Loving your enemies

In my discussions about religion with secular liberals, a certain dynamic has become disturbingly familiar. Again and again, they will listen patiently to me talk about a liberation, feminist, or even just plain liberal theological perspective and then authoritatively declare, “That will never catch on.” A reading of the Bible that goes against long-standing tradition? “Too much of a stretch” — and, for some of them, even potentially dishonest.

What is so frustrating about this is that there are actual communities of actual human beings who live out the doctrines I’m talking about. There are still liberation theology-centered “base communities” in Latin America today, and there are feminist spirituality groups that serve as many women’s primary religious affiliation — not to mention liberal churches that, every Sunday, have women preachers, gender-inclusive and feminine language for God, and programs oriented toward social justice. These groups admittedly do not form the majority of Christians, and it is likely that they never will. And yet they exist — whether these teachings will “work” or “convince anyone” is not a hypothetical. They’ve had real effects on real people in the real world. And still: “it’ll never catch on.”

What is going on here? I would suggest that it’s something we might call “home-grown Orientalism.” Just as the Orientalist scholar critiqued by Said approached the Oriental as an eternal, unchanging essence that only the scholar can authoritatively speak for, so also does the contemporary secular liberal believe that religion is an unchanging essence that only the secular liberal can speak for. Secular liberals are amazingly adept at picking out which versions of Christianity are most credible, for example — and those are invariably the most tradition-bound or fundamentalist versions.

Other types of Christians are waved away as marginal, viewed as oddities at best and equivocating cowards at worst. What value-add is there to being a Christian for a liberal, after all? That is in fact a good question, and I’m not sure of the answer — and so maybe I could ask a liberal Christian and we could talk about it! But that never occurs to the secular liberal, because they already know what religion is all about — it appeals to people because of the unquestioning certainty it brings. In some of their more generous moments, secular liberals can even admit that they admire and perhaps envy the conviction of the religious person. But any religious person who doesn’t seem to them to fall into that category just doesn’t exist for them. You can remind them, and they will grudgingly admit that yes, there are still Episcopalians in this world. Yet as soon as things get going again, the Episcopalians have disappeared and the fundamentalists rule the day yet again!

In reality, of course, lived religion is not normally about unquestioning certainty. Nearly every religious person I’ve met has gone through periods of serious doubt and struggle — and indeed, I’d bet that a big proportion of those who seem most certain are fighting off an episode like that. Nor is religious belief or scriptural interpretation about simple assertion of axiomatic truths. They are arenas of argument and debate, just like all other important areas of human life. Nor indeed is doctrine the main attraction of religion for most people. What tends to happen is that someone finds a particular community attractive and then gradually begins to believe as they do. This is observable in other human social interactions as well, and we shouldn’t be surprised at this correspondence, since religion is something that human beings do and, as a corrolary, religious people are full human beings, with all the complexity and weirdness that implies. This is not to say that the religious right shouldn’t be opposed — but they should be opposed because they advocate bad things that hurt people, not because they advocate them in a particularly unquestioning way, etc.

One would think such insights would be readily available to secular liberals, who are widely renowned for their empathy with others and openness to other viewpoints. Yet one would be mistaken, because secular liberals are so empathetic that they don’t even have to ask people how they feel, so open-minded that they don’t even have to expose themselves to other views. And who better to empathize with and be open-minded toward than their polar opposite, the religious fundamentalist? Love your enemies, indeed! The numerical successes of conservative Christianity vs. liberal Christianity in recent decades is inarguable — yet one wonders how mainstream, how “dominant,” how unquestionably representative such Christians would seem to be be if the secular liberal guardians of the public sphere had not designated them as such, if they had not decided, for their own reasons, that they are the Christians who “count.”

13 thoughts on “Loving your enemies

  1. This was one of the things that I found most annoying about Taylor’s _After God_. After dismissing “liberal Christianity” as an “oxymoron” in today’s world, he feels free to go about his work without ever taking into account theologians and communities who are, in fact, living out many of the virtues (irenicism, uncertainity, etc.) that he commends in his text.

  2. I am not even an avowed Christian and I know what you mean. Recently on my leftist radio-show, me and and an older woman, a professor of psychology and long-time leftist, reviewed “The Adjustment Bureau.” She kept turning everything back to how the film was “a conservative/fundamentalist Christian view of… blah blah blah.” I mean, I hardly deny that the film in some ways would appeal to that audience, but even at the time it felt like she was flattening any possible conversation about the theological dimension of the film and I was not altogether present enough to steer the conversation out of that rut she dug. You can listen to it for yourself.


