I grew up Christian and I still live in a culture that is Jesus-soaked—or perhaps as Flannery O’Connor once called it, Christ-haunted. It’s not so much that the Christians I know really make a habit of doing the things Jesus talked about doing. It’s more that the spectre of a Christian vocabulary lingers in everything we say. We are haunted by faded images and symbols from a religion which has changed meaning so many times it’s impossible to recall what it originally looked like, and it is equally difficult to determine how much of what survives truly reflects what it was intended to be about. Whatever it is now, it is most certainly the product of many previous minds, all sculpting its values and norms according to the spirit of their own ages.
But for all that development (and dare I say evolution), one theme remains central: Above all else, Christians purport to show love to their neighbor. That is supposed to be the focus of their religion. People were once fond of boiling it all down to two commandments—Love God and love each other—but Jesus eventually redefined the former in terms of the latter. He seemed to teach that you love God by loving each other. One time he even taught that if you have to choose between an act of worship and settling up a debt with a fellow human being, you should make the second a priority over the first. People rarely catch what a radical statement that was. More on that another time, perhaps. For now let’s just agree that loving people is a key element in practicing the Christian faith.
“The fruit of the Spirit is love…”
“They will know you are my disciples because you love one another”
“Now these three remain, faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.”
So how does this religion measure up to its own standard? Does it practice the love that it says should occupy the central place in people’s lives? Does the Christian faith make people more loving? That depends, doesn’t it? It depends on what you mean by “Christian” and it depends on what you mean by “loving.” A couple of definitions are in order before we can even answer that question.
First of all, what do we mean when we say “the” Christian faith? I’ve said many times before that there is no monolithic entity called Christianity, despite what at times appears to be a unified front on certain issues. The reality is that there are many christianities, and there probably always have been even from the very beginning. So it’s impossible to evaluate all of them at once, even if we can still speak in generalities about a majority of them. For my purposes, I will speak about that family of subcultures within Christendom which produced me: Evangelicalism. I cannot speak knowledgably about the comings and goings of Latin American Catholics or North African Coptics, but I know good and well how American evangelicals think. That was my tribe, and that culture dominates my present social environment. Even the majority of my newer atheist friends come from evangelical Christian families, so I get a front-row seat to how their relatives behave toward them as well.
Second we must ask, “What does love look like?” What exactly constitutes healthy expressions of love? This I think is the sticking point. This is where I think things go wrong—at the point of defining how love behaves in the first place. Simply saying that you love people isn’t enough. The way you treat people demonstrates whether or not you truly love them, and that means figuring out first of all what loving treatment looks like.
I would argue that the Christian faith does not do a good job of teaching people how to love, or at least that it works up to a point but then leaves some crucial things to be desired. I will explain what I mean by that below, but first I must clarify that I’m not merely saying that Christians have a good working model for what love looks like and they’re just failing to live up to it. It’s not like their concept of love is healthy and they’re just imperfect and fallen and yada yada yada. That’s invariably how they will see this problem. I know that line of reasoning, and that’s not what I’m saying.
The problem is not that Christians fail to live up to the model of love they’ve been given, the problem is that the model is flawed to begin with.
There are some key shortcomings within the logic of the Christian message which prevent the church from even grasping a healthy view of what love looks like. Since that’s where the problem lies, it won’t solve this problem to just demand more fervent devotion or greater self-sacrifice in order to live up to the ideal they’ve been given. The ideal itself needs revision, and I’d like to try to explain what I mean.
The Centrality of Empathy
Every useful ethical system I can think of derives its guidelines from the value we place on empathy. At the heart of virtually every religion and philosophy that constructs a moral system there lies the notion that you should treat others as you yourself would want to be treated. Contrary to what most Christians seem to think, Jesus didn’t invent that maxim himself. What we have come to call “the Golden Rule” has woven its way through virtually every advanced culture in history, and written versions of it date back to at least the Middle Kingdom of Ancient Egypt some two millennia before the time of Jesus. On the other hand, those persons whom we deem most unethical are typically those who fail to identify with other people such that they take advantage of them for their own benefit, depriving them of property, health, or worst of all life itself.
