In which a group of graying eternal amateurs discuss their passions, interests and obsessions, among them: movies, art, politics, evolutionary biology, taxes, writing, computers, these kids these days, and lousy educations.

E-Mail Donald
Demographer, recovering sociologist, and arts buff

E-Mail Fenster
College administrator and arts buff

E-Mail Francis
Architectural historian and arts buff

E-Mail Friedrich
Entrepreneur and arts buff
E-Mail Michael
Media flunky and arts buff

We assume it's OK to quote emailers by name.

Try Advanced Search

  1. Seattle Squeeze: New Urban Living
  2. Checking In
  3. Ben Aronson's Representational Abstractions
  4. Rock is ... Forever?
  5. We Need the Arts: A Sob Story
  6. Form Following (Commercial) Function
  7. Two Humorous Items from the Financial Crisis
  8. Ken Auster of the Kute Kaptions
  9. What Might Representational Painters Paint?
  10. In The Times ...

Sasha Castel
AC Douglas
Out of Lascaux
The Ambler
Modern Art Notes
Cranky Professor
Mike Snider on Poetry
Silliman on Poetry
Felix Salmon
Polly Frost
Polly and Ray's Forum
Stumbling Tongue
Brian's Culture Blog
Banana Oil
Scourge of Modernism
Visible Darkness
Thomas Hobbs
Blog Lodge
Leibman Theory
Goliard Dream
Third Level Digression
Here Inside
My Stupid Dog
W.J. Duquette

Politics, Education, and Economics Blogs
Andrew Sullivan
The Corner at National Review
Steve Sailer
Joanne Jacobs
Natalie Solent
A Libertarian Parent in the Countryside
Rational Parenting
Colby Cosh
View from the Right
Pejman Pundit
God of the Machine
One Good Turn
Liberty Log
Daily Pundit
Catallaxy Files
Greatest Jeneration
Glenn Frazier
Jane Galt
Jim Miller
Limbic Nutrition
Innocents Abroad
Chicago Boyz
James Lileks
Cybrarian at Large
Hello Bloggy!
Setting the World to Rights
Travelling Shoes

Redwood Dragon
The Invisible Hand
Daze Reader
Lynn Sislo
The Fat Guy
Jon Walz


Our Last 50 Referrers

« Popular Artists (1): Pino | Main | Large-Picture Books »

October 12, 2005

Teaching Company Update 1

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Does Christianity make intuitive sense to you? Does it make your soul and your spirit sing? It mostly leaves me bewildered. I've tried fairly often to understand Christianity's appeal, and have fallen on my face each and every time.

I certainly don't mean to be insulting; if Christianity resonates for you, then more power to you. I'm simply reporting my personal reaction. Face to face with Christianity's tales, its mythology, its disputes -- with the whole Christianity package -- I blank out. My reactions don't go much beyond muttering, "Huh? Wha'?" Attending to Christianity-inflected discussions, I feel like someone who's sharing a table with a group of "Star Wars" fans -- and I seriously don't get "Star Wars." Although I find the spectacle fascinating, I don't share the passion, the language, or the point of view. Even when I'm curious and alert, I remain on the outskirts, unable to take part.

Still, Christianity works for many people: interesting! Plus, it's big, and it has helped shape the world we live in: doubly interesting! So I treat myelf to a wrestle with the subject from time to time. If the mythology, the imagery, and the disputes don't grab me, maybe its history and sociology will. I've enjoyed and learned much from Paul Johnson's "A History of Christianity," and from Max Weber's "The Protestant Ethic and the Spirt of Capitalism." Pascal and Nietzsche both made me say "Aha!" a couple of times. The History Channel ran a multipart series on the history of Christianity that I found worthwhile. One of these days I'll read C.S. Lewis' "Mere Christianity," I swear I will.

What I'm hoping for and failing to find is a concise and enlightening explanation for Christianity's basic emotional/imaginative/spiritual appeal. I certainly can't find any incentive to believe in my own background. Brought up in iceberg-lettuce Presbyterianism, I've been left with little but pleasant memories of smalltown Jello-mold social events.

Though the Teaching Company's lecture series on Christianity doesn't deliver the explanations I was hoping for, it was on its own terms perfectly fine. Written and delivered by a former Benedictine monk, Luke Timothy Johnson, the series presents Christianity as an ongoing series of doctrinal disputes; it's an account of Christianity as the working-out of its inner logic, the unspooling through time of its central DNA. Thomas speaks clearly and enthusiastically, and he has a lot of likable zeal and irreverence. As usual, though, I felt first unable to get on board, and then left completely in the dust.

Well, not quite completely. Listening to the series did confer one "Aha!" moment on me. One thing I've often been struck by is how exhausting being a believing Christian seems to be. Buying into such farfetched concepts as the Trinity, the virgin birth, and the one redeemer seems like such a lot of work. Why would anyone bother?

One thing Luke Timothy Thomas makes very clear is that, for enthusiastic Christians, the effort that believing demands of them isn't an onerous burden; it's a good thing. They like being taxed; they like having to make strenuous efforts. The farfetchedness of the Christian faith functions for them like a kind of taunt or dare -- as incitement and invitation. Come on, make that leap! You can do it! And the energy spent restoking the furnaces of belief in order to be able to make that leap over and over again contributes to the greatness of the experience. It results in a kind of exhilaration.

What a dope I can be! I've been puzzled by something in Christianity that I should have recognized as part of the religion's appeal. I owe Luke Timothy Johnson this major self-revelation: I'm simply too lazy ever to be a good Christian.

Some serious-Christian bloggers I enjoy checking in with include Gideon Strauss, Whiskyprajer, Will Duquette, and Jim Kalb. I've also gotten a lot out of Yahmdallah's well-done Christianity FAQ.



posted by Michael at October 12, 2005


And for people who find Christianity too easy to believe in and want a little more challenge, there's always Scientology!

Posted by: Glen Raphael on October 12, 2005 4:10 PM

To me, Christanity is a compelling fusion of Greek logic, colorful pagan mythology, and Judaic morality; there's something for everyone, as can be attested by all the various sects. That's the great thing about having such a large and multi authored source book as well, you can pretty much customize the religion by picking and choosing (plus the ever fun interpreting) passages which are inspired, and ignoring others as being by less inspired sources. That's the problem with systems like Islam where you have it all written down from the founders mouth; not enough flexibility for the faith to adapt. Thank God Christ never burdened us with his own text!

Posted by: Zetjintsu on October 12, 2005 5:02 PM

I don't know if this will do anything for you, but here's a link to G.K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy:

Posted by: Atlantic on October 12, 2005 5:40 PM

Well, for the first few generations of Christians, that leap of faith wasn't over as large a gap as it is today. They lived in a world of Gods and demigods, magic and mystery. I have more difficulty grasping the religiosity of the ancients, of Sophocles and Caesar. I suspect if I got the latter, Christianity would follow.

I don't think I have the religious gene. I have always found the supernatural, the transcendental in any form incomprehensible and unattractive. The only system to ever interest me was Zen, which doesn't count.

