"I don't want to send our son to church to be brain-washed like those Stoddard kids!" said our atheist friend to his wife. He grew up in East Germany and we had been church-planting in the former East for a few years by then. At first, I was offended that he would view the kids' program at our church as brainwashing. But then, I couldn't forget that he was probably taught Marx's view of religion throughout his life.
Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusion about its condition is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusions.
Karl Marx, Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right
Karl Marx, Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right
1. Are our brains really free?
According to Marx, if people were to truly think for themselves, they'd be able to detox themselves from the addicting, mind-altering power of religion to numb their pain. But the irony of what happened in East Germany was that the systematic eradication of religion in society necessitated a new form of brainwashing to inculcate its people with the socialist ideal. An atheistic society was forged, Christian holidays renamed, and Christian rites such as baptisms, weddings and confirmation replaced with socialist ones. The loss of individualism that my friend feared our children were subject to in our church was exactly what had happened in East Germany under the guise of heralding Marxist equality. Ethics were flattened and equated with abiding by the socialist norm. Personal morality was hardly stressed other than how it related to the socialist ideal. A lack of conformity got individuals into trouble. One of my elderly friends, an intellectual and diplomat for the GDR, recounted that he was sent to work in the country for 4 years to be "re-educated" so that he'd become a more adept socialist. And of course, there was always the watchful eye of the Stasi (secret police) to ensure no one stepped out of line. In East Germany, socialist brainwashing appeared to be the only solution to the problems caused by Nazi brainwashing. Meanwhile, capitalism and individualism imposed a new tyranny of tolerance on the West, at the expense of individual opinion. And so, wherever we live, our thinking is a product of our culture, upbringing, and the political system to which we are subjected. Freedom of thought is perhaps an illusion because we cannot ever think in a vacuum.
2. Can our brains lead us to morality?
This was, in essence the argument of the enlightenment: With reason as our guide, we can all become moral, responsible, tolerant good citizens. The enlightenment called people to trust Reason because after all, we can only comprehend that which is reasonable and if we could all agree on what is reasonable, we could all live together with a certain set of commonly shared values. But can logical deductions alone lead us to morality? Though our ability to reason is in fact God-given, we can use this tool to selfish ends, rationalizing all sorts of immoral things by putting ourselves and our needs at the center of reality. This happens to us as individuals but also to entire cultures and systems. Recently my husband and I visited the Wanssee Haus, a beautiful villa nestled in a rich neighborhood on the shores of Lake Wannsee. There, on January 2nd, 1942, over breakfast, the most powerful men in Germany master-minded the Endlösung, the final solution for the so-called "problem" of the Jews in Europe. They drew up an elaborate plan to deport thousands upon thousands to their deaths. These men were well educated people who listened to Bach and Mozart but came up with the most morally abject plan of all history. Their "solution" seemed very reasonable to them at the time. They led a whole nation astray and very few had the courage to stand up against it. So is it possible for reason to run amok? I think yes...
3. Do we need brain-washing?
Through a superficial glance at history it becomes painfully clear that Reason alone cannot lead people to be good. Why? Because our ability to reason is radically flawed and limited in scope and this is universally true. Here in Germany, we have the Holocaust as a glaring example of human thinking that has defected to the Dark Side. But it happens everywhere. One has only to look at "wonderful" ideas such as the crusades in Europe, the enslavement of Africans in America, the Cultural Revolution in China, the Rwandan genocide or the recently uncovered North Korean atrocities. In the face of such a vast moral abyss, the doctrine of total depravity, though at first glance seemingly depressing, is a comfort to me. It explains the human propensity towards evil: Human beings are not good at the core. If they were, how could we end up such a mess? Most people certainly aren't as bad as they could be, but what it means is that the Fall affected our beings in their totality. Every aspect of who we are as humans is broken: our bodies, our emotions, our sexuality, our thinking, etc.
At the root of the problem is that we put ourselves at the center of the universe and think more highly of ourselves than we ought. We become our own standard, make our own sense out of this world and only trust our own faulty thinking when it comes to making decisions. This process of not trusting God nor honoring him in our thinking is foolishly self-centered and leads our hearts down the path to darkness:
"For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened" (Rom 1:21 ESV). Paul's solution to this problem is recognizing that our minds are sinful and that the healing of our minds has to come from outside of us. The Holy Spirit has to transform them, to renew them. "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned" (Rom 12:2-3 ESV).
Notice what these verses are not saying. We are not to stop testing, discerning, judging soberly or to disengage our minds and individuality. But we are to do these things in faith, and the outcome of our thinking should be an understanding and embracing of the will of God which is good, acceptable and perfect. If our thinking leads us down any other path, it is most likely self-absorbed and darkened. Our brains cannot lead us to morality, but God's Spirit can!
So should I be offended if someone thinks that church is brain-washing my kids? No, on the contrary! Maybe, next time, I can come up with better answer for my critics, not responding with arrogance but with the message of the Gospel, namely that "he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit (Ti 3,5)."
My kids' brains need washing very desperately, as does mine. My children were born with an intrinsic self-absorption which, if left unchallenged, might lead them down some very dangerous paths, both for themselves and others around them. For as our thinking goes, so go our actions in the end. Jesus is the Logos, Reason incarnate. He is the only one who has ever thought all of God's thoughts after him in a perfect way. It is through his blameless life that my kids will know what pleases God and through his blood that their minds can be cleansed. As long as the church continues introducing them to Him, I will keep sending them there! And I pray that someday their minds will be so renewed that they will be able to stand up against some of the evils the world around them has embraced without a second thought.