I’d been sitting on the idea of this article for quite some time, unable to find the drive to put it onto paper, but when news of Dutch politician Kees van der Staaij’s signature on the now infamous Nashville Statement exploded like wildfire across Dutch news sites earlier this month, my slumbering brain finally whipped itself into shape. For anyone unfamiliar with the event: the Nashville Statement is a document outlining a set of conservative Christian doctrine stances relating to gender, sexuality and marriage, written by The Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, in – as the name suggests – Nashville, US. The relevance of this document within Dutch society was of course largely non-existent until its translation into Dutch at the beginning of this year and consequent signing by a significant group of Dutchmen and women, which caused a thunderstorm of outrage on media platforms across the country, both from secular and religious sources.
I too felt an upsurge of exasperation at this news, and while this was not great for my heart so soon after the holiday season, it proved ideal for this article – indignation is as good a writer’s incentive as there ever was.
As the title of this article states, my main topic to explore will be the inherent instability of identity, particularly a single one of its many facets: our religious beliefs. Note that I do not speak from an entirely disinterested perspective – religion having played an exceedingly large role in my own life – but perhaps this can be an advantage as much as it is a disadvantage. After all, if anything can be taken from 19 years spent living as the child of active evangelical missionaries, it’s a certain familiarity with the broad strokes of what it means to believe.
In any case, this story begins with a conversation I had with an old roommate about three years back. We were sitting in the kitchen of the Dutch International House of Prayer (IHOP) outpost, making tea and chatting about our experiences with the Christian gap-year program we were both attending (Amersfoort’s Evangelical College, or Evangelische Hogeschool). Towards the end of this particular conversation we discussed reasons to believe, and she said, thoughtfully: “I just can’t imagine my life without God. I don’t think I can function without Him.”
To any seasoned churchgoer this phrase will not be unfamiliar. Amongst many of the more charismatic churches in Evangelical Christianity it is a common and admired stance on apologetics. Believers are, after all, consistently encouraged to relinquish any sense of independence from their God, and expected to let Him – as I’ve heard many a pastor say – ‘enter every room in the house of your soul’. A repeated warning heard in my youth group meetings was that we should never leave any of the house’s doors locked.
I thought little of it at the time, myself still so involved within the church culture and possessing so little experience outside its ideological boundaries. Still, this phrase stuck with me like a stubborn wart, swooping in every now and then to check up on things. And the reason it has done so is because as time has passed, and despite myself agreeing wholeheartedly with the phrase three years ago, I now find it completely at odds with my sense of self. After all, the only reaction I have now when I hear the phrase ‘I can’t live without Jesus’ is a twitch in my left eyelid and a desire to run for the hills, screaming.
Hence my desire to write this article. Despite my own previous fervor and background (being a missionary child leaves little room for unbelief, traditionally speaking) I have transitioned, albeit staggeringly, from passionate Christian to skeptical agnostic, and to the best of my knowledge continue to remain completely alive and functional today. So what happened? If the very idea of a life outside of religion seemed impossible three years ago, what caused it to be viable now? Was there a radical transformation, a sudden eruption of butterfly from chrysalis (or of a parasite from its unknowing host, if you stand at the belief spectrum’s other side)? Was it a destined move, established many years before I even realized it might be possible?
The truth is that my deconversion was not like flicking on a lightbulb. Quite the opposite: it proved as lengthy as a hike without a map. In the same way we grow without visible change from one day to another, yet end up over a meter taller from a decade to the next, so do our minds, our selves, apparently constantly reorder themselves. Oftentimes (or perhaps ultimately exclusively) it happens unnoticed by us in the process, leaving us feeling surprised once we measure our height in the mirror, or our stance on matters we thought we were settled firmly on.
We see change as a constant, incessant pressure around us. Seasons shift, years pass, people come and go. And we too are consistently transforming – be it around the waist during holiday season or in our height as the years go by. Yet our essence would be somehow different, immutable; a destiny (biological or otherwise) that is already set in stone. We might change interests and knowledge and opinions over time, but at the core we stay the same. I am David now and in ten years’ time, just as you, dear reader, will be [insert name here] both now and then. To quote the Amersfoort Evangelical College’s slogan, all you do as you change is: “become who you are (worden wie je bent)”.
It would seem then that for the sake of having something immutable in our lives we give this idea a bit of a free pass. The notion ‘soul’ – universally possessed; a sort of immortal, unalterable essence – is the cornerstone on which we build ourselves, even if there is little proof it even exists, let alone stays unchanged. Not that I’m suggesting this is all bad, mind you. Quite the contrary; all humans find a common ground on their shared possession of soul, as well as a sense of stability in an undeniably unstable world.
Similarly, we find a certain relief in the idea of (Christian) God as essentially static. To quote the Bible itself: “For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed” (Malachi 3:6). God, much like our own immutable soul, is a welcome raft in an ocean of roaring, everlasting upheaval. Acting as a perfect foil to the chaos we perceive in the physical world, the idea of an almighty, never-changing entity is a more than pleasant shoulder to rest our heads on when times get rough. Yet, is God as we know Him really that unchangeable? Coming back to the Nashville Statement and the uproar it caused in secular and religious media alike this January, it would seem that religious opinion has more than swayed on the matter of the place of homosexuality within the Church. “Not all Christians are like this”, many outraged believers say, and across the country thousands of churches raised rainbow flags in protest to the news. But even the most liberal of churches in 1920 would have judged this matter quite differently, preferably with the involvement of the police. Take that back a few centuries more and pitchforks and pyres come to mind.
So what does that mean? That the morality of God is ultimately as capricious as that of man? Even if we argue that God’s Law is unchangeable, and that it is instead just His people who interpret it differently over time, all this does is bring the question of immutability back to the human plane. Was all opinion before the current one a mere shadow of truth we have only now grasped the fulness of? That seems a good stance to take, until we think of how our great grandchildren might easily declare exactly the same, rendering all current ideology archaic by default. Surely despite our shifting stances, morals and ideas, there must be still some shared core of universality that transcends the relativity of the now? Some core truth we grasp that keeps our sense of morality from being pointlessly time-bound?
As Martin Luther King Jr. said: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”. What can we grasp at for security if not some measure of stable meaning in the soul or God?
In all truthfulness, the depth of a philosophical debate on the universality of God and/or humanity falls far beyond the capabilities of this article (and, for that matter, perhaps myself as well), but it is an interesting point to consider when we ask ourselves how steadfast our moral compass really is. We no longer use the Bible to condone slavery, women’s oppression and segregation (usually), so what makes using it against gay and transgender rights any more time-lasting? After all, just as we now look back a hundred years and feel only embarrassment at the memory of all the great-great-grandparents who refused the idea of the women’s vote on religious grounds, so might we also realize, uncomfortably, that Christians in only a hundred years more will inevitably look back on the supporters of the Nashville Statement with an identical sense of shame.
And perhaps that’s something to consider before we think about signing any future ones.