EXISTENTIALIST CHRISTIANITY IN THE 21st CENTURY: Four Things That Every Honest Christian Must Face, Sooner or Later

It seems to me that every honest Christian living in the 21st century must, sooner or later, come up against four “truths”—and a question that must then be digested. Here are the four truths:

  • There is no hell
  • The Bible is not inerrant
  • Evolution occurred
  • God (if he exists) permitted the Holocaust to happen

 The question that necessarily follows is this:

  • Now what?

A good deal of conservative Christian apologetics is devoted—if only unconsciously—to avoiding an honest grappling with these four truths. The result is that many Christians do not get to the “now what” question. In other words, contemporay Christian apologists find it easier to obfuscate—and keep in contention these four truths—than to face the “now what” question directly.

Put another way: the “oily certitudes” on which the engine of Christianity once ran upon are no longer certitudes. Ideas that may have “worked”—or could at least have been taken for granted as “working”—in the days of Pascal no longer work for Christianity today. Three hundred years of archeology, biology, geology—and the heightened concentration of torture and suffering that occurred during WWII, and which found its exemplifications at Auschwitz and Hiroshima—have intervened to unsettle the comfy platitudes that were once associated with traditional Christianity.

Christians are thus left with two (not very good) options:

  • Simply pretend that the last three centuries did not happen (as in, “Give me that ol’ time religion”); or
  • Confront this present century honestly: “There is no hell; the Bible is not inerrant; evolution and Auschwitz occurred. Now what?”

The honest and intelligent Christian cannot (for long) pretend not to know these things. A good deal of the energy that apologists expend on “defending the Bible” amounts to little more than the puffing of blue pipe smoke into the air—an attempt to obfuscate one’s vision from the terrifying “now what” question that history has cast upon all 21st century human beings.

I am put in mind of a scene from a Woody Allen film in which Allen is obsessing over the murder of JFK. His girlfriend (rightly) perceives that Allen is using his obsession to avoid a more vexing emotional question: Why doesn’t he want to sleep with her anymore?

Conservative apologetics is an obsession masking a more difficult set of questions.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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12 Responses to EXISTENTIALIST CHRISTIANITY IN THE 21st CENTURY: Four Things That Every Honest Christian Must Face, Sooner or Later

  1. Russ says:

    There is no hell. – False
    The Bible is not inerrant. – False
    Evolution occurred. – False
    God (if he exists) permitted the Holocaust to happen. – True

  2. santitafarella says:

    Russ,

    Is that the best you can do? Make the counter assertion and leave it at that? Isn’t that the problem?

    Christianity is in trouble precisely because these propositions—intellectually—are indefensible or incoherent. It is not, for example, a coherent position to assert that God tortures people for all eternity. And no sane academic scholar of the Bible says that it is error free. And all of our best scientists teaching at our best universities agree that the earth is old and that plants and animals have changed over time. These things have to be faced directly by honest Christians as we enter the third millenium.

    And it leads us to “Now what?”

    —Santi

  3. aunty dawkins says:

    Santi

    All four true obviously– now what?

    1 The end of dogmatic fundamentalism hopefully .
    2 Instead Agnosticism with a preference for the monotheistic Christian tradition and idea of God.
    3 Positive agnosticism rather than dogmatic atheism . Openess to the possibility of unknown dimentions and religious curiosity.
    4 Rejection of intolerant atheism which promotes science as the only relevant seeker for truth as a new religion itself.
    5 A willingness and hope for faith to be sustained but recognition that doubt is always present.

  4. Russ says:

    I was following your example bro. That is all you did.

  5. santitafarella says:

    Russ,

    Fair enough. I just think that Christianity—if it is to be a 21st century Christianity and not an 18th century Christianity—has to come to a place where it acknowledges that these four “facts” are so. Denying reality is simply crazy. And if it acknowledges these four facts to be so, then Christianity has to reason from a different place than it has in the past. The old certitudes are gone, in my view. Now what?

    —Santi

  6. santitafarella says:

    Aunty Dawkins:

    I like your list. I would add one more: the role of poetry, art, literature, and the imagination in general, as a counter-weight to a world dominated by science and rationality. If we are to be religious, then we should be creatively religious, and non-dogmatic, and if we are to be non-religious, we better take up painting and writing and sculpting—and other forms of aesthetic endeavor—because man cannot live on bread alone, or reductionist science alone. We all need to find something imaginitive that—to echo the poet Wallace Stevens—“will suffice.”

