, “If I have rejected the right of my manservant or my maidservant, when they contended with me; what then shall I do when God rises up?  When he makes inquiry, what shall I answer him? Did not he who made me in the womb make make him? And did not one fashion us in the womb? (31:13-15) Once again the Old Testament prophets understood as their followers often did not, that we are all kin. We are all one. and we should treat each other accordingly.

The Old Testament prophets relentlessly stressed the importance of social justice. They were not concerned with rituals. Their criticism was fundamentally moral.

Those Old Testament prophets are not often give credit for their wisdom. I really like what Micah said, “He has told you, man, what is good and what the Lord requires of you: only to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” (6:8) I don’t know that morality ever gets more simple or more profound than this! Justice, mercy, and humility is what is demanded of us.

Isaiah another of those prophets also advocated for justice instead of ceremony said this:

“What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord.  I have had enough of burnt offerings…Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, abolish oppression, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”

That is what the God of Old Testament said when he said to his people, “You shall be holy.” (Leviticus 19:2.) Or when he said, “You shall be to me a kingdom of priests.” (Exodus 19:6)

There is a lot to be said for the Old Testament.

 

I’ve been told I’m going to Hell Soon: Fellow feeling and Religions

Some people just cannot grasp the idea that religions might actually have something in common. A couple of years ago I got in serious trouble with a real estate agent from the Bible Belt of Manitoba. I was speaking at a continuing educational seminar for real estate agents and we were talking about ethical rules. I told the real estate professionals, ‘Don’t worry about trying to memorize all the rules.’ I said, ‘Just know where you can find them and remember this—the fundamental rule: The Golden Rule. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” I should have stopped there. Instead, I made a big mistake. I brought in religion of all things to an educational session for real estate agents. How stupid could I get? I said to them, this rule, the golden rule, was the basis of all moralityandall religion. I said all religions had this important rule in common. I presumed this would please people. Religions actually agree with each other. There is no reason to argue. They should be able to get along. But at least one agent did not accept that.

After my talk I was approached by a real estate agent. He asked me if I was “born again.” I knew immediately I was in trouble. No I said, “I was born only once to my knowledge.” But I did think about Bob Dylan who said, “He not busy being born is busy dying.”

The agent pounced on my comment. “I thought so,” he said. “You are obviously nota Christian because you are equatingChristianity with Islam. That means you are going to hell.”  And that was not enough. He added, “And you’re an old guy so you will be going to hell soon.” That last part really hurt. (Well not really)

Obviously this was a man without fellow feeling. He could not grasp that it was a good thing, not a bad thing that all or most religions agreed on the fundamentals. He much preferred to think that hisreligion was superior to all others. I would say that meant he was not religious at all. No empathy; no religion. No connection; no religion.

As I have already said, the word “religion” in fact comes from the old Asian/Indian word religiothat means “connection.” I think it explains religion perfectly. It explains how religion is what connects us to others. I would even add it is what connects us to the world, to nature, to all beings.

It is deeply interesting to me that religion has a common core.  Karen Armstrong has some interesting things to say about this. She had joined a convent at the age of 17 but found it was not for her. She became a scholar instead. For the next 40 years she learned a lot about compassion and dedicated her life to the concept. In my view she did not move far from the world of what a convent or at least religious retreat should be. When she studied world religions she too was surprised to learn that compassion was the core of allmajor religions.

She became a historian of religion, received the prestigious $100,000 TED prize in 2008 for her work promoting interfaith dialogue, and founded the Charter for Compassion, a multilingual and multi-denominational effort to transform the world’s religions into a force of global harmony rather than discord. She enlisted a wide array of thinkers from many faith and moral traditions.

Armstrong summed up her life long study in a book called Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life. In it she wrote:

 

One of the chief tasks of our time must surely be to build a global community in which all peoples can live together in mutual respect; yet religion, which should be making a major contribution, is seen as part of the problem. All faiths insist that compassion is the test of true spirituality and that it brings us into relation with the transcendence we call God, Brahman, Nirvana, or Dao. Each has formulated its own version of what is sometimes called the Golden Rule, “Do not treat others as you would not like them to treat you,” or in its positive form, “Always treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself.” Further, they all insist that you cannot confine your benevolence to your own group; you must have concern for everybody— even your enemies.

