Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Why I’m a Christian 4: Utility

One approach to religion that I want to avoid at all costs is choosing a religion because it makes me happy, wealthy, healthy, well-connected, etc. I also reject the idea of religion as a tool for growing in wisdom or becoming a better person. And I really hate the idea of embracing a religion because you think it will have a big payoff in a future life. All of these things are great in and of themselves, but I think if they are the driving motive behind adherence to a religion than there is a disingenuous root at the heart of your religious experience. Of course there are very few actions that have singular motivations, and I can’t claim to have excised all of these less-than-admirable motives from my religious impulses. But I think that if one is striving for Truth above all else, these things must be distant secondary motives, otherwise Truth can be obfuscated.

Now I don’t want to sit in judgment over those who claim a religion because of family tradition or fear of hell, proclaiming my values to be superior. I’m simply stating my value system and why I find it compelling. The reason I think Truth must be the primary, motivating factor for embracing a religion is because religion has serious ramifications for one’s life. (And for the lives of those around who are affected by one’s religion, especially family.) Of course there is a broad spectrum of adherence to religion, from simply calling oneself an X, all the way to martyrdom or full time missionary work. Certainly in the West, with our multiculturalism and general tolerance for religious diversity, it’s very easy to call yourself whatever you like and have it impact you in almost no way whatsoever. It seems that where beliefs are not challenged, they tend to whither.

What this ultimately comes down to is values. Does one value tradition over Truth? Or personal prosperity and comfort over Truth? Or one’s standing in an organization over Truth? This is not a cut and dried either/or consideration. Mainly because one can use all those things to interpret Truth. I know all my Christian friends and family would say they value Christianity because it IS Truth. A political party leader will say they value their party because its claims ARE True, etc. But what those assertions do is separate the true believers from one who is simply going along for the ride – those with motives besides a desire for Truth.

I just spent three paragraphs explaining this because I don’t want this idea of the utility of Christianity to be misunderstood. As I’ve been explaining why I’m a Christian I’ve been hitting all spheres of life, from the contemplative philosophical to the emotional, and now I’m dealing with the practical. We all live our lives, day to day, usually interacting with lots of people, dealing with mundane issues such as travel, work, food, bathing, etc. In this “real world” the esoteric philosophical and religious ideas rarely penetrate. Unless you are an orthodox conservative in one of several religions that have dietary restrictions and/or sacred times. But as a protestant Christian, most of those practices have been jettisoned from my religious heritage. My point being that most of us have to actively interweave philosophical/ theological ideas into our everyday life patterns or those ideas will just collect dust on the back shelves of our minds. I believe they still subconsciously direct us, but without regular examination I think we are subject to less control over our lives.

And so I attempt to create a solid, logical, philosophically cogent religious view (Not saying I succeed in this!) and then pull from that view as often as possible in my daily life. The things this helps me accomplish are perhaps not impossible to do with other worldviews, and I’m not making that case. I’m saying that my Christianity is a fantastic resource for life. Here are some examples:


I pray for my sons every night after I read to them, and every morning on our way to school. I do this out loud, while physically touching them, connecting us, relaying and reinforcing my love and care for them. It could be said that invoking a third party (God) in that communication has a negative effect in that it brings an arbiter into our relationship. But I think it’s quite the opposite. Invoking God gives the message that my dedication to my sons is not dependent merely on my emotional state, but is reinforced by my commitment to a higher authority. They should see safety and security in that. I hope.

The same goes for my marriage. I am double committed to my wife. Regardless of my feelings for her (of which I have bucketfuls) I simply don’t desire other women because of my deep belief in the way God brings all things to be. I believe he brought us together for good reasons, and no matter how I feel, my faith in that process will keep us together. So my faith brings a stability and security to my marriage that I don’t think could exist without appealing to God. This is not to say that an atheist or Buddhist can’t have a stable secure marriage. But that stability and security must come from other places, and I don’t know of other sources. Will power and loyalty only go so far without an ultimate, ontologically real force to attach them to. (ie God) We used to have social pressure from our families and society to stay married, but that’s pretty much gone now. To attempt a lifelong commitment without a transcendent reinforcement seems to me like rock climbing without a rope. If your emotions slip, the firm conviction that there is a God holding you accountable can be all that keeps you going through a rough patch.


I memorize Bible verses with my children. Sure, I could be memorizing great poetry or other literature, but to be honest, having a deeper since of awe and appreciation for the material pushes us over the threshold from it-would-be-a-good-idea, to the point of actually doing it. This is very healthy family time. It is a mentally engaging challenge that we work on together, while simultaneously inculcating values. Very few activities can match it. It is a very deliberate weaving of our beliefs into our lives, reminding us that our faith is not a set of platitudes or doctrines to be assented to, but a life-permeating system that brings a cohesive narrative to our lives, and the best options for our daily choices.