Posted by: bob mcmanus on October 12, 2005 6:52 PM

The primary reason I'm Christian is because out of all the worldviews encompassed by religion, philosophy and meaning of it all, Christianity (and its parent religion - Judaism) is the only one that seems to fit the observable universe.

When I look at the world, I simply see more evidence for there being creative force, a designer, behind it all. (The evidence is so overwhelming that quantum physicists had to invent the alternate universe theory just to deal with the concept of the odds of such a thing happening without a designer; go dig yourself, that's the only reason the theory exists.)

So, going forth with the notion that Something or Someone was behind it all, next is trying to ascertain if this Something/one has revealed or explained itself.

Most religions claim they have this particular revelation. (I say "most" because some forms of Buddhism don't. And those that do have borrowed most of their cosmology from Hinduism; that being everlasting reincarnation until a series of moral human lives qualify the soul for the great obliteration called Nirvana, which apparently doth rock. ;) Most Buddhism is more of a philosophy for facing the world, not so much about what it might mean or how it got here.)

I immediately dismissed most pagan/polytheistic religions (apologies for the Christianity-centric term, but there's not many good terms for the concept) because really smack of human origin. The deities are so flawed and limited and often exhibit the worst of human frailty. If such beings were responsible for creation, it would all be over by now. For instance: "Once day, Zeus just had to rape himself a human, so he became a swan..." Though it's fun to imagine those Sunday school classes: "Teacher, was Zeus compensating for something?" At least Wiccans are aware they're making it up as they go.

Hinduism got special consideration just because of its age, complexity, and other factors. But in the end, it just seems to be a form of paganism that gained complexity and age simply because over vast time it folded in on itself so much that it became a mobius strip/fractal design pattern that can fit any personal conception of a creator while defining none. (Hinduism even contains a version of "It's turtles all the way down" in its mythology.) Short version: It's made up, too.

That leaves monotheism (as we've dispensed with atheism, agnosticism, and paganism). The short list is: Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Bahai'ism.

Bahai'ism is a cafeteria religion, kind of a version of Christian Unitarianism (a lovely oxymoron) claiming no real revelation other than" "Can't we all just get along? It's all good!" While that is a form of revelation, it appears to have more to do with a generous spirit than divine revelation, and ignores the reasons why the many religions they try to cram on one plate are incompatible. ("Ew! Mommy, the Hindu peas are touching the Mormon gravy! Yuck!")

Zoroastrianism has some of the same problems that Mormonism, Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah's Witnesses, and well, even though it's not Christian, Islam. They were all founded by one charismatic leader who claimed sole revelation from God as to the "One True Way, and The Real Message, Not Like That Other Crap You've Been Told." None of these prophet's claims were verified or witnessed by other people. The prophets themselves offered no other proof other than they were to be taken at their word. (For instance, one of the primary proofs offered for the Koran's authenticity is that the poetry is so good, only Allah could have authored it. Like the proverbial ass caught between two equally-tempting piles of hay, there's so many ways to be a smart-ass about that one that I find I can't choose one at the moment.) Myself, I want more behind a reason to believe than one guy with a good haircut, a snappy delivery, and an attractively bound volume who says I should. Next!

That leaves Judaism and Christianity. Since the stories presented in the Gospels are convincing to me - because as a Lit. major, I had to read a LOT of stuff, and through that I discovered that only the Gospels read like the Gospels compared to all other religious texts, philosophical texts, myths and fictions - I am a Christian.

In comparison, the Book of Mormon and the Koran were to me, well, kinda silly. They had honorable and lofty passages, but in the end a handful of fortune cookie fortunes would come off as equally inspired. (And I sure hope I don't get a fatwa launched on my ass. I avoided this kind of stuff in that FAQ I wrote for that very reason.) The Vedas (the set comprising the Hindu holy texts) are wild, but read like complete myth. Myth typically has a grandiosity and a narrative inventiveness to it that the Gospels don't. The Gospels are chunky, clunky, and are stitched together by "and then this happened" kinds of devices - like descriptions of actual events as told by witnesses.

Of course we should include in our consideration that this Designer hasn't revealed itself, and all religions are the products of man. It's entirely plausible. I discount this for many reasons, but one of them is because of the specific predictions of the coming Jesus Christ in the Old Testament. Unless one had access to the big cosmic plan, there could be no way those predictions were as accurate as they were.

Back to my original assertion about Christianity being "the only one that seems to fit the observable universe"; by that I mean that what it lays out in terms of expected behaviors, and the typical results of those behaviors, has, to me, borne itself out. Such as, "You need to forgive others in order to be forgiven yourself." "Love your enemies." (Karl Rove is my current challenge on that one.) I've seen things I count as miracles, just like those described in the Bible. And so on. Since it appears to be the sole revelation that describes how life is to be lived and the benefits that will be derived from the same, which I've personally seen come true, it gives it efficacy for me. And as I said above, the Gospels appear to a record of actual, witnessed events.

To attempt to answer Michael's quandary on "getting" the faith itself: I think it starts with whether you think the Gospels are true or not. The rest follows. If you think they're just nice stories, then they're mysterious nice stories. If you think they're true, like I do, then the mystery reveals itself. (The Bible has words to this effect somewhere, and I'm too lazy to look them up right now.) And it's not like "drinking the kool-aid" or being affronted by a cult. You can read the Gospels for free and without fear of not being able to eventually decide for yourself as to their authenticity. It's best if you decide for yourself. Actually, it's one of the conditions.

Personally, I feel all denominations of Christianity are valid (except for those mentioned above), even the fundies (and it nearly kills me every time I have to state that). Some are closer to what I perceive as the truth than others (the fundies being as far away at the edge as possible without dropping off into the void), but I believe ALL are saved and will receive the mercy of Christ and the gift of heaven. As long as the emphasis is on belief in Christ, what He did, and the forgiveness we receive from that, the rest is paperwork.

Finally, since Michael already linked to it, I don't feel so much like a hoor for doing the same. Because I like the way C.S. Lewis describes his journey to Christianity in this part of the FAQ, I wanted to point you to it:

Posted by: Yahmdallah on October 12, 2005 7:08 PM


i think the important point is not to intellectualize it too much. my own opinion is that 'religion' is simply the byproduct, or friction, of human cognitive processes. the cultural particular forms that religion takes isn't too relevant to most humans, the vast majority of christians, buddhists and hindus know little about the intellectual philosophy expounded by their priestly class (the professionals simply generate systematic theology to justify their existence as mediators).

not to be patronizing, but assertions like "When I look at the world, I simply see more evidence for there being creative force, a designer, behind it all" is a classic cognitive bias the vast majority of humans have in attributing agency to everything around us. it is most nakedly transparent in children, but adults generally keep on doing it, though in a more masked and rationalized fashion. i am sure i could do a "search & replace" algorithm for Yahmdallah's comment within any given religion (i.e.; a convinced hindu, mormon, muslim and so forth could make the same assertion about the veracity of their own texts and the "common sense" appeal of their religion).

