October 1, 2010

Choosing Christianity

“That's just how you were raised!”—a common argument used to dismiss Christianity’s claim to absolute truth. A variation of this argument goes something like this: "If you had been born in another country, you could just as easily have become a Muslim or a Hindu. What you believe is determined by how you were raised—your environment—not by any over-arching truths." And who can argue with such sophisticated argumentation? After all, that is exactly how many of us were raised. We regularly attended Sunday services, the Wednesday evening Bible study, and summer vacations were always scheduled around Vacation Bible School. We were taught that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God, that Jesus was born of a virgin and that he died at Calvary as a sacrifice for our sins. Heavens to Betsy, we also view the account of Noah and the Ark as a literal, historical event.

Sadly, however, many Christians have surrendered to this argument, concluding that it is only by chance—as opposed to the work of the Holy Spirit—that they are followers of Christ. Their views of truth and ethics have been reduced to personal preference, leaving them paralyzed to say anything objective about the world in which they live. When confronted with the absolute truth claims of Christianity, they are willing to embrace them, but only for themselves.
Often I encounter different manifestations of this argument from those who seek to overcome the epistemological void of ethical relativism by trying to reduce the weightier claims of Christian epistemology and ethics to the relativistic "that's just how you were raised" perspective. By doing so, they think they have avoided dealing with the consequences of relativism by pointing the finger elsewhere. A significant hole in their argument is the quick dismissal of what is learned in the context of church and family. Apart from universal laws of logic and such, what we know is learned from other people in some manner. It is a non sequitur to suggest that being raised in the Church necessitates that a person's faith is blind, guided merely by tradition and sentimentalism. It is one thing to recognize the diversity of belief in our world, but the only thing pluralism is an evidence of is pluralism.

This issue came to mind this week with respect to President Obama's statement on the nature of his faith. When asked "Why are you a Christian?" Obama responded by saying that he "became a Christian by choice" and that his belief was not due to being "raised in the church." This statement makes one wonder if he is suggesting that those who were raised in the church had no real choice. In some ways, his response could be helpful toward disarming those who argue against Christianity on the basis of cultural influence because it appears that the church played virtually no formative role in his early life. Certainly we know that not all who claim to be Christians were raised in the church, many do come to faith later in life, but those outside the church contending for the religion of unbelief don’t think that through to its logical conclusion.

On the other hand, was the President’s statement helpful at all? Or did his response actually promote the argument that Christians don’t have a firm theory of knowledge, just a history of tradition and sentimentalism? He spoke of sin and salvation and how the “precepts” of Jesus fit his own conception of reality, so it appears that at least one part of the Bible was agreeable to his view of the world. Therein lies the problem, however, in that he subjected the tenets of faith to his own prescription for how we should live when he said,
“the precepts of Jesus Christ spoke to me in terms of the kind of life that I would want to lead -- being my brothers’ and sisters’ keeper, treating others as they would treat me."
On this matter, he clearly did not treat scripture as a revelational source of knowledge, but a philosophical document that agreed with his own perspective. And his cherry-picking is made obvious in his inability to flip-flop on previous statements he has made on collective salvation.

I am left to wonder if his statement about his faith was intended to communicate some level of superiority above those who are more culturally Christian. If Barak Obama is a Christian, his "choice" for Christianity does not make his faith experience qualitatively better or epistemologically superior to those who were raised in the Christian subculture. Are those who were not raised in the church less predisposed to clinging irrationally to their religion as has been suggested of some Christians while on the campaign trail? And why is it acceptable for his brand of Christianity be integrated into his civil service when conservative Christians in office are generally disparaged for punching a hole through the dry-wall of separation? Note this part of his statement during this same town hall, “I think my public service is part of that effort to express my Christian faith.” Between Obama and Nancy Pelosi’s love of the “Word,” I don’t think I have ever seen so much religious-speak come out the White House.

No doubt there are issues with some who were “born” into the Church. As I have been working on this piece, I stumbled onto Nancy Pearcey’s comments on a closely related matter in her new (HIGHLY RECOMMENDED) book, Saving Leonardo. She writes,
In past generations, many people simply ‘inherited’ their religion, following the tradition of their family and ethnic group…But in today’s large urban centers, it is no longer possible to remain Christian out of tradition. People face too much opposition and have too many alternatives….They are more likely to treat worldview commitments as something they seek out, investigate, weight, compare, and adopt as a matter of intentional commitment and practice. As a result, says sociologist Christian Smith, those commitments are actually stronger. (Saving Leonardo, p. 21)
Her point is well taken, that there are those whose worldview commitments are challenged, choosing for themselves what to believe instead of blindly towing the line of their cultural or familial faith traditions. These are people who come to understand what they believe and why they believe it, and as a result can stand firm in the faith even in the face of opposition; if more members of Christ’s body could only be so challenged. But this is not to dispute my point, that being raised in the Church does not automatically invalidate the beliefs of the individual as the relativist demands. Nor does her point shore up what I believe are the implications of Obama’s statement, that his Christianity is superior because he chose it, it did not choose him.

1 comment:

Teri K said...

The lack of logic in the statement that those raised as Christians can't chose of their free will has always bothered me. Of course, the subtext is that no one would chose Christianity on their own, and that's clearly wrong. But it also implies that being brought up in the church is a handicap to clear thinking. Yet, if Christianity is based on truth, then being brought up in it is a great advantage, not a disadvantage. And, as you say, there's no truth in the implication that "You chose to be a Christian because you were brought up that way, therefore you are wrong." Where's the logic in that?