The Argument From Failure

Photo by chuttersnap

In this post, I’d like to consider the following argument with you:

  1. Humans love success and winners.
  2. One common critique of Christianity is that it is a man-made religion.
  3. If Christianity is a man-made religion, it should promote success and winners.
  4. But the Christian God repeatedly seems to fail and value failures.
  5. Therefore, to the degree these premises are true, it is less likely that Christianity is a human invention.

Our Love For Success

Do you love losers? Or is it more fun to root for the winner?

Beyond a basic loyalty to ourselves and our own favorite groups, we take pleasure in cheering for the champion – or laughing at an unfortunate washout.

For instance, take the incredibly popular reality show American Idol. Each season, viewers rallied around the most talented individuals, forming groups to mobilize support and lift their favorite performer to victory. At the same time, early rounds of the show featured Simon Cowell mercilessly criticizing the weakest contestants. Whether you did well or not, the show’s judges effectively turned the performers into something entertaining to watch.

On a more personal level, recently a friend shared that his normal practice is to send out updates about his successes, but to avoid mentioning his failures. Consider your own social media accounts: are they filled with a record of your insecurities, mistakes, and embarrassing moments?

Or consider how elemental biological forces have shaped our impulse to win. As the Encyclopaedia Britannica explains:

In his theory of natural selection… Charles Darwin suggested that “survival of the fittest” was the basis for organic evolution (the change of living things with time).

This basic impulse to glorify the ‘faster, higher, stronger’ is everywhere you look. From The Olympics, The World Cup, and The World Series to the Academy Awards, The Emmys, and The Golden Globes, we live in a world that loves the first, the best, and the greatest.

So is it any surprise that this same impulse is revealed in religion? Consider, as one example, the ancient preamble to the Code of Hammurabai:

When Anu the Sublime, King of the Anunaki, and Bel, the lord of Heaven and earth, who decreed the fate of the land, assigned to Marduk, the over-ruling son of Ea, God of righteousness, dominion over earthly man, and made him great among the Igigi, they called Babylon by his illustrious name, made it great on earth, and founded an everlasting kingdom in it, whose foundations are laid so solidly as those of heaven and earth; then Anu and Bel called by name me, Hammurabi, the exalted prince, who feared God, to bring about the rule of righteousness in the land, to destroy the wicked and the evil-doers; so that the strong should not harm the weak; so that I should rule over the black-headed people like Shamash, and enlighten the land, to further the well-being of mankind.

Or in Islam, the Qur’an repeatedly honors Allah as the greatest God:

Indeed, Allah is Pardoning and Forgiving. That is because Allah causes the night to enter the day and causes the day to enter the night and because Allah is Hearing and Seeing. That is because Allah is the Truth, and that which they call upon other than Him is falsehood, and because Allah is the Most High, the Grand.

While examples could be easily multiplied, it seems that the human species shares a powerful, even primal, desire for success and greatness. As Cicero stated, “Ambition is a universal factor in life, and the nobler a man is, the more susceptible he is to the sweets of fame.”

Religion As A Human Invention

One popular objection to Christianity is that it is, like all religions, merely a human invention. For instance, here’s how Dr. Stanley Fish, writing in The New York Times, explains the case:

Is Religion Man-Made?
Sure it is. Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens think that this fact about religion is enough to invalidate its claims…

So there’s the triple-pronged case. Religions are humanly constructed traditions and at their center are corrupted texts that were cobbled together by provincial, ignorant men who knew less about the world than any high-school teenager alive today. Sounds devastating, but when you get right down to it, all it amounts to is the assertion that God didn’t write the books or establish the terms of worship, men did, and that the results are (to put it charitably) less than perfect.

But that is exactly what you would expect. It is God (if there is one) who is perfect and infinite; men are finite and confined within historical perspectives.

On this point, Dawkins, Fish, Harris, and Hitchens are following in the footsteps of Sigmund Freud, who famously wrote these lines:

[Religious ideas] are illusions, fulfillments of the oldest, strongest and most urgent wishes of mankind. The secret of their strength lies in the strength of those wishes.

The site has a nice summary of this argument:

The idea that religion is not something instituted by God, but rather is man-made, can be traced back to ancient Greece. It was not until the 18th Century, however, that it began to seem possible to finally prove what had previous been mere speculation. Ludwig Feuerbach, drawing on Hegelian philosophy, set out the idea that the process by which religion was invented was wish-fulfilment. God, according to Feuerbach, is projection is the strongest desires of humanity…To understand God, on this view, one must understand human psychology; as Feuerbach put it, “theology is anthropology”.

At this point, an intermediate conclusion is easily accessible:

  1. On an anthropological and psychological level, humans love success.
  2. The idea of ‘God’ is a projection of humanity’s strongest desires.
  3. Therefore, religions should glorify their god or gods.

But while Christianity undoubtedly and rightly portrays the Triune God of love as the greatest of all gods, it does so in a very unusual manner.

The Seeming Failures of the Christian God

From the first pages of the Scriptures, the Christian worldview is marked with a conundrum. God has created a world that is “good” in every way; with the creation of mankind, it is declared “very good” (Genesis 1:31). But only a few verses later, Adam and Eve have turned against God, and as a consequence, “the LORD God sent him out from the garden of Eden” (Genesis 3:23).