 


         Armstrong also challenged the common view that religion is the cause of all wars:

“In fact, the causes of conflict are usually greed, envy, and ambition, but in an effort to sanitize them, these self-serving emotions have often been cloaked in religious rhetoric. There has been much flagrant abuse of religion in recent years. Terrorists have used their faith to justify atrocities that violate its most sacred values. In the Roman Catholic Church, popes and bishops have ignored the suffering of countless women and children by turning a blind eye to the sexual abuse committed by their priests. Some religious leaders seem to behave like secular politicians, singing the praises of their own denomination and decrying their rivals with scant regard for charity… Disputes that were secular in origin, such as the Arab-Israeli conflict, have been allowed to fester and become “holy,” and once they have been sacralized, positions tend to harden and become resistant to pragmatic solutions. And yet at the same time we are bound together more closely than ever before through the electronic media… In a world in which small groups will increasingly have powers of destruction hitherto confined to the nation-state, it has become imperative to apply the Golden Rule globally, ensuring that all peoples are treated as we would wish to be treated ourselves. If our religious and ethical traditions fail to address this challenge, they will fail the test of our time.”

 

Armstrong quoted the final version of the Charter for Compassion, which was launched in November of 2009 and came to embody this spirit by offering an antidote to the voices of extremism, intolerance, and hatred:

 

“The principle of compassionlies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves. Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there, and to honor the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.

It is also necessary in both public and private life to refrain consistently and empathically from inflicting pain. To act or speak violently out of spite, chauvinism or self-interest, to impoverish, exploit or deny basic rights to anybody, and to incite hatred by denigrating others — even our enemies — is a denial of our common humanity. […]

We urgently need to make compassion a clear, luminous and dynamic force in our polarized world. Rooted in a principled determination to transcend selfishness, compassion can break down political, dogmatic, ideological and religious boundaries. Born of our deep interdependence, compassion is essential to human relationships and to a fulfilled humanity.”

Armstrong offered the following as a definition of compassion:

 

“Compassion is aptly summed up in the Golden Rule, which asks us to look into our own hearts, discover what gives us pain, and then refuse, under any circumstance whatsoever, to inflict that pain on anybody else. Compassion can be defined, therefore, as an attitude of principled, consistent altruism.

In fact, the first person to formulate the Golden Rule predated the founding figures of Christianity and Islam by five centuries and a millennium, respectively — when asked which of his teachings his disciples should practice most tenaciously, “all day and every day,” the Chinese sage Confucius (551–479 BCE) pointed to the concept of shu, commonly translated as “consideration,” which he explained as striving “never to do to others what you would not like them to do to you.”

Armstrong clarified this as follows:

“A better translation of shu is “likening to oneself”; people should not put themselves in a special, privileged category but relate their own experience to that of others “all day and every day.

Compassion, thus, is a matter of orienting oneself toward the rest of humanity, implicitly requiring a transcendence of self-interest and egotism. I would say that this means that we are not required to renounce self-interest, but rather to transcend it. We must combine it with beneficence. We must love others like ourselves, but clearly that entails, that first we love ourselves.”

Centuries after Confucius, the three major monotheistic religions adopted the strikingly similar doctrines that many believe are at the core of each religion. I also believe that this same principle—the Golden Rule—is the also at the heart of all morality. I hope to explore that in a subsequent post. It is also interesting that the compassionate spirit is ennobling in all cases and even when it has a secularorigin.In other words, fellow feeling or compassion is the basis of religions and a morality. I think that is important.

I think that real estate agent did not understand religion at all. Nor morality for that matter.

Faith, Truth, and desire

 

This may be my most controversial post so far. I urge my friends who will be disappointed in me not to think of me as wicked, but as a fallen brother. I also  urge them to point out to me where I went wrong.

A friend sent to me an excerpt from a well-written article by N. T. Wright.  He argues that as a historian there is convincing evidence that Jesus Christ came back to life after dying. This is what he concluded:

The historian’s task is not to force people to believe.  It is to make it clear that the sort of reasoning historians characteristically employ — inference to the best explanation, tested rigorously in terms of the explanatory power of the hypothesis thus generated — points strongly towards the bodily resurrection of Jesus.

