Sunday, December 7, 2008

Case study: falling away from the faith

While visiting a Catholic site I've not read for a while, I noticed a comment by someone who wonders why some of the most angry and atheist apologists and attackers of Christianity and the Church are "former evangelicals." The answer to this is somewhat straightforward, so I'll make it a quick case study.

Even when one is a Christian, the farther away that you are in your faith from making God the center of it all, the more you are at risk of losing your perspective, and then your faith. So if you think of faith as being a series of concentric circles, the innermost circle being God himself, if you are in a faith that is in a close circle to God, where your focus is always kept on him, it tends to be a good indicator of future stability of mind. This is true, obviously, if one is Christian, Muslim or Jewish. The more that you view your faith as "being all about God" and not yourself, the better you yourself will actually grow in spirit and in love of human life.

Now, say what you will about the problems of the "hierarchy" of those big bad institutional churches, but there is an advantage to enforced humility. Humans tend to puff themselves up pretty big and fast when they are on their own. This is one reason it is not such a bad thing to belong to a large institutional faith, such as being Catholic, and I also include the highly humble and egalitarian faith of Islam (witness three million people on Haj even as we speak, side by side, rich and poor, all men wearing two white cloths as their clothing). Many hajis (people who have gone on haj) say that remembering that it is all about God and his mercy, and all being equal in his eyes, is the highlight personal illumination of haj. The Catholic Mass is, likewise, a liturgy that is focused entirely on God, as revealed through Jesus Christ, and in the prophets and forefathers and mothers.

Likewise, the institutional churches of the children of the Reformation, such as the various sects, called denominations, of Protestantism, Methodists, Baptists and so forth, also retain this focus on God. Their communal worship within an institutional church helps remind them that it is not all about themselves, but it's all about God, and Jesus Christ, the Savior.

However, when a number of Protestants began to self identify as "Evangelicals," a subtle form of temptation crept in. So long as they remained in the mainstream of the institutionalized denominations, that temptation to increase one's own individual importance, and diminish one's focus on God, is usually kept in check. This is one reason I am a great admirer of Baptists.

But the problem is that many take a worthy objective, to "evangelize" and have done two things. One is that they give themselves a title, merited or not. Suddenly they think of themselves as being "evangelicals," with all due honors and privileges, if you know what I mean. Second, many break away from their denominations and "create their own churches." What exactly is one's "own church?" Whenever a few in the congregation get angry, off they go and "create their own church." Where's God in all this, and God's equal expectations from everyone?

Thus, ironically, when an "evangelical" loses faith for some reason or another, it is not at all surprising that they tumble far and hard, with great anger, often going to the extreme of virulent denial of God himself The reason it is not surprising is that with each step one takes in faith, no matter which faith or denomination you are in, away from God and toward self focus and meeting "your own needs" for "your own church," you are already having one foot in a sticky pit of temptation without even knowing it.

Many people, as an aside, are baffled by the grandeur of the interior of Catholic churches. But one important reason for that is to continue to keep people looking upward toward God, and not mistake that the worship is all about themselves and their "message" "on behalf of God, Jesus Christ or the Holy Spirit." Catholic churches are deliberately designed to appear as two things 1) the sacrificial altar and 2) a glimpse into the sanctuary, which is the gateway to heaven. That sure keeps it focused on God.

When an "evangelical" (or anyone else) starts to subconsciously and then consciously focus on whether or not "his or her church" is "meeting" "his or her needs," you've got a big potential problem of temptation of hubris and the falling away of faith. One has, at that point, already taken a big step away from God, by lowering God in one's own mind and raising one's self up as being the "one who really understands what it is all about." When that evangelical has inch by inch step by step moved farther from God being the center of it all, one day they wake up and feel there is nothing there, and then they lose their faith, they deny, they get angry, and they attack the very people, the remaining faithful, who the evangelical him or herself had "left behind" as being "indoctrinated" or "stupid." It's like running away from home and then denying that a home ever existed. It's exactly like that.