My observation is that Christians can do a pretty decent job of identifying with their own kind, at least up to a point. Honestly, that’s true of just about every group, right? Tribalism is woven deeply into the fabric of our collective mentalities, and it’s only natural that we would do a better job of taking care of our own than we do of identifying with people who are very different from us. But there’s a narrowness to Christian tribalism which often marginalizes even their own kind whenever someone varies from the norm on matters of doctrine or practice. Just pick the wrong side of a theological division or walk into the wrong church with tattoos on your arms and you’ll see how well they have learned to accept people who are different from them. Walk into a Baptist church as an unwed mother or a “practicing” homosexual (hey, practice makes perfect, right?) and see how they look at you. Don’t take it too personally though, because they do the same thing even to members of their own church when they fail to conform to group expectations, which often are myriad and incredibly specific.
This failure to accept people who look different, think differently, or act differently from them stems from an inability to empathize with others, and I see it every single day. It’s not unique to Christians, but having circulated among both evangelicals and humanists, I have to say that humanists tend to do a much better job of accepting people from diverse backgrounds and cultures. This becomes especially apparent whenever humanists who used to be Christians approach their friends and loved ones with a sensitivity to their opposing concerns only to have the favor left unreturned. Most Christians have never sincerely tried on humanism for themselves, and every time they describe what they think we believe, they say stuff I’ve never heard anyone say but them. For example, they always seem fixated on equating humanism with selfishness, which is ironic since nothing is more selfish than being unable to sincerely consider another person’s point of view without egregiously misrepresenting them.
Even the name “humanism” signifies that we are taking pains to redefine our own tribe to include all of humanity, not only people who look and think just like us. To illustrate the difference I’ll share a note I got this week from a friend. She is dating a woman, but hasn’t told her parents about either her atheism or the nature of her romantic relationship.
I have a girlfriend – but we are very much in the closet. Everyone just thinks we are best friends. Which we are. She is an atheist and one of the biggest hearted people I know. She would do anything for me or my kids and she is extremely selfless. The funny thing is that my parents love her. Think she’s great. And they know she is a lesbian. They didn’t put it together that she and I are more than friends. But if they ever find out they will shun me, I’m sure of it. My brother can molest two boys but they will accept him because he has confessed his sins and he goes to church and he’s born again. But if you find happiness with a person of the same sex you are a sinner and will not be part of their family.
Now we come to the heart of our problem. Why is it that this woman feels comfortable sharing this with me but not with her own parents? How could she count on a complete stranger being more accepting of her and her girlfriend than her own flesh and blood? And whence comes this hierarchy of “sins” whereby her brother remains welcome in her family while she becomes a persona non grata?
In her parents’ minds, shunning her and her girlfriend would probably display “love” more than accepting who they are and welcoming them both as full members of the family. I’ve seen this pattern over and over again, and in fact I’ve been on the receiving end of similar displays of “love” myself. After hearing enough stories where this kind of treatment came to pass for friends of mine who are no longer “keepers of the faith,” I wrote a piece entitled “Your Love is Toxic” in which I described four displays of love that aren’t really love at all but are really about control: Shunning, withholding, crusading, and giving gifts with strings attached. Each of these tactics is about trying to dictate the behavior of others rather than respecting their right to determine their own steps. Each of these strategies illustrates how ultimately their ability to empathize gets shut off by an unspoken belief that people are not qualified to determine for themselves what is right for them, so it behooves Christians to decide for them what they should do. This shuts off virtually any possibility of truly empathizing with others because you cannot seriously consider the possibility that who they are is exactly the way they should be.
Consent and Personal Autonomy: Christianity’s Core Ethical Weakness
At its core, the Christian faith does not believe in consent. It does not believe in personal autonomy or self-ownership. It teaches that you do not belong to yourself. It teaches that you have a wicked heart, and that therefore your judgment cannot be trusted. Even if you are a grown adult, you are not qualified to determine for yourself who you are or what you need. You are treated “like a little child” who cannot be trusted to determine his own steps but instead must be led by the hand (by whom?). In short, the Christian faith, to whatever extent its expression keeps in line with the teaching of the Bible, talks down to you and dehumanizes you by calling you a sheep, too dumb to know what it is that you even need.
