catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 3, Num 19 :: 2004.11.19 — 2004.12.02


Death by ice or fire

As kids, my siblings and I would play the sadistic?yet lighthearted?Would You Rather?

game on long road trips. You know the one: Would you rather freeze to death or burn to death? Would you rather have all of your hair plucked out strand by strand with a tweezers, or descend down a razorblade-laden slide into a pool of alcohol? Would you rather I flick your ear until we get to Grandma?s house or breathe in your face until we arrive?

Just when I start to look back with nostalgia upon such quaint activities of youth, I have to remind myself that I?m still a regular at Would You Rather?. Although not nearly as physically painful as what we pondered as bored kids, the Would You Rather?s that circulate in my head these days are still imbued with plenty of angst. Most of the existential questions that I wrestle with are not unique to me. And for the dilemmas that seem to be mine alone I try to remember that we all have our hang-ups. So, if I promise to keep the universality of struggle in mind, could I interest you in a quick round of Would You Rather?: The Adult Version? Great. I?ll start: Would you rather be a heretic or a fundy?

As a Christian graduate student of religion and culture, I have often felt relegated to one or the other of these two options. In the Christian circles in which I do the majority of my mingling, I constantly find myself pushing the envelope too far. I dissect, deconstruct, evaluate and analyze for a living, so it is exceedingly difficult to turn off those faculties when I walk into church, Bible study, or a family member?s living room. What makes us so sure that Jonah was really in the belly of a whale? Assuming that we trust the conclusions of contemporary science, how is a historic Fall possible? Is the notion that only Christians can be children of God really anything other than tribalism? Questions like these would be considered pass? in my academic world, but in my evangelical Christian world, they are fodder for trouble. Though I do not attend a rigidly dogmatic church, and most of my acquaintances are not frightened by ambiguity, there are certain demarcations of orthodoxy that are not to be transgressed. Even among progressive evangelicals, to be too liberal is a no-no. There are differences, you see, between us and them.

Beyond such questioning, I also find it difficult to go along with certain assumptions of theologically conservative Protestantism?especially the ones that have been undermined by my studies in sociology, history, and anthropology. Sociologists will tell you, for example, that affective bonds precede and trump cognition. Therefore, how we function as religious creatures is as much a product of our connection to historically and culturally situated communities as it is an expression of our doctrinal beliefs. What?s more, beliefs themselves are always generated in community. Evangelicals, on the other hand, usually explain the faith solely by referencing biblical prescriptions and theological formulations that are presumed to be static for all eternity and self-evident to all who are literate. Moreover, evangelical culture largely ignores the structural and universal dimensions of religion. Fearing a ?slippery slope? toward relativism, confessional American Protestants most often avoid examining what humans have in common as religious beings. Evangelicals focus on the revelatory side of religion largely to the exclusion of the human side.

Thus, when I show up to church on Sunday after having spent most of the week with my nose in books about, say, the ritual dimension of religiosity, I immediately develop a sudden case of cognitive dissonance. What I?ve learned in one world just doesn?t seem to congeal with what is happening in the other. In times like these, I often wish others around me had been in my classes, had read the same books, had been privy to the same discussions. Maybe then we could sort things out together. We could pool our brains, experiences, and prayers to arrive at a happy resolution. But alas, my Christian comrades have their own worlds to reconcile, and the ?heresy? swimming around in my head cannot be their concern. So, I find myself desperately trying to clamp the lid on both my mind and my tongue, lest the leper inside jump out and scandalize everyone in the room, including myself.

At school, primary social reference point #2, ?evangelical? is a bad word?right up there with ?extremist,? ?biblical literalist,? and ?xenophobe.? To be an evangelical means to ignore the social sciences, to assume an untenable Modernist epistemology, to either ignore or belittle the ?other,? and to insist on creating an artificial system of black and white instead of facing the reality that life on this side of the veil is a vast sea of grey. To be an evangelical means to interpret literally what was meant to be interpreted symbolically. To be an evangelical means to be a fundamentalist. I study religion from a social-scientific perspective at a progressive Catholic university. All confessional claims are supposed to be held at bay, at least temporarily. And if, by some fluke, a person should feel a need to maintain unpopular convictions, she should do so quietly?preferably in the privacy of her own home. Even among academics who are sympathetic to religion, to be too conservative is a no-no. There are differences, you see, between us and them.

The ugly duckling in evangelical circles, I?m certainly no swan in academe either. First of all, I find it not only ludicrous but also offensive to suggest that in reference to their work, scholars should abandon what they hold dear and play the part of the ?detached observer.? Our work should stem from our greatest passions, not ignore them. Additionally, I resent the pressure in my field to posture oneself either as an agnostic or a universalist. Respecting various expressions of religion need not incapacitate judgment nor render truth claims impervious. Likewise, acknowledging the human dimension of religion need not prevent us from standing in awe of its transcendent dimension as well. Furthermore, unlike many of my colleagues, I believe that the Bible is particularly authoritative. I believe in the Trinity, I believe in the Resurrection, I believe in the Second Coming—literally. I believe that, to some degree, truth is knowable. I believe that the vast sea of gray is not without distinguishable shades. Because of these beliefs as well as my very connection to a confessionally-conservative Protestant community, I?m no poster child for my discipline, my school, or academe at large.

