Oh, to be a Hedgehog or a Fox?

I’ve had Dietrich Bonhoeffer on my mind a lot lately. If you’re not sure who that is, Bonhoeffer was a Christian theologian who at the cost of his life had the courage to speak out against injustices of the Third Reich. He was eventually accused by the Nazis of his participation in a plot to assassinate the Führer.

Bonhoeffer really throws a kink into how I understand what it means to be a Christian. Here was a guy who had every reason to denounce the religion altogether. In his context, Christianity had become a silent supporter of the Nazi Party. So, there’s obvious heroism in Bonhoeffer’s willingness to speak openly against the Nazis, but what I find perhaps more shocking and heroic about Bonhoeffer (looking back from my 21st century context) is that he remained Christian, that he never allowed the culture to determine what Christianity meant to him.

I’m not sure we live in a world that affords us that courage anymore. Culture overpowers us. If we don’t like the culture of something, we run from it rather than confront or change it. We attempt to divorce ourselves (and others) from that identity and take on something new. Bonhoeffer confronted Nazi Christians; we run away from Christianity over homophobia and bigotry. Lately, I’ve caught myself doing just that – trying to distance myself (through language) from “Christians” I don’t like. In the midst of Obama saying that “ISIL is not Islamic,” I’ve agreed: ISIL is no more a part of Islam than West Boro Baptist, or the KKK, is Christian. But then there’s Dietrich Bonhoeffer whose life seems to say otherwise. That is, it makes it a lot harder to say that “ISIL is not Islamic” simply because they’re extremists. In a way, Bonhoeffer was an extremist, too, just the kind of extremist we happen to agree with today.

My working theory up until now has been that as one’s ideology approaches an extreme on any given ideological scale, the likelihood increases that he or she ceases to adhere to their claimed ideology to instead favor a new set of principles altogether. Seems logical enough, right? But the kink in the theory is that it relies entirely on cultural perception. Who defines ‘extremism’? Who defines the “norms”? Some of the most renowned religious figures throughout history might well be “extremists,” or at the very least counter-cultural enough that they questioned the norms of their religion and traditions. Kinda like Jesus.

So, does it all just boil down to self-identity? I am who I say I am and, for each of us, that’s final? We may choose to say “ISIL is Islamic,” because they say so, but judging by their actions it seems that they’re just really, really bad at being Muslim. Or, perhaps the KKK is Christian – simply because they claim to be. They’re just really terrible Christians (in the opinion of many). To say as much is a commentary on their actions – the how, not on their identity – the what. To put that another way, if we were to separate the how from the what, we’d be saying that a person’s “true” identity is not really our judgment call. Or that we can judge a person’s actions based on the evidence of harm but cannot judge their inner reasoning or their heart. To make that argument is ultimately to say that a person’s identity is left to themselves – or to God or to Allah. But I don’t find that satisfactory. I want to believe we can strip people of the labels (and, thereby, the power) they claim lest we devolve into some kind of Sheilaism, or new age relativism. But who am I to strip anyone of their label? What a shame it was those who silenced Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Or those who tried to silence Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s easy to say we want to strip people of their identity when the people we’re talking about are beheading innocents. But what happens when we’re the ones doing the beheadings?

And yet, ironically, Bonhoeffer had no qualms calling Hitler the antichrist, because to him, that’s how Hitler lived. Perhaps because of his encounter with social justice movements of American Christianity, the young theologian didn’t separate the inner identity (faith or “the what”) from the action (practice or “the how”) the way some of us might today. On this note, one author writes:

…as an undergraduate, Bonhoeffer joined a university fraternity, the Hedgehogs. The Jewish philosopher Isaiah Berlin divided the world, intellectually, between the ‘Fox’ and the ‘Hedgehog.’ While the Fox’s worldview draws upon a diversity of ideas and experiences, the Hedgehog claims to know one big, supremely important thing. Theologically, Bonhoeffer may have had the Fox’s broadmindedness, but in his highest convictions, he was a Hedgehog. His one big thing was that Christianity is not merely a matter of what one believes, but of how one lives.”

