Yesterday, I not only had the opportunity to substitute teach a Sunday morning Bible study class, but I also made it back out to the church for an afternoon class on Baptist history. Strange the things you can take away from such humdrum church activities without even knowing it. Despite neither lesson focusing on it, I was left pondering how important it is to some Christians that they be proven right. Do you know what I mean?
Like a lot of things, this is not an exclusively Christian mindset. Religions of all brands and breeds contain their fair share of accuracy wardens, as do atheists and the non-religious philosophers of our day. There are agnostics even who hope their hesitation stems from loyalty to logic rather than complete disregard for it. We want to ensure that our belief system is error-free and precise in all circumstances. Because, if it’s not … if some sharp stick of dissent can easily be poked through the ideological membrane of our system … well, let’s just say we tend to react a lot more like the kid whose balloon has just been popped than the adult whose matured enough to learn that balloons are known to pop from time to time and it’s not the end of the world as we know it, nor the end of balloons as we know it.
Now, before you assume I’m nitpicking guardianship, I want to be clear I’m not calling out people who simply desire veracity in their beliefs. Who doesn’t? I certainly want the tenets of my faith to hold true. That’s why I believe them, actually – because despite the sticks of criticism that poke at my faith from time to time, I have found that what I believe has never really been popped. Punctured, maybe, but I’m okay with a patchwork faith. The things I believe may come across frowsy, but not as flimsy or fragile as balloons.
I’m talking about the folks who feel an overprotective need to verify not only what they believe, but to grind to mulch any and every stick that might be picked up by a critic. Let me give you an example of what I’m talking about.
In the Baptist History class last night (yeah, I know, I already took an actual semester-long class on Baptist history in seminary, but like any exhausted grad student, I nodded off a couple times, so it doesn’t hurt to have a refresher), we learned about J.R. Graves , the gentleman to whom Landmarkism is attributed - Landmarkism being an absurd (if you’re a supporter of scholarship or even plain,old-fashioned logic) belief in Baptist history that the only true, valid church is a Baptist church, as long as it, of course, adheres to Landmark beliefs, and that Baptists can trace their roots back all the way to John the Baptist.
If you grew up Baptist (especially in the South or Midwest), or if you have some familiarity with Baptist practices, you may have encountered the lingering effects of this 19th century controversy when you were told that Catholics are bound for hell, and those Episcopals, Presbyterians and Methodists aren’t far behind. I grew up suspicious of other denominations and it wasn’t until I graduated college and actually started spending time with some young, devout Catholic students that I realized the faultiness of this way of thinking.
The question, of course, is why J.R. Graves would ever feel the need to be so extreme with his rewrite of Baptist history. It’s one thing to take pride in your denominational tradition – it’s quite another to condemn everyone else. I don’t mean to copy Graves’s extremism by offering this analogy, but it stands to reason that if Adolf Hitler had settled for being merely proud of the Aryan race and stopped there, millions of families might not have been destroyed. Sure, people might have thought the little guy with the Charlie Chaplin mustache was a teensy bit racist, but simple pride in one’s race does not a genocidal maniac make. The same thing goes for diehard fans of believer’s baptism.
It’s when we seek to purify our beliefs to such an extent that we reject any notion of misguidedness or fallacy that we wind up losing touch with the very point of our faith. When a Christian – like J.R. Graves – insists on factual treatment of faith, he becomes his own worse fear. He becomes a contradiction. A person’s faith cannot be based on facts. If it is, it isn’t faith at all, but merely an obsession with proof. When Graves sought to “purify” the Baptist legacy by adding erroneous assumptions about history, as well as severing all lines of participation and mutual respect with other denominations, he was entering into one of the most dangerous forms of escapism that there is.
We may not think we’re as bad as Graves when it comes to arguing for the truth, but as my pastor commented last night, it seems the man’s quest for purity boiled down to that age-old vice known as arrogance; “There’s something about having that secret knowledge that nobody else does,” the pastor reminded us, and he was right. We love to be in-the-know, and, for some twisted reason, being in-the-know feels a lot more exciting if we can look out our stained-glass windows and see all the people who don’t have the same clue.
In addition to the tenets of my faith, I also believe in something I like to call the Great Conversation. It’s a conversation that all of us can be a part of if we wish, whether we are Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, agnostics, atheists or whatever way we choose to categorize ourselves. I enter into the Great Conversation when I choose not to build a moat between myself and the rest of the world. When I trust in the strength of my ideological membrane not because it can’t be punctured, but because the only way I will learn how to strengthen it is by accepting that the occasional stick might pierce a weak spot. To be a part of the Great Conversation, we do not have to become relativistic or unitarian (even though all relativists and Unitarians are welcome to join in) – we can hold fast to what we believe. I know our pluralist society praises compromise, but most religious people would agree that there are some aspects of one’s faith that cannot be compromised. However, this doesn’t mean the conversation shouldn’t continue. Sometimes the best discussion that occurs in this Conversation concerns the reasons why some beliefs cannot be compromised. This is how we learn from one another.
No one will ever listen to what you have to say if they don’t think you respect them, or if you show no patience with them, or if you exude suspicion rather than attentiveness. If you find yourself feeling this way, you may have already started backpedaling, stumbling into the trap of escapism into which Graves fell.
As for me, I think it’s high time we lay down our sticks and have a chat.