Witnessing with History
It's been a while. But when, a few weeks ago, two of my fantastic friends threw a dinner party and invited me, the food was so wonderful and the company so charming I could scarcely do anything but respond when they threw me the bait.
Sure, we all know that there's a religion gene; perhaps the phenomena it causes one to experience are real, certainly real to some subset of believers. But what about all that time people spend on the church? The hours in prayer, study, fellowship, ritual? Isn't it (they said, here smiling a little) just as bad or worse as Burning Man -- which at least only comes once a year -- a festival that drains the real community building spirit out of a community, which fritters away its political enthusiasm for utopian art projects that have no relevance to every-day struggles?
I mean, whether or not I've gone off of *arguing* about the church, saying that it's worthless neutral or bad even to the order of Burning Man is pretty stiff judgment, and worthy of an argument, and given that the judgment is contrary to my experience.
My own experience is one of an institution whose purpose everywhere expressed is to prod people into knowledge of self and taking the people around them seriously. Good people, good results; bad people, mixed results. The Church can't be held responsible for existing in warring Europe, nations of torture, nations of xenophobia, etc., yet Christians talking as Christians in any private context always end up as open-eared as any good university professor, in my own experience -- contrary to depiction in the media. And probably, yes, contrary to the experience of most of my shaggy-haired friends. But that, to me, is all about american regions' intolerance of other American regions, straight up and down, and it has nothing to do with the church. All the darker that the church can't overcome regions' distrust of regions.
I guess the feeling of intellectual cowardice genuinely comes down to entering the tenth year or so of being the freak Christian among all my other friends. Maybe it's like having to be always called on stage as the speaker on behalf of all women, or the speaker on behalf of all Jews or homosexuals; one begins to wish for a little more sympathy from the audience.
One gets tired of apologizing for all one's kind (yes I suppose there are pedophiles but we're not all etc etc), or having to draw tedious distinctions between Those People and My People and My Friends. One begins to wonder if even the Southern Baptists don't deserve some benefit of the doubt, trying as they are to have some conversation with people like them (of course like them) about how they might run their families or their consciences better. Much of the content of which is excellent: forgiveness, charity, encouragement - all those dynamics which, whether learned or natural, do so much to ease human life.
Most of all one sort of wants to sit around savoring the traditions one has with a sympathetic audience. As if noting how a particular movie or novel had affected one, in the company of someone who had felt something similar, or as if conjecturing that if one of Jane Austen's characters could learn to make a better choice about dealing with one's parents, one could too. Similar conversations about scripture are the stuff of my people, the stuff of every-evening conversations among parents and aunts and cousins. Hence the great romantic loneliness of the spiritualist in the coastal city.
In general (not having to do with that particular dinner party, which was great fun) I'd like more benefit of the doubt, if you will. At least a healthy curiosity about what this kind of insight and privileged experience of those with the certain gene is like, rather than the instant urge to identify the Christian with the Hegemon and the Evil (much as the Jew with lucre and usury...). To be sure, a story with a healthy intellectual narrative, this latter half of the twentieth century. But again, I think that's mostly about regions' distrust of regions', about the coastal Jewish urbanites (and outcast displaced liberal sympathizers turned atheists) looking to turn against *all* institutions, all history, all hierarchy in the 60s. Down with the patriarchy. Down with the university with its hypocrites, and the church with its super hypocrites, all used by power to send us to Vietnam to die worthlessly, oh the hypocrisy: point to the inquisition, not how Martin Luther led the Peasant Rebellion, not to Civil Rights or Womens Franchise.
Evangelical atheism has its own story about history which is just about as mythic as religious histories -- in the latter god always rules everything and man is going either up or down at all times. In the former, there is no god, then the sudden rise of a priestly caste, then *poof* the enlightenment, and we're all better.
Surely a more intellectually respectful history would acknowledge a plurality of uses of culture in different ritual/religious senses -- the religion of fashion, the religion of art, the religion of capital, all of them leading to their own idolatries and crushing the individual in new and more interesting ways all the time, as other rituals (spiritual, artistic, intellectual) simultaneously evolve to free the poor individuals...
There's nothing more natural than rewriting history to your own advantage. Bless the evangelical atheists, they only practiced the lies of those they hate.
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