Friday 22 May 2015

Hard hearts and literalism in Christianity - using Christianity as a transcendental justification for hatred


Edited from Saving the Appearances by Owen Barfield (1965) - the chapter "Religion":

The needful virtue is that which combats the besetting sin. And the besetting sin today is the sin of literalness...

The relation between the mind and the heart of Man is a delicate mystery, and hardness is catching. 

There is a connection, at some level - however deep, between literalness and hardness of heart.


The above quotes hit me with the power of insight - 'literalism' is indeed our besetting sin; and this comes out most starkly in disputes; and Christians are just as prone to it as are the majority secular culture. And literalism does often lead to hard hearts - indeed that is how it can usually be noticed - by the hard, brittle, cold tone which enters discourse.

In mainstream secular culture, literalism is seen in the legalism, the microscopic analysis of sentences and individual words, which prevails in modern bureaucracies (which means in most of modern life - since the interlinked bureaucracies - the system - is almost everywhere).

And in Christianity literalism is also a besetting sin - which can be observed in all denominations - although some are worse, in this respect, than others. It is my impression that literalism is what attracts some people to Christianity, and retains them in it.


The problem is that literalism justifies itself, by dichotomizing Christian discourse as all or nothing, and dividing the faithful from the heretics on clear technical grounds: either either people fully implement every line of scripture (when quoted line-by-line) or people have rejected the Bible; either people fully live by the rule-book or people are making it up as they go along; either everyone fully submits to church authority; either people adhere to traditional practices and ritual in every respect or else they have rejected it; either people are theologically orthodox or they are heretics or apostates.

In practice, individuals have their own favourite tests - the response to a particular passage of scripture, attitude to contraception or doctrine. In modern culture-wars (Christians versus secular mainstream) litmus test issues include abortion, and the ordination (or pastorate, or full membership) of women and sexual-revolutionaries. Within Christianity the tests are much more numerous- and generally reduce to the authority of authorities - the primacy of church leadership, scripture, traditions etc.


My point is that these disputes have a horrible way of playing into the enemy's hands; and the way this often works is by literalism - both sides end-up using literalist arguments, and both sides have their hearts hardened and chilled by the process. Those with the hardest hearts come to the fore, take charge and and take-over the disputes, and ensure that - from a Christian perspective - there are no winners but only losers. 

What I mean is that the right side - the side which holds the correct views - ends-up as being corrupted - so they come to hold the right opinions for the wrong reasons - and thereby the right opinions become invalidated and irrelevant.

Because in Christianity, having the right beliefs for the wrong reasons means having the wrong beliefs: the reasons are a non-optional part of the right beliefs.


It should be obvious, and it certainly is true, that a persona can sincerely hold all the correct beliefs, and do all the prescribed actions - every single one of them, and obey all the legitimate church authorities to the letter - and not be a Christian because they have hard hearts.

In other words because they lack love - also termed 'charity' and agape.


This hard-hearted lovelessness seems to be terribly common among strident self-identified Christians on the Christian blogosphere and even more so on the secular Right Wing/ Reactosphere. 

Among Christians, the inference is that these are people who have become Christian to provide a transcendental excuse to indulge in hatred.

In other words, a literalistic definition and interpretation of Christianity is being used to justify an attitude which is consistently and hypocritically directed at teh expression of hatred.

This is sometimes called Phariseeism - after the revealed attitude of Jesus's enemies among the Jewish priesthood - but it remains extremely common (albeit less rigorous, and not always focused on 'the law).


This kind of thing is very obvious to non-Christians, and 'hypocrisy' by this definition is one of the legitimate criticisms of the Christian churches throughout history.
Because, hypocrisy is properly a matter of motivation - the prime hypocrisy is to be motivated by hatred and pride in the name of a religion that regards love as the primary and always necessary virtue. 

We are almost all of us prone to this kind of hypocrisy, and it is understandable how debates and arguments easily degenerate in this way.  But while it can be explained, there is no sufficient excuse for it - and it is very, very dangerous (I mean morally hazardous) to seek to excuse hate-motivated discourse on the grounds of necessity, on the grounds of the greater good.

When we detect it in ourselves, we must repent and cease; when we detect hate-motivation in others we must be careful not to treat them as mentors, teachers, authorities, or good interpreters - no matter how learned or rhetorically skilful they may be, no matter how correct in their expressed beliefs practices and obedience.

Such hypocrites (by the above definition) are extremely dangerous if given power as Christian leaders - dangerous to those under their authority, and damaging to the faith itself; and very difficult to get rid of once in place because it is their motivation which is at fault, rather than their actions - which are always correct and orthodox.


So Christians must guard against hate-driven-pseudo-Christians - who are often the most orthodox and obedient in their behaviour; and must recall that love comes above all: Love of God and Neighbour covers, compensates-for, is far more important than total literalistic correctness.

In other people, but also more importantly in ourselves. We must guard against hardening of our hearts.

And if our hearts are hardening and we become aware of this, then there can be no excuse or compensation - the immediate priority must be to restore warmth to the heart (or to allow warmth to re-emerge, to become warmed); and the antidote for hardness is love.



Anonymous said...

The way I see it, the opening of the 'heart', which is really a change in one's state of mind, is the entire content or purpose of religion. The particular beliefs are not important except possibly where they are 'tuned' to a particular age and culture. But this can be problematic for subsequent generations who no longer sympathise with all the beliefs.

