Why Atheists Follow Christ Better than Christians, Part 2

Last week I wrote about Why Atheists Follow Christ Better than Christians (And What to Do About it). A perceptive Facebook comment pointed out the post was short on the what-to-do-about-it. This is one suggestion.

The most important problem with moral atheists is they discredit churches. Most rhetoric in evangelical churches concerning the world talks up how evil that world is. Statements like “we live in a crooked and depraved generation!” or “do you want your children picking up values from the world?” imply there is badness “out there,” and goodness “in here.” [1] However in practice, most Christians hear “the world out there is very, very bad and we have to be not like that” when they hear talk like this. Unhappily, when this idea (there is no good in the world) encounters regular Joes who are good people, one of two things will happen: a) some people will access a theological idea that says “all good you THINK you see in regular people isn’t REALLY good,” or b) more often, a regular Christian sees the message of their church ring hollow.

In the Medieval Period, Christian thought thrived in Europe, particularly in the 12th century onwards. There was an important question that was raised: can people do anything to impress God? The word they used for this was “merit.” Can Christians do anything to merit God’s favor? That is to say, is there even a possibility that a person can do something that makes God go “yes. That was well done. That should be rewarded.” There were two ways to earn merits, at least, for people who believed in merits. A Full Merit was something that genuinely made God pleased. Maybe this was becoming a missionary, or something. A half-merit was something that didn’t actually produce something good, but was such a good-hearted effort that God can’t just ignore it. Think about a toddler who wants to help her father paint the house. She will wreak havoc, but her intent is so good you will probably give her a cookie.

Ok, so concerning the merit question, there were four basic views:
A) The Augustinian tradition said “Nope. Neither non-believers nor Christians can do ANYTHING to merit God’s favor.”
B) Dominicans said “non-believers can’t merit God’s favor, but Christians theoretically can. It’s hard, but it’s certainly possible.”
C) The Old Franciscan view said “well, non-believers can merit God’s favor, but since it stores up treasures in heaven, they can’t actually ACCESS these merits unless they become Christians, and go to Heaven. Christians, on the other hand, surely can merit God’s favor.”
D) A newer Franciscan view said “Hell yeah! Everybody can merit God’s favor!”

Let’s be clear before we move on. Just because it was possible to merit God’s favor, this did not mean everything one did merited God’s favor. It did not mean one merited salvation, and it did not mean that it was easy to merit God’s favor. The question was simply “is it possible?”

Most Protestants resonate most strongly with the Augustinians. No surprise: we inherited the idea through Luther, who was an Augustinian monk.[2] However, this idea has been stretched from discussing whether one can do something so good that it impresses God to now discussing whether or not one can do anything good. Many Christians now argue that it is impossible to do anything genuinely good outside of Christ. When confronted with something that seems like a genuinely good deed, they claim it is actually rooted in self-interest, negating the goodness. Notice how the idea has changed? It has grown from a fairly technical question to one that defines humanity!

Many people cry “bullshit!” when they hear this. To claim the average person does not do genuinely good deeds is totally disconnected from the human experience. Further, any definition of goodness that demands absolutely no self-interest is neither biblical (which regularly encourages us to do good because of self-interest) nor reasonable. To make matters worse, social scientists have studied this exact question (do people ever do anything without self-interest?) and have answered in the affirmative, much to the frustration of economists! Recognizing how ludicrous this theology is will go some distance in correcting it.

Ok, so back to what to do about all of this: Stop saying ridiculous things in Church! When we say things that are so transparently nonsense, we discredit ourselves. A speaker who says obviously wrong things in areas people can easily test is not going to be trusted in areas that are harder to test. When a pastor or speaker says the world is completely corrupt, they make themselves look like an idiot, and nobody listens to idiots [3] . Further, they discredit the rest of their message, which (hopefully) includes the Gospel itself. This isn’t exactly helping the river of people flowing out of the Christian community.

[1] Problematically, there is some truth to these statements. There is tremendous wickedness in the world, if one cares to look for it. However, I am arguing that the situation is complex, not that the world is good. These oversimplifications are untrue. Back to Article

[2] The man on the street often thinks Luther created this idea. He didn’t. Luther’s originality lay in his flipping the soteriological (study of salvation) model of the Medieval period on its head. Medieval europeans thought the road to salvation began with love of God, which produced repentance. Then God imparted the “Righteousness of Christ,” and a person proceeded through a refining process until they finally reached heaven after death. Through this refining process, faith grows. Luther inverted love and faith. The rest of his views of salvation were, more or less, the position of monks in what is called the Augustinian tradition. Back to Article

[3] To be precise, no one listens to anyone they recognize to be an idiot. People actually listen to idiots all the time. Back to Article

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    • Amy
    • February 16th, 2011

    Thou makest me think and laugh.

  1. February 2nd, 2012

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