here is a relevant passage from explanation and cognition:
'In an intriguing set of experiments, Justin Barrett and Frank Keil (1996) have shown that subjects reliably treat deities anthropomorphically in their on-line cognitive processing, regardless of their nonanthropomorphic, "theologically correct" pronouncements about God during more reflective moments. They do so whether they are Catholics, Protestants, Jews or atheists in the United States, or, as subsequent research shows, Hindus, Sikhs, or Jains in India.'

the point is that educated hindus, christians and muslims can parrot back to you mantras and creeds they were taught, and they can sometimes (actually, rarely in my experience) express to you a coherent narrative of their tradition's theology, but often give signs that they are conceiving of the same sort of entity, no matter if god is the ground of all being (hinduism) or three persons and one substance (christianity) or an expression of tawhid (islam).

now, as to why a minority are not religious, i think that the expression and propensity toward religion has many variables that flow into it. some of them are genetic and innate, some of them environmental and many are an interaction. independent variables tend to sum into a gaussian (bell curve) distribution, so it makes sense that a minority would be areligious and super-religious, while most people are in the middle. there is some evidence that servely autistic people who are high functioning have a hard time generating sincere religious feeling beyond the mantras because they do not tend to see a lot of agency in the universe around them (including other people :).

Posted by: razib_the_atheist on October 12, 2005 7:36 PM

(The evidence is so overwhelming that quantum physicists had to invent the alternate universe theory just to deal with the concept of the odds of such a thing happening without a designer; go dig yourself, that's the only reason the theory exists.)

btw, i will make one critique of Yamadallah's comment where it touches on science, everyone do dig. the answer is more complicated than this.

Posted by: razib_the_atheist on October 12, 2005 7:41 PM

"...servely autistic people who are high functioning have a hard time generating sincere religious feeling beyond the mantras because they do not tend to see a lot of agency in the universe around them (including other people :)."

Hmm...are you saying there is agency in the universe? Like free will or something? Sorry, I just don't see it. :)

Posted by: bob mcmanus on October 12, 2005 8:47 PM

Hmm...are you saying there is agency in the universe? Like free will or something? Sorry, I just don't see it. :)

no, i'm not saying that, i'm just saying that people tend to see agents all over the place. the common example used in cognitive science are the faces you see in clouds. or, the tendency to anthropomorphize your pets, even inanimate objects. severely autistic people don't tend to do this, so the hypothesis (only patchily tested) is that they don't have an intuitive grasp on the inner cognitive states that elicit religion. to some extent i think a lot of atheists and agnostics are similar, they simply don't exhibit any other gross abnormalities (though i do think that many tend to skew toward the "male brain" that baron-cohen would say is mildly autistic).

Posted by: razib_the_atheist on October 12, 2005 10:33 PM

Second the recommendation of Chesterton's "Orthodoxy" - also check his "The Everlasting Man". For a somewhat deeper look at the mystical side of Christianity, check out "The Imitation of Christ" by Thomas a Kempis ( here)

Posted by: jimbo on October 12, 2005 10:51 PM

Hey, you can always be a Sufi like me! Then you simply believe in mystical knowledge (marifa in Arabic, ihrfan in Persian) and hold services of Universal Worship which incorporate elements from all of the world's major faiths: Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Zoroastrianism, Islam, Judaism, Christianity, and even Goddess and Native American religions. I find it beats the Baha'is.

Insofar as the Gospels' being "clunky" and knit together in nature--I've read theories that they were actually NOT by witnesses, but were timeless stories which someone clumsily attempted to imbue with temporality. For instance, the geography of the Holy Land in Mark is all "off". I recommend Tim Freke and Peter Gandy's 2 books, THE JESUS MYSTERIES and JESUS AND THE LOST GODDESS, which show how Christianity is really just a grafting of the Jewish Messiah concept onto a reworking of old myths of a dying and rising god: e.g. Dionysus, or Osiris.

Posted by: winifer skattebol on October 12, 2005 11:08 PM

Socrates in the City holds monthly talks in NYC showing the intersectiion of Christianity with philosophical ideas:

Posted by: winifer skattebol on October 12, 2005 11:14 PM

"Mere Christianity" should be recommended only as an example of sophistry, a compendium of logical fallacies and analogies that don't hold up to the slightest real scrutiny. I shouldn't need to bottle-feed them to skilled readers, so I won't. Aside from independent reasons we might have for supporting his conclusions, his intellectual style is as bad and offensive as that of Ayn Rand.

For my poverty, the most enlightening perspectives on Christianity still come from Dostoevsky and Tolstoy (as different as the two perspectives can sometimes be). Miguel de Unamuno's story "Saint Emmanuel the Good, Martyr" is also highly recommended, as is Camus' "The Plague".

I'm almost certainly an atheist in the factual sense, but I constantly find profundity in the Gospels and in (especially) 19th-20th century Christian interpretations of Jesus' message for humanity. As such, my favorite biblical chapter to cite is Luke 16 (known as the "parable of the rich man"), which I take to convey: if you need the miraculous and supernatural beliefs to grok Christianity, you don't really grok it at all.

Posted by: J. Goard on October 13, 2005 1:52 AM

Reading Chesterton's beautifully written casuistry gave me great respect for rhetoric and the English language, while almost totally extinguishing my respect for Christianity.

Personally I've never made it further than Tom Paine deism, and even then only during uncharacteristically good moods.

Posted by: Brian on October 13, 2005 2:50 AM

"(Christians) like having to make strenuous efforts"? Gee, and here I've been telling people I'm Christian just because I'm too damn lazy to convert to anything else! I generally think the Dalai Lama and Neal Stephenson(!) have it right: once it's in your plasma, it's mighty hard to extract it, so you're better off making peace with it. Such sentiments won't make me the next Billy Graham, I realize, but there you go.

Posted by: Whisky Prajer on October 13, 2005 9:24 AM

J.Goard, reading Fountainhead this summer I had a thought that all Peter Keatings, i.e. mediocre professionals with overblown ambitions, will probably find Rand offensive.

Surely you're not one of them?
Can you expand a bit (sorry for taking off the stated topic, but Christianity doesn't interest me much) on the reasons you find Rand intellectually offensive?

Posted by: Tatyana on October 13, 2005 9:26 AM

Actually, I would think even for non-believers, the appeal of statements like "You have the potential to be happy after death," "The Universe has a purpose," "God will forgive you if you are repentant, even if you have done something terrible," and, most importantly, "God suffered on our behalf so that all this come to pass" would be pretty obvious. I can understand the appeal of other religions that offer similar propositions (like Islam*), even if I don't believe in them.
I wonder if Michael has ever actually read the Gospels themselves - I mean in full, not just passages here and there. (They're all pretty short; you can do it in a week.) He might find an appeal he hadn't expected. Other Biblical books I would recommend for "understanding the appeal," or just for literary/intellectual reasons would be: In the Old Testament Genesis, Exodus, 1 and 2 Samuel, Psalms, Isaiah, some of the other prophets, and those two quirky classics, Job and Ecclesiastes. In the New Testament: Acts, some of the letters of Paul (Romans is heavy going for the novice or even for the experienced; 1 Corinthians is probably more accessible), Hebrews, and Revelation.
Outside the Bible, I would recommend N.T. Wright's The Resurrection of the Son of God for the answer to the most important question, "Is Christianity True?" And Augustine or Dante are "understanding the appeal" classics. (Although, I must confess, I haven't read much Augustine myself.)
* Of course, "God suffered on your behalf" is unique to Christianity.

