Sunday, December 11, 2005

Streamlined Christianity and egalitarianism

Fundamentalism, as we should all be aware by now, is the philosophy or movement that emphasizes getting back to the basics, or fundamentals, of (in this case) Christianity. Some groups are merely circumspect about the utility or truthfulness of some matters of faith they consider to be non-core, and some positively reject everything they consider, by whatever metric, to be extraneous, let alone erroneous. I appreciate the zeal that so often seems to accompany fundamentalism, but the ways in which it seems to knock off some of the asperities seem kind of peculiar. Then again, I'm Catholic, so I don't really feel the urgency to keep things mostly plain and simple (I submit that, as a rare exception, fundamentalist eschatology is anything but simple), nor should I really be one to talk about what seems peculiar to an outsider.

Lately I've been thinking back to my time with the mostly-Evangelical Bible study and the many lunches I had over beers with a former colleague, an SBC type who believed temperance should mean being temperant rather than abstinent of things that were not actually sins or vices. Most of our discussions weren't too out there, but like I said before, there were a few times I had to stop and think. It didn't register as much more than culture shock at the time, but now that I'm slightly better educated, some of my friends' stances seem odder than before.

One of them is pretty straightly derived from sola fide. Some of the folks were taking it alarmingly seriously; it's not that I would expect them to be lukewarm or anything, but I'm just not sure how they get from "We can do nothing of merit without Christ" to "We can do nothing at all" (puppets of good or sin, qv). I mean, it is, ultimately, the most minimalist (can I put those words together?) intepretation, but I don't see how you can accept their proposition without having to eventually write off the rest of the Bible as being superfluous. Someone can probably give me a reasonable answer, I suspect...I wonder now how much of my incredulity was due to me mistaking their zeal for a more mature understanding of their faith than I had of mine.

As for free will (which seemed to be overlapping with mere knowledge, to make matters worse) being the catalyst to salvation, I don't see how it could work, either. Now, since my friend is coming from an adult baptismal tradition, I can understand his lack of appreciation for the efficacy of baptism being predicated by an act of faith rather than reason. I reminded him of the demons, who know better than any of us the truth of our faith, that Christ is Lord and He died for our sins, but maybe I shouldn't be basing my arguments on epistles of straw.

Another matter is the notion that all sins are equal. The hierarchy of sin isn't something I understand particularly well, although the explanation I was given when I was young, with the criteria of gravity, knowledge, and consent, does make sense to me, for what it's worth. I've heard some people say heinous sins are no worse than mild sins, sometimes (but not often) claiming that since Jesus has forgiven all our sins, it doesn't matter what the quantity or quality of our misbehavior is, which I'd be willing to admit as a half truth.

What my friends were claiming, however, was the opposite, that every sin, no matter how small, accidental, or coerced, is enough to consign us to hell, which I'd also be willing to admit as half true.

I'm bothered by this zero-tolerance policy toward, alternately, judgment and clemency. Naturally, we shouldn't lose sight of either the greatness of the gift of the Cross or dire need for the Cross, but it seems to be a hard lens to view the world through. I'm not saying they should conform to societal expectations, either, but in the case of my friends, at least, there seems to be some mental dissociation going on. They claim it's appropriate to penalize criminals in proportion to their crimes, but stick a pen in your pocket at work for convenience and then go home without remembering to return it to your desk drawer, and you may as well be raping babies. They don't act like it's the same thing, but they'll say it with a straight face. Both infractions are equally damning, I can sort of understand, but what shocks me is how far they'll bend over backwards to insist that nothing else matters, that the sin-or-intellectual-acceptance-of-Christ dynamic is so important that everything else is so trivial by comparison--everything--that we should actively shun it. Want to live a better life because Jesus or the Holy Spirit so inspired you? Great, fine, He loves that stuff. Prefer to keep on keepin' on as you were before? Fine, He's got ya covered either way; as your good works while unsaved were filthy rags, your sins now smell like roses, except to the rest of us.

Obviously, though, we don't count, as we're not allowed to judge actions any more than we're able to judge souls, or something, except to say that we're all passively accruing sin at all times through our own faults. Yeah, I don't get it either.

Someone once shared this analogy with me: our sins against each other are like incurring debts on the order of pocket change--pennies and nickels. Our sins against God, on the other hand, would be more like on the order of millions of dollars (or infinite dollars, but you get the idea). We can kind of make up or write off the offenses we commit against each other, but we have no way of [fully] paying our debt to God. Okay, I suppose not, but if you can't pay a five billion dollar fine for hitting your wife because you can't even afford the one million dollar fine for cutting a guy off in traffic, then the distinction might be moot, but it's not meaningless.

I guess if there's only one punishment, then the nature of the act that brought it on you is a little less than important, but it's awfully heavy-handed to refuse to pick up a tool for self-examination, in the interest of appearing equally (or rather, indistinguishably) sinful with everyone else. I thought at first that this "judge yourself and everyone else as guilty, less ye be Judged by Him Who Is" was simply a case of underdeveloped theology, like I suggested seven paragraphs up, but I see it elsewhere: depictions of heaven as an endless sea of anonymous saved sinners, dirty and incredulous looks when I tell people that I enjoy the occasional cocktail but do not struggle with alcoholism.

How do I demean the alcoholic by saying that my weaknesses are different? Granted, it wouldn't be the best tactic in trying to help an alcoholic, but if there was none around for me to even potentially alienate with a comment that could possibly be twisted into "That kind of thing could only happen to you," then what's the harm? I could say something about violence or pornography, but alcohol alone tends to be the least forgivable sin in some of these circles to which I'm tangent. Does it really seem healthy to anyone to try so hard to frame yourself in egalitarian and "humble" terms that you end up completely divorced from reality? I've actually had exchanges go much as follows:

Me: With alcohol available at many of my friends' houses and every decent restaurant in town, I'm glad I don't have a drinking problem.
Other: *hostile stare*
Me: What? Did I say I don't have other issues to contend with?
Other: Like pride?

Ooh, walked into that one, didn't I? I'll be the first (or in a case like the above, second) person to admit I have some ego issues, but they don't have anything to do with me trying to be realistic.

It's not merely "recognizing the natural consequences for risky behavior" instead of casting the first stone. Adding a little brandy to my eggnog is not starting down the path to the Dark Side: it will not forever dominate my destiny. It could, if I were predisposed and just started replacing more and more eggnog with brandy, but I'm not and I won't. It's not like refraining from eating meat in front of uncertain vegetarians to avoid scandal; it's like being expected not to eat cake in front of a diabetic, or not to eat red meat in front of a Catholic on Friday. Oh, if I were drinking in front of an alcoholic, I might be ratifying a near occasion to temptation, but just talking about the problem?

It puzzles me. To hear them talk, it's like taking this assumption of equality to pathological levels is the perfect marriage of let-no-man-boast theology and good old American equality, but when we get to heaven, it's all Marx's workers' paradise without any work, a bunch of identical souls all worshiping the Authority. What's going on here?

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