Yesterday I had a two-hour talk with the sister of a well-known Christian leader. I’m not going to name names; this is a sad story of family disaffection, and though I wasn’t sworn to secrecy I think it’s better to keep the details private. I hope and pray these two can someday make it up and find ways to express their love.
The sister left the faith some years ago. She’s really bitter about the way she’s been treated. It’s not that anybody has abused her, it’s that she’s treated as an outsider.
She feels that her brother makes no attempt to understand her. “He never wanted to have a real conversation with me about my changes and my decisions. He made huge assumptions about what has gone on in my life. In a way I don’t fault him. That kind of response to somebody rejecting the faith fits entirely with the mindset of that kind of faith. That’s partly why I rejected it: it’s not open-minded, not interested in listening. [When I was a Christian] we didn’t do any listening. We had all the answers. We’re right, everybody else is wrong, and it’s [spiritual] war. My biggest relief [when I gave up the faith] was to join the human race, to stop putting people into categories.”
I was saddened by the story, and by the obvious torment in the sister’s voice as she spoke of it. At one level this is a family quarrel peculiar to the personalities involved, but it’s also frequently the story of religion today. “I’m right, you’re wrong” is seen as an intolerant and anti-human stance, and religious people are the chief offenders.
Let me offer a few thoughts. First, I think every human being who holds opinions believes that “I’m right, everybody else is wrong.” That’s in the nature of holding an opinion. Even if you say, “There are many paths to the truth,” or, “There is no truth,” or “I believe in the truth of diversity,” you’re still asserting, “I’m right, everybody else is wrong.” If you insist that there are many paths to the truth, you assert that I am wrong to believe there is only one way. If you believe in diversity you are denying my faith in singularity. If you don’t put people in categories, you are putting me in the category of somebody who does. And according to you, I’m wrong.
It’s hard to have good conversation unless everyone admits to holding beliefs that are incompatible with others’ beliefs. The pose of complete open-mindedness may be held sincerely, but it’s often used as a stick to beat down the narrow-minded people we disagree with. Let’s agree to start by agreeing: we disagree, and that’s okay.
It’s not easy to love somebody whose beliefs or actions offend you. It’s not easy to tolerate opinions that you consider immoral. But that’s why we need love and tolerance: it’s not easy. These are strong virtues that can cope with human differences. In fact, they only really come into play when we believe the other person is wrong.
Now let me speak for the sister. It’s a terrible feeling to be pigeonholed. I believe her when she says that her brother doesn’t really try to understand her.
However, I don’t believe that pigeonholing necessarily comes as a result of Christian faith. Quite the opposite: there are resources in Christian belief to counter it. One is the conviction that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Sin is not just acts of obvious immorality, such as adultery. The sin of spiritual pride, or intellectual hubris, goes against all we are taught by the Bible.
One of the first facts of human life, according to Christian teaching, is that we are lost and need someone to save us. We remain in need of saving all our lives. Anybody who knows this should be very wary of the thought, “I’m right, everybody else is wrong.” Fallen creatures, we are always capable of going wrong. As Paul warned the Romans, “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought.” (12:3),
Not only are we all sinners, we are all creatures. We did not make this world. Complete understanding belongs only to the one who did. We have every reason to be humble: we are made from dust.
What does God want? Truth, as far as we humble creatures know it, but mostly love. As the sister said, “He has always been totally enamored with miracles, and with the gifts of the spirit, as though that was the proof of the faith. I’m not impressed with gifts of the spirit, but I would be with fruit of the spirit. Just listen to me. That would be love. That would be the presence of God. That would show me that God is at work in your life.”