A Reply to Wendy

In one of my early posts, I wrote an essay called Liberalism and Gnosticism, reflecting on the similarities which I found between the current Progressive movement in America and this rather ancient religious movement. I have been interested in the history of early Christianity and its contemporaries for some time, and have been increasingly struck by the parallels between much contemporary political discourse and conduct, and the detachment between intellect and behavior so common in the Gnostics. When I moved the site to it’s current location, it was one of the essays I relocated, as I saw some value in its persistence. I then set it aside, like some dusty old high school track trophy, to cite when annoying my children with my meager achievements in advanced age, creeping toward senility.

So it was with some surprise that I received a comment on this post recently, from a nurse named Wendy, which I will take the liberty of citing here:

I don’t understand. Why does liberalism have to be about religion. I find it very offensive. I am liberal because I think that everyone should have an opinion and that other people’s opinions should not be pushed onto others. If you want to believe in Jesus, good for you, but that doesn’t mean I should. And it doesn’t mean I am an evil person because I don’t believe in him. Why must Christians spend so much time figuring out why others aren’t Christian? Why can’t they spend more time on listening to others and finding tangible solutions to the problems that face this country. I am a nurse who cares for patients day in and day out with loving care and I don’t care if they are Christian or Hindu or anything else. They are humans who need to be respected and listened to. If they tell me about a man in the sky that they talk to and it helps them get through the day, good for them. I sit and listen and I do not judge. If Christians spent as much time looking for solutions to make this world a better place and less judging of other this world would be a better place.
In roaming the new world of online journalism, there are many who seem energized by controversy and dispute, anxiously awaiting each fiery arrow to skillfully deflect it with a witty or biting retort. Others seem merely to have hides of Kevlar–if I received just a smattering of the vile attacks many conservative pundits receive, I’d pack up my browser and take up lawn bowling. You see, I don’t do criticism, because a) I know everything, and b) I just knew you hated me. I remember sparring with Jehovah’s Witness back in the old Compuserve forum days, and dreading–dreading!–the modem’s screech, that dreadful hiss a coiled snake rearing to strike, downloading my messages.

Blogging, of course, is even more exposed, an emotional skinny-dip in piranha-infested waters, but fortunately, I am a cuddly cockroach in the TTLB Ecosphere, so my burden has been light. And Wendy’s note hardly qualifies as an attack, but rather a diplomatic difference, the sort of opinion sharing too rarely seen on the web. And I appreciate that.

So I am motivated to respond to her thoughts with a soon-forgotten post rather than a never-seen comment–after all, that’s what blogging is all about.

I am surprised–and a little puzzled–that this post proved so offensive to you, Wendy. Of course, someone of liberal leanings might find offense at being painted with any characteristic they dislike (as would conservatives, or anyone else for that matter). But the issue seems to be not simply a comparison deemed negative, but rather that I likened liberalism to religion. Actually, if I read my own essay correctly (others will be better judges), I was drawing a comparison between some of our more vocal friends on the left–who appear to value what one believes (or perhaps better, what one professes), over how one acts–with the rather striking similarity evident in the dualism of the ancient Gnostics. No more, no less, really–I wasn’t maintaining that liberals are a secret religion, or occult group, or anything similar. Is this the worst thing one can be called as a liberal–religious? Perhaps, as it appears to be the very worst thing you can be as a conservative.

But what is religion, really? If you view it as smells and bells, hymns and hypocrisy, rules and restrictions, churches and chastity belts, then yes–there are many who are not religious, who shun and oppose it–rather rationally in fact. But if you view religion rather as a worldview, as a set of beliefs about who we are, why we are here, our relation to the physical and the spiritual (or the immaterial, the soul, the life-force, the unseen, if you prefer–and if you believe such exists)–in other words, the meaning of life–then religion becomes a far broader thing, universal in scope, for we all have beliefs and opinions about such things. And these opinions mold and motivate how we act. So in a sense, we are all religious.

