Like a child

You may have heard Christians heaping praise on the faith of little children. I’ve sometimes seen it with reference to this passage from Matthew 18:1-6 (ESV),

At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

“Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.”

Jesus leaves it somewhat ambiguous in his answer what the key feature of children is that makes them the greatest in heaven: is it their low status, or their belief in him?

Another passage often cited is Luke 18:15-17 (ESV):

Now they were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them. And when the disciples saw it, they rebuked them. But Jesus called them to him, saying, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”

Again, there’s some ambiguity — this is also invoked to justify infant baptism. But these two passages are often combined to tell adults that they should be trusting, unquestioning, even naive in their faith in Christian teachings.

So it was these two passages I thought of when I saw this ad on a blog I was reading. (Sorry for the lower image quality, it’s a screenshot from my phone.) It’s actually a GIF with a few different children’s pictures, but this is the only frame with the second line of text.

Children believe in miracles.
What if we all did?
Open hearts. Open minds. Open doors.
The people of the United Methodist Church

Methodists aren’t who I think of when I think of fundamentalist Christianity. The Methodists I know are pretty mainstream, even liberal. That motto, “Open hearts. Open minds. Open doors,” sure suggests that they are not the sort of Christians I usually discuss here.

And if you visit the website, the overall message is pretty solid, even I have to admit. They’re talking about welcoming a diverse congregation and helping those in need. Celebrating diversity and promoting charity are values I share. But I don’t hold those values because children do; I value those things because I’ve thought about it and decided they are good ideas.

The fact is, the emphasis on “childlike faith” is troubling no matter who advocates it. The ad text tells us, “Children believe in miracles.” Well, okay, but children also believe there’s a monster under their bed, that you have no idea they ate those cookies despite the crumbs all over their face, and that water poured from a short, wide glass into a taller, thinner glass becomes more water somehow. Kids are great, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t think we should necessarily look to them as a group to figure out what’s true. They’re very much still learning how to process the world using evidence and reason.

Moreover, children don’t believe in [biblical] miracles ex nihilo. They believe in them because you told them they really happened, and they trusted you. It seems a bit backwards to glorify that belief, and to use it to justify your own. Maybe don’t teach children to believe things you think are false, eh?

This ad itself isn’t a big deal, and the website it’s promoting has a heartwarming message. But I think it’s a good illustration of how even warm-and-fuzzy liberal denominations of Christianity can contain and promote harmful memes. I’d be glad if every fundamentalist, literalist, young-Earth creationist switched denominations … but as long as we’re “rethinking church,” I think we can rethink a bit more.

Mysterious ways

Here’s another old favorite. This post was originally published on this blog in March 2010.

Bonifacio Bembo [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsBelievers often attribute personal good fortune to the deity or deities they worship, or otherwise proclaim the influence of their god/s on their lives and on the world. This leaves nonbelievers with a lot of pretty tough questions. Why does your god care so much about the results of that football game? Why are you thanking your (supposedly benevolent) god for saving those three people from the crash, while he apparently let the other 97 die? Why are you so eager to thank your (supposedly omnipotent) god for what you think of as good things, but don’t express anger at your god for all the evil and suffering in the world?

What I often hear, in response to this type of question, is something like, “God works in mysterious ways.” In other words, we can’t possibly be expected to understand the intentions and the plans of a superior being that operates on a higher plane of existence. God surely has his reasons, which are beyond our mere mortal comprehension.

Yet, the rest of the time, these same people seem pretty clear on exactly what God wants and why. Pray in this certain way, eat in this certain way, love in this certain way, hate in this certain way. Do good things and get eternal reward, or do bad things and get eternal punishment. For a mysterious, incomprehensible being, this God character sure seems to have a lot of explicit and well-known rules about what constitutes good or bad behavior! (You might even say, in some cases, that those rules are “set in stone.”)

So which is it? Are God’s ways too mysterious for humans to understand? Then stop making claims about how God wants us to behave. You couldn’t possibly know what God thinks, or wants, or values. In fact, if God is beyond our comprehension, theistic religions should be asserting nothing as dogma or doctrine, aside from maybe God’s existence — no attributes of God whatsoever. There’s no basis from which to draw any of it. Belief in any specifics about God just amounts to completely blind faith in a handful of completely arbitrary ideas.

Or are God’s ways understandable after all to us puny humans? Perhaps even laid out explicitly in some holy text or other? In that case, I’d really like to finally get some answers to these tough questions. I’m tired of hearing theists use the “mysterious ways” excuse to dodge fair and legitimate inquiries about the beliefs they hold to be true.