Reckless Self-Endangerment and Christianly Courage

“The rise of the internet must ultimately kill off organized religion”…or so the common wisdom goes. Thanks to a new generation of fedora-clad Redditors equipped with Microsoft Paint and rich imaginations, new Bible loopholes are being uncovered that threaten to expose the absurdity of Christianity. These Valiant Defenders of Truth and Reason are sagely raising critiques that somehow escaped the attention of two thousand years of systematic theology. Or something. Take this gem:

20090223reckless

The image makes three implicit assertions. I’ll respond to each.

1. The Christian belief in heaven ought to entail an eagerness to die. (Corollary: Since most Christians don’t appear eager to die, their belief in heaven lacks sincerity.)

This assertion baldly ignores Scripture’s robust teachings on virtue, suffering, sacrifice, and meekness – opting instead to project a simplistic brand of secular hedonism onto the Christian’s conception of heaven. The idea seems to be something along the lines of, “heaven will be pleasurable, therefore Christians should be trying to seize this pleasure as quickly and directly as possible.” This kind of reasoning may be the marching song of our modern age, but it is so bluntly at-odds with the teachings of Jesus as to be an absurdity.

2. A Christian can conceal his motives from God. (Corollary: Reckless self-endangerment with the sole intent of achieving death isn’t, therefore, equivalent to suicide.)

Psalm 139:1-6. And I think that about covers it.

3. Scripture is silent on the matter of “reckless self-endangerment”. (Corollary: Reckless self-endangerment isn’t immoral.)

Scripture actually does touch on this issue (Matthew 4:5-7).

Tightrope walking over shark-infested waters for the purpose of dying cannot be justified on the Christian view. Even so, this assertion raises some interesting questions. Under what conditions, if any, can reckless self-endangerment be morally justified? How do these conditions differ from those of an individual who lacks a belief in the afterlife?

Again, Scripture provides us with answers. Christians are called to emulate Christ (Matthew 16:24-25), who himself laid down his life for humanity (Mark 10:45). In stark contrast with the man who believes that existence ceases with death, the Christian actually has rational justification for placing his life in peril to aid his fellow man. He feels compelled – joyously compelled – to throw himself into a churning river to save the life of a stranger. He fights for noble causes and he bears the burden lightly, knowing that life is a precious yet fleeting thing, and that everyone will ultimately be held accountable for their actions. The Christian must, in the words of Chesterton, “desire life like water and yet drink death like wine.”

Many are quick to point out how faith can be perverted (“religion flies planes into buildings” and so forth), but slow to acknowledge the abundant examples of faith being harnessed to advance the causes of liberty, justice, and equality. Genuine faith entails a love of life and peace with death. Hence the soft-spoken Christian woman who casually purchases a one-way ticket to a leper colony.

Of course, none of this is to say that nonbelievers can’t also act heroically (or that Christians will always act heroically). What it does show is that Christianity, by its very nature, lends itself to heroism.

And speaking of heroism, happy Independence Day!

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7 thoughts on “Reckless Self-Endangerment and Christianly Courage

  1. I would go as far as saying that reckless self endangering after invoking the protection of God (like Nick Walenda) is an act of tempting/provoking God.

  2. Hi Matt,

    “implicit assertions” – You see implicit assertions, I see a straw men.

    Number 1. I think you’d need to show that some atheists are making your point (1), otherwise it is just a straw man you have erected to knock down. Do you have evidence atheist really think this? If it’s all your own invention it actually belittles any sensible objection you might have to the image.

    Numbers 2 and 3 I think you also make up. No atheist I know gives two hoots what scripture says, because it’s meaningless text from a bygone age. You might get some like John Loftus or Richard Carrier interested. Being most generous to your points you might have some atheists who really think that Christians really think they can fool God; but since there is no God the point is already lost on atheists anyway.

    As an atheist I would read it this way.

    First on death itself. Death is a natural event. Suicide or reckless activity are just optional ways of getting there. I might lament the mental torture that a suicide is going through that might make him wish to give up on life, but maybe he has good reasons, and it’s his life anyway. When you’re dead that’s it, so he’ll have no regrets. His family and friends might. If he has any. Long and miserable terminal illnesses seems like a good reason for suicide. Reckless events may be a means of achieving levels of excitement not found any other way. Of course if you die doing this, you’re dead, and you won’t regret the death; but generally I’d have though reckless people would want to continue for further excitement. Maybe there are cases where there’s a bit of both. The excitement helps numb some mental anguish, send if death occurs then the anguish is over anyway.

