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Arrogant Beliefs (and the arrogant believers who arrogantly believe them)

Burgundy-bigdeal

Nobody likes arrogance. If you know someone who is described by most people as arrogant, it’s a safe bet you don’t have a high view of that person. A great athlete can turn a million fans against him in one arrogant instant. Back when Bush-hatred ran high, it was a common refrain that he was cocky & arrogant. Now Obama is getting a full taste of people’s disgust for the same perceived inflation of ego. Basically you don’t want to be accused of arrogance in any way, shape or form.

So if you are confronted with the charge that your beliefs are arrogant, this might stop you in your tracks, might it not?  But as you may (and ought to) know, there are those today who accuse Christians of this very thing. Christians are arrogant, they charge, on account of the beliefs they hold and propagate.  Which beliefs, you ask?  Well in my experience the typical things such accusers site are these (my own summary):

Christians claim to have knowledge of what God thinks about things, they believe human beings have some really special place as the crown of creation, ranking above all the other animals; also they think God cares about them – as if they’re so important – that he loves them, guides them, etc. They think they have some kind of dominion over things and a purpose or mission from God. And of course they think their views about God, man, sin, salvation, & the afterlife are correct, meaning that they believe rival religious views are wrong. To top all of this off, they have the audacity to go around trying to spread their views to everyone else.  To reiterate, they think they are the center of the universe, claim to know things that are way above them (like what God thinks), exhibit a prideful level of absolute certainty, and go around pushing their religion (as well as their morality) on people while being intolerant and judgmental of other views.

Any of this sound familiar? And when it’s put like this, it does seem pretty arrogant alright. Maybe Christians should feel appropriately shamed, and sheepishly keep their heads down so as to avoid future charges of this nature. Maybe just bowing out and lying low will get people to stop calling us meanies and cause them instead to start seeing us as nice and likeable people instead. OR, perhaps a little critical analysis of these charges is called for, since there’s always the possibility that the accusation isn’t entirely fair and requires a thoughtful response.

 

Attitudes vs. Beliefs

The first thing is to distinguish between arrogant beliefs and an arrogant disposition or demeanor. It is fairly safe to say that everybody believes, in principle at least, that being an arrogant person is not good. People are prone to act that way, naturally, since pride is a universal weakness in human character. But nobody would advocate or defend arrogance as a worthy trait.  Christian teaching condemns it as a vice, the opposite of humility, which is a virtue.

My reason for making this distinction from the start is that accusations of Christian arrogance need to be similarly sifted into two categories: the charge that Christians act or conduct themselves in an arrogant manner, on the one hand, and the charge that Christian beliefs are arrogant, on the other. A lot of what I hear in the culture today along these lines amounts to people responding to the appearance of an arrogant disposition, rather than anything having to do with actual beliefs. I meet a number of disgruntled people who were raised in church and whose migration away from the religion of their childhood is rooted mostly in the desire to distance themselves from attitudes they perceived in those who taught and led them in their younger days. They usually talk about preachers or other church leaders asserting authority in such a way as to lord it over people, telling people how it is and disallowing questions or dissent. The image is of a controlling spiritual leader and an atmosphere in which pharisaical holier-than-thou gamesmanship crushes and shames anybody who questions anything.

However much truth there is to these kinds of depictions (and without a doubt there is some), it seems to be trans-denominational and unfortunately quite common. But mostly it is not about beliefs, nor are many of the complaints of Christian arrogance across the internet (where, as you know, there is no shortage of anti-religious vitriol). Consider a very recent blog entry from a man who describes himself as “a former Pentecostal evangelist who renounced his beliefs for atheism.”  He writes,

Have you ever had discussions or debates with theists regarding their beliefs only to find out well into the conversation that you are literally talking to a wall? If you listen to the words they use and the manner in which they speak you will come to realize that theists speak with absolute and undeniable certainty …

Note that this guy’s beef is with the demeanor or disposition of certain believers more than what they believe. He obviously doesn’t share their beliefs so I’m sure he is critical of them in different ways, but what really seems to gall him is the attitude more than the beliefs themselves. To use his phrase, it’s “the manner in which they speak” that is the main problem.

