Explaining My Beliefs to Those Who Have All the Answers
Wednesday, May 2, 2012Tweet
Last Friday I wrote about the trouble with knowing everything, or why I find it so difficult to share my beliefs with people who ascribe to one single source of Truth that has authority above all others, to the extent that anything that doesn't fit is disregarded as false.
And then I asked this question, "Will I ever be able to talk about my beliefs with those people who believe they have all the answers already?"
To some extent, it was silly to ask this question. Because like it or not, I will end up talking about my beliefs with people who believe they already have all the answers. Again and again and again.
So I reflected on how I tend to handle these conversations, and whether this is a good or honest approach.
When other people ask me to defend my views about this or that, I always try to explain it on their terms.
So if a Catholic wants to argue with me that my beliefs are not in line with Catholic teaching, I generally skip trying to have a discussion about why it's not important to me to follow all aspects of Catholic teaching. It's clear that this person believes that all truth comes from Catholic teaching and all beliefs must be in line with it, so I attempt to find a way to justify my beliefs in a way that's internally consistent with the basics of Catholic teaching.
Or if someone adheres to the idea of sola scriptura (as it's currently used, and not its original meaning) and wants me to use Scripture to back up my beliefs, then often I know it's a waste of time to engage in a conversation about why it's impossible to literally follow the Bible. So I'll talk about my interpretations of Scripture in its historical context or what the overarching themes of the Gospels are and how those inform everything else I read in the Bible.
It's not just Christians. I've explained to many people in the LGBTQ community why I continue to align myself with a religion whose leaders can be outspokenly anti-gay by talking about change from within and separating worship from doctrine. I've explained to non-religious friends how I reconcile faith and science. I emphasize different reasons for my beliefs about gender equality depending on whether I'm talking to a liberal feminist or a conservative evangelical. And always, I focus on whatever explanation fits best with their own worldview.
But no matter how I look at it, I don't see these changes to my messages as dishonest or deceptive, because they are all true pieces of who I am. I am still a Catholic, Christian, gay-rights-promoting, Jesus-loving, evolution-believing feminist.
It's important to me that I connect with the Catholic Church enough that I feel right continuing to call myself Catholic.
It's important to me that I seek guidance from Scripture even if I don't read it literally.
It's important to me that understand my own reasons for supporting gay rights from both a Christian and a humanist perspective and that I continue to revisit my decision to remain aligned with the Catholic Church to ensure I am at peace with that decision.
It's important to me to hold a view of gender and gender roles that is in line with everything I know to be true about biology, psychology, sociology, and history, but not to completely erase an appreciation for the spiritual and theological views of what it means to be female.
The truth is that I don't fall neatly into many either/or categories and that I often draw knowledge, wisdom, and guidance from a multitude of areas that some people would consider contradictory, whether it's faith and science, or gay rights and Scripture, or feminism and theology. I seek truth, wherever it may be found. And so, in explaining my beliefs, I draw on whatever truths resonate most with the person I'm speaking to.
I believe it's generally a smart idea to meet someone where they're at if you're trying to help them understand your way of thinking. If understanding your way of thinking requires violating something they believe to be true, you're not going to get anywhere, but if you can explain it in a way that fits into their sphere of truth, then you've gained a step in understanding.
When I was in college I had the opportunity to hear Mario Cuomo speak, and one of his points has stayed with me. He said if you believe strongly in stopping abortions because of your Christian faith, OK, but you can't go to a Jewish or Muslim or atheist Senator and say, "You need to outlaw abortion because Christianity says it's wrong." Well, you can, but you won't get anywhere. You have to find terms that speak to them about why it makes sense to outlaw abortion, and if you can't make that argument, then start smaller, maybe saying that Roe v. Wade assumed viability outside the womb at 24 weeks, but now science shows it's actually X number of weeks, so you're making a case on legal and scientific grounds rather than moral or religious ones.
It's not that you're not being true to your beliefs, it's that you're finding the most practical way to make progress by working off what the other person believes to be true.
And sometimes it's impossible to find that common ground. I have had more than one conversation with someone who believes so vehemently in sola scriptura that the conversation can't progress until I can explain how my beliefs are not contradictory with this specific, isolated verse. And I can't, because I don't read the Bible that way.
So I think I'll continue to frame my explanations of my beliefs in terms of what the other person holds to be true. Maybe it's not always a complete picture, but I don't think that understanding is built by reconciling broad world views -- particularly when they're vastly different -- but by finding small points of agreement and then building understanding of one another's ways of thinking based on those common truths.