Last time we met up, we talked about the return of The Dark Crystal (YAY!) and the newest Rapture/Endtimes scare to hit Christianity (boo!), and how both those things kinda intertwine with our very human tendency to assign great importance to astronomical occurrences. This Endtimes scare has gotten quite a lot of pushback from actual astronomers–and from some big names in Christianity as well. We were mainly looking at the real-world pushback against the prediction last time, and today I want to look at one Christian leader’s pushback to it. Indeed, this scare illustrates a very serious problem in Christianity: the difficulty Christians have in reining in their own wingnuts.
Tethering to Reality.
We’ve been talking about this idea of tethers to reality for a while now. Just to recap, every group–and every person for that matter–has a certain worldview made up of their beliefs and convictions about stuff like consent, boundaries, morality, ethics, and even the natural world itself. As much as Christians would like to pretend that their worldview is based on something they inaccurately refer to as objective morality, it’s actually as subjective and as idiosyncratic as most other folks’ worldviews.
The more our worldviews are based upon reality, the easier it is to take on new information that changes those views. But conversely, the more our worldviews are based upon our identities, dogmatic beliefs, and innermost selves, the harder it is to revise those worldviews.
For example, someone who understands and accepts the scientific consensus about our world can easily accommodate changes in their beliefs about stuff like natural selection and human evolution. Like you probably saw that stuff lately about how we’d had to push the origins of wine-making back a few thousand years, or the news about some ancient human-like footprints discovered in Crete that are shaking up the anthropology world. None of that challenges our overarching worldview at all. The scientific method has very clear-cut guidelines for supporting or refuting claims. It turns out that being wrong is a big part of how we learn and grow in our knowledge.
It’s no exaggeration to say that in this worldview, there is not one single idea in the world that’s a sacred cow. No matter how deeply entrenched any idea is, it can still face refutation with objective evidence. Even when some physicists thought some years ago that they’d found a particle that travels faster than the speed of light, which should be impossible according to our current understanding of such things, they didn’t react anything like Christians routinely do to stuff that contradicts their beliefs. They didn’t deny it or vilify those who brought up these findings. They didn’t try to bury the information or make disbelief in it a core in-group marker belief. They just retested the whole thing and figured out why they’d gotten that result–a process that, in itself, makes for some interesting reading about how people who hold a rational worldview regarding science deal with information that seems, at first, to contradict one of the backbones of that worldview.
But someone whose beliefs are integral to their entire self-image as a fundagelical Christian is going to resist advances in knowledge like these. Such Christians get taught from earliest childhood that a firm denial of science is part of being Christian. Christian belief and a heavenly destination after death, they are taught, are totally incompatible with science acceptance. Believers must reject anything discovered via the scientific method that even might contradict their beliefs about Christianity–even while using their own defanged version of the scientific method to try to PROVE YES PROVE that their beliefs are based on real-world evidence.
Christians like that will see contradictions as being personal attacks upon themselves as Christians, since they’ve bound their beliefs up in their self-image as Christians in much the same way that some over-invested, under-socialized gamers take in-game setbacks confronting their characters as attacks upon themselves personally, totally losing sight of what makes roleplaying games fun in the first place.
The funny thing is, there are a lot of Christians who are totally fine with the idea of evolution and natural selection, who know that the universe is mega-way-lots old, and who absolutely want schoolchildren to learn actual science in science classrooms instead of mythology. When we phrase scientific questions in a way that doesn’t threaten their religious beliefs, we discover that, well, it sure seems like most Christians are on-board with the general concepts in science (including natural selection and an ancient universe).
That said, the ones who are mired in science denial can be singularly frustrating to talk to because their beliefs are very strongly tethered to a lot of demonstrably false ideas–ideas that they are often afraid to seriously examine, much less discard and move past. Their entire eternal fates rest upon believing false ideas, as does their entire tribal identity and the solidity of their most-valued relationships. That’s why you can show folks like that any amount of evidence you like without seeing any appreciable changes in their worldview.
