The Right Kinda Christian?
Several years ago I was having dinner with my wife’s long-term university friends who had all studied psychology with her back in the day. Great bunch.
They’d all met in their late teens in their first couple of weeks on campus, and here they were in their forties still meeting up, albeit not as often these days. I’d been to quite a number of their gatherings, which had petered out in regularity as life and kids and working interstate had taken their various, and mostly joyful, tolls.
It was always fun. And this gathering of the psychology clan was no exception. An Italian meal at the home of the Sicilian lady who my wife – and the rest of the group – had met on the first day of uni and who had become life-long friends. Everyone sat chatting about where their lives had headed since last meeting up, handing around bowls of pasta, sauces, salads, and bread. Wine flowed liberally, and so did the talk.
I was seated next to one particularly smart cookie, a bloke who I’d always liked chatting with, and who had a great intellectual head on his shoulders. He had travelled down the academic track in psychology. He was an atheist, though not a surly one in the Richard Dawkins mould.
“So what’s happened since I saw you last?” I asked him, kicking off a conversation that I assumed would head towards career, further studies he’d been undertaking, academic ideas and the like.
“A lot,” he replied, “But the surprising thing I really have to tell you is that I have become a Christian.”
Double-take. Head-swivel. Car in reverse. 180 degree turn around. Lock ’em all, load ’em all, fire ’em all. That’s roughly how I responded.
“Yep” he went on, seeing the look on my face, and knowing what I did for a living, “Something just happened and I turned to God. I’ve been going to mass every week, and I’ve become one of the readers at church and I love doing Bible Study with our priest.”
And here’s Protestant me. Protestant me who is astonished that someone who I knew to be a polite, well considered, but implacable atheist, is a Christian.
And Protestant me whose brain is grinding itself into metal filings, finds himself running the Gloryometer over someone who hasn’t signed off on faith the way that I would consider the right path. All that Mary stuff. All that transubstantiation stuff. All that other stuff! Really?
Yet as we chatted and he told me how it how changed his life, and his focus and his attitude, and his relationships (you know, all that stuff that Jesus promises to change about our lives when we come to him), I realised just how radical the transformation that had occurred for him.
And I felt my brain ease down a gear or two. And I felt my Protestant urges just shut the heck up for a while and listen. And I felt the bond of someone who had rejected the very existence of God for most of his life. And I imagined how challenging that would be for him among his academic colleagues.
And I realised that my first instinct in hearing that someone like that had become a practising Roman Catholic who reads the Bible publicly and privately, and isn’t ashamed to call himself a Christian in an age and in an industry where that is not, pardon the pun, kosher, might be a little churlish to say the least. And quite judgemental at the most.
“I’ve become a Christian.”
“Oh really? Let me be the judge of that.“
See the problem? My gut instinct upon his profession of faith was “Only if that’s okay with me.”
What Kind of Christian is Ayaan Hirsi Ali?
I hope you see where this is going.
Because this brings me to Ayaan Hirsi Ali and her astonishing article today in UnHerd online journal that everyone is reposting. Reposting and commenting on. And making a judgement call on.
A Christian? Ayaan Hirsi Ali? Surely not! Where’s my Gloryometer? I think I left it in the third drawer down, you know, the drawer with the egg whisk and the apple corer and the box of toothpicks from that party we had.
If you don’t know Ayaan Hirsi Ali, she is a formidable public intellectual who had moved from Islam – her traditional religion -, to atheism.
She did so for intellectual reasons – and moral ones too. What turned her was her unease at the manner in which many in the West – who clearly know better cos, well cos, they’re white and secular and all – insisted that the reason for the September 11 attacks had nothing to do with Islam. Even though Osama bin Laden had articulated it as central to the atrocity.
In the article she says this:
So Islam had an alibi. This excuse-making was not only condescending towards Muslims. It also gave many Westerners a chance to retreat into denial. Blaming the errors of US foreign policy was easier than contemplating the possibility that we were confronted with a religious war.
In her career Ali has sought to stare down the increasingly illiberal progressive West and its slavish adherence to violence in the name of minority assertion (and when everyone’s a minority, at least on campus, then what’s not to like about a bit of violence, particularly if it’s directed towards conservatives).
That and the slavish adherence among elites (and more than a few sub-elites who like to think themselves elite) to a “We know what motivates religious people more than religious people know what motivates religious people.” attitude.
Her article is, as she says, a take on Bertrand Russell’s 1927 article “Why I Am Not a Christian”. She explains her decision to shift from Islam to atheism like this:
When I read Russell’s lecture, I found my cognitive dissonance easing. It was a relief to adopt an attitude of scepticism towards religious doctrine, discard my faith in God and declare that no such entity existed. Best of all, I could reject the existence of hell and the danger of everlasting punishment.
