* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Monday, October 13, 2014

John 3:22-36 Religious Privilege and Being "from Within"

When a person comes from a particular culture with a particular set of traditions and practices, it can be shocking to encounter a person from a different culture with a different set of traditions and practices. Sometimes, our reaction is to find things that look similar and assume that other people think like us -- we validate our own perspective by equating other people's perspective with our own. There might be actual similarities between cultures, and noticing this can be a very connecting observation. However, I have also had some conversations in which people point out how "Christian" my worldview is, because they are Christian and they assume that God is working through all people and situations, no matter what those other people believe.

On the one hand, this is generous of the Christian in question. Assuming that people are like you is much more connecting than assuming that people are so different that they are dangerous. This other extreme is still an unfortunate reality throughout the world -- the Other seems so dangerous that some people justify violent reaction. On the other hand, assuming that people are like you -- for instance, saying things like, "That's a very Christian thing to do," when someone engages in an act of kindness or compassion -- forces an identity onto another person. Perhaps in that person's mind it is a very Buddhist thing to do, or a very Muslim thing to do, or a very Wiccan thing to do, or a very human thing to do. To equate everything good with one's own identity and incorporate all good acts under the umbrella of one's own subculture robs other people of their identity and ignores the diversity of humanity. It's also very difficult to learn anything new when you assume that you already know why people do the things they do.

As human beings, we learn to look at the world through a preferred set of lenses, and we have a tendency to focus on the things that affirm that perspective and dismiss the things that challenge it. When we encounter data, our first impulse is often to find a way to neatly fit that into our "mental model" of the world so that we don't have to change in any significant way. A believer recently told me that the similarities between the basic teachings of world religions convinced him that there was a God. Aside from ignoring some vast differences between world religions in order to arrive at this conclusion, this individual had a belief in God before learning about some similarities between world religions. Seeing some data about similar teachings and ignoring some other data about differences, this belief was reinforced. This individual didn't change religious identity, though. He remained convinced that his religion's understanding of God was more correct than the views held by practitioners of other religions. The similarities of beliefs were held up as proof that his opinion of God was right, and that other religions had a glimmer of truth. His beliefs were still the measuring stick by which truth was measured. Where there were differences, the other religions (and other denominations) were obviously the ones that had gotten it wrong.

At a certain level, we can't help this sort of thing. Being aware of it, though, might help us to take in a little bit more information and maybe even be a little more honest with ourselves about what we take in. Of course, I write this from my own perspective that seems to be confirmed by my experience. No one else can force me to evaluate data in a particular way. I am the only person who can ultimately assess whether my perspective is working for me or not, but when my experience of life is not going the way I would prefer, chances are good that something is amiss with my perspective. Knowing that may help me to grow and change when I need to.

At the end of John 3, Jesus and John the Baptist are in geographic proximity, and some of John's followers interpret this as a turf war. They had a particular mental model about authority and popularity that suggested that if John lost followers to Jesus, then it would mean that John was somehow less of a leader, less capable, less trustworthy. In this passage, John pretty much agrees with them. In rather Highlander-esque fashion, John suggests that "there can be only one." From the Christian perspective, this passage legitimizes the uniqueness of Jesus and the necessity of being obedient. Without assuming anything more about the ancient writers, and without forcing any Christians into a different label, we might draw a different message if we look through a different set of lenses.

To be clear, we start off with some assumptions about reality. Everyone brings their own assumptions to the text, particularly to a text that is held by some to be sacred. Sometimes it seems strange that I am still commenting on a text that holds one perspective when my (conflicting) perspective holds that there is no supernatural and that the closest thing to divinity with which we can connect is within us, not external to us. Part of the reason this seems strange is because Christian privilege in the United States means that the Bible is rarely used to promote another belief system. People who are not Jewish or Christian typically don't try to derive any value from biblical texts. Another aspect of Christian privilege, though, is that the Bible and its supposed contents are constantly present in American life, particularly in political debates and matters of public policy. It seems worthwhile to approach the text with a set of assumptions that might broaden its potential message.

