Saturday, October 27, 2007

Valuing other viewpoints

I started this as a comment and it got long. I'm going out of town in ten minutes so chat amongst yourselves. I just wanted to throw this out for consideration:

To understand/value other viewpoints, I try to find the passionate, articulate representatives of that view and read them. I sit with those views. I live with them for a while. I try to imagine life through that perspective. I read various viewpoints not to find balanced thinking about a variety of perspectives, but to understand the "otherness" of a particular viewpoint. I ask how my previous view has been altered by this direct encounter with a different perspective.

One of the things postmodernism has contributed to us is that each one of us has a view and that perspective impacts every evaluation, every thought, every reading. It's like you can't get away from it. There is no neutral zone, no dispassionate reading, removed reading. The way to incorporate other views into your own worldview is to allow them to be other, to value by acknowledging their internal coherence (sometimes frighteningly so - like trying to get inside the logic of suicide bombing or holocaust).

Through a diversity of readings, I discover the interior logic of viewpoints I don't hold. That is not the same thing as agreement. But it may approximate understanding or empathy or even reaction (as in, contending for an alternative). Usually I read other views to sit with them, to allow them to live in me for a bit and to see how they impact my former understandings.

When I've written about valuing multiple viewpoints, that doesn't mean always balancing one's own viewpoint. It means actually standing in the shoes of the other and "getting it" - letting go of your need to control the outcome.

However when articulating one's own viewpoint, it's equally important to reveal the conditions that create it, to own up to your biases, loyalties, "agendas" and so on. So my purpose yesterday was not to alienate, but to allow you to see inside what animates me and what purpose this blog serves beyond the chatty window into my daily life. If someone is interested in how Christianity looks to ex-fundamentalists and ex-evangelicals, then you'll get that here.

I'll go one step further, then I'm off. There is a vast difference between insider critique and outsider reaction. It's the difference between you criticizing your family and someone else doing it. Another example. Those who leave a job, for instance, will have much to say about the conditions that provoked the leaving. Those who stay have a stake in protecting the benefits of that space. Totally reasonable.

I read your blogs (and many others!) who write about being happy, satisfied Christians and enjoy them, learn things, have my views modified. I read and participate at Jesus Creed most weeks even while differing on almost every doctrinal point. Why? Because it is useful for me to stay in touch with why and how Christians believe and what benefits they get from those beliefs.

On balance, I think we all have something worth saying, and all of it taken together gives a rounded picture.


mariam said...

The experience of being a Christian in the US is quite different than elsewhere (certainly in Canada) – both for liberals and conservatives. For example in the US it is much more bound up with politics. We have a born-again evangelical Prime Minister but he keeps very quiet
about his religious beliefs. The main reason he doesn't currently
have a majority government is because his religion makes people
nervous. Most people don't like the mix of religion and politics. Itis viewed by many, both conservatives and liberals, as both dangerous and unseemly. Religion is a quieter, more personal affair in general.
Evangelicals tend to make people uneasy, not so much because they are religious but because they are gauche. I would no more ask a stranger what church they went to (unless they initiated the conversaton)than ask what their favourite sexual position was. In some ways it seems Canada is a more secular society – but I don't think it is quite as secular as it appears. There is just more diversity and people are generally quieter publicly about their religious beliefs. The most
conservative believers tend to be found in the immigrant communities
whether is is Sikh, Muslim, Catholic or Evangelical Christian Chinese.

I have found it quite instructive to visit Jesus Creed as well. I am
interested in how other people construct their theologies. I have some fairly fundamental theological differences with most orthodox Christians but I don't actually think theology is that important. The central thing to me is whether you faith helps to transform you into a
better person. If it makes you more loving, compassionate, patient, grateful, generous, forgiving, peaceable, helpful, self-sacrificing then whatever the theology is it is working. Christ said that those on the right path would be known by their fruits and the fruits of the spirit are those things which make us more Christlike. If your religion makes you mean-spirited,
angry, miserly, fractious and judgmental then you are on the wrongpath. I found Calvinism, for example, quite horrifying at first, but there are Calvinists at Jesus Creed whose love for God
and their fellow man shine through and by their generosity of spirit
they could almost convince me that if if viewed through a soft-focus
lens Calvinism can be almost Zen-like. At other times I find people's theology inconsistent and unconvincing but thinking about their viewpoint helps me define my own.

