If trees are known by their fruit, then the God of evangelical Christianity has some serious boundary problems.
I know it’s customary to blame Christianity’s problems on the bad apples that spoil the bunch, but I don’t think that really gets to the core of the problem. Remember how Jesus said if the fruit is bad, you should be looking at the tree to figure out what’s wrong? Let’s do that then, shall we?
Who do you think you are?
I had a student approach me one day while I was grading papers at my desk. She stood over me and said, “Coach Carter, I know why I’m taking your class this year.” I looked up at her and said that it probably had something to do with her needing Geometry to graduate, but she disagreed and said that God put her in my class. I asked what for and she said, “To save you.” I asked from what, and in a very patronizing tone she said, “From yourself.”
I suppose I asked for this when a few days earlier I agreed to let a local free press magazine do a story on me and my departure from the Christian faith. I knew some would recognize me at school and consider it an invitation to proselytize because in church you’re taught to do that to everyone.
It’s been said that Christianity was the original multi-level marketing scheme, and I think they were onto something.
I politely explained to the 15-year-old that her comments were presumptuous and rude, and that I would be upset if I learned my own children were speaking to their teacher with such a condescending, parental tone. She wasn’t a student who misbehaved in class—in most areas, she was exemplary. But when it came to recognizing personal boundaries, she couldn’t see them because her religion taught her to ignore them.
I have exvangelical friends who are reluctant to leave their children alone with the grandparents because family cannot resist proselytizing and indoctrinating them whenever they’re together. In other matters, their parents’ behavior may be respectful, but when it comes to their faith, they simply don’t care whether or not these children or their parents want them to be subjected to preaching.
They feel emboldened by a call that supersedes everyone else’s wishes, and they’re going to fulfill it no matter how many times they’re told to stop. It won’t end when the kids are grown, either. I know this because I know a lot of grown children of Christians and they are still being told what to do in their lives, sometimes by people who aren’t even their parents.
Christians are taught to believe they are the world’s Designated Adults, as Captain Cassidy puts it. They would never presume to take this responsibility upon themselves, of course, but they’ve been told they belong to a collection of the only organisms in the universe who have God living inside of them, directing their way. What else are they to conclude?
They disregard people’s boundaries in part because the Bible tells them to do it. It insists that the human heart is fundamentally wicked, and that we are unable to know what is best for us. It asserts without evidence that everyone is born somehow knowing that the Christian God is the one and only correct deity who created everything and rules it still from behind the scenes. Anyone who says they don’t believe that is just suppressing that knowledge, but Christians know better.
No wonder they feel entitled to tell everyone else how they should live and what they should believe. They’re only doing as they were told.
But there’s a deeper problem that lies with the nature of the deity they worship: He is a terrible parent who shows no awareness or respect for personal boundaries of any kind. Try to imagine putting any number of his personality traits into a real human being and you’ll see what I mean.
Dysfunctional parents place unrealistic expectations on their children, as if they were born already knowing what they’re supposed to do. Viewing their offspring as extensions of themselves, they relate to children like they’re adults, reprimanding them whenever they cannot exhibit the fully-formed skill sets of an experienced grown-up.
Imagine a preschooler proudly showing off a drawing she just made only to have her father tear it up and throw it in the trash because it wasn’t any good. He deserves nothing but the best and he won’t be satisfied with anything less than perfection.
Does that sound too harsh for the Christian God? Maybe you’ve forgotten the Bible says that even our best deeds are like used menstrual rags to him. Classy thing to say, right? It manages to invalidate all human progress while simultaneously disparaging half the population for having healthy reproductive systems.
The Christian faith infantilizes us only to turn around and try us as adults.
Bad parents also fail to distinguish between their own needs and the needs of their children, while good parents encourage independence. How do you suppose the God of Christianity would score on those traits on a personality test?
As a father to four daughters, I can tell you that my goal will always be to see them become more of who they are without anyone else telling them who that should be. I adore watching their strengths develop and I celebrate their successes wherever they occur because I know they’re learning just how much they can achieve.