Joel said...

Unfortunately, there are already branches of Christianity without very much doctrinal integrity. They seem to inevitably and quickly be drawn into Phariseeism of whatever the non-Christian cultural majority viewpoint is.

Phariseeism is deep problem within the human heart, but less attachment to doctrine or scripture has been tried many times, and the results are not pretty.

There are solutions. Emphasize the narratives in sermons, not isolated chunks of scripture. Retell the stories. Don't talk about the meaning of the resurrection, tell the story of the resurrection, the death, the appearances.

The doctrine you see in a thriving church is an expression of having inhaled the first-century worldview, not a construct. Stanley Hauerwas, I think, is the Christian theologian most in touch with the problem, and well worth a read if you are not already familiar with him.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Anon - My point is a bit different - I am not saying that beliefs are not important; I am saying that having the right beliefs is irrelevant if the heart is hard.

So, Christians should insist in a good (open, warm) heart as absolutely essential and non-negotiable in those with responsibility and influence.

Given that there are not many perfect humans around; this means that it will almost always be necessary to allow some flexibility over beliefs, practices, and behaviours.

So, what I am recommending is almost exactly the opposite of what usually happens in modern bureaucracies, and indeed in many church situations throughout history.

A fixation on what Fr Seraphim Rose called ultra-correctness rapidly end by destroying Christianity and leaving an evil, hypocritical fake.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Joel - Good advice.

My post was provoked by the dismay at reading blog comments around the reactionary/ trad Christian internet from self-righteous haters (from many Christian denominations) who parade an ultra-orthodoxy which seems to function primarily as an excuse to condemn anyone they wish to condemn (including much better Christians than themselves - which is not saying much - since in reality they are not Christians at all).

I think Christians need to be strict about the secular litmus test issues, especially relating to the sexual revolution, but detailed aspects of theology and doctrine and lifestyle cannot, and probably should not, be so strictly enforced. The venom which is directed by some Christians against others for such differences is appalling to me.

(Leaving aside Mormons); there is a gleeful viciousness in the way that mainstream Christians refer to some self-identified Christians in smaller or newer churches as 'cults', and utterly reject their status as Christians. I regard this attitude as self-refuting.

August said...

I see this argument, and I think about it, but I don't think it applies to me. I don't hate, but I am an old brother- I want the wayward ones to straighten up and learn the right way to behave. I want them to avoid hell rather than to go to hell.

What passes for love these days is incipient.

Anonymous said...


Yes, I got your point and apologies for switching course slightly. I think I'm responding to the way that you and most religionists seem to think about beliefs: that they can be adopted by an act of will. For me, merely trying to defend or verbally repeat some position in public doesn't make it a true belief: it has to be a living perception (when grokked) or at least form part of a prevailing rational explanation. I don't get to choose, unless I'm fooling myself.

OTOH, I think some ideas do gain a special significance and meaning to some people -- ideas which steer them towards the point where they can discover and open their hearts.

For example, C.S. Lewis's memory of his brother's garden scene in a biscuit tin.

I guess this is how religions are born; when such personal ideas are shared with others by some dynamic or charismatic individual. Yet aren't the ideas selected, or intended, if you like, for the original recipient alone?

That is, each mind vaguely remembers its early bliss, free of fear and any concept of self. It subsequently manifests a voice or advocate for returning to that open and loving state.

But the precise ideas needed relate to the individual concerned. Pre-packaged beliefs aren't reliable.

Arakawa said...


There is a crucial difference when you apply that argument to straightening someone out in their behaviour vs straightening someone out in their doctrines.

If you are straightening someone out in their behaviours and pointing out their sins, you will likely temper your approach because even a cursory examination of conscience will reveal your own behaviour to be far from perfect. Perhaps you are not guilty of the exact same sin as the wayward ones, but of something else that is equally sobering.

If you are straightening someone out in the orthodoxy of their doctrines, it is very easy to delude yourself that you are 100.0% free of any doctrinal deviation without creative interpretation whatsoever, not adding the least bit of personal beliefs or experience, whence your voice is the infallible voice of the Church. Fallen humanity being what it is, this has a coarsening effect on one's heart and behaviour. In fact one is more likely to have heard 12 different people proclaiming 12 approximately plausible interpretations of the orthodox doctrine, and then have picked whichever one wants to believe. Acknowledging this does not prevent denunciation of actual destructive beliefs... but it would throw cold water on most people's motivation for engaging in minute heresy-hunting.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Ara - Weird synchronicity - I have *just* checked out your blog for the first time in a while and commented...

August said...

I don't think most people can even understand doctrine. I have tried to have conversations about it- not denouncing people, mind you, but just talking about something I found in my readings- and people's eyes usually glaze over and they say it doesn't matter.
Somehow, I imagine that if our ancestors had various fights about it, then it did matter.

The real disrespect is not the man who says you are a heretic.

Gabe Ruth said...

Good post, it's worth mentioning that another way of thinking about this bent towards literalness is that people come into the grip of an ideology. The ideology gives them all the answers, permitting no deviation, ignoring particular situations and circumstances. It can be a very comforting, confident-feeling state, which explains its prevalence.

There is much that has been written about this human tendency, Eric Voegelin in particular is helpful in discerning the markers of an ideologue.