Friday, March 21, 2014

Believing Against

I am struck by how often people describe their reasons for belief in terms of an opposite – in terms of what they are avoiding or distancing themselves from.  It is often the center of soul-winning theology and camp meeting:  I embraced the ways of the wicked world and it brought me to ruin, I turned from that and got saved. I once was lost, but now am found. Was blind, but now I see. The main evangelical variant, of having grown up in a conscious faith community, is not that different.  The community defines itself in contradistinction to the secular world and its values. I don’t say that in accusation.  It at least partly describes my own belief.  And Peter’s.  Jesus asked the twelve whether they would go away.  (John 6) Simon Peter answers “Where else would we go?” Which suggests to me that he had considered this before. It is rather a “I am here because I can’t there” theology.

It works the same in the other direction.  Atheists*, agnostics, and those in historically Christian countries who embrace other faiths frequently spend the entirety of their energy telling you why they aren’t Christian, often with bitterness or condescension. There are a hundred versions, because we are all rather various.  Some people don’t like the parts where Christianity claims there’s only one truth, others dislike the behavior or social acceptability of some Christians. The positives of their own belief seem secondary at times.  I come away thinking “someone has issues, as we say.” They may think the same of me.

Jews only partly fit that description.  There is certainly the community consciousness, of being in a tribe that is not like the other tribes.  But this is used more to describe why we do things this way, rather than Why I Am A Jew. But at this point I must beg off, as I am describing Jews of my own age and older.  I can’t say if things have changed in later generations.

I have known a few followers of eastern, native, or new age religions who look at first as if they came in for more positive reasons, curious and attracted by either novelty or a particular quality they hoped to acquire. Even an occasional wiccan doesn’t seem to be focused primarily on the delicious oppositeness of her practice and community.  Yet I find that one doesn’t have to let people talk all that long before telling you what they don’t believe, and who they don’t like starts sucking up all the oxygen in the conversation. They didn’t want to be common, or like those others.  They want to indentify with underdogs, which necessitates talking a lot about top dogs. Or they want to identify with the wise ones who stand above their culture and see around all things, not the blind followers below.

Political religions are awash with it.  I am seeing it more now that the bumper-sticker theologies and anti-theologies of FB cross my screen every night. Ain’t they terrible?  Ain’t they stoopid? Ain’t they evil?  Ain’t they prejudiced? (Ain’t we great?)

Perhaps we can do no better, none of us.  We may have a drive to belong to a small exclusive tribe and can rise out of that only by great effort – or by grace.

*There’s some generalisation here; there are variants of atheist as well.


Donna B. said...

My sister and I were just today talking about how uncomfortable a certain 'brand' of Christian has been making us lately -- this brand being those employed by physicians who proselytize on the job.

My experiences have been of the mildly discomforting type -- a nurse or receptionist in the doctor's office asking if we'd like her to pray for us, for example. I can easily answer, "yes, please" without being offended, upset, or giving it too much thought. It's the polite thing to do, so I do it. All it is -- or has been so far -- is strange.

I have, however, noticed that it's happening. Until the last year or so, I cannot recall anything vaguely resembling this other than an occasional nun at our local Catholic hospital stopping by the room to ask if we needed anything -- but never specifically mentioning prayer. I think we and she both assumed she'd be praying for us.

But this morning, my sister was treated to a lengthy explanation of how -- if my sister were a Christian -- she could take comfort from knowing my deceased (25 years ago) nephew was now her own personal angel.

The question my sister asked that prompted this was about how techniques for bone marrow biopsies differed (especially in the pain aspect) from the taking of bone marrow for transplant, explaining that she had donated bone marrow years ago and didn't want our 91 year old father to experience that sort of pain without there being a very good reason -- and questioning whether mere verification of a diagnosis is a good enough reason since it wouldn't change his treatment.

I think I am probably a non-intellectual agnostic. I don't identify much with any of the atheist variants in the article you link, except to some extent #6 and even there to the extent that organized religion doesn't appeal to me. My sister is not like me. She believes, goes to church, worships, and was much more offended, insulted, and mortified by the nurse's ramblings about angels than I would have been.

What my sister wondered was, if she stated any disagreement with this nurse's personal beliefs, or her discomfort at hearing them, would this result in my father being treated 'differently' at that office?

Politically, my sister is a 'progressive' liberal who campaigned to be a delegate to the last Democratic convention. I am somewhat agnostic politically also, but I know that compared to my sis, I'm a diehard conservative with a slight libertarian bent. We agreed long ago to not talk much about politics.

While I think at least some of her dismay was due to fear of being outside the tribe, the fear she articulated is probably justified.

My father and I live in near the buckle of the Bible belt and I've always known that any lack of belief I might have shouldn't be expressed too loudly, my sister has lived for over 20 years in the UK and isn't used to the overt Christianity around here.

She is right that such overt displays of belief in a doctor's office puts patients and their families in a bind.

Perhaps we may have a drive to belong to a small exclusive tribe, but what if we don't feel like we belong to the big tribe with the perceived power?

Donna B. said...

It's just occurred to me that you've never experienced my agnostic religious sense of not belonging, but only the political sense of not belonging.

While they are sort of similar to me, the religious sense of not belonging is much stronger though not so blatantly obvious.

It's much easier for me to rationalize that my liberal or progressive or union member friends simply don't understand the conflicts between their affiliations and their stated beliefs because they've never bothered to look at them.