As liberals I think it behooves us not to jump to judgmental conclusions as well. If people truly believe that the right theology is what determines whether you spend eternity in paradise or torment then it is understandable that they also believe the most loving thing they can do is warn people if they think their theology is off-kilter. I think they are misguided by I can appreciate their motives.

There are two issues that I simply can't reconcile with conservative Christians:
One is the way we view scripture. I see it as a human production,
inspired and true in the sense that that myths and narratives can
help us catch a glimpse of universal truths, but still specific in many of the details to the time and place it was written. I understand, however, why some people hold to inerrancy or at least authority of scripture. If we start deconstructing the Bible, what
are we left with? Artifacts thousands of years old that may or may not tell us something about God. What then do we base our faith on? Where do we turn for guidance? Our own reasoning. A loss of faith in my own ability to determine what was most ethical and how to best live is what turned my to Christianity in the first place. I'm just not good enough or smart enough to make all those day-to-day decisions on my own without a basic manual. I don't think it's necessarily a good
idea to jettison thousands of years of tradition for my own uneducated and very lightly thought-out interpretations of scripture. For better or worse, if we are Christian the Bible
is the collection of our most sacred writings; it is part of what defines us. I therefore have some tolerance for Christians who, for example, view homosexual acts as being sinful or think that men should be the heads of their households. I don't agree with them but I think I can understand where they are coming from. They accept the whole Bible as divinely inspired. Paul's epistles to early Christians are part of
what we have agreed upon as Christian scripture - part of the package. Paul says homosexual
acts are wrong, Paul speaks for God, therefore God thinks they are
wrong too. I can see how this is a problem for compassionate and
thoughtful Christians who believe in the authority of scripture and
respecting Christian tradition. It is why we see people going through
all kinds of contortions to try and make it so that Paul didn't reallysay what he said. I, on the other hand can just disagree with Paul. It is very easy for me to say I don't see anything wrong with homosexuality, because I don't believe in the inerrancy of scripture. No contortions for me. Yes, Paul said that stuff but so what - he was wrong. Paul wrote that stuff as a Jew (and a particularly fanatic one prior to his conversion) who lived 2000 years ago with all the baggage
that entails, and who, let's face it, had issues. When I read Paul's
letters I admire him, I think he was genuinely transformed into a
better person, I believe he, at least some of the time, had profound experiences with the divine and that he truly loved Christ and his message but I don't believe I am reading the words of God. I am reading Paul's words. I respect him enormously. I am moved by his intelligence and passion and agree with much of what he wrote – but not everything. Sometimes I have to step back and just accept that people have strange and (to me) illogical beliefs because it is part
of their culture and tradition, the same as I would for Sikhs or
Muslims. I know from my interactions with other cultures that they find some of my beliefs strange and irrational too.

The other issue I have with orthodox Christians is the exclusivity. I simply cannot believe that God only reveals himself to Christians. While I happen to believe that Christ's teachings are the best of the
lot, I know that it is only an accident of birth and life experiences that I am a Christian. I believe that most faiths share their most basic tenets in common – it is the details, the unimportant things
that we differ on. And I don't think God really cares about our theology or what faith we hold if it leads us closer to the divine and makes us better people. It just doesn't make sense to me that God would be that petty and that human.

I know you might disagree with me here but I am not comfortable with
religion and politics being yoked together. Sometimes it feels as if
there needs to be an liberal alternative to the religious right, but
when I look at how ugly that combination is both for the religious and
the right, and how it has brought such disrepute to Christiantiy, I
don't want to sully Christ any further by dragging his name into
leftist politics. Theocracy is the very worst form of government.
However like you I want to be able to extend a version of Christianity
that works for people who are fed up with what they see as the
ugliness of Christianity – the judgmentalism, the exclusiveness, the
smugness, the sexism and homophobia and, in some cases, the abuse and

julieunplugged said...