    In that context the image is doing no more than mocking the fact that Christians can in fact change their minds about things, make up new rules as they go along, interpret passages in new ways, and pass it all off as the inerrant word of God, or at best a fallible human attempt to understand the infallible word of God. That’s all the image is about. Mockery.

    For example. The Pope is infallible. Just this week it seems atheists are now welcome in heaven. Then they are not. Or, to put it another way, the Vatican backtracks on the infallible Pope’s attempt to be all Christian and inclusive. Or the previous Pope changes the game on contraception, from an absolute sin to a mere lesser one – in the face of secular indignation at what amounts to papal inaction against AIDS. This is the context in which to see the image, making fun of all the silly theological rules and interpretations Christians come up with.

  3. The rest of your points addressing the actual issue stand well enough on their own. I don’t agree with them of course.

    You make a point of rational justification. That’s fine. Most arguments about God are rational, in that they are coherent given a set of premises. It’s the premises and the presuppositions that are the problem. If you presuppose a God to reveal the word that is the bible, and then read that is if it were the word of that God, then yes you can rationally justify being good because of God. But why presuppose God? Why suppose the Bible has anything to do with a creator of the universe, should there be one.

    This brings us to the point of “religion flies planes into buildings”. To be a criticism of religion it need not be claimed that most or even any significant number of the religious do fly planes into buildings. The point to take from this is that since presuppositions and faith regarding religious belief outweigh rationality and evidence, all you have to do to make a religious person do bad is to convince him to believe it necessary that he do some deed, that he see greater good in the deed than bad. This is the justification of flying planes into buildings, whereby the innocence of the killed is rationalised away – rationalisation be a greater companion of faith than rationality and evidence.

    So it doesn’t matter how much good turns out to be done in the name of religion, this criticism is not addressing that, but is addressing how the religious, good or bad, come to believe what they do and how they justify what they do in the name of that belief: presupposition, faith, rationalisation that affirms the faith – these are exactly what both good believers and flyers of planes into buildings.

    That some are good and some are bad is partly determined by their personal nature and the environment in which they live. A lot of very nice Syrians have turned barbarous lately in that hell hole, whether they were religious or not. There are enough videos doing the rounds of beheadings accompanied by “Allahu Akbar!” I’m sure history has had plenty of “Praise the Lord” at moments of similar butchery. The actual good of any religion can be subsumed by bad acts, simply by relying on the same methods of faith and rationalisation to turn the hands and minds of the religious too it.

    “What it does show is that Christianity, by its very nature, lends itself to heroism.”

    That’s a fair point. On the whole, putting aside a few odd bits that Christians tend to ignore, the New Testament makes Jesus out to be a pretty nice ethics philosopher. A bit warped with the dying for our sins bit – totally unnecessary – but I can see how he might be a role model for heroism in the face of death. Nothing at all to do with his divinity of course. In fact that’s another point of mockery. Not really a great sacrifice when he is resurrected and off to heaven. I would think an atheist death for more final, and possibly then more heroic.

    Of course it wasn’t always like that. There have been times when Christians have justified hell and damnation, death and torture, much like some of the Islamic extremists do today. And Jesus believed in the Old Testament, which frankly is a bit embarrassing for anyone claiming that good comes out of it.

    So while Christianity CAN lend itself to good, as it does with many of my Christian friends and aquantences, it can also, just like any other religion, be turned to awful ends. It just so happens that Western Christianity has had to change, and it is no coincidence that the Enlightenment accompanied that change. I’m not saying the ‘science’ istelf improved Western Christian, but that a general moev towards reason and evidence has made many Christians question the seedier side of their religion. We don’t have Catjolics and Protestants burning each other at the stake any more. In many Christian denominations women and gay bishops, and gay marriage, are seen as reasoned and fair ways to understand natural human variability. Had the man Jesus been alive to day then perhaps he would have agreed. But then, being raised in modern times there’s a chance that Jesus would have been a Humanist atheist. This last bit I appreciate treats him as just one more mortal man, and not the deity you might think he was.

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