Why Believe That At All?

Fred Clark has a wonderful piece over at Slacktavist about believers who find that their sense of obedience (which is required on threat of eternal torment) conflicts with their conscience, vis a vis gay people. In this case, he compares two approaches: a guest post on Timothy Dalrymple’s blog and the post that that post is referring to. The later is from a pastor who recognizes that sometimes those things pull in opposite directions, but basically says that you should go with obedience anyway. The former at least puts the struggle in realistic terms.

That being said, Clark quotes a bit that I think is important.

If you say to everybody, “Anyone who thinks homosexuality is a sin is a bigot,” [Jonathan Rauch] says, “You are going to have to ask them to completely disassemble the way in which they read the Bible.” Completely disassemble their whole approach to authority. You are basically going to have to ask them to completely kick their entire faith out the door.

Yes. Actually that is exactly what I’d like them to do. If your moral authority rests on the will of an invisible being who’s presence is notably indistinguishable from its absence, then it’s time to start letting that go. This is not to say that I don’t want you to believe in this or that, but rather that I cannot trust that even a benevolent outside being will remain so, and people who can hang their moral choices on outside figures are more dangerous than those who recognize that their choices are theirs and theirs alone.

Reality is not a jacket with so many buttons to sort through until you find ones that seem to look right.

That being said, I am trying very hard to empathize with people who are pulled in multiple directions. On one hand, I want to dismiss them, since I cannot imagine ever worshiping a being that tells me to act so opposite my conscience. It just would never occur to me that that sort of monster deserves my devotion and praise.

That being said, it’s not that easy, and I recognize that. As much as I try to empathize with other people, it’s so difficult to do so with members of the religious right since it’s nearly impossible for me to wrap my head around that ideology without immediately seeing it in terms of being self-serving and willfully cruel. Especially when we’re talking about people like Timothy Dalrymple who likes to pose as kindly unconcerned until backed into a corner.

For example, almost a year ago I got into a bit of a comment back and forth with Dalrymple on a number of subjects. You can see it all on his post or my post on the subject, but the specific point that stuck with me was when he insisted that evangelicals like him have no interest in keeping people from visiting their partners in hospitals. When I pointed out that Scott Walker was going out of his way as governor of Wisconsin to do just that, Dalrymple replied, “I didn’t say that no one’s views have those consequences. Scott Walker may care about preserving the meaning of marriage and not diluting that legal definition, but I assure you he could care less whether your partner visits you in the hospital.” For people like Dalrymple, hurting people in an effort to bring about another goal is all fine and dandy so long as you don’t care about the thing you did too much.

And it’s these sorts of rhetorical and logical backflips that make it so much more difficult to empathize with people like Dalrymple and Wehner. I have no problem empathizing with Clark since he feels no such compunction: his conscience tells him to be an LGBT ally, and while I don’t get how this is also in line with a supreme being’s will, it’s pretty clear that the decision didn’t pose much difficulty for him. Maybe it did, but as long as I have been reading the guy it’s seemed obvious.

Similarly, it seems obvious that a sexual ethic based on mutual respect and consent is better than the arbitrary decision to wait until marriage for sex, but as Libby Anne points out, Rachel Held Evans is doing the same logical backflips to justify her opinions without having to rely on purity myths. I’d be similarly curious to see how Peter LaBarbara, who has spent years warning that if gay marriage is legalized than those who oppose it will be arrested, justifies his support of a Russian law to do exactly that to supporters of gay anything.

It’s all very confusing, and I don’t get why you would bother to make all of those incredible leaps to protect a belief that resists inclusion on any terms other than its own. A lot of people have managed to do so, but it seems like so much work when a well developed moral sense can be acquired through empathy and compassion.

Or at the very least we can stop trying to make every decision something that can be measured against a universal moral framework that we must be subject to and instead recognize that while many behaviors are incompatible with a stable society, many just have no moral component that can be applied externally.


UPDATE: Clark followed up that post with another which was also pretty good. Here’s the teaser:

It took quite a while for me to realize that queasy feeling in my stomach had nothing to do with nerves or fear or a lack of faith or being “ashamed of the gospel of Christ.” That queasy feeling was my conscience reminding me of Rule No. 1 and pleading with me not to be a jerk. That was why I didn’t want to knock on doors or walk up to strangers on the sidewalk or distribute tracts to wary passers-by — because those things made me feel like a jerk. Why? Because acting like a jerk tends to make one feel like a jerk.

Contextless, cold-calling, hard-sales evangelism almost always and almost inevitably entails acting like a jerk. It involves treating other people as objects rather than as subjects. It involves forcing onto them an experience that none of us would want to have forced onto ourselves.

This update is mostly a reminder to myself to think more on the subject/object line, since that seems important. If any of you have any thoughts, feel free to comment.