Pagans and theology.

by K.W. Leslie, 03 July

People who aren’t Christian regularly critique Christianity: What we believe, what our churches teach, how we practice. I regularly lump ’em into three categories:

  1. Antichrists who offer no constructive criticism, and don’t care whether their complaints are valid or not: They just wanna bash Christians.
  2. The clueless, who overheard the antichrists’ complaints and think they’re valid. They honestly don’t know any better.
  3. Those with valid complaints, who take us to task when we truly are inconsistent or hypocritical.

There’s not a lot we can do with the antichrists, much as Christian apologists might foolishly try. (Pearls before pigs, guys. Mt 7.6) The clueless can be reasoned with, but when they’re not merely clueless but downright anti-Christianity, shake the dust off and leave them be.

But the valid critics must be taken seriously. Because they’re right. We Christians do teach one thing and do another. We preach forgiveness and grace and mercy when it comes to evangelism… then we turn round and preach eye-for-eye karma when it comes to our criminal justice system. We preach we’re to love everyone, including enemies, but as soon as a person in our churches commits a sin we consider beyond the pale (like vote for the opposition party) we ostracize them like they’re leprous. We preach against nonmarital sexual activity, but our stats on cohabitation, unwed pregnancy, and abortion are the same or greater than the national average. We’re all kinds of inconsistent—and I haven’t even touched on hypocrisy yet. Probably don’t need to; we know better.

When the valid critics are right, don’t defend our bad behavior. Agree with them. We’re sinners too. But please don’t use that rubbish line, “We’re not perfect; just forgiven.” We’re supposed to work on being perfect. We’re expected to stop sinning, stop being hypocrites, stop taking God’s grace for granted, and be good. We don’t; we aren’t; we suck. Admit it and repent.

However. Sometimes we’re gonna come across the complaint, “Y’know what your real problem is: Your religion needs to be updated. You need to get with the times and get rid of those out-of-date beliefs.” They suggest we stop believing certain things are sins, or quit believing in miracles, or stop believing in mysterious hard-to-fathom stuff. They want us to change our theology—and can’t understand why it’s not as easy as all that.

It’s a particular sort of cluelessness.

The makings of “spiritual” people.

Years ago I read a column by Washington Post columnist Sally Quinn, “A Church for the Obamas,” in which she recommended the president attend Washington National Cathedral. Not because he might interact with fellow Christians and grow a closer relationship to Jesus there. (You know, the reasons we’re supposed to go to church.) Nope; Quinn only cared about the optics. As he was running for president, Barack Obama emphasized how the United States is a pluralistic country of many religions, not just Christianity. So Quinn thought it’d be great if Obama went to a church that’s also pluralistic, and not just Christian.

Quinn has said in the past she’s Christian, but really she believes in magic and dabbles in it. Dabbles in religion too. She’s the sort of “spiritual but not religious” person who feels qualified to offer religious advice, but since she follows none of the rules of any religion except the one she invented for herself, her advice is superficial, vain, and condescending.

And I would be just as superficial, vain, and condescending, if I tried to offer you advice about a religion I don’t practice. Fr’instance, say I tried to tell you which ashram or temple to join. Even if I actually know lots about it, I follow Jesus: My pro-Jesus biases will be all over my advice. Instead of advising you how to be a good Hindu or Buddhist, I’d subtly be advising you—whether I was aware of it or not—on how to be Christian. Because I’d use Christian standards for choosing your place of worship—which might be similar to Hindu or Buddhist standards, but ain’t the same. I’m coming from a wholly different place.

The problem with “spiritual people” is they think it is all the same. It’s all immaterial and mystical and magical, and it all generates warm fuzzy feelings about being good people. If it makes you feel good, it’s all good.

Such people honestly have no idea how they come across. They think they’re offering valuable advice. They’re like the children who step into the two-foot wading pool, covered head-to-toe in flotation devices, and the second they take their feet off the bottom, they shout at the top of their lungs, “I’m swimming!” To them, it’s incredible they’re in the pool at all. So when they share their two-foot insights, it’s like telling a scuba instructor, “No, you don’t put your face in the water. You need better floaties.”

Oh, they might be more advanced than their pagan friends. Back to the kiddie-pool analogy: “No, come in the pool! It’s really not scary. Try it. Just put your toe in.” They do serve a purpose, after all; they get the non-religious to try stuff, and the Holy Spirit can definitely take advantage of the situation and draw ’em in further. The problem’s when they try to teach. And they do try. ’Cause they don’t know any better.

Clearly their spiritual advice will be based on bad theology. To recap: Theology is the study of God, and in order to do it correctly, it’s gotta be based on humility: We’re wrong. In order to get right, we’ve gotta follow Jesus. Look at what he teaches, look at the teachings of fellow Jesus-following Christians, read your bible, use your head. But this isn’t at all how “spiritual people” do theology. Jesus isn’t their authority; they are. And they like to pick and choose from plenty of gurus. A little from Jesus, a little from the Buddha, a bit from Deepak Chopra and Eckhardt Tolle and Marianne Williamson and Oprah Winfrey. Drop anything they teach which you don’t personally like, and hit frappé: Now you’re “spiritual.” You are your own guru.

By name-dropping all those people, you may get the idea a “spiritual person” has done a whole lot of reading and research to get to where they are. Rarely is this true. Reading is work—and for way too many people (Christians included!) they figure spiritual stuff is meant to be fun. Not work. Light reading, if any. So now you see why their spirituality is so superficial: It’s by design. They don’t know what they’re talking about because they don’t feel they need to know any more than they do.

Following Jesus versus following yourself.

One particularly huge blindspot of “spiritual people” is the assumption everybody comes to our beliefs the same way they did.

Every time I’ve talked with a “spiritual person,” they’re dumbfounded when I tell them I don’t get to choose my own beliefs: I follow Jesus. If I do Christian theology correctly, and come to certain conclusions, those are the beliefs I get to have.

Their universal response? Nobody should tell me what to believe. Not even God.

So when “spiritual people” offer us Christians advice, it’s regularly with the assumption we could totally change our beliefs if we so choose. “Your church says promiscuous people can’t be in leadership. Well that’s horrible. There’s nothing wrong with sex! You people need to get with the times.” They don’t understand—more importantly don’t care—that we’re not free to “get with the times”: There are scriptures which state promiscuity is a work of the flesh, and Christians who can’t control their sexual impulses can’t be trusted to lead, counsel, or even be alone with fellow Christians. We don’t put limitations on leadership because we have serious hangups about sex (although to be fair, a lot of us do have those hangups): The apostles told us that’s a problem, and we’re following them as they follow Jesus.

I’ve regularly heard “spiritual people” advise Christians to switch our politics to theirs. Most of the “spiritual” folks I know are conservative. (What, you assumed they were all progressives? “Spiritual people” come in all stripes.) So I hear a bunch about how Christians should be totally in favor of guns, libertarian government, school vouchers, capital and corporal punishment, anti-environmental legislation, and anti-vaccination. And yeah, I’ve heard the progressives spout off on their pet causes too.

And as I point out to them, Jesus doesn’t have a stance on a lot of these positions. He teaches on sin; he teaches on grace. The rest, he leaves for us to figure out. If we take any political stance, we need to make absolutely sure we’re not compromising Jesus’s gospel in favor of that stance. Of course, we Christians suck at that too. We need to listen to the Holy Spirit’s corrections in these matters. But pagans, I remind you, don’t listen to the Spirit—“spiritual” as they may imagine themselves. They don’t follow Jesus, make up their own minds, and do as they please.

We don’t get to live that way. We have a Lord, and he’s not us.