A few months ago I was out jogging while listening to an NPR interview. The interviewer in the studio was a highly-educated, liberal woman. The interviewee on the line was a 24-year old woman, articulate yet less-educated, from North Carolina. She was heading to Brazil for Catholic World Youth Day, and the conversation was about her expectations of the upcoming trip. The tones of the talk were terrific, exemplifying the disconnect between the mental space of a relativist and a believer.
The interviewer, who never directly states her lack of religion, to my ears exuded a subtle sarcasm right through the respectful framework of her questions. “Can she really believe this?” seemed to be the undercurrent of the conversation. It is as if the talk show host is pressing on the young woman’s mind, out of both curiosity and concern, trying to ascertain if the person with whom she is speaking is an adult in command of her right mind. The young woman had recently become Catholic, and the interviewer uses the words “convert” and “Catholic” repeatedly, with strange emphasis, as if to pigeonhole the young woman’s theological convictions as simply another naïve choice from a passé menu of old world religions. Her tone is kind, yet superior.
And the interviewee: She spoke softly, confidently. Her responses, unruffled by the cynicism, were attractive to me as the listener. The dominant qualities were compassion lacking condescension, and wonder. It is as if the two women had been staring together at a Magic Eye, a piece of paper with an indecipherable pattern of dots and shapes. But when the young woman looked at it in a certain way, a certain relaxing of the eyes, a new pattern emerged from the non-pattern, jumping off the page, taking on depth and shape, consuming and surprising the mind with a new awareness of what was perhaps always there. To the show host, the hologram seemed not to appear, or to appear very differently. The conversation never degenerated into disagreement, yet the chasm between the interlocutors was palpable.
Listening to this interview raised a question for me: Is it possible to explain somehow in non-theological terms the committed dogmatism of some people and the committed relativism of others? I do not think that either of the women in the interview would qualify as strictly dogmatist or strictly relativist; anyways, it would be unfair to infer too much about their nuanced convictions from a ten-minute radio conversation. But at the same time, perhaps they also stand as convenient representatives of identifiable groups in our nation’s religious communities. So, to the question again: Is there an explanation for the phenomenon?
I will try to present a few thoughts of how the question resolves itself for me, and my first assumption is this: for members of both these camps, it is not an issue of intellectual obtuseness or spiritual stubbornness. They really believe what they believe, and have reasons for it. For both dogmatist and relativist, it seems to be impossible to retreat from their position, or to understand the core experiences and conclusions of the other.
From my perspective, a Christian, yet someone who in this context would tentatively self-identify as a relativist, it is a matter of not having the grounds to disprove what is ostensibly disagreeable to me. For example, the security guard in my neighborhood, a friend of mine, is a Hindu from India. On what grounds can I say that he does not love God, the real God, and that he is also not beloved, by real Love? Perhaps I should try refuting that what I see as blue is in fact blue. Or take another friend of mine, an atheist lesbian, who is searching for answers as honestly and as rigorously as I am: On what grounds can I say that she does not have the same rights as I do to any post-existence reward, notwithstanding her lack of assent to a particular set of theological assertions – that is, her lack of “belief”? Perhaps I should follow this up by asking on what grounds I can disprove that planet earth supplies the gravity for the orbit of the moon. To all of these questions, I simply cannot retreat from the rejoinder: but they do!
By the same token, and to take the example at hand, dogmatic Christians who hold to the “lostness” of some souls and the “savedness” of some souls cannot retreat from their convictions any more than I can. They are not being dishonest. They are not intellectually shallow. They are not bigots. Many deeply kind, universally compassionate people I know hold to some version of this. And their blue is vividly blue, their moon goes round. While we venerate the same New Testament texts, and worship in the same congregations, somehow the meaning that registers with them is so much more absolute than my own variegated truth, as if they perceive in the writings of St. Paul a fixed epistemic monopoly to which I do not have access, and perhaps for the very reason that the problem presents itself to me in those terms.
