People of different faiths can have agreeable but serious discussions of religion and mutually benefit from them, although disagreements remain. My wife, a devout Episcopalian, and I, a committed Reform Jew, frequently discuss religious topics as matters of history and theology, about which we read and know a good deal, and are willing to learn more. Our discussions help us enrich or refine, even reform, our understanding, with respect for the other’s views and love for the other person.
Such discussions are rare. So-called, they are usually point-counterpoint exchanges. In most, participants rarely know each other well enough to talk frankly yet comfortably about religious subjects without becoming defensive. In some, one or both participants are dogmatic about their beliefs and become offensive. Such exchanges, though they may be revealing, are unproductive; no one benefits. At their best, they end without having degenerated into pejorative remarks, personal attacks, and bad or hurt feelings.
A joint appearance by Neal Hooks and me, fortnightly columnists for the local daily, on the radio program “Speak Up, Las Cruces,” moderated by Peter Goodman and Keith Whelpley, was a mix of friendliness and frankness. Hooks calls himself an “outspoken Christian” and is, I assume, a fundamentalist, perhaps a “born again,” Christian. Though a committed Jew, I never learned Hebrew or had a Bar Mitzvah, and am non-observant and unaffiliated. These facts may mean that we are not representative of our faiths.
Our subject two days before the holiday was Christmas, its meaning and importance. Immediately, we were off on a romp about the historicity and the ensuing interpretations of sacred texts, Holy Scriptures (Jewish) or the Old Testament (Christian), and the New Testament, especially the Gospels, the only canonical texts on Jesus in history. The main issue was the nature of Gospel accounts of Jesus words and deeds: factual or fictional.
Christians and Jews have different bibles and view them differently. Many Christians value the Gospel narratives as historical truths necessarily foundational for their faith. For them, the account of Jesus’ birth signifies the historical fulfillment of Jewish prophecy in Isaiah. Jews value the narratives in Holy Scriptures, not for historical facts, but for moral guidance. For them, the nativity story is a fabrication which defines Jesus as a messiah contrary to the Jewish concept of the messiah. I value the Christmas story for its message about the humble origins of a man who taught a message of care for the poor, the hungry, the sick, and the vulnerable. Hooks disparaged such moral guidance as man-made and implicitly praised the Gospels’ story as God’s truths. The unresolved issue: how Protestant and Catholic fundamentalists, and diverse Christian non-fundamentalists and Jews, regard sacred texts.
That issue re-phrased: whether and to what degree the Gospels are factual accounts or faith-motivated stories. Hooks believes that two Gospel writers, John and Matthew, were Apostles and that all four wrote within a few decades of the Crucifixion. Most Christian scholars believe that all four wrote 40 to 90 years later, lived in the Diaspora outside Palestine, and were more Hellenic than Hebraic in their cultural mentation.
Anyone can see the importance of this difference of opinion. If fundamentalist writers are right, they have strong grounds for arguing that the words and deeds attributed to Jesus in the Gospels are actually his and historically true; otherwise, if non-fundamentalist scholars are right, we cannot take the Gospel accounts at face value.
Hooks urges “reasonable dialogue” to decide the issue, and I accept that standard. But we hold opposing views of what “reasonable dialogue” is and means. For him, it is the “outspoken Christian[’s]” faith-shaped answers to non-believers’ questions; for me, it is the back and forth of fact and logic in dialogue attempting to discern or establish better-founded conclusions. Indeed, “reasonable dialogue” is not possible when one side is uncompromising and expects the other side to compromise. One side, in the Catholic phrase, believes in order to know; conclusions shape evidence and argument. The other side knows in order to believe; evidence and argument precede conclusions. Most people would accept “reasonable dialogue” as a standard, not of religious belief only, but of traditional rhetoric: not only the content, but also the personal and ethical character of the speaker/writer and his or her attitude toward, or opinion of, the audience/reader.
Fundamentalists believe that the Bible, including the New Testament and particularly the Gospels, is the literal word of God, divinely inspired, sanctioned, perhaps dictated; inherently authoritative; and thus exempt from the ordinary analytical approaches and methods of historical and textual scholarship. Conclusions of faith explore the text for the evidence of their faith-based arguments. A sure sign of this prejudicial reading of the text is the use of proof-texts, that is, direct quotations wrenched from context and used to support whatever point needs proof.
