Reader Request Week 2010 #1: Christianity and Me
All right, let’s get started with this year’s Reader Request Week, with a question from Adam, who asks:
I’ve been wondering what your beliefs are pertaining to God, the supernatural, etc.
From a few passages in “Old Man’s War” (which I love by the way… the whole series rocks!), some of the religious bits in “The Android’s Dream,” and some of your old movie reviews from the Old “Official Playstation Magazine” (i.e. the good one) I get the impression that you have more than a passing familiarity with Christianity. So I’m just wondering what your stance is and what your upbringing was because I’m nosy and curious.
Well, let’s see. I was baptized as a baby and when I was very young — that is, kindergarten age — I attended Sunday school because at the time I was living with an aunt who was religious; I still remember the copy of the Bible she gave me, and also my favorite Bible story, which was the one about Samson and Delilah. I liked it because it was full of action and adventure, and I remember imagining it as lots of Philistines lurking about, waiting to leap out at Samson whenever he was bound by thongs, or whatever. I also remember thinking that Samson must not have been very smart, because he kept telling Delilah ways to weaken him, and then didn’t make the connection when she would tie him up and then suddenly pow, Philistines everywhere. After the first couple of times, you would think he would have figured it out. But clearly when it came to Delilah, it wasn’t his brain Samson was thinking with.
Having said that, however, I don’t recall ever having a particularly strong religious impulse, and by the time I was eight years old I was sufficiently unconvinced of the existence of God that I decided not to join the Cub Scouts because the Boy Scout oath had mention of God in it, and I couldn’t in good conscience pledge my duty to someone I didn’t think existed. Around the same time I also stopped reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, because I learned I didn’t have to, thank you Jehovah’s Witnesses, and again I wasn’t down with the whole God thing (I still don’t recite the Pledge of Allegiance, but now it’s for other reasons as well, among them I think it’s poorly written for its purpose).
I don’t pretend that my thinking on the matter of God, religion and specifically Christianity was particularly complex when I was eight, but in the intervening thirty-two years I’ve had some opportunity to think about each in some detail, and all through that time I’ve been pretty consistent regarding belief. In a nutshell, I’m an agnostic, not of the “I’m waffling and don’t want to have to choose” sort, but of the “I don’t believe in the existence of God but there’s no way to know for certain, so as a matter of intellectual honesty I have to call myself agnostic” stripe. As regards Jesus, as I’ve noted here before I don’t personally doubt that Jesus existed, but as a natural extension of my agnosticism I don’t believe he was in any way divine. As regards religion, I don’t follow any in particular and as a general thought I tend to believe that religions often have admirable moral and philosophical goals but their essential qualities are contingent on the humans in them, and you know how humans are. This makes religions much like any other large organization involving humans.
I am not Christian, never have been, and at this point doubt I will be between now and death (and as a practical matter, also doubt that I will regret such a choice after my death, since I find it highly unlikely I’ll have means to be cognizant after that point). However, this doesn’t mean that I am ignorant of Christianity, either historically or the myriad ways it exhibits itself in the world today. I’ve read the Bible a number of times, of course, and have also read the writings of a number of religious writers from the time of early Christianity forward, and try to keep current with what’s going on in culture as it involves Christianity. Part of this is the side effect of having what’s known as a “good education” — thank you Webb School of California and the University of Chicago — but part of this is my own recognition that to understand other people, you want to understand what they believe. It’s also recognition that while I’m agnostic, the vast majority of my fellow citizens here in the US are at least nominally religious and of those who are, the vast majority are at least nominally Christian. It’s nice to be able to speak the language of the majority.
When people learn that I am agnostic, a fair number of them assume that I am antagonistic to the idea of religion, the religious impulse, or Christianity. I’m not. I know too many Christians and other religious folk who I love as people, respect as thinkers and admire as moral actors to insult them by dismissing such a foundational aspect of who they are. Nor am I presumptuous enough to assume that their religious beliefs do not inform the philosophical and moral choices they make. Finally, I know enough people whose lives I believe were saved — small “s” there — by putting religion (and in most cases Christianity specifically) into them that simply as a practical matter even if I thought there was something wrong with religion or Christianity in a general sense, I would be happy those people had it in their lives for their own sake.
Religion requires commitment and understanding of what you believe, however, and specifically as regards Christianity, I expect a lot of people who follow that path, and I get angry with those people who purport to be Christian and yet as far as I can see don’t seem to understand much about Christ. I’ve summed this up before by noting that I think Christianity is a fine religion and I wish more Christians practiced it. That sentiment is something to which I continue to hold. If you say you are Christian, and you make that aspect of your life part of your public persona, then I feel just fine pointing out when and where I feel you are failing Christ, the beliefs He taught and His expectations of those who follow Him. Moreover, I feel just fine lecturing Christians about Christ, since I know rather a lot about Him and His teachings; I’ve found in my experience a really excellent way to piss off one of these alleged Christians is make it obvious to him that you know your Bible back and forth and better than he does.
I expect Christianity and the religious impulse in general to continue into the future, which is why I don’t shy away from putting either and both into my books. Moreover, I think it’s worth it to do so with some complexity. There is a group called the “Colonial Mennonites” in The Last Colony not just because they provided me with a convenient excuse to ship non-advanced farm equipment to the Roanoke colony, but also because I wanted to show a group of Christians positively affecting the world around them and also living up to the religious and moral principals they set for themselves. I think the scene in which I have Hiram Yoder confronted by the “werewolves” works — to the extent it does work — because Yoder is called upon to live his beliefs in the most difficult circumstances imaginable. His actions, informed by his love of Christ, are powerful. At the very least, they were meant to be.
This doesn’t necessarily mean I feel that I have to show religion or the religious impulse in a uniformly positive or uncritical way in my work — please see The God Engines for confirmation — but I don’t think it’s a bad thing to do so, either, when it’s appropriate for the book or story. This is a reflection of my own belief that in the real world, the religious impulse can show itself in as many ways as there are people who have those impulses as part of their lives. God (or the gods) may or may not be a reflection of who we are as humans, but how we choose to acknowledge them and act up on that faith most certainly is. And again: You know how people are.
So that’s where I am with religion, Christianity and me.