Tuesday, June 28, 2011

A Conversation With A Christian

I'm a godless heather who lives in Seattle and works with computers, so I rarely come into contact with anyone who's recognizably Christian, much less someone with an evangelical bent. However, I recently took a new job doing software sales and got paired up with a sales guy who is exactly that. So far it's been an interesting experience given that I've never had the opportunity to converse with such a person at length about religious topics. I recently had the chance to chat with him, at length, about Leviticus, free will, and the purpose of ritual; I imagine y'all will probably find the conversation interesting. If I end up having more of the same this may become an occasional series.

The backstory is that we were in Mexico City and I was describing some of the more extreme practices associated with Semana Santa to which I'd been exposed on a previous visit. He's of the opinion that such folks have gotten it totally wrong, that they're missing the point of The Crucifixion. Gotta give him points for that; it's a moderately insightful answer which shows that he's actually thinking about religion instead of reflexively reciting dogma.

Anyhow, his observation gave me the opportunity to talk about fingers and moons; he hadn't ever heard that one before, but thought it was apropos. And that led, in turn, to talking about the Christian Dominionist contingent on Capitol Hill and their unwavering support of Israel1. That's where things got really interesting. Dude knows his Bible backwards and forwards (at least from a rote memorization standpoint... more on that later); whatever church he belongs to they clearly take "Bible study" seriously. He started talking about the Book of Revelations being an allegory about the desired future state of The Church and how it has to be read in conjunction with Daniel and Numbers (I believe those were the books he mentioned).

He wound up that particular portion of the dialogue by saying something to the effect that the single, consistent theme of The Bible is love and salvation. At which point I said "Well, what about Leviticus?", thinking "It's all well and good to say that The Bible preaches a message of love, but you've got this random-ass atavism hanging out that you've got to explain". I'm not sure what kind of reply I expected; as noted above I haven't talked theology with an evangelical before. I did not, however, expect the reply that I got, namely a half-hour exegesis on how Mosaic sacrificial ritual foreshadowed The Crucifixion.

What caught my attention early in that portion of the conversation was his statement that Leviticus (and, by extension, The Bible) has to be understood in historical context. Per my friend Leviticus exists because the Hebrews forgot their religion while enslaved in Egypt. That's certainly not an unreasonable hypothesis; a similar process of forgetting among the conversos/Marranos and their descendants has been well-documented. Except The Bible says that the Yahweh cult was a post-Exodus innovation; whatever religion they had prior to Exodus bore no relation to the practices laid out in the Pentateuch. Consider the following:

And the Lord said to Moses, 'Write down all these instructions, for they represents the terms of my covenant with you and with Israel.' (Exodus 34:27)
That makes it sound like a totally new deal rather than a rehash of some pre-existing covenant, yes? How do you reconcile the above statement with the notion that Leviticus is a reminder of previous practice?

Which brings me to the topic of my friend's views vis-a-vis the truth of The Bible. He doesn't believe that its inerrant nor, thankfully, does he believe that it's an authoritative document to which all of humanity must conform its behavior. He has also said some things which makes it sound like he's iffy on (or, perhaps, indifferent to) its historicity as a whole. He told me that he was conversant with its contents prior to his conversion to Christianity; what pushed him over into conversion was some sort of personal experience of the numinous. His take, as far as I've been able to suss out, is that The Bible is a good story with a positive message of love and hangs together well (provided your apologetics are sufficiently elaborate). That, combined with his own conversion experience, is enough to convince him that Christianity Is True.2

Which brings me to the meat of this story, a fundamental realization I've had as a resulting of talking to him: He's not interested in having a logical, rigorously consistent belief system. For all the emphasis that his church puts on learning The Bible he's still fundamentally feeling (rather than thinking) his way to his truth. For example, I asked him if the Romans/Jews/whomever could have not crucified Jesus. He said it had to happen but that each individual person in that particular drama chose whether or not to go along. To me that's not a satisfactory answer; the fact that God dictated the outcome of the actions of N people is only slightly better, from a free will point of view, than if ey'd dictated each persons' actions individually. I was going to point this out to him, but as I listened to him speak I realized that he simply wouldn't care about that kind of abstract result.

I literally cannot argue with him (most of the time, anyway) because our personal epistemic systems are so far removed from each other. I think that maybe, if I can find Biblically-supported examples where the contradictions are glaring enough, I might be able to gain a toehold. The crucifixion example seemed to give him at least a moment's pause, so something along those lines may yet at least get him to stop and think. If given the chance I'm going to ask him why, if God is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent, does he behave like a stern-but-loving father? Wouldn't an entity possessing such characteristics be utterly alien to us? I wonder how much my friend knows about Gnosticism...

A larger point here is that, as mentioned above, my friend's faith is largely benign. It may lead him to believe counter-factual things (what are his views on global warming?), but apart from that he's bothering no one. What do you do when you encounter someone who's similarly feeling their way to the truth but is not so benign? Like the Christian Dominionists I mentioned earlier... they write laws and they (literally) can't be reasoned with. It seems to me that if you find yourself arguing directly with someone's theology you've already lost.

A better tactic, which I think cuts through a lot of the bullcrap about "framing", is to think about epistemology directly. Are there a) places where there's enough agreement about basic facts that you can have a productive dialogue or b) means by which the distance between agreed upon facts can be closed? Absent either one of those and you're wasting your time and breath.


1 And really, how often do you get to use the phrase "immanentize the eschaton" in casual conversation?
2 Though he's also made statements to the effect that Mormons and Jehova's Witnesses aren't "really Christian". Knowing his criteria for making this determination would be enlightening.

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