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.