Posted by: James Kabala on October 13, 2005 9:37 AM

People are attracted to a religion which asks a lot--Islamism, Orthodox Judaism, evangelism. Mainstream relligions that lecture on the environment los adherents every day.

Posted by: miriam on October 13, 2005 9:44 AM

Glen -- In a funny way, I "get" Scientology's appeal more easily than I do Christianity. Which doesn't say anything good about me, I know ...

Zetjintsu -- That's actually the rowdiest and most inviting presentation of Christianity's appeal I've ever run across, thanks. Hinduism tends to hit me like that, as a kind of semi-drunken high. Never occurred to me that Christianity might too.

Atlantic -- Thanks for the link. I know I've got to give Chesterton a try, and I'm looking forward to it.

Bob -- It's kind of fun, trying to make sense of the mindset of early Christians, isn't it? The way paganism and Judaism and who knows what all played roles, and witnessing the way that Christianity pulled itself up by its bootstraps to become something we can recognize today. There's a Teaching Company lecture series I think called "Early Christianities" that looks like it might tell that story well. I hope to get around to it someday.

Yahmdallah -- Lovely, and many thanks. Did you actually arrive at Christianity in such an organized fashion, or was it more blundering and intuitive than that? (Almost everything with me is blundering and intuitive, so I'm always curious about how other people arrive at their convictions and conclusions.) I have a dim suspicion that it's monotheism itself that I balk at. It seems like such a power-grab ... I've never had trouble grasping the appeal of paganism or polytheism or animism. The world (including me and you) is teeming with forces and powers, and why not put some faces and names to 'em? Monotheism flummoxes me, though. It obviously works for many people. But why? A confession of my lack of comprehension, not a serious point, btw.

Razib, Many interesting points as ever. Interesting to learn that in your experience, atheism/agnosticism are more easily to be found among people who might tend towards the Aspergery end of things. Makes a lot of sense. There's another way of seeing religion, one that suits me. It's that there's a lot of mystery out there: unexplained things, hard to account for things, things that'll probably never yield to sci-tech accounts. (Love, art, hope; the look in your lover's eyes; those moments when we feel like we have a bit of insight or perspective on things; the hows and whys of friendship and love; laughter and pleasure and satisfaction.) Science gives a nice account of many things, but a lousy account of many others. Yet we seem to feel a need to acknowledge certain experiences and to discuss them. Art and religion give us means and languages that enable us to do that. I see religion not as a strange aberration from rationality that needs an explanation, but as part and parcel of being human. What needs explaining to me isn't the presence of religion, but the presence of people who claim to be without religion. I have an impossible-to-prove conviction that everyone has a biology-intuition-based belief-set that more or less equals a religion -- that it's basically impossible to live life as a human without such a thing, whether you/we call it a religion or not. Some of the most "religious"-seeming people I've ever known have been techies, science people, and people who stress how atheistic they are. Oddly, they all have had belief sets that they've cared about and have invested in in very religious-seeming ways.

Jimbo, Winifer -- Thanks for the suggestions.

J. Goard -- I'm feeling ever more like a shallow blank: Tolstoy and Doestoevsky's agonies and ecstasties tend to puzzle me too. "What the hell are they carrying on about?" is what I spend too many pages thinking. Camus I haven't checked out since high school. I didn't even realize he had much Christian in him. Shows ya what I know.

Brian -- Deism is kind of a cheery thing, isn't it? It's so 18th century, and god bless the 18th century in many ways ...

Whisky Prajer -- The in-the-blood and born-into-it question's an interesting one. I have a dim ssense of having been born into a certain kind of general culture, but hardly at all of having been born into a certain religion. (I know intellectually that the religion is part of the culture, of course. But I can't feel it somehow.) I think part of the reason I get so puzzled by the appeal of Christianity is that I'm puzzled by varous aspects of the culture I was born into. The niceness is nice, of course, but also a trap. People get very stressed about doing well, in that "it's a sign I'm a good person, if not a redeemed person" way. There's a bit of a tendency to look to where you're going rather than enjoy the present moment. Being the crank I guess I am, I can't imagine why people wouldn't want to let go of all that, or some of it anyway. From my p-o-v, it seems to cause a lot of stress and anguish. From a more generous p-o-v, it's probably what knits a lot of people together, and I should probably appreciate it as such. Never functioned for me that way ... But I'm probably being ungrateful...

Tatyana -- Are you a Rand fan? I didn't know that about you, did I?

James -- Sad confession, but when I read the Bible I tend to think thoughts like, "Wow, that Old Testament god is a bewildering, punitive, and testy thing, isn't he?" I semi-enjoy the music of the language, but I tend to have a hard time figuring out why this particular collection of ancient writings became so prominent, rather than some other. Good point about the promise of redemption. But don't many religions promise redemption, or transcendence, or some pot of gold or other? Why did the Christian form of that promise have such an appeal. The whole "god suffered so that you might ..." thing is one of the biggest puzzles to me. Why would anyone even want to think that that's true? One wants to think that god (or Christ) has suffered for one ... why? Because it makes one feel special? It all seems like a colossal guilt-trip to me: I better get with God's program, because after all He suffered for me ... Like a parent-child drama I want no part of.

Miriam -- That's a very sensible point. Wishy-washiness doesn't seem to cast much in the way of magic.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 13, 2005 10:57 AM

You are lazy. Don't feel bad, so are we all. Please do yourself a favor and read some Rene Girard. You might begin with 'Violence and the Sacred." His anthropological/literary/psycholanalytic/religious interpretation of the Judeo/Christian revelation appeals to many artsy types. At least this very lazy one. While you are at it, you might revisit(?) Kierkegaard's 'Concluding Unscietific Postrscript.' A comic/earnest look at the difference and offense of the Christian message. Girard is a kind of Roman Catholic and Kierkegaard something else. Both are fun to read, original and not an utter waste of time. Enjoy.

Posted by: Shannon's on October 13, 2005 11:50 AM

Personally, I find Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment to be the most moving, though very idiosyncratic, apology for Christianity out there. However, you need to read the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation. Where the Garnett translation comes across as muddied and overwrought, the Pevear/Volokhonky work brings clarity and poetry to Dostoyevsky's prose. It's really a very notable difference.

Posted by: Amy Lamboley on October 13, 2005 12:15 PM

Chesterton works for some people, but his is not a systematic, intellectual argument. His approach is more along the lines of "when you think of it this way, it's not so bad!" which is fine as far as it goes, but it goeth not far.

It disturbs me that those without the religion gene should assume that's a problem. It all comes down to the resurection, you know. Lot's of irreligious people have reluctantly concluded Jesus rose from the dead; from that, everything else falls into place. Do read C. S. Lewis -- his autobiography "Surprised by Joy" will entertain you, even if it doesn't pursuade you -- but also see this interview with Francis Collins, director of the Human Genome Project.

