04/21/13

Persecution Complex? Easy for you to say…

medium_6253442273American Christianity has a persecution complex, several recent commentators have claimed. While Christians in the Middle East and elsewhere are experiencing real persecution, having their homes burned to the ground, being forced to flee, being thrown into prison, and being executed, American Christians cry persecution when religious tax exemptions are challenged or a lawsuit is filed to remove the Ten Commandments from a courtroom. The moral of the story, for these writers, is that Christians in the West should spend less time complaining about insignificant problems and more time protesting real persecution elsewhere.

Though they accurately diagnose Christian fixation on persecution, this means of argumentation is impractical and hypocritical. It’s the adult equivalent of being told to eat your peas because children in Africa are starving. Is it true? Yes. Does the child ever think, “Wow. You’re right. Now I’m going to shut up and enjoy my peas.” No. If anything, it further reinforces a feeling of unfairness. The critique is made from the position of an outsider that has no stake in the game. Further, it’s not a principle anyone in the West can ever consistently apply to their own lives. On any sort of spectrum, be it religious, economic, social, or political, one can argue that those of us in the West are worlds better off than those elsewhere. The Christian religious perspective makes it easier to critique because it plays the persecution card more readily, but any of us could be accused of focusing on small issues when we set our problems on a global scale. Critiques that Western Christians are unfairly weighting domestic issues would have to be accompanied with an explanation of why consistency is more important in the religious sphere than in the economic or political ones, ones in which the levels of hypocrisy are just as far reaching.

So, where does the critique come from? It’s a matter of outsiders turning a professed religious solidarity against Christians. “If you all are part of the same group,” it asks, “why don’t you care about foreign Christians as much as your own?” It’s hypocritical because it criticizes Christians for not exercising preference for all Christians equally, yet when Christians exercise preference for their own vis-à-vis other Americans, these same commentators would cry foul. We could make plenty of other comparisons. I run the tap water for two minutes because it’s too cold for my hands while people elsewhere die from diseases contracted from polluted water. I live free from day-to-day fear for my life, while people (regardless of religious background) elsewhere live with a constant threat of being collateral damage in the “war on terror.” However, I still feel slighted from time to time, or treated unfairly, and having those feelings invalidated generally doesn’t motivate me to positive action.

None of this means that the martyr complex charge made against Christianity is incorrect. In psychoanalysis, a complex is “a related group of emotionally significant ideas that are completely or partially repressed and that cause psychic conflict leading to abnormal mental states or behavior.” Less formally, it just means disproportionate concern or anxiety. Christianity’s triumph, its path to becoming the state-sponsored religion, was built upon an ideology of persecution, one that never had more than a tenuous connection to the numbers of those killed. (This of course begs the question of what constitutes persecution; though few would claim it is only limited to deaths, that is the only way the numbers are tallied. How many deaths would equal legitimate persecution? It seems distasteful to even ask, and both sides exploit this ambiguity.) Theologically and psychologically though, persecution was critical to Christian growth. Although the average Christian likely would grossly overestimate the amount of Christians martyred in the early centuries (and perhaps even in the present), the actual numbers are largely irrelevant when placed on a supernatural scale. When battles are being waged against an “Adversary”—the Devil, demons, the Prince of Darkness, Evil, etc.— it doesn’t matter if you are in the apparent majority, because you are still battling a formidable force.

The abandonment of this persecution ideology would be the abandonment of Christian eschatology, of the Great Commission, of Christ’s return. It would be tantamount to acceptance of the world as it is, that God either approves of the existing world or is powerless or unwilling to change it. Faced with the alternative, many would prefer to cry persecution and await or try to bring about a Divine reckoning. So the answer, as usual, is much more complicated than just “stop complaining about being persecuted.” It would mean abandoning Christian identity. Some argue that would be better, but we might as easily abandon an American identity to solve the same problem. Neither is very likely, but the degree to which we retain these beliefs for our own existential well-being may be the extent to which we turn a blind eye to difference or lay the responsibility for change elsewhere.

photo credit: Tom Szustek via photopin cc

04/16/13

Change of Heart: If you’re a senator, you must have compassion for the world

I’m late to the punch on this one, but I was intrigued by the news last month about Republican senator Rob Portman supporting marriage equality and claiming his gay son as the significant reason for his change of heart. He has subsequently been criticized by some saying that the only reason he changed his mind was because he was able to put a face to the issue. And no doubt they are right. An article in Slate commented that since the senator doesn’t have relatives with no health insurance or exposed to the consequences of environmental destruction, he doesn’t care about those things. He argues, “But if Portman can turn around on one issue once he realizes how it touches his family personally, shouldn’t he take some time to think about how he might feel about other issues that don’t happen to touch him personally?”