You define your liberalism as the freedom to hold opinions and your dislike of having others force their opinions on you, if I paraphrase you correctly. Do you read the newspapers? TV news? blogs? Vanity Fair, Architectural Digest, Sports Illustrated, People magazine, Cosmopolitan? They all force their opinions on all of us, although force is perhaps too strong a word–persuasion, overt or occult, is more accurate. They all hope to change the way you think about yourself, others, and the world around you–that’s exactly why we read and listen to them. You personally do the same, when you share the best cookie recipe ever, or how awful that movie was last night–you are attempting to influence someone else, to change the way they think or act. Religion (narrowly defined) is in reality just one more worldview, one more opinion attempting to influence how you think, how you perceive, how you act.

With so many opinions out there, it can be overwhelming to sort them out. We humans use a process called abstraction: we summarize complex information, forming opinions about the general from a few specifics. In software development, this is a good thing: you don’t care about TCP/IP stacks and protocols, document object models, CSS, or javascript–you click a link, and a web page comes up (hopefully “The Doctor Is In”, if my agents on the internet are following their orders). In human behavior, this leads to assimilation of information: complex but familiar external objects are simplified to fit preexisting categories in your mind–the link becomes the web page. The other mechanism we use is accomodation: when unable to resolve conflicting opinions or information, we basically say they are all the same or it makes no difference which you believe–we change our thinking, our pre-existing categories, to reduce or eliminate cognitive dissonance. So if this religion believes A, and another B (directly contradictory), rather than do the hard work of evaluating both, we default to “all religions are the same”, or “there are many paths to God”, or similar rationalization. Or we assume they both are wrong–which, of course, may be objectively true, or not.

But in day to day life, opinions do matter–ideas have consequences. An alcoholic’s opinion that his drinking doesn’t bother anyone else collides head-on with the front of your minivan full of children. You will not be non-judgmental about a man in NAMBLA having your 9-year-old son visit for a sleepover: you will force your opinion on him, and emphatically so.

What bothers people most about religion, I think, is that the opinions of religion often come with a little bonus: a loaded gun. If you do not serve Allah, you will be slaughtered in jihad; if you do not accept Jesus, you are going to hell; if you do not become a Jehovah’s Witness, you will be destroyed in Armageddon; if you live a bad life, you’ll come back in the next life as a cow, a beetle, or–God forbid–a Republican. This, I suspect, is what you mean by people forcing their opinions on you. “Believe it, or else” is not a message I want to hear–nor anyone else, I suspect.

But not all opinions with warnings are intimidation. If your young daughter picks up a sharp knife, or tries to drink the bleach, you will issue an opinion with a threat attached: “That knife could hurt you–drop it, or else!” She will be disciplined for a reason: the danger is real, and love demands action, even if it is not what your daughter wants to hear. She will hate you for your love–but survive to appreciate it later.

You are, I have no doubt, a fine, compassionate nurse. I have enormous respect for nurses–they are the heart and soul of medicine. We physicians breeze in, in our white coats, see patients for mere moments, snap out some orders, and move on to our next divinely-ordained task, leaving the nurses to pick up the pieces and fill in the gaps. You get no thanks, only rebuke for misreading our illegible scrawls. Your skills of observation and listening are unmatched by any other profession, medical or otherwise. And I agree wholeheartedly with you: there is far too much judging of others by Christians (and others)–the redwood in our eye sure looks like a speck in yours.

But let me suggest something, if I may: “I sit and listen and I do not judge.” The first two are excellent, but consider the third: sit and listen, and judge. Not the words, not the personality, not the belief system, not the theology. Don’t worry about the “man in the sky”–look at the man or woman in the bed. Judge the character of your patient–how do they look? Is there any sense of inner peace, a strength inappropriate to the dire news, a joy in dire circumstances, a comfort inexplicable by opiates and well-rehearsed platitudes? You have the eyes and ears, the heart, to see it–if you will open your mind and your spirit to do so.

We are scientists by training–hammered by merciless hours studying, following, learning, assessing, doing. We know how to measure, to infer, to test, to draw logical conclusions. But not all in medicine, in our care for human beings, is measured in kilograms, or milliliters, or mm. of mercury: there are things–spiritual, immaterial, nebulous, unexplainable–which can only be measured by the heart, but are nevertheless real and tangible. Look for them, Wendy–and be prepared for a wonderful journey when you find them.
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