    —Santi

  7. aunty dawkins says:

    Santi

    I couldn’t agree more with your recognition of the role of the aesthetic in the pursuit of human happiness. The pity is that education today, here in the UK anyway has been too focussed on utilitarian creativity for economic reasons (well that’s the theory)rather than imaginative aesthetic creativity.
    Also here many aesthetic activities rely on grudging public subsidy, at least the performing arts anyway. But that is the only way to enable diversity and risk taking. I could give you a real sermon here about lack of Government commitment to Art in its broadest sense but maybe we are better off than you are?
    I’m certain that the aesthetic expressions of human creativity are life enhancing, provocative, stimulating,sometimes life changing and transcend rationality as does the creative process itself on occasion. Therefore are evidence of the instictive, intuitive higher level human ability. This aethetic dimension should of course be embeded more in daily life, we could do worse than worship Dionysus again rather than slip into Utilitarian tedium or market driven greed.

    I believe even Bertrand Russel opined ‘ no sensible man has faith in reason alone’

  8. milesfan420 says:

    A Rant in the Night That I Must Put Out There-On The Anti Intellectual Intellectual

    There are those intellectuals who have been gifted and burdened with the intellectual mind that have ceased seeking and have settled on a belief with which they admit is imperfect but that they are settling with nonetheless. They have given up on being an individual and have surrendered to the mob. I have nothing but disdain for them. They are weak men. For in them, I detect an inclination to fascism, rigidity, and darkness.

    I’m not talking about that quiet enlightened being, the simple minded non intellectual at peace with the world who doesn’t care much for philosophy. How lucky she is! No they are blessed. They ironically ARE curious people. They are open to everything but know something truly in their hearts that requires no intellect. For the truth lies outside of the realm of intellect. No, these simple men have a quiet strength, a certain peace of mind and stability. And with that comes an openness, a confidence to consider others first.

    No, I’m talking about the weak anti-intellectual “intellectual” who is too scared to consider others first. It’s evident that fear has won with them because they are reactionary, defensive and aggressive not just towards intellectuals with whom they disagree but with any man in society whom they fear.

    I’m talking about the people who have the potential, have the means with which to pursue wisdom, and yet fear it and so they espouse one philosophy, their philosophy, that usually goes something like, “I am sticking to THIS and I won’t believe THAT because I’m satisfied”…But they lie! They are not truly satisfied with themselves, because when you penetrate their minds and study them, you see that they are not rigorous, but have settled into a pre-existing pattern of labels. Let me posit an example–In a room argue a radical Aetheist and radical Evangelical Christian. Watch them, listen to them, see how they evade defining religion, see how they evade defining God. See how equally bitter and close minded they are. While their dogmas and ideologies battle it out within the false world of the ivory tower, do their personalities really conflict with each other? No! They are part of that same social order of the intellectual who has surrendered thinking and has reverted to the animal state. They are no longer reasonable.

    These are not even Nihilists. No, they’re worse, for a Nihilist is at least honest with himself. No, these haters of knowledge, who knowingly embrace a philosophy that they secretly and subconsciously know to be a lie-whatever it is, can only be qualified as darkness. What dread it is to be around such people! How many of them there are!

    For they willfully CHOOSE to deceive themselves. Like an alcoholic who knows deep down that what he gets from the drink is not true nor good, they willingly embrace their own reality, their own un-truth and this habit turns in upon itself and only gets worse with time because not only are they repressing the truth and holding to a lie, but they must lie about the lie and tell themselves that everything is good.

    These were the people who too rigidly adhered to their parents’ discipline when they were young. And so, at too young an age, lacked the cultivation of the curious or seeking mind that is necessary in any true intellectual. They’ve inherited their parents rigidity. And rigidity is all they know. They are scared of anything else besides themselves and their petty confidence in their rigid ways. If only they knew how easy it is to be strong and how taxing it is to be weak!

    Nonetheless, they hang on! They are like the older brother in the Prodigal Son for they resent the Other who so easily seeks new ideas, so easily is moved by them, and so happily is motivated to action from them.

    In truth, they fear that it makes them weaker to be around such people! Though they will not begin to consider this. If only they knew that the only weakness is to not accept ones weakness, only to then see how illusory it was all along!

    It’s darkness. It’s hatred. It’s evil. It’s a willing plunge into separation and non-belief, though they cannot bear to accept that. It’s a subconscious resignation that the truth is too painful to apprehend, so they’ve made a decision- to reject truth not because they don’t believe it’s attainable but because they secretly believe that the process of trying to seek it out is too unbearable. This is not only secret to others, but they also hide it from their own selves.

    So they’ve chosen the folly of embracing a lie. They are weak men who think strength is repressing or denying their weakness who if only could see that strength lies not in force or overpowering one’s weakness but in the courage to face it. Oh you petty man, dare to be weak for once and see the strength in that!

