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  • Writer's pictureJoel Elliott Mooneyhan

To the Cynic, Part One

I confess that it is the cynic whose objections tend to make me roll my eyes the most; in writing this, I’ve had to keep on guard against my own reflexive sarcasm when I encounter these objections. Having said that, the objections I hear most commonly from cynics aren’t without merit. They are usually rooted in one of three broad subjects: the moral and ethical failures of the Church throughout history, the nature of inter- and intra-religious conflict, and the “old-fashioned” nature of Christian values. Over the next few days, I’ll dive into each of these. We’ll start with the long history of failures in the Church.

Religious faith in general has been the face of some pretty awful stuff throughout history. So-called-Christian and non-Christian alike, religious fanaticism has driven violence, oppression, and abuse of people for as long as people have been writing things down. You can point out the Crusades, the Salem witch trials, the Inquisition— major historical events that reflect poorly on the Church. These are to not even mention the way the Bible has been used to justify things like slavery, oppression of minorities, subjugation of women, and on and on and on.

I understand that the Church has failed throughout history. I would argue that this is the human element of the Church, and not Christianity itself. Let me explain.

Christianity is rooted first and foremost in the story of Jesus of Nazareth. Whether you believe in the historicity of Jesus or simply believe it’s a good story (I’ll tackle that later,) the story of Jesus and the message that comes out of those pages is one of grace, selflessness, and sacrifice, embodied not least by his dying on the cross and praying for his enemies. You’ll see that I will revisit this point quite a bit over this series. The message of Jesus is not one of hatred, oppression, or bigotry.

But let’s get to the Church part. The Church is made up of people, and when people get involved, things get dicey. This can happen with any human institution, it is not specific to the Church. Should the Church do better? Ideally, yes. We who believe in Christ should endeavor to live in a way that exemplifies his teachings, from the way we each live day to day, to the way our institutions function.

But let’s be fair. The Church has been at the forefront of some pretty meaningful social changes. There is a strong historical case to be made that the way early Christians broke precedent with regard to the treatment of women paved the way for women to have places in society that they wouldn’t have had as soon as they did. Christianity owes itself in large part to the testimony and influence of women, from the very start. Women are the first witnesses to the resurrection of Christ, women leaders are held in high esteem, women are encouraged to learn alongside men, all in a time when to be a woman meant that you would have no voice whatsoever.

Slavery? You can thank the Church for abolishing that. The abolition movement was fueled and funded and spearheaded predominantly by Christian men and women. Their mandate came from the belief that all of humanity bears the image of God, that all people are of worth and dignity simply be being human. Biblical “mandates” for owning slaves are so largely taken out of context that it’s laughable, especially when weighed against one over-arching theme of the entire Scriptural narrative: God sets slaves free. You see it from the beginning in Exodus all the way to the end in the teachings of Christ and the writings of Paul. Were it not for Christian men and women reading and studying Scripture seriously and radically evangelizing for the cause of freedom, the abolition movement might not have gotten going with near the momentum that it did, if even at all.

Civil rights? Another movement that owes itself to Christian men and women. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a pastor, for goodness’ sake. In his “I Have a Dream” speech, he quotes the book of Amos: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

In fact, if you believe in justice at all—that there is a thing called justice and that we should all work for it, then you need to consider where it comes from. I’ll tell you where it doesn’t come from: it doesn’t come from a worldview that says we are all biological puppets engaged in a battle for the survival of the fittest. It doesn’t come from a worldview that believes we are simply the result of random biological and sociological influences. Justice, framed in such worldviews, is antithetical to the point of ridiculousness.

If you believe that it is good to treat others with dignity and respect, for no other reason than it’s the right thing to do? That didn’t come from Darwin.

While we’re on the topic, let’s go ahead and balance the scales a little more. Let’s take the Crusades, the Inquisition, and witch trials. Religious fervor gone amuck. Truly awful. Now let’s see where institutionalized atheism gets us.

Mao’s Great Leap Forward. Stalin’s Reign of Terror. The current state of North Korea. Nazi Germany. The military philosophies of Europe leading to World War 1. In each of these cases, what you have is a society that attempts to removed any sort of theism from the picture, any sort of objective standard, any reference to a being who instills dignity into people simply because they exist. In its place are the powerful, who will do what they can to stay in power, and who only give purpose to those who can produce.

I have nothing against Charles Darwin—but man, did a lot of people take the wrong idea from him.

Let’s get a little more current: in Western First World society, the most graceless and the least forgiving people are not the religious, but the hyper-secular. Christianity tells a story that places grace, mercy, and forgiveness at the center—criminal dying beside a Savior and receiving redemption. The story our current culture tells is one of pettiness, punishment, and grudges. God help you if ever you’ve said or done anything even remotely objectionable; the gods of public opinion will have your blood.

Look. I’m not saying that the Church hasn’t failed a lot of the time. I’m not saying that Christianity hasn’t been used to justify a lot of evil in the world. It’s a fair point.

But it’s also fair to look at the alternative and then look at how they hang in the balance. We don’t have to look very far back in history to see what happens when cultures attempt to completely remove the concept of God out of their psyche. And the tolls of death and injustice and abuse from institutionalized godlessness surpass the same from the Church many times over.

And its fair to look at the good that the Church has done when no one else has stepped up. So many good and noble things have come from people who took seriously the teachings of Christ to love one’s neighbor and one’s enemy, to pray for those who honor you and for those who persecute you, to do good for those who have no social currency to help you with.

I’ll be the first to admit that the Church has its failings. But where the cynical objections fall short is where they fail to turn their microscope on themselves and to acknowledge that at her worst, the Church still cannot hold a candle to the horrors of institutional atheism, and that at her best, the Church is unparalleled in the way in guiding the better angels of our nature.

There’s more to say, and I’ll get to it soon. The next question I’ll address to the Cynic surrounds religious violence. If you are a Christian who has had to engage in these questions, hopefully this has been helpful; if you’re someone who has held or who holds these objections to the Christian faith, then hopefully you’ve found this thought-provoking.

Whichever the case, I hope it has resonated. Until the next time, y’all take care and be good to one another.

In my time in various forms of ministry, I’ve learned that the common objections to the Christian faith can be put into one of three categories: objections from cynics, objections from skeptics, and objections from people who are wounded. Open Letters is an ongoing series addressing the most common arguments I have encountered from each of these perspectives.

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