Christianity from the Outside: A Crisis Magazine Symposium

As Americans, we pride ourselves on tolerance and freedom of speech—yet we rarely use that freedom to investigate the biggest questions and divides in our society. The outsider perspective is typically one of the most incisive, and yet when it comes to Christianity, we rarely hear that perspective articulated clearly and with no punches pulled. In a country where most people identify themselves as Christians, non-Christians often choose their words carefully in public, selecting phrases more notable for their politic obfuscations and concessions than for their raw honesty.

In an effort to get beyond mere courtesy, CRISIS asked nine non-Christian writers and thinkers to describe what they see when they look at Christianity and American Christians. The responses ranged from puzzlement through qualified appreciation to anger and dismay. You will find their opinions challenging, encouraging, and, in some cases, possibly infuriating. Nevertheless, these positions represent much of contemporary American culture. In order to understand and communicate better with that culture, we need to know what Christianity looks like from the outside.

In the next several issues of CRISIS, we’ll be enlisting prominent Christian writers and thinkers to help us answer the important challenges and questions raised in this first part of our written symposium.

The Respondents

Contemporary America is a creation of Christians—of our beliefs, confusions, questions, and failures. This symposium addresses the cultural, personal, and theological aspects of American Christianity today. Sharp distinctions can be drawn among the respondents—between secular and religious Jews, for example, or between proponents and detractors of the Enlightenment—but all have found their worldviews shaped, in part, by the faith that shaped America.

There are eight questions and nine respondents: Jack Balkin, professor at Yale Law School; Emmy Chang, associate editor at National Review; David Kelley, executive director of the Objectivist Center (which promotes the philosophy of Ayn Rand); Christopher Hitchens, opinion journalist and author of Letters to a Young Contrarian, The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice, and The Trial of Henry Kissinger; James Morrow, author of the religious satires Blameless in Abaddon and Towing Jehovah, among other works; Jacob Neusner, senior fellow at the Institute of Advanced Theology at Bard College and author of numerous books including Jewish Law from Moses to the Mishnah and Between Time and Eternity: The Essentials of Judaism; Jonathan Rauch, columnist for the National Journal and author of several books, most recently Government’s End: Why Washington Stopped Working; Ellen Willis, a frequent contributor to the Nation and the New York Times and author of several books of essays including Don’t Think, Smile!: Notes from a Decade of Denial and Beginning to See the Light: Sex, Hope, and Rock and Roll; and Michael Yaeger, a second-year student at Yale Law School and director of the 2002 Federalist Society National Student Symposium.

1) When did you first notice that you didn’t share the faith of the Christians around you? What was your reaction to that realization?

NEUSNER: When I was in third grade, in a little Yankee suburb of Hartford, one of the handful of Jewish students, I was surprised to learn that not everyone was Jewish. This came about when I asked the teacher how to spell “synagogue,” for my Thanksgiving project, “the Pilgrims going to synagogue for Thanksgiving services.” The teacher told me in no uncertain terms [that the Pilgrims] were Christians, not Jews, and were going to church, not synagogue, which I found implausible.

KELLEY: When I was 15 and realized that I could think for myself about big, important issues. I thought about the reasons my parents and church teachers gave for believing in God and came to the conclusion that the reasons did not add up. It was a liberating experience.

MORROW: In tenth grade, I took a remarkable World Literature course at Abington Senior High School in the Philadelphia suburbs. This was my inverse Road to Damascus.

We read atheists, pagans, secular humanists, anguished believers: Voltaire, Ibsen, Camus, Dostoyevsky, Flaubert, Kafka, Sophocles, and a half-dozen other masters of the literature of ideas. And those voices spoke to me. They were far more resonant, far more honest, than the voices I was hearing in that Presbyterian church.

On the whole, I find my secular humanism liberating and exhilarating, though God knows there are times when I crave the comforts of faith.

HITCHENS: I noticed it in Mrs. Watts’s Bible class when I was about nine years of age. Discoursing on the beauties of nature, she admonished us to notice that God had made vegetation green—the color that best suited our eyes. I understood at once that nonsense was being talked. Then on my first visit to Paris, I was taken to see Sacre Coeur in Montmartre. Inside the church was a relief, cast in bronze. It showed an aerial view of the neighborhood, and the pattern by which a shower of bombs had just missed the basilica in 1944, striking across the street instead…. I was appalled at such elaborate crassness and selfishness.

