Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Why It's Hard to Talk to an Evangelical - Part IV - The Grid of Certitude

The one thought that I got from Dave Tomlinson’s book The Post-Evangelical, was the concept of loss of certitude. Evangelicals in general, feel that they must have certainty about all issues, theological or cultural. This is going beyond the fundamentals of the faith, such as the inerrancy of scripture, and other issues which were expressed so well in our ancient creeds.

The Evangelical certitude drifts into areas such as; 1) the age of the earth is 6,000 years old, 2) Creation was 6 literal days, 3) The coming of Christ is imminent , sometimes expressed in decades or years, 4) God being responsible for every event major or small, 5) particular gifts of the spirit and etc.

Beyond the theological certitude, the Evangelical community has developed certitude about many cultural issues (none of which is even mentioned in the Bible). This includes such beliefs and mores as 1) homosexuality is completely an issue of choice and sin and there is no brain component, 2) drinking alcohol is sin, 3) giving the appearance of drinking alcohol (like eating dinner in a bar) is sin, 4) saying words that express strong emotion (like “what the hell?”) are sin and are labeled as “swearing” although these words have absolutely nothing to do with the Biblical concept of swearing, 5) looking nice during Sunday morning church services, 6) watching TV is sin (everyone almost watches TV but you don’t mention it in front of Evangelicals are they will pretend that they don’t watch it), 7) Going to any movies except for those produced by Billy Graham or Disney, 8) Reading Harry Potter books 9) Always looking at the positive side of every thing, 10) Listening to any music other than “Christian music (whatever the hell that is),. 11), Homeschooling is the only way to raise kids . . . if you are a really good Christian, 12) Christian college is the only college for kids, 13) You must be Republican and believe in the entire Republican platform. All the Republican leaders are men/women of honor and all the Democrats are godless liberals, and 14) The last one I will mention (but there are many more) is that Global warming is a myth. Today I got a notice from a Christian publishing house about a book that is a “Biblical Expose” on global warming. Really? This is a scam. The reason is simple. The Bible is completely silent on the issue of global warming in the twenty first century. To imply a “Biblical perspective” is a lie and a crafty manipulative wording to make your personal, cultural opinions more palliative to Christians.

So the Grid of Certitude is where you really want to have a meaningful conversation with an Evangelical but they filter everything you say through this grid. The vertical lines are the trivial theological certitudes (remember this is well beyond the creeds) and the horizontal lines are the Christian-cultural mores

If you are someone who is a synthesis-type of thinker, trying to find harmony in everything, you might say, so . . . we all are Grid bearers in conversations. You can easily say that I’m a Grid Bearer because I screen all the words of the Evangelical through my post-evangelical eyes, condemning them for the mistakes I think they are making. But I really think there is a difference and I don’t think I’m just being arrogant.

I can, and do enjoy conversations with Evangelicals who have a very different opinion than me. If one of the men at church starts telling me how wonderful the Creation museum is in Kentucky, that’s fine. I don’t say anything and I’m content to continue talking. I still think they are good people and want them as my friends.

But the Evangelical Grid is soaked in certitude. I’m not a 100% sure that the universe is over 13 billion years old. It looks like it to me. But maybe God did create the universe with an appearance of age. I feel very tolerant to those Christians who believe in a young earth because I don’t have certitude.

But, in my experience, if I say something to an Evangelical about me believing that the universe is old, that is a conversation breaker. The reason is their grid of certitude. I’ve violated God’s standards, in their eyes, and I am left to repent or to be avoided.

That is one reason that I find it hard to speak to an Evangelical.

In closing I will give a true-life example of the horizontal grid. I wish I could give examples where I’m the perpetrator, but in this incident I couldn’t think of one (I’m sure I’m an expert at this misbehaver but I can’t see my log).

Setting: I was a new medical officer in the Air Force. I was sent to Sheppard AFB for medical officer’s basic training. I arrived at the base’s hotel, checked in, and was assigned a room.

That night, around 10 PM, I was in my undershorts in bed reading a book. To my surprised, I heard a key enter the lock and in walked a thin man in his late 40s. He seemed upset. I will call him Colonel Bob.

Colonel Bob: (in an aggressive loud voice) “What are you doing in my room!?”

Me: (looking like the deer in the headlights) “Uh . . . uh . . . your room? I checked in and they put me here.”

Colonel Bob: “Get your stuff and get out. I am a senior officer and I do not share rooms. We always get private rooms.”

Me: (Still looking startled) “Uh . . . where am I supposed to go at this hour?”

Colonel Bob: (walking over to the other twin bed) “That’s not my problem but you should have known that this was my room.”

Me: “Uh . . . how could I’ve known that . . . I mean I just checked in at the desk and they told me I was assigned to this room?”

Colonel Bob: (Looking at the bed stand) “Hmm . . . is this your Bible?”

Me: “Yes.”

Colonel Bob: “Are you a Christian?”

Me: “Yes.”

Colonel Bob:
(Reaching out to shake my hand now with a smile on his face), “Well I’m a Christian too!”

(I shook his hand)

Colonel Bob: “Oh, I guess God put us together for a reason . . . maybe you can stay. But you should have checked and made sure that there was no other person assigned to this room. You will learn that officers must be responsible for their behavior.

Narrative: Bob was putting his things away and telling me his story. He was an orthopedic surgeon, a member of the Christian Medical Society. I think he had served on their board as well. He told me of several mission trips he had taken and how God has used him. We were getting along great (after the awkward introduction) until he opened my refrigeration door.

Colonel Bob: “Whose beer is this?”

Me: (Feeling intimidated by his tone of voice) “Uh . . . that’s mine.”

Colonel Bob: “You must be kidding me. What kind of wittiness is that?”

Me: “What wittiness?”

Colonel Bob: “The enlisted men that clean this room for one or the people in the BX where you bought. this. I mean now you have no wittiness on this base.”

For the next three weeks Colonel Bob hardly spoke to me at all. He hung out with other Colonels and didn’t associate with me . . .because I was a captain I guess. I would have loved to have been his pal and I tried many times to start conversations but because I had hit his cultural gird of certitude the conversations ended.


craig v. said...

I believe you've hit on one of the biggest problems. One place where I've seen this in myself is in arguments. I discovered that when I get angry (and aggressive and even cheat) in an argument it's often because at some level I know that my certainty rests on a house of cards. Of course, angry, aggressive and cheating behavior in an argument is a show stopper as far as real conversation is concerned.

Anonymous said...

"Colonel Bob" sounds really full of himself -- in both his rank (Light or Bird) and his Witness (TM).

The latter is probably due to immersion in a church which (besides fighting the Battle of the Booze) defined "holiness" in primarily negative terms, i.e. being Holy means you can't do this, can't wear that, can't drink this, can't think that. Emphasis on the Can'ts. When it gets to that point, you're not alive -- you're so busy keeping your nose squeeky-clean so you can pass God's litmus test for Heaven and nothing else you don't have a life. And you can pull rank on all the others (like a certain Christian Monist...)

-- Headless Unicorn Guy