After services, I chatted with the youth minister about Christianity’s current image problem. “Oh, you mean the whole ‘If you don’t agree with everything I say, you’re going to hell’ thing?” she asked. “Yeah, that gets old.” And my mother-in-law, a retired minister, agreed. “Certainly traditional Christianity talks about judgment,” she said. “But I think the stronger emphasis in the Bible is love and grace. Some of the last words Jesus spoke were of forgiveness. That’s my faith.” And she added that it’s a faith that we as Americans are supposed to enjoy without ramming down anybody else’s throats. “Roger Williams left Plymouth because he didn’t want to adhere to all the dictates imposed on people by the Puritan group,” she said. “When the state and the religion became the same, he fled. He established the basic principals (sic) on which our country was founded — the freedom of religion and the separation of church and state.”
…I’m not out to convert anybody. And though I’m raising my children with our prayers and religious traditions, I’m also constantly challenging them to ask questions, express their doubts and figure things out for themselves. I’m trying to bring them up — in the truest sense of that phrase – in a community where we’re all free to look at the universe differently, as Christians and Jews and Muslims and atheists, without derision.
At a reading earlier this week, the author Stephen Elliott said something to the assembly that resonated deeply for me. He said, “Your truth is different from my truth. And we’re both right.” In a culture of arrogance and self-righteousness on either end of the dial, it’s a tough concept to embrace. But coexistence is only possible when we’re not screaming at each other, smugly pronouncing the other guy either sinful or stupid. All that many of us, as non extreme Christians, want is to simply be treated with the same respect and tolerance that our faith teaches us to give to others. Because whatever else we all believe, how can we ever go on as a diverse, thriving culture if we don’t believe first in each other?
As it happens, I had ample opportunity to think about this last weekend while on a trip up north with my dad and girlfriend to the ancestral homeland. My paternal side of the family was Amish until only about three generations ago, and my great-grandfather was the first president of a Bible college. We had book business at said college as well as a church, and while refamiliarizing ourselves with old haunts and landmarks, we made time to visit the Ephrata Cloister (I would have gone to Roadside America myself, but I got outvoted).
Even if I think asceticism is, for all practical intents and purposes, a form of insanity, I can somewhat respect the devotion and seriousness involved in traveling thousands of miles to carve out such an existence. Ducking under doorframes that were purposely cut low to force entrants to bow their heads in humility, seeing the fifteen-inch-wide wooden boards and small blocks that served for beds and pillows, hearing about the demanding routine of work and prayer on one meal a day; it was all a clear example of what it means to take your religion seriously enough to arrange your life around it, to sacrifice contentedness and genial relationships if need be, for what you perceive as truth. Inarguable, undeniable truth.
Afterward, my dad asked about an offhand comment our tour guide had made, suggesting that William Penn was responsible for establishing freedom of worship in the colonies. Rifling through memories of having done a dress-up presentation/book report on the man in seventh grade, I couldn’t remember enough about him to say for sure how much credit, if any, he deserves for his contributions to modern religious tolerance. Penn founded the colony as a “holy experiment”, and many pacifist, quietist sects settled there. All well and good. But I suspect that the sort of “freedom of religion” that the pre-Revolution colonists were interested in was a more libertarian-ish version, a “Leave me alone to do what I want” type. The majority of colonial Christians were Calvinists to one degree or another, after all. And as long as you were willing to brave the frontier, you could go as far as you needed to find a place to worship whichever derivative of Protestantism you wanted without having to fear being made into kindling.
Which kind of gets back to the earlier point. These people were still arguing over truth, which was, of course, presumed to be a Christian truth. There was no general concept of everybody’s path being just as valid as anyone else’s. Dissenters left their communities because they were sure that the establishment had lost its way in worldliness and falsehood (and sometimes because their fanatical self-righteousness made them insufferable to be around). For a universal ideal of tolerance open to anyone simply on the basis of their shared humanity and enshrined in the rule of law, you need Enlightenment idealism. If you want to give credit to someone for instituting the sort of tolerance that we moderns take to be common sense, look to Jefferson and Madison. The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom was the product of Enlightenment values, not biblical study:
When Jefferson’s bill came up again in 1786, it passed by a vote of 60 to 27. In an attempt to give some kind of official recognition to Christianity, some assemblymen tried to insert an acknowledgment of “Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion.” Jefferson took pleasure in the fact that “the insertion was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mahometan, the Hindoo, the infidel of every denomination.”
People like Johann Beissel came here to get away from the endless religious wars in Europe, like the Thirty Years War which had left around 40% of the German population dead a century earlier. In the decades just prior to the French Revolution, right around the time that Jefferson and Madison were developing their ideas, people like Jean Calas and Jean-François de la Barre were still suffering the sort of torture and execution we associate with the Dark Ages centuries earlier. Almost 1500 years of Christianity being synonymous with the state, and that sort of thing was still happening. I stress this point because it’s become a core part of the spiritual-not-religious mythology to claim that Jefferson’s legacy, our current understanding of religious tolerance, the one that allows “the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mahometan, the Hindoo, the infidel” to live and let live without fear of violent coercion, has been the guiding ideal of religion all along. This would be laughable if it weren’t so intellectually dishonest.
I mean, even Hinduism and Buddhism haven’t been completely immune to sectarian strife and violence; it takes immense stores of chutzpah and ignorance to claim that monotheism’s record of the same is all an aberration from the “real” message, which, as always, corresponds exactly with the speaker’s opinion. And with monotheism, the exclusivity is the entire point. The joys of the afterlife are only available to those who believe. We have the truth. You can either accept it or we can kill you. There will be no peaceful coexistence with heresy and willful perversity. Sin is not just another lifestyle choice.
Among many similar passages, Jesus said he was the way, the truth and the life, and that no one came to the Father but by him. If you’re not with him, you’re against him, and if you don’t gather with him, you scatter. I have yet to hear of any alternate gospels where he added, “But, y’know, really, as long as you try your best and don’t act like too much of a dick, it’s all good. I don’t really care. Peace out.” If you don’t believe in sin and its consequences, there’s nothing to be saved from, the entire narrative makes no sense, and Jesus is just one more apocalyptic Jewish prophet eagerly anticipating the end of the world. You want everyone to just get along? Great. You don’t agree with the Manichean overtones in the Bible and Quran? Wonderful. You want to just refer to them occasionally as culturally shared sources of non-denominational, inspirational aperçus? Well, I might have to say that you have terrible, unimaginative taste in literature, but sure, okay, fine. All I ask is that you own up to the responsibility of taking such a rebellious step.
I can respect people who put themselves through immense hardships for what they feel to be the truth. I can respect biblical scholars like Bart Ehrman who have a passion for truth and knowledge instilled in them by their faith, but when their pursuit of truth leads them to the crossroads where it parts ways with faith, they have the integrity to keep going even as they wistfully look back in sorrow. But I can’t respect people who only hear what they want to hear; people who ramble on and on about higher truths greater than themselves while simultaneously stretching the word “truth” until the elastic in it snaps; people who use texts not as portals to an unknown way of experiencing the world, but as mirrors to reflect their own face back at them.