No wonder Christians are always thinking they know better than the rest of the world what everyone needs. As my friend Captain Cassidy said in a recent post about this very same topic, whether they realize it or not Christians have been taught that they are the world’s “Designated Adults,” placed on the earth to parent the rest of the world. They bristle at a charge like this because this posture feels instinctively wrong and it contradicts the humility they believe their faith is supposed to be teaching them. But this patronizing position is a logical consequence of letting your worldview be determined by an ancient book, written by people who were comfortable with monarchs, slave owners, and men owning their wives and daughters. Personal agency and autonomy just aren’t concepts that made it into the Bible. They have to be read into it anachronistically, and doing so would cut against the grain of everything else said within those pages.
That’s why John Piper so quickly had to delete this tweet that stirred up controversy last week:
The first problem this tweet illustrates is the flattened way that the Christian faith counts all shortcomings (real or imagined) as equally bad, deserving of damnation. In Piper’s mind, rape and general lasciviousness are both sins and therefore should be lumped together as equally bad. But he deleted this very quickly for a good reason: The juxtaposition of these two concepts, both present in a single story of Potiphar’s wife tempting Joseph, demonstrates the blindness which conservative Christian theology has toward the importance of consent. When a man is seduced by an alluring woman, he always has a choice not to give in (note that Joseph is said to have run away). On the other hand, rape removes consent and is violent, which makes it a couple of orders of magnitude worse than just wearing skimpy clothes or making sexual advances toward a man who is strong enough to run away. Piper shouldn’t have had to censor himself in the first place because this juxtaposition should have never been okay to him, but it was. This little episode illustrates well that Christianity has a consent problem.
In the end, this is why Christians cannot follow their empathy through to its natural culmination, identifying with “the other” and thereby showing appropriate compassion and acceptance. This is why instead of inclusion and support, the Christian response to so many variations of human behavior is exclusion, correction, and condemnation. They were taught that people cannot determine their own steps and are not qualified to decide what is right for them. Who they are can therefore be unacceptable, and it becomes the Christian’s duty to inform others of their illegitimate status and to execute some measure of censure “for their own good.” They feel they must assume a parental role toward other adults because “Hey, this isn’t coming from me, this is what God says.” Few things neutralize empathy like the belief that you were placed in someone else’s life to represent God to him.
You cannot adequately love someone while simultaneously dehumanizing them, removing from them the right to determine their own identity. You cannot show such utter disregard for other people’s personal boundaries and then say that you are loving them. Those two things are mutually exclusive. This is why the church fails to love well. It’s not just about failing to live up to a healthy standard, it’s about having been given a faulty model of love in the first place. The Christian’s ability to empathize shuts down at the point of recognizing personal agency and autonomy because the Bible makes no place for such things. It is a foreign concept to the minds of those ancient people.
Toward a More Grown-Up Love
It falls to us today to recognize that shortcoming and to call it out for what it is. Christians who want to update their model of love must ask some hard questions about the way they approach their holy book, and they must ask some even harder questions about the core assumptions of their message. In my experience, the people who follow this endeavor through to its logical conclusion wind up with a worldview which the rest of Christendom says isn’t Christian at all. The moment you acknowledge that being human isn’t fundamentally bad and that we are not broken, you’ve just left the historic Christian faith. Perhaps you will be able to help craft a new version of your faith which respects personal boundaries and self-ownership. I wish you the best. But as long as your model minimizes the value of consent, your instincts will always be at war with your religion, and that’s got to be exhausting.
Personally, I recommend considering humanism as a viable alternative to evangelicalism because unlike Christianity, humanism values personal autonomy. It represents a more mature and more fully-developed sense of empathy and love because it isn’t hindered by the belief that you know better than others who they are or what they need. Instead of teaching that you should treat others how you want to be treated, humanism goes a step further and teaches that we should treat others how they want to be treated, factoring their own personal dignity and personhood into the equation. Doesn’t that sound like a more respectful and mature way to treat people?
You know how the Bible has its own “love chapter?” I asked some humanist friends of mine to add to it and this is what they said:
Love is empathy in action.
Love shows respect; it honors boundaries; it values consent.
Love unconditionally accepts and helps instead of harms. Love transcends intolerance.
Love seeks to understand instead of to coerce; it doesn’t misrepresent. Love listens well.
Love gives to those in need but it doesn’t model self-neglect.
Love seeks to contribute to the well-being of others without controlling or demanding conformity in return. Love values the individual and protects human dignity.
Love doesn’t shame, and love does no harm.
I think those are some excellent upgrades to our concept of love, and I think humanism has something to contribute to the ongoing conversation. What would you add to round out our picture of what healthy love should look like?