Monday, April 16, 2012

Beliefs and Consequences

On the way home from my new (temporary) job today, I saw an ad caught my eye. It showed two young women, one captioned a Jewish Israeli, and the other captioned a Palestinian Israeli. They were smiling and inviting the viewer to end U.S. military aid to Israel in the name of peace and Israeli unity.

My immediate thought, which is what inspired this post, was that a lot of Americans would probably object to ending military aid to Israel out of a Christian belief that Israel belongs to the Jews and America, either as a Christian nation or as a nation spends money to do the Right Thing, ought to expend her treasure to protect Jewish possession of Israel. (Speaking personally, I have no particular political beliefs about military aid to Israel beyond a vague suspicion that it's (i) a policy holdover from the mid-20th century and (ii) motivated by a lot more realpolitik than most Americans are willing to admit.)

And then I thought, how many Americans really believe that Christianity teaches that America (or any nation, or for that matter any entity) ought to expend its treasure to bolster the Israeli military? If you put it to them that way, probably not that many. I have a nagging suspicion, though, that depressingly few of the people who think Christians ought to bolster the Israeli military bother to make the distinction.

I think that's to our loss, and not just because it's probably indicative of intellectual dishonesty. From a pragmatic standpoint, Christianity survives in large part due to the fact that its core beliefs - the minimum that you really need to believe to be Christian - are both few and relatively well-defined (pro tip: they don't include anything about foreign aid). That flexibility has historically served us well; the fewer rules your organization has, the easier it is to adapt through time and space. The more that actual Christians lose sight of that core, the more they diffuse what it means to be Christian in real life. That will tend to take the religion "off message" in the short term, and in the long term, expand the term "Christian" until it doesn't mean anything.

It's also an unfortunate practice as a Christian. If I believe in military aid to Israel for Christian reasons, my actual chain of belief probably should go something like this: (i) I believe that the text of the Bible is the word of God (yes, I know this could be preceded by an infinite number of prior bullet points, but we have to start somewhere); (ii) I think the text of the Bible gives "Israel" to "the Jews;" (iii) I think that the modern nation of Israel can be equated with both "Israel" and "the Jews;" (iv) I think that, if "the Jews" cannot hold "Israel" with their own resources, they ought to be assisted in doing so; (v) I think that America's foreign policy ought to enact, at least in part, my personal beliefs about the universe. Now, if I, as a Christian, meet someone who doesn't agree that America should give Israel foreign aid, how am I likely to react based on that chain of belief? I venture that I will be much more likely to find common ground with such a person, since I recognize that my desire for our foreign policy is the result of not one but five beliefs.

If that person is a Christian, the odds that we agree about at least belief number (i) are pretty high. In fact, belief number (i) is the only thing I'm really committed to. All other beliefs flow from my interpretation of the text of the Bible. As long as I can recognize that, I shouldn't find it very hard to respect somebody whose honest interpretation of the text leads to a different foreign policy.

Why should I care about this sort of thing, other than a commitment to intellectual honesty and a pragmatic desire for my religion to remain relevant after I'm dead? Those are both good reasons, but I can think of another one: because when I have common ground with somebody, I am much more likely to treat them with compassion, and much more likely to love them without being a jerk about it - and those are things that, as a Christian, I want to help myself do (treating people with compassion and loving people without being a jerk being one of the fairly few things that actually is pretty core to the religion).

I got a good object lesson in this myself in college, when I was wrestling with Reformed theology. The implications of Reformed vs. Armenian theology can seem fairly significant; the principal implication, for those of you who have had the good fortune to avoid this particular schism within Christendom, is whether salvation is available to everybody or not. Like many Christians who run into this schism for the first time, I was kind of horrified. How could there be Christians who didn't believe that Christ died to save everyone? (My Reformed counterparts, to give them their due, have equally horrifying versions of Armenian theology). Were those people even part of my religion at all? It's one thing to be trying to describe the same entity and failing every now and then; were they even trying to describe the same god that I was?

The thing that broke the philosophical deadlock for me was realizing that I actually wasn't committed to a belief that Christ died for everybody. What I'm actually committed to is a belief that the text of the Bible is the word of God - and the text of the Bible doesn't answer this particular question (I know there are plenty of people on both sides who think it does, but really ... this debate is at least four hundred years old. Debates do not last that long for lack of reading comprehension). People can be committed to that same belief and come up with different theological answers.

Especially living in the Bay Area, where Christianity tends to be opposite the sociopolitical spectrum from many of the places where our religion is strongest, I often feel that this is a lesson American Christendom needs to relearn. If two Christians can recognize that they're committed to the text of the Bible, there's a lot of room for differences on sociopolitical issues. Now they aren't disagreeing about foreign aid, or homosexuality. They're agreeing about the Bible, and with respect to any given issue, they're doing what we have taught ourselves to do from the beginning - searching the Scriptures to see whether these things are true.

The other signal benefit of having a firm grasp on what one is really committed to as a Christian, I find, is an increased ability to deal with non-Christians without coming across as a jackass. Suppose somebody comes to me to discuss my beliefs, as a Christian, about homosexuality. If I think that I actually do have beliefs, as a Christian, about homosexuality, the odds are high that I will disagree with my interlocutor, and ... well, we've seen repeatedly what often happens in that case.

But I don't really have beliefs about homosexuality, as a Christian. What I have is a belief about the Bible, from which I derive beliefs about homosexuality. Forget talking about homosexuality. Let's talk about the Bible first.

I mean that, and not as an excuse to evangelize. For any discussion to be civil, let alone successful, you need to start from some kind of common ground (and if you don't want the discussion to be at least civil, well, you have bigger problems). Maybe we can talk about homosexuality from the perspective of Americans. Or fans of the Enlightenment. Or believers in the rule of law. But for a Christian to talk about homosexuality (or any other issue) as a Christian with somebody who doesn't share some more basic belief about Christianity is just looking for trouble.

And it's silly. Suppose somebody who didn't believe in quantum mechanics came to you with a question about superpositions. You can try to explain, but why would you do that? The first thing to do is make sure you both believe in quantum mechanics.

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