I originally intended this to be my last post for the year 2015 and here we are in the third week of May! So if there was a theme that captured the “big idea” for this web site, The OC, it would be, “Reflecting, Questioning and Unlearning.” This particular project has been a thing of mine for roughly the last ten or fifteen years. This post is part one of two parts (the post went long) and as always it is intended to stimulate dialog so please chime in!
As I mentioned in the last post, many years ago I was fortunate to have a certain college prof. whose influence helped to dramatically change the course of my life. Wess was one of those teachers who understood his craft in terms of empowering students to learn how to think and not just what to think. From his lectures I found new confidence to test and challenge the status quo, the courage to head into the uncharted territory of repentance (i.e. from the Greek meaning, “change one’s mind!”). Wess, would say, “we must learn to recognize the scams we are running.” He went on to say that while there are many types of scams such as, ‘make you weak – make me strong,’ ‘make you dumb – make me smart’, the most basic formula of the scam is, ‘make you wrong – make me right.’
I think it is time for those of us who self-apply, “student of Jesus Christ” to own up to our favorite scam, the one that we run on our “unbelieving” neighbors. Personally speaking, I have become increasingly sympathetic with those for whom religion has come to represent ignorance and bigotry. That said, in spite of the chronic hypocrisy of people like myself, I am convinced that the biggest problem that we face as earthlings is not uniquely “religious.” In fact, while religious people are famous for perfecting the “art of the scam”, they are certainly not the sole perpetrators of it. If we are honest, we can agree with Wess, we are all running the ‘make you wrong – make me right’ scam on the people around us. Sometime today or at least this week, you will run it on someone you work with or live with!
Perhaps the “scam” originated in our primal instincts for survival and self-preservation, the knee-jerk tendency to think and act from the “fight or flight” dilemma. Today in 21st century, western civilization, the ‘make you wrong’ scam has less to do with survival than with our drives for social acceptance and our quest for material acquisition. Regardless of its origin, the scam appears to be hard-wired into the circuit board of our brains. Whether it is the moral “right or wrong” or the political “left or right”, the code remains the same. The “scam” is a simple binary, an either-or opposition, which cannot endure complexity, nuance or humility. You could say that binary thinking is our natural default setting, the setting which falls well below the higher levels of critical thought – “Will that be Coke or Pepsi?”
A recent U2 lyric puts it this way:
You think it’s easier
To put your finger on the trouble
When the trouble is you
And you think it’s easier
To know your own tricks
Well, it’s the hardest thing you’ll ever do (U2, The Troubles)
Binary formulas, “either-or”, “left-right”, “faith or reason”, “right-wrong” thinking destroys our ability to humbly reflect and creatively engage beyond the ready-made categories dictated by instinct and manipulated by advertisers. As John Stewart has noted (I cannot encourage you strongly enough to take time with the interview below) our political discourse has been high-jacked by this binary formula of “red-blue” and “left-right”. Stewart notes that news outlets consistently frame political discourse as if it were a rugby match. The match is between two clearly defined teams who are competing for cultural relevance and political dominance. The two “teams” take many different pairings: religious versus atheist, conservative versus liberal, black versus white or any one of the countless other combinations. John Stewart, in his interview with Rachel Maddow, describes this news formula, where every issue is reduced to the binary formula of – blue or red!
If Stewart is right, we have been conditioned like Pavlovian dogs to begin salivating whenever the “right-wrong / left-right” bell begins to ring. The problem facing us today is not simply the conspiratorial fact that we are simply being manipulated and indoctrinated by these external forces of media, the government, the church etc. The deeper problem, as Slavoj Zizek tells us in his, The Perverts Guide to Ideology, is that we actually prefer this binary thinking and reductionist discourse. We take comfort in the false security we derive from simplifying the mind-numbing complexities of the world into easy to manage categories. And we especially like the feeling of lining up on the “right” side of the “right-wrong” scam.
I started out on a journey of faith over thirty years ago and during that time I have probably unlearned as much as I have learned but surprisingly, the unlearning has not led me to either disavow or discredit the wisdom or the inspired texts of my religious tradition. The problem, I discovered, was not with the text or the “leaders” but with me, the reader and the follower. In fact, just this week, I was telling a friend of mine how when I first started out as a teen, I learned to read the scripture in a perverse way. I would read the text, all the while assuring myself that the author was describing someone else, someone other than me. When I would read the moral commandments, I did so from the comfort and security of one sitting just beyond the reach of the text’s searchlight. I had become, as Wess Pinkham would say, “double-dipped”, since my religious cover would not allow me to hear and therefore, consider the word for myself. And unfortunately over time, I had simply become “tone deaf” to the message.
The logic of my preferred “reading method” went something like this, I am a “good Christian” and I am on the side of “the good” and “the right”, over and against my fellow non-Christians, those who are basically godless and immoral (or at least not “good” like I am). I naturally concluded that I was the moral superior to my heathen neighbors. I had comforted myself with the notion that the problems of this world were always, “out there.” Many years later, I discovered that the cure to these self-righteous delusions were literally contained in the very scriptures I had been misreading and I gradually began to accept the painful truth that I was the one who the author was addressing when describing the condition of spiritual “blindness.”
“Some of you accuse others of doing wrong. But there is no excuse for what you do. When you judge others, you condemn yourselves, because you are guilty of doing the very same things.” Rom 2:1 ESV (that, of course, did not apply to me)
Stay tuned next week for . . . “Do You Have to Be So F-ing Condescending” Part Two!