Humans are driven by narrative. We entertain ourselves with stories, we understand concepts better when they are in stories, and we arrange our lives around stories. This tendency has its advantages and its disadvantages, but it’s undeniable, and so a worldview with a strong narrative can work wonders when it comes to organizing our values. This is especially useful for teaching values to children. Morality and ethics -like the existence of time/space- falls into infinite regress without God. But even more so. At least with time/space once can say they simply always existed. But when it comes to an admonition to not steal… without a transcendent authority we end up with the following:

Little Billy: “Why should I not steal, papa?”

Papa: “Because it’s wrong and you wouldn’t like it if someone stole from you.”

Little Billy: “Why should I care what’s wrong?”

Papa: “Because you should only do to others what you want done to you.”

Little Billy: “Why?”

Papa: “That’s what makes society function well.”

Little Billy: “Why should I care about society?”

Papa: “So you can have a happy life.”

Little Billy: “What if my life is happier when I ignore society’s needs and focus on myself?”

Papa: *head explodes*

Rather than exploding my head or resorting to “because I said so!” tactics, I’m bringing up my sons in a narrative that anchors our morality in something beyond mere power plays. (I’m bigger than you and older than you so you better do what I say.) You can argue that all religion IS power plays, but if that’s the case, it is taking place beyond the purview of child-rearing. Certainly a religiously founded morality does not have LESS power to instill moral virtues than a materialistic one. No matter what you found your morality on, it is a circular argument. But the religious grounding is one that holds both parent-and-child, husband-and-wife, citizen-and-state, to a single authority that transcends the parties. I’m not claiming authority over my kid because ultimately I can beat them up. I’m saying we are under a single structure that is imposed on both of us, though requiring different roles.

And this structure is story. Our values are grounded in the narrative of a creator God who holds certain activities and thoughts as honorable and others as dishonorable. Our values are modeled through the stories of the ancient Israelites, and most pointedly by the life and teaching of Jesus. Rather than abstract rules scientifically calculated to bring the most pleasure to the most people, our morality is embedded in a narrative that claims authority over us all. Feel free to reject that claim. But the advantage to accepting it is a deeper, more stable moral structure that can be taught to kids easier than abstract tenets backed up by nothing more than a vague notion that we’ll all be happier if we follow these rules.

Here is a recent example from my life where I utilized the Christian narrative to inculcate values. My oldest son turned 13 last summer so I took that opportunity to create a special event, a sort of coming of age ceremony that I hope will start him down the path to becoming a responsible, moral, loving man.



Because no man is an island, and no family an archipelago, we all depend on community for a variety of things. One can choose to involve themselves with all sorts of communities, from hobbyists to volunteers, to those who like the same entertainment. These communities will affect us, infect us with their values, perspectives, and influence our behavior and thinking. So when it comes to the community I choose to put my family into I am careful and deliberate about it. Since I love and appreciate the values that Christianity ideally promotes I choose to spend my time with others who appreciate them. Hence, church. While I disagree with several important doctrines my church teaches, I am united with them in their desire to teach love and reach the larger community with that message. Besides being a group of like-minded folks, we strive for an ideal of mutual support which is helpful when life gets difficult. A faith community, unlike a group of hobbyists or partiers, feel a greater purpose for the community than mere entertainment or fellowship. We feel called to service by the Christian narrative, and so people tend to stick together even when it’s not necessarily fun. What this provides is, again, stability in my family’s life. Stability, and encouragement. These are very valuable things for our fragile human psyches.

Every human longs for purpose and direction. Some are better at generating or finding these things than others. Christianity provides them. There are all sorts of technically complex doctrines about sanctification and justification and what those things mean, but leaving all that aside, we have in Jesus a perfect example of God in a person’s life. We have an impossible list of do’s and don’ts replaced with a call to relationship, founding every motive in love. The only way to exercise this concept is in a community, and as a church we get to practice it on each other. Encourage it, foster it, and help to guide it when it goes wrong. The faith community is where Christianity becomes a life changing thing rather than an interesting socio-historical story. It’s where the story is integrated in our lives.

In summary, I want to reiterate two things. First: if Christianity is false or based on falsehoods, no amount of goodies it produces are of interest to me. Second: I acknowledge that many other religious traditions provide similar ‘tools’ to those I’ve outlined here. This article is not the place for comparing religious forms and beliefs and the toolsets they provide for living, and honestly, I lack the experience and knowledge to do so with any grace regardless. My only purpose for writing this Why I’m a Christian series is help myself and others explore what makes me and other faith-based thinkers tick.

1 Comments:

Blogger Liam Eibach said...

That was a really good read, I can see that you are an enlightened individual. I too am a father of a beautiful boy, I was sharing the moment in the video you had made. Empathy is a great tool sometimes. To me it shouldn't matter if Christianity is folklore or not, much of the teachings are real and thats the importance of religion. Man needs focus and to know right from wrong and the societies of man need a strong sense of duty and a source of moral fiber.

6:00 PM  

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