Non-fundamentalists believe that the Bible, though important to faith, is a document written by and for people and amenable to the tools of scholarship. As much as possible, religious scholars discount their religious convictions to describe, analyze, and evaluate the text. Their conclusions express themselves, not as certainties, but as probabilities, about what the text means and implies. Proof-texts are non-existent, because scholars accept no statement in the Gospels as exempt from scrutiny and reinterpretation.
So far, so good. But from this point on, the exchanges changed in character. Ours were respectful for the most part, even cordial, but probing throughout. My responses to Hooks’s points were challenging counter-points on textual, historical, or rhetorical grounds. As the program proceeded, most callers and both moderators also challenged or criticized Hooks’s views. Outnumbered, Hooks, an earnest, energetic believer, became increasingly steadfast in asserting his beliefs with proof-texts and defending his motives with protestations of “compassion” for those who do not believe as he does. At about this point, the program ended, I gave Hooks my card, but we have not talked since.
Hooks seemed frustrated that his sincere assertions and heartfelt protestations satisfied so few. If so, he should not have been. Non-believers expect and reject such rhetoric from fundamentalists who presume to know what others should know. The sectarian faithful use it to confirm or celebrate religious dogma and to proselytize and convert non-believers. Though it works for “insiders,” it rarely works for “outsiders.”
It rarely works for “outsiders” because fundamentalists’ rhetoric is self-defeating. “Insiders” adopt a posture of moral self-righteousness and religious certitude because they presume to possess all truth, absolute and unyielding, and that others need to acknowledge and accept it. “Outsiders” usually resent, resist, and repudiate “insiders’” patronizing posture and presumptions which disrespect them and demean their religious beliefs. Fundamentalists’ rhetoric fails when it attempts to change the minds of non-believers by implicitly insulting them and their faiths.
Fundamentalist rhetoric begins and ends with misunderstanding, denigrating, or patronizing those whom they cannot convince of their dogmatic views. The more committed they are, the less they can comprehend non-believers’ refusal to accept their religious beliefs and their adverse reactions to their “compassion.” Fundamentalists do not, probably cannot, credit others with religious integrity or worthy faiths. Indeed, when I remarked that Hooks implied the superiority of his religion and its believers to all other religions and their believers, he did not deny it. When he described his motivation as “compassion” for the souls of others who, by refusing to disavow their beliefs, face fiery damnation, he double-downed on the arrogance which repels non-fundamentalists.
Had they been present, those for whom Hooks has “compassion” might have asked four questions. Why do you insult us and our faiths? Why do you presume to feel “compassion” for us? Why do you care about our souls? Have not Christian leaders used “compassion” to sanction cruelty, killing, and conflict involving those not accepting beliefs sanctioned by church dogma but adhering to faiths which those church leaders deem imperfect and inferior?
The truest of True Believers take their self-righteousness and certitude to extremes. They persuade themselves that “compassion” requires cruelty, killing, or conflict to save the souls of those presumably damned by false beliefs to the infinite and eternal pains of Hell fires. They believe that “compassion” for individuals justifies harsh but finite and temporary means—think: the rack or strappado—to convert non-believers. Thus, the religiously motivated persecutions, murders, or forced exiles of Jews during the medieval and modern periods, notably under the Inquisition. They believe that “compassion” on a far larger scale justifies the force of arms. Thus, campaigns of conquest against and conversion of pagans in the Christian West, crusades against heretic communities or Islamic countries, conquests and conversions by Catholic conquistadors in the Western Hemisphere, conflicts between Catholic and Protestant states, and civil wars between Catholics and Protestants. In the history of Christianity, in the name of the God of Love and the Prince of Peace, Christian extremists have betrayed the baby born at Christmas, by their resort to the violence of perverted “compassion.”
How to converse with those in thrall to a pathological, potentially dangerous rhetoric? My answer: take religion seriously, be informed, stay engaged, be courteous, listen attentively, talk respectfully, and pray for a truly “reasonable dialogue” to prevail.