Why people reject God
James Knight looks at the reasons people give for rejecting Christianity, and explains why following Jesus requires courage.
I want to consider a particular kind of rejection of Christianity - the so-called intellectual one. Now, of course, there are many other reasons why people aren't Christians - apathy, unawareness, emotional pain, subscription to other faiths, and being too busy to give it the time it warrants (to name a few) - but they are not my principal concern here.
My principal concern is the view that Christianity suffers defeat when face to face with what some atheists like to call 'free-thinking' - by which they mean some kind of rational, intelligent scepticism that sets them apart from those 'dumb' enough to believe in God. They'll happily tell us they are too smart and enlightened to believe in God, but yet every one of them almost certainly knows (or knows of) dozens of intelligent and thoughtful theists that evidently have considered their Christian faith very deeply and profoundly.
Why, then, the brash confidence in atheism? The real reason, I think, is a twofold truth - but it is a painful one, and one to which many over-confident unbelievers will scarcely give much acknowledgement. The first part is to do with pride and the second part is to do with courage. You see, we humans are proud creatures - and although we try to suppress it, we cannot help but be seduced by admiration, praise and prestige.
Religion-bashing is a peculiar phenomenon - in the first case it is either thoroughly justified (in the case of criticising religious fundamentalism), and in which case, a proprietary duty not just of unbelievers but of believers too. Or in the second case it is thoroughly lacking in depth and profundity (in the case of the facile arguments and brazen posturing we see too often in social media).
The thing about the second case of religion-bashing I'm talking about is that it's the one that most enchants the ego, because it is of a lowest common denominator discourse that attracts hoards of impressionable people or people damaged by their bad religious background (sometimes, of course, the damage adds to the impressionability).
People who are scarred by church-shaped wounds will easily find comfort and sometimes even hero-worship in figures like Richard Dawkins and (the sadly deceased) Christopher Hitchens if they appear to offer an intellectual emancipation from some of the religious nonsense and cruelty by which they were once beset. And, of course, from the vantage point of the emancipator, the continual prestige and praise cannot fail to seduce and enchant, as well as often proving to be financially rewarding and career enhancing too.
Now if there's one thing that Christianity does to the unbeliever and believer alike, it proceeds to shatter any such illusions we may have about self, about impressing other humans, and about courting status and prestige. Don't misunderstand, the Christian faith has no discouragement towards conferring praise or admiration on individuals who do good and noble things - it just frames goodness in its wider context of God's love for His creation, and His grace bestowed upon creation.
Or to put it another way, if there is one irritating thing about God (or even considerations of God) from the atheist's perspective, it is that He cares not one jot for our attempts to monger status and lionisation from other people. He couldn't give two hoots about our ego-stroking or the ways we court prestige - He sees right through it all, into the real self, and He knows, as do we deep down, that such grasping is really out of weakness, not strength. For although we enjoy the transitory moments when we are admired and praised, we know all too well how much they mask the real drawbacks and limitations of being human.
Now we begin to see why courage is the second part of the resistance - for it is only being courageous that enables us to face our weaknesses and limitations. As such, it takes tremendous courage to make concessions to a worldview based on the abnegation of ego, and to properly face up to our human limitations and weaknesses.
In Jesus' teachings there is no room for pride in our hearts - only courage - the courage to take Him at His word. After Christ's teachings we see the world through a new pair of eyes - a world in which God has spoken to us directly through His Son. We see a world in which lust and anger are mentioned alongside adultery and murder; where social justice begins with ourselves; where love of enemies is as paramount as love of friends; where we are to care for the weak, the sick and the needy; where the meek inherit the earth, and where love and grace supersede ordinary morality.
St Paul refers to this love and grace in 2 Corinthians 5:5 as coming in the form of the Holy Spirit as a 'deposit' - "Now the one who has fashioned us for this very purpose is God, who has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come".
Knowing I was getting married I booked a honeymoon in a nice hotel in Gran Canaria. To secure the hotel suite I was asked to pay a deposit. I paid some cash up front to secure the room before paying the full amount on arrival. Similarly, God sends His Holy Spirit as a gift, but it's not the whole gift - it is like a deposit payment on the rich glory and blessedness that is to come. As Romans 8:14 reminds us, it is the Holy Spirit who brings us into the relationship with God, and it is the Holy Spirit who inspires our prayers (Romans 8:26). When we pray the Holy Spirit in us speaks to our Heavenly Father above us - there is no room for anything other than humility on our part.
Sin literally means 'missing the mark' - it amounts to our failing to be what we are capable of being. To that end we are all unable to avoid the charge against us. Romans 5:20 says "The law entered that the offence might abound" - which we can take to mean that our missing the mark engenders more and more offences. In other words, the wider of the mark we are the more our sins are likely to bring about further sins. However, the second part of the verse says that "where sin abounded, grace abounded much more". It's not the case that the worse we become the more wrath is reaped upon us, it's that the worse we become the more grace is needed to stop us getting what we deserve.
So we find that grace is the great gift from God to humankind, but with such a great gift comes great responsibility. Grace cost God His life on the cross - it was such a great gift that it lays upon us the onus to open our arms to receive that gift. And the only way we can do that is to throw out of those hands all the pride and self-congratulation that so readily fills them.
That is what I mean when I say that Christianity involves courage - because here courage means going empty-handed towards God and asking for those hands to be filled with love and grace - to be reliant on His strength not on our own, which is the true essence of a humble life, and therefore, notoriously difficult to manage, but infinitely rewarding when we do.
James Knight is a long term contributor to the Network Norwich & Norfolk website and a local government officer based in Norwich. He is also a writer for the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.
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