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How to talk about your religious beliefs (and not be a total [jerk])

How to talk about your religious beliefs (and not be a total [jerk])

Being from an eclectic & ecumenical religious background, I am comfortable worshiping in many churches, independent & denominational. I’m also open to learning from a diverse cross section of Christian teachers and writers. One of my favorites is John Pavlovitz. John is a pastor on the staff of an independent congregation, North Raleigh Community Church in Raleigh NC. He himself has an eclectic & ecumenical background and draws from that experience to blog awesome posts on his own blogsite. This morning I was blown away by his post about sharing your own beliefs. We have likely all experienced other folks disagreeing with what we individually believe and they often aren’t reserved about letting us know that we’re wrong. At least based on their personal beliefs.

‘Nuff said, I share John’s Friday blog with you;

I’m going to Hell.

I know, because several times a week someone (usually a relative stranger) alerts me to this fact.

Now, most people would take offense at another’s announcement of their own personal damnation or at least be mildly insulted by the messenger, but I always receive this news with a rather soothing mix of peace and genuine gratitude. Firstly, I am keenly aware that someone else’s belief about the ultimate destination of my soul has no actual bearing no whether or not I will indeed burn for all eternity. Secondly, if they do truly believe this, I feel strangely indebted to them for alerting me of the matter.

People ask me all the time how I can regularly interact with passionate people whose religious views are so very different from mine. (Actually, they usually ask how I can deal with “those ignorant morons” but you get the point). While I don’t always succeed (as pride, judgmentalism, and general jerkiness will continue to seep in), I take great efforts to engage people in matters of faith in a way that is respectful and Grace-giving, and to encourage conversation amongst others that doesn’t degenerate into vulgarity and personal attacks.

Here are a few core ideas that I fight to remember as I daily enter into the dangerous, chaotic fray of public religious dialogue:

1) People are a product of their stories.

Whether someone is an Atheist, Agnostic, or Believer (or all of the above), they don’t pop out of the womb that way. Our faith perspective isn’t an instant download that comes with the operating system. Every single person you encounter is the sum total of their individual journey; the home where they were raised, the friends they have, the church they grew up in, the books they read, the teachers who inspired them, the stuff they’ve seen, the wounds they’ve sustained, the way they are wired. It all slowly shapes them, and that very specific renovation of people results in the exact version of them standing in front of you at a given moment. Regardless of whether or not you can see it, everyone has a deep back story that looms largely, both in their theology and in the way it gets expressed.

Likewise, you too are a product of your story. You have been crafted by time and experience, education and relationships, by your heroes and your enemies, and these have all formed the uniquely original biases and the blind spots in your own belief system. You know what it’s like to be discounted and dismissed from a distance, so remember that as you are tempted to see people as caricatures and cartoons; just two-dimensional representations of a religious argument.

As you confront people’s ideas and argue with their religion, seek to learn their stories.

2) Theology is a place.

What we believe about faith and God and the afterlife is not as fixed as we often like to think. It is rather, an ever-shifting spot in space and time. Very likely, you believe quite differently than you did ten years ago in both subtle and substantial ways, and ten years from now the same will almost certainly be true. In this way I like to think of theology as a place; as the specific location where you are right this moment.

This is important as you interact with others, because it helps you clarify your limitations and remember your place. When it comes to matters of faith, you cannot make someone be where you are. It’s not your job or your right to forcibly pull someone to your faith perspective; to make them see as you see or agree to the givens you’ve established in your mind. Your responsibility is to openly describe the view from where you stand and hope that something in that is helpful or encouraging or challenging to people. I never feel I need to convince someone to believe what I believe, I only need to let them know where I am, and ask them to meet me there in relationship.

As you talk about God and faith, resist the temptation to try and move people anywhere. If God is real, God will do that.

3) Being right is dangerous.

Whether we claim a deep faith or we are certain that faith is a useless mirage, most of us operate under the general (if well-hidden) assumption that we have it right; that we alone have solved the great puzzle that no other living soul has, holding pearls of wisdom that elude everyone else. Though we may have brief flashes of humility, most of us spend our days fully enamored with our own thinking. This certainty of self wants to be seen as deeply held conviction, but it’s more often used as license to be a jackass. It’s our absolute sense of rightness that usually justifies us to treat people terribly. It’s the paper-thin line we so easily cross, from righteous to self-righteous.

One of the things people ask me about most often, is how I deal with hateful religious people who so freely condemn and so easily cast judgment, and the answer is simple: I remember that they think they’re correct. Even if someone standing across from me (or through a smart phone screen a few thousand miles away) delivers their religion in what feels like the most offensive, vile, bigoted fashion, at the core of all of it they genuinely believe it. If they are people of faith, they do want to please God, they don’t want to go to Hell, and they want me to know when they think I’m headed there. Jesus showed this kind of mercy and kindness when he said of his misguided executioners, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do”. Remembering that even destructive faith begins at a beautifully, sincere place doesn’t excuse anyone’s horrible behavior in the name of God, but it goes a long way in us receiving their words with some measure of understanding.

As you passionately voice and furiously defend your position, whatever that may be, fight relentlessly to remember there’s always a chance (and a pretty good one), that you may not be completely right.

I want to share my faith perspective with others and I don’t want to be an a-hole as I do. I think that’s true of most people you encounter.

I fall and fail, and I forget these ideas daily, but I wake up every single day expectantly in search of them again.

As you talk about stuff that really matters, may you remember that people really matter too.

Be kind and be encouraged.

Reblogged from here.

Photo borrowed from John’s blogsite.

Posted by David Allen


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JC Fisher

Hmmm. One sees those engravings of priests holding up a crucifix to someone burning at the stake. “Well, we’re burning his body, so hopefully it spares his immortal soul from everlasting fire: what could be more merciful?”

In other words, “they genuinely believe it” seems of VERY limited moral worth [For a contemporary version, see re ISIS]. Wouldn’t we ALL prefer a peaceful agnostic, to a “burn the infidel!” believer?

Anand Gnanadesikan

The problem is that lukewarm self-centeredness also looks a lot like peaceful agnosticism. Which doesn’t end up changing the world for good. The OT prophets, the abolitionists, the suffragettes, were all willing to make those around them uncomfortable. And being uncomfortable is not a good Episcopalian value.

That said, you are right that zeal *per se* is of limited value- it matters just as much what cause one is zealous for.

Philip B. Spivey

What a warm and wonderful balm for the faithful. In mixed company, I never debate religion and politics; that’s my backstory. But as I’ve matured, I now better understand why.

I’ve come to believe that the God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit of my theology don’t care what scripture I pray from and what deity I owe my allegiance to (sorry, TEC). They do care, however, that my alliances are true to the values and behavior they prescribe (Matthew 22). Not the values and interpretations cherry-picked from episodes in the Bible— but the spiritual core of the Good News Gospel—where ever that can be found.

As a result, my theological and personal affinities lean toward people and institutions who reflect these values; these include some atheists and agnostics. I never try to dissuade anyone who doesn’t share my values to believe otherwise; I know it’s futile because nothing is more powerfully entrenched in us than a faith-based belief system. As Pavlowitz wisely remarks, that’s God’s–only–to change.

Pavlovitz also observes: “After you talk about stuff that really matters, may you remember that people really matter, too.” Perhaps we can reach beyond our fervently-held belief systems to find common ground elsewhere.

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