Caryn Riswold at feminismxianity acknowledges the influence of what psychologists call the contact hypothesis, in which people are more likely to be influenced to change their views on a particular issue when face-to-face with another who embodies the other side. Yet she also laments that people can’t show that compassion as part of the human family, rather than just their own family.

There is a problem with this line of analysis that has caused a misreading of the senator’s actions. The problem is that by making clear his change of heart was motivated by personal influence, he pierced the liberal and religious facade that says we should have compassion for everyone and showed his compassion was much more narrow-minded. Note how quickly the Slate article characterized Portman’s move as one from not caring to caring, which is not warranted by his actions, and allows the article to claim he doesn’t “care” about other issues. But the compassion involved in relationships with family and friends is not the same as that with one’s constituents, or others one doesn’t know. To say that I care about, love, or have compassion for the millions of people I will never meet is a largely meaningless statement. The fact is that most of us care more about our families and friends as well. Yet because Portman admitted the personal factor in his shift, his opponents want to exploit it.

Thus, to construe the senator’s positions on a spectrum of caring and not caring is irrelevant and hypocritical. There is a political facade here as well, one more closely tied with a religious one than we would like to admit, that suggests that politicians are motivated by their constituents and make policy based on what is “right” rather than what gets lobbied for the hardest. Although the corrupt politician is the trope of more movies and television shows than I can count, we yet hold to an ideal of governance in the interest of all—that “all” dependent on ones perspective—and are thus consistently confused by the actions of our government.

Riswold pinpoints the religious character of this wishful thinking, in which we envision people in power caring about all the things that we care about. For her it is no doubt based upon a Christian model of all-encompassing love. That model is impossible to achieve, but stands in the way of moderate and incremental change. This model of compassion, if expanded to its logical conclusion by wider and wider concentric circles, will reach a point where it will make nearly every liberal and Christian heart flinch. When expanded to the poor, when expanded to those of other religious traditions, when expanded to opposing nations, when expanded to “terrorists,” the feelings of compassion begin to shrivel and dry up, or become mere rhetoric. This compassion is based on a religious model that is designed to be impossible and require the intervention of a divinity to complete its action. There are of course some who have served as examples to us all and have cited this sort of love as a motivator. But if I was a betting man, I would not continue to play those odds. Why continue to hold to this model?

The point is that none of us act as compassionate as we think we are. But we can much more easily see that in others than ourselves. This absolutely is not a suggestion that we should all be more like Jesus. Rather, it is a suggestion to put more realistic boundaries around our means of motivation to action. I agree with those commentators who regret that we still live in a world where it is the responsibility of minorities to assert their equality. But it has historically always been that world, and it will always be a tiring fight for minorities. But there are also victories. It is an encouragement to me that personal exposure can break through the dogma of politics, as it can for that of religion. I have not felt the identity crisis that is involved in hiding your sexual orientation, or having the courage to share it and experiencing the fallout from it. But if it is anything like the existential crisis of leaving faith, perhaps I can relate. Dogma is impersonal and universal; it cares little for the individual. Individuals, however, personal relationships, can break through and override dogma, and the way to change beliefs is to show people the possibility of another way.

04/8/13

Smart people can be religious too, can’t they?

Being charitable to the positions, beliefs, and arguments of others is a hallmark of thorough thinking, and it is a good marker to determine the quality of online content. Blogs and comments are often dominated by clear but one-sided opinions on a particular subject, which allows them to gain a quick following by confirming the opinions of their own group. If one’s goal is to start and maintain a community of like-minded people for the benefits a feeling of belonging provides, this is effective. Usually, however, such blogs are constructed as if intending to speak to those on the other side of the fence, in which case their manner of argument is poor and ineffective, because, in the language of Stephen Covey, they seek first to be understood before they understand.

I cringe at these types of arguments, regardless of what side of the fence they land, because they pretend to be something they are not. Being charitable doesn’t mean not making claims of value or judgement; it simply means a considered investigation of the side you are arguing against, putting it in the best possible light. Unfortunately, academic training seems to make one prone to the opposite problem, being so charitable that one is doing little other than summarizing the state of affairs. This may be helpful if the greater public is unaware of a factor that may change the nature of a discourse, and often it functions as a plea for moderation against the more one-sided folks. Only rarely, at least in my field, do scholars make challenging claims. It’s simply the way we were raised.

