By Corbin Croy
Why Christianity is Bad For Aspergers
I have not been diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, but I have recently come to the discovery that such a diagnoses would have a lot of explanatory power for the troubles that I have had in my life. I have taken tests and spoken to others about Asperger’s, and I feel quite certain and comfortable enough to admit at this point that I most likely have a high functioning form of Asperger’s. That means that by and far most people know me as a normal person, but they also know me as saying things that to them seem inappropriate, rude or insulting. They know me as the guy who has weird texture and sensory issues that don’t necessarily cause one to be disqualified from any reasonable activity, but imposes itself enough on others to be noticed. Or they know me as the guy who cannot ever seem to settle down in any social situation. Who prefers privacy over “hanging out”, honesty over kindness, and integrity over compassion.
Now, I in no way want to make light of the Asperger Syndrome. I am no expert, and I am only recently becoming aware of all the ramifications this has on my life, and I understand that I have yet to get an official diagnosis. There are those who have struggled much harder than I have, and have probably achieved much more than I could ever dream. I hate making excuses for myself, and I hate when others do it, as well. But the reality is that I have always struggled with the corporate and institutional side of my faith, and it has always been a source of deep concern for me. As you might not realize, I have a degree in theology and my calling is to serve the Lord in ministry. So part of my awareness in all of this is that there might be a connection between the problems I have had in my faith-practice and Asperger’s. I make this not as an excuse but as an understanding of the dynamics at play and how to develop strategies to overcome them. It may just be that I am a wacko who in his heart has always rebelled against God, and now I am simply manufacturing another personal narrative to give myself the excuse to delve deeper into my stubborn ways, and I can accept that, but if what I have been given is just a harder obstacle course than everyone else, then I want to take up the challenge and do the hard work I need to do in order to get through it.
Part of that challenge is being brutally honest with myself, accepting it, and letting myself be forgiven or changed or transformed through it. So I have to admit that if these dynamics are in play then Christianity is really bad for Asperger’s. I will be fair and say that there are some good things in Christianity that is good for Asperger’s and that Christianity has the potential to be great and maybe even the best for Asperger’s, but in its current state I do not see it as very beneficial for my faith-practice. Now, I could go over the obvious things like church, Bible, and ineffective leadership but I feel that all people who don’t like Christianity end up citing these as reasons. So what I’d like to do is examine some fundamental foundations in the Christian faith that make our experience of church, Bible, or Service frustrating or detrimental.
I : Christianity is too gesture orientated and not critically grounded
Gestures are emotion based. Aspie’s have a difficult time with gestures, emotions and empathy. God’s act of salvation which is a culmination of human drama has little to no influence for a person who does not connect meaning to grand gestures. I remember when I first got saved, as a teenager, the altar call was a big gesture, and though I went up and knelt down at the altar, I was never moved by the act itself. In fact, I have only ever repeated gestures out of some sense of obligation and when said ritual is over and am pleased to be done with it, and I seriously consider the alternative of just not having anything to do with such an event ever again.
I have had my fair share of gestures. I did get baptized in the lake. When I got married I washed my wife’s feet as a symbol of Christ washing he feet of the disciples. When I was a charismatic, I was slain in the Spirit and spoke in tongues, and I used to be quite a lively worshipper. I do value these gestures, because at the time they did have personal meaning for me. But by and far I am skeptical of grand gestures, and I see them more as a form of emotional manipulation then as a tool to effectively communicate a message.
A gesture seems so unplanned and disordered. It seems that for the most part if concerned parties just sat down and talked things over they could have a much more rewarding verbal experience. A gesture to me has always just seemed like a really lazy way of telling someone what you want them to know without taking upon yourself the responsibility of effectively communicating it.
The problem here is that gestures are fundamental for the fabric of Christianity. God has revealed himself to us. Now this, in theory, could have come about in any manner of ways. God could have appeared to Caesar, George Washington or Josephus. He could appear to us right now, and give us his revelation. If he had a message for us to hear then the most effective manner to communicate it is to simply tell it to us directly. Aspies almost entirely miss the realm of indirect communication, which is what all Christianity has to assume is how God speaks to us today. Even a belief that stipulates the highest degree of objectivity at the point of origin for our faith, the reality is that right now God is silent, and all we have are his gestures from the past.
