If you are like me and you’ve got years of writing as a Christian out there to remind you of just how much your mind has changed about, well…everything…then you know how cringey the experience of reading your old stuff can be.
It’s not that what you said before wasn’t intelligent, because it was…in its own way. And yes, I know there are plenty of atheists out there ready to ridicule those who believe in talking snakes, floating axeheads, and walking on water, but those of us who used to belong to that camp still “get it.”
We still remember what it was like to be able to bend our minds around the things we were raised to believe, and it makes us far less cocky today. We know as well as anyone how easily we can be wrong about important things. We of all people should have learned epistemological humility by now.
In our defense, they got to us when we were young. Very young. We eventually learned critical thinking skills, yes; but first we learned to believe whatever the Bible says and then we developed our reasoning capabilities around those prior commitments in such a way that, no matter how smart we got, there were certain things marked as “special” which never got the same rigor of critique that everything else did.
Related: “Why Do Intelligent, Well-Educated People Still Believe Nonsense?“
Every now and then, we go back and reread the stuff we said back when we were still “within the fold” and it’s almost unbearable to read. But why?
It’s not only because we used to believe things that now embarrass us (you can read an example of that here, with the follow-up article here). There’s something else that rubs us the wrong way:
It always…always…follows a template. And that’s a problem.
Painting By Numbers
Back when we first wrote what we wrote (whether online or in our private journals), we didn’t really grasp how slavishly we were imitating a pattern we had learned to emulate from birth. But every time we picked up a pen or opened our laptops to put our thoughts into words, we unconsciously mimicked a narrative arc which ended on a predictably positive note no matter how messy or angst-ridden the beginning.
We were programmed to end everything with The Christian Finish.
See, while some cultures view the world as cyclical (see most Asian philosophies), in the Christian way of looking at the world everything is supposed to be linear—moving toward a victorious telos, a final endpoint that wraps up the entire journey with a neat little bow.
At my seminary they taught us the ordo salutis (lit. “order of salvation”) but most evangelicals would simply call it the “plan of salvation.” Whether we’re talking about our own individual lives or else the history of the human race as a whole, the Christian narrative has a consistent story arc that goes from creation to fall and from fall to redemption. If you were to draw it out, it would resemble an inverted bell curve.
For an audio-visual representation of what I mean, here’s Kurt Vonnegut talking about the same thing in slightly different language. He called the one I’m talking about the “Man in a Hole” plot line.
Whatever the particulars of the story, we “westerners” are positively addicted to, well…positivity. We seem hidebound to envision a happy ending no matter how bleak the circumstances may appear at the time.
My children for example find it difficult to enjoy stories that don’t have happy endings, and I blame their surrounding culture. They are Americans first and foremost, and they are growing up in a world increasingly owned by Disney, an entertainment company famous for taking stories with dark endings and cleaning them up for mass marketing.
But more than that, they have spent more of their formative moments than I care to think about attending my family’s evangelical megachurch, and evangelicals are especially geared toward expect things to wind up neatly wrapped with a pretty bow. Because God.
Happily Ever After
To some degree, this owes to our human nature and cannot be completely avoided. The way I see it, humans are wired to need a story—a story in which they can find themselves—and nothing motivates you more than believing that your story will ultimately have a happy ending. It gives you something to work toward.
I recently heard a podcast which explained that, even when all other socio-economic factors are filtered out, religious belief can give people the kind of optimism that motivates them to attempt things they wouldn’t have otherwise, and that taking those risks gives them an edge over those who had no such hope. You’re more likely to attempt bigger things if you believe a supernatural power will intervene to “bless” your efforts.
Related: “Faith and the Power of a Magic Feather“
But the Christian faith in particular takes the innate western belief in human progress and supercharges it, framing all human efforts into a story in which everything will turn out well in the end…provided you’re on the right side of the Christian religion, that is. Life for those who don’t subscribe to the right beliefs will end very, very badly, but ultimately that doesn’t matter because those who buy into this belief system expect better things for themselves, and that’s what they care about most.
