Sunday, February 05, 2017
I recently went to a talk with Science Mike (Mike McHargue) where he discussed his memoir Finding God in the Waves, which I’m looking forward to reading (more on that soon). It was a great talk, and I was struck by something Mike said about neurology. He described how neuroscientists have observed that people who contemplate a loving God see changes in their brains, building their prefrontal cortex (the part of your brain responsible for things like compassion and moral reflection) and lessening the influence of their amygdala (the part of your brain responsible for impulsive fear-based reactions, which are helpful when you have your hand on a hot stove or step on a snake, but not so great when you are trying to resolve conflict in a relationship).
I related to what he said, and can certainly attest to experiencing this in my own life. I talk about this a lot in fact, in terms of moral development and the brain. In one sense, it’s just common sense that people who focus on feeling loved (religious or not) would tend to become more loving people. However, I found myself wondering how it could be that evangelicals (well, I should clarify, American white evangelicals) can be so focused on experiencing the love of Jesus, and at the same time can overwhelmingly support war, torture, the death penalty, corporal punishment of children, and so on. How can they so enthusiastically support policies that completely lack compassion and care of the least?
So I asked Mike, if it is true that focusing on Jesus’ love makes your brain develop the prefrontal cortex, then why is it that white American evangelicals seem to be so amygdala-driven, that is, driven by fear leading to hurtful reactive responses, as characterized by their overwhelming support for the policies of our current President?
It’s something I am genuinely baffled by. Mike stressed that some conservatives are indeed compassionate which I do not doubt, and that liberals can equally lack compassion, which is certainly true. We all can be jerks, we all can let fear lead us to being hurtful, there is no ideological monopoly on immaturity. However, there does seem to be something about white American evangelicalism that seems especially toxic. There seems to be something about white American evangelicalism in particular that makes it ripe for being unreflected, angry, fear-driven, scapegoating, and an enthusiastic supporter of violence and punishment in the name of the good. What is it?
What I took away from Mike’s response was that he suggested that the problem was their belief in a very different god from the God revealed in Jesus – a god characterized by fear and anger, who threatens eternal punishment, and is characterized by wrath. I was reminded of what Brian Zahnd has described as the “monster god” of neo-Calvinism. In short, Mike proposed that the basic problem is that they have not experienced the love of Jesus, and instead know a god of fear and anger.
It’s important to understand that Mike’s story is one that is deeply shaped by his experience of God’s love in the midst of the pain and rejection he experienced in his youth, as well as his experience of that same life-transforming love as an adult atheist. It's really a classic born-again testimony. I have myself been deeply influenced by that same experience of the love of Jesus in my life as a teen. I was born again, but this was not simply a one time event. I was drawn to knowing God's love relationally, and in that "pursuit of God" (to borrow a phrase from A.W. Tozer) I experienced over and over again a love that completely transformed my life. I write about this in my first book Intimacy with God which I chose to make free because I wanted to share this love with everyone. I realize that for many the idea of a “personal relationship with God” may seem sappy or sentimental, but I cannot stress how profoundly experiencing that love first-hand in my life as changed me. For me it is not sappy at all. From hearing Mike speak of his life, I think the same could be said for him. Mike told stories with tears in his eyes of how experiencing the love of Jesus literally "saved" him from committing suicide in his youth. It was a beautiful testimony.
From that perspective, it makes sense to think “There is just no way a person could experience love like that and be so angry and hurtful. They must experience God as angry and hurtful.” So when Mike said essentially this, my first reaction was to agree. Then the more “science-y” part of me began to kick in. The fact is, people are very capable of compartmentalizing and showing great inconsistency in different parts of their lives. I’m sure there were many people in the 1800’s who were moved to tears at a revival meeting, and then came home and mercilessly beat their slaves – I can even see them thinking that doing so was good. I’m also pretty sure that many of the people who adamantly support things like war and torture today actually do experience the love of Jesus in their lives. It seems really counterintuitive, but we humans are complex creatures. I strongly suspect that if we were to survey white American evangelicals who support these angry and hurtful policies, we would find that a great many could tell moving stories of how they have experienced the love of Jesus in their lives.
Let me stress here that I don’t mean at all to be critical of Mike’s answer. He said it off the top of his head, and I think it was a great answer with a really important insight. My goal with this post is to help further develop the idea, after having the chance to reflect on it for a while.
