Sunday, May 1, 2011


             I’ve come to learn that the most surefire way to offend the most people is not radicalism. I think that many are drawn toward a radical stance in their ideologies, whether in politics or religion or merely personal tastes. The way to offend the greatest number of people is to be brazenly, unabashedly moderate.
            When you tread down the middle of the road, people on the far end of either side will try to run you over. Despite this fact, I think it’s the safest route to travel. You walk the yellow line and may lean more toward one side than the other, but you stay centered. You follow a line painted by someone who’s foraged the path before. At the same time, you draw your own.
            I’ve heard a myriad of mixed reviews on open-mindedness. Some seem to tout it as the only virtue worthy of achieving. Others regard it with fear and suspicion. Then there are the moderates like myself, who weigh the pros against the cons to try and reach a balanced conclusion. I believe it’s certainly possible to be too open-minded; to keep it gaping to the point where your brain falls out. This beckons empty philosophies and self-contradictory ideals to rush in like the crowd at Grand Central Station, boarding potentially harmful trains of thought. At the same time, if we keep our minds firmly closed, we may leave no exit for counterproductive ideas and instead deny entrance to the helpful ones.
            Some equate piety with closed-mindedness, but this in itself is a closed-minded view. If I hadn’t kept my mind open to new concepts, I wouldn’t have sought out spiritual answers and come to identify with Christianity.  In my experience with the faith, I don’t deadbolt the doors of my mind and peer nervously through a keyhole at foreign worldviews. I don’t think I have all the answers, nor do I believe I’m correct about everything. I’m open to revision because I refuse to be complacent. Complacency stifles our intellectual, emotional, and spiritual growth. Like vegetation, we need light to grow. How can we see the light if we refuse to look for it?
            In my opinion, a dominant cause of complacency is pride. Some refuse to step outside of familiar territory because questioning the world around them could lead to questioning themselves. David Wong, a writer for, explored this issue in an article called “10 Things That Atheists and Christians Can (and Must) Agree On.” It was a terrifically thought-provoking read. Wong expressed his views much more eloquently than I could, and I would recommend it to everyone. However, some will take issue with a few of his points.
            In his article, Wong stresses the importance of tolerance for others’ beliefs. People from all different faiths decry the concept of tolerating other religions and disagree with the suggestion that we try to coexist with one another. Because so many followers of so many different faiths hold this view, there have been millennia of bloodshed and oppression. The rivals can only agree that they disagree, but cannot agree to do so. People quote their respective Scriptures to defend behaviors that result in exclusion at best and genocide at worst. We have no just cause to do this. By “we,” I don’t only mean Christians. I mean all humans. This is why.
            The world population, for the most part, believes itself to have free will. If we believe ourselves to possess free will, we also must concede that others have it. It’s not just limited to ourselves and to those who will further our causes. It’s for everyone. This means we have the ability to adopt any worldview, whether religious or irreligious. It means we are able to follow any faith. This doesn’t mean that every religion is correct, or that every outlook is commendable. Free will just allows us to choose our own outlook, whether it’s right or wrong. Some may argue that there is no “right” set of beliefs because if there was, there wouldn’t be so many variations in our understanding of it. This is a good point, although difficulty in identifying an objective truth doesn’t prove that the truth doesn’t exist. Many people can err while solving a math problem, but that doesn’t mean the math problem has no solution. Some wrong answers will be closer to the truth than others. Likewise, some religions come closer to truth than others. At the same time, theological dilemmas are far more difficult to resolve than simple math problems. Religion features more angles than geometry does.
            The Bible instructs us to spread the good news throughout the world and make disciples. Some Christians have interpreted this to mean we’re obligated to convert all non-Christians, but I don’t think the Bible says this. The Gospels say that Jesus sent his Apostles to spread the word, but advised them to simply leave the villages in which no one was receptive to His message. They were supposed to share the word, but allow others to make up their own minds. In a world with free will, we must live alongside those who have different beliefs.
