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Our incompatible narratives

November 17, 2012

Something I’ve been thinking about is how if you want to engage someone in good faith, then what that means is accepting that their path in life, their choices, their beliefs, their worldview, their narrative — whatever – is valid (at least for them). This is easier said than done, though…too often, when we meet people believing/doing/accepting stuff that we don’t (or that we find absolutely repugnant), then we have to figure out some explanation for that that can disarm that belief/action/worldview/narrative.

Oh, they’re just ignorant.

Oh, they’re misled. Misinformed. Brainwashed.

Oh, they’re sinful. Caught in Satan’s snares.

The idea being that if they had the right information, and if they did not ignore it, then they would come around. To our side. Because our side, of course, is objectively right, right?

If we believe this, then maybe engaging in good faith isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. If we believe we are objectively right, then why would we want to entertain every idea? It’s kinda like open-mindedness — open-mindedness doesn’t require you to grant that every opinion or position is equally meritorious. Rather, there are definitely going to be some positions that have the force of evidence behind them (for whatever value of evidence…), and some that don’t.

The big elephant in that last sentence is about evidence (or whatever it is we’re using to sift out the various possibilities). What we see as evidence will be affected by the narrative/worldview/beliefs/whatever that we already have.

I was reading an article about some guy who used to be Evangelical who became an Orthodox Christian. To borrow a huge chunk of his article…

There are never good reasons for major choices. In fact there are no “good reasons” for anything, including what churches we join or don’t. Life is short and we humans are only minimally evolved. So between too few years and too few brain cells we don’t have enough information to make any choice. A best guess is all any choice really is.

When it comes to buying household appliances I have reasonably good information. I can spend 10 minutes online and learn what washing machine to buy. But when it comes to the existence of God, what church to join, who to marry or where to live there’s never been a “good reason.” Life just happens. Grownups admit this. Only teens and theologians think they know anything.

Our universe is old and we are young. Given that our life span is more like a fruit flies’ than a planet’s we have to settle for best guess intuition not facts. But because other people ask us why we did thus or so we invent “reasons” in hindsight to “support” our guesses.

To believe something – rather than just stumbling into a malleable opinion — you’d have to have considered all the options. And that’s impossible. There’s always one more book to read. So what we actually mean by saying “I believe this or that” is “I think” or “I hope” or “ I’ve settled on this because my parents said so” or “I earn my living by being a pastor so I’m not about to question my creed” or “I have to believe this because my wife does” or “I need to hold on to something so I choose to believe this.”

What we never can honestly say is “I believe this because I know it is true. I know that because I’ve explored all other possibilities completely and lived every sort of life in every place and time, including the future and I’ve proven this is true. There are no other alternatives.”

Since we don’t like to admit that our mortality and primitive half-baked brains preclude fact-based certainties, we invent theologies both religious and secular that are closer to superstitions than facts. Then we assure ourselves and others that we have “good reasons” to believe this or that.

We say things like “I married the woman God led me to.” Anyone even minimally honest knows that what we really mean is: “Out of the tiny fraction of women I met I married Genie and things have worked out well so I like to dress this lucky break up by saying ‘God led me to Genie’ because that sounds better than saying, ‘I happened to meet her because she hadn’t yet listened to the Beatles’ album ‘Abby Road.’ I had the record and that’s how I lured her to my room, slept with her and 43 years later found myself with 3 children and 4 grandchildren and a life. But the fact is I never did get to sleep with all the other women in the world let alone buy them each a cup of coffee so I have no idea who else I could have been as happy with or even happier with.”

Which is a roundabout way to admit that I have no good reasons — other than grace — for why I’ve been going to my local Greek Orthodox church for the last 25 years or why I’ve been married to Genie for 42 years.

I would probably use different terms at a lot of places here, but that would just be to translate his narrative into terms friendly to my narrative. For example, I would say that the subjective aspects can qualify for “good reasons,” so we can have good reasons for things (and Frank details some of the “subjectives” behind his appreciation for Orthodoxy and his disenchantment from Evangelicalism). But I get that as far as having explored possibilities, gotten all the “data” or “objective information,” we don’t really have that. It’s just a matter of whether we’re willing to admit that, or whether or preoccupation with subjectives still masquerades as a perception of objectivity.

Anyway, this kinda muddies up the playing field. After all, if we’re interacting as if we have a sphere of objective information to tap into — and we’re just encouraging others to tap into this objective sphere — then we can walk about from the assumption that if the other guy only saw x or read y, then they would see things my way.

…but when we realize that subjectivity plays a much stronger role in this — even when considering objectives, the considering part is a subjective endeavor.

So, when we say, “if only they could see x…” or “If only they read y,” what we’re actually saying is, “If only they should step out of the shoes they’ve walked in — the shoes that have molded to their feet for years — and step into my shoes, which are molded to me and not to them and which will take years for them to even begin to stretch and mold to their feet…”

And that’s a bit of a different request.

Now that I’ve meandered for all of this, I’ll just point out a couple of things I’ve thought about narratives.

Narratives require language to tell, and the language often doesn’t translate well.

