Recently, I was considering the reasons people give for rejecting religion, specifically Christianity. A pretty common refrain seems to be that most do not want their actions forbidden arbitrarily just because a council that happened hundreds of years ago decided that God did not want people to act in a certain way. Indeed, if viewed in a purely secular light, the fact that we Christians behave as we do, in conformity to established Christian morality, seems pretty ridiculous. We do what we do because, according to our viewpoint, Christ commanded certain precepts to be obeyed.
But on what basis do we think He commanded it? Because our churches taught it to us, or because it says it in the Bible—but, according to the viewpoint of those who reject Christianity, the councils and the Bible are ordinary human constructions, no greater or more binding than rules in a workplace, perhaps even less.
Strange and Unreasonable… Yet Strangely Persistent
Yes, Christianity and Christian faith can seem pretty unreasonable and strange, maybe even ridiculous, from the outside. Those outside of the Church do not wish to have their actions dictated by anyone save themselves. Why, for example, refrain from sex until marriage because someone else, also a human, says it’s bad?
This leads to the additional question of why Christians have, not just occasionally, but consistently and for centuries submitted themselves and their wills to the Church, no matter how unprofitable—and sometimes even at the cost of their own lives. Apparently they did not find allowing “someone else” to dictate their behaviors undesirable. So why does this peculiar Christian thinking persist, even though it seems so contrary to common sense? Well, I imagine most of us within the Church would give some variant of believing that the Church, instituted and guarded by Christ Himself, knows better than we do, and that we love Christ too much to leave Him. But, that is probably not very convincing to those outside the Church.
Humbled Out of a Need for Guidance
Now consider the question from another perspective. Instead of imagining that the Church is made up of “overly submissive” adults, let us consider ordinary children. No one would say a young child is being untoward in obeying his parents, nor that his parents are impinging on his freedom by giving him rules to follow. No ordinary child knows enough to be able to instruct himself in correct behavior. In some sense, then, the Church requires her followers to humble themselves like children. Owing to our fallen nature, no one on earth can identify what’s best for himself all of the time, thus we have need for guidance from a superior authority.
Furthermore, any belief in Christianity requires a kind of humility even at the most basic level—first, to believe that there is an all-powerful God Who loves us. Even confessing that “There exists One who is greater than I,” is an acknowledgment that “I am not the most important being who ever existed.” Then, if we progress in our Christianity, our humility must increase. With each sin we resist and each act of charity we commit, we grow in virtue and become closer to whom God intended us to be.
God Restricts Us for the Sake of Love and Order
Singer Marie Bellet, in portraying a fallen-away soul’s idea of the Faith, expressed it as, “Comfort for the weak and old women dressed in black. To the strong you do not speak. Why don’t you call us back?” And this is accurate—few enough adults who grow up outside the Faith might wish to humble themselves like children before parents, or at least servants before a master. After all, this humility is also an acknowledgment that the higher authority must be obeyed, even if to the frustration of one’s own human desires. According to Wikipedia, notable atheist Christopher Hitchens “regarded concepts of a god or supreme being as a totalitarian belief that impedes individual freedom.”
“An idea that impedes individual freedom” is one way to describe it, depending on the “freedom” one wants. God through His Church has not merely instructed us to behave a certain way because He wanted to restrict us out of hatred of freedom. Were that true, He would be evil, or at least the Church that teaches these things would be. Rather, He restricts us because, having created the universe in a certain way, He wants His creatures’ actions to conform to that same order. The only reason we do not desire this order perfectly ourselves is because of the original and actual sin in this world.
Humility Is Strength…
In reality, though surrender to someone—even God, Who is the greatest of all beings—appears outwardly weak, it’s a great act of strength, though a less common kind: the strength of humility. Though submitting asserts that the one who submits does not belong in the highest position, if the submission is appropriate, then the one surrendering is simply maintaining the right order of things. (An example of inappropriate submission would be submission to the leadership of Adolf Hitler, given that he mandated evil acts).
To say “I am not the greatest,” when you know it to be true is conforming your actions to reality. Furthermore, if the Being greater than you loves you, then He would only want you to have your greatest good, so all of us have then truly been destined for surrender. It is not mere slavery, but a joyful and voluntary servitude. Additionally, to paraphrase Pascal, what have we to lose by submitting to God? It is certainly true that practicing Christianity is a true death to self, but most people tend to agree that many Christian precepts are also the keys to a moral life, for example, that cheating and lying and stealing are all wrong. Overall this “death to self” seems like it might have good consequences, at least in this life if not also a future one.
…and Without It, There May Be Consequences
On the other hand, to pretend you are the greatest when there is even some chance you are not is treading a dangerous line. In the first place, there is the matter of temporal punishment or cleansing, an idea that is emphasized by the Church. Though temporary, my understanding is that Purgatory, at least in the Catholic tradition, is not particularly pleasant. In the second, there is the question of love. If this great Being desires to love and be loved by His servants, then trying to set oneself up as greater than He is not a good idea. The created soul is then deprived of the joy that is loving God, and God is deprived of the worship due Him, and (to use the limited human term) the joy of knowing that His creation loves Him in return.
Finally, there is the question of Hell. Many seem to think Hell is something Church leaders dreamed up in order to scare people into obedience, a relatively fair assessment if one refuses to believe in religion at all. However, if God exists, even disregarding whether or not Christ is His Son, eternal punishment is at least a logical possibility.
Is the Surrender from God or Man?
The idea of restricting our actions for God’s sake has more substance to it than a mere love of being ruled. There is the matter of deferring our merely human wisdom to His supernatural wisdom. There is the matter of love, both our love for Him and gratitude for His love for us. Furthermore, there is the simple desire to live a good human life, as He intended and ordered it. That being said, relatively few adults wish to humble themselves like children. Even so, there are reasons to consider that surrender of faith may be more than something merely dreamed up by councils, especially if God asks for it out of love, not hate.