CHANG: My earliest contact with Christianity would have been the times I was taken to church by a friend of the family who used to look after me when my parents were out of town. I was highly confused through the whole thing and felt uncomfortably aware—as, to be fair, I’d felt in Buddhist shrines, too—of not knowing what was the proper thing to do. The overall effect was to leave me feeling like this would never be my home, that religion was not navigable by any rules or reasoning I understood, and that I wanted badly to go back to where things seemed less suspect.

In middle and high school and early college I was, of course, aware of the high proportion of Asians in America who are Christian converts. One little band of them was very evangelical and would try to convert me at slumber parties (when I was twelve and they perhaps a year older). Since we all were so young, and they so devout, there were Inquisition-like tinges to the way they handled it. Besides which, it inevitably had an air to it of “No Girlz Allowed” treehouses—come into the fold and you can be just like us. I’d expect that that, in conjunction with family influences, ingrained in me a tendency to associate religion with weakness.

2) What do you think of when you think of Christians? As far as you can tell, why do those associations spring to mind?

RAUCH: I am Jewish by heritage and culture, atheist by belief. This is not altogether a contradiction, since I have Jewish ethics, Jewish sense of humor, Jewish outlook—pretty much everything Jewish, except for belief in God, which, when push comes to shove, a Jew can pretty well do without, so long as he or she behaves well. [But] I am to some extent an outsider all the way around. Add, also, homosexual, and you really are slightly askew to the rest of the universe.

This is not always the easiest place to be, but it does have its advantages as an observation platform. If you sit where I sit, the above question—”What do you think of when you think of Christians?”—seems a peculiar one. When I was a toddler and a schoolboy, I thought all Christians were Catholic, and of course I thought of Santa and Jesus and all of that when I thought about Christianity; but by my adolescence, Christianity was coming at me from so many sides and in so many forms that I stopped thinking of it in terms of particular scenes and associations. It’s like being a fish and asking what scenes you associate with water.

What’s striking to me about most of my devout Christian friends is how utterly they blend in. If you want to talk about religion, they’re perfectly comfortable, and they make no effort to hide their religion. On the other hand, they also seem to feel no special need to make a point of it, to dress or act differently, or otherwise to stick out. The same is true of a growing number of homosexuals. The result is that the homosexual Jewish atheist (me) and the heterosexual Christian born-again (my Christian friends) for the most part interact and converse without a thought for our differences. Surely if there are miracles, this is one!

3) What aspects of living in a majority-Christian country are most striking to you? Should there be less Christian rhetoric and statement in the public sphere; more; or a different kind of Christian statement? How would you evaluate the public signs of Christianity you see?

CHANG: The bubbliness is troubling—the ways it’s been made just another self-esteem movement. In many (though not all) ways, America’s is a very optimistic culture. Capitalism only amplifies that. It bothers me that American can-do-ness clashes with the need to accept tragedy—an example might be the persistence with which even self-identified pro-lifers still want to say, “Well, except for rape and incest.”

A lot of the American Protestant sects—that is, the ones indigenous to America—seem definitely more visionary than religious in any orthodox sense, and it’s a bit unsettling how easily they take hold here. [Harold] Bloom once told me about having asked the people assembled in his living room one day whether they believed that God loved them personally. Every single one of them did. He found that startling; so do I.

MORROW: I’m struck by the fact that the secular, Deist, Enlightenment foundations of our republic are still more or less intact. To be sure, there is much Christian religiosity abroad in the land, but there seems to be a healthy, unspoken consensus among mainstream believers to confine the emblems of their faith to church and home.

WILLIS: I’m in the minority on two counts, as a Jew and as an unbeliever, and at the moment it’s on the second count that I’m feeling more beleaguered. I’m alarmed by the current attacks on secularism, and particularly by the idea that because most Americans believe in God, it’s antidemocratic or bigoted to maintain neutrality between religion and non-religion in the public sphere.

KELLEY: The most striking thing to me about American Christians is that so few of them seem to feel any conflict between their religious beliefs and the secular values that are so clearly part of American culture. How do you reconcile the virtue of humility with taking pride in yourself? How do you reconcile Jesus’ injunction to give away your worldly goods and live as the lilies of the field with the pursuit and enjoyment of wealth?

