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I wanted to briefly discuss something I talked about last time, about couples “basing their marriage on Jesus.” I was talking about how Christians tend to have very unclear ideas of exactly what they’re basing their relationship on, namely:

The simple truth is that I don’t think even most Christians base their marriages on Jesus. At most, what they’re really doing is making Christian practices like prayer and church attendance a big part of their daily lives and saying they believe in the same thing. Given that Jesus has been playing it all coy these past couple thousand years, that’s about all Christian couples really can do.

The reason I want to talk a little more about this idea is that I appear to have accidentally tripped across another weird thing about Christian culture–namely, its adoration of esoteric, metaphysical word salad that doesn’t actually describe much in the physical world.

Today I was reading a friend’s post about the No True Scotsman and in it he was briefly talking about how Christians use religion’s very nebulous nature as metaphor to wiggle and twist within it to their best advantage. I think that what he’s discussing dovetails nicely with what I’ve been thinking lately about how hard it is to get concrete answers from Christians about much of anything.

When I get accused of never having been a TRUE CHRISTIAN™, if I ask the accuser what exactly that looks like and what one must to do be one, I almost never get a response back–and you and I both know why, right? Because the second someone tries to tell me “a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ does this and such and thus and so forth,” we all know I’m going to say “Okay, well, I did all that.” And oh dear me, no toxic Christian wants to hear that! That would wreck everything!

No, I have to be disqualified by any means possible, and the only real way that’s going to happen is by refusing to precisely define what a Christian is even supposed to do to qualify as fully Christian in these accusers’ eyes. (Which is why I think TRUE CHRISTIAN™ means, in each particular case of its use, “a Christian who believes about like I do, has about the same practices and moral values I have, hasn’t gotten caught doing anything really outrageously bad, and dies in the traces.” It’s supremely subjective, which is why it is deployed in the first place.)

If you’re wondering, the term “modesty” works exactly the same way, and there are other terms besides that toxic Christians use to their advantage. These vague words, poorly-defined and ever-shifting, are used to keep the accused guessing and hopping from foot to foot and defending. When one gets trotted out, the game’s pretty much over for any hope of real dialogue. The people making the accusation will never be satisfied that the person they’re accusing is actually totally innocent of the charge because they themselves might not even realize what it is they’re using the words to mean, and the people being accused will either defend themselves to their last breath that they’re innocent or else get pissed off and stomp away in a huff, flinging profanity over their shoulders the whole way.

Yes, yes, I know. You can feel the love just dripping off these Christians.

But the problem is that even when the Christian in question means well and isn’t just trying to zing a non-believer, the religion’s so filled with these poorly-defined terms and ideas that it’s almost impossible to build anything firm out of it.

An image from the necropolis under the Vatican...
An image from the necropolis under the Vatican in which Jesus = Mithras (Photo credit: Wikipedia). Dangit, we’re trying to say he’s unique here!

A long time ago, I was cruising around a LinkedIn pastor’s personal forum and ran across a fascinating conversation between a group of ministers, all men, all fairly old hands at their gigs. (I think I’ve mentioned this before but the real significance of what they were doing just hit me.) About ten of them were discussing the importance of living “in submission to Jesus.” But there was this one guy, this fly in the ointment, who kept asking “Yes, yes, of course it’s terribly important, we all agree that it is important and I’m certainly not going to say otherwise, but what does submission look like? How do you know, objectively, when you are in submission to Jesus and when you are not? What signs are present when you are, or absent when you are not?”

It was a very good question. And I could see his forum-mates getting more and more visibly alarmed that they had no answer to it. What ensued was a couple pages of total pyscho-babble; some of them chose to re-emphasize repeatedly how important “submission to Jesus” was; others chose to denounce those kids today who weren’t submitted enough; others chose to talk about gauzy notions of the joy to be found in submission. Seriously, it was like watching a pack of David Bowies try to mass-hump a doorknob, all limbs and flailing and nobody was sure what was going on.

Their apologetics routines weren’t working on this sharp cookie, who kept persisting through their word salad. “Yes yes, submission, we all want to be in submission and teach our flocks how to be in submission, but how do we know it when we see it?” In the end, he lamented that none of them appeared to have the faintest idea what “submission” looked like in actual practice or when to recognize its presence–much less its absence. He asked (plaintively, I like to think), “If we can’t even figure out what the real-world application of this word is, and we’re pastors and preachers, then how are we to expect our congregations to know what it is to live in submission to Jesus?”

Just between you and me, I give this dude about three years before he’s starting an ex-C blog of his own, because that’s exactly the kind of question that could lead an honest Christian minister to some very uncomfortable realizations.

I’m bringing this anecdote up now because I think that Christians–probably like all religious people, but I have the most familiarity with Christians doing it–tend to use terms that they don’t really understand to describe their ideology and practices, and “basing a marriage on Jesus” is one of those terms. It’s not just something their ickier brethren do to non-believers on internet comment threads; it’s something that permeates their entire religion.

So let’s ask the really hard question here: exactly what does “basing a marriage on Jesus” actually look like?

How do you know when a couple is “basing their marriage on Jesus” and when they aren’t?