And that seems to be my dilemma here. It’s said that “πόλλ’ οἶδ’ ἀλώπηξ, ἀλλ’ ἐχῖνος ἓν μέγα (the fox knows many little things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing),” and those are the two worlds I juggle. Am I to be the Fox proclaiming, “To each his own,” the way our postmodern world beckons us or the Hedgehog melding faith and works with a set proclamation that “right is right,” and “I know it when I see it“?

The truth is, I fear, even if I could find some way to be a fox, I’d probably be a hedgehog about it.

From Stolen Wallets to Trusting Experience

When I was in the third grade, I had this black-and-white checkered wallet that was neon green on the fringes. It was the epitome of 1990s cool. Like, I’m pretty sure that wallet should’ve been featured on Full House. And the fact that no one else had such a cool wallet made me feel pretty special (that’s a lie: I’m sure everybody was sporting wallets like these).

But then it was stolen. At church camp. And that one experience so left a sour taste in my mouth that I didn’t return to that church camp until I started working there ten years later.

During that time, though, I carried with me – even from that one experience – a lot of anger with church hypocrisy. By high school, I considered myself atheist, not really knowing what that term even meant, and it wasn’t until another experience, my sophomore year of college, that I did an about-face on my lack of faith.

At Wabash, there was a professor I deeply admired, Bill Placher, who taught me that truth was less about fact and more about trust. I remember at one point sitting in his office and saying something like, “I don’t understand how you can know so much about the Bible, about how so much of it isn’t what we were taught in Sunday school, but still believe in it.” He took his time to respond. The next day, he handed me something he’d written at Princeton and encouraged me to continue the conversation with him. I don’t remember the details of that conversation, yet that experience changed not only how I handled and understood religion but also how I confronted any kind of pursuit for truth. Dr. Placher made metaphors matter in a way no one ever had before. It was like discovering that Santa was real again, and anyone who thought they knew the “truth” about Santa was missing the bigger picture. Or they were just a killjoy.

Dare I say that I think experience, more than logic and reasoning, more than tradition, more than anything, carves out what it is we believe. It’s almost like it’s a scale or something where, if the negative experiences outweigh the positive ones, you can just about predict where a person ends up. If a non-believer were to say that logic and reasoning were what brought her to a skeptical place, I’d say that it wasn’t logic or skepticism but the whole experience of applying logic to a previously unquestioned faith. After all, there’s plenty of deeply religious folks out there who are keenly logical thinkers, and by the same token, there’s plenty of atheists who are pretty irrational, too.

But it comes as no surprise that when people grow skeptical, they often say that they no longer trust scripture or trust God or trust the church. And I’m alright with that, because that’s part of the journey. In fact, I think it’s an important step. I think doubt breeds humility, and asking questions is so very crucial to get to the bottom of who we are and why we believe what we believe. Or why we don’t.

But I think we have a tendency to question ideas and texts and institutions without ever really questioning our experiences of those things. And that’s because our experiences often carry with them an emotive power that we’re not able or willing to easily deny or even confront. I mean, some snot-nosed kid stole my wallet, and I know why I was angry about that, and it would’ve been easy to let that experience go unengaged. So, too, I’ve seen people get caught up in a kind of spiritual frenzy where they think they’ve seen a “light,” but when they find that light, it sometimes seems like something dark turns on instead, because they start using that “light” to justify all kinds of stupid or hurtful behavior that had nothing to do with that spiritual experience in the first place.

None of that, of course, is to say that we shouldn’t trust our experiences, only that we should understand how our experiences sometimes limit or hinder us. And, for me at least, that’s not an in-passing glance at a one-time experience and how it shaped me or continues to. It’s a lifetime, difficult effort, a need and yearning to constantly refocus, to engage the past so as not to repeat the undesired or, if that’s unavoidable, to at least repeat it with more understanding the second time around.