And to the particular accusation that many Christians comport themselves in a prideful way that communicates superiority, all we can say is, “I’m sorry he/she/they acted that way toward you,” or if it’s more personal, “I apologize if I came off that way.” Clearly Christians have to be aware of this all the time and steadfastly guard against an attitude of arrogance. Again it is one of the many natural faults of a corrupted human nature, and the guilt is shared on all sides. Ironically, one source of these kinds of charges is the popular book-writing club often described as the “new atheists.” If you’ve ever heard certain of them speak publicly, I need not explain the word “ironically” in the previous sentence, as they are the quintessence of arrogant demeanor and dismissive rudeness. Nevertheless, Christians cannot permit themselves to indulge in these attitudes regardless of how defensive or annoyed we may feel at a given moment.

 

Is Christianity Arrogant?

Over a century ago an enigmatic and controversial figure with a name you recognize boldly wrote, “Christianity has been the most calamitous kind of arrogance yet.” But Nietzsche’s reason for proclaiming this is not what you might suppose. Like many today, he resented institutional church leaders holding themselves above others and parading their piety, but more concerning for Nietzsche was the way they reinforced the “slave morality” of meekness and submission, stifling the creative and dynamic impulses of “master morality,” which exercises the natural and inborn “will to power” that all living things exist to express. Alas most modern people cannot hang with Nietzsche. He was considered outlandish and offensive to many in his own time, even if also brilliant in his own insightful and prophetic ways. And if he was too politically incorrect for the sensitivities of people in the 19th Century, there’s little chance his views – if taken seriously – could gain any real traction today.

Instead today’s version of the case against Christian belief on charges of arrogance is quite different. As already summarized, the focus of the accusation is on claiming to know spiritual or divine truths, claiming that mankind has a special position, having confidence in one’s beliefs that results in disbelief in other (alternative or contradictory) views, and in the active attempts to persuade other people regarding these beliefs. In the interest of time and space, I will deal in what follows with the first of these charges, and in a blog to follow soon will take up the rest of them.

So then, what about claiming to know high and lofty things about God, man, sin, salvation, etc.? Is that not just too bold? Who are we to presume to know anything about those subjects, anyway? They are all far beyond us, not discoverable by mathematics or empirical observation. I remember hearing one of the prominent atheists in a public discussion during which he must have used the phrases “claiming to know the mind of God” and “claiming to speak for God” about forty times. To him, this was the epitome of arrogance.

But is it? Can nobody hold beliefs about these things without “presuming” too much? If so, agnostics are the only ones to avoid guilt. Most people have some kind of belief about God – whether it is that no such being exists, that one does, that many do, that the physical universe is identical to God, etc. Merely having a belief concerning God is not arrogantly presumptuous. It is fairly standard. Same with related spiritual beliefs (angels, demons, the afterlife). There is no reason to think that having beliefs about these things necessitates arrogance.

For Christians there are teachings about the most important subjects in life that are taken to be inspired. To that extent Christians do claim to “know the mind of God,” but not to any further extent. The phrase itself (“knowing the mind of God”, much like “speaking for God”) usually conjures up the image of someone claiming that God is speaking directly to him in a new and special way, giving specified instructions or knowledge that nobody else has, revealing what he wants for everyone only to that individual. Christians are sometimes prone to make such assertions, but it is not part of historic Christian belief to make those sorts of claims, and you will always see immediate examination and criticism of such claims from within the larger Christian community. The Christian claim is that God has revealed most of the important truths about life either in broad ways to everyone (“general revelation”) or in specific ways through specific channels (“special revelation”) that culminated in certain writings (that make up the Bible) intended as the primary vehicle of those truths across time and cultures.

So there is no arrogance in holding to the Christian understanding of revelation. It does not involve any of us having special inside knowledge on account of higher spiritual position. The key revelation is the writings (“scriptures”). The claim that these are inspired is supportable in numerous ways and therefore reasonable rather than outlandish and arrogant. When a Christian points to something taught within those writings, she is not making herself the authority. She is deferring to another authority to which she submits, and the writers happen to condemn prideful boasting or thinking too highly of yourself. The central figure, in fact, epitomizes humility and teaches that the greatest person is the one who serves everyone, that the proud are rejected while the meek and humble are blessed.

