The Problem of This or That and Nothing in Between

This morning, I went to Presbyterian church with a group of wonderful people who had worked on a local political campaign. One of them whom I really admire – the one I sat next to – is an atheist, his wife an agnostic, and in a twist of fate that was something of a tragic comedy, the sermon was on miracles. That said, most of the sermon was about having faith in spite of the lack of evidence, and that’s something I can get behind. It’s something so very true to the human condition regardless of the religious tradition you’re coming from (or whether you come from one at all). There are times in our lives where, when we have no reason to do anything but despair, we retain hope in spite of the evidence to the contrary. To believe in miracles, to me at least, isn’t really about believing in something that defies what we know from science, so much as it’s about finding hope where there seemingly is none. And that’s just something we have to do in order to survive this life we live.

As the sermon went on, though, the pastor delved into a more rigid, almost literalist approach and started quoting Charles Spurgeon, a 19th century Reformed British pastor. I won’t even try to paraphrase the quote because I’ll just butcher it, but the general sentiment was this: we should either believe in all of the Bible or believe in none of it. I won’t lie – that made me cringe. It even offended me. There are parts of the Bible that I gladly reject, and there are other parts that are important to acknowledge and hold dear. Everybody has his own “canon within a canon,” and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. I caught myself thinking, “That mentality exemplifies exactly what’s wrong not only with American Christianity but even just America generally. It’s this overly simplistic worldview that trumpets either/or scenarios, and we should always be wary of that kind of thinking.”

To my surprise, though, when the sermon was over and my atheist friend greeted the pastor, he said almost cheekily, “That line about believing all of it or none of it; I liked that line. I can get on board with that line.” Of course, the cheeky part was that my friend doesn’t claim to believe any of it, but seeing the two find agreement was to recognize a real problem that, to me, explains (at least in part) the growing divisiveness across the country: American fundamentalism. To see the two extremes finding agreement about something was like watching a spectrum be curved around to make a circle and see the right-winger and the lefty were actually quite similar. Maybe it’s always been this way, been one-way-or-the-other, but it seems like there used to be a time where there wasn’t a friggin’ label for everything under the sun, and certainly not a second label that stood as the opposite to the first. Now everything seems to come in pairs, both ready for a battle of some kind: Republican or Democrat or right or wrong or pro-life or pro-choice or straight or gay. We’re steeped in construing of the world in a way that oversimplifies the complexity of, well, everything. And there’s something sick and un-empathetic to it. There’s something about dwindling us down to labels that destroys our very humanity.

There are times when I’ve gotten sucked into the labels myself. There are other times, though, where I’ve felt somehow lonely as if watching the Christian and the atheist argue and feeling unsatisfied with and disappointed in them both. Don’t get me wrong. Extremes can be important. They offer challenges we need to hear. But even though I would take Malcolm X over the KKK any day, I’m always going to prefer MLK. And I worry that we’re living in a world that no longer celebrates the radical moderate or sensibility but rather seeks to march us all into lockstep moving only in one direction or the other. I guess my challenge, if not my hope, is that we’d always be suspicious of the either/or stuff.

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