Imagine being chained to a bench in a dark, Soviet-style cell. Imagine being beaten and tortured mercilessly. Imagine being left alone for days without any human contact and then without seeming cause or reason, tortured again. You cry from agony and despair, you shriek from exhaustion and desperation, ‘what do you want from me?’ ‘What does 2+2 equal?’ ‘Four’ you mutter in confusion. ‘But let us suppose’, your interrogator continues, ‘Big Brother says 2+2=5.’ ‘What then does 2+2 equal?’ ‘Still four,’ you exclaim. The torture resumes even more intensely. ‘What does 2+2 equal?’ you are asked again. ‘Four! Five! Four! Anything you like, just stop the pain!’
This was the fate of Winston Smith, the humble hero from George Orwell’s nightmarish vision of the future, Nineteen Eighty-Four. It is well documented, of course, that with few notable exceptions, a person being tortured will do or say anything. For every Saint Thomas More, preferring to be burnt at the stake than renounce his Catholicism, there are hundreds of millions who will do anything to avoid physical pain. Even in More’s case, as Blackadder once pointed out, he must have been kicking himself as the flames licked higher that it hadn’t occurred to him to say, ‘I recant my Catholicism.’ Who of us, broken, bloodied, starving and sleep deprived would not scream at the top of our lungs, ‘yes, 2+2=5’? But even then, could any of us really mean it? Despite every sadistic, manipulative tactic, could anyone make you really believe that 2+2=5?
The Christian Church has historically held a central thesis which can be expressed by the popular epigram, ‘turn or burn.’ It is worth considering though, is this any different to Big Brother’s tactics in Orwell’s dystopia? The only real difference is that Big Brother tortures his victims immediately, the ‘turn or burn’ brand of Christianity scares its members with eternal torture in the next life. Even then, as utterly horrendous as an eternity of unimaginable torture sounds, deep in your heart, could you actually make yourself believe that 2+2=5?
To my mind, especially in post-modern times, this tactic, readily viewable in the Evangelical community, is both vacuous and self-defeating. Evangelicals will often use as a selling point that they, unlike the rest of us, know for sure what happens after they die. This ideology is drilled into the faithful; certain Heaven awaits our ranks, certain Hell awaits those who reject our message. The altar call asks, ‘if you died tonight, do you know for certain where you would go?’ They seem never to ask, ‘if you don’t die tonight, what will be the logical basis for your moral and ethical compass? On what rational grounds will you hold your belief? What will be your reason for living?’ The whole premise which keeps this maxim alive is that no one questions the essential rightness of the Church’s message and no one is allowed to even think that maybe parts or all of it is wrong. ‘I know that I know that I know’ is an acceptable argument for belief in fundamentalist circles but as Winston Smith despaired in his journal, ‘Thoughtcrime does not entail death, thoughtcrime IS death.’
The culture of thoughtcrime which permeates through so much of modern Christianity is jejune and counter-productive. If G-D is loving and just, it makes no sense to believe He sits perched on a judgmental cloud condemning people because they don’t believe 2+2=5. Why is the Church’s first reaction to demonise and discredit people like Galileo and Darwin? Where does this opposition to free thinking and intellectual exploration come from?
Let me clarify something. I do not for a minute claim that Christianity is illogical in the way 2+2=5 is. I suggest this; if your proselytising tactic is fear of torture, then it doesn’t matter what the message is. Logical or illogical, people will say anything to avoid pain in this or any other life.
The pathetic irony in all of this is that so many of the great heroes of the Christian faith were free thinkers. Many were ex-communicated or threatened for challenging the established Church. From Augustine to Aquinas, from Joan of Arc to Martin Luther, from Mary MacKillop to Jesus Christ, every step forward began with questions. Is this right? Is this fair? Is this logical? Should this change?
If the Christian Church, in its myriad forms, is to retain any relevance and meaning in a post-Galileo world, in a post-Darwin world and in a post-Freud world, this ‘my way or the highway (to Hell)’ mentality must be turned on its head. The demand that Christianity must not be questioned should be superseded by a demand that everything be questioned. Not everything will survive. Some ideas will bleed to death under the logician’s blade. The draconian treatment of Gay, Lesbian, Bi-sexual and Trans-gender people by mainstream Christianity is one such feature which can’t survive rational interrogation. But at least the Christianity which does survive this level of intellectual critique will be strong, intelligent and full of hope. The Christianity which invites scrutiny can offer answers to a hurting world and can truly evoke Christ’s purpose, to show people how they might have life abundantly.
Does Christianity have anything to offer the world? If the answer is no then it might as well start a new crusade and use the meanest violence to solicit forced conversions. If, however, the answer is yes then the Church needs to surrender its wig and gavel and start engaging with humanity on a level playing field. Every other idea in the world submits itself willingly to intellectual evaluation, why not Christianity? Why like some celestial bully would G-D simply wave his clenched fist shouting, ‘believe or else?’ If the Church posits with humility rather than haughtiness some of the logical reasons why a world based on Christ’s principles of love, forgiveness and reconciliation may be a better one, then people may less inclined to view Christianity with suspicion and contempt.
Our intellect, our sense of reason, our powers of observation and deduction are not curses to torment us but blessings to help us. We have the ability, to think, to critique and to believe; we should do all three.