The difference between these two kinds of worldviews becomes really obvious when we look at how each type of group deals with members who are saying or doing stuff that’s untrue or harmful to others.
The Problem With Wingnuts.
What I’ve outlined here is one of the first signs of a broken system: a worldview that relies upon false ideas. No matter how nice a group may seem initially and no matter how beneficial membership in that group may seem at first, the group cannot distinguish reality from fakery. The more their daily operations are based upon their worldview, the more intensely that group is going to pointedly deny reality and the harder it’s going to be for its members to recognize, much less change, something they’re doing that’s really wrong.
So when I behold the vast body of Christians–from the mildest and nicest progressives all the way to the cruelest and most cringeworthy fundagelical cultists–I see a group that is, ultimately, based on false ideas of one kind or another.
And that is exactly why the Christians who seem to genuinely care about being kind, charitable, and compassionate toward others absolutely cannot bring their more toxic peers back into line.
The problem gets even worse when you have a group of Christians who are already terrible people who are trying to rein in someone who’s even worse than they are.
It ain’t gonna happen.
There’s simply no objective source that they all respect that can check their actions and attitudes or show them definitively that they’re in the wrong about something. For all fundagelicals’ blathering about having objective morality governing them, that clearly can’t be the case because when they’re totally and obviously wrong about something (see: the Nashville Statement, their anti-abortion culture war, their entrenched rules governing marriage, instructions for parenting, institutionalized racism and sexism, their handling of the rash of rape scandals on Christian college campuses, and way more besides), there is absolutely positively no way to make them see it.
At best, such Christians may conclude decades or even centuries after the fact that they were in error, as they did in 2009 regarding their onetime explicit support of slavery and segregation. But good luck getting ’em to see that while it’s happening. If confronted at the time, they’re likely to accuse their accusers of doing Christianity all wrong.
This behavior shouldn’t surprise us. It’s part and parcel of having a worldview that’s not tethered to reality at all.
Every group has some wingnuts, and some even draw in predators. I think that’s going to be inevitable–just luck of the draw. But a good group based in reality will keep such people away from their more vulnerable members and eventually drive off those people before they cause damage to the group’s good name and its credibility. People who join these groups seeking victims are not going to find fertile fields there. They’ll end up leaving for more promising hunting-grounds–if they’re not cast out before they can leave voluntarily. And should the group accidentally allow a person like that to slip through their ranks, they act decisively and immediately to fix the situation.
A bad group won’t have any way to rein those people in or to keep them from vulnerable members–and in fact may allow those wingnuts to rise to positions of power very quickly.
And I’m not just talking about Christianity here. Any group can have these problems.
Remember when I was pagan and thought the Greek gods had sent a catastrophic summer storm to my town as a sign after my mom died? Yeah, that notion lasted all of a few days. Once I breathlessly floated the idea to my group, they stomped on it so thoroughly but compassionately that I never thought that way again about anything–and yet I also still felt included and loved by them afterward. They brought up some very good and reality-based arguments for why that couldn’t possibly have been a divine sign, I indicated that I’d understood and accepted their pushback, and then everything went on as normal.
Try to do that with a Christian who buys into prosperity gospel or Creationism or something else that’s categorically false. Just try. You ain’t gonna be able to.
But oh, do they ever try to persuade each other!
The Spiritual Yardstick.
I used to watch Biff pull out a sort of spiritual yardstick whenever he got together with Christians who weren’t members of our denomination. See, he had to figure out which of them had the most Biblical doctrines (or at least what he conceived of as “Biblical”), meaning who was the most correct and spiritually discerning of them all.
The people he was competing with were, of course, doing much the same thing to him. So they’d all talk about what doctrines they believed, what their stances were on the various political topics that right-wing Christians went for even in the 1980s and 1990s, and where they stood on stuff like dress codes, the Rapture, and women’s rights. Some of these discussions got really spirited and could last for hours. Nothing could get done till they’d worked out their positions on the totem pole.
