Monday, July 03, 2006

A Spirited Conversation

Recently I came across the phrase, “The Holy Spirit works in conversation.” I can’t remember exactly where I read or heard it, though I did search through the usual suspects (Slacktivist, Father Jake & Thunder Jones). I haven’t written anything but fluff on this blog in a while, but I’ve been having very serious conversations about faith on some other blogs, and I urge my readers who are interested in spiritual matters to check out the relevant posts on Glennalicious (here and here), Obliquity and At the Mountains of Madness.

As someone who is passionate about both a progressive political agenda and Christianity, and further as someone who sees that not as an oxymoronic condition but rather one of natural harmony, I realize that I’ve picked some tough battles and some worthy…well, I don’t want to use the word “adversaries,” but I face strong arguments from people on either side of my political/religious spectrum, not all of which I have good answers for.

I was very fortunate to be educated in a religious tradition that taught that starting off with “You’re going to Hell!” is not a great or remotely effective way to win people over to the faith. Likewise, it was a religious outlook that not only tolerated but encouraged as essential questioning and doubt. Hence, I have always aimed to teach people about Christianity not by criticizing them and threatening them with eternal torment, but by simply being the best person I can, educating them when appropriate about my beliefs, and contradicting misperceptions.

I think I’ve been fairly successful in this regard; none of my close friends in New York are religious, and my moderate attitude has earned me praise and respect from bloggers like Glenn and Spencer, neither of whom could exactly be called Jesus freaks.

One of those misperceptions is that Christianity is a conservative, oppressive, superstitious, vehemently anti-intellectual religion with a doctrine that conveniently manages to mirror exactly the Republican party platform. Of course, there’s good reason for nonreligious types to believe that Christianity is every bit that unpleasant and idiotic: the radical right has worked hard to encourage that perception.

While other churches are suing school districts to get Intelligent Design into the science curriculum, I attend a church which just elected a scientist (and a woman!) as its presiding bishop. Some Christians read Left Behind; I read When Bad Christians Happen to Good People.

I wholeheartedly believe that humility is an essential Christian virtue, and so while I frequently say I disagree with certain interpretations, I refrain from judging people as “wrong” unless I can point to something that is, actually, wrong. In that spirit, my personal goal with my religious writing on this blog is only to encourage understanding that Christianity is diverse. Usually my targets are evangelicals like the folks at the American Family Association, but sometimes I have to take on secular types, too.

Recently, over at TinManic, and again at Glennalicious, I had occasion to respond to comments from Homer. Now, I don’t know Homer, and commenters on his blog assure me that he’s a cool person, which I have no cause to dispute. However, the particular statements he made were generalizations that not only don’t apply even to a bare majority of people of faith (and among all the great faith traditions on the planet, he made zero attempt at distinction), they were factually incorrect. As a person of faith, I felt an obligation to respond.

Unfortunately, Homer has taken my responses as a personal attack, though I did not mean them as such. Well aware that the Gospel requires turning the other cheek, I felt I couldn’t let his statements go unanswered. I hope Homer will accept my genuine apology since he thought I meant to belittle him personally, but I also hope that in the future he will temper his statements with the recognition that there are very few generalizations that can be accurately made about a group as wildly diverse as the global faith community, and also that some of us are on his side.


Jess said...

You might want to send Homer an e-mail, at least pointing him to this post. Just so he's aware of what you said, in case he doesn't see it on his own.

With that said, I have to tell you that I think you've done a lot of good here. Your writing is a wonderful counterpoint to what many of us see from the politicians and hypocrites masquerading as people of faith. Not that I don't enjoy your fluffier entries, too, but you are a wise man and that comes through in the more serious posts.

Andy said...

Thank you, Jess.

Actually I did link this post on the comments section of Homer's blog where he had complained about me. I'm not sure it had quite the conciliatory effect I had hoped for, as the next comment following (not from Homer, from one of his readers) said:

"...Christianity is a conservative, oppressive, superstitious, vehemently anti-intellectual religion with a doctrine that conveniently manages to mirror exactly the Republican party platform." At least you're not in denial. But you really are a wanker. Of course that's just my opinion, so go spread your gospel of hate somewhere else. I don't need to hear it.

Bowing before superior wit and rhetorical skill, I have decided to just let this go.

Jarred said...

Excellent post, Andy. It's unfortunate that your apology was not more readily accepted. However, it seems to me that some people aren't so much as atheistic as anti-theistic. Where the former suggests true freedom from theistic thinking, the latter suggests that one is still tied to theistic thinking by a compulsion to continuously "denounce" it.

At any rate, I do hope you'll forgive me if I throw my own two cent into one of the exchanges you had with Homer. I'm specifically referring to the exchange about Christians' awareness of other faith groups.

While I can see your point and would agree that most Christians are at least intellectually aware of the existence of other religious traditions, it does seem that this intellectual awareness is forgotten on many practical levels. Most religious debates I have seen (and in the past fifteen or so years I've been following such debates, I've seen plenty of them) do seem to quickly develop to the point where everyone in the debates (Christian and otherwise) act as if "Christianity" and "atheism/agnosticism/secularism" are the only two perspectives in existence. Consider even in this very post you've written where you say that you usually "target" the ultraconservative Christians, "but have been known to take on the secular viewpoint, too." (Please forgive me for not using an exact quote.) Your choice of wording suggests a strict dichotomy in your own debates. I don't know if that's just because the "players" in this particular debate just happen to fit one of those two camps or what. But as I said, it's interesting how often that dichotomy starts appearing in such discussions, even just by subtle implications in the way the debate is phrased.

I could go on and talk about the underlying implications of the tendency for some Christians to refer to anyone not of the Christian faith as "unbelievers" or such apologetic arguments as "Pascal's Wager." But I think I've identified the kind of thing I'm talking about well enough. I'd sincerely be interested in hearing your thoughts and analysis on such tendencies. Or do you see things differently?

Andy said...

Jarred, thanks for your honesty.

Couple of things: I do see things differently about the awareness of other faiths; my personal experience is that, at least at the opposite ends of the Christian spectrum -- maybe not so much in the broad middle -- there is real awareness of other faiths. On my end, an willingness to concede that there is wisdom and truth to be found in many other traditions, even if we disagree, perhaps profoundly, in many areas. On the other end, I would say conservatives are aware of other faiths to a degree that borders on paranoia. They see other faith traditions as dire threats.

I do see how my statement you singled out could suggest a dichotomy in my own views. Honestly, the reason I don't discuss or criticize other faiths is that I don't know enough about them to do so. Also, just in terms of one of my main themes of my blog, I'm choosing to focus on the LGBT struggle for equality and the way the religious community in America, which is mostly Christian, plays a role. I like to focus on the diversity within Christianity, emphasizing that to be "Christian" does not have to mean Republican and/or anti-gay. I also like to confront the ant-theists from time to time, because I think there does tend to be an arrogance about them that they are smart enough to have escaped these silly fairy tales that have enslaved the rest of us. I want them to understand that there are Christians interested in integrity and intellectual arguments about faith.