Is that true? I accept it as a principle, that the more astonishing the claim the stronger the evidence must be to support it. I would suggest that someone rising from the dead is such an unusual accomplishment that objectively we would never believe that this had happened without very strong evidence indeed that it had in fact occurred. I don’t know about you, but I have never found such a claim about anyone else was ever true or even mildly convincing. Would any of us accept such claims about Mohammed, for example?  I would suggest that Muslims might believe that, but unless one had been indoctrinated to believe from a very early age it is highly unlikely that anyone would ever reach the conclusion that the evidence “points strongly towards the bodily resurrection of Mohammed”. Only those who already believed in the faith, would feel that evidence pointed strongly in that direction.

Would anyone say that about the evidence that any person at all  rose from the dead? Can you conceive of any evidence at all that might lead one to believe that? I would submit that any such conclusion is highly unlikely. The reason is that such beliefs are not based on evidence, they are based on inculcation or indoctrination and even highly intelligent people are guided, usually unconsciously, by that indoctrination, not by evidence at all. They don’t even realize their belief is based on indoctrination.

For the same reason it is obvious why most Christians were raised by Christians and most Muslims were raised by Muslims. We tend to believe what our parents teach us, especially what they taught us from a very young age. It is not that the evidence for Christian beliefs is so much more available in Christian countries or evidence for Muslim beliefs is much more available in Muslim countries. The key is indoctrination not evidence

I am no expert–but I have never seen evidence for the resurrection of Christ that would actually convince anyone other than a person who already believed it. The evidence is not strong at all; it is extraordinarily weak. At least I have never seen any.  It is not surprising of course that the evidence is weak. After all millennia have passed since the alleged event.  Finding convincing evidence of such an astoundingly rare event would in fact be miraculous, if not impossible. Of course, that does not mean those who believe in the resurrection are wrong, I am only suggesting that they do so not on the basis of belief, but what I call “indoctrination” and they call “faith.”

Of course millions of people believe that Christ rose from the grave and they are entitled to do that but I don’t believe it is  based on evidence at all but faith.  That really means that such beliefs will be held no matter what the evidence. I think it was John Loftus who said, “You cannot reason people out religious beliefs, because they were not reasoned into them”.

Faith is belief without reason.   If you believe something without there being a reason, then you have faith in it. According to the Bible in Hebrews11:1, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” That is precisely what Friedrich Nietzsche objected to about faith.  Hopes are not evidence! The search for truth, he believed, is corrupted by wishes and desires.  If hopes are the “evidence” of truth you know the evidence is tainted. Contrary to the book of Hebrews, it is completely unreliable .

N.T. Wright earlier in the above referenced article said, about the historical evidence for the resurrection of Christ,

 

“The question divides into four.  First, what did people in the first century, both pagans and Jews, hope for?  What did they believe about life after death, and particularly about resurrection?  Second, what did the early Christians believe on the same subjects?  What did they hope for?  Third, what reasons did the early Christians give for their hope and belief, and what did they mean by the key word ‘resurrection’ which they used of Jesus? Finally, what can the historian say by way of comment on this early Christian claim?”

The fundamental problem I see with an approach like that of N.T. Wright is that it is based on hopes. His method is to find evidence to support beliefs he has probably had since the time of his youth and which ground his hopes for a life after death.  Hopes have no place in historical or scientific inquiry. They have a place in theology of course. Hopes are part of faith–a fundamental part of faith in fact.

That is what made Friedrich Nietzsche say, “Faith” means not wanting to know what is true.” The faithful believe what they want to believe. It is extremely difficult  not to believe what you want to be true. Nietzsche also said,  “The craving for a strong faith, is no proof of a strong faith, but quite the contrary. If one has such a faith, then one can afford the beautiful luxury of skeptics: one is sure enough, firm enough, has ties enough for that.” In other words, if faith is strong enough, no reasoning will talk one out of it. No evidence, no matter how compelling will dispel the belief.