Have you ever read the psalms in the Bible that begin with the writer crying out to God for vengeance? Some of the “imprecatory” psalms are just incredibly dark. I’m reminded of the song in particular that Jesus was said to have quoted while dying on the cross:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
As hopeless as that sounds, the psalm he was quoting didn’t end in despair. It did what most psalms do: It ended on a happy note. No matter how dark or despairing things start out in the beginning, before all is said and done it will find a way to pivot back to optimism and hope whether or not an actual reason is given for it. No reason is needed, in fact, when you believe in a deus ex machina, a “ghost in the machine” on whom you can depend to swoop in and miraculously fix everything because that’s just what they do.
Looking back over the stuff I wrote when I was still a Christian, I see this indefatigable commitment to ending everything I said on a positive note. And it’s not hard to remember why I kept doing that, either. First of all, I wanted to give the reader something encouraging to chew on rather than something depressing. I wanted my writing to be a shot in the arm, so to speak. Life is hard enough without surrounding yourself with negativity.
But the other reason I felt compelled to end on a high note was that I felt that anything else would be a failure on my part to demonstrate faith that God makes everything right in the end. If I truly believed that God’s kingdom was on its way, it behooved me to demonstrate that trust by showing that no matter how dark my feelings were at the moment, there was always a light at the end of the tunnel.
Fake It Till You Break It
So what exactly is wrong with ending on a high note, anyway? I’ll tell you…
It teaches artificiality. It’s an insincere way to process life and communicate it to others because it forces everything into a prefabricated template no matter how things actually turn out.
We humans evolved beyond our other primate relatives, at least in part, because we learned the value of empirical observation and we allowed it to teach us new things we didn’t know before. Each time we encountered something unexpected in the world around us, we stopped to consider what it meant and how we should change our understanding of the world to adapt to this new discovery. That’s what set us apart from our ancestral predecessors.
But you cannot truly discover anything in a closed system in which you feel you must force all perception and experience into a predetermined mold. When you do, your belief system becomes a procrustean bed which categorically eliminates anything contradictory at the outset. Learning becomes impossible except by rote memorization, I suppose.
Living like this teaches you to be dishonest with yourself and with others because you can never allow things to appear any different from how you were told to expect them to look. This commitment creates a breeding ground for hypocrisy.
Related: “Why Christianity Keeps Producing Hypocrites“
You will never see yourself or others the way you/they truly are as long as you are compelled to make everything end on a high note. And of course I’m not saying that optimism and hope don’t serve a useful function in life, because they do. I think we need goals to work toward and the world already has enough negativity to crush anyone’s dreams. We should rage against the dying of that light with all we have, but we should be careful never to fool ourselves into thinking we are guaranteed success simply because we were raised to expect a miracle would occur, somehow.
And the same thing goes for the human race as a whole. Just because we want to progress as a species doesn’t mean we are automatically guaranteed success. It’s altogether possible we will blow ourselves up, or starve ourselves through a mismanagement of our planetary resources. Nothing guarantees that our species will survive what Carl Sagan called our own technological adolescence. Perhaps we will create something much more powerful than ourselves only to see whatever-that-is turn around and wipe us out. Anything could happen, honestly.
But if we want to survive and thrive as a species we are going to have to be brutally honest with ourselves, and that entails learning to wrestle against our own compulsion to end everything we say with an optimistic glossing-over. Many of us learned that from our upbringing in church, but it’s a tendency of which we need to rid ourselves.
Sometimes life is messy. In fact, most of the time it is, and we need to learn to give ourselves permission to call it how we see it. Our humanism needs to be tempered by the realization that we are not guaranteed success in anything we attempt as a species. It will always take work, and sometimes it will end in failure. We just have to keep picking ourselves up when we fall.
The Christian Finish just feels right to those still enslaved to it, but it’s a fundamentally dishonest way to talk about ourselves, and those of us who left that world behind need to be careful not to succumb to this habit of the mind. It may turn out to be a matter of existential survival.
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