4) Which are the books of the Bible (Hebrew Bible, New Testament, or both) that are most striking, personal, evocative, disturbing? Why?

MORROW: For me, the hands-down biblical masterpiece is the Book of Job, the one unequivocal work of art in Scripture.

The Book of Job is white-hot. It defies domestication, despite all the efforts clerics have made over the years to turn it into a parable of patience. Job is not patient. Job is at war with God, no holds barred. The Man from Uz sees, with terrible clarity, that all theodicies are lies.

And you know what? Near the end, God confesses that Job should have put him on trial! The Voice out of the Whirlwind tells the comforters, the televangelists, “Ye have not spoken of me the thing that is right, as my servant Job hath.”

I make a point of rereading Job at least once a year. The framing story is a dopey fairy tale, but the central dramatic poem, Job’s sustained rant on the dung-heap, never fails to move me. And God’s gloriously beside-the-point answer takes my secular humanist breath away.

RAUCH: Genesis is the most lovely and haunting story, and also the most preposterous (which adds to its charm). Exodus is memorable and moving for the story of Moses, who reluctantly gives his all for his people, only to be excluded from the promised land on a technicality. Job and Ecclesiastes—both fundamentally pagan in outlook, it seems to me—disturb the most, though I think Ecclesiastes is also perhaps the most beautiful and darkly comforting of all.

“Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the men of skill; but time and chance happen to them all.” This is Aeschylus, not Jesus.

I read the gospels recently in a good modern secular translation (by Lattimore) and was struck by the rude (in both senses) vigor of Jesus, and by his very human and often comical exasperation with his nitwit disciples, and by the degree to which Christianity has taken the side of the disciples—i.e., departed from and papered over Jesus’ radical and frequently impractical beliefs.

WILLIS: I don’t have an intimate relationship to the Bible, but I suppose if there is one book most resonant with my own concerns about the human condition, particularly the conflict between human self-consciousness with its concomitant sexual anxiety and harmony with nature and our own natures, it’s Genesis and the story of the Fall.

CHANG: I’ve always been obsessed with the sacrifice of Isaac. There’s a Stevie Smith poem (more than one, really) about how God’s position would be fatal for the moral character of a man. You can (as she notes) perhaps get around that if your God became man; but on a lot of levels, that particular trail has to end in what Dostoyevsky called “miracle, mystery, authority.” What does it mean to say that Christ called out on the cross, “Why hast thou forsaken me?” It makes a lot of the metaphor flow together better, but it’s also nonsense.

HITCHENS: As long as we are speaking of the King James Authorized Version, and not of more recent neologistic atrocities, I can remain stirred by the Psalms and impressed by Ezekiel and Isaiah. None of it comes up to Shakespeare or even Proust in point of insight into the human condition, but it does have a fine tendency to recur to the mind at apt moments.

The New Testament strikes me as a sickly confection more or less from beginning to end, with the exception of certain passages like the Magnificat. The miracles are as insipid as they are unbelievable, and the message of compromise and abjection—sometimes almost masochistic—is then flatly contradicted by warnings of dire retribution and by injunctions, especially from Saul/Paul, of an authoritarian and arrogant character. Accept my meekness or go straight to hell.

YAEGER: Ecclesiastes. The verse which reads something like “He that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow” has always struck me and was comforting in some of my confused and despairing moments in college. Nothing in my secular education prepared me for the way that study darkened my worldview, or helped me understand the implications of what I had been taught.

The Song of Songs. There’s a rabbinic teaching that the same man, Solomon, wrote Proverbs, Ecclesiastes (Koheleth), and the Song of Songs. I never reflected on this fact until I learned that there is a debate as to what order Solomon wrote the books in, and then it caught my attention. I hope he wrote The Song last.

I’m an inconstant observer of the faith, and I was raised in a moral but unobservant home, so I only started reading the Bible in college. As a result, my religious education has been filled with what seem (to me, anyway) somewhat unusual juxtapositions of texts. I read The Song for the first time the same week that I read Dostoyevsky’s Notes From Underground, and as a result, I’ve always thought Solomon’s verses were a good answer to the Underground Man.

5) Are there any aspects of Christian faith, worship, ethics, literature, or history that you’ve found helpful in understanding your own life and beliefs?

