Friday, September 02, 2016

the emerging backfire

I went through several stages as I ejected the poorly grounded ideas of my upbringing. Despite the gaps in-between, each stage encouraged the next. The whole progression had its own momentum like an inevitable chain reaction. To make this comparison is to invite the question of this reaction's catalysts. However, many of my catalysts aren't unique. Others have already been explained these over and over. Since I began looking around the internet, reading related books, etc., I've been reassured that I'm part of a sizable category of American adults who've walked the same path out of their outdated beliefs, seen the same information, been in a few of the same experiences, found the same flaws. This category isn't really new, but it's more visible than before.

As I look back, though, I think I can claim a catalyst that's probably on the obscure end of the spectrum. I didn't have strong antagonism against argumentative atheists. I wasn't interested in them and I avoided them. My antagonism was against the fashionable emerging church subculture. This name is more than a little misleading to the uninformed, given it's (proudly) not an official church organization. It's closer to a loose aggregate of people, from a range of backgrounds, who share and spread similar views. They employ maddening pieces of philosophy to surgically extract, alter, and replace selected parts of old religious assertions. By self-indulgently modifying, or at least muddying, these unacceptable parts, they can obtain a creed (er, "spirituality") that's viable for them.

Their popularity is in agreement with the trends of personalized consumer choices, the ability to spontaneously collaborate via the internet, distrust of big, coercive, "top-down" hierarchies, appreciation of smoothly blending complexities rather than oversimplified, all-or-nothing dichotomies, and the good intention of not granting unconditional authority to a lone source. They may or may not also consider themselves religiously unaffiliated; in either case they favor unusual descriptions. They're anxious to not be lumped together with average religionists. (Likelier than not they would feel that the term "emergent church" is too abstract and general to adequately capture the independence and specialness of their individual viewpoints.)

This was intolerable. I was certain they must be far off track. They were questioning the conventionally understood ways of structuring and justifying my religion's tenets. To do this they were probing and dismantling the crucial premise that the tenets, as well as anything supporting these, symbolized factual and unambiguous meanings. For as long as the meanings were regarded as unstructured mush sculpted by the interpreting person (and indirectly the person's culture), then the meanings were open to endless revision. Furthermore, because they saw ideas as so malleable and difficult to circumscribe, oftentimes they hinted or plainly stated that the exhaustive details of what they believed barely mattered to them. To the contrary, the full role of religion was restricted to the promotion of basic human decency—excluding all behavioral rules that were too off-putting or contentious or narrow-minded.

The effect was that I was pressed into rigidly insisting on the opposite: an ironclad, continuous line of meaningfulness. Everything was intertwined in my countering vision. It wasn't coherent to substitute any portion. The right actions flowed from the right thoughts. The right thoughts flowed from the right beliefs. The right beliefs flowed from the right understandings of the religion's underpinnings. And finally, these underpinnings were capable of engendering the right understandings, provided someone was pursuing the understandings properly (well-done "exegesis"), such as not inserting their "bias". Religious statements were really proposing real features of, and real actions taken by, real things. Accordingly, the statements had real consequences. The supernatural domain was out there, and it operated under the system of rules I subscribed to.

I didn't perceive the corner I was backing into. I wished to soundly reject the emerging church's adaptations, preferably by establishing that these changes were neither valid nor necessary. In pursuit of that goal, I tacitly depended on the assumption of a superior alternative, namely the fixed target that was being missed. Therefore, I was assuming that the strict doctrines I'd been taught had an exceptional level of accuracy and relevance.

...and yet, in the middle of this, I was starting to wonder. Did I know for myself whether my positions were trustworthy enough to be applied in this way? I was too scrupulous to be satisfied by a glib "We disagree so I'm sure you're wrong." I needed to examine the points submitted and identify why and how I was right instead. I sought to learn from the opposing outlook by defeating it. I wasn't keen on fearfully dodging its concerns.

It turned out that my expectations were much too high. Like a new seminary student—but not nearly as dedicated or well-read—I slowly registered the ramifications of two facts. First, over my religion's recorded history, it had been shaken by successive debates about its own core claims. Second, these debates tended to recur; they were never permanently decided by clear-cut solutions reached through irresistible data and reasoning. I admitted that the emerging church's ramblings weren't completely unfounded. I'd inherited one of many end results from the old debates. I was accustomed to this synthesis, so it had appeared "obvious" to me.

Ultimately, I was unable to marshal anything indisputable to elevate my particular set of religious claims. I couldn't do it through tight logic, in the style of a mathematical proof. I couldn't do it through referencing decisive observations, in the style of a controlled investigation or experiment. The remaining route was to argue in the manner of a, ahem, theologian: mash up some discrete strands of thoughts and sources, express a principle that seemed to be compatible with this mash, and exploit some analogies to convince others that the principle was literally believable. I could try to paint a convincing picture of my doctrines' relatively greater fidelity to the religion's main messages. But I couldn't be confident that I was communicating pristine truth. I couldn't escape the equivocal pattern of discourse, "On the one hand...on the other hand..."

Earlier I wrote that this contrast acted as a single catalyst along the way. The emerging church's publications didn't push me out of my old identity or its ideological commitments. Their scribbles didn't purposely prepare me for my later conversion to materialistic naturalism. While I didn't embrace their notion of flexible meaning, their efforts nudged me to take a sincere inventory of what precisely my unbending meanings were attached to in the first place. Once I did, it became a steadily strengthening habit...

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