In the meantime, Michael, I'll pray that demons torment you in your dreams until you come around. I'll do this out of love, of course.

Posted by: Fred on October 13, 2005 12:38 PM

J. Goard -

I must confess I'm intrigued: how do you get that out of the parable of the Unjust Steward (as it is usually called)? It doesn't really have anything to do with miracles or proof at all.

Posted by: jimbo on October 13, 2005 12:54 PM

I tried to pick books that didn't follow this stereotype. There's a bit of it in Genesis and Exodus, I suppose, especially the latter, maybe even a bit in the Samuels, but I didn't suggest Leviticus or Joshua. And I while I don't want to seem Marcionist, the "vengeful Old Testament God" is not at all the picture of God that comes across in the Gospels. Whether you believe in them or not, the Gospels are the four most important documents in the history of Western culture. (Their only real rivals for that position are the Homeric epics and maybe their derivative the Aeneid.) Every educated person should have read them.

Posted by: James Kabala on October 13, 2005 1:50 PM

Jimbo: I think he meant the rich man and Lazarus, which is the final third of Luke 16, and not the unjust steward, which is the first third. (A bunch of miscellaneous saying make up the middle third.) I suppose he especially means the part about "If they don't believe Moses and the prophets, they won't believe someone who rose from the dead."

Posted by: James Kabala on October 13, 2005 1:56 PM

Michael, if you understand the appeal of paganism then maybe you will like Chesterton - he said in Conversion and the Catholic Church, "I think I am the sort of man who came to Christ from Pan and Dionysus and not from Luther or Laud; that the conversion I understand is that of the pagan and not the Puritan; and upon that antique conversion is founded the whole world that we know."

Posted by: Atlantic on October 13, 2005 2:15 PM


Actually, that was pretty much how my exploration went. Yes, intuitive leaps occurred, along with other stuff that I typically leave out because it's just too easy to mock - "you had to be there" kind of stuff. By that I mean, if razib_the_atheist's first instinct was to infantilize - dismiss as childish notions and/or the psychological shortcomings of the unsophisticated - an honest account of my exploration of this topic, I can't imagine (well, I can) what such an individual would do to very personal revelations that a couple times bordered on the fantastic.

My starting point was much like yours - raised in a vanilla protestant tradition where the church I attended didn't really do a good job of presenting the history of Christianity and the resulting theology. They just said: Come to church, listen to the sermons, sing the songs, the rest will work itself out. Perhaps my utter loathing of organ music played into that not working out for me. (Not to mention the disastrous Easter Sunday service where the alternate Pastor treated us to a slide show of his latest fishing trip, the denouement being a picture of the same holding up a string of fish while clad in a stained tshirt stretching over his enormous gut. I winced in anticipation of God striking him down on the spot. Alas, the organ blurted into another hymn and the moment passed.)

My journey began in earnest after I haphazardly stumbled into the path of the Mormons because of the girl I was engaged to at the time. Mormonism so smacked of one person's (that being Joseph Smith) delusional fantasies that I began to really think about this religion stuff. If Mormonism can be shown to be so patently false, could the same be done to actual Christianity? (Or Judaism? Or Hinduism? I think the jury has reached a verdict on Scientology.) I had to find out.

In addition, as fate would have it, the majority of my college buddies were newly formed atheists (as is often the trend in college), and they grilled me relentlessly. Sometimes with valid, cogent questions, and of course the snotty ones that newbie atheists tend to favor.

Those two events were the entry point of what I described above. So I took all the classes in comparative religion my college offered. When I worked at a bookstore, I raided the religion racks, as they had all the texts. And I read the Bible for myself finally.

I hadn't expected the Gospels to be so compelling.

Especially after one of the OT episodes in the stories of Abraham where God sealed shut the vaginas of all the women in the kingdom of a King who had kidnapped Sarah (Abraham's hottie wife), so nobody got any until the King gave Sarah back. And what happened after Lot's wife was turned into a saltlick for looking back while Sodom and Gomorrah were being smote: Lot's daughters, realizing that all the available men have just been reduced to a smoking crater, get Lot drunk and screwed him in order to conceive. Don't remember that from Sunday school, do ya?

But, even with those hard acts to follow, the story of Christ was (and is) just amazing.

And there you have it.

Say, if you want to have another go at reading the Gospels, there is a translation, more an interpretation, done by Eugene H. Peterson that uses modern idiom to frame the story. He takes some poetic license in places, and some of the more beautiful passages (like the Lord's Prayer) lose their grandeur, but it is a faithful rendition of the events in a straightforward, readable version. If you like it, then move on to a NRSV, NIV, or some other more literal translation.

You can find it here on the web for free:§ion=2&version=msg&new=1&oq=&NavBook=mr&NavGo=1&NavCurrentChapter=1

Or get a hardcopy at Amazon for a penny:

Finally, if you want one that tries to capture all the inflections of the original Greek, try the Amplified Bible. It's not an easy read, but it leaves the least to the imagination:;&version=45;

Posted by: Yahmdallah on October 13, 2005 2:27 PM

Razib the Atheist notes a relevant passage from explanation and cognition:
'In an intriguing set of experiments, Justin Barrett and Frank Keil (1996) have shown that subjects reliably treat deities anthropomorphically in their on-line cognitive processing, regardless of their nonanthropomorphic, "theologically correct" pronouncements about God during more reflective moments. They do so whether they are Catholics, Protestants, Jews or atheists in the United States, or, as subsequent research shows, Hindus, Sikhs, or Jains in India.'

Maybe that's because God made us in His image.

Posted by: beloml on October 13, 2005 2:47 PM

Can you expand a bit (sorry for taking off the stated topic, but Christianity doesn't interest me much) on the reasons you find Rand intellectually offensive?

Tatyana --

For starters? Because her arguments are consistently very sloppily reasoned, yet backed up rhetorically by attacks (implicit and explicit) on the character of those who would reach opposing conclusions, or even on those who would simply be undecided. Because she thought it fit to label Kant her archenemy, as evil, as the root of totalitarianism, without reading his work, let alone working at a thorough understanding of it. Because she broke relations with pretty much every real intellectual with whom she had been acquainted early on, preferring instead to surround herself with sycophantic youngsters, whom she thereafter described as among the greatest thinkers alive. Mostly, though, because she encouraged (and continues to encourage) a lot of smart teenagers to take their natural love for extremist rhetoric and run with it, instead of cultivating the capacities for precise reasoning, diverse research, and nuanced perspectives that make for a worthy adult intellectual.

Posted by: J. Goard on October 13, 2005 2:49 PM

Shannon's -- Thanks for the Girard rec, I'll be sure to take a look. I like a lot of the Kierkegaard I've read, though somehow he always seemed to speak more vividly of faith generally than of Christianity in particular.

Amy -- Translations can make a big diff! I'm a Stendhal fiend, and would urge people to avoid a few of the standard translations. I didn't realize, though, that Garnett was that bad. Thanks for the tip.