Arrogance is a faulty trait, a sinful attitude, a biblically condemned and altogether anti-Christian way of thinking and acting, as well as a generally unlikeable characteristic. But beliefs are not people. Beliefs are only arrogant in nature if they (a) flow from (are motivated by) this wrong disposition, (b) cause/inspire it, or (c) support/encourage/further it. Christian belief of the biblical and historical kind is exonerated from these charges. For those who still disagree, in my next contribution I will address whether it is arrogant to teach that God considers human beings special (above the other living creatures), whether it is arrogant to believe that some religious views are correct while others are not, and whether it is arrogant to attempt to spread Christian beliefs by seeking to persuade people of them.

25 Responses to “Arrogant Beliefs (and the arrogant believers who arrogantly believe them)”

  1. Thank you Clint for writing this excellent article.
    The following statement meant the most to me:
    I meet a number of disgruntled people who were raised in church and whose migration away from the religion of their childhood is rooted mostly in the desire to distance themselves from attitudes they perceived in those who taught and led them in their younger days. They usually talk about preachers or other church leaders asserting authority in such a way as to lord it over people, telling people how it is and disallowing questions or dissent. The image is of a controlling spiritual leader and an atmosphere in which pharisaical holier-than-thou gamesmanship crushes and shames anybody who questions anything.”

    Seems like I encounter this attitude nearly everywhere I go-
    Questioning dogma seems to have become the “unpardonable sin”
    Just last week, two older people in leadership positions told me in subtle ways to stop talking about what I have learned. They seem to be desparate to protect their turf and to maintain their image of expert.

  2. One of my favorite quotes from John Locke:
    Since religious enthusiasm may interfere with both learning and teaching, the individual must not sacrifice the “plain and clear dictates of reason” in order to embrace “the contrary opinion, under the pretense that it is a matter of faith.” Locke believed that a clear understanding of the separation between faith and reason would prevent people from confusing faith with the false teachings of religious authorities. When teaching, the church leader must recognize the deception of enthusiasm in order to avoid becoming a false teacher. Locke used the language of Acts 20:30, Philip. 1:16-17, and I Cor. 11:16 to describe a false teacher who may “appear contentious, abounding in his own sense rather than in love, and desirous to draw followers after himself. [W]e judge him not to have learned Christ as he ought, and therefore not fit to be a teacher of others.” In conclusion, Locke deplored an unexamined faith and condemned any “imagined infallible person” [who] “dictates and demands assent without inquiry.”

    This paragraph is one big reason John Locke is my favorite philsopher….

    Over the years, I have had a lot of questions, many that I could not put into words. But then The Lord provides an answer several days later….

  3. For me anyway this is a pop-culture like piece, noting the loss really of the Judeo-Christian presupposition! I can think of the Barth/Brunner debate over Natural Theology, and of course Barth’s “nein” to Brunner’s more classic like Catholic position. Judeo-Christianity will always appear to be an arrogant place of absolutes toward a fallen and broken world, and world system! John Update wrote of Barth’s theological position: “There is no way from God – not even a ‘via negativa’ – not even a ‘via dialectica’ nor ‘paradoxa’. The god who stood at the end of some human way….would not be God.’

  4. For this old classic Anglican, it is always the Cranmerian-Calvinism that/who holds sway, or back to Paul and the Pauline theology! This is Paul’s hammer in Romans 1 thru chap. 3! (Rom. 3:-3-6, etc.)

    This will surely always appear arrogant to a fallen world!

  5. I think that when Christianity was illegal or at least a minority, it grew very quickly because of the un-labeled love of Christians for everyone who crossed their path, and their unexplainable happiness that belied their circumstances. Masters learned the faith from slaves more happy with their life than they. Strangers learned the faith from new friends they made. The proof was in the happiness and the love, not rhetorical arguments.

    In reading I Corinthians 13, one passage that has been overlooked or translated into the weeds is “Love does not insist on its own way.” How can we teach if we do not insist we are right? Doctrine is necessary for our children, but may be a bit premature for strangers. Maybe we can teach more of them if we button our lip and love. Our life will be a witness to the truth of our faith. “Love is patient.” Love takes time, and we need to stay in relationship for our love to do its work. If we sacrifice that to tell people we are right and they are wrong, who is saved? Neither of us. We set the love aside to wallow in our pride. If God is love, and sin is distance from God, than setting aside that unconditional love that God has for all Creation is creating that distance. Nobody is saved by a manifesto. Nobody is changed by an argument. People are changed by love, saved by love, as we ourselves are still sinners saved only by the love reflected in God’s Grace and the sacrifice of Jesus. If we are humble and loving, perhaps Christianity can blossom again.

