Some more not to talk about

Same topic, slightly different angle

The old rugged individualism 

Christianity has sometimes been credited with, or accused of, the rise of The Individual. And as with most of these sweeping historical trends, there are elements both to be lauded (equal rights, voting) and lamented (personal isolation, social Darwinism). It seems to me that much of the polarisation among Christians (and indeed Westerners generally) has to do with these historically evolved notions. The idea that I am solely responsible for my own success and my own happiness, existing in a void of selfhood independent of context, is inspiring to the downtrodden who succeed and to the safe classes who maintain the status quo (that’s me!), but not so much to old Gil and all of the downtrodden who just keep being pushed down.

I think we still find echoes of the Puritans’ idea that monetary or social success is linked to righteousness: work hard, be good and you will be rewarded. Funnily enough, this makes the accumulation of wealth a virtue, the manifestations of which I don’t think the fabled Mayflower passengers would approve. It also means that, if you work hard and be good but are not rewarded, someone is to blame. Maybe you’re being taxed too much, or maybe someone has taken Your job, or maybe your employer has been taxed too much and moved to China. From this perspective, whoever is doing this is not only unfair, but amoral. 

Of course, this narrative is painted in different ways by different people. Going back to my personal experience, I never had this explicitly told me by anyone in a religious context. However, it draws out –rather laterally–another point about individualism.

The lesser good
When I used the phrase ‘be good’, I was being flippant for a reason. In this bubble world of myself, a ‘sin’ is a thing that I mustn’t do because it damages myself. This is an idea found, both implicitly and explicitly, in evangelical thought. Sin creates a gulf between me and God. If I don’t sin, or if I repent of sins, I am reconciled to God. So, while God will always forgive my sins, they will still damage Me.   

Now, as I child, I got the firm idea that the species ‘sin’ was totally determined by divine dictate. If you didn’t understand why something was a sin, it was because God knows an awful lot more than you do. This might have been coupled with the behaviourist tactics frequently used with children (and ‘because God said so’ does pack more of a punch) but I seriously cannot remember anyone saying to me, at any point, ‘some sins are sins because they hurt other people’. And I am strongly of the impression that many conservative religious people are married to the idea that sin is bad because it taints them individually.

If this is the case then, no wonder why so many are obsessed with other people’s personal or private behaviour…things like doing drugs, being homosexual, not saving sex for marriage, etc. Kind of like offering a starving person a Bible rather than a biscuit, addressing personal sins is meant to save others…and thus America!…from themselves. A Bible instead of a biscuit and a discriminatory law instead of the one commandment ‘love one another’. 

Like most fervent believers in anything from religion to coffee (blessed be the name of Peet), the people I’ve chosen to pick on would simply argue that I have no right to second-guess the taxonomy of sin and that Jesus meant us to save the poor people’s souls not their transient bodies (see previous Hell explanation). And you’ll be sorry when the rapture comes, barring once-saved-always-saved or if you’re one of the elect.

What happened next

For me personally, a slow transformation in the way I perceive the world has been incredibly valuable, both in that I can try to understand those from whom I’ve ideologically departed, and because I know my world won’t collapse if I do the unthinkable and change my mind once in a while. I was helped on in this by my parents, who made and are making a similar journey; my first employer in Durham, from whom I learned about liberal and radical theology; a cracking broad and deep education at good old Cal; and everyone who puts up with my rambling.

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