Friday, October 27, 2006

The Eleventh Hour

I was at work this morning, relegated to a conference room with some other new hires when, somehow, someway, and through no fault of my own, we began discussing religion. It was nothing more than a brief skirmish, perhaps even less, not even a flaring of tensions but maybe only a drawing of battle lines. It was brief and it was civil and I imagine that both its brevity and its civility are relatively lacking in similar conversations across the country.

One of the participants concisely and intelligently proclaimed his faith. That this gentleman was religious did not surprise me—statistically in today’s America, it’s always going to be the safe bet. What surprised me was the security he demonstrated with his own beliefs: he believed, and if others didn’t, fine, that was their decision. This statement (here presented in brutal paraphrase) generated a relative agreement from all parties involved, ending in a general consensus that this was one of the benefits of being an American.

I’m still inclined to agree with what this gentleman said. Indeed, in today’s America, I think this kind of relativism might just be the best all-around compromise between two sides that hate each other so much that usually in discussions with the opposition, their vile tends to impede them from forming sentences. Though I’ll be grappling with what my co-worker said throughout the rest of this post (grappling, mind you, and not answering) I want to offer this caveat: what he said might be the best we could possibly ask for nowadays. Might.

But on this site, except when its contributors digress to explore primetime TV shows and seventeenth century printing trivia, we must keep our eyes on the prize: the poorly-defined, cozy-feeling liberal cornerstone that is social justice (the term still evades me, and I challenge anyone to find any two liberals to agree on a definition. I honestly think the challenge would cause them both to combust: liberals conforming to a binding and finalized definition! GASP!).

In all seriousness, I’ve always been curious about the faithfuls’ interaction with what I think we’d all call ‘the good fight’. How do we (and by ‘we’ I mean your garden variety northeastern or coastal, private college suburban white kids who have rejected just about any form of God that’s come across our paths) team up and do business with them (for the sake of simplicity, by ‘them’ I mean progressive Christians, those who are light on dogma but high on interpretation and faith and willing to agree that some parts of the Bible might be a little outdated). We shouldn’t underestimate this ‘us and them’ relationship: indeed, ‘them’ came first. The abolitionist movement gained its momentum through the faithful, as did woman’s suffrage, as did civil rights.

Now I realize that for every item I list demonstrating the faithfuls’ contribution to social justice, we could all probably list fifty reasons where faith has either curbed, halted or crushed the progression of social justice. I don’t debate that. Moreover, even for those items which I just listed, there’s still a lurking unease that the anti-essentialists and/or post-Nietzscheans (whose name, unlike Locke’s, is very difficult to spell) amongst us might have trouble ignoring: white abolitionists thought that the slaves should be freed because all men were equally inferior to God. Likewise, some of the reasoning that drove the women’s suffrage movement presumed that because men were spiritually superior beings whose minds were focused on the realm of ideas, women, more connected to the earth and the day-to-day, were better suited to make decisions on earth. Obviously, this presumption reeks of ol-fashioned essentialism.

Regardless of their reasoning the faithful were there, and they were pushing for social change. In the 60s they were joined by us (re-visit the definition of ‘we’ two paragraphs ago). I’m not saying all of those 60s Northern carpetbaggers were atheists or even agnostic, but chances are some of them were.

After we meet, after we work together (and sometimes, God willing, after we succeed together), what then? Nietzsche would have us believe that, just as the faithful should be committed to saving souls, we should be committed to re-directing their energies back to earth (a similarity that has always quietly bothered me). Should we presume that we have some type of ‘responsibility’ to ‘save’ the faithful from themselves, even the extremely progressive ones? Or should adopt the relativism that the gentleman with whom I work demonstrated?

And what about that relativism as exemplified by the faithful gentleman? My initial, gut reaction to his display of secure faith was pleasure, if not pride: I was proud of him for being able to, if not accept, then at least allow (or allow himself to allow) the presence of differing theological perspectives. And I still wonder if that relativism is the best, if not the only way of dealing with one another. But as a Christian, as one of the faithful, is he really allowed to do that? Does his faith allow him to do that? And if so, then how can he accommodate this leniency when, more often than not, there is only ‘one way’, and every other ‘way’ is not only wrong, but will get you landed right in H-E-Double Hockey sticks? From the outside, as I admittedly am, it’s hard to allow for any evolution within a faith when, well, evolution itself tends to be summarily rejected.

These are all personal questions for me: I’m not a progressive Christian, as a matter of fact, I’m not an anything Christian, but I am related to progressive Christians. I’ve recently ‘outed’ myself to them, not because of a recent anti-epiphany but instead just because of an increased ability to argue my point. They don’t pray at dinner, they rarely go to Church, they’re all for gay rights and, with a little wine, tend to declaim that the current President is the worst in history. But they still believe, and maybe for the most infuriating of reasons: because it makes them feel good.

I’d feel uncomfortable telling them that Freud would say this is childish (if only because usually my default position on Freud is to just say ‘Wrong’). The argument ended when I asked why they didn’t believe in Unicorns as, just like God, there’s no empirical evidence supporting their existence (in the spirit of the season, it’d be convenient if I suggested the Great Pumpkin). But for me, that’s what it comes down to.

These types of the faithful, good people whose hearts and minds struggle along with ours to achieve a better world, who don’t allow themselves to be entagled in dogma and superstition, always provoke a two-headed reaction in me, and this is the best way I can explain it:

Think of undertaking a twelve hour car ride with someone. For eleven and a half hours, they’ve been rock solid. Never asked to stop, were always good with the directions, volunteered to drive and when they did they kept the car on the road. For eleven and a half hours, you couldn’t have asked for a better co-pilot.

But in the eleventh and a half hour, they insist, they demand, that you stop the car. They’re hungry or they have to use the bathroom. And so you stop the car, because they’ve been so rock solid for so long. And a part of you wishes that you weren’t in such a damn hurry, that they have a right. But at the same time you think home is just half an hour away, and Jesus couldn’t they hold it for just half an hour?


Anonymous said...

Stephen Roberts said, "“I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.” Your Unicorn comment reminded me of this quotation, which served as an odd catalyst toward my own born-again agnosticism.

Another comment, about the women's suffrage note this time. Another reason that men argued for women to have the vote (besides the "earthly" bit) was the belief that women are inherently "good" and thus would make better decisions. This was a profession of the liberal-types who wanted anything but Civil War. I'm not arguing that the desire for peace, and the condescending belief that women rulers would be more likely to bring it, was the reason for Wyoming's decision to allow the female vote -- after all, that anticipated the war (1860). But nevertheless, a tangent that I couldn't resist mentioning.

Ben Lebeaux said...

Did Roberts say that on the Colbert Report? If not, someone said something very similar. I like that quote.

Anonymous said...

Hah, no, it definitely predated the Colbert Report... I don't know anything about when it was said, except that I first heard it from a die-hard atheist in France.