But, as we’re making this journey on the road of life, I think if we were more comfortable with ourselves, more capable of honestly confronting those emotional, powerful experiences we have that determine what we call “truth,” the whole world might be a little better off. And that’s important, because we live in a world today where the information we’re fed is a kind of fast-paced experience itself. We’re bombarded by Buzzfeed quizzes that tell us which Muppet we are; our news sources allow us to dive into our own little bubbles that stop us from critically engaging our surroundings; we place ourselves primarily only around the people who will agree with us, not the people who might make us better, because we usually seek easy and congenial relationships. But when one experience, like a stolen wallet, can carve out our next ten years, we’d be doing ourselves a big favor if we’re willing to slam on the brakes and pay a little more attention to where we’re headed and how we’re getting there. Especially when there’s so much crap to drive through.

Speaking, Hearing, and a little humility in humanizing others

I reopened Facebook for the first time in over a year. I shut it down to work on a novel, but I won’t say I wasn’t excited to escape the vitriol that overwhelms our public forum in an incredibly divided America. I’d been sick of seeing it; I’d also been guilty of it, too.

Five minutes into scrolling through those blue-and-white pages, it was like being reminded, “Oh yeah – this is the same place I left behind,” though probably a bit more cluttered and starting to feel kind of gunky, like Myspace before Facebook came along. What happened to the old minimalist Facebook of yesteryear?

One of the first posts I saw was a Christian friend demanding drug testing before people can receive food stamps. I thought about posting, “Yeah! Jesus didn’t care for sinners! Take their food away!” But I knew my sarcasm was too harsh; it wouldn’t be heard, and it prompted the very vitriol I’d grown sick of. There’d be something hypocritical about posting that. Even the truth can be hypocritical depending on how it’s delivered.

I thought maybe instead I’d give a light nudge: “I wonder what a Christian response should be to this issue?” Challenge with a question; that’s a bit Socratic and so there’s a good to that, right? But something feels icky to me the way Socrates “stings like a gadfly; births like a midwife.” While that’s a powerful way to teach and an emotive way to learn, something about it is manipulative. It reminds me of a teacher I had once who I loved to death, but I always thought it strange that after tearing apart a student’s paper, she would hand that student a stuffed animal to cry into saying, “You’ll do better next time.” If it’s manipulative but it works, can it still be moral? Behind my “light nudge,” a push to ask, “What would Jesus do,” I was armed with more questions intended to guide and manipulate: Did ancient Rome – in the first century – fail to feed the hungry? Were Jesus and his disciples wrong to glean? Is drug addiction a disease or is it just an illegal action? If it were a disease, would addicts be victims? If addicts were victims, what does it mean to take their food away for a disease they have? Is it right to take away food from a hungry child whose mother is a victim of her addiction? All good points hiding behind those questions, but that didn’t seem like the right way to go.

A third option was to say nothing. Let’s all just be agreeable, can’t we? We can sit around and just sing kumbaya. We can agree to disagree, and then the whole world will get along, wars will end, and everything will be rainbows and unicorns – finally! Without being flippant, I do think there’s a decent argument to be made in recognizing that we won’t change our world over a Facebook conversation or an internet meme – or a blog. I wholeheartedly agree with that. And yet to simply be agreeable, to only surround ourselves with those of like minds – our own convenient filter bubbles – while seething underneath about the folks who live in bubbles so different from our own, and we aren’t being true to ourselves in that. Or to others.

