I was just reading the comments over at Greta Christina’s new piece when I ran across this:
As soon as someone points out an ACTUAL issue with Christian culture, doctrine, or a sacred book, all the “true Christians” somehow scatter and disappear.
Something in my head clicked.
I have written before, at some point, about how people pick and choose their beliefs based on interpretations of their religious tradition. In many cases, it is due to clear ignorance; they simply don’t know enough about their scripture or the history of their religion to know better, and so their beliefs are not coherent either internally or with the any theological tradition. In many cases, their selection bias takes over and they only pay attention to what their worldview allows them to, which often is at odds with the orthodoxy of their religious tradition. I see many Catholics do this, for example, when it comes to pre-marital sex, divorce, and contraceptives. They will claim that their source is the word of god, that they really do believe in it, but they either don’t know or don’t care what the orthodox position is. They seem, in other words, to exist in some epistemological limbo where their worldview is a mix of allegiance to tradition as well as rebellion against it. Their simply is no larger consistency for them, and they don’t seem bothered by this at all. Granted, we all are irrational and inconsistent sometimes, but I think we should at least try or to correct it when it is pointed out.
And, of course, people think they are right. What I mean by this (because this claim has been the source of some argument between myself and people who called this claim arrogant or wrong-headed) is that people accept that their opinions are ideas which are true. Not that they don’t, in some cases at least, think they could change their mind, only that they are currently convinced of that which they currently believe. I don’t know why that point is so controversial, but it is.
And so when you talk to some Christians (for example; this is true for people of all sorts of worldviews) about what it means to be a Christian, they think that either their sect is the true Christianity (or, more generally, the Truth) or they claim that there really is a truth and it is at least related to their opinion. They may not know all the answers, but the god they believe in surely does. And this, in conjunction with the inconsistencies they have, leads to a situation where they believe both that their ideas are right, and that the religious tradition which they associate is also true even if they don’t adhere to all of its doctrines. So,when you ask them for the truth, or at least answers to specific questions, the answer you will get depends on factors too complicated to spell out here but which are logically incoherent.
Ask a Catholic of they use condoms. Ask them what is the right thing to do. Ask them what the church thinks about this issue. Ask them, again, if they are really a Catholic. Chances are, this line of questioning will leave you flabbergasted and possibly cynical. I’ve become to used to it to be surprised anymore, so I usually just skip over to the cynicism.
In the public discourse about religion, policy, etc there is this problem that is pointed out to those that say, for example, that this is a Christian nation. The problem is actually quite simple, and goes something like this:
And this is certainly a problem for those public representatives who make such claims, but his problem goes deeper. More essential to this question is the meta-theological question of what interpretation (or set of interpretations) is accurate? Which theological school is right?
Now, from my point of view, this question is meaningless. It is akin to asking what color underwear Batman wears. The question has no answer because unless Batman is drawn wearing some particular underwear (and I am not aware that this has been the case in any of his many comics), this question has no answer. It’s like the classic example whether the King of France is bald? Unless there is a king of France, this question is meaningless. Similarly, unless their is a god or some other sort of divine truth, an internally coherent and true theology is meaningless.
But for a believer, this question of meta-theology becomes important, and leads to the many complicated hallways of theological intricacy which I have little interest in. Because as one studies such things, one begins to realize that the closer you get to answering such questions the more the problem starts to slip away from you. Now, this is not a problem of internal inconsistency as much (although this is a problem) as it is a problem for consistency with the world in general. And because the ways in which theological opinions are related to the real world (and sometimes it seems that the former prefers to ignore the latter), theology is in flux, motion, or can be said to have a position and momentum, in some analogous sense.
Theological worldview are, in a very loosely analogous way, not unlike physical particles. Describing it takes complex descriptions, and in some sense they do not really exist in the way we classically thought of stuff existing; not as solid and unchanging substance, but as concepts involving probabilities in relation to what is around them. And just like with a particle, a theological position is something that cannot be pinned down with precision; the more you know about its position, the less you know about its momentum (and vice-versa). I say this because things such as theological positions are agent-dependent; they exist in the real-time shifting environments of minds, and change in relation to social, cultural, and historical factors. Theology changes due to its relationships with science, history, and skeptical analysis in general. It is not solely dependent upon revelation or scripture, it has to contend with reality (even if only minimally).
In short, finding what the true religion is becomes subject to something akin to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. Perhaps we can call it Theisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle? Nah, that’s lame.
And within a larger politically charged field, especially in current America where religion is such a large factor, what a true Christian is can never be nailed down. Not only are their too many claims to the title, even when you get one of them, they slip and slide around, refusing to be defined.
Take, for example, what the anonymous emailer said to Greta Christina from her post today:
The problem is that you’re not talking about any actual progressive religious types I’ve ever encountered. You’re talking about a straw man, a portrait of the religious progressive that certainly doesn’t represent all of them, and which may not even exist.
Now, Greta and the many commenters on her blog have made many excellent comments in response to this already, so I will try not to be too repetitive. This person has made a claim that Greta (and by extension me, since I have made similar points) is doing something uncouth by trying to criticize people who seem to pick and choose their beliefs from a larger set of possible beliefs drawn from the tradition they associate with. Why is it uncouth? Because, you see, they apparently they don’t do so.
Even as a commenter points out (in defense of the emailer)
When you see somebody apparently cherry picking, you can only conclude that they have a highly nuanced way of reading their scripture. And if they agree that they are cherry picking, that might only because their nuanced view is too complex to easily explain, so it is easier to go along with the crude “cherry picking” description.
It’s not that they are choosing what to believe, it is that their epistemological criteria is complicated. It’s not that people are ignorant of their religious tradition and so they simply grab onto what they do hear mixed with their own humanistic intuitions, it is that they are super ninjas of theology (despite the fact that religious people are much less informed of their own religion) and so they are coming up with uber ways to believe in way that look to us to be theological noise. My skepticism does not allow me to accept this claim of nuance. It is, in fact, reminiscent of the term “sophisticated theology,” which is also annoying.
The fact that people do “cherry-pick” their beliefs from a larger theological set is pretty incontrovertible, it seems. A fully consistent and non-picked worldview from a varied tradition such as Christianity, but certainly any major religion would just as easily serve as an example, is seemingly impossible. The traditions change too frequently, beliefs are not checked against the whole of tradition and its sources, and so therefore what it means to be a true [insert religion here] is frankly impossible. Once you have most religious apologists pegged on a view, they are moving in a different direction due to some moral or philosophical conflict we point out, and then they are somewhere else. Our observing their theological point of view changes their theological point of view, again much like a particle. And then once you have them admit that they are moving (questioning, or whatever), you have no idea where they are or will end up. Inevitably, they will often return to their original position, and you don’t know how they got there again.
I’ve seen this behavior for years, both in my personal correspondences, on shows such as the Atheist Experience, etc. Trying to figure out what a religious person believes in the light of an observing non-believer is a task to marvel at, and one worthy of a person who likes paradoxical-seeming circumstances. Sounds like a job for a quantum physicist. No, wait. It sound like a job for a psychiatrist.