aefenglommung (aefenglommung) wrote,

Not what you thought

Deanne and I were talking last night about a mutual colleague who had once expressed surprise to her that she and I aren't cookie-cutter duplicates of each other in our opinions and styles. Now, I don't know why anybody would be so surprised. Each of us is an individual, with individual thoughts and individual experiences. We don't agree on everything, or approach everything the same, or like all the same things. Still, we agree on a lot of things, and the thing that made me smile was that while our mutual colleague was right that we are very different from each other, what he thought of my positions on things was, in fact, incorrect. Yes, Deanne and I differ from each other, but not in the way he thought. He had misread me, even though he was more familiar with me than with Deanne.

This is a common experience for me. Lacking any sort of deep attachment or formative experiences in the church when I entered the clergy, I didn't give off the tribal signals people expected. Many of my fellow Asburians were suspicious of me because I didn't talk like an Evangelical, or like their kind of music or enthuse over the things they all did. I wasn't opposed to those things, mind you, I just came from a different place, with few cultural attachments of any kind in the religious world. Even after I graduated, this confusion continued. I remember attending Youth Annual Conference thirty-some years ago, when Joe Hollen said to me, "Well, Art, you're one of the most liberal members of the Conference, aren't you?" Egad, whatever would make one think that? But, you, see, I didn't give off the right spiritual pheromones. I spoke the native Evangelical tongue with an accent. I didn't appear to really belong to that tribe. At the same time, the truly liberal folks in the Conference made the same mistakes with me. I can't tell you how many times I've been part of conversations back in the day that weren't meant for conservative ears!

What I learned is that most people decide on important issues -- what to believe about God, what morals are correct, whom to vote for, ketchup vs. mustard -- not by thinking about them, but by adopting the morés of a particular tribe. What would So-and-so (a tribal exemplar) think about X? Well, so do I. Consequently, an awful lot of theological arguments are really just tribal signaling. People don't actually listen to what is said, they just react off the signals the other person is giving: what t-shirt is worn, what jokes are told, the inflection of the voice when mentioning certain words, the use of slogans, whom you hang around with, what books you read, what music you like. There's our side, and then there's their side; don't confuse me with ideas, tell me what side you're on!

I encountered the same phenomenon in grad school. Theology was not our usual topic, but rather public policy and curricular approaches and the university. Still, because I was comfortable with women in leadership and treated them with respect, people thought I was a feminist (in their sense). Because I had a fairly wide acquaintance with the world and a good education, I must be also a progressive! Many times, I have seen people express their shock when I told them what I really believed or what I really stood for. Both conservatives and liberals would look like the earth just shifted under their feet. And this was in a place where we all were pursuing or possessed advanced degrees, where we banged on endlessly about the need to teach critical thinking to kids and pursue evidence in our research and so on.

In my experience, most people find actual thought (as in, trying to make up one's mind by weighing evidence) painful. They'll do it for some things, like agonizing over what kind of car to buy, but for most other things, including politics and religion and all that, they are content to follow their particular herd. Which means that getting them to face the fact that choices must be made -- and that choices have consequences -- is the most difficult part of teaching the faith. And they won't thank you for making them do it. But it's what the job's about.

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