Fred -- Non-systematic and non-intellectual aren't necessarily bad! That resurrection thing, that's a tough one to swallow ... I can see why it's one of the big tests. You're reminding me that one of my big comprehension difficulties is with the metaphorical level. Christianity seems to want to be taken as literal truth; it seems to discourage metaphorical readings. It works for you as Truth with a capital T, or it frustrates you entirely. (Or me entirely.) With many other religions, the reason I get 'em quickly is that I can get 'em metaphorically. That approach doesn't seem to give me access to Christianity, drat.

James -- I'm of course reporting personal reactions, not making considered arguments, let alone urging anyone not to read the Bible ...

Atlantic -- My kind of language, thanks. Chesterton is next on the reading-list.

Yahmdallah -- Hilarious evocation of boring-vanilla Protestantism. I'm not sure whether I can say that it left a hole or gap in me or not. I do sometimes feel a moment's envy of Jewish and Catholic friends. Even if they've left it behind, they still know what "it" was. If you skip a week of boring Protestantism, the only thing you'll notice is that you failed to see a couple of friends you're used to seeing. Maybe the most vivid thing about those Sundays to me were some of the posters and some of the stories. Rachel going to the well ... Well, now, don't get me started.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 13, 2005 2:59 PM

Michael -

Your response raises some questions I've not given much thought to. Are you saying part of your Presbyterian heritage includes the famous Protestant Work Ethic, and Franklin's dictum "God helps those who help themselves"? The work ethic is certainly part of my religious heritage (Mennonite), but the notion of God "blessing" people who deserve it the most is not. It probably helps if you start your religious movement as a seriously persecuted people -- "What'd we do to deserve this?!" Now that creates a cultural/social bond pretty quickly, as the Jews will be the first to tell you.

Posted by: Whisky Prajer on October 13, 2005 3:05 PM

J.Goard, thank you for your frank answer. (And Michael, sorry again for intruding into this discussion).

Out of what you listed, I'll only count "sloppiness in reasoning" as being in "intellectually offensive". The rest is probably personality traits, and not all are unreasonable. F.ex, her falling out with "real" intellectuals (sorry, but that was too funny not to put in scare quotes) could be explained, perhaps, that at her time Real Intellectuals were all, in various degrees, falling for right - or left- wing socialists, who of course were totalitarian in her (and my) book.

Now I'm motivated enough to put aside my usual lazyness and really get to know her.

Posted by: Tatyana on October 13, 2005 3:57 PM

Just sit down and read the Sermon on the Mount sometime, it is pretty damn amazing. Not sure how much it really has to do with the Christian religion that eventually evolved though. It is even better in comparison with the Old Testament, which is really a blood soaked and even at times vicious book when you get right down to it.

On Ayn Rand -- people might want to check out the novel "Two Girls, Fat and Thin" which is about the cult Ayn Rand eventually built up around her. By Mary Gaitskill, who I think is quite a brilliant writer in her own way. Not what you would expect; not a "political" book.

Posted by: MQ on October 13, 2005 5:13 PM

Michael - When you start with Chesterton, try the chapter "The Maniac" in Orthodoxy - Gutenberg has the book here. He takes on the reductionist, the materialist, the theorist - all the people that bug you, in other words:

Poets are commonly spoken of as psychologically unreliable; and generally there is a vague association between wreathing laurels in your hair and sticking straws in it. Facts and history utterly contradict this view. Most of the very great poets have been not only sane, but extremely business-like; and if Shakespeare ever really held horses, it was because he was much the safest man to hold them. Imagination does not breed insanity. Exactly what does breed insanity is reason. Poets do not go mad; but chess-players do. Mathematicians go mad, and cashiers; but creative artists very seldom….

Critics are much madder than poets. Homer is complete and calm enough; it is his critics who tear him into extravagant tatters. Shakespeare is quite himself; it is only some of his critics who have discovered that he was somebody else. And though St. John the Evangelist saw many strange monsters in his vision, he saw no creature so wild as one of his own commentators….

The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.

GK is a lot more convincing when he's arguing against than when he's arguing for.

It's still casuistry though. ; )

Posted by: Brian on October 13, 2005 5:51 PM

Michael, could you name names of translators of Stendhal?

Posted by: L on October 13, 2005 5:53 PM

Since Objectivism keeps coming up, a reasonably unbiased FAQ on Rand (whom I like and admire quite a lot actually) can be found here.

Posted by: Brian on October 13, 2005 5:56 PM

L -- I wish I had my various editions around me ... But I'd urge anyone to avoid the Richard Howard translation of "Charterhouse." It got wonderful reviews, as though the definitive translation were finally here. I gave it a close look (I read Stendhal in French originally 30 odd years ago, and still read French pretty well) and felt really scandalized. It seemed to me a real desecration, and tonally way-off. So my "Charterhouse" tip is "any translation but Richard Howard's." Are you a Stendhal buff yourself? Sigh: he may be my favorite artist ever ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 13, 2005 6:18 PM

Michael -- a very thoughtful post. You readily admit that Christianity doesn't really do anything for you, yet you try hard to understand it. That's more than what many people do, which is dismiss it out-of-hand as trite mythology. Now, I am not a religious person. On my best days, I am an agnostic; on my worst, I am an atheist. But, like you, I have grappled with religion and have tried to understand it. I think that part of Christianity's appeal (among other things) is that it is a way of ordering the world, a system of thought that takes the chaos of living and makes it livable. In this sense, Christianity is like other forms of belief that give order and origin and purpose to the universe -- Judaism or Islam or Marxism or others. I think this okay. I think finding a way to order the world is okay. People need it.

Now, Christians might say that describing Christianity this way removes many of its distinctions from other religions. I can certainly see that, which is why I'd say there are other things that are appealing about it. I don't want to engage any theological arguments here (for example, a Christian might say that he believes he has a soul and desires salvation and that Christianity provides this); I'd just like to address a few more general things. I realize that, like all religions, Christianity has people who don't practice it well or who misrepresent it, but, put right, I think Christianity teaches one a lot about sacrifice and gratitude, about things that are larger, that are outside, one's self. Put right, it can be a healthy antidote to narcissism or solipsism. In addition, what appeals to me about the Gospels is that they contain a form of Christianity that's concerned with the poor, the sick, the disadvantaged, the unfortunate. To me, part of the message of the Gospels is humility and charity. I think you can find this is in the whole of the Judeo-Christian tradition. One way to look at the injunction about an eye for an eye is that it took away distinctions of class; it says that the eye of the nobleman is no more valuable than that of the peasant. And I think the Gospels represent this spirit. There's something deeply humane, and revolutionary, about it all.

In addition to this, there's something that the writer David Foster Wallace once said. He once said that the reason for believing in Jesus Christ, or Allah, or Yahweh, or something similar is that, if you don't, you end up worshipping something else: money or beauty, some transitory thing that, when it's gone, will leave you bereft. I'd add to this sports or food or celebrities or possessions; not all people have the need to worship something, but most people do, and one of the advantages of something like Christianity is that it (again, put right) doesn't pass like money or beauty do, and can be a more reliable way of finding meaning (which is the reason why most people worship things in the first place). When I was in college studying history and philosophy, I used to say that secular beliefs were simply substitutes for religious beliefs, and in many ways they are.