           Coexisting doesn’t mean we have to agree. Tolerance doesn’t mean we must view all other religions as equally “true”; it just means we have to recognize other peoples’ right to practice them. Jesus commanded us to love one another. In my opinion, this also extends to loving people of different faiths. Most Christians regard evangelism as an act of love, because we want people to go to heaven. According to 2 Peter 3:9, God is “not willing that any should perish.” We ought to share this feeling. That verse doesn’t mean we should try to force our views upon others, though. It doesn’t advocate bullying, violence, or incessant preaching to those who don’t want to hear it. I think it just means we should share our views, but be willing to listen to others. James 1:19 tells us to be slow to anger, slow to speak, and quick to listen. (It’s perfectly possible to listen to someone else’s point of view without agreeing with them. As Aristotle said, “It is the mark of an educated man to entertain a thought without accepting it.”) This implies a gentle nudge, not a shove (See 1 Peter 3:15 and Jude 1:22). Some object to the gentler approach, as they say that the Bible is meant to be an offense by its very nature. It’s a double-edged sword, in that it reveals our own sins to us. This is true, but “offensive” is a relative term. Liberal Christians may be offended by conservative evangelism, and conservative Christians may be offended by the more liberal variety.
            I disagree with the act of befriending people from other religions for the sole purpose of converting them. We don’t have to include our religious views in every conversation. We should be able to enjoy another person’s company without having a motive. Even if the motive is positive, we shouldn’t allow it to become a barrier to our friendships. It’s all right to spend time with someone simply because we are fond of them. When I consider this, it reminds me of how I feel when someone is trying to sell me something. The sales rep may be friendly, and might even endorse a great product. Still, I can tell that he or she is not just hanging around because they like me. Evangelism can sometimes come across as opportunistic if it’s carried out in response to grief. When someone dies, a Christian’s first inclination may be to discuss the Gospel in an effort to comfort the deceased person’s loved ones. However, it may not come across as a sincere gesture. It might seem like the Christian is using the tragedy to promote his or her own agenda.
           When pride comes into play, it can be difficult to untangle one’s own agenda from a larger, loftier goal. A Christian may tell himself that he’s angry at nonbelievers for rejecting God, but Christianity is so enmeshed in his own sense of self that to reject his beliefs is to reject him personally. Thus, his indignation can become more about himself than about God. Loving God unselfishly is an enormous challenge. It’s easy to obey Him mainly out of a fear of punishment or a desire for reward. It’s easy to love Him simply for the favors he bestows on us, rather than for who He is. It’s a daunting task to scrub the residue of self-interest off of our motives, but it’s important to try.
          Pride causes us to become complacent and intolerant. I’ve observed a lot of division within the Christian community that seems to stem from pride. Some make a big point of singling out “false” Christians. This can become a stumbling block for others. If a person sincerely considers herself a Christian but others tell her otherwise, it’s discouraging. After a while, she may get frustrated enough to give up. Her reaction may be, “Why even bother trying? None of these people think I have legitimate faith, anyway.” This type of accusatory attitude can alienate those both inside and outside of the faith.
          When I was stubbornly opposed to Christianity, I resented it due to the attitudes and behaviors that I saw in some of its followers. I saw legalism, a condemnation of anyone who didn’t adhere to various doctrines, and a highly conditional acceptance of people. I even heard some Christians smugly delighting in the prospect of their foes’ damnation, as if heaven is an eternity of gloating and reveling in others’ exclusion. It took me a long time before I learned just how many Christians object to those attitudes. I was ignorant to assume that the majority held such polarizing views. Upon taking a closer look, I’ve seen a great deal of support and compassion within the community. Still, I feel that we should make a stronger effort to peacefully coexist with those of different worldviews.
           Some of the more zealous Christians who oppose the concept of coexistence might cite OT passages in which Israelites were commanded to kill those who worshipped other gods. I feel that we have to look at the context of those Scriptures. They describe regulations for a drastically different time, in which drastic measures were needed to spread God’s message and ensure that the Israelites would prevail. Some claim that the laws can never change, but they can. Jesus said Scripture can’t be broken, but taught that many Old Testament laws are no longer relevant. He proclaimed that mercy, love, and compassion are far more imperative than animal sacrifices, rituals, or dietary restrictions. He preached that our words and actions make us unclean, not our food. In addition, the New Testament does away with the notion that circumcision is necessary for salvation. God cares about fortitude, not foreskin. (If you’re offended by the bluntness of that statement, please remember that the Bible mentions circumcision quite a number of times). My point is that some regulations are timeless, but other codes can be subject to change. Jesus was a reformer, and many accused him of blasphemy for this reason. They became so preoccupied with details and traditions that they turned a blind eye to the bigger picture.
