Monday, January 3, 2011

Context for Choice

When Christians and unreligious people talk about Christianity, the topic that comes up most is freedom of choice. For me, as I wondered which church to join, and whether I should join at all, this was my central question – will I still have control over my own destiny? We have to think about freedom of choice, first, because it’s the defining characteristic of a human being. God gave us free will because He wants us to choose to be with Him – He does not compel our love, and is willing to allow us to reject Him. So often when something tragic happens, we ask “Why did God allow this to happen?” If God is all-powerful, and is all good, which He is, shouldn’t he be preventing us from having accidents, from getting attacked by criminals? The answer to this conundrum, hard as it is to accept, is that to stop all these bad things from happening, God would have to negate our free will, which would make us something that we are not – and He loves just as we are, and He wants us to love Him, as we are.

Secondly, we have to think about freedom of choice because it’s also the defining characteristic of an American – we love our freedom of choice both as regards religion (or non-religion as the case may be) and as regards our economic choices. Dutch sociologist Geert Herstede surveyed attitudes of people in countries across the world, finding Americans to be the most individualistic of all. (Great Britain and Australia were close behind as the rankings are available here.)

As Christians in America, we have to think about freedom of choice because it’s what most people have on their minds when they think about religion – whether they’re going to visit or avoid, respect or resist, love or withdraw. America is unique among industrial countries in that we both have a long tradition of religious freedom, and more people take advantage of the opportunity to choose a religion than other developed countries. In Western Europe and Japan, the favorite choice about religion is a non-choice – general disinterest. Here, however, 30 to 40 percent of the population still attends a weekly worship service. Researchers Robert Putnam and David Campbell in their recent book, American Grace, analyzed attitude surveys going back several decades and found that there has been quite a growth in Americans who claim “no religion” or “spiritual but not religious” in surveys since 1990, however, it would take a couple of centuries before the overall population became as secularized as Great Britain’s, where only 5-8 percent are regular service-goers. In our society of choosers, there is more interest in God, but people still care a great deal whether they are going to be controlled and judged, and how much freedom they will have to make choices.

As Christians, we sometimes get rather defensive about choice, looking at the church as a place to withdraw in our world of too many choices. Some of us like choose a church based on where we can be with other parents who are as strict with their children as we are, protecting them from immorality in television, teen magazines and the Internet. We expect the church to restrict our choices to protect us from a hostile outside world.

If, as I said, freedom of choice is what makes us human and what makes us American, it’s no surprise that unaffiliated people make an immediate U-turn when we talk about Christianity. They see it as a negation of choice, a place where they will not be allowed to be human or American. In similar manner to how we view the church as a fortress, they get very defensive about keeping the religious controllers out of their lives.
How many of us has had a conversation about our faith only to discover that we are having two conversations at once? We talk about Jesus Christ and the Incarnation and the Resurrection, and our friend is asking whether we dictate how members can vote in public elections, whether we let members watch the movies they want to see, and whether we send homosexual teenagers to special camps to “turn” them heterosexual. Every time I have this conversation, I end up saying “I don’t know” a whole lot because it’s so unrelated to what I usually think about.

Obviously there’s some disconnect between what we think people need to hear and what they care about when it comes to religion. We talk about how Jesus Christ saves us and improves our lives, and they defend their rights and try to keep all the nastiest elements of Christianity out of their lives, suspiciously wondering if all the nice stuff we say about Jesus is the sales pitch we use to trap them.

Choice then, is a specific topic that needs attention right at the beginning. We need to make clear that Christianity isn’t about dictating right choices to its followers; rather it provides the context for our many choices, and it tells us why the choices are important. Rarely do we get the right answer to a question in short form from Scripture or theology, but we do learn why we have to try as hard as we can to make the right choice.

