Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Part 2. Continued from previous post.............

Not too many years later, when I was in my mid-twenties, I was in the process of leaving Evangelicalism behind, but I still had a number of close friends who were Evangelical, and I was still involved in a Bible study group that, while it didn’t have any stated criteria for membership, was mostly full of Evangelical Christians. I got into a discussion one night with a highly intelligent man about why I was leaving Evangelicalism behind. I think one of the most common mistakes made by the general public about fundamentalism is that there are no intelligent people who are fundamentalists; if you’re intelligent, you would see through the illogic of fundamentalism in a heart beat. But this is absolutely not true. Just as one example, this Bible study was made up of graduate students at a prominent university—there were half a dozen medical students, also students from the law school, school of public health, and the English dept (me). In fact, Evangelicals take particular pleasure in a very scholarly, erudite approach to the study of the Bible, including references to “the Greek” (i.e., the original version of the New Testament) and inductive studies of whatever text is being studied-- that might involve grammar, history, references to various other biblical texts, etc.

So, back to the story. So this friend and I were discussing the reasons why I no longer considered myself an Evangelical Christian. I’m always hesitant to discuss this, because having been an Evangelical myself, I know firsthand that they’ll never be persuaded. For me to explain why I no longer believed in inerrancy (the belief that the bible is literally, word-for-word true) was never going to convince him, because once I state that I don’t believe in inerrancy, any subsequent words that come out of my mouth will be seen as the words of someone who is wrong. I know this because I’ve done it myself, though thankfully it’s been a long, long time.

But I had been friends with this guy and his wife for several years (still am, as a matter of fact) and I didn’t want to blow him off. So I tentatively trotted out my reasons, which were less a matter of reasoned logic than a slowly gathering swell of experience that finally was too much for me to ignore. When I was done, he was silent for a second or two, and then he said, “But for me to agree with you would be to go against everything I was brought up to believe. It would be against my parents, my grandparents, everything I value. I can’t believe that.”

I was so surprised by his response that (obviously) I still remember it twenty years later. He didn’t give me any of the standard Evangelical arguments for inerrancy, which is what I was expecting and what I would have done myself five years before. He said that Christianity, the way it existed in his head and the way he was raised to believe, was more important to him than making sense of his/my direct experience of life. i.e., even if my reasoning was persuasive to him, he wasn’t going to give up his beliefs, because they were important to him for other reasons—heritage, tradition, habit, comfort.

It is common for non-believers to sneer at this sort of reasoning. “Religion is the opiate of the masses” and all that. But I can’t do that. I can understand why people sneer. Christianity has been used to support so many bad ideas in the cultural history of Western Civilization that we tend to look down our noses at people who cling to it out of cultural loyalty. But I can't participate, because I've been on the other side, too. We would never sneer at (say) an Eastern Indian who devoutly practices Hinduism, even though they know there aren't dozens of gods out there. Or a cultural Jew who observes Purim even though she hasn’t said more than half a dozen prayers in her entire life. And there are a whole lot of us out here for whom our cultural heritage is conservative Christianity. We can’t betray it without betraying a piece of ourselves, and I guess it just depends on the person how willing you are to do this. And even if you are willing to do it, it lives on inside you. I walk into a conservative church and I feel at home-- with the language, the music, the mood, the atmosphere-- even though the things that are said and done may make me furious, and even though I no longer consider myself one of them. It's a strange thing.

I think there is still more to come but once again I am out of time.

Aunt BeaN


  1. I love reading your blog.

    The things you say about leaving Evangelicalism behind but still finding the trappings of Evangelical Christianity very comfortable reflect my experience as well.

    I wonder if Inerrancy is an attempt to have something absolute that one can be sure of. Religion (Christianity, included) is such an "inabsolute" thing, dependent on experience, on mediation through a group of initiates (priests, pastors, etc), and with such unpredictable outcomes. Just because I pray for Aunt Joan to get healed of cancer doesn't mean she will. God's absoluteness needs a locus, something I can grab hold of and be sure of. Inerrancy provides a nice, secure handle for that quality of absoluteness. It lets me, a contingent being, tap directly into absoluteness.

    Unfortunately, I think that does violence to the spirit of Christianity and to the revealed relationship between God and God's people. God is quite comfortable to have us flounder in our contingency, our only tie to the absolute existing in faith (not knowledge).

    I've been reading the Brother's Karamazov (because my older son is reading it for a colleg class), and Father Zossima argues that our conviction of Heaven (of God's goodness and power manifest in our lives) comes as we live out our lives in active love. I think this is another way of saying that our only tie to the absolute is an act of faith (because that faith is made concrete in acts of love to God's other creatures here on earth).

    Sorry, lots of wandering thoughts, not nearly as coherent or articulate as Aunt BeaN's.
    Thank you, again, for thinking out loud.

  2. Hi, Cheery-o!! I thought you must be buried under the new semester. Thanks for adding your thoughts, as always....... I appreciate your perspective, it's always familiar and yet enough different to give me new things to think about.

    love to all your crew--