What real-world, objective signs will you see or not see when you examine this question and apply it to a couple’s real, everyday life together?

People can say they’re “basing a marriage on Jesus” all they want. But that’s a metaphysical idea and a metaphor, not a real-world description of anything. When I look at Christian writings about marriage, they all parrot this phrase but they don’t appear to ever actually describe what it looks like in practice. They just take for granted that everybody else knows what it looks like.

So I put this forth: a marriage “based on Jesus” is a marriage in which participants are both actively engaged in Christian practices (though precisely what practices varies wildly by the couple; some couples are three-times-a-week church attendees while others don’t go at all) and both actively and fervently hold Christian beliefs (though again, exactly what beliefs are held varies quite a bit as well). That’s it. As far as their metaphorical blatherings go, this one’s actually not that hard. You know a marriage is “based on Jesus” because you see those two things present: Christian practices and shared belief in Christianity. A marriage that is not “based on Jesus” lacks one or both of those elements as defined by one or both of the people involved.

I don’t view either one of those elements as “Jesus,” though. A belief is not Jesus. Going to church is not Jesus. Praying isn’t even Jesus. These things are expressions of Christian beliefs and practices, not the actual person of Jesus Christ (whatever that might be!). Given how silent Jesus has been since, well, always, it’s not actually possible to base a marriage on him. What Christian couples do instead is base their marriages on their shared practice of the religion based around him. And that’s okay. It’s still okay to do that if that’s what works for them.

But when it doesn’t, that’s when the you-know-what hits the fan. I think that if couples facing a deconversion have any hope of crawling out of the pit their leaders have painstakingly created for them, they have to ask those tough questions about just what they’ve absorbed and internalized–and look seriously at the glurge phrases they’ve thoughtlessly internalized over many years like “basing a marriage on Jesus.” Basing a marriage on a metaphor isn’t a very solid foundation at all for it.

And look, I don’t want to offend Christians who think they’re “basing their marriages on Jesus” or who even just want to do that. I’m trying to set real-world parameters around this phrase, not invalidate anybody’s beliefs or whatever. I’m especially not trying to trivialize someone’s beliefs; the sort of Christians who’d dump a spouse for deconverting obviously take their beliefs very seriously. When such Christians feel like someone is trivializing his or her beliefs, they tend to react defensively–and I’m not sure I could blame them, especially when their leaders are also teaching them to be especially touchy about any criticism of their way of doing things. The last person who’d ever want to insult them or demean them is the person who loves them most, too. Trust me, an ex-Christian married to a Christian is usually the very soul of courtesy and carefulness when it comes to stepping around the still-believing spouse’s boundaries.

Rather, I’m trying to bring this phrase back to the ground and relate it to people’s lived experience because I think that many Christians so elevate this concept that when their partner deconverts it’s that much harder for them to accept the change and absorb it. I think the idea really has reached “idolatry” levels of adoration by Christians and is, itself, becoming more important than their own practice of and belief in Christianity. The concept is becoming more important to Christians than their marriages themselves. And I think the rest of us are allowed to challenge that idolatry when it touches and threatens our relationships and even our society. It is a harmful belief, and the fact that most of the people holding it don’t have the faintest idea how it plays out in real life just makes it all the more toxic to a marriage facing a deconversion.

People who don’t deal well with ambiguity and uncertainty have evolved a whole raft of strategies for dealing with them. In the case of fervent Christians, they’ve evolved the use of untestable claims and language that is so vague and metaphorical that it’s all but impossible to engage them in conversation. It reminds me of a scene in Douglas Adams’ Dirk Gently and the Holistic Detective Agency wherein the Electric Monk has a moment of sudden clarity after a short crisis early on.

He believed in a door. He must find that door. The door was the way to… to… The Door was The Way. Good. Capital letters were always the best way of dealing with things you didn’t have a good answer to.

And so is metaphysical word salad. We need to be asking, “What does this look like in practice?” more often when it comes to religious claims and terminology. I think that practice will be helpful in many more situations than just a mixed-faith marriage and defeating the Scotsman accusation, too. For example, often we hear Christian preachers and zealots claiming that equal marriage will destroy society. We need to be asking exactly how that will happen–what testable, observable evidence will we have that it will hurt society? And so on and so forth. Once we have a testable claim, we can, well, test it. But as long as Christians resist giving us a testable claim, they can keep hiding behind the subjective, metaphorical wispiness of their accusations.

Once we’ve brought the term “a marriage based on Jesus” to the ground again, we can look at exactly why a couple would want to do that, and what happens if a couple does not do that. What testable, observable things happen if a couple does share beliefs and practices? Or if they don’t? Because let me tell you: Christian leaders teach that not doing this thing is very harmful and produces big threats to a marriage and to a Christian’s very faith. That’s why I needed to nail down this idea now before we move on, because we’re going to talk next about what the imaginary threat is, and what the real one is to a mixed-faith marriage.

Also, I just realized: that LinkedIn pastor, the fly in the ointment, has actually helped a total non-believer (me) figure some stuff out. Thanks, LinkedIn pastor-dude, wherever you are. Good luck, man. Good luck.

ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...

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