There is something going on, and it does have to do with an angry God, but this picture of a God of anger and fear seems to co-exist alongside the experience of the love of Jesus. It’s an odd mix of the love of Jesus for those on the inside of the church, with a simultaneous focus on anger and hellfire for those on the outside – including you, if you “fall away.” The “monster god” is thus not a god who is only angry, but a god who is deeply loving to those on the inside and full of wrath towards those on the outside.
This “two-faced God” (to borrow a phrase from Michael Hardin) means you can go to church and sing songs about the love of Jesus, and then hear a sermon by a very angry white dude about how we should fear our nation being corrupted and destroyed by [insert name of scapegoated minority group here]. In short, we experience love and compassion on the inside, but are taught that those on the outside should be feared and hated. They get wrath. This reinforces people’s natural tendency to feel love for their own family, race, nation, and religion, and to demonize, criminalize, and dehumanize those outside the boundaries. That’s why evangelicals can experience love themselves, and yet lack compassion for others, being instead driven by fear and anger towards them.
People in that environment are therefore not meditating on an angry “monster God” alone. The picture of God they have somehow simultaneously consists of the experience of the love of Jesus (which I do not doubt is genuine) mixed together with week after week of cultivating anger and fear to those perceived as enemies from the pulpit. Sitting in that atmosphere week after week, year after year, shapes your brain. It essentially stunts a person’s moral development. The course of moral development is supposed to go from being loved, leading one to extend that same love towards others, developing socially. This toxic theology however keeps people inwardly focused in a sense of fear-based reactionary self-protection. The neuroscience phenomenon Mike mentioned of building the social and compassionate part of our brain thus does not happen, because this preaching of fear and anger towards outsiders strengthens the reactionary fear-based part of our brain, the amygdala. To put this in more theological terms, while they experience the love of Jesus, they do not follow the teaching of Jesus. Jesus had hard words for people like that,
Jesus links faithfulness to how we treat others, and this is most seen in how we treat those who we regard the least. John echos this when he writes,I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ (Matthew 7:23)
"Whoever says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person."
These are hard sayings, and I hope we are able to hear them. What is being expressed, in the strongest of terms, is that our experience of God's love is not worth much if it does not translate into showing compassion to others. It's like a flower that is planted, but does not grow out of the dirt.
This understanding of evangelicalism’s two-faced God is especially important for the “nicer” evangelical churches to recognize. Here I do not mean the churches where the pastor wears skinny jeans and a soul patch, but underneath still preaches the two-faced God. I mean the genuinely nice churches who only talk about grace and love, the churches that you and I would want to go to. Because evangelicalism is so fluid, those nice churches are filled with people who come from churches that preached the two-faced God. Almost never is it acknowledged in those nice churches that there are people in the congregation who are still carrying wounds from that past church experience. When it is acknowledged, it is almost always in the context of the person having misunderstood. You must have gotten the wrong impression of who God is. It’s always your personal problem, as opposed to us recognizing that this two-faced God of love and hate is very widespread within white evangelicalism, and addressing that.
In other words, the problem is not simply that the person has gotten an angry picture of God, and now simply needs to hear of the love and grace of Jesus. They have experienced a God who is both loving and hateful, and as a consequence they have been damaged by that. To the extent that they have preached this non-gospel of “God hates you and has a wonderful plan for your life,” they have hurt others. Perhaps a father severed his relationship with his gay son because his pastor told him that was tough love. Whatever the specifics, many live with the fallout of relationships that they have severed because of this toxic theology when it is lived out.
Simply preaching God’s love is not an antidote to this, because they have been taught that there is no contradiction in God being both loving and hateful, nor is there a problem with their being both loving (to insiders) and hateful (to outsiders) themselves. Instead of their experience of God’s love leading them to follow the teaching of Jesus and caring for the least, this two-faced God theology has taught them to ignore the love they experience, and instead be driven by fear and anger which is pounded into people’s psyches by what they hear Sunday after Sunday, not to mention their diet of angry pundits and media that they consume 24-7.
I know that it is hard to face this, which is perhaps why these nice evangelical churches so often avoid it. But I really hope that the grace-focused evangelical churches can find the courage and humility to address this toxic theology head-on, and help people kick-start their hardened hearts, and move towards growing in compassion. Sometimes to find healing, to find what is good and beautiful, we need to first face the ugliness in ourselves and in our communities.