Delving into the text itself, then, it is obvious that some of the nomenclature is derived from a particular view of reality. Spiritual things are not "above," but we might consider them to be "within." The "one from above," then, is the person who is connected with a deepest, most noble self -- a person who has identified a set of deep values and guiding principles and who lives more intentionally by those things. "Obedience" and "disobedience" in this context would equate with authenticity and inauthenticity. The more authentic person lives with less anxiety and greater purpose, or intentionality. Less authentic people are more anxious, less thoughtful, and more prone to blame others or circumstances for their experience of life. Lacking integrity between our values and our actions creates more suffering and robs us of well-being.
The one whose decisions and behaviors are derived from within -- from a set of deep values and clear guiding principles -- is better able to resist being reactive and can influence others toward greater well-being. The one who habitually reacts based on a set of default behaviors is less able to contribute to a better world, and is less able to recognize the value of acting from a set of deep values and clear guiding principles. The very idea will seem foreign and misguided.  
Whoever accepts the premise that it is better to act from a set of deep values and clear guiding principles, also recognizes connection to a deepest, most noble self -- an integral aspect of being human that is more stable than the irrational fears that often prompt our habitual reactivity. Connection with one's deepest, most noble self yields a more full and satisfying experience of life. Living out of habitual reactivity yields a life of experiencing the same misery over and over again (John 3:31-36).
Considering this, the sentiment of the John the Baptist character in John 3:29-30 becomes significant. When we are connected to our deepest, most noble selves, and when we are living with integrity to a set of deep values and clear guiding principles, we don't want other people to suffer. We don't revel in feeling superior. We don't think of ourselves as "better than" others. When other people get it, we can celebrate that. When other people start living out of their own deep values and clear guiding principles, our joy can be more complete. This may mean that other people accomplish things in their lives that we don't get to accomplish, that they have access to arenas that we do not. Life is not a competition against one another. Life is a collaboration. When one person experiences greater well-being, others experience greater well-being, too.

It bears repeating that well-being doesn't equate with wealth. This is not about some kind of strange trickle-down economic formula. Well-being is holistic, and it is primarily tied with being less anxious and more empowered to create a better life and a better world. Certainly, having a certain threshold of financial well-being helps to meet basic needs and reduces anxiety. As we are able to help break the cycle of poverty and provide for healthy food, clean water, and safe shelter for the people with whom we share this planet, we do indeed create greater well-being. After a certain point, however, greater wealth does not bring greater happiness or alleviate anxiety. Some wealthy people are profoundly reactive and anxious. Well-being is about our experience of life, not wealth in and of itself.

Perhaps connection with our deepest, most noble selves helps us be more curious about other beliefs, rather than feeling threatened by them. Perhaps clarifying our values and guiding principles also helps us have clarity about whatever amount of privilege we might have because of our skin color, beliefs, or sexuality. Certainly, living with greater intentionality and integrity can help us dismantle some self-sabotaging behaviors that keep us in a state of habitual reactivity. We can be more authentically ourselves, and thus potentially make it seem safe for others to be more authentically themselves as well. We might also begin to recognize that when others act with intention and integrity and create greater well-being in their lives and in the lives of people around them, they aren't acting "like us" -- they are acting like themselves. If we are going to put labels on people's behavior, maybe it's best for us to label them as human, and acknowledge how much we all have in common based on just that one category.

A Little Experiment: Consider your privilege. There are lots of things that can give people a privileged status in society. Skin color, sexuality, and religious identity are three of the most commonly acknowledged facets of privilege. What is one thing that you take for granted about how you are accepted in society that people of a different skin color, or sexuality, or religion are not automatically granted?

(If you're having trouble with the idea of religious privilege, you can see a list about Christian privilege in the U.S. here. Peggy McIntosh also has an insightful list of white privilege here. A quick list about heterosexual privilege can be found here.)

Another Little Experiment: Celebrate. Are there any people you know who has accomplished something or has created greater well-being for themselves and the people around them? Acknowledge them. Celebrate them. And let it be sincere. Let your joy for them be complete.

One More Little Experiment: Be curious. The next time someone does something or says something you find admirable, ask them why. Don't assume that they are guided by the same things as you, or that your perspective is the only valid one. They might have the same beliefs as you, but let them express that rather than assuming agreement.

No comments:

Post a Comment