It's funny, though; as I am writing this, all I can think about is how, despite what appeals to me about Christianity, I still can't quite get myself around it. I've never been able to take a leap of faith or feel the emotional pull of the religion. But I am deeply intrigued by people who do, and I have respect for people who have a healthy, affirming attitude about their religiosity.

Posted by: Michael S. on October 13, 2005 7:09 PM


Two books that may help explain how Christianity caught on in the first place, both of which are excellent in their own way, are (1) Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity and Charles Norris Cochrane, Christianity and Classical Culture. Stark shows that the conduct of the early Christians, in a very harsh urban setting, where people faced disease, dirt and loneliness, which made it appealing to masses of people. This is the bottom up view. Cochrane shows how Christianity, especially Trinitarianism, an aspect of the religion which is not focused on much these days, resolved many outstanding philosophical and religious problems that were stumping the best minds of the antique world. This is the top down vision.

These may help you to see that the initial impetus, at least, was not entirely incomprehensible.

An orthodox Catholic work that is short and may give you some insights, one which incidentally was a milestone on my return to the faith, is The Problem of God by John Courtney Murray.

I would put any of these three ahead of C.S. Lewis, and I mean no disparagement of Lewis in saying so. I found his Screwtape Letters a very valuable book at one time. (I have wondered if Orwell read it prior to writing 1984?)

I do not think Christianity is "easy" to believe in, nor is it supposed to be.

Posted by: Lexington Green on October 13, 2005 11:17 PM


Thanks for not writing me off. You should certainly learn about the Objectivist movement in its heyday as well as more recently. You should also go over some of Rand's essays with a critical eye, looking for the chain of reasoning and really testing the links. And try to spot all of her attempts at moral intimidation of the reader and how they are interlaced with the sketchy arguments.

Out of what you listed, I'll only count "sloppiness in reasoning" as being in "intellectually offensive". The rest is probably personality traits, and not all are unreasonable.

I think you should look again at what I listed.

You don't find it intellectually offensive for her to comdemn major philosophers (even having the hubris to align herself against them historically) without making at least a basic attempt to read and understand their own works?

You don't find it intellectually offensive for her to explode at and condemn accomplish thinkers when they disagree with her and challenge her argumentation? To pick up a group of youngsters who almost never challenge her arguments or conclusions, spend most of her discussions with them, and then pronounce them among the world's greatest thinkers besides herself?

You seem fixated on the early-20th-cen obsession with socialism, as I imagine are most who sympathize with Rand. I can't fault you on that. However, being skeptical of the extent to which pharmacological treatments are used for psychological problems shouldn't make one take L. Ron very seriously, and being libertarian or fiscally conservative in disposition shouldn't make one take Rand seriously either. Crazy, destructive, and manipulative people can be on the right side of individual issues, even major ones.

And, while we're at it, the real intellectuals I had in mind (as cast out of Rand's world) weren't fascist or communist sympathizers; they were founders of the contemporary libertarian paradigm: Isabel Paterson, Leonard Read, Ludwig von Mises, Murray Rothbard, John Hospers. And if "real" needed to be in scare quotes then everything does -- because those folks' talents and accomplishments were as clearly superior to those of Rand's acolytes as my mechanic's "real" car repair skills are to mine. Except, I guess, that I don't think I'm a better mechanic than he is and that he's evil.

Hosts, thanks for tolerating my continued diversion from the main post.

Posted by: J. Goard on October 14, 2005 2:45 AM

Thank you for spending time on my reading assignment, professor Goard (see, I didn't put professor in scare quotes; I wish you well). I think, however, I'll skip the impending quiz and stick to my admiration for Rand and fixation on socialism. Contrary to what your graduate school teaches you, it's not some historical period lost in the darkness of ancient "early 20th century" (aside: how is 1940-50's could be called that, accidentally?), but alive and well, right now kicking, screeming and paying for blowing up people, in its MiddleEastern variety.

I hope it will not lower my grade.

Posted by: Tatyana on October 14, 2005 10:11 AM

I was misinterpreted above: I was urging Michael (or anyone else interested in figuring out the appeal of Christianity, or just in undestanding Western culture) to read the Bible, not claiming that he was urging people not to. I don't get how he interpreted my remarks that way, but no harm, no foul.

Posted by: James Kabala on October 14, 2005 12:35 PM

"Lexington Green" is a cool pseudonym.

Posted by: James Kabala on October 14, 2005 12:39 PM

In case the implication wasn't clear enough, I'm a libertarian (albeit a somewhat moderate one). I don't know where I suggested that socialism was no longer significant. I believe I said that Rand's being opposed to it (at a time when many artists and intellectuals were becoming enthralled by extreme varieties) is not a sufficient basis for regarding Rand as a respectable thinker. A respectable thinker who was opposed to all forms of socialism would not have broken with so many others who had made original contributions to the study of markets, individual rights, and the structure of civil society. Nor would such a person have been so set on mischaracterizing the legacy of major philosophers who were important in shaping our contemporary notions of liberty. Nor would such a person tolerate intimidating rhetoric in place of thoughtful argument -- that's supposedly what our opponents do.

Posted by: J. Goard on October 14, 2005 6:13 PM

Michael!Love your blog but your pissing sitting down and your not even in the bathroom! I can't type so suffice it to say: 1)purchase one(1) King James Bible, 2) purchase one(1) Strong's Concordance and learn to use it, 3) Read very closely the first six chapters of Genesis 4)OMG!!

Posted by: bryanD on October 15, 2005 10:41 AM

I'll continue on the translation/Stendhal tangent.
I've read Charterhouse & R&B each once, in English. R&B is my favorite 19C novel, but
I was unimpressed by Charterhouse. Translation is an obvious candidate
explanation, but there are others, such as how fast I read them. (I was assigned R&B
for a week; Charterhouse I read leisurely while doing other things.)

I haven't read any Garnett, but people's reactions are amazingly wide. The
conclusion I draw from this is that she's a very good writer, but not
faithful to the source. But most people who complain about her don't just
attack her translation (Amy: "muddied") but also the absolute quality (Amy:
"overwrought"). Again, I haven't read any of her translations.

Posted by: L on October 15, 2005 10:06 PM


If you want to know what "True Christianity" is all about, I'd strongly recommend Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772).

Peace and God Bless,

Fred Smart

Posted by: Fred Smart on October 17, 2005 8:09 PM

Call me old-fashioned, but I find Christianity's appeal to be that it is true. I know how un-postmodern such a claim is -- that such a claim is considered oppressive, and a move for power, and exclusionary of people of other beliefs or no beliefs at all, etc. I may be a voice crying in vain in the mall, or in the politically correct university, or in the culture that celebrates people's creating their own realities, but I still think that the issue of truth is important.