Back to the question at hand, you say? Right, then: Heretic v. fundy, what will it be?
Ten years ago, when I had few contacts outside of evangelical or Dutch Reformed communities, the answer to this Would You Rather? scenario would have been self-evident to me. What can we expect but for the world?especially academe?to be hostile to believers? I would have asked. After all, the Gospel is foolishness to those who are lost. Our role as Christians is to go into dark places like academia and transform them for the Kingdom. Secular scholars may hate us and they certainly won?t understand us, but as crusaders for Christ we are called to take a stand for the truth.

As a teenager, my perspective was based on a thoroughly secularized academy and a clearly delineable division between the sheep and the goats. Now, however, I find the religious culture of the academy to be much more ambiguous than I had envisioned it, and the conquest metaphor seems thoroughly inappropriate to my situation. First of all, a clear distinction between the church and the world is not possible in today?s world. North American evangelicalism, for example, is hardly countercultural. In the way most evangelicals relate to North America?s entertainment media, market capitalism, civil religion, dominant ?family values,? and leisure culture, they are perhaps the most mainstream subculture of all. Conversely, these days one is hard pressed to find avid secular materialists within academia and without, especially at a progressive Catholic institution such as the one I attend. Even though institutionalized religion has long been on the decline, ?spirituality? is highly fashionable in our world, even in the ivory towers of what was once the bulwark of secularism. Thus, the points of contention in my classes are not whether or not God exists or even whether or not Jesus was special. Instead, we wrestle over whether salvation is universal and how we as humans can know what revelation is. No one is my classes would ever ridicule me for proclaiming my Christian identity. A classmate would, however, surely deride me for proposing that the earth is only 6,000 years old.

In addition to the fact that my experience of academe has been very different from my vision of what it would be like, my posture has also changed significantly. Over the last several years I have come to take my calling as a learner more seriously. If I am going to learn anything, I must at least be open to change. The rubric of transforming the world for the Kingdom can easily be construed into suggesting that outside of their particular community of like-minded individuals, Christians are to evoke change but are not to be changed themselves. Such a position is both arrogant and pretentious. Because we are fallible creatures who see through dark glasses in this life, humility is essential in all our relating. But there is more. As I see it now, the Refiner?s Fire does not only show up in safe places like church and C.S. Lewis novels; it also makes itself known in the lecture notes of liberal academics and the pub chatter of drifting musicians. All this is not to say that Christians should drop their convictions and join in the postmodern shrug of our age. But if we are to live with integrity, we must acknowledge both our finitude and our unfinished journeys as humans.

All things considered, the fundy option hasn?t done much to commend itself. But neither am I satisfied with the heretic alternative. For as many flaws as I find in the Christian community in which I am situated, I believe that God is at work in it and that God has called me to it. And as much as I believe that God is not afraid of our questions and that the Holy Spirit guides our inquiry when we earnestly seek after the heart of God, I am also convinced that there is a fine line between the good kind of intellectual curiosity and the bad kind of intellectual pride. We can use our minds to explore the wonder of the cosmos and to gain a better understanding of ourselves and the divine, but we can also use our minds to justify our junk and to rebel against our creator by fashioning God in our image. Lest my intellectual posturing function as a slap in the face to the integrity of the Gospel and the mystery of grace, I?m leery of cozying up to ?heresy.?

Maybe then, assuming that the rules of the Would You Rather? game are a bit flexible, I don?t have to choose. And maybe this whole exercise was rather silly. I do my thing, and whoever looks at me funny can shove it. After all, isn?t the dilemma really about what other people think about me? And isn?t it a little immature to be lying awake at night wondering whether I?m cool enough to fit in with the kids at school and straight-laced enough to fit in with the kids at church?

On the other hand, we are all social creatures, and the need to belong is a basic human need. An environment in which the autonomous self reigns unchallenged breeds chaos and chokes out abundant life. Identifying with a community is crucial to human flourishing. Moreover, our sense of who we are?as people and as believers?is fashioned by community. ?Jesus and me? just won?t cut it.

Communities, however, are never completely uniform. Nor should they be. In healthy and vibrant Christian communities, each individual brings a unique set of gifts, experiences, and perspectives to the table. As a collective group identity is forged in reference to the Gospel, no individual?s uniqueness is squashed. Moreover, Christian community is not defined by a litmus test of beliefs and lifestyles which each member subscribes to. Instead, Christian communities are groups of fellow pilgrims who have all become characters in God?s story and are being transformed by it. With this in mind, maybe there is indeed room for someone like me in the church?even in its more or less conservative varieties.

What?s more, I may be able to carve out a space for myself in academe too. After all, the last time I checked the earth was still the Lord?s. I suspect that the tension between orthodoxy and inquiry that I wrestle with will never go away. If I?m going to navigate this tension faithfully, I must do so prayerfully and humbly. I also suspect that I will continue at times to feel like the odd one out both in the Christian community and the academic community. But who doesn?t feel alienated at one point in time or another? And who says the odd are de facto excluded from inheriting the earth?

I think we can all agree that this turn of the Would You Rather? game has expired. Are you ready for the next question? . . . Wait. . . Where are you going?. . . Isn?t this fun?

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