All of this reminds me of that great 20thcentury deep thinker—Archie  Bunker. Archie Bunker proudly claimed to have faith. He said,  “Faith is something that you believe that no one in his right mind would believe.”

People who acquire faith usually do so not because of a convincing argument, or a powerful religious experience, but as a result of deep and persistent inculcation or indoctrination by their parents.  Such a faith is therefore nothing more than a very powerful prejudice.  It is very difficult to divorce oneself from one’s parents. It is actually much more difficult than to divorce a spouse. Nietzsche disdained such faith. He said “To accept a faith just because it is customary, means to be dishonest, to be cowardly, to be lazy.”

Nietzsche contrasted this faith with love of reason. He put it this way,

“A kind of honesty has been alien to founders of religions and others like them:  they have never made their experiences a matter of conscience for knowledge. “What did I really experience? What happened in me then, and around me? Was my reason bright enough?  Was my will turned against all deceptions of the senses and was it courageous in its resistance to the fantastic?—none of them raised such questions;  all the dear religious people still do not raise such questions even now:  rather they have a thirst for things that are against reason, and they do not want to make it too hard for themselves to satisfy it.  And so they experience “miracles” and “rebirths” and hear voices of the little angels!  We, however, we others, who thirst for reason, want to look our experience as straight in the eye as if they represented a scientific experiment, hour after hour, day after day. We ourselves want to be our experiments and guinea pigs.”

We have to be “courageous” in “resistance to the fantastic.” I think Wright  lacked that courage. He has instead found convincing evidence where no objective person would have found it. He has been guided not by evidence or “reasoning…tested rigorously” but instead by preconceptions.

Preconceptions are dangerous because they keep us from looking for the truth. After all, if you think you already have the truth why would you search for it? Nietzsche said it was not important to have the courage of one’s convictions. It was much more important to have the courage to attack one’s convictions.” That is what we have to learn to do. That is the basis of critical thinking. This willingness is its most important element.

Nietzsche also said, “Convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies.” He said, “I am dynamite.” I think he meant to say that he was on this earth to break up encrusted ‘truths.’ He was here to attack them, to expose them.

Nietzsche’s approach is difficult. He does not deny that. He scorns easier positions.  Unlike Nietzsche, most people do what John Kenneth Galbraith talks about when he said, “Faced with the choice of changing one’s mind and with proving there is no need to do so, almost everyone get busy on the proof.”

It is very difficult to give up our convictions. This is particularly true of those we learn at a very young age from our parents. They seem to be a part of us. To cut them loose is like cutting off an arm. I also like what Albert Pike said, “We believe what we are taught; and those are most fanatical who know least of the evidence on which their creed is based.

Dewitt Jones, the photographer enunciated another  profound concept. He said, “I will see it when I believe it.” Until then our preconceptions or biases can stifle the truth so that we cannot detect it.

Christians keep talking about the importance of belief in Jesus.  I am never sure exactly what that means. Can they mean that we have to believe some particular proposition?  After all why would such a belief be necessary? Or does it mean we should trust him?  Have faith in him. That would make more sense. Is that very different however?

Some Christians even suggest that unless we have some beliefs in Jesus we will be condemned to eternal damnation–whatever that means. Forget about eternal damnation, is it fair to base rewards or punishments of any sort on beliefs–particularly fundamental beliefs that we have had since the time of our extreme youth? In most cases our parents should get the credit or blame for those, not us.

Our parents indoctrinated us–rightly or wrongly–when we were very young. We were so young we had no ability  to resist the indoctrination. We are not good or bad because we accepted the indoctrination. We were vulnerable. There was nothing we could do about it. Just as it is not fair to condemn an accused person of a crime when the person is so mentally ill that he or she cannot resist the impulse to commit the crime, so it is not fair to base any rewards or any punishments, let alone eternal ones, on what we were indoctrinated to believe, or not believe, when we were  young children. I cannot believe any God who would do that. That is why we should never be judged by our beliefs. We should be judged by our actions freely accomplished.

