A Bad Moment at a Good Party

Luke Timothy Johnson has recently written a book about the Apostles Creed.[1] The first job of any writer is to give potential readers a reason to read the book. I think Johnson does a terrific job of that. Here is (most of) the first paragraph of the first chapter. Take a look.

Many Christians know that deadly moment at a party when their friends realize they actually believe something everyone has merrily been belittling. They recall their stammered reassurances, their tortured reinterpretations, their relief when the conversation moves on, their self-contempt…But their embarrassment at being seen as believers reveals them to be Christians whose view of the world has been shaped less by the Christian creed than by its cultured despisers. [2]

creed 3.pngThere are two things worth noting here. The first is the way Johnson sets the hook in the reader. “Did you ever have an experience like this?” he says. Nearly every Christian I know has had experiences like that. If you mix with the general public, it is pretty likely that you are going to be in a conversation where the idiocy, the arrogance, and the utter hypocrisy of religious belief are going to be taken for granted. Your own consequent idiocy, arrogance and hypocrisy are obvious applications of this view. That isn’t fun at all.

The second point is that Johnson has “what the proper response of a Christian should be” in mind. I am not sure he does and I am quite sure that I do not. To me, the question of just what Christian we are talking about is crucially important. The response the Christian makes in the scene Johnson paints is gruesome, I agree. Let’s see if we can get a closer look at what the believers do in this scene. It will help us when we try to imagine what else they might have done.

  • they recall their stammered reassurances
  • they recall their tortured reinterpretations [3]
  • they experience relief when the conversation moves on?
    they experience self-contempt
  • they are embarrassed to have been seen as believers

The first two are normal social frictions with the descriptive language amped up. Reassuring your friends and reinterpreting their meaning are pretty common elements of social interaction. The last two are brutal. “Self-contempt” seems like a lot to feel as a result of a social confusion. “Embarrassed to be seen as believers” is even worse, but if these were really friends, why didn’t they know you were believers.
So…what should the believers have done?

I’m going to try to get around on the other side of this issue so that a) the “belief system” creed 2has nothing to do with religion and b) I am part of the group of friends.
Let’s say that one day I read an article that tells me that a CEO of some local company has a staff astrologer to tell him when to invest. I remark, looking for a laugh, that I want to check with my financial guy to be sure none of my money is invested in that company. One member of the group relies very strongly on astrology—who knew?— and she takes offense. Is that a good thing for her to do? The topic is not astrology. It is the CEO. But it does presuppose that astrology is ridiculous.

Let’s look at a more political one. I say that I have read that some progressive changes are being made in national government and I applaud them. But one of my friends has been reading Marx and Lenin and has just come to the realization that it is liberals (like me) who are postponing the revolution. The “laws of history,” which Marx discovered, still hold, of course, but what Marx called “the immiseration of the proletariat” is being put off and so the revolution which all that misery will fuel is being put off. He objects to my ignorant and casual approval of progressive causes. He is angry and will not be mollified. Again, the topic is not Marxism. It is liberal reforms. But it does presuppose that liberal reforms a.k.a. “bourgeois democracy” are pernicious.

But, just as in Johnson’s scenario, this silent concurrence about assumptions we all share runs afoul of one of the participants. This participant actively objects to that assumption. He would take it out of the silent, “taken for granted” shadows and make it the focus of our discussion. The result of his action is that the discussion that I thought was going to be about sound financial practices is now about the merits of astrological wisdom; the discussion I thought was going to be about progressive reforms is now about Marxist theory.

How do I feel about this guy? I wish he would have let us have our conversation in peace. It’s a very ordinary conversation. We are “merrily belittling” a group or an approach to an issue, but we’re not taking it seriously. We are just exploiting the humor implicit in a view we all take for granted.

Who Am I?

Of course, Luke Timothy Johnson, in his introduction, was not concerned about things like astrology or Marxism. He was concerned about the Christian faith and particularly concerned about the inability of Christians to be “who they are” in a secular setting that presumes religious faith is somehow ridiculous.

But Johnson has a particular notion of “being who you are” in mind. I am who he thinks I am, but I am also some other things he is not considering. This identification of yourself as a Christian apparently requires that you raise the question of your friends assumed world whenever the assumptions contradict or demean or ridicule your own. That sounds touchy to me.