The central thing to me is whether you faith helps to transform you into a better person. If it makes you more loving, compassionate, patient, grateful, generous, forgiving, peaceable, helpful, self-sacrificing then whatever the theology is it is working. Christ said that those on the right path would be known by their fruits and the fruits of the spirit are those things which make us more Christlike. If your religion makes you mean-spirited,
angry, miserly, fractious and judgmental then you are on the wrongpath.

It's funny you put it this way. Jacob, when asked by a Christian in his school what he thought it meant to be a Christian, responded almost identically to what you wrote here. They were discussing homosexuality and the Christian had said that to be a true Christian, you had to know and obey the Bible first. Jacob said you had to love first.

I love your "soft focus lens" for Calvinism. One of the huge benefits to being in conversation with Christians for whom reformed theology is their preferred theology is that I began to see the logic and comfort of that belief system. It still doesn't comfort me. But I saw that the idea of sovereignty, the sense of order and carefully constructed values that emphasize God's greatness, remoteness, otherness all while reaching out to us, the sinful other, could lead to a sense of awe and security.

Zen-like detachment is an interesting take! It helps me. I'm much more the activist personality (can barely stop thinking to do yoga) so that detachment has often appeared to me as indifference. I like your take much more!

I'm with you on the Bible. My desire to protect the Bible from becoming just pages in a trash can led me to graduate school. I wanted to read it with new eyes - both eyes that saw it for what it was (best attempts to record relationship with God by humans in socially and historically located places) but also to glean from it the ways it could continue to be a part of the dialog of what it is to be human.

I agree that the Bible is a reservoir of insight and a great dialog partner in discerning spiritual values (both by agreement but also by counterpoint as well).

Good thoughts! Thanks for taking the time to share so eloquently here. I consider it a privilege to read you.

mariam said...

Thanks for your generosity, Julie. I do ramble on. I was mortified when I posted the above and saw how LONG it actually was. But too late once you've hit that submit button.

Whenever I look at a new point of view I often think "Where have I heard that before?". And that is what happened when I started reading about Calvinism. Calvinism, Bhuddism, psychological determinism and other fatalistic points of view. each offer an emphasis on one third of the serenity prayer - to accept the things you cannot change. Each of them offers, in some sense, a way of making meaning of suffering and transcending it.

Bhuddists do not make moral judgements about the nature of fate. What is, is. Darkness and light are both part of life and we need both to recognize the other. Suffering comes because we have expectations and desires which are ineveitably disappointed. We have those desires and expectations because we are centred on self. To transcend suffering we need to give up desire and transcend self. To that we must first become self-aware.

Calvinists do not make moral judgements about the nature of God. God is. We cannot understand God's purposes because we are merely human. God makes it rain on the just and the unjust - he appears to reward, at times, those who do evil, while punishing those who do good. It is all part of His plan, which we are not privy to, but which we must accept. Since Adam, we suffer when we refuse to submit to God's will, when we believe that our own desires are more important than God's will. We must die to self and be reborn in the Cross - this is the route out of suffering. To do that we must become aware of our own sinful nature and repent.

I was in therapy for a brief time with a rational emotive therapist. He was a follower of Albert Ellis. Ellis was an atheist partly because he believed that religion contributed to people's unhappiness. Ellis believed that to be happy we must accept life as it is. He also believed that most people lived unintentionally, that they lacked self-awareness. It was important not to judge people as good or evil because they (and we) are really just the result of the all the chemical reactions that have gone before. What makes us unhappy is not what fate brings us, which we have very little control over, if any, but how we think about it. What separates us from happiness is believing that we must have certain things or certain outcomes in order to be happy, whereas happiness involves a radical and rational acceptance of life, yourself and others. We must die to our irrational selves and learn the practise and language of reason.

I agree that the aspect of all of these that I find it a little hard to reconcile is the acceptance of injustice. I can accept my own suffering but it is hard for me to accept the suffering of others and a God who doesn't care.