Conservatives close ranks on any a posteriori objections by claiming that a Sovereign God does not have to serve humanity, like a vending machine, and how he has revealed Himself in any manner, is better then no revelation at all. Thus, we must work with what we are given and not question it. In fact, we must adhere to this jalopy kind of revelation as though it were the greatest possible kind of revelation. God would not choose to give us a second rate revelation, and so our inability to connect with it is only reflective of our willful resistance to God’s grand gesture of love.
Liberals take a different route. They symbolize, symbolize, symbolize. The gestures are not absolutes which must forever be the burden of the faithful for all time afterward. They are symbols for man to reinterpret throughout the ages. How does one reinterpret? Well, if poverty is a problem that God is a God of the poor. If crime or corruption or problems then God is a Just God. Whatever positive trait that can be added into the Godhead to elevate or inspire humanity to progress or move forward is what ultimately God reveals Himself to us for. But this almost makes revelation meaningless for the Aspie. Progress can happen all on its own without outside causation. To use “God” in such a way just seems like a manipulation and not authentic to the devotion that we would give Him.
One possible solution is to focus rather on the Gospel, instead of the gesture. The Gospel is the Good News that God is on our side. God moves and takes action for our benefit. The Gospel is like a pattern of behavior for God. When I was younger I had the hardest time connecting with people and understanding the appropriate cues on when and how to act or communicate. The only relief I could find for my problem was to study patterns in how people act and react to certain stimulus. I lacked the ability to empathize with them, or to understand why they were always offended with me, but over time I learned that if I could discover patterns of behavior then I could respond or act in a way that did not offend others. The Gospel avoids the pitfalls that both conservatives and liberals make in dealing with the problem of revelation in the Christian religion.
II : Christianity lacks the freedom it should have
I often hear people ask, “Where is the love?” And it is often in response to someone being hurt or judged for something. Love in our society so often gets mingled in with terms like, Kindness, compassion, consolement and Appeasement. These are words that Aspies have a difficult time relating to. I have thought that there have been so many times when I have been kind and compassionate and understanding only to end up in an argument or hurting someone. I almost never look at the church and ask, “Where is the love?”, because a lack of or an excess of it never registers as something meaningful to me.
Brotherly love, as I have come to understand it, does not come as a response to love itself, but rather as a response to freedom. So when I see the problems and inequalities that exist in the church I rarely think of it as a lack of Love. To me it has always been an issue with Freedom. Asperger’s is a condition that locks down many of the cognitive freedoms most others enjoy. Our sensory responses cause us pain and discomfort. For me light, texture, and sound have always been triggers and caused me to simply shut down socially and functionally. Our memories are untrustworthy. I have such clear memories of thinking that I had good positive effects on people only to learn that I simply had no clue what I was thinking. And society and culture seems more like a trap then it does a gift. Small groups of people is the max an Aspie can handle. Large crowds and business are frightening and scary. There is so much which locks us down that the message of freedom is far more powerful for us then the message of love.
When I look back on all the conflicts that I have had in my life, what I always regret most is how inhibited and hindered we both felt from truly discussing what we needed to discuss. The reality is that for most people to truly communicate with me they have to be willing to put themselves in a place of extreme vulnerability, and it is a place that most people do not want to go, or feel threatened by one expecting to go there. But I myself need to respond by being vulnerable myself. So the “love” that so many people think is lacking in either myself, or the church, does not ever seem to come from a lack of love. Most of the time we are trying to love each other deeply, but with our walls fortified and guarded. For me, love has always come as the natural outflow of freedom.
The problem is that when I look at Christianity, I do not see a whole lot of freedom. Salvation is a message of God saving the whole person. Ultimately it is about wholeness and union with something beyond us entirely. The ancient connotation was that salvation is liberation from outside oppression. Salvation and freedom go hand in hand. Thus, it might seem from an Aspie’s point of view that a religion which professes to offer God’s salvation to the world ought to demonstrate a high degree of personal and inner freedom among its adherents.