So I answer the question, “Who am I?” in part by noting that I am one of a group of friends. I consent to the topics we discuss and to the presuppositions that make those discussions possible. When I dissent from the topic, I say so. We are friends, not clones. When I dissent from the presuppositions, I might just be quiet and listen. What the hell is going on here? That seems like a reasonable question.

creed 5So the lesson embedded in this setting of the story is: Let it pass and see what happens.

A second response to “who I am” is that I am a friend to each other member of the group. It may well be that “letting it go” is the best thing to do at the time, but it may also be the best thing to follow up with one or more members of the group when time allows.
One member, let’s say, is a person who might have noticed the group’s assumption and been bothered by it. So you sit down with him and say something like, “Did you notice that for a little while, in our discussion last weekend, we seemed to be relying on the notion that astrology [Marxism, capitalism, Christianity] is crazy and so it anyone who relies on it?” If he feels the way you thought he might, you can have a conversation like, “Where did that come from? I was as surprised as you were.” If he doesn’t, the conversation could go another direction and still be useful for you both.

The lesson embedded in this setting (after the discussion) is: Check it out with some friends who were there and see what they thought.

But now, at last, we get to the heart of the “Who am I?” question. I offer three samples below, of which I really like two of them.

Person A: Having proposed the topic, we need to know what you have to bring to the table. If we don’t know that, we don’t know if placing this on the agenda is a good thing for you. If you have something to say, this strategy might be a really good one. Your friends might learn something about you. You might learn something about yourself. If you ever knew anything about Christian apologetics, this would be the time to knock the rust off of what you know and put it into play. And if you are someone who can do that, you probably should. It would be a gift to the group.

A lot of good things are said, in books on “Christian witness,” about the person who can do that. When Johnson raised the question of being “true to who you are,” I think this is the guy he had in mind. And since there seems to be such agreement that this guy is a hero—or, if things turn out badly, a martyr—I’m just going to leave him to his work. He does need to continue to be a friend to the others, but in doing that, he does not need to echo their assumptions.

Person B: But what if you are not a person like that? Disciplined logical arguments are really not your thing. That might mean that moving this topic from the background to the foreground is not a good thing for you to do. Or it might mean that you want to address it not as a topic for discussion, but as an arena where people are invited to share their own feelings and experiences. This person would not say, “Here is how I would defend my Christian beliefs,” but rather:

“Let me tell you about some experiences I have had. According to the assumptions we have been using, these experiences ought to seem ridiculous, but they don’t seem ridiculous to me. Have any of you had experiences, as I have, that seem to point in another direction?”

The lesson embedded in this version of the story, oddly, is exactly like the one in the previous story, but the strengths of the person are different. The person who thinks in terms of doctrines and arguments and logical implications should feel free to propose such a discussion. The person whose strength is in the immediacy of feelings and in the clarity of experiences should feel free to propose a discussion that relies on experiences.

Person C: I think of both of those as authentic and positive contributions to the life of thecreed 1 group. But a person who feels unable to do either of those might still feel that something should be done and that person might think of saying, “Remember when you were talking and laughing about how stupid religious people are? That really hurt my feelings and I wish you would be more careful and not do that any more.”

I really don’t think that is worth doing. It isn’t being a good member of the group at the time of the discussion. If you pursue it with several members of the group afterward, it will look like you are trying to get people to feel bad about something they actually did not feel bad about at the time. That’s not good either. Maybe it would be better to find some more congenial friends?

[1] Johnson’s book is The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why it Matters.

[2] “Cultured despisers” might seem a little heavy handed, but it’s really just clumsy. He is intending to refer to the title of Frederick Schleiermacher’s well-known book, On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers. If you are familiar with Schleiermacher and the context in which he wrote, you might smile quietly to yourself when you see Johnson’s use of the term. If you are not, it might well seem like an unnecessarily nasty attack.
[3] “Tortured,” by the way, means only “characterized by twisting” in this usage. You could say that you “torture” ivy into the shape of a wreath.

[4] A dear friend of mine said recently that he knows this kind of conversation very well. To a question like, “You don’t believe THAT surely?” he says, “Yes. I do. Has anyone seen a good movie lately.” I like that. I see the first statement as an act of loyalty to his faith community and the second as an act of generosity toward the friends.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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