What I Learned This Year

Here are some things I’ve learned this year in school:

  • I am capable of a lot of work when I put my mind to it, but I also recognize my finitude. I have sometimes taken on too much to the detriment of my family. This will require that I plan my time better in adopting a consistent sleep schedule and study plan. My family deserves better than I gave them this year.
  • I had an inkling of this, but it got fleshed more out in my research of Gordon Kaufman’s theological method: all theology is constructed, from beginning to end. It does not exist “out there” to be discovered and exegeted but emerges out of a thinker’s use of sources. This means that one is responsible for what one says; one cannot just blame something on God.
  • Because of what I discovered with Kaufman, I am giving Christianity not another try, but a different try. I will be actively engaged in the process, not just uncritically accepting certain things. In a sense, