Sometimes, I talk with my friend George on the phone, and afterwards, I feel like falling fast asleep or pouring a stiff drink. It’s exhausting. We go round after round, bringing up finer theological minutiae, critiquing each other’s viewpoints and offering alternatives. We debate, we bicker, we condescend, we laugh, and we say we’ll do it again in a few weeks.
One thing that has already been presented a few times at the divinity school is the notion of being part of 'the academy.' In 'the academy,' they say, there is open and honest debate. The point is for your opinions and theories to be criticized so that truth can be the ultimate winner. Of course, whenever you add egos into the mix, it looks like something more than truth is trying to 'win.'
Every time that George and I talk, it’s very apparent that we’re coming from two completely different perspectives. We’re coming from different lifestyle situations, different upbringings, and we’re at different stages in life. All of this inherently shapes our theological worldview. And, in the interest of diversity and understanding, I can’t say one of us is more right or enhanced or 'winning' because of it. However, George clearly thinks you can, and he is happy to claim that his viewpoints have such characterization. I try to say that I’m open-minded and willing to change my stance (I’m part of ‘the academy,’ right?) should the evidence or logic or anything else suggest I do so.
And while I would love to take a holier-than-thou attitude about such open-mindedness, all I really want to do is learn more. I want to be in dialogue, not so that I can try to have all of the answers, but rather so that I can make sure I’m asking the right questions. But with someone like George, who freely admits that he will never change the opinions he has now (at age 25) regarding Scripture, God, Jesus, money, or politics, can I gain anything from our conversations? After a few talks, I can almost predict what he’s going to say, and when he’s going to drop Romans 8:28, John 8:32 or John 14:6 like trump cards, effectively ending whatever historical context claim I was trying to make on any given issue. Is such a dialogue with my college friend even beneficial to either of us?
Unfortunately, lots of religious dialogue leaves people worn out and burned. Because someone, somewhere, at some time wanted to ultimately prove they were right more than anything else, someone else hates to discuss religion. It is deeply personal and incredibly academic all at once. It’s not like calculus, wherein you can throw out some numbers, graph a line, and everyone agrees, regardless of where they grew up, or who their parents were, or what they believe in. Religion seems to be both unifying and divisive all at once, and therefore many folks just want to keep this double-edged sword tucked safely in its sheath.
Such is the case with post-9/11 Muslims and post-Falwell Christians. Their faith was hijacked by a minority voice that seems to speak the loudest. In today’s world, you don’t have to be right; you just have to be loud. And when there’s no one pushing back to challenge your viewpoints or presentation of information, you will come across as correct, right, and in the know. Those who don’t question things will think you’re the authority on stuff and may even blindly follow you. This is why religious dialogue is needed across all faiths. Even if we’ve got our opinions that we’ll die trying to defend, a diversity of voices must be heard on all issues, so that those of us who may be undecided can listen and choose for ourselves.
So what should I do with George? Does he need me to point out to him that blindly accepting every word as literal in his NIV Bible can be a dangerous slippery slope to play on? Do I need to make sure to listen to his belief that the world was created in six 24-hour days, because I, too, could have my opinions completely wrong on this one? Or are we just wasting 45 minutes every week or so that would be better spent drinking beer or playing golf together?
As much as the sound of beer and golf delights me, I hate to sacrifice theological banter for the sake of convenience. Religious truths are hard to grasp and are best when wrestled with instead of pandered to. As I heard a Buddhist once say at Harvard Divinity School, "Nothing great theologically comes without struggle." That’s right – the best analysis I’ve ever heard about theology came from a Buddhist, not a Christian.
Ultimately, I don’t think that an answer for this dogma dilemma is as easy to come by as George’s conclusions are for him to draw. George said to me last night, "Sam, I just need to make sure I’m hanging around people who think exactly like me." I think that’s both a dangerous and boring place to be.
So, I’m happy to discuss all things philosophical, religious, Christian, or otherwise. I prefer to do this during happy hour, so if you hate me halfway through, at least you enjoyed a cold one on tap. Please know that I don’t have all the answers, nor do I think I ever will. And I will never claim to speak on behalf of all Christians. I will always listen, but will call you out when your loud voice is lying. My only hope is that we can be friends at the end of it and then go feed hungry people together. That’s all this thing is about anyway, right?