BALKIN: The most important theme of Christianity is the idea that human beings can redeem themselves and turn their lives around, no matter where in life they are and no matter in what condition they find themselves. Even if they find themselves in the most difficult circumstances or even if they exist in a condition that Christianity calls sin, they can be redeemed. Obviously Judaism and Christianity differ in how this redemption comes about. But it is the ever-present possibility of human redemption itself and not the metaphysics behind it that is the most important aspect of Christianity—at least in my view.

CHANG: In general there are certainly moral issues—mostly ones pertaining to the special value of the individual—on which Christians are [my] inevitable and natural allies, since the whole Western understanding of the value of the individual certainly traces back to Christian teachings.

WILLIS: For me, the Christian vocabulary of sin and redemption, prayer and grace comes closest to expressing emotionally what the language of psychoanalysis (so central to my brand of Jewish secularism) expresses intellectually—the struggle between our deepest desires to love and be loved, to be at home in the universe, with the convoluted layers of alienation that propel us toward self-hatred, nihilism, corrupt compromise, and antisocial and self-destructive acts. I wrote about this in a late 1970s article about the Velvet Underground, which invokes this Christian vocabulary in many songs that express fellow secular Jew Lou Reed’s obsession with the struggle between love and nihilism.

YAEGER: I don’t think any exclusively Christian ideas have [been helpful in understanding my life and beliefs], but the first time I encountered the idea that “without God, everything is permitted” was in The Brothers Karamazov, which is in some sense a Christian book. This view has since been a major influence on my (limited) understanding of intellectual history. Since reading Karamazov, I’ve seen the same view in Jewish sources, most notably in Rabbi [Abraham Joshua] Heschel’s works. But Dostoyevsky introduced me to it.

6) What would you identify as the biggest problems in Christian history, faith, and/or ethics—things we have to change our approach to if we want to live ethically or find truth?

HITCHENS: The largest problem is a simple one. The doctrine of vicarious redemption—of the casting of our sins upon a scapegoat—is positively immoral and an evasion of personal responsibility.

WILLIS: From my perspective, it’s the fundamental assumption not only of Christianity but of patriarchal religion in general of a dualistic universe and of a morality in which goodness is associated with transcendence of the material and evil with the body and its appetites. The sexual morality that has its roots in that view is particularly inimical to human happiness and to equality for women. More generally, the equation of morality with self-abnegation and the repression of desire is both inhumane and self-defeating. A morality based on repression and guilt is always on the verge of being subverted by rage, a rage that leads not only to individual eruptions of violence and cruelty but to the outbreaks of collective sadism that defined the 20th century and have continued in the 21st. The only true, felt morality flows from a feeling of connection and empathy with others based on satisfaction in one’s own life and the expectation that one’s needs and desires are respected and supported.

CHANG: I’ve always loathed the way some people have of saying placidly that it was “providence” that they weren’t on the airplane that went down in flames, “providence” that their baby wasn’t the one attacked by ravening wolves. So you took a later flight—that doesn’t alter the fact that 300 people were killed and weren’t allowed the luxury of surviving to bleat about “providence.” As far back as I can remember, I’ve hated the idea of providence. It discriminates against the unlucky, the suffering, and the dead.

[There’s also the problem of] loyalty—the Abraham-Isaac case. Fealty to a God who may not even exist, ultimately means you have to accept anything He might do (with or without cause) to people you love, justly or unjustly.

RAUCH: Sounding a repetitive and, I suppose, parochial note, the largest single piece of unfinished business concerns homosexuals. A life deprived of morally licit love, deprived of even the hope of morally licit love (love in God’s grace, a Christian might say), is a blighted, sad, twisted life; and to prescribe such a life to millions of people is inhumane and inconsistent with everything else Christians say about their god. The condemnation of the only sort of love of which homosexuals are capable—along with the various small and large persecutions to which the condemnation leads is the last really grave injustice being committed systematically today in Christianity’s name.

7) What are the questions you’d most like Christians to answer?