Surprisingly, shockingly, astonishingly, at no point whatsoever did any of them change their minds about anything their peers said. That’s because every single one of their beliefs and stances were based on subjective interpretations of the Bible and their own subjective revelatory experiences, and those simply don’t compel belief in other people whose beliefs came to them in the exact same manner–but with slightly different results.
Just think: at least some of those Christians I knew back then may well now be leading Christian groups in some capacity today, and they’re still probably thinking that their own particular quirky lil interpretations of the Bible are the correct ones out of all the tens of thousands of other interpretations that have ever existed. Multiply them by a few tens of millions of Christians, and marvel, as I do, at how any of them can think any of this BS sounds persuasive to the rest of us.
These jockeying sessions did accomplish one very important thing, however.
They made me realize that just as I thought they were wrong about something, they were equally as convinced that I was the one who was wrong.
It’s not that I disagreed with Biff about the stuff he argued with them about; we pretty much agreed on most points of theology and doctrine, as far as I remember. It’s just that I realized a lot earlier than he did that these arguments never went anywhere. I knew I couldn’t ever convince them that they were wrong about anything. They’d built a theology that could easily invalidate my arguments, just as I had built up the same sort of theology to invalidate theirs.
This realization troubled me greatly.
Giving Away the Game.
That dynamic I just described is what we see when Christians who think of themselves as more sensible try to rein in Christians they think are getting out of hand.
Last time we met up, I poked fun at Ed Stetzer, a formal leader in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), for loftily proclaiming that “there is no such thing as a legitimate ‘Christian numerologist'” in an essay he wrote for Christianity Today. He was responding to the interest of his tribe in the Endtimes prediction made by Christian weirdo David Meade that the world is totally gonna end somehow on September 23 (which is this Saturday).
But Ed Stetzer’s reasoning made me laugh almost uncontrollably. Listen to this:
Sure, the writers of Scripture do, indeed, use numbers to point to a few things—that’s first-year seminary. But it stops at first-year seminary because there are not secret numerical codes that require a profession called “Christian numerology.” . . . Meade is a made-up leader in a made-up field, and should not be on the front page of anything, let alone Fox News.
Seriously. I’ve just got no words.
Ed Stetzer accepts that his worldview certainly has room for occult mysticism–just not that kind. And he criticizes David Meade for being “a made-up leader in a made-up field,” ignoring that that’s pretty much what the leaders of his entire denomination are–just not that kind. And sure, the SBC officially believes that yes, one day the Rapture’s gonna happen and Jesus will return and the Endtimes will surely begin, but Ed Stetzer’s specific objection is to Mr. Meade’s attempt to fix a date on the festivities because that’s just a bridge too far for him.
It sure seems like his main objection to the entire September 23rd prediction is that the wingnuttery involved in making that prediction is newer and more different wingnuttery than Ed Stetzer believes.
And then he tells us, “I’m doing my part” to “start calling out these individuals and vocalizing our rejection.”
But is he?
Is he really doing his part?
Meaningless Platitudes (Are Almost Too Much to Ask For).
I’d say not.
After all, the rest of us have been doing exactly the same thing Ed Stetzer thinks he did for years (you’re welcome, Ed) to tell the SBC that they are totally on the wrong side of every single social issue they’ve tackled and every political position they hold–and we haven’t been able to convince them of anything. Let’s face it, this is a church that argued for
hours days over whether or not they should formally condemn white supremacists, FFS, before barely coming down on the side of condemning it.
But even after they finally decided that yes, white supremacists are really bad mmkay, nothing whatsoever forces any member of the SBC–much less any other evangelical Christian whose supposedly-nondenominational church is basically Baptist in everything but name–to alter their own worldview to take that condemnation into account.