Programmed to Believe

 

I read a fascinating story in The New Yorker magazine. It was the story of a young 23-year old legal assistant named Megan Phelps-Roper from Topeka Kansas in the heart of the United States Bible Belt. She became well known as a result of her tweets on Twitter and picketing on behalf of her church Westboro Baptist Church. She would tweet things like this, “Thank God for AIDS! You won’t repent of your rebellion that brought his wrath on you in this incurable scourge, so expect more & worse.”  As Adrian Chen reported in the New Yorker,

 

She believed that “all manner of other tragedies–war, natural disaster, mass shootings–were warnings from God to a doomed nation, and that it was her duty to spread the news of His righteous judgments. To protest the increasing acceptance of homosexuality in America the Westboro Baptist Church picketed the funerals of gay men who died of AIDS and of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Members held signs slogans like ‘GOD HATES FAGS’ and “THANK GOD FOR DEAD SOLDIERS,” and the outrage that their efforts attracted had turned the small church, which had fewer than a hundred members, into a global symbol of hate.

 

What really interested me about this story in The New Yorkerwas the fact that this young woman was attractive, fully devoted to a cause that attracted a lot of hatred against her and her family, and, most importantly, very intelligent. That seems hard to believe since her beliefs were so wildly unreasonable, but she was. She was often the spokesperson for the church and had been interviewed by media around the world.

How could such a person with all her advantages have such pitiful beliefs? I think the answer is obvious.  She had those beliefs because that is what her parents taught her. From birth she had been indoctrinated by her parents. From them she “learned” that gays were an abomination and it was her duty to attack them whenever she could, in whatever manner was available to her.

Eventually she did manage to wean herself from her parents’ rigid positions. In time she rebelled, but it is never easy to dissent, especially from our fundamental beliefs that we have held since we were extremely young and which were inculcated in us by our well meaning parents who wanted to help us and guide us and protect us from all harm. Yet, in the language of social media, eventually after profound doubts and deep unease Megan was able to “Unfollow” her parents and their church.

We all believe what our parents teach us. Our parents are our guides and mentors in our life’s journey. Humans, unlike most animals, have a long period of time in which they are nurtured by their parents. This process takes years. Longer in fact than with any other species. During this time we soak up what our parents teach us. Evolutionarily this is what we had to do to survive. Millennia ago, when life was nasty brutish and short, and dangers lurked everywhere, young children that did not listen to their parents’ warnings tended to perish. The risk takers were often taken by predators. Children that stayed close to their parents and abided by their dire warnings tended to survive and later passed on their genes to their offspring. Obedience to parents is wired deep in the human DNA. We are programmed to believe.

When we get older, some of us learn that our parents were not always right. When I was young I thought my mother was the finest cook in the world. I was so lucky to have such a wonderful mom. That is true by the way. Later in life–much later and very subtly–I began to realize she was not a perfect cook. She tended to burn her meats and badly over cook her vegetables. That was the way she had been taught to cook by her mother. That was the standard of good cooking. She was not perfect in other ways either. Pretty close, but not quite perfect.

Parents are important. We love them. They guide us through the informative times of our lives when as young children we are totally helpless and entirely at their mercy. We appreciate what they do for us and for what they have taught us, but we should never remain obedient children. We have to grow up.

I remember a conversation with a young lawyer a few years ago. We were arguing about some ethical issue.  He and I disagreed about whether something was ethically right or wrong. Such arguments are not easy to resolve. His ultimate answer–and it really was an ultimate answer–was that, ‘well that is what I was taught by my parents to believe.’ How could he not believe what he had been taught to believe?

He was an intelligent young man.  Yet he admitted he believed something solely because that was what he had been taught to believe by his parents. It seemed absurd to me, but I had managed, with great difficulty many years earlier, to dissent from some of the things that I had been taught by my parents.

Yet that is what we have an obligation to do. When we mature, I would suggest, we must challenge what we have been taught. Not everything our parents taught us was absolutely true (or wrong). Our parents thought it was true. Why else would they teach it to us?  But our parents, just like anyone else, can make mistakes, even fundamental mistakes and we should make sure we have not been led astray by well-meaning parents.