Is there a core cause? Well, probably not. It is more complex than any single factor. But there are probably core causes, and I think this may be one of them:
It is general knowledge that there is in the formative years of early adulthood a window of intellectual and spiritual impressionability, a unique metaphysical pliability, lasting usually, it seems, a couple years. This is no longer the juvenile belief of a child, conforming to the creed of the parent; rather, this is the first independent thrust at mature knowing, the effort of a thinking adult to develop and incorporate a vision of reality accounting for all the data, all the contingencies, all the abnormalities. If this does not happen for everyone in early adulthood, or according to this pattern – and it certainly does not, there are so many different riffs on belief formation – this is at least how it happened for me.
But for those whose development parallels mine, we are vulnerable during this window of time to the influences around us. The books we read we read with expectation and acceptance. If already religious, the sermons we hear we hear not as the ramblings of another confused seeker, the purloined witticisms of another pulpit; no, they are the oracles of God, with a direct referent of Reality. The young mind is heated to plasticity by a crisis of faith, or a crisis of non-faith, and a new shape is pressed into it. When it cools and hardens, subsequent experiences are obliged to flow through its contours.
I am not saying anything new. It is basic psychology. What is changing, however, is the way that globalization is blowing apart the closed communities of the past. In those communities it was possible for a whole generation to be energized by a united vision, on every level. When the mind became plastic, the mature shape it would eventually take was already a given. But with globalization, which offers access and immediacy to communication and collaboration across borders and cultures, those tight visions are unravelling fast.
Let me illustrate what I mean. Recently I heard a sermon from a man in his seventies whom I otherwise respect very much. However, the heart of the appeal that evening amounted to the pining of an elderly man experiencing personal fallout because the 1950’s rural Pentecostal town where he grew up no longer exists (or if it does, it is in places like LaFollette, Tennessee where the preacher holds a rattlesnake above his head while preaching, in literal obedience to Jesus’ words in Mark 16). What generated the preacher’s comments that evening? I did not ask him, but I would guess it had something to do with the biographical fact that he passed his youth and early adulthood in a closed metaphysical community, where reality was presented to his warm mental plasticity as exclusively aligning with a particular book – the Bible, translated in a particular way – The King James Version, and grounded in a particular hermeneutical assumption – Verbal Plenary Inspiration. The kid sitting next to me was Snapchatting, then browsing Wikipedia.
It is not a surprise that so many people today question “the real,” and also that so many people are perplexed by the question. While some pass their formative moment sheltered from the implications of a globalized world, more people are like the young fellow sitting next to me in church. When his formative moment arrives, given his online access to other cultures and beliefs, his faith will probably be challenged or even sabotaged with insecurities triggered by the honest question: “Maybe their book is right, and mine is wrong?” The fact is, there is more than one persuasive vision of reality. The relativist has probably encountered many of them, has read their books thoughtfully, and has cherished friends who hold to them. The dogmatist, perhaps not.
So while this is only a limited answer to a complex question, it helps me better understand, in a personal case-study sort of way, how it is possible that at eighteen I believed one way, and now at twenty-five, I believe so differently. The answer is simple: I had an intellectual crisis in a globalized context, and for several years I downloaded books to my Kindle like the Tao Te Ching, the Quran, and the writings of David Hume, and my friend base shifted to an areligious crowd. I also lived abroad for three years, and experienced first-hand, at length, a very different way of being human. So the reality-making mechanism of my brain, in its season of plasticity, was confronted with a variety of possible reference points. And a few basic questions embedded themselves then into my impressionable mind, questions that remain with me still, like these: What reasons do we have to deny the validity of the religious experiences and beliefs of our neighbors? Can we be sure that these reasons are any better than, for example, those of the Muslim or secular relativist who deny ours?
However, when my own erratic spirituality began to coalesce into a new sort of linear shape, and I returned to the faith of my boyhood after a hiatus of years, it was only because I cannot shake the impression, which still affects me in a mode beyond the mind, of seeing in the scrambled presentation of a globalized world the deeper image of a Magic Eye. Only now refracted
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