Nor did the SBC’s bigwigs appear to make any big changes to their leadership or interpersonal paradigms to make that condemnation an operational reality on the ground. Though the African-American SBC pastor who proposed this resolution to condemn white supremacists seemed pleased enough with the final outcome to compliment the denomination’s leaders via Twitter “for taking a bold stance against the ‘ALT-Right,'” as he put it, exactly what is this exceptional, amazingly Jesus-like show of totally for realsies true and honest bravery going to mean in African-Americans’ daily lives and struggles with regard to the SBC and its millions of racist white members? Cuz it kinda looks like this declaration is going to mean jack squat. Certainly one of their own leaders, Bart Barber, doesn’t appear to think anything is going to change, and they lost at least one other leader, Lawrence Ware, over their reluctance to pass the resolution in the first place.
And let us not forget, ever, nor allow the SBC to forget, ever, that even that laughably bare-minimum effort was only accomplished after days of debate and argument by the denomination’s leaders. Most of the rest of us already know that white supremacists are terrible people and we speak against them. We know why Black Lives Matter and can counter the common racist objections to the phrase. We condemn racist policies and abjure racism in law enforcement. And we manage this bare minimum of decency while not even claiming, as Ed Stetzer and his pals do, to have a god of love and the author of the universe’s totally objective morality living inside us and influencing us in tangible ways. But the people who do make those claims on the regular couldn’t even bring themselves to make a statement condemning white supremacists without arguing for days about it! (One wonders how long it took the SBC to help create and then agree to the Nashville Statement.)
That vote was made back in June. You don’t need to wonder, I hope, about what has actually changed since then!
Leaving Nothing to Chance.
The brouhaha over that racism resolution tells us with crystal clarity that once Christians get terrible ideas in their heads, their peers and even their superiors in the hierarchy can’t talk them out of those terrible ideas or set them on the right path. So it shouldn’t be a surprise to anybody that we non-Christians simply can’t convince Christians like the SBC’s members that they’re behaving cruelly and hatefully toward us, or that they need to quit meddling in people’s private lives or trying to force us to comply with their unworkable, regressive, weirdly-subjective, self-serving, and obviously arbitrary demands.
We aren’t going to find the magic series of words that’ll convince Christians like Ed Stetzer that they are doing exactly the opposite of the Great Command–not to mention failing hilariously at the later addition of the Great Commission. Little details like our lived reality don’t matter to people like that. They’ve already got plenty of tried-and-true methods to invalidate anything we say that contradicts their beliefs about those topics, just as my friends and I did in those dorm-room arguments decades ago. Their worldview isn’t just reality-proof. It’s immune to correction even by people who are operating outside reality in the same exact way they are.
So the idea of Ed Stetzer thinking he’s “doing [his] part” to trample on this latest Endtimes scare is so laughable that it’s ridiculous. Someone took the exact kind of nonsense that Ed Stetzer’s tribe considers the truth, extended it a tiny bit further than he likes, and thanks to the exact problems with their own teachings and their own culture, nobody in the SBC can do a single thing about it. All they have to counter David Meade’s predictions is an insistence that his nonsense is way too different from their nonsense and thus should be rejected. And that’s not very persuasive at all to people like David Meade, who very likely considers Ed Stetzer’s criticism as a sign that Jesus totally approves of what he’s doing.
To really do his part, Ed Stetzer would need to push for some fundamental (HAHA) changes to his tribe’s entire worldview to tether it better to reality, and I sure don’t see him doing or even suggesting anything like that. He’s settling for writing essays on Christian sites and giving sound bites to big news sites like The Washington Post–and those efforts will result in just as much tangible change as his denomination’s condemnation of white supremacists produced last June.
I’m still a charitable-enough soul that I wonder if that realization would trouble Ed Stetzer as much as it did me back in college.
Please join us next time as we look at a surprising new development for the Mormon Church. Next week I’m going on vacation–while I’m gone, we’ll be revisiting some of R2D’s biggest hits to look at them with fresh eyes and a few years’ perspective. (If I can figure out how to upload pics to the blog on my tablet, then I deffo will as well!) I’ve appointed a few deputies to keep an eye on things and I won’t be completely out of pocket, so if you see anything iffy in comments please use Disqus’ flag feature to alert the mods. See you next time!