This cafe is my life. I love it here. I love the people, but I am driven by the kind of existential angst that would demand that I stand up and start asking questions about Jesus. Everyone else just wants espresso and polite ignorance. I want to have an interfaith group therapy session. I sit on my hands and sip my latte.
I found this article in the Huffington Post Religion section, written by Rui Dai, a student at Duke University. I don't know if it is a good Team Ambiguity article, but I do think it is a good starting place for conversation. I like several things about the article. I like that Dai acknowledges that Christianity can and will survive its evolution toward scientific understanding which it has done time and time again. I like that she questions the existence of an organized anti-religious agenda. I have always felt that if there were such a thing, someone would probably have told me by now, given my associations. I am reminded of Jerry Falwell's denunciation–in the wake of the 9-11 attacks–of pagans, who, among other groups, he blamed for making America vulnerable to attack.
"We aren't even organized enough to get thirteen women together for a circle.," my pagan friend informed me afterward.
Dai's article is smart, articulate and challenging. It even, I suppose, takes my side, if we are taking sides. I am, after all, a Unitarian Universalist atheist liberal. The best articles make me think and this one did. I have some questions to ask about it, some places I want to go. Let's examine the body.
The Left Leg: Is the Christian faith really any less tolerant than it ever has been? This is an argument not with anything Dai has said specifically, but with where I think some may go with her assertion. People are given to negative superlatives. Every election cycle is the dirtiest we've seen. Racial politics get worse and worse. Sexism doesn't get better, it only hides. Really? As recently as the 18th Century, the church was burning witches at the stake. Go back further and people were stoning adulteress women. How recently were cautions against the miscegenation as serious in tone as the ones against gay marriage now? The continued existence of intolerance doesn't make it as bad as it ever was. In fact, the fact that young people are turned off by the bigotry of certain religious groups that grab the mic is an indication that tolerance is increasing. Our younger generation doesn't want to hear that message anymore. I find that hopeful.
The Right Leg: There is intolerance and there is intolerance. I am going to say the thing that makes me so weird and unpopular with everyone. Secular assholes are just as much assholes as religious assholes. Intolerance doesn't require a religious stamp to be intolerance. Yes, some of the most institutionalized intolerance that currently exists is religious in nature, but you can be a racist, sexist, closed-minded, violent wrong-doer without coming in the door holding a cross or a Koran. (Hitler and Stalin always leap immediately to mind.) In terms of people you may meet in the cafe, the secular jerkwads are the ones who won't listen to anything you have to say, who malign everything done by any person of faith no matter the context and who hope that someday everyone will evolve to be more like them. So, in order to avoid the whole mess Dai describes, you can't become an anti-religionist. You need to just quietly and politely not attend church and avoid religious conversations. By all means, don't go the way of Christopher Hitchens, may he rest in peace.
The Left Arm: Is leaving the answer? I beg your indulgence because I am playing devil's advocate here. I am not a Christian, and I am not currently attending any church whose stated beliefs make me uncomfortable. I cannot say that leaving a church or faith isn't exactly the right thing to do for many people. It likely is in more cases than not. I just want to ask this question: How much change can take place from within a faith as opposed to from without? This is how my husband and I have chosen to approach our own faith. To do this requires that you love your faith and have an investment in it. It also requires that you have a sense of ownership of its beliefs so that when people argue with you, be they other lay people or clergy, you have a sense not of righteousness but of authority. Our own conviction is that our faith needs to be more active and relevant, less provincial, cozy and sure of itself. We often express disagreement in church, but we do it with love. I wonder what might be possible if more young people leaving Christian faiths would stay and bring their commitment to bear on them. I do not claim to know, only wonder.
The Right Arm: The young don't need church as much as espresso and Prozac. When I was in my twenties, I didn't go to church either. Why bother? I participated in various spiritual groups, but my life was more focused on my own exploration of the outer world and my own ideas about it. I tended to push up against any organizational doctrines as a means of testing my wings. We started going back to a UU church, in which Mike and I were both raised, when we had our third child and the older children were...older, old enough to need what I might call moral instruction. They needed community. We needed community. In our thirties, we suddenly liked dressing up and showing up on Sundays to bring our kids to Sunday school and sit in the sermon. I wonder if the seeming mass exodus of twenty-somethings is as significant as Dai thinks it is. I'd be curious to see the statistics on those kids when they're in their thirties.
The Body: Religion almost never seems religious to me. I think we cloak a lot of things in the guise of religion that are nothing more than the nature of being human. Bigotry may have a religious justification, but it doesn't require one and it will persist with or without that rationale. That is why I always argue that fighting over the semantics of fear and hatred is a waste of time and energy. The answer, we always find is love. I don't mean that in a "stick a sign up at a protest" sort of a way. I mean it in an actual, scientifically verifiable kind of a way. We got to know people of other races and care about them, which made the worst forms of bigotry start to disappear from the mainstream. The Cosby Show or Will and Grace gave us fictional African-Americans and fictional gay people that we could get to know. Gay friends, relatives and co-workers refusing to hide and be ashamed have woken us up to the smell of our own hatred, like a cupped hand close to our mouths. Our society is not done with this process, but it is happening.
Freeing ourselves from religion won't save us from being human and subject to other humans. It is part of our nature to form groups. It is also part of that nature to act without thinking, to choose sides, to attack that which seems "other," and to give attention to just the person that is doing the loudest, stupidest-sounding yelling. If we don't line up and form groups around religious lines, we can still do it around politics, child raising, and soft drink preference. And we will.
Everyone's gonna do what they're gonna do. I don't honestly expect that my three sons will attend church while in their twenties. I don't know that I'm invested that they do at all. Here's what I'm invested in: Come into the cafe. Sit down with me and let's talk about what we believe. I'm not out to convert you, and I hope you're not out to convert me. If it ends up getting heated, we can always get another latte and change the subject. I don't want to spend my life at one table with a bunch of people wearing the same t-shirt I'm wearing and I don't want to leave the cafe. So, come on in and pull up a chair.
Now tell me what you think. This is where it gets interesting. Here are the rules for all Team Ambiguity discussions:
- Please do not rely solely on the pacifying statement that people just disagree. This is true but obvious. What is interesting is: why? And do these people feel listened to? I don't necessarily mean us; I mean whatever parties are at issue in our discussion.
- You have to be respectful of one another and of the opinions or thoughts being discussed, even if you think they are are turkey twaddle. Team Ambiguity is characterized by its ability to step back and consider that we may be wrong. That means the turkey twaddle may be right.
- Please don't hide because you think everyone else is smarter or more articulate than you, or because no one has said yet what you were going to say and you are waiting for them to, so you can say "Yeah, what SHE said!". You are the smartest damn person on the whole blog. We want your comment because yours is the essential comment.
- Please realize it's not a fight. Discourse is illuminating. It is what makes people smarter. If we are all following Rule #2, there isn't any fighting. We are just responding with our honest experiences and thoughts and stories. One person adds celery, another adds carrot and soon we have a rich soup of differing flavors.
Bring on the ambiguity!