    And when they encounter someone who means not harm, someone open and kind but who personifies that with which they stand in opposition to, watch how they react. Let’s just say this other harmless being is someone tall and handsome, or wise and rich, just someone that has any material edge over them–they harbor a secret resentment for them. They say to themselves, “That one, there! I don’t like him. There’s something about him. He thinks he knows it all. He thinks he will be the one to find the answer. Who does he think he is! How dare him! What a joke!” And they think they believe so. If only they had the courage to look into themselves and see whether they just might resent that person because they themselves adhere to an illusory instinct that they are weakened by him. They feel belittled by being around someone so confident. And so they label him in their heads. Maybe that person IS wrong. But who cares! At least he is seeking still and not resigned to a sort of death while still living. But this is not about him. It’s about the abhorrent reaction to him!

    They claim “that person is bombastic, presumptuous, naive at best, antisocial at worst”.
    So,these incurious intellectuals become the very thing that they so try to avoid–Weak! And transparently so! For it is only the weak, the self loathing, the liars of the night who harbor such feelings. What other reason could there be?

    I will say it here. I have been that man at times. I find myself being that man at times. We all are. Is it not only human to be so. Dare you accept it?

  9. milesfan420 says:

    Man! I Don’t Know Where This Is Coming From, but I Will Add-On One More Thing

    And it will be just one more thing, less I become the very man I am speaking out against!

    It is fear that has won out in these people of the mob. Because when they encounter anyone else who reminds him of his lie, they can’t help but react aggressively. How can they not? Their whole being is wrapped in a lie. The chasm between what they say and what they are is too great in their minds to confront.

    To accept another, who reminds them of their own lie would be too much too handle, at least, so they think. But it is really THIS MOMENT, their present reaction that is too much too handle for them, though they do not know it. They ARE suffering, they ARE weak. They are vulnerable and small. What folly!

    But if they just would surrender to this illusory hidden reaction, observe it, see how nebulous it is, and allow themselves to hear the other and be there in that moment with him, how free they become and how much easier this is than the house of cards they go to great pains to uphold day-in and day-out.

    And does not being around the weak then bring out the weak in the other? And then don’t we all become weak? You slap me. I’m to turn the other cheak. I get it now. But how hard that is!

    But in the next moment there, you have a choice, be strong. Surrender. And see the strength in weakness. Sit in that cloud of unknowing and see that there that you know something after all.

  10. santitafarella says:

    MilesFan420:

    Again, I like your use of surrender in your second post here. Turning the other cheek intellectually might mean to keep open and vulnerable to the arguments of others, and in your vulnerability in dialogue the other person might also open up and be more honest in the way that they argue.

    I do see, however, how the bracing cold air of reality can lead someone to say, “There’s too much despair in a world of Holocausts. I won’t deny that the human situation appears bleak, but I’ve chosen to leap, in faith, to belief in a transcendent power.” That’s Niebuhr’s move. No denial. A full facing of reality. But also a hope that, in the face of all this despair and chaos, the universe is still somehow a cosmos and has some transcendent and ultimate meaning.

    I’m sympathetic to this theistic move, and I’m sympathetic to the atheist who will not make it, and this is why I’m an agnostic.

    Like you, I’m not terribly patient with the rationalist move (the theist who denies obvious things by rationalizing them away, or the atheist who denies the despair that comes from the rejection of transcendence by rationalizing it away). Theist and atheist rationalizations strike me as a rejection of truth in the name of protecting a rigidly held dogma. It is a refusal to grow up. The truth is that we appear to be fucked, but that’s not the end of thinking about it.

    —Santi

    —Santi

  11. mp.uppal says:

    I agree with aunty Dawkins that aesthetic endeavours like poetry,literature,writing and other art forms sustain the intellectual with integrity in an era of intolerable lies,distortions and mind boggling concotions and unabashed corruption as we face in the Indian system today.People high or low practice irrationality with such impunity that there is always a bitter taste in the mouth after the so called interactions.One is left with frustrating disgust in the face of white lies which even a dude can see through.They are thick skinned human leeches, reactive weaklings and unstable egoists who leave us agonising at their animalism and rejoice at our expense.Genuiness and integrity they loathe because it pokes them out of their stupor.I keep my sanity alive by agreeing with Albert Camus that in this aburd world you can find some meaning through your own decisions and interpretations.

  12. santitafarella says:

    MP.Uppal:

    I like your Camus observation. Based on your comment, you might like this old Twilight Zone episode:

    https://santitafarella.wordpress.com/2010/05/28/existential-flungness-in-a-twilight-zone-episode/

    —Santi

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