            I’ve heard it said that we’re not supposed to adapt our perception of God so He suits us; we’re supposed to conform ourselves to His standards. I agree, but our views of God vary greatly. We will inevitably apply our own perception of perfection, and then mold ourselves to try and match it. We have such subjective views of God and Scripture. This is the danger in allowing religion to reign over laws and government. This is why the priestly collar basically became a noose throughout the Dark Ages. Scripture can be misinterpreted by those in power and used to justify anything they wish to do. It’s not always simple to discern which interpretations are correct, since there are so many of them. We don’t have the original copies of Scripture to use as a frame of reference. Even if we did, they would be subjectively construed.
            I’ve been praying and thinking about Scripture extensively. I think that some parts of the Bible are divinely inspired while others may not be. Some people decide that all of it must be true and divinely inspired because some of it is, and others decide that none of it can be true or divinely inspired because some of it isn’t. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing, though. (Also, something can be a true factual statement without necessarily being inspired by God.) Much has been altered by translation over the years, and you can even see discrepancies when comparing different versions of our current Bible. In the end, I think we all end up relying on our own interpretations of what it says. If we’re unclear about a passage, we research it or ask someone else. In that case, we trust another person’s judgment about it. I’ve prayed and come to conclusions, but I also recognize that someone else could pray and reach completely different conclusions. In this way, I think that some truths are absolute and others are not so clear-cut. That’s not to say there is no objective set of morals. This is my perspective on the matter: there are very few actions which would be right for everyone to take. Not everyone should marry, have children, or pursue the same profession. However, there are restrictions which apply to everyone. Although marriage is right for some and wrong for others, pedophilia is wrong for everyone. Child and animal abuse are wrong for any person to commit. What, then, is universally right for all of us? To eschew such immorality and to do our best to combat it.
            It’s comforting to think that we can get every answer we’ll ever need out of a book, but I think that life and morality are more complex than that. I believe in Jesus and believe He’s divine, but I have difficulty believing that something is true for no other reason than because it’s written in the Bible. It’s hard for me to believe that our only purpose in life is to evangelize, that we exist solely to spread dogma, and that all truths reside within one book. Life is bigger than that. At the same time, I feel that God is the center of life. He’s similar to the sun, in that He provides our sustenance and we cannot look at Him directly.  In the same way that people used to believe that the sun revolved around the earth, a lot of people believe that God revolves around us. It’s the other way around. We revolve around the Son. He is a part of everything good. As long as we live in honesty and love and kindness, I feel that we’re in touch with Him. Many of God’s truths are expressed in the Bible, but how can a finite book contain the infinite nature of God?
            The Bible itself advises us to test all things by the Spirit (1 John 4:1; 1 Thessalonians 5:20-22). If we don’t critically analyze Scripture, I think we neglect a practical skill which God gave us. Some people refuse to analyze out of fear. Fear can shut and lock one’s mind as effectively as pride. With fear, we mercilessly police our own thoughts. Human rights would cease to exist if a government were to censor its citizens as severely as we can censor ourselves. Fear traps us in the dark warehouses of our minds, with no company but the neuroses we’ve stored up in there. Fear bars off unfamiliar doorways with yellow caution tape, ultimately blocking us from the exit.
            When we’re afraid, we don’t seek answers outside of what’s familiar to us. I know some Christians who scoff at science, and I think it’s due to fear. If we’re afraid to research things because we think they might challenge our faith, how genuine is our faith in the first place? I like to look at everything from an analytical standpoint—religion, philosophy, and science. This means that I don’t put immediate stock in what I hear, whether it’s metaphysical or scientific in its nature. I pray, research, and talk to people. In expanding my views, I’m stretching my faith to make it stronger and more flexible. I feel that knowledge is only rewarding when shared. It’s useless if we amass it just to hoard it selfishly, only using it for our own benefit. I’m not trying to present my interpretations as absolute truth; I’m just offering them on a food-for-thought platter. I welcome open discussion on these matters. Back-and-forth dialogue teaches us a lot more than a monologue, in my opinion.
            From what I’ve observed and experienced, the mind fares well with an open and moderate approach. Moderation doesn’t mean declining to take a stance, nor does it prevent you from being passionate about your beliefs or committed to them. Faith can reside at the center of your life as you walk the center of the road. Basically, I believe that you can be diplomatic without being neutral. Stray as far from both extremes as possible and you’ll end up centered, both literally and figuratively. The middle ground is fertile for the growth of knowledge and understanding.

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