In a recent episode of David Smalley’s excellent podcast Dogma Debate (give it a listen sometime, you won’t be disappointed) a female pastor, Sharon Bollum, was invited on to discuss numerous issues of faith and doctrine. The discussion mostly focused on how a Female Pastor squares her faith with the numerous overtly sexist Biblical teachings, which was fascinating to hear, but one part of their exchange in particular jumped out at me in a dramatic fashion.
“I have gone through some really terrible things in my life David,” Sharon said, “Some awful things, and Jesus helped me through those things, helped my overcome those gigantic obstacles and move on to a better place in my life.”
“You know what I think,” David replied, “I think that YOU pulled yourself through those tough times. I think that you overcame those terrible circumstances on your own and you aren’t giving yourself credit for your own strength. Instead you are giving that credit to Jesus.”
I have written on the phenomena before, but it really brought those old frustrations back to the surface to encounter such a dramatic example laid bare on the Podcast. Sharon had difficultly responding to that challenge, and it was almost palpable that she had never before considered that maybe the strength she attributed to Jesus was really just an externalization of her own power.
I have encountered similar stomach-churning statements made by my own family. My Mother, who I have referenced on this Blog from time to time, is one of the strongest people I have ever personally encountered. She has endured sorrow, insecurity, and tribulation that would break me, all while ageing easily into the comfortable disposition of a kindly Grandmother. Yet I hear from her that it is Jesus who gets her through the hard times, and it is through her faith in God that she has endured.
Personal willpower and emotional fortitude are difficult things to gauge. You can’t exactly place them on a scale or measure their cost in caloric expenditure. However to see people like my Mother, and like Sharon from the Dogma Debate, performing incredible feats of emotional and mental strength, only to credit that strength to God, is to see them belittling themselves for the glory of another, and it pains me.
This is one aspect, not of Religion in general but of Christianity in particular, which I find personally unsettling. Christianity actively cultivates a kind of vain meekness. The Christian is humble, and sinful, and dirty, and worthy of nothing more than the Hell their incurable condition condemns them to. However, fortunately for those meek and humble Christians, they are each of every one of personal and intimate interest to the Creator. This Creator not only loves them uniquely, but is willing to set the otherwise binding rules of Sin and Justice aside to make an exception in their case, provided of course the love him properly in return.
What kind of bizarre cognitive dissonance must it cause to simultaneously entertain those two ideas? I suppose it would be the kind of cognitive dissonance which compels to blame your own filthy self for everything you’ve ever done wrong, while giving credit to God for all of the things you’ve done right. I can hardly imagine the kind of havoc in must wreak on a person’s Psyche to externalize all of their good traits and internalize all of their bad ones.
You do not only see this happening on the personal level, you see it happening at all resolutions of faith, however you choose to focus. If a church is mismanaged or falls on tough times and must close, then human weakness and human influences will be blamed. If a Church experiences amazing attendance, fantastic growth, and numerous successes in the community, then credit is given to God’s presence in the congregation. After a championship victory, the MVP or Head Coach of the winning team will almost invariably credit God for their victory. How often does the losing team blame God for their loss? When an entire world-spanning Religion, like the Catholic Church, is rocked by controversy and corruption, then fallible Man is to blame, yet when that same Church is praised for its humanitarian outreach then of course the Church is but a humble servant of God’s will. Perhaps Muhammad put it best when he wrote; Alhamdulilah (All Praise Belongs to Allah).
Yet it should be obvious that these goings on, both good and bad, are simply the natural result of shifting human behavior. God, for all of his incredible power, doesn’t seem to perform any better on average than typical humans. Do Christian players actually perform better in sports? Do Christian business owners actually weather recessions better? Are Christian institutions actually less prone to scandal and corruption? The answer seems to be no across the board. Religion does not actually, statistically, confer any advantage in these matters, but people are still eager to pretend that Christ has something to do with it.
Essential, Jesus is a Holy Soup Stone.
Some of you may be familiar with the parable of the Soup Stone, and it is a wonderful little story, which I will summarize here for those unfamiliar:
A Stranger wanders into town one day looking for something delicious to eat. Nobody has anything particularly rich or hearty or tasty and the man is turned away disappointed. So he sets up a large boiling pot in the center of town and pulls a smooth brown stone from his pack, tossing it into the water. A curious villager asks him what he is doing, and he replies that he is making Stone Soup.
“It’s really delicious,” the Stranger says, “you boil the stone for 5 hours and it makes the most amazing soup you’ve ever tasted. The Stone is magic you see.”
Intrigued the Villager says, “That sounds wonderful. I see that this is a very large pot and you are but one man, so can I have some of the soup when it is done?”
The Stranger says, “Certainly, but could you do one small thing? Stone Soup is wonderful, but just a little bit of salt really makes it pop. Can you get some salt to add?”
The excited Villager runs off to find some salt to add to the pot.
A second Villager arrives and the conversation goes much the same, except this time the Stranger insists that just a few sweet carrots would perfectly accent the savory flavor Stone Soup, and the Villager eagerly agrees to add some of his carrots. More and more Villagers show up, intrigued by the stories they are hearing of this amazing Stone Soup cooking in the square. The Stranger keeps mentioning small changes or little contributions of ingredients that would make the Soup better, which the Villagers happily agree to donate. Eventually the smell of the soup wafts through the streets and people flock to the scene, all being told this amazing soup bubbling away in the pot was created by doing little more than boiling a special magic stone for 5 hours. The Soup is at last served and everyone is amazed at how delicious Stone Soup turns out to be. When the pot is at last empty, and everyone in town retires to their beds with full stomachs, the Stranger retrieves his stone from the bottom of the pot and leaves town. For years people in the village would remark on the miracle of how a stranger produced the best Soup they’d ever had merely by boiling a magic stone.
Jesus is to Christians just exactly what the Soup Stone was to the Villagers. The Town had all of the ingredients to make delicious Soup in the first place, but they had to be tricked into properly utilizing their resources, they had to be fooled into expressing the strength they had all along. Sure every villager knew that they themselves had contributed some small mundane portion of the Soup, but none of them realized that there was nothing to the miraculous Soup beyond their accumulated non-miraculous contributions. Similarly a Christian undergoing a crisis known that each individual act of courage, discipline, wisdom, and fortitude they conducted was performed by them as an individual. They understand that Jesus did not bodily descended and stand up to their abusive spouse for them, or grab their hand and forced them to put down the syringe, or inhabit their car and force them to drive away from a crime they were on the precipice of committing. They are fully aware the each constituent part of their success was a real act preformed by them under their own volition, but the sum total of those willful ordinary acts is accredited to Jesus. Jesus is the Soup Stone, and the Christian, just like the Villagers in the story, doesn’t have the perspective to realize that the exact same Soup could have been made all along, and the Stone was merely a rouse.
It hurts my heart to see people devalue themselves in this way. Even if God did exist, and the Christian narratives were true, the knee-jerk tendency to give God credit for your own fortitude would strike me as a sickly instinct. The fact that no such God exists makes it an even greater transgression against decency. I say we are much better off accepting and celebrating ourselves as humans, embracing all of the weakness, but also all of the terrific and soaring strengths that deplorable condition entails.