The reason that our choices are important is simple – Jesus Christ has offered us the opportunity to dwell in heaven with Him. And, we hope, people also want to be in heaven with Him. Heaven was closed to us because of the separation between God and man caused by sin, and Jesus re-opened that path through Himself by becoming Man. By living as we lived, dying as we died, and being resurrected as we ought to be resurrected, He became one with us and gave us the opportunity to become one with Him, both by believing and following Him as a person, and by following His teachings.

Our choices, then, become the moment when we decide whether we want to take that opportunity. We aren’t Christians because Jesus provides the nicest moral and ethical code out of a group of equal world religions and philosophies, rather, Jesus provides our opportunity to be joined with God and live with Him for all eternity.

Christianity also provides us with a framework for our choices. The New Testament teaches us about eternal justice that will come in the age to come, which isn’t just an incentive for us to be good, but these teachings are there as a curb on our perverse human justice, which encourage us to requite injustice with misery, hurting those who hurt the weak.

The New Testament also teaches us that every person bears the image of God, which compels us to serve those who have nothing to do with us. We are commanded to love our enemies. We cannot curse at criminals. This is not because we’ve decided it’s rude, but because Jesus commands it. This choice is important because when we speak to them, we speak to God. When we decide how to treat those who hate us, it is the very same choice over whether we want to be joined to God in heaven.

It is true that becoming a Christian does mean giving up some choices, or at least some choices are strongly discouraged. If I told my wife to have an abortion, or if I divorced her, I would hear about this at church. I probably wouldn’t be allowed to go to Holy Communion for quite a while. Holy Communion is how we can be joined to God while we are here on Earth, and I would have to go through a lengthy process of repentance before I’d be able to get my full membership back at church. However, most of the choices we make in our lives aren’t so black and white as these – they aren’t such obvious moral issues, and Christianity provides us with the encouragement to take on these challenges and the framework to make good ones.

We also have disciplines within Christianity, which at first seem like restrictions upon our choices, which are there to help us get on the right path. The belief that we can be joined to God is not a change of opinion that we have in our minds all of a sudden, rather, it is a truth that has to be lived over a long period of time. We take on disciplines, such as prayer and fasting to humble our minds, souls and bodies so that we can accept these truths fully, and we take on these disciplines willingly. An interesting finding in another study by Sheena Iyengar cited in her book The Art of Choosing is that people in strict religions are actually happier than those in liberal ones. She interviewed 600 people from nine different religions, which she categorized as fundamentalist (Calvinism, Islam and Orthodox Judaism) conservative (Catholicism, Lutheranism, Methodism and Conservative Judaism) and liberal (Unitarianism and Reform Judaism). She had expected people whose choices were restricted to be unhappy because they couldn’t experience as much, but was surprised to find the opposite was true. “The presence of so many rules didn’t debilitate people; instead it seemed to empower them. Many of their choices were taken away, and yet they experienced a sense of control over their lives.” (Sheena Iyengar, The Art of Choosing, New York: Twelve, 2010, p. 28) Iyengar goes on to describe her parents’ arranged marriage. If the restriction is accepted willingly, she argues, provides meaningful structure in the person’s life.

The Church, then, is the place where choices can be made meaningful, and this is what we can offer to modern humanity, awash in choices and living in a world where communications is losing its sense of context. Since the advent of television, each new medium that’s become available has been more immediate, more interactive, and more fragmentary than the previous one. We can communicate with anyone we want, which is a good thing, but as friends forward us pieces of wisdom, humor and news, it becomes more and more difficult to figure out who is speaking and why. With books, we could watch the tone and style of the author and editor as we turned the page to figure out their purpose, but Facebook, Twitter and its cadre of services are making knowledge, place and voice into relative concepts, negating what we call “context.”

In the Church, we can provide that context, that structure back into people’s lives, both with contemplative services that allow the soul to open rather than to bombard it, where truth is provided rather than opinions, and where our freedom of choice is not just allowed, but fulfilled, where choices are made meaningful. Christianity is the fulfillment of freedom of choice, and this is the fuller experience that we most need to show that we can provide to those who don’t see the use for religion.

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