Friday, July 29, 2011

What You Get Back

Anyone who does not know why they hold a particular viewpoint cannot judge fairly whether it should be kept or abandoned.

I try to be aware what I secretly get back from a belief or an action. I apply this to both political and religious beliefs. This is much of what Jesus refers to when he notes that those who give very obviously or pray at length in public receive their reward in this life. By “secretly get back” I mean three things. 1) the reward of the belief itself – Christians try to sell this idea when they advocate salvation packages with explicit reference to the assurance you will feel. Other variations include the groundedness one feels knowing that a belief has a long church tradition behind it, versus the excitement of feeling one is on the cutting edge of the work of the Holy Spirit; Or, how great it feels physically to have ecstatic worship styles, contrasted with how great it feels culturally not to have them; 2) your immense cleverness in seeing what others do not; 3) the reward of who you get to hang out with, if only in your imagination. I read a lot of Lewis and Tolkien and get to feel some identification with their situation and narrative: emphatically in the literary, Anglophilic, historical Christian tradition. Even though I could never meet them and be best buds, I can pat myself on the back for being such a person. There are Christians who add ethnic, regional, denominational, or class pride to their faith. They get to see themselves as more moral, or authentically black/Irish/hispanic/southern because of their worship style or doctrines.

It’s easy to say that it’s wrong. It’s important to remember that we all do it. There is not a belief that you hold which doesn’t have some of this tucked into it, some self-congratulation that is separate from the belief itself. Christian, atheist, socialist, Tea Partier – all those big-ticket items of course. But the subtler items – the buyer of organics, the one who remains calm, the spanker and anti-spanker – and perhaps most dangerous of all, those who believe they consider both sides. I have met those, and they are invariably of the sort who chooses one side 95% of the time but has some quirk which allows them to hide from the truth. You should which side you are already rooting for when you pick up the newspaper.

Notice that in none of these instances does it make the belief in question true or untrue. We should presume, in fact, that whatever the true belief is, it will carry both benefits and costs socially and psychologically, and that these might change over time. We might live in a place where a particular truth is well-accepted, and we receive strokes for believing it. Our own children, forty years later, might find it has become unpopular and have to pay a cost for holding it. Though these things are logically irrelevant, they are enormously relevant to our lives as we live them. I have in fact stressed the duality of costs and benefits: when we moan about how much it cost us in family unpopularity to leave Belief Set A, we are secretly bragging about how cool it is to now be associated with Belief Set B. (Or in reverse, how much we gave up professionally when we would not embrace Belief Set C carries a pleasantness of being identified as a staunch and fearless proponent of Belief Set D).

Anyone who does not know why they hold a particular viewpoint cannot judge fairly whether it should be kept or abandoned.

I say I try to be aware of this. I probably try a lot harder to be aware of this in other people. I try not to kick individual Christians (remembering John 15 and the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats), but I am harsh on the idea in the abstract. Those who know me may have noticed that I just stop having contact with Christians who display this. I don’t go to churches where it is encouraged, and I sidle away from individuals who too obviously love to draw distinctions between what good influences we are and how shameful are all the things they do out in The World. (Or again, in the opposite, how much more intelligent we are than those Other Christians.)

Okay, that’s not strictly true. I sidle away if I feel they are either too obtuse or fragile to bother with. If they seem at all capable of understanding, I usually have a go at pointing out there’s another side. Depending on how forceful they are, I might be forceful as well. If I’ve argued with you, it’s because I consider you smart enough and honest enough to argue with.

For me, the content of the belief may matter less than the attitude people take about it. It is not even the unawareness of social and psychological gain – heck, most people I know think about this a lot less than I do; it can’t be that central to the faith. It is only the full-blown denial of this, the pretense that there is no possible way you have trimmed your social beliefs to fit the crowd you aspire to.

Anyone who does not know why they hold a particular viewpoint cannot judge fairly whether it should be kept or abandoned. There’s no point in arguing with them.

It’s why political liberals have limited credibility with me. I might be interested in reading what they have to say – some of their ideas may, in fact, be good ones - but there is simply no point in engaging a discussion on the merits. They aren’t the only ones. I know conservatives and libertarians like that, and Christians of various stripe. I can generally get away from them, so they bother me less.

1 comment:

Texan99 said...

"If I’ve argued with you, it’s because I consider you smart enough and honest enough to argue with."

I just reached this part in one of my favorites, Sense & Sensibility: "Elinor agreed with it all, for she did not think he deserved the compliment of rational opposition."

I know one psychological benefit I get out of Christianity. Maybe you have to been raised a resolute nihilist and materialist to appreciate fully the attractive glory of a belief that life means something and that Goodness personified is in charge. It's not that I'm confident I'll end up OK or that awful things won't happen to me, but it's still an indispensable development in my view of life that God's in His Heaven and all's right with the world.

Or, as Oskar Matzerath says, "All's lost, but not forever; Poland is not lost forever."