But such a challenge is extremely difficult. The fact is that it is very difficult to reject fundamental things that our parents teach us. We believe those things. It takes a great deal of courage and determination to challenge  that.

Megan was extremely intelligent and she certainly did not lack courage. To stand up in public on a public sidewalk in front of a funeral for soldiers carrying placards that mock everything about those soldiers, takes a lot of guts. To hold up placards at a funeral of gay people denouncing gays in the most crude and brutal manner certainly takes courage. It is misguided courage, but no less courage for that.

Eventually, she came to realize her parents had taught her badly. They had not just taught her they had indoctrinated her.  Later it took courage to Unfollow her parents.

Our parents are our first and usually most important teachers. Yet, as Friedrich Nietzsche said, “a pupil repays a teacher badly if he remains forever a pupil.” A good teacher wants to be challenged. A good parent wants to be challenged.

Indoctrination or choice? One person’s indoctrination is another person’s Sunday School

 

Revival meetings were incredibly emotional, particularly for young teenagers. Many of my friends were deeply affected by them.  Those meetings often emphasized fear. Young people were forcefully reminded that failure to accept Jesus as our personal savior would lead to hell. Forever! Some of them were scarred for life. It is hardly surprising that under such circumstances the youth were often terrified and the decisions they made were suspect.

Many young people were filled with fear by powerful professional speakers brought into our town for exactly that purpose. I have already commented about how I thought that this was unfair. Now I want to carry that thought a little farther.  I want to go beyond revival meetings.  What about Sunday School?  Were they any better?

Parents often indoctrinate their children. They want to teach their children the truth. I consider that reasonable, but when they go beyond teaching to taking away the decision of the child and making it their own they have gone too far. For example, when they hire professionals who know how to manipulate the children into doing their will, they have taken the choice away from the children.

Indoctrination by parents of their children is extremely popular in many societies and among many groups. Evangelical Christians are great practitioners of it, but so are other groups. It is not an accident at all that most children raised in Christian homes become Christians as adults. The same goes for Muslims, Jews, and most other religions. Is each group so good at teaching their children? When the vast majority of children from each religion follow the religion of their parents, I believe that is pretty good evidence that the parents have gone beyond teaching to indoctrination.  In such cases, they have manipulated the children and taken their free choice away. Why else would each religion be so successful?

I think it is because parents of many religions indoctrinate their children into the religion of the family. Few of the children reject that direction by their parents and thus few choose some other religion. I don’t think it happens often. When children are young they are hardly in a position to resist the influence of their parents. Many follow their parents without reasoning. Indoctrination leads exactly to that. Is this a free choice?

Mennonites used to think that it is was very important that children not be baptized at birth. That was because the choice of religion would then be that of the parent, when the choice should be that of the child. I agree with that entirely. I believe that they meant that the decision of the child had to be freely made. Infants can’t make such choices. Otherwise, again, the decision would be the choice of the parent not the child.

Indoctrination robs the child of choice and substitutes the decision of the parent for that of the child. I would think Mennonites would reject that unequivocally. They don’t. If parents don’t allow their children to make their own decisions on important subjects such as choosing their faith, or no faith, they are really making the decision for their children.  They are taking that decision away from their children.

One person’s indoctrination is another person’s Sunday School.

Is Revivalism Child Abuse?

 

I was born and raised in a small town in Southern Manitoba, Steinbach, that was famous for its religiosity. We were constantly in the news about social issues, particularly when they involved a religious twist from the conventional wisdom.

Recently I was reminded of this when an old friend, Ralph Friesen, delivered a lecture at our local heritage museum on the history of the revival meetings in Steinbach. He woke me from my slumber.

In the days of my youth our town was regularly visited by itinerant preachers usually at the behest of the local ministerial association when they thought our town needed to be stirred out of the spiritual torpor that inevitably came over it. Actually every revival in turn had to be followed a few years later by another. It was always difficult to keep religion at a fever pitch for long. The revivals were often held in huge tents and were like a special community church service led by a special preacher, often from the United States. There was also stirring music as well to get the crowd fired up.