She explores in some depth in the article how she had been an eager, – all too eager -, practitioner of a particularly fervent brand of Islam that was hot and holy, and righteous and self-righteous. And super different. And that brought a perverse sense of pride and exclusivity with it. But above all else, it brought this:
… a special hatred was reserved for one subset of unbeliever: the Jew. We cursed the Jews multiple times a day and expressed horror, disgust and anger at the litany of offences he had allegedly committed. The Jew had betrayed our Prophet. He had occupied the Holy Mosque in Jerusalem. He continued to spread corruption of the heart, mind and soul.
I’m not going to try and paraphrase or even quote too many sections of a piece of work by a formidable intellect such as Ali, so you can read the rest of her article here.
The Christian Gloryometer Test
But here’s what I’ve found interesting in response to her public announcement. Not the scorn of the atheists. But the slight scepticism of many a believer on Facebook in response to someone posting her article.
There have been myriad slightly sceptical questions and comments that emanate from this cohort: “What kind of Christian?” “How could we tell?” “Her article doesn’t articulate her conversion experience.” “She seems to be primarily wanting the utilitarianism (the usefulness) of the Christian faith in light of the rapidly incoherent secular mish-mash she confronts.”
And the list goes on. Everyone’s racing off to the kitchen to the third drawer down and fumbling around for their Gloryometer, to run it over her and see if she passes muster.
But it’s the utilitarianism pull-factor of Christianity’s moral and intellectual power to create a civilisation worth belonging to that Ali reveals as highly significant. And it’s the scepticism towards that as being a valid reason that has gotten everyone’s personal Gloryometer ticking over like a Geiger counter near Fukushima’s nuclear power plant.
Is that enough? Is she really a Christian? Is it enough for an intellectual to decide, publicly, and in an article that is sure to inflame further tensions, to declare that she has become a Christian? Do we get to decide?
This is, after all, a woman who had to go into hiding because of her rejection of Islam and her public advocacy for oppressed women in Islamic countries, an advocacy that saw her collaborator on a film on the subject, Dutch director Theo Van Gogh shot dead, his head almost severed, and a threatening note directed towards Ali pinned to his body with a knife.
Ali says that over the years she has come to this conclusion about the legacy of Judeo-Christianity:
That legacy consists of an elaborate set of ideas and institutions designed to safeguard human life, freedom and dignity — from the nation state and the rule of law to the institutions of science, health and learning. As Tom Holland has shown in his marvellous book Dominion, all sorts of apparently secular freedoms — of the market, of conscience and of the press — find their roots in Christianity.
And so I have come to realise that Russell and my atheist friends failed to see the wood for the trees. The wood is the civilisation built on the Judeo-Christian tradition; it is the story of the West, warts and all. Russell’s critique of those contradictions in Christian doctrine is serious, but it is also too narrow in scope.
Once again, read the rest of the article.
But here’s what you shouldn’t do. You shouldn’t – as your first instinct – reach for that Gloryometer. Leave it in the third drawer down for goodness sake! Just this once!
Ali finishes her piece with these words:
That is why I no longer consider myself a Muslim apostate, but a lapsed atheist. Of course, I still have a great deal to learn about Christianity. I discover a little more at church each Sunday. But I have recognised, in my own long journey through a wilderness of fear and self-doubt, that there is a better way to manage the challenges of existence than either Islam or unbelief had to offer.
Two things to finish: First, if CS Lewis (by no means an evangelical but who has somehow become our patron saint) had put the start of his conversion story that way, we’d all be sharing it around. Waxing lyrical about it. Using it on Insta and Facebook.
And second: It’s just a thought, but I’ve been to way too many baptisms in evangelical churches in which the candidates have expressed far less about the Christian faith from the front, been through far less trials on the way to their faith, never had to worry about writing an international headline about their conversion, and who have announced all sorts of utilitarian reasons for coming to faith in the first place. If Ali is not full bottle yet, then she’s in good, well-dunked company.
So let the Islamic extremists hate her and seek her death.
Let the atheists now scorn her and deplatform her.
Let them go to their third drawers down and get their Gloryometers out and polish them.
But we Christians? Just let Aayan Hirsi Ali be who she claims she is, all the while casting your mind back to your first awkward – and indeed utilitarian reasons – that eventually led you to say yes to Jesus. In just this one article she’s likely putting a whole lot more on the line for the name “Christian” than most of us will ever have to.
So, “Christian” – good kosher one that you are – leave that Gloryometer in the third drawer down. Take out the whisk instead and go do something useful like scramble an egg.