Apparently, there’s a Conference on Mormons with Same-Sex Attraction. I know this because (Gay) Mormon Guy has been live-tweeting it for a few hours, and so I’ve seen the statements of several of the participants.

Even from this one line, I’ve already used several terms that are bursting with information. If you just think this is English, you are missing out — in terms of the narratives I’m speaking about, the choice to use the term “same-sex attraction” over, say, “homosexuality,” is critical. From this choice alone, one can tell the probable background of the participants and where their thoughts may lie.

But as I read through the tweets, I see even more from the narratives that these folks live. Just take one tweet:

Dave Matheson – God is heterosexual. The Atonement is about helping us transcend anything that keeps us from being like Him. #ssaconf

In fewer than 140 characters, there is so much here. (I mean, for the Mormon audience this blog normally enjoys, this shouldn’t be new, but still.) God is a thing that actually can have sexual attractions…and in this case, he is heterosexual. (At least to this narrative). If I looked at other narratives, it wouldn’t make sense to attribute that quality to God. (This might even be the case when the person still does not agree with homosexuality…the narrative comes up with other explanations than Dave has done here.) And other narratives still would not posit God in the first place.

So I mean, it would be tough for me to challenge Dave’s position here. I mean, I could critique his narrative. (“There’s not enough evidence, and this is a harmful belief”? But doesn’t this assume we both have similar ideas about what “evidence” is, what “harm” is, and whether “harm” makes a good foundation for beliefs or not?) But could I try to use his narrative to posit a different position? What am I going to do — argue that God is gay?

The other day I was thinking about several narratives. I was thinking about Adam and Eve, and that statement, “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.” And to me, it seemed absurd that we were using Adam and Eve as a model for everyone — when Adam and Eve are doubtful, uncertain things. Why are we even buying these terms that what’s good for “Adam” and “Eve” is what’s good for us.

Then, I was in another discussion, where someone was using biology and evolution to try to make a similar argument. “The Way Evolution Works (TM) is that we reproduce to propagate our species. But if you’re gay, then you don’t want to do that. That’s a malfunction.”

This seemed absurd to me as well. Especially when it got into counterarguments about overpopulation (so maybe adaptations to limit population growth are an evolutionary check?), or about how The Way Evolution Works (TM) is that the female relatives of gay folks are more fertile, and gay uncles can offer more support for the children of their sisters. Etc., Etc.,

The absurdity was…why are we even buying these terms?

So, that was the first thing I thought about. But there was another thing as well.

Narratives aren’t set in stone. Language isn’t either. It can be appropriated and reappropriated.

If you have read my posts, you should have already seen a few of them that point this out in some way, shape or fashion. See. Not even a month before the conference that (Gay) Mormon Guy is attending were conferences that John G-W attended — Circling the Wagons and Affirmation.

So I mean, on the one hand, you have someone whose Mormon narrative — for him — is that God is heterosexual…the Atonement is about helping us transcend anything that keeps us from being like Him.

But you also have John G-W who challenges folks to experiment on the word.

Boiled down to the simplest of questions: Could the Church both be true, and I, an openly gay, excommunicated man in a committed same-sex relationship experience a fuller, more powerful presence of the Spirit in my life?

As of this past October, 2012, I have been living this experiment for seven years.  I once read that at the rate cells of our body die and are replaced, at the end of every seven years every cell in our body has been replaced, reborn.  Medieval mystics wrote of the “seven ages” of man, that every seven years we enter into a new phase of our lives, a new stage of development.  At the age of 42, as I was entering the seventh of the seven ages, the Spirit called me back to the Church, and now I contemplate what my life looks like as I come to the conclusion of that stage of my life and enter the next.

What have I learned from this seven year experiment?  What has happened in these seven years since I have been active in the Church?

First of all, I have learned the answer to that “simplest of questions,” Could the Church both be true, and I, an openly gay, excommunicated man in a committed same-sex relationship experience a fuller, more powerful presence of the Spirit in my life?  The answer is Yes.

To reconcile contrasting accounts, contrasting narratives, one has to be comfortable with the idea that their narrative doesn’t have to be anyone else’s…and that if someone doesn’t grant you and your narrative the same privilege, you’re still OK with that because you don’t need their validation anyway.

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2 Comments
  1. Valid is not a question of degree or a subjective measure.

    so a path is valid or not

    which has nothing to do with any judgement of a person being on any given path

    we are all entitled to chose

    and allowing someone to be the expert and decider of their life is the social contract.

    but that doesn’t mean you have to allow for the possiblity of their choices and beliefs being at all valid.

    that’s up to an assessment of the belief

    not the adherant.

    disbelieve the belief but be civil to the beleiver.

    much more pleasant than the usual hate the sin love the sinner nonsese claim, given the givens.

  2. Nina,

    But what I’m saying is that “validity” is on a person-by-person basis, and it’s often something lived into.

    So, how can you assess a belief without “living into it”?

    I get that at some point, we all say, “Well, there are some things I’m not going to do…” but is that a statement of invalidity?

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