Written After Midnight

Sleep-Deprived Ramblings

Archive for the month “May, 2012”

Ahab Syndrome

I’d like to take a moment to discuss a problem I’ve observed among my religious peers; A problem I’m going to term “Ahab Syndrome”. I don’t intend this for extremists, although I think Ahab Syndrome often leads to extremism. Instead, I’m talking about what happens when we in the Christian world get out priorities mixed up.

There is a strong current in Christian thought that the highest virtue is zeal, or devotion. The more passionate and insistent a person is about their faith, the purer the soul, and the closer to God. The problem with this, that I’ve observed, is that it often obscures critical thought on how our actions effect others. When a religious individual causes a disturbance, or does something offensive, it is not uncommon to hear members of our community say things like: “Let it go, she means well” or “He’s misguided but his heart is in the right place”. This is just a figurative example, but I have seen a real trend towards regarding intentions as more important than actions; especially if those intentions are religious in nature.

There are several problems with this attitude that merit discussion; A major one is historical. The briefest glance at history shows us the damage that unquestioned religious zeal can do. The Spanish Inquisition, the Marian Persecutions, the brutal execution of William Tyndale, and countless others. Even in modern times, we find groups like the WBC, and incidents like the persecution of Jessica Ahlquist.

Granted, it would be unreasonable to claim that some of these incidents were devoid of political motives, but unquestioning zeal will always act as a catalyst for disaster, regardless of what the object of devotion is. Many otherwise normal people partook in these events, and many of them did it with the assurance that they were defending the Good and True. A point well worth considering when we grapple with religious issues in our modern society.

A second problem with this attitude, from a purely religious standpoint, is biblical. It is spelled out in the clearest possible language that zeal is not of itself a virtue. “It is not good to have Zeal without knowledge.”1 In other words, blind devotion without applying consideration or research to our actions is destructive. This is not an obscure passage or difficult concept. Less often-cited is the scathing critique that Jesus leveled at the religious leaders of his day: “You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces…. You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are.”2 Severe words for a severe problem.

Christianity is specific ideology about the world and what it means to live in it. As practitioners of that ideology, it is our responsibility to put thought and effort into our stances on its teachings. It is our responsibility to avoid the pitfalls of elitism and arrogance, instead of attacking our critics. But more than anything, it is our responsibility to consider how we apply this ideology in our lives. We have a history of some of the most violent and appalling acts of cruelty. It is because of that history that we must subject ourselves to the most careful self-examination, and sharply question our actions. It would serve us well to remember, (as C. S. Lewis once pointed out,) that in Christian mythology, it was never bad fleas that became devils, but bad angels.3

1Proverbs 19:2. NIV
2Matt 3:7, 23:15. NIV
3This is a paraphrase, not a direct quote

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A Little Light Plagiarism to Start…

Okay, so I’m basically stealing the format of this post from JT Eberhard’s excellent exploration of flirting and boundaries, but instead I’m going to talk about dialogue between members of the Christian and Atheist communities; um, please don’t leave yet.

As a Christian who is also a member of CFI, I’ve had the opportunity to interact with and get to know a group of people that is largely comprised of Atheists/Agnostics, which is new for me.  I do believe that my involvement, and the friendships I’ve made because of it, have gone a long way to opening my eyes to the discrimination and hostility Atheists/Agnostics deal with, and also the social privileges granted to religious individuals, especially Christians.   However, there’s a problem.

In my attempts to engage with Atheists, Agnostics, Skeptics, etc., (and I don’t mean try to change them) I try to be both respectful and open, but I sometimes make my conversational partners(s) uncomfortable, especially when I’ve just met them.  I’ve found myself in situations where someone has assumed I was also an Atheist because of the event I was at or because we share certain opinions that are more common in the Atheist community.  When correcting the misunderstanding, I’ve seen this cause unease and sometimes suspicion.  But if I slip into the conversation early on that I am religious, I find that the conversation is usually a lot shorter.

Personally, I don’t blame anyone for reacting this way.  I’ve had my own run-ins with religious peers, so I can only imagine how many of these new acquaintances have been treated, but that’s kind of my point.  Imagining really IS all I can do.  I want very much to facilitate open discussion, (whether it’s about religion or what cartoons I like), but I recognize that it requires a level of trust that I haven’t earned yet. Especially when I’m dealing with people who have been mistreated by the church, or just the church-centered culture we live in.

What I would like to know, is how do I be honest about myself in a non-threatening way?  How do I make it clear that I don’t have ulterior motives for talking to you?  Am I obligated to state my religious affiliation from the start?  If not, when is an appropriate time to mention it, to avoid misunderstandings?

The main reason I’m starting off with this topic, is that I would like to address religious and cultural issues with this blog, but my hope is to do so in a respectful and productive way.  So this is me officially (probably awkwardly) asking for help in reaching that goal.  Tips?

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