But everywhere you look, Christians bicker with other Christians in a power struggle. Christians live menial and submissive lives to religious authorities. And they act like busybodies in a culture war that only seem to be manipulated by political and power hungry forces. Christians are not free. We are self-absorbed and power hungry people who chase after materialism, fame, wealth, and power.
Within the fabric of Christianity is the grace theory of atonement. Grace is the operation of God to affect human salvation. And Christian Grace is unmerited favor. This predisposition automatically orientates a person toward love and kindness and acceptance, and also toward the gesture centered modality that is also prevalent in Christianity. But grace defies justice. It defies responsibility, and it defies individuality. Freedom is entitlement for one’s rights, thus it requires a just code of ethics. Freedom is pure action, thus is requires a responsibility of being that we not confuse our action and our intention. Freedom is self-assertion, thus it requires individual value and uniqueness. To be free we need all the things that grace obliterates in order for it to exist.
To resolve this problem the conservative response is to simply adopt legalism. God’s freedom is spiritual freedom, which cannot be actualized in this life. Thus, our duty is to be good little boys and girls until God can free us from sin and give us future glory. So we are free in the technical sense, because this life is but a second compared to eternity, and our freedom in heaven will be all the more glorious knowing that we were obedient to God in this life. So the lawlessness of grace is countered by the legalism of biblical or church authority.
The liberal response is to their lack of freedom is to be hyper-sensitive toward tolerance. I have experienced just as much guilt and confusion among liberal Christians who will not allow themselves to speak or communicate freely all for the sake of other people “feelings.” Tolerance, on this level, does no one any favors. It is just as much of a burden and a bondage. I have never felt that the “love-everyone-be-a-flower-child-and-dance-on-rainbows” kind of liberal thinking has ever resembled the kind of personal freedom and liberation from sin that I see embodied in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. I have only ever seen it as a mask and a deception. Those who toy with “love” and “peace” and think that they can use them as ideologies to hide behind to make everyone else bow and conform to their idea of what is “tolerable” and what is not are nothing but the same kind of power hungry conservatives, except that the crutch the liberals use is a projection and a façade, while the crutch for the conservatives is hunkering down and closing ranks.
A possible solution might be the kenotic incarnation of Jesus Christ. We are told that Jesus “lowered” himself and became humble in order to atone for the sins of humanity. Humility is one social skill that I think Aspies can grasp and employ in their lives rather easily. There are various ways in which we can think of humility. I like C.S. Lewis’ idea about humility. He says, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself. It is thinking of yourself less.” Humility can be tricky because in many religious manifestations it seems more like self-hatred. But there is one aspect of humility that I think C.S. Lewis hints at and is most personified in ancient stoicism and modern existentialism, and that is the virtue of self-mastery. Thinking of one’s self less, requires a conscious choice, thus it is a skill that can be developed. We can measure it, and we can control it, relatively speaking. If we employ categorical criticism to our way of thinking we will focus on the maxim which would benefit all people most effectively, instead of selecting those outcomes which always suit us most. Thus, Humility in this sense is seen as a kind of Kantian critical analysis of our spiritual devotion. We are lifted up when all people are lifted up, and in Humility we can lift up all people. So through Humility we can resolve the tension between grace and freedom.
III : Christianity has no fail-safe
This is one that is most difficult for me. In Buddhism there is a saying, “If you see the Buddha, kill the Buddha.” It is that one statement right there that makes me want to be a Buddhist rather than a Christian. I must be honest about that, because it represents something for me that I think is the biggest problem I have as an Aspie with Christianity, and that is that Christianity has no fail-safe.
When things go wrong what is the back up plan? All things said, there isn’t one for Christianity. You could try and say that the Holy Spirit leads the church, but all that really means is that the victors get the privilege of writing history. What we know as the church is actually a complex organism consisting of many groups. Those groups which survive and keep the organism functioning get to stay, but those who are “deemed” as heretics often get the axe. There have been severe splits and divisions in our Christian organism, and the variety of groups seems unlikely that any real consistency can be thought of as existing between them, to the degree that a reliable fail-safe can really be depended on. The reality is that such a claim is tantamount to saying that what we say and like and approve of is our back up plan, but that is just another way of saying that you have no back up plan.
