It’s funny how much I admire resolve in a person, and how little I’ve come to value chutzpah. From a distance, they look an awful lot alike; confidence and swagger and a sense of certainty can sure be attractive. But the devil’s always in the details, and intent matters. What it personally comes down to: resolve has a goal and never comes without self-awareness and a sense of listening, while chutzpah, or smugness, is a certainty that only exists in an environment where destruction is a value. You only build your ivory tower up, after all, by knocking down the structures that surround you.
Yesterday, I appeared on an episode of the RAFT podcast, or “Riverside Atheists and Free Thinkers,” based out of California. I was invited due to my Guardian piece from two years ago, and my journey from atheism to baptism. My warning feelers were up and out; as I’ve discovered in conversations with friends and otherwise, in speaking engagements, in press discussions, and more, these opportunities are often structured less around dialogue and more around that same smugness–a desire to prove me wrong, or stupid, or to bolster atheist confidence by swinging a hammer of “insightful” humanism my way. I have plenty of friends who are atheists and we find time and energy to have love and faith in one another. But the other side of that is the adage that hurt people tend to hurt people, and this felt like a vulnerable arena.
But I’m committed to doing the things that scare me. And as frustrated as I often am with the insularity of the communities that give me strength, be they recovery, or amputee, or church, or whatever–I’ve made a strong choice that change and growth in me and others can’t happen in an echo chamber. Homogeneity of ideas is a dangerous and flavorless form of Kool-Aid. And so, I said yes and stepped out.
I’m about 85 percent glad I did; it was a moderated conversation between a marriage therapist raised devout baptist who “deconverted” to atheism while studying towards her certification, a theologian who was raised pentecostal and found his church’s beliefs irreconcilable with his own in his twenties, and myself. I found my fellow panelists charming, smart, deeply human, and kind. I’m looking forward to sharing that part of the conversation with you when the episode is ready in a few weeks.
The upset happened in the Q&A at the end. A gentleman came up to the mic and my Spider-Sense went off the minute I saw the swagger in his hips. But you can’t judge intellectual content based on rakish pelvic angles, and so I waited for his question.
And he gave me a twofer: first, he dropped the oft-cited anti-gay chunk of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans:
For this reason, God gave them up to passions of dishonor; for even their females exchanged the natural use for that which is contrary to nature, and likewise also the males, having left the natural use of the female, were inflamed by their lust for one another, males with males, committing what is shameful, and receiving in themselves the recompense which was fitting for their error.
We have several problems to unpack with the above; first is the doubt that Paul ever wrote it, and that it was imposed into text at a later date. The second is the invocation of lust. and the splitting of hairs in the Greek language used in earlier versions of this verse and what they meant–whether the above is about carnal desire, or child molestation, or unbridled lust, or gay/lesbian interactions is hotly contested. Third, as I’ve said time and again–the concept of the Old Testament and New Testament and the current way we live our lives is proof that our relationships with one another and with God continue to evolve, and literal adherence to text written thousands of years ago makes very little sense. If we stick to this, we have to stick to Leviticus, too, and my silk boxers touching my wool pants as I write this would then be an ample invitation to just kill me super-dead.
The short version: we’re beautiful, imaginative, thinking creatures capable of metaphor and expansion and deep connection. And assuming that brainwashing to the point of literal devotion to text pisses me off. This guy attempted a gotcha and I called him on it. I said he wasn’t going to change my mind on this one, and he clearly came locked and loaded to the table without knowing me or my story. All he saw was a Christian he wanted to stymie, not another human being. And I said that I found his smugness gross and it was time to move on.
I’d said earlier in the day that God doesn’t create suffering, and I’d lost friends to the argument of “Why does God give kids cancer?” And this limb loss horror gave that argument a run for the money for me; that I came back to faith means something, and I hold to that. I hold that God is with us in suffering, even as we do a great job of causing it for ourselves, in combination with happenstance. But S/He never leaves us without a lesson to grow and transform through as we suffer, and understanding our relationship from that perspective is crucial. This gentleman then threw some quotes from Isiah at me. I called it for what it was.
I wish this guy well; I think the tone and content of these moments probably said a lot more about him than it did about me and my faith journey. At the same time, as my life goes through several transformations in these next few weeks, I can’t help but think about what John Green said about his own work, his life, and the dangers of being loud about one’s Christian identity:
There is a certain branch of Christianity that has so effectively hijacked the word “Christian” that I feel uncomfortable sometimes using it to describe myself. But I am a Christian.”
All I can say is that we’re here to love, to learn, to bolster one another up, to use our slow-grown anger for positive purpose, and to screw up again and again, acknowledging that grace is an opportunity to fail better each and every time.
But yeah, smugness is gross. And I want it minimized in my life. I’ll call it out when I see it and won’t tolerate it as part of healthy and meaningful interactions.
And thus, that was a good lesson for the first Saturday in April. To be continued…