HITCHENS: If I may assume, as I hope I may assume with the staff and readers of CRISIS, that they actually do affirm Christian and biblical teaching rather than dissolve into mere spiritual humanism, then I should like to know:

a) How you purport to know the will of the Creator?

b) Why you look forward to a second visit from the Redeemer, and why this is necessary?

c) What in Christian morality is unique or different from ordinary ethics?

d) How a claim to be in harmony with the divine will can be termed humble?

e) How the evident incompatibilities— between, say, “an eye for an eye” or “only the sinless can cast the first stone”—are to be explained in a text claiming divine warrant?

f) How your deity can claim credit when “innocent” lives are saved or spared, while avoiding blame when they are not?

g) How the concept of “innocence” can be reconciled with the doctrine of original sin?

h) Why anybody should wish to be born into a system of permanent celestial surveillance and supervision, which cannot be escaped even in death?

The above list is not exhaustive.

KELLEY: a) Would you claim to know that God exists? Is that sense of knowing comparable to your knowledge about things in this world?

b) What spiritual needs of yours are satisfied by believing and practicing a religion? A worldview that puts things in perspective? A sense of meaning in life? A source of values and moral guides? Someone to look out for you?

CHANG: The problem of evil always heads my list. But others include the aspect of belief and the afterlife that smacks of bribery (i.e., believe and you’ll get an afterlife)—and, in general, the arrogance of the thing. The assumption that a high power, the highest power, in the universe personally gives a damn what happens to you. We’re used to holding the individual in high esteem in our culture, but on a cosmic scale, really, that’s insane.

But one of the things I find most troubling is the total subjectivity of our judgment on any or all of these questions. On a certain day, I see a dearly loved friend, and it’s like Schumann, who heard angels sing before he died. In that frame of mind, certainly, I’m ready to believe God could exist (Schumann died insane, by the way)—no doubt people have the same feeling all the time during sexual intimacy.

But suppose I spend the other 99 percent of my days (including, perhaps, the final one) thinking about cutting my wrists. Of course, I know faith is not based solely on emotion; my point’s only that so much of it relies on conclusions that are arrived at emotionally.

YAEGER: Do you picture a man when you pray to G-d? Are you more comfortable when you direct your prayers to an embodied Jesus, or when you direct them to an ineffable spirit (the holy ghost)?

NEUSNER: Jesus at many points in his teaching contradicts the Torah of Moses. Then if Moses, how come Jesus? And if Jesus, what has become of Moses? I spelled out a bit of this challenge in A Rabbi Talks With Jesus.

8) Should Christians proselytize? What would you tell someone who came to your door and wanted to tell you about the gospel?

HITCHENS: They can proselytize all they like, but the law of diminishing returns began to operate well before the Crusades. The world will never be won for this local and sectarian belief; the enterprise is not worthwhile.

MORROW: For me, the most problematic aspect of Christianity is its proselytizing urge. On one level, I suppose, it’s very nice that evangelists want to save my soul, but this begs the question of why God should have sanctioned a system of selective salvation in the first place.

The minute we start dividing the whole of humanity into saved Christians versus unsaved non-Christians (and I’m afraid this is how many evangelicals think), we’re asking for trouble. Manicheism is the single worst idea that human beings ever devised. Christianity has always had a strong Manichean strain, and that troubles me deeply.

NEUSNER: Proselytize: It depends what you mean. If it means disrupting other people’s lives through nagging and intrusion, then Christian missionizing imposes on others the ritual of being a Christian and makes outsiders players in the Christian drama. If it means, should Christians try to embody in their everyday life their religious convictions and to exemplify them, then the answer is, by all means. The knocking on doors is especially obnoxious, because it assumes that other people don’t believe in God or don’t know God, when, in their contexts, they think they do. My message to the door-to-door salespersons of Christianity is, “We already have the true religion, thanks. Let me tell you about it.”

Author

  • Eve Tushnet

    Eve Tushnet was born in 1978 and grew up in Washington, D.C. She was received into the Catholic Church at Yale University in 1998. Her hobbies include sin, confession, and ecstasy. Her writing can be found on her blog http://eve-tushnet.blogspot.com and http://evesjournalismandstuff.blogspot.com. She writes a lot about being gay and Catholic. Her patron saint is Elizabeth of Hungary. She has worked full-time for the National Catholic Register and the Manhattan Institute (one year each), and part-time for the Institute on Marriage and Public Policy, the Bible Literacy Project, and the National Organization for Marriage. She has written for publications including Commonweal, the New York Post, the Washington Blade, and the Weekly Standard. Mostly she writes the art reviews for publications people don't read for the art reviews.

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