If Christianity fails, how would Christians ever know it? How would they course correct if they realized that their faith was causing them more harm then good? Are they able to even do such a thing? There are other things the Christian could say, like how Satan can appear as an angel of light. But we do not see this played out in any New Testament narrative. There is never a moment where an angel appears to someone and then it is a false angel. For all intents and purposes the Bible gives us no reason to distrust angelic interventions, except this one weird verse that tells us about how Satan can look like one. All this really does is create more confusion and gives the various groups existing within the organism to mistrust one another based on angelic interventions.
A millennia ago the Christian thing to do was the Crusades. Five hundred years ago the Christian thing to do was to put men of science on trial for heresy and have them executed. Within that century the Christian thing to do was to force Jews into conversion or have them executed. Skip forward another hundred years and the Christian thing to do was to find witches and execute them. Within this century the Christian thing was to make sure that African Americans went to their own schools, drank from their own drinking fountains, and sat in a different section of the bus. Even today the Christian thing is to deny homosexuals God’s blessing for their morally sanctioned lifestyle. Christianity has failed in the past, why think that it is not failing now?
Aspies struggle to make social connection, not because they are bad at it, but because their version of good social interaction is not at all what other people think of as good social interaction. Thus, those who have Asperger’s rely on fail-safes in order to make social interactions worthwhile. I pretty much count of failing in all my social interactions the first time through. The only reason why I still believe social interactions to be a good thing is because I rely on my fail-safes to make things come out all right. Aspies are not “good first impression” people. We need fail-safes because for the most part we are going to fail.
I have also been a very passionate person, and when I get excited about an event or idea that I feel that I can develop I find it very easy to lose contact, or get lost, in what I am passionate about. I obsess, and as a result I increase the likelihood for failure should my project or thought process meet the real world. To keep myself grounded I rely on fail-safes. Having a back up plan or understanding my contingency scenarios creates for me an objective view of accountability and preserve what I am passionate about. An Aspie cannot help themselves at times in becoming consumed by something they are passionate about. Recognition of failure can help an Aspie not get lost in their passion.
The problem is that Christianity has a little word called “faith” which is essential to the religion itself that cannot be removed from it. Faith, for many, is an anti-fail-safe recognition system. To admit failure is to admit weakness, and while this may have intellectual merit, when it comes to admitting that an all-powerful God could have done better many Christians turn up their nose and walk away in righteous disgust. The idea, itself, is repugnant and sacrilegious to even bring up.
How is faith ever an excuse for immorality? This is a problem for an Aspie, for in many ways faith seems nothing more than a deception we tell ourselves so that way we can excuse our immoral behavior. If faith prompted the Crusades, Inquisition, Witch Hunts, Segregation, and our modern Homophobia then why in the world would an Aspie involve themselves in something which could cause them more self-deception and miscommunication. Those with Asperger’s have a painful commitment and devotion to honesty and truth telling. When we see something that is wrong it is simply wrong. Calling it right, because of a religious devotion, does not create an argument for that religion. It gives us a good reason not to trust religion.
To resolve this problem conservatives tend to cling to extra-biblical historical narratives to justify their need for immorality. For instance, many Christians believe that God is judging America because of the sin of homosexuality. So the right thing to do in response is to stomp out homosexuality where ever it is seen. The reality is that there is no reason to think America is being judged by God, even if all our sins were sins it would not lead to the conclusion that the bad things which may or may not be happening are happening because of God’s judgment. But the judgment gives Christians a good excuse to hold onto their immoral behavior. Or consider Manifest Destiny. It was believed that God had blessed our country to go from sea to shining sea. Thus, we had the right to put Indians into settlements and go to great lengths to fight and slaughter them. One other historical narrative which was contrived in faith in order to justify immoral behavior. This is rooted in what is called eschatology.