  6. It is postmodern hogwash that Christianity, especially Pauline is not rhetorical at least in theology, all one has to do is make a serious read of St. Paul’s Romans! Note too Ben Witherington’s socio-rhetorical approach in his NT studies & theology. Indeed the Bible just did not fall out of heaven! And Christian love is always attached to “righteousness” and not “unrighteousness”, and “rejoices in with the truth.” (1 Cor. 13: 6) Surely Christianity does not blossom without both truth and love!

  7. You lost me at your first sentence “Nobody likes arrogance”.. That is an assumption that you base your complete article on and in fact it is wrong. There are many people who are accepted as ‘arrogant’ that are still looked up to… John Lennon, William Buckley, Pat Robertson..The list is endless.

    Next time try not to slip into Christian-think mode when you write an article that is supposed to be factual.

  8. Clint Roberts July 1, 2013 at 5:07 pm

    I guess that if you take the statement as an absolute, John, then it is clearly false, since all it would need is one counterexample (one person who ‘likes arrogance’ as a personality trait).

    But like the proverbs of Solomon, this is a general statement, and as such it is overwhelmingly true. I think a worldwide poll would indicate a universally negative reaction to the trait of arrogance. In fact the word is pejorative in nature rather than merely descriptive. Like the word “cowardice” the negative connotation is included.

    As for your three examples, I guess we could debate the relative arrogance of each member of that eclectic trinity, which, by the way, reminds me of a joke: So John Lennon, W. F. Buckley, and Pat Robertson walk into a bar …

  9. The title reminded me of this passage, verse 15, from the New Testament book of Jude. I remember trying to translate (or memorize) this one many years ago. As a young guy, it somehow provoked me-note the fear that it ought to provoke:
    14 And Enoch also, the seventh from Adam, prophesied of these, saying, Behold, the Lord cometh with ten thousands of his saints, 15 to execute judgment upon all, and to convince all that are ungodly among them of all their ungodly deeds which they have ungodly committed, and of all their hard speeches which ungodly sinners have spoken against him. 16 These are murmurers, complainers, walking after their own lusts; and their mouth speaketh great swelling words, having men’s persons in admiration because of advantage.

  10. Best antitdote for arrogance……
    Grace, wisdom, and humility.

    Only the arrogant would attempt to challenge and criticize the words of someone with a superior education….

    Apostle Paul was bold about confronting Peter for his narrow-minded understanding of spreading the gospel.

    As a gift from God (by His grace) true wisdom demonstrates humility.

  11. I believe Rene Descartes was searching for absolute certainty……his philosophy seems to have led to scientism.

    Absolute certainty within modern science became a cultural norm, influencing fundamentalists in the USA.

    Absolute power corrupts absolutely…..are claims to absolute truth equally corrupting?

    What do claims of absolute truth reveal about someone’s ego?

    Can’t help but wonder….
    I’m looking forward to your answer Clint Roberts :-)

  12. Only the arrogant would attempt to challenge and criticize the words of someone with a superior education….

    Lora,

    In my personal experience that statement has become more then a little bit problematic.

    I have known quite a few people with superior educations that flat out contradict each other in the areas they are educated in. I am speaking specifically now of areas of theology. They simply can not all be correct.

    If a person does not challenge and criticize their words at least silently and internally, how in the world is one to ever even begin to come to any type of solid belief of one’s own? Everything a person of higher education says simply can not be accepted uncritically.

  13. Lora,

    Descartes claimed to be a devout Roman Catholic. His focus was on using the intellect to discover nature and he didn’t see that as a contradictory position. He wasn’t writing on personal attributes, or politics, so drawing parallels between ‘absolutes’ in science and ‘absolutes’ in personality or politics are just exercises in semantics. for example, absolute zero ( Zero degrees Kelvin) has no relationship to absolute power.

  14. John B. Egan,

    Until just recently there was a man that went by “John B” that commented here. I am wondering if you are by any chance that John? Or are you a different person?