So, if the universe is only matter and energy and nothing else, ... if the universe began with a big bang billions of years ago, ... if we are here because of a change occurrence of circumstances on this little rock that orbits around this little sun, ... and if our sun (and all stars) will burn out so that this universe will one day be dark, cold and lifeless, ... then we just have to "suck it up" and accept this reality. We may not like it, but if that is the truth, then we have to face it. It does me no good to run for comfort to any religion or philosophy that refuse to face this reality. Such escapist moves would be simply pathetic attempts to refuse to face reality. And, of course, there are those who hold to this view of religion. (See the three versions of the Humanist Manifesto that have been produced over the past 70 years.)

But if there is a God who has created all reality, including human beings, who is involved in the universe, and specifically in this world, and if he has a solution for the problems we produce and the evil that we humans do to ourselves, one another, and to the natural world, then that reality needs to be faced.

Of course, people immediately raise the question of knowledge. How can you know what is true? How can you claim to have found the truth, thereby rejecting all other people's beliefs and truth claims? That is a valid question, and one that should be explored and struggled with. But the challenge of the question of knowledge should not sidetrack us from the issue of the truth.

Wishfull thinking, self-centered feelings, and concerns about our ease (or what challenges us) are ultimately irrelevant. I don't mean that it is a waste of time to talk about what appeals to me, what makes my spirit sing, or what resonates with me. But such concerns may have a lot to do with the upbringing and socio-cultural forces that have shaped us. If I were raised in an atheist family, then I would not "naturally" gravitate toward the Christian view of reality, If I were raised in a Christian home, then I would not resonate with an atheistic understanding of reality. Every person has who is serious about truth and life has to, at some point, move out of the comfort of their upbringing, the crowd they associate with, and the cultural forces that shape them, to reflect critically on these things and examine alternative perspectives on reality. Otherwise, they really are not interested in truth, but only in what is comfortable to them personally, in light of the social and cultural factors that have shaped them.

If there is a personal God who has made the world and human beings, and who is involved in the world in such a way that he is interested in relating to humans positively, then it would follow that such a God would provide means and resources for us to come to know him and enjoy the benefits of that knowledge and relationship. A part of that process of coming to know him would involve prayer that God would guide us in the process of knowing him, ... that he would even reveal himself to us through our readings, conversations with people, our reflections, etc.

If there is only matter and energy in the universe, and nothing else, then we need to face that reality. And, as much as we might want to hang on to life for as many years as we can (or, at least, a good quality of life), the ultimate reality is that when we die, we cease to exist. Period. We might valiantly pursue things like justice, mercy, compassion, and love in the years of life given us. But the ultimate reality is still death, not only for each one personally, but also for the whole human race. That is the finality that we must face. (I think that this finality undermines any ultimate pursuit of justice, compassion and love, but that argument will have to be postponed for another discussion.)

So, the issue above all is truth. Is Christianity true? The other issues -- a religious gene, the comfort religion provides, its social or cultural value, etc -- are all ultimately side issues.


Posted by: Gene Haas on October 18, 2005 8:14 AM

Why not read some of the religious poets? Here's a beautiful one from George Herbert:

Love (III)

Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
Guiltie of dust and sinne.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lack’d any thing.

A guest, I answer’d, worthy to be here:
Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkinde, ungratefull? Ah my deare,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marr’d them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, sayes Love, who bore the blame?
My deare, then I will serve.
You must sit down, sayes Love, and taste my meat:
So I did sit and eat.

Here's one from Gerard Manley Hopkins. He slides from what I believe is a riff on Duns Scotus in the first verse to a very moving (to me) Christology at the end of the second:

AS kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I do is me: for that I came.

Í say móre: the just man justices;
Kéeps gráce: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—
Chríst—for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

Posted by: Chris Burd on October 18, 2005 11:00 PM

Coming in a little late to this discussion, but for what it's worth...

I was brought up in a thoroughly secular household, where churchgoing was occasional and religious belief itself was explicitly derided. It was all very good to come together in community, and church was a great medium for social service, but only dupes actually believed in a God (except perhaps the divine within oneself, if you didn't get too supernatural about it), or a resurrection or etc. I initially rebelled against this as a teenager by becoming an honest atheist. My feelings about Christianity were very similar to what I read in your post here.

The year I turned eighteen, I had a surprisingly dramatic conversion experience (involving being found, crying, on a bench by a kind middle-aged lady who turned out to be a nun). It's very hard to put into words why all the obstacles you mention vanished; but my experience for the last 19 years as a Christian was the opposite of "making strenuous efforts" or working hard "restoking the furnaces of belief in order to be able to make that leap over and over again." Rather it has been the fulfillment of unexpressed and ineffable desire, with each piece falling into place with an "of course."

From a Dominican: "God intends to give himself wholly. To put it in a simile: in order that fire may catch wood and penetrate it completely, time is required because the wood and fire are so dissimilar. At first, the fire warms the wood and then makes it hot, and then smoking and crackling, because the two are so dissimilar, but as the wood gets hotter it gets quieter. The more the wood gives up to the fire, the more peaceful it is, until at last it really turns to fire." (Meister Eckhart, ~1320)

Since you asked about emotional/spiritual appeal, I won't go into matters theological of why I believe my faith true for "cold-blooded" reasons (though Newman's Development of Doctrine figured large for me early on; I found C.S. Lewis, whom everyone recommended, quite unhelpful). But I will say that the Problem of Evil is quite real, and if I can be forgiven for saying so, the only way I can see to forgive a God who permits suffering of the kind we see in the world is to know that that God has himself suffered terribly. It never did me any good to be told Christ's suffering should make me grateful. Rather, Christ's suffering and death and victory over them transformed suffering so that it is no longer meaningless; just as Christ's baptism made the waters of baptism holy, his suffering made suffering meaningful, submerged into his own, and destroys death at its nihilistic source.

The best web resource I can recommend to capture why I am a Christian is the late Gerard Serafin's site:
It begins with a quotation from Hans Urs von Balthasar that gets at what I've been trying less eloquently to say here.

Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

Posted by: sharon d. on October 19, 2005 9:05 AM

In the interests of full disclosure, I'll say up front that I am both a Christian and an English literature grad student. While I would say I have reasonable grounds for faith, you asked about the appeal and the metaphor of it rather than the reasons for it, so here's why it appeals to me.

I also used to think that Christianity wanted to be taken as literal truth at the expense of metaphor, and what I perceived as lack of poetry tormented me. I still think Christianity wants to be taken as literal truth, but now I also think it embraces metaphor. A thing can be true in a literal sense and also a metaphor for another thing - I think that is why men and women write poems comparing the sea to a restless man or a strong oak tree to a good father. The restlessness, the sea, the oak, and the father all remain themselves, but the poet hopes that aspects of one shed light on overlooked truths about the other.

Scripture is full of figurative language, and of images that can be applied to all sorts of lives in different times and places - sea and sun, dust and ashes, bread and wine. One of the things that keeps me coming back to Scripture again and again is the vivid poetry of water and stone and tears and blood and sunrise. I think when I started to see the whole of Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation, as a story, that's when I fell in love with it.

Posted by: Hannah on October 19, 2005 8:37 PM

Post a comment

Email Address:



Remember your info?