The Absurdity of the Christian Faith? Hell, yeah!

THE FOLLOWING IS THE RESULT OF A CONVERSATION WITH AN ATHEIST WHO ASKED ME SOME BASIC QUESTIONS ABOUT MY CHRISTIAN FAITH.

the-preaching-of-foolishness

What is the purpose of the New Testament?

Well, the writers of the New Testament want to enable an encounter with Jesus of Nazareth.

Why would that be important?

The New Testament authors all believe in God. They are convinced that God is revealed in the person of Jesus, who is therefore called “Christ”. Basically they claim that knowing Jesus is an excellent way to know God.

Okay, now suppose there is a God – which I don’t believe, by the way –, why on earth would it be important to know God?

Maybe you will label the following answer as an absurdity, if not as an outright offensive statement.

The New Testament writers are convinced that you cannot know yourself if you don’t know God. So, according to them, if you are interested in knowing yourself, you must know God.

Your prediction turns out to be right. The Christian faith sounds ridiculous. It claims that there is a God, which is a first absurdity to my atheist ears. Second, it claims that I should somehow learn to know a poor Jewish guy who lived and died two thousand years ago in a remote area of the Roman Empire if I want to know that “God”. Indeed, that sounds absurd!

Does the Christian tradition claim that this is the only way to know God? What about the people who lived before Jesus? What about the people who have never heared of him?

I don’t know about all the Christian churches, but I do know that the Catholic Church acknowledges other ways through which God can be known. In that sense the answer to your question is no. The Bible and the Christian tradition as a whole are not the only ways to experience the reality of Christ.

Anyway, what you are saying still sounds patronizing. I’m an atheist. I don’t have to know a fictitious “God” to know myself. Moreover, what if I’m not interested in knowing myself at all? Why would it be important to know myself?

Let me ask you this question: is it possible for people to know themselves without love?

What do you mean? What has that got to do with anything we are talking about?

Well, you will need to be a little patient now. I’ll try to explain it.

I’ve learned from child psychiatrists that there are basically three types of child neglect, which are often mixed together. All of them have to do with a lack of love. The first one is treating a child as if the child is worth nothing. That is the merely negative approach. The second is treating a child as if the child doesn’t exist. That is the indifferent approach. The third is treating a child as if the child is a superior being. That is the merely positive approach.

Children who are treated in these ways will grow up craving attention and recognition. In order to satisfy this craving, they will tend to present an image of themselves that they believe will give them the desired attention.

The child who ends up thinking he is worth nothing might try to avoid further negative criticism by attempting to meet everyone’s expectations. This child does not know who he is or what his qualities are, apart from being whoever people want him to be. He has difficulty recognizing his own talents because he suspects others might ridicule them. Being ashamed of himself in this way, he tends to look up to others – as if they are flawless and he is full of mistakes.

The child who experienced a lot of indifference while growing up might think he must be a bully to get recognition. This child does not know who he is or what his qualities are, apart from being a bully. He reduces life to a powerplay.

How seldom we weigh our neighbor in the same balance with ourselves (Thomas a Kempis)And the child who is used to be treated as a superior being might think he indeed is superior to others and might only listen to people who confirm his self-concept. This child does not know who he is or what his qualities are, apart from being the narcissist he has become. He has difficulty recognizing his own flaws. Being ashamed of himself in this way, he tends to look down on others – as if he is flawless and they are full of mistakes.

If those children would have been treated with love, they would have discovered their talents as well as their flaws without being ashamed of them. Moreover, if people can recognize their own true talents, they will be more able to recognize and appreciate the talents of others as well, beyond inferiority complexes, powerplays or jealous competition.

In short, loving others is only possible if you truly love yourself and that’s why you should know yourself in some sense. If you believe loving yourself and others is important, then you should develop a minimum of self-knowledge. This is only possible if you refuse to treat anything as divine, except love itself. If you open up yourself to receive love, you will be able to love yourself as well as others.

I understood everything you said until your next to last statement. Could you please explain what you mean by “love is only possible if you refuse to treat anything as divine, except love itself”?

It is a short version of Mark 12:28-31, in which Jesus summarizes the teachings of the Bible:

One of the teachers of the law came and heard the Sadducees debating Jesus. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, the teacher of the law asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”

“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

The Greatest Commandment in Hebrew.jpg

“To love God” is, in a Jewish sense, the prohibition to consider anything as divine or “perfect” (see Exodus 20:3-4). It is the prohibition on idolatry. Now let’s connect this principle to what was mentioned earlier.