  3. Yestrday I had lunch with father in law, a person who is on the deep end of conservative Christianity. One of my coworkers, a former Catholic who now regards someone like Jon Stewart to be the pope, sarcastically asked if he “Talked to me about asking Jesus into my heart” (something my in law would never do due to his adherence to selected tenets of Calvinism).

    When I explained that having been fairly religious on the past, having met all kinds of people on the fringe, you find ways to relate to them and easy ways to avoid religious discussion, he expressed skepticism. I added, “He is still a human being after all.”

    His reply: “Yeah, barely.”

  4. The idea that secular liberalism sees fundamentalism as the most credible option is really fascinating. I feel like the secular liberal views you’re describing are not just analagous to orientalism but are in fact genealogically related to it: the secular liberal critique of religion is in some ways a continuation of enlightenment anti-religious discourses which tended to identify the failures of Christianity with its enduringly “oriental” character. Higher criticism comes to mind in that vein.

  5. I’m an atheist, and these people annoy me. They seem to think that their disbelief in whatever God, which obviously indicates some kind of intellectual superiority on their part, sanctions their utter lack of intellectual curiosity, as if such a quality is a good and noble thing: “I’ve got no time for such superstitions…”



    hope you don’t mind someone popping up from nowhere to offer their opinion on your post – have regularly read this blog after reading Kotsko’s excellent Zizek book.

  6. My class at Lebanon Valley College was just discussing the significance of some tension over acceptance/unacceptance of homosexuality in the Crystal Cathedral, as recently reported by USA Today. One of the conclusions that we came from this discussion is that very often, disagreements arise from the laity, often spouting positions more progressive than the clergy, as an excuse to sit out of religious life.

    To slightly disagree with a more conservative core of lay leaders or clergy, or to construct a perception of that core, essentially allows one to champion one’s own abstention from the life of the community, except to make minimal appearances on high holy days and less frequently write a check. The act of intentional absence ends the conversation instead of deepening it. This space of absenteeism is a safe one where faith and moral values can operate separately.

    I just finished reading Donna Freitas’ Sex & The Soul, a study of sexual practices of college students–my same class at the college read this book with me. One of the many intriguing implications of her study is that the “spiritual but not religious” claim often is a tool that has become socially and academically viable to remove oneself from any conversation about faith or values in both public and private spheres. There are exceptions to this but one of the conclusions was that the majority who described themselves in this way had no identifiable or sustaining ideology except an objection to institutional religion as corrupt and conservative.

  7. I often hear dismissals of liberal Christianity along the lines of “why bother if they only believe half the religion” which oddly implies that the speaker knows “100% of the religion.” Even more common are people who think only a straight “literal” reading of the Bible can be trusted, ignoring any suggestion that this is difficult/impossible. It’s a very strange statement to make, especially coming from people who seem to know little about history or theology.

  8. The focus of atheists on fundamentalist Christianity is partly, I think, due to the fact that so many atheists seem to be renegades struggling to get over the trauma of being raised by Protestant fundamentalist parents.

    Anyway, so it seems to this Catholic atheist educated not only by Jesuits but by the Holy Ghost Fathers.

    Partly, it’s that Western atheism is disbelief in any God, gods, or divine or semi-divine figures (Bodhisattvas, for example; or, um, successfully divinized Roman emperors).

    Unless liberal religion posits at least one such being his views as an atheist, per se, are just not relevant to whatever opinion an atheist might have of liberal religion.

    On the other hand, most Western atheists are committed, as well, to disbelief in unsupported but appealing traditional notions such as that of human immortality.

    And that kind of skepticism might put them in opposition to some versions of liberal religion, too.

    But there are several well-known points of contact between liberal religion and atheism.

    For example, these same Western atheists, of course, do not accept the divine command ethics characteristic of fundamentalism and some other variants of Protestantism; nor do they accept the teleological ethics that support the traditional Christian moral view of sex for Catholics.

    Also, they generally accept a far more liberal view of the ethics of sex that puts them not only in disagreement with religious orthodoxy but in actual, morally motivated opposition to it and to its social influence, which they consider harmful.

    Too, of course they flatly disbelieve in any variant of Creationism and reject as a fraud any such pretended thing as scientific creationism.

    And by far the majority of Western atheists strongly support separation of church and state, understood in a very strict way, as well as the general secularization of culture.

    So on sex, laïcité, secularism, and Creationism, they are in agreement with much of liberal religion, as I understand it.

    But if the heart of the matter lies elsewhere, then maybe not.

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