I would like to think that people who study religion have to be more charitable than most, because they are often dealing with the impact of beliefs and actions that are self-founding; in other words, they cannot be verified or justified by outside reasoning. I have come to wonder, though, whether touting the pluralism of religious scholarship is not simply bad faith. Perhaps scholars use arguments against bias to avoid upsetting their audience, or even more critically, to avoid upsetting themselves. I know this was true in my case. I survived as a Christian for at least two years only by maintaining a separation between my religious life and my academic life, even though the latter deals almost exclusively with the religion I practiced. It eventually became an untenable separation for me, the exact reasons for which remain a mystery, especially as many others are able to operate in both worlds, the religious and the academic.

Indeed, I have had numerous conversations with friends who are believers about the fact that there are many intelligent people, many intelligent scholars even, who hold very strong religious beliefs. It may seem silly even to have that conversation, but the nature of the majority of the discourse, in which atheists think Christians are stupid, or at least Christians think atheists think they are stupid, and Christians think atheists are all the devil’s servants destined for hell, or at least atheists think Christians think they are, makes it a practically inevitable conversation. In addition, because I quit religion while in higher education, friends often assume I think that my current position is the “smarter” one.

Many different names come up in the conversation about smart Christians, with C. S. Lewis always high on the list. I’ll return to him another time, but I came across another brief argument by a Christian academic that reinforces my contention that one cannot justify religious belief from a non-theological scholarly methodology. Gary Cutting, a philosopher from Notre Dame, wrote an opinion piece “On Being Catholic” in the New York Times, where he says, “I try to articulate a position that I expect many fellow Catholics will find congenial and that non-Catholics (even those who reject all religion) may recognize as an intellectually respectable stance.” What follows is part personal testimony and part justification of a liberal approach to an orthodox tradition.

Cutting argues, as liberal Christians often do, that while the church may not provide fundamental truths, it is a helpful tool for understanding the human condition. While he doesn’t go into detail here, the “tools” that other Christians cite are primarily explanatory ones, such as man having a sinful nature, which then explains why people do bad things, reinforcing the idea that if there were only more Christians, there would be less evil in the world. Cutting also aligns with other liberal Christians in highlighting the ethic of love as a “powerful force for good” and the lens through which Biblical teachings should be interpreted. He anticipates the counterargument that he is promoting a watered-down version of the faith by contending that the Catholicism itself makes room for such diversity of belief.

None of this is a clear justification of his belief as a Catholic or a reconciliation with his life as an academic. In the end, he offers two reasons why not to abandon the flawed institution of the Catholic Church. First, the Catholic tradition is, as he says, “the only place I feel at home. Simply to renounce it would be…to deny part of my moral core.” This is where the heart of Cutting’s argument lies. He can’t give up religion because it would be giving up part of himself. I understand his argument and have felt that way myself, but it is not the intellectually respectable stance he claimed it would be. It is rather a conversation-stopper, an argument that maintains a foundational ground without question out of (a very real) fear.

By holding both that the church is flawed and yet that its ideals are right or that its heart is in the right place, Cutting keeps those flaws at a distance from himself. Yet he is left with two choices. One would be to articulate more clearly what are those beliefs that constitute his moral core and why exactly they are best served in Christianity. If simply because that is the tradition he grew up in, fine, but that is not the reasonable argument he is making. The other option would be to seriously question whether the flaws in the Church are also deeply embedded in his moral core as well. The change in my life, from a place where I felt like Cutting to where I am now, was facilitated by the realization that my moral worldview was not, in practice, supported by the theological underpinnings I had been told it was. It was then that I realized my moral core was tied more to the particularities of my social world—which did include Christianity— and my dispositions rather than a divine Creator.

Cutting’s second reason not to abandon his belief is contingent upon the first. He doesn’t want to abandon his faith to the conservatives. Again, I recognize the position, and it is one I held for a period of time. The lines are not as clear here. I am not willing to say, as many nonreligious folks do, that all religion does more harm than good. So I understand the sentiment of wanting to reclaim a rich tradition from seeming perversions. But it could also be that the unwillingness of “liberal” religious folks to abandon their tradition helps maintain the space that allows conservative and extreme factions to enact their violence against others who think differently. Think for a moment what would happen if all liberal Christians abandoned their Christianity for another system that was centered around love and morality, but without the theological underpinnings? I know it’s far-fetched, but where would that leave conservative factions? Without enough support to survive.