Perhaps I'm wrong, but I gather from your writing that you have had some difficulty finding a religious group to which you feel/think you fully belong.

I know you won't hesitate to correct me if I'm wrong.

Nor will you hesitate to correct me if I'm wrong in promoting that the problems you've had with various religious groups are perhaps political in nature.

But... if I'm right... or on the right track...

I can't call myself a Republican because I don't know what that means. I hesitate to call myself a conservative without qualifying it as fiscal.

I sense a similar hesitation in your calling yourself a Christian. What kind of Christian?

My sister is currently facing a similar dilemma as she tries to define what kind of progressive she is (she failed what she calls a purity test in her quest to be an Obama delegate).

Much of my political ambivalence is due to my inability to work up much steam "against" anything political other than over-regulation -- emphasis on the "over". I merely lean libertarian.

Maybe I have the same ambivalence toward the constraints of the various strains of Christianity, thus my vague agnosticism.

It could also be that I'm lazy, both intellectually and emotionally. I have just barely enough energy to realize I do not want to be a 'moderate'.

Christopher B said...

People who call themselves nonconformist still get their direction from the conforming.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Thank you Donna. Much to think about.

Your first comment sounds like an uncomfortable situation, certainly. We had a Sunday School class taught by a physician that was based around a video of sharing your faith with your patients. Even though there was good discussion about the topic, I left after a few weeks because there was just too much that made me uncomfortable. A bus driver might in some circumstances share his faith with a passenger, I think - but mostly, we just want him to drive a bus.

One of the examining rooms at the medical practice I use has a poster with all sorts of cutesy angel sayings. "Angels know your deepest hopes. Angels never judge you." Baby angels with tiny wings. Revolting. And offensive. Medical people tend to be interventionist in a lot of spheres, I think.

I accept that there is not going to be a church I am fully comfortable with, because my differences from the average are a bit stronger than others. But I can find many people within my current community of similar mind. I do wonder if the parish model, in which everyone in an area attends the same place and has to get by somehow may be healthier than the North American choice model.

As for being outside the prevailing tribe, I experience what you do only partially. Where I work has more antagonism to my politics than to my religion, but there is plenty of the latter. That is only part of the week however, not the whole culture.

You do seem to be less tribally driven or dependent than most folks, and that is likely a good thing. Tribal identification has survival value, but that has been less true century over century for the last thousand years. It is still strong, and circumstances still arise worldwide where it would likely be a help, but the fact that you exist suggests that such genes are less crucial.

In the face of distinguishing yourself from the larger tribe, you deserve some congratulations for not reflexively choosing some anti-tribe. Both Luther and CS Lewis described the very human phenomenon of leaning so far away from one side of a horse (or boat) that we fall of the other.

terri said...

I have acquired the viewpoint that the sense of "belonging" acquired in religious and political groups can be fleeting and fragile.

To be more blunt, I believe it is an illusion....reinforced by the community over time. Dig a little too deeply into the differences between oneself and those you are in "community" with and it will all fall apart rather quickly, especially in groups which are held together by believing or thinking the right thing.

Communities can only exist harmoniously with a few basic, important precepts guiding them. Once they start to become too specific, too detailed, too invested, they start to fracture into subgroups......who define themselves as being "against" the former group in some way.

The unfortunate thing about doctors and nurses wanting to engage patients in prayer or religious discussion is that they really believe that they are doing something more important than respecting their patients. They think they might be saving people from eternal damnation or that their prayers are going to supernaturally lead to a better medical outcome for the patients. Consideration for a patient's sensibilities is not a deterrent for someone who thinks that way.

terri said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Donna B. said...

Terri, that fleeting and fragile illusion of belonging is one I've felt and seen plenty of. I didn't like it. If that didn't contribute to my being a 'loner' it certainly didn't do anything to make me want to do anything about it.

The only group I fully identify with is family, so I do have at least some tribal instincts.

Also, your observations lend strength to AVI's parish 'recommendation'.

james said...

Terri: "Me against my brother; me and my brother against my cousin, me and my cousin against the world"?

William Newman said...

Christopher B. wrote "People who call themselves nonconformist still get their direction from the conforming."

In practice that's often true, sure. But it doesn't need to be true. E.g. there have been some exceedingly strong chess players and go players with unusual styles. It is very hard to believe that they got on the short list of people who can win top tournaments by doing valueless things just for the sake of different.

A more likely explanation, it seems to me, is that some fraction of people place an unusually high value on working things out for themselves rather than defaulting to doing what seems to work well for others. And while it's not a supersuccessful strategy in general (plenty of unsuccessful cranks out there...) it's not a totally invalid strategy either.

(Did they call themselves nonconformist? Hell if I know; and really, how do you even say "nonconformist" in Japanese or USSR-era Russian? I suspect the connotations of any candidate translation are deeply different. But if they had been USAians and referred to their choices as nonconformist, it wouldn't have been totally misleading.)

There are plenty of flaky poser nonconformists too. But even a few successes at the highest level in sharply meritocratic contests make pretty strong suggestive evidence that not all nonconformism is flaky posturing for effect.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Exxxxcellent. Even if most nonconformists are merely following an alternate drummer, there are indeed those who invent things from the ground up. It reminds me of the theory that there is a certain amount of autodidact in all geniuses. I don't know how one measures such things, but it seems likely to have something to it.