    It can be hard to keep track of people’s identities in the blog world when names used can and do get changed.

  15. Thank you for your kind responses…..I should have chosen my words a little more carefully…..

  16. cherylu ..”John B” is not me. And you are correct, it’s hard to keep track of everyone. Originally 30 years ago when I first began posting, I went by JBE ..Then that was taken, so I tried JBE1..and JBE2 etc…Eventually morphing into jegan, which was taken…jegan1 and jegan2 etc… I’ve even encountered John B Egans elsewhere. John Egan is a very common name in the US.

  17. John B. Egan,

    Thanks for clarifying. And that is is quite the morphing history. I hope you aren’t forced into doing so any more!

  18. Clint Roberts July 4, 2013 at 10:58 am

    I think John is right, Lora, in pointing out that there can be statements taken as absolute truths and this need not indicate a corrupting kind of influence. Basic axioms of math might be called examples of absolute truths, but they are not likely to lead anybody on toward dangerous pride.

    Absolute power is completely different (only the word “absolute” makes the two phrases similar at all).

    And regarding Descartes, he would be horrified to learn that anybody ended up with the bankrupt view known as “scientism” because of his writings. He was certainly not anything like that in his philosophy.

  19. In fundamentalist circles, college education is usually in the hard sciences- math, engineering, etc. (See George Marsden’s Fundamentalism and American Culture)

    I agree that it isn’t fair to blame Descartes for absolutism.
    Descartes is often misrepresented:

    I think therefore I am…..

    In his Method and Discourse he announced that he was writing for atheists to set forth proofs for the existence of God without using Scriture- noble goal.

    Rest of context:

    I doubt therefore I am less than perfect……

    On a more perfect Being I must depend…..

    P.S. Just my paraphrase……I wish more Christians would read philosophers for themselves before criticizing them.

    Clint Roberts…I genuinely appreciate your writing on this page :-)

  20. Trying to understand why no one has mentioned Eberhard Jüngel. :-)

  21. James-the-lesser July 7, 2013 at 10:43 am

    Eberhard Jüngel-anyone? :-)

  22. Truth Unites... and Divides July 15, 2013 at 2:24 pm

    “Reasonable Certainty” of beliefs and Personal Humility are not mutually exclusive.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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  3. Pidgey » Que crees que eres especial, y usted piensa que tiene razón. Qué arrogante es posible que seas? - July 13, 2013

    […] Al considerar este lo primero que debemos hacer es: ¿Es realmente una exageración sugerir que los seres humanos tienen una inteligencia superior a todos los demás seres vivos que conocemos en el planeta? ¿Es una afirmación audaz e impactante a otro lo que parece, a primera vista, evidente por la experiencia y el consenso? Estoy bastante seguro de que esto ha sido la opinión de todas las culturas que han existido desde el comienzo de la civilización humana – es decir, que los seres humanos superan a todos los demás seres vivos en el planeta cuando se trata de la capacidad cognitiva. Yo podría seguir adelante y llamar una observación de sentido común. Los seres humanos, mientras que inferior a otras criaturas de muchas maneras (tamaño, velocidad, fuerza, capacidad de salto, la audición, la visión, los reflejos, nadar, volar, etc), son fácilmente en la parte superior de la pirámide cuando se trata de la inteligencia general. Así que en un sentido natural esta idea es simple y observable. Pero la enseñanza cristiana incluye muchas cosas adicionales como ser hecho “ a imagen de Dios “, y siendo objeto de especial atención y preocupación por Dios. Tal vez estos en particular, parecen arrogantes para algunas personas, pero no es necesario. La imagen de rodamiento Dios nunca se toma como una fuente de orgullo indebida, sino que es la fuente, más bien, por la dignidad y los derechos humanos básicos Nunca es una justificación para cualquier tipo de arrogancia, ya que enseña que todos los seres humanos tienen esto. imagen por igual. Si fuera para que nos jactamos, sólo podía ser un alarde más de otras criaturas, lo que parece bastante estúpido, ¿no te parece? Buscar en las Escrituras y luego buscar los escritos de los grandes e influyentes pensadores cristianos, y encontrarás nada como la arrogancia, como respuesta a la Imago Dei (imagen de Dios). Del mismo modo, la respuesta a Dios que muestra la atención o favor para el hombre es de humildad no…

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