Though Cutting claims Christianity is not the only way to truth, I don’t see him taking the route I suggested. But that means that he and others like him, have a lot more work to do than making generalizations about “love” and “my belief,” which excludes nearly all of what religious traditions have historically been about. His argument is not justifiable in the manner he proposed it in. Rather, it is evasive precisely where it needs to be specific. It takes for granted both the theological propositions and the social conditions required for him to profess such a faith. I don’t think it is necessarily impossible to make a reasoned argument that takes these factors into serious account, but I have yet to see one.

04/1/13

Undisciplined Reflections on Easter

My son informed me in the car the other day that we had better do something for Easter since we didn’t do anything for the last great holiday, St. Patrick’s Day. I asked what it was he was thinking of. He answered that he should get some gifts, or we should go out to dinner, or something to celebrate the holiday. I asked him if he knows what the holiday is about. “It’s about Christ coming back from the dead or something like that.” “Well, you know what most people do to celebrate Easter? They go to church. Do you want to go to church?” I asked, knowing full well what his answer would be. “No.” He has nothing against church other than its boring, just like school, and one should avoid boredom if at all possible.

We did end up “celebrating” Easter by eating lunch with family. I think we were all satisfied that we took advantage of what the holiday had to offer. I’ll admit I’m not comfortable enough with the secularized holiday to put on an Easter egg hunt or anything like that, but a chance to slow down, relax, and reflect is good in and of itself.

But I’m not sure what to do with Easter as a holiday. Christmas makes sense, because if someone is significant, you mark the day of their birth as a day of remembering their significance, and whether or not one is a Christian, whether or not one thinks Jesus was significant, he certainly has been, both in positive and negative ways. And although it may be cliché to say so, Good Friday resonates with me  more than Easter. Some say it is because one should embrace the doubt of the tradition more, experiencing the absence of God. I get it, and I think I’d choose that over the traditional Easter. Because Easter is the time where Christians celebrate the fact that they’ve got it all figured out, that the doubt is gone.

One of the many fundamental paradoxes in Christianity is the historical separation of the life from the death of Jesus. In short, if the whole point was to die for mankind in the first place, why all the ethical teaching, all the emphasis on loving one another? The more pressing issue for the apostles and the early Church was likely, “How could we have been wrong about this whole deal?” Their answer: the death wasn’t an accident. It was on purpose. It makes sense to Christians now, since the world has been rolling along for a few millennia since then, to strike a balance between personal salvation and loving your neighbor, but the earliest Christians were apparently more concerned with Jesus coming back and inaugurating all the great things promised. A few generations of hope deferred, and it is now largely a rhetorical trope. There is no longer any tension, at least on the surface, because living and dying are kept in separate spheres. We live our lives now, try to be good, and know that we’re going to live forever.

It’s an interesting paradox to me. Had not the stories been told about the resurrection, we would not know of Jesus today. He would have been remembered by a few who followed him, and with their deaths would likely have died his memory. It is to such stories, telling of the god-man Jesus, that Christians owe the ability to argue that Jesus was “really” more about ethics, or love, or whatever. Yet with those same stories has also come an institution that, by its own moral standard, has been responsible for good…and terrible tragedy.

So, we have the stories of a venerated individual transmitted to us through a convoluted and questionable medium. Is there something yet that we all, insiders or outsiders, can learn? I think so. But it is not that we will live forever in heaven or hell. This distracts us from our very real, physical deaths. For me, one important lesson from Jesus is how close to death we all are, and how very much it is both in our control, and out of our control at the same time. If we do nothing but be as accommodating to the world as possible, we will yet die, but we may live longer, and we will probably get a modicum of pleasure from our existence. But we all learn very early on that the extent to which we disagree with the world, with culture, with the ways and means of those around us, is the extent to which we live less comfortably. We all know, in small ways, what happens when we try to change the norm. Others don’t like it, and we are often punished in direct or indirect ways. For most of us, in most parts of our lives, it’s not worth the effort. But for some, it is. And the cost is seemingly high, because what happens if you persist, if you make no compromise on what is most important? You succeed…or for most, you die trying. But to those who push that far and that persistently, the end result is the same, because they create and take responsibility for the journey. They refuse to let the world be anything else but what they want it to be. That is a moral of the story of Jesus, and many other models who live on in memory.

But it’s clear that a moral like that is not one that perpetuates a harmonious society. So rather than take the message, we memorialize the individual, and make the message our own, a societal one. A life is complicated, filled with contradiction and controversy, and after death we can clean it up and make it presentable, sustainable. But that misses the whole point, trading uncompromising authenticity for a modicum of happiness. Not all will follow the same path, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there.

Thoughts?