But that’s not how the God of Christianity relates to us at all. Take a few moments to sample the songs they taught us in church and you’ll soon discover that dependence is the goal of that faith, not independence. Sure, you’re supposed to do things, but at every step of the way you are to give credit to Someone Else for whatever you pull off, insisting you were unable to accomplish anything on your own.
This is not a healthy relationship.
People often ask me why I left the Christian faith, but my grasp of those reasons has had to grow with time and experience, so my answers tend to change and evolve. I could point to the period of intensified education years ago when I was studying for the GRE and then again for my teaching exams in several subjects at once. I had to teach myself math all over again, and I swear the better I got at that, the better I got at seeing the logical inconsistencies of my own belief system.
But also I think becoming a parent had a lot to do with my departure from the faith because the more I saw what good parenting looks like in real life, the worse the God of Christianity began to look to me.
And before you say it, I didn’t grow up with the angry fundamentalist score-keeper-in-the-sky that people like Greg Locke are always ranting about. I came of age in the “grace movement,” when it was popular to portray a God who is much kinder than that. He had a Snickers somewhere between the Old and New Testaments, and now he’s benevolent and understanding, even winsome. Now, it’s his kindness that’s supposed to lead you to repentance.
But he needs you to need him.
If there’s one thing I learned about the God of Christianity from my days in church, it’s that God is a needy Object of worship who does not like to share his place of importance with anyone else. His number one rule when he was in a rule-giving mood was that you should have no other objects of worship but him, and I don’t see any change in that exceptionalism from the old covenant to the new.
That happens to be a huge problem for a country designed to show no favoritism toward one religion over another.
To be sure, there are healthier versions of this deity out there in the world, but unfortunately, those are never the ones that sell. The ones who fare the best in a competitive global marketplace are the ones who treat you the worst and expect the most praise in return for it. I wish it weren’t that way, but it is.
The gods we worship reflect the kind of people we are, so it shouldn’t surprise us that so many of them are dysfunctional and maladjusted. We construct these supreme beings out of our own felt needs, which goes a long way toward explaining why the older ones are so brutish and the newer ones are so genteel. As humans grow softer, so do our gods.
Time to grow up
It is often said we have a god-shaped hole in each of us. I think it’s more accurate to say we have a lot of hole-shaped gods, each one serving their respective purposes in holding together the subcultures that feed them and keep them alive.
Maybe we need them at some level since, as soon as we eliminate one, another seems to take its place. Maybe it’s too much to ask for humanity to give up religion en masse because we have such a hard time relating to an impersonal universe that doesn’t care about us at all. In fact, most of it seems designed to kill us.
Progressive Christianity insists it was we who changed over time, not God. As we grew in our understanding of the world and of ourselves, our grasp of what God is really like matured and eventually we came to see that we had him all wrong.
And yet it’s still a him, isn’t it? Even those who champion non-binary identities in humans privately turn to a God who is male, and whose emotional intelligence always seems to match their own. That’s how the Bible portrays God, and habits certainly die hard when they’ve been in place for thousands of years.
He also still needs you to need him. He still feeds on praise, still prizes dependence over independence, and he still needs money from you on a regular basis. Your worth as a person is still derivative, predicated on something someone else did for you rather than on who you are on your own.
Self-ownership and personal agency are hard to develop in a context like this. It would take an awful lot of work, and humans aren’t very good at letting go of their beliefs. Growth in the church has more often happened through division rather than multiplication, launching new denominations instead of revising the beliefs of the old ones already in place.
The late Bishop Spong once said that we aren’t fallen angels so much as emerging beings, thereby undercutting one of the core narratives of the Christian faith. I love that sentiment, but I also know that our senses of guilt and inadequacy are the wellspring of the faith that I inherited as an evangelical, so they aren’t going away anytime soon.
Perhaps we will outgrow our gods someday, or maybe the gods themselves will grow up to fit a more mature population. I won’t hold my breath, though. We’ve still clearly got a long way to go.