Sometimes you can better understand this drift if you compare it with groups where the drift does not happen, for the most part. Look at Orthodox Jews, for example. You just don't tend to see an Orthodox Jew shake his head and say, "You know, this worship thing really doesn't meet my needs or work for me. I know what God really wants, so I'm going to 'plant' my own synagogue, and we will do in it whatever 'meets our needs.'" Um, you just don't see that. Likewise, look at Muslims. The Sunni and the Shi'a have sometimes bitter disagreement about the spiritual successors to the Prophet (PBUH). But I do not know a single Muslim who would go up the the Grand Mufti and say, "You know, this haj schedule really doesn't work for me and my friends. We are going to start our own haj, but it's going to take place in some month that is not haj." LOL, imagine that. You just would not see it, because all Muslims are proud of the five pillars of their faith, not trying to "edit" them and become "non denominational" in order to "better meet their needs." I also don't know Muslims who run around saying, "You know, parts of the Qur'an really don't work for me, so let's remove those chapters." Sometimes individuals err in the direction of deeply believing but not understanding their own faith, and that is something mainstream Islam is trying to address. But none of them take their eyes off of God above all to "create their own mosque" that "meets their own worship needs."

With every step that one takes from keeping God himself at the very center of one's spiritual and secular life, one is taking one's self farther into an area where one is tempted to think that faith exists in order to "meet your needs" because it is "all about you." That is the shadow, to use a psychological term, of "evangelicals." They feel a great love and vigor of faith, but their unnoticed shadow is that they feel they are interior and individual custodians of the "truth" of their faith, and that is a dangerous slope of inflation and ultimately disappointment, anger, disenfranchising and disbelief.

This, again, is the reason that some are baffled that the Methodist church has an empty cross, with a red cloth draped to signify that Christ has risen, while Catholics have the crucifixion cross, with the corpus of Christ. The people who are baffled think that Catholics are "stuck" on the gory figure of Christ, and not focused on his having resurrected and "left the cross." But to quote St. Paul it is about him, Christ and him crucified. Catholics, even the weak ones, never forget that it is about God through Jesus Christ, and that one must always keep one's gaze on God and on the Savior he sent, that the Savior was crucified and that all must carry one's cross.

Sometimes I worry that my friends the Methodists have a psychology that the Cross is a "completed project." That is one step away from being totally God centric. I'm not bashing, I'm analyzing. Trust me, I grew up among many Methodists and they think they have it figured out, while the Catholic Church has the wrong orientation. Nope. One is never wrong if one is totally focused on God, and Jesus Christ crucified. When one is not "comfortable" with that focus on God and Jesus Christ, crucified, one has to ask, why is it about your "comfort" level, your faith? Again, I'm not criticizing, but I am critiquing, since, after all, I've endured silently decades of being critiqued unjustly, and now I reply.

Again, if one need to understand faith, look at Orthodox Jews. Have they edited their faith in order to be "more comfortable," to eliminate the suffering and anguish in faith history and replace it only with "spreading the good word," and have they people who break away when they quarrel and set up their own "non denominational" "place of worship?" No, because as I've said before, no one comprehends God better than Orthodox scholarly Jews, and it is on God that they keep their focus, where they keep their eyes and ears, and their hearts. People often wonder why God did not charter the Israelites to be "evangelicals," to convert and spread the word. This is exactly why. God understands humans more than you can ever imagine, and he knows that it is hard enough to keep humans faithful and focused on him through the centuries, even, as the Bible demonstrates, a small group of people such were the Israelites. That is part of the miracle, and proof, of the Savior, of Jesus Christ, that humans had reached a point where they can evangelize and still stay focused on God, and not inflate their own personal attributes as "representatives" of God. But see, over time, there is that temptation, and it started in the Reformation.

So that, my anonymous friends and readers, is why we see some who seemed so in love with Jesus Christ that they called themselves "evangelicals," fall so far that they become bitter atheists who are not only against God and denying him, but hating upon the faithful who stay in the fold. Any evangelical or any faithful for that matter who starts to think that spreading God's message as they understand it personally, rather than staying in the institutional church and providing personal witness, is the course that "meets their needs" is already putting their feet on a path that, God forbid, could bring them to crashing into total lack of faith. The Bible explains that if you put your trust in yourself or your fellow human, you will fail. If you put your trust in God, and remain focused on only God, you will not fail. It's as simple as that, really.