If you want to learn something that will help you, learn to see yourself as God sees you (Thomas a Kempis)Someone who suffers from an inferiority complex has the tendency to idolize others and to blame himself for everything that goes wrong in his life. He also has the tendency to compare himself to those so-called “perfect” others in order to develop an acceptable self-image. Thus he is primarily interested in others as “mirrors”. Others are reduced to means who should confirm a certain self-image. Having experienced a lack of love while growing up, the person who suffers from an inferiority complex is not interested in himself apart from the image he hopes will give him some social recognition. Unable to truly respect himself he is also unable to respect others. As said, he is only interested in them as means, not as ends in themselves. His whole life is dominated by fear, more specifically by the fear of punishment or rejection by others if he doesn’t live up to a so-called acceptable image in his main social environment. His life is hell. Hell is real. 1 John 4:18 puts it this way:

“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”

no fear in love

The same reasoning goes for someone who suffers from a superiority complex. This comes as no surprise, as a superiority complex is often a compensation for feelings of inferiority and shame about one’s own flaws. The person who suffers from a superiority complex has the tendency to idolize himself and is again only interested in others as means to confirm his so-called “perfect” self-image. Fearing failure the person who suffers from a superiority complex turns his own life and the life of others into hell.

Love is the abandonment of the fear of not being perfect. It is the abandonment of any kind of idolatry, which creates the possibility to “love your neighbor as yourself”. Again, “to love God” is, in a Jewish sense, the prohibition to consider anything as divine, neither yourself nor others. As such, it is the conditio sine qua non “to love your neighbor as yourself”. Respect for the prohibition on idolatry as an absolute commandment is the recognition of the singular divinity of love. That is the paradox that is at the heart of the Christian faith.

Indeed, the Christian tradition claims that “God is love”. Hence, in this light it is true to say that you can only know yourself if you know God: you can only know yourself if you know love.

See for instance 1 John 4:16b:

“God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them.”

agape love

Love allows us to discover the truth about ourselves and others, beyond illusory self-images. It allows us to discover each other’s beauty, as we no longer consume each other as means to satisfy our desire for recognition, but recognize each other as ends. Christians believe that Jesus of Nazareth embodies the reality of love in an excellent way. That’s why they call him the Christ and that’s why they call for an Imitatio Christi. The importance of that kind of mimesis in the Christian tradition runs from the apostle Paul over Thomas à Kempis (1380-1471) to René Girard (1923-2015) – to name but a few.

Jesus criticizes both superiority and inferiority complexes in people in order to enable “re-connections” and reconciliation between them. He offers the grace of forgiveness so that we might no longer be ashamed of ourselves and that we might be able to forgive and accept the flawed nature of others as well. Whenever that happens and the reality of love is established, there is “heaven” – “the Kingdom of God”. Love leads to the salvation of ourselves and others.

The glory of God is a human being fully alive (Irenaeus of Lyons)As Irenaeus of Lyons (130-202) writes, “the glory of God is the human person fully alive.” The human person who is “fully alive” is the person who overcomes fear in order to love more deeply. Love transforms fear from fear of the other (as a potential rival) into fear for the other (as my neighbor).

I guess my next question is superfluous. You do believe in God, heaven and hell?

In Christianity you are not martyring yourself (René Girard)Yes. I do believe in the reality of love, and I do believe that wherever it is given room to establish itself there is “heaven”. As I also believe that wherever fear takes over there is “hell”. And as far as this world is concerned, we always find ourselves between heaven and hell, between love and fear. The challenge is to distinguish between those two “spirits” or dynamics, and to rely on love ever more deeply. In reference to Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556), discernment is key in order to follow the transformative and creative power of love, which turns fear of the other (as a potential rival) into fear for the other (as my neighbor). We can only hope people will imitate each other in this way.

So love over fear, even if love can bring you in a situation where you end up being despised, rejected or crucified by people who hate the criticism of their socially mediated self-images?

That’s the challenge, yes, in which we more often fail than succeed.

Isn’t it foolish, if not absurd to live that kind of risky life?

Hell yeah, it is! But I would rather live an authentic life in the realm of love than die to an inauthentic one because of fear. As that saying goes, derived from a poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892),

“It’s better to have lost at love than never to have loved at all.”

Alfred, Lord Tennyson In Memoriam XIV_XXVII_XXXV

I believe that is true. There is a comfort in love that does not depend on its eventual outcomes. In that sense it is “all-powerful”, however much vulnerable and fragile it is.

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Bono (U2) and The Imitation of Christ

René Girard’s mimetic theory is heir to a long and widespread Christian tradition of meditating on imitation, more specifically on the imitation of Christ. This tradition is such an essential part of the Christian ‘DNA’, that Christians throughout the ages have dwelled upon it. Not surprisingly then, the wisdom of a famous Medieval Catholic monk – Thomas à Kempis – coincides with the insights of a contemporary Christian rock star – Bono. I found it interesting to organize a meeting between the two. So, here you have it: some excerpts from De Imitatione Christi next to a video fragment of an interview with Bono.

Thomas à Kempis (c.1380-1471) is famous for his spiritual guide De Imitatione Christi – ‘(On) The Imitation of Christ’. These are its first words:

Qui sequitur me non ambulat in tenebris dicit Dominus. Hæc sunt verba Christi, quibus admonemur quatenus vitam eius et mores imitemur, si volumus veraciter illuminari, et ab omni cæcitate cordis liberari. Summum igitur studium nostrum, sit in vita Jesu meditari.

(De Imitatione Christi, Liber Primus Caput I, 1).