So what do we do? If our goal is to convince others we’re right or to just agree to disagree, either of those seem to be the easy way out to me. In our divisive society, it can be tempting to stir the pot. In our increasingly relativistic society, it can be tempting to throw our hands up and say it doesn’t matter. Regardless of which route we take, whether we’re selling truth or saying there isn’t any, maybe the best approach is to let go – just a little – of whichever end of the spectrum we might find ourselves in. What happens if we start to ask, how do we maintain being true to our own perspective but also willing to let go of that perspective just enough to hear the mind of someone else? I don’t have an answer to that question. But maybe those are the kinds questions we should ask – the ones we don’t think we have an answer to already.

And so, to me, this was never really about whether the government should provide food stamps to drug abusers. It was more about a need to humanize the folks who might think that way. They’re the very same folks who I’ve known to be incredibly loving and, in some ways, far more charitable than me. Their opinion doesn’t rob them of that good – or make me better than them. I hope, not only throughout social media, but in all walks of life, I’d seek to humanize everybody a little, especially the folks I so staunchly disagree with. But I also hope others will learn to do the same. There’s a time and place to speak and be heard, though I suspect the latter is always the greater good. But there’s a place for the former, too, and I recognize it can be really difficult to determine how to walk that line. Like I said, I don’t know how we do that, how best to go about it; I just think trying is a message we’ve gotta promote – to seed a little bit of humility into ourselves. I’ll start with me first.

For the Good of a Slightly Controversial Topic.

I’m fourteen days or so away from moving to Morocco as a Peace Corps Trainee, a country that is around 98% Islamic.  While there, I will be learning Moroccan Arabic and immersed into a community of people undoubtedly devoted to their faith.  My responsibility to love and to serve this community includes the obligation to respect their religious customs and traditions.  To be honest, I couldn’t be more excited about that.  Having studied religion for ten years or so, I still feel ignorant about Islam, largely because no book or television program can compare or do justice to living with a people and learning about them firsthand.  If that’s not enough reason to encounter Islam on its own turf, the current political climate here in America is rather sickening with regard to how it treats this religion, and it’s time that the truth was told.

Here in Tennessee, the Jackson Sun recently published a poll where 69% of its readers believe that Barack Obama is Muslim.   I’m not going to rehash the facts, especially since most people who believe that don’t care about facts anyway.  I’m more interested in pointing out the absurdity of the poll in the first place.  When you ask, “Do you believe the President is Muslim?” I think there are three big assumptions embedded in your question: first, you’re essentially asking whether or not you think the President has repeatedly lied about his deeply personal faith; second, there’s an underlying assumption that anyone other than an evangelical Christian won’t be able to adequately serve as Commander-in-Chief; and finally – and most worrisome for me – there’s something deeply negative being placed on Islam as a religion.

So, of course, I don’t think Obama is Muslim.  But what if he was?  Why should that be such a big deal?  Is it about morality?  That doesn’t make sense.  As a future Peace Corps Volunteer, I expect to meet and encounter many wonderful people who are Muslim, many of whom are probably more “moral” than some of my Christian friends.  In fact, I’m certain to meet many of whom are more “moral” than me.  So, is it about Jihad or September 11 or Al Qaeda?  As I’ve said before, that makes about as much sense as judging Christianity via the Crusades or the Ku Klux Klan.  I don’t understand why that kind of sweeping generalization can stand any ground.

I came across this graphic a day or two ago and thought it was brilliant.  It depicts the size of Islam vs. the size of America and asks, if Islam were truly a violent religion, why has America not been obliterated yet given the population difference?  Further, the graphic makes an excellent point regarding the size of Al Qaeda vs. the Muslim world – the two should not be equated.

All that said, the media here in America is so obsessed with sensationalizing and entertaining that the true story about Islam goes untold.  That’s why I’m writing this and why I see one of my major responsibilities as a volunteer (and as an American Christian) is to educate people.  As I’m immersed into this culture and meet these people and their faith face-to-face, I hope I’ll be able to make a tiny dent into the bigotry and idiocy that currently consumes our country.  At the very least, it’ll be nice living in a place where I don’t have to hear Glenn Beck brainwashing the country anymore.