The next event? After Adam and Eve welcome their two children, Cain and Abel, their lives experience more misfortune: “Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him” (Genesis 4:8). By Genesis 6, the project has gone so badly that God tells Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence through them.”

The Old Testament

Throughout the Old Testament, God seeks to enable his people to do what is good and right. But each time, the effort falls short.

For instance, consider the situation immediately after God has delivered the Israelites out of Egypt with ten stupendous judgments against Pharaoh’s household and the Egyptians, followed by the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea. Moses goes up onto Mt. Sinai (Exodus 24:17-18):

Now the appearance of the glory of the LORD was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. Moses entered the cloud and went up on the mountain. And Moses was on the mountain forty days and forty nights.

In the aftermath of such great miracles, and in the presence of the Lord, how do the Israelites respond? In Exodus 32:1 we read:

When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said to him, “Up, make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.”

This builds an incredible tension through the historic record. God is loving, powerful, all-knowing, yet His people are forgetful, wayward, and rebellious. No matter what miracles God does, or how spectacular his deliverance, his people continue to turn away from him.

The contrast becomes so great that the prophet Hosea is called by God with this unusual message: “And the LORD said to me, “Go again, love a woman who is loved by another man and is an adulteress, even as the LORD loves the children of Israel, though they turn to other gods and love cakes of raisins” (Hosea 3:1).

This is, to put it mildly, an unusual portrayal of the divine. It is rare to find admiration and praise for a man whose wife is repeatedly unfaithful to him. Yet God deliberately and dramatically asks us to look for the similarities.

The New Testament

In the life of Jesus, the resolution of this Old Testament tension is paradoxical in the extreme. The Creator God of the universe, the King of all kings and the Lord of all Lords, the Just and Righteous Ruler, the forgiving and compassionate God of mercy, who knows all, completely humbles himself by becoming one of us.

Not only does Jesus become human, but as many have noted, he arrives in the helplessness that is characteristic of an infant. His life is threatened by governmental persecution, driving his family into refugee status in Egypt. In his public ministry, he habitually and pointedly associates himself with tax collectors, women, the sick, and the poor. In a supremely ironic way, He is opposed and pursued to death by a religious establishment that has memorized the Old Testament.

From a theological point of view, the writers of the New Testament come to the surprising conclusion that Jesus’ death was more than just individual, familial, social, and religious humiliation, but that Jesus became the sacrificial offering for all human sin. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 5:21, “he made him to be sin who knew no sin.”

As Tim O’Neill, an atheist, succinctly explains (in the context of discussing the historicity of Jesus’ existence):

But probably the best example of an element in the story which was so awkward for the early Christians that it simply has to be historical is the crucifixion. The idea of a Messiah who dies was totally unheard of and utterly alien to any Jewish tradition prior to the beginning of Christianity, but the idea of a Messiah who was crucified was not only bizarre, it was absurd. According to Jewish tradition, anyone who was “hanged on a tree” was to be considered accursed by Yahweh and this was one of the reasons crucifixion was considered particularly abhorrent to Jews.  The concept of a crucified Messiah, therefore, was totally bizarre and absurd.

It was equally weird to non-Jews. Crucifixion was considered the most shameful of deaths, so much so that one of the privileges of Roman citizenship is that citizens could never be crucified.  The idea of a crucified god, therefore, was unthinkable. This was so much the case that the early Christians avoided any depictions of Jesus on the cross – the first depictions of the Crucifixion appear in the Fourth Century, after Christian emperors banned crucifixion and it began to lose its stigma. It’s significant that the earliest depiction of the crucifixion of Jesus that we have is a graffito from Rome showing a man worshipping a crucified figure with the head of a donkey with the mocking caption “Alexamenos worships his god”. The idea of a crucified god was, quite literally, ridiculous.  Paul acknowledges how absurd the idea of a crucified Messiah was in 1 Corinthians 1:23, where he says it “is a stumbling block to the Jews and an absurdity to the gentiles”.

Yet nevertheless, it is this divine descent into service and suffering that becomes a hymn of Christian praise (Philippians 2:5-11):

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

An Unlikely Invention

Some critics of Christianity have noted this central feature — and despised it. In addition to the Roman graffiti that Tim O’Neill mentions, consider Nietzsche’s scathing words:

Christianity has taken the part of all the weak, the low, the botched; it has made an ideal out of antagonism to all the self-preservative instincts of sound life; it has corrupted even the faculties of those natures that are intellectually most vigorous, by representing the highest intellectual values as sinful, as misleading, as full of temptation.

Of course, if it is true that the weak, the low, and the botched managed successfully to subvert the religious and political elite that wrote and maintained the Old and New Testaments for over 1,500 years, then this is itself a miracle in need of explanation.

In a world that is often ruled by the powerful, ambitious, and rich, it is remarkable that the God of the Bible is portrayed as loving the weak and powerless, to the point of becoming weak and powerless Himself.

I think this argument is at best a suggestive one. All I can say is this: the more I reflect on the universal human fascination of (and desire for) success, and the more I understand how completely the Triune God of love was willing to seem to be a failure in His quest to love and redeem us, the less and less likely it seems to me that Christianity is a man-made religion.

It is a humbling conclusion, because when considered properly, these thoughts cannot only convince your mind. They must also humble your spirit, and eventually, give you an eager desire to imitate the sacrificial, servant-hearted love of God.