Eschatology is the belief that history will at some point come to a conclusion where God’s will and justice will finally be revealed. God works in history and moves pieces, like on a chess board, which are nations and world leaders into play. All to achieve some hidden plan which will not be revealed until the game is over. It would be fair to label this more as reified eschatology, but it is the mode in which most conservatives seem to use as their expression of faith when confronted with moral violations.
Liberals tend to philosophize their faith into some form of existential strife. Thus, the immoral character is exposed for what it is, but it becomes entirely detached from anything resembling faithfulness. The reason religious people are immoral is the same reason non-religious people are immoral. It has no bearing on faith, because faith is a relationship between man and his existence, while morality is a relationship between man and his essence. While, I tend to appreciate the liberal response to the moral problem, it seems to lack persuasive force. If faith has no moral substance then why would it be a good thing? What value does faith offer me? If it is unrelated to any axiological system then there seems no point to it, except to say how it is an unavoidable dimension of human existence, which if true becomes entirely meaningless in expressing it in a particularly meaningful way.
One possible solution is narrative theology. Narrative theology does not have a fail-safe. I simply do not think there is a way around this problem, but narrative theology does minimize the threat level imposed on the faithful. In narrative theology God is the story-teller of our lives. We are the protagonists and God is writing our life into a drama. Not all stories have happy endings, but all stories are meaningful, and not all heroes are good, but all heroes progress and learn something from their trials. Narrative theology recognizes that for the most part heroes must chart their own course and go their own way. Thus, narrative theology gives humanity the freedom to follow its own conscience, and to heroes and protagonists in their own story. Those who feel it is wrong to do evil in the name of faith will never have to suffer that problem unless they impose it upon themselves. The hero must always strive for the heroic and in doing so, God will draw the hero to Himself. It is a sacred trust that in being what God has made us to be that we are doing what God wants us to do. And narrative theology captures the essence of this trust to its highest degree. So while things may still go wrong they are most likely going wrong because we got the wrong end of the stick rather than the stick.
I have had a lot of conflict in churches. I am just beginning now to see that this might have been because of Asperger’s. I could write and talk about how the basic communication breakdown happens in fellowship, accountability, and church leadership, but there is something about how Christians are being Christian that makes it hard for me to trust most Christians. I have studied Christianity for most my life, and I can see that there are things that we practice and believe that are simply harmful for those who have Asperger’s. I am beginning to doubt whether or not I can actually be a practicing Christian, not because I find that everywhere I go becomes disagreeable, but because everywhere I go there does not seem to exist a system of belief that I find consistent with their overall stated purpose. Conservatives seek to honor God and his word, and in doing so many times adopt non-biblical beliefs, due in large part to the theological problems cited above. Liberals seek to be thankful toward God and His People, and in doing so shut down speech and ideas that they find “offensive.” Both sides are at fault in this, and I find it difficult to trust either of them, because their good intentions mean very little to me.
Other people are able to connect to a community of faith based on the connections they have toward others when they feel “safe” or “comfortable” enough within that group. These comfort requirements are set according to how well intentioned they find others in that group in relation to themselves. So as long as everyone feels that everyone else is looking after them then by and far most people are hunky dory, but I have never felt comfort from the mere fact that another person has good intentions for me. I have always felt the need to test the limits and in doing so have burned a lot of bridges. I know that I need work, just as much as everyone else. I am no saint sitting upon my perch criticizing the church for its many flaws. I am a Christian wanting to fit in like everyone else, and feeling totally lost on how to do that.
So some may feel that the cost is not worth the reward. I admit that my hang-ups are pretty big, and I would not ask anyone to accept my faults without at the least offering a positive outcome. Aspies are incredibly honest and loyal. If you can earn an Aspies loyalty then it will take a lot to get them to leave, and their loyalty goes everywhere with them. They will confront and expose anything which threatens the object of their loyalty, and they will speak truth whenever you ask them a question. Asperger’s could be very good for Christianity. It’s just too bad that Christianity is not that good for Asperger’s.