Translation:

“He who follows Me, walks not in darkness,” says the Lord. By these words of Christ we are advised to imitate His life and habits, if we wish to be truly enlightened and free from all blindness of heart. Let our chief effort, therefore, be to study the life of Jesus Christ.

Christ indeed asks us to imitate him, thereby reorienting our mimetic abilities. Bono, lead singer of rock band U2, tried to follow this call from an early age and always looked for authentic ways to develop his life as a Christian. He tried to follow in the early church’s footsteps:

In school I met some people who knew the Scriptures. It was quite a moment there when people got very interested in the early church and the possibilities of imitating the early church.

Because of certain mimetic tendencies, our ears often remain deaf to these possibilities. All too soon we imitate those who judge us, and we become judgmental ourselves. Answering Christ’s call to ‘follow’ him has to do with finding out the truth about our’selves’ and with the ability to love our neighbour. The evangelical paradox is this: in obeying Christ we don’t lose ourselves but instead we actually find who we are – we become free! Christ represents the realm of grace and forgiveness, where we don’t have to hide our weaknesses and iniquities. This realm is an antidote for the temptation to present ourselves in such a way that we don’t run the risk of being judged. We are often tempted to enslave ourselves to an admirable image (Latin: imago) or to imitate an illusory idol. Bono puts it this way:

The key that great art has in common with Christianity is: “Know the truth and the truth will set you free.” I’ve held on to that very tightly. That’s how I start my day as a writer. I (can) start on a lie… and a lie can be being the person that you’d like to be, rather than the person you are…

If we don’t experience ‘the space of grace’, we will indeed easily lie about our own shortcomings and place the blame on something or someone else – and thus create scapegoats. We are so used to being judged that we judge others in our defense, and so multiply the evil we are trying to avoid. To imitate Christ means to imitate the One who is merciful and by doing so, in turn, free others in becoming and accepting themselves. The dynamic thus created is a dynamic of love which eventually hopes to save the world from the ‘bad’ imitation of ‘an eye for an eye’ violence. Bono also talks about this interruption of ‘the laws of karma’ (i.e. the laws of harmony, balance as well as revenge) by the creative, unexpected and ‘unbalancing’ dynamic of grace and forgiveness:

I’m pretty sure that the Universe operates by the laws of Karma essentially. All physical laws do. What you put out comes back against you. Then enters the story of Grace, which really is the story of Christ, which turned this view of the Universe upside down. And it’s completely counter-intuitive. It’s very, very hard for human beings to grasp Grace. We can actually grasp atonement, revenge, fairness… all of this we can grasp. But we don’t grasp Grace very well. I’m much more interested in Grace because I’m really depending on it.

In order to become loving persons – which is the ultimate goal of the biblical enterprise – we first need to accept ourselves as we are. That’s why Thomas à Kempis advises us to temporarily withdraw from a world where we are tempted to keep up appearances by gossip and rumors. From time to time, we need to retreat from ‘the company of men’ in order to distinguish ‘the call of the One who creates us’

… so we might truly become ‘imitators of Christ’:

Quære aptum tempus vacandi tibi, de beneficiis Dei frequenter cogita. Relinque curiosa, tales potius perlege materias, quæ compunctionem magis præstent quam occupationem. Si te subtraxeris a superfluis locutionibus et curiosis circuitionibus nec non a novitatibus et remoribus audiendis, invenies tempus sufficiens et aptum bonis meditationibus insistendis. Maximi Sanctorum humana consortia ubi poterant vitabant et Deo in secreto vivere eligebant.

Dixit quidam: Quoties inter homines fui, minor homo redii. Hoc sæpius experimur, quando diu confabulamur. Facilius est enim tacere quam in verbo non excedere. Facilius est domi latere quam foris se posse sufficienter custodire. Qui igitur intendit ad interiora et spiritualia pervenire, oportet eum cum Jesu a turba declinare.

(De Imitatione Christi, Liber Primus Caput XX, 1-2a).

Translation:

Seek a suitable time for leisure and meditate often on the favors of God. Leave curiosities alone. Read such matters as bring sorrow to the heart rather than occupation to the mind. If you withdraw yourself from unnecessary talking and idle running about, from listening to gossip and rumors, you will find enough time that is suitable for holy meditation. Very many great saints avoided the company of men wherever possible and chose to serve God in retirement. 

“As often as I have been among men,” said one writer, “I have returned less a man.” We often find this to be true when we take part in long conversations. It is easier to be silent altogether than not to speak too much. To stay at home is easier than to be sufficiently on guard while away. Anyone, then, who aims to live the inner and spiritual life must go apart, with Jesus, from the crowd.

The video fragment of an interview with Bono on ‘faith, hope and love’

– CLICK TO WATCH:

For more cross-references between U2 and mimetic theory I highly recommend a book, in German, by Austrian Brigitte Dorner: U2 ist ihre Religion, Bono ihr Gott. Zur theologischen Relevanz der Rock- und Popmusik am Beispiel von U2. For more information, click here.