One of the accusations that Sam Harris makes against Christian believers is that to believe that God is good based on our experience of God’s blessing is narcissistic:
This kind of faith is the perfection of narcissism. “God loves me, don’t you know, he cured me of my eczema, he makes me feel so good while singing in church and just when we had given up hope he found a banker who was willing to reduce my mother’s mortgage.” Given all this God of yours does not accomplish in the lives of others, given the misery that is being imposed on some helpless child at this instant this kind of faith is obscene . . .
This argument needs to be broken down into two parts before we can address it effectively:
- How does Christianity explain the suffering of children?
- Is Christianity inherently narcissistic?
Now obviously the question of the suffering of children is a much more important question which we must address in an entirely different essay lest the accusation of narcissism be lost in the discussion of a much larger issue. For this reason, we move on to the second issue.
Is Christianity inherently narcissistic?
It should be obvious that when we are asking this question we are asking it about Christianity in the ideal case where the correctly understood teachings of Christ are applied in the life of a believer who is doing his or her best to seek God’s will and live the life of faith that God desires. Since hundreds of millions of people profess to be Christians, there will naturally be many professing Christians whose faith is tainted by narcissistic tendencies. This fact does not make Christianity inherently narcissistic. Racist ideologies have been based on the theory of evolution. If Mr. Harris and other evolutionists are willing to accept responsibility for the Holocaust because some evolutionists are racists, then I will accept the notion that Christianity is inherently narcissistic because some Christians are narcissistic. Because both of these propositions seem unreasonable to me on the same grounds, however, I dismiss them both.
But the accusation that Christianity is inherently narcissistic has a far stronger basis than the narcissism of some professing Christians. The statement, “God hears my prayer and blesses me, but God does not hear the prayer of that person and doesn’t bless them.” does seem to be narcissistic and it is a close facsimile to what most Christian believers profess to be the truth. Does this make Christianity inherently narcissistic? To see why my answer to this is no, let us consider a snippet of conversation overheard in a restaurant:
. . . I was obviously the center of attention. I had no idea what to do so I decided to tell a knock-knock joke.
The person making this remark thinks that they were “obviously the center of attention”. The comment certainly seems to be narcissistic. Is this person a narcissist? The answer to this question depends on the context. Let us consider two possibilities:
Having just knocked over a waiter carrying fifty dishes, I was obviously the center of attention. I had no idea what to do so I decided to tell a knock-knock joke.
Being the most intelligent, beautiful and educated person in the room, I was obviously the center of attention. I had no idea what to do so I decided to tell a knock-knock joke.
As we can see, the charge of narcissism depends on the critical issue of why the person thinks they were the center of attention. In just this same way, the charge of narcissism leveled against Christianity depends on why Christians think God answers our prayers and not the prayers of others. Why does God save us and answer our prayers? Let us consider the scripture:
For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast. (Ephesians 2: 8-9)
As this passage illustrates, the Bible does not encourage Christian believers to think we are loved by God because we are better than those who do not believe. To the contrary, the Bible tells us that we have no cause to boast and that the blessings of God are the undeserved gift of God’s grace. Christians are blessed more than other people because we believe God and accept his gracious offer of salvation in Jesus Christ. This is not a narcissistic belief because God commands us to go forth and offer this same salvation to all human beings without regard to ethnicity, gender or past transgressions:
Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Mathew 28:19)