The point of revival meetings was the emotional response. That was why they were held. They were meant to get people excited and passionate about religion. I learned from Ralph that originally the meetings were targeted only at adults. Frankly, I have no strong objection to that. If adults want to be influenced by emotional appeals, I suppose there is nothing dastardly about that. It would not interest me, but if others want that,  the principle of religious freedom, which I support, surely permits that.

Eventually the revivals started to target young people as well. Many of my friends were strongly encouraged or even required to attend by their well-meaning but misguided (in my opinion) parents . These parents I believe genuinely wanted the best for their children and what could be more important or beneficial than leading them to the lord?

Here I think the supposed moral high ground of the revivals is a little more like the swampy quagmire of the lowlands. Personally I am not keen on any sort of indoctrination or inculcation, but when directed at impressionable youth with well oiled religious machines lubricated with strongly emotional appeals based often on primal fears, I have even less respect for them.

I remember well the religious crusade launched against the youth of Steinbach in the 1960s by Wes Arum. Arum-Scarum we scoffers called him, for good reason.  He was a powerful speaker. Much more effective than Billy Graham I thought. I remember how a group of my friends and I attended these meetings with scoffing scepticism.

Unfortunately I missed the grand finale sermon on the last week of the crusade. After that last meeting I was shocked to learn that one of my very good friends who was one of the most intelligent boys I knew, succumbed to the altar call where he was asked to accept Jesus as his personal savior. This  happened a day after he, like all of us, assured our group that our scepticism was rock solid and no calls would be heeded. But he did. My friends and I were amazed. How could this happen? We were stunned.

Fortunately we learned that the Arum-Scarum crusade would be repeated in another small town about an hour away. One of my friends and I made sure we attended the grand finale there. The sermon was a masterpiece. Arum tugged at the heartstrings, and more importantly, the fears, of the young people.

The sermon centred on a story about a crusade at a college dorm. One of the students there missed the crusade and was wakened from his sleep in the night. The dormitory was completely empty when he woke up. He ran through the halls screaming for his friends. No one heard or answered his calls. He was desperate. Where could they be? He did not realize the crusade was not over. All the students but him were there. He screamed in terror because he concluded he had been left behind. Everyone had been called to heaven in the rapture except him. He was left behind—forever!

It was an extremely emotional and powerful speech. It was easy to see how a young person, susceptible to such ideas after a lifetime of inculcation by his parents and his church, could have ‘the hell scared out of him.’  That I believe is exactly what happened to my friend. Personally I believe fear is a very poor basis for making a wise decision.

Is it right for adults to do this to young children, even in the name of religious salvation? We all want our children to have the best, to be led from darkness to light, but is this the right way?

All of this reminds me of what Christians did to indigenous youth in residential schools in Canada. Operators of those institutions wanted to ‘drive the Indian out of the Indians.’  They thought they were doing that in the name of good cause. They wanted to civilize the savages and lead them to salvation. They wanted to make them like the white at any cost. It was worth it they thought. The arrogance of white people shredded the dignity and respect of the young indigenous students. Now we know that was horrendous abuse. I do not equate the suffering of indigenous people at the hands of the residential school system. The suffering of indigenous youth  was obviously on a scale of horror well beyond that of Mennonite youth. I merely draw attention to the similar motivation of those in power over their vulnerable youth.  Power has to be exercised with extreme caution even when motives are good. I believe most of them meant well? Good intentions were not an excuse for the adults who ran the residential schools. Is  it for our Mennonite parents?

I asked a friend of recently mine if he felt he had been abused spiritually by his parents.  Here is part of his reply.  “They intended no evil, no wrong, and were deeply hurt by my resistance and “rebellion”.  I can’t think of how I could have done that any differently, and yet maintained who I am.  That’s the unavoidable sadness of it.  It’s a long process, and it probably never fully ends.  I can’t speak with either of my parents about this anymore, but I’ve come to terms with the dynamics of those far-off days, my part in the struggle, their part, and their fundamental decency and love.  I have no doubt they loved me, and I continue to love them.  But that’s easier said than understood.”

Were our well-meaning elders guilty of child abuse?  I know this is a provocative question, but I think it’s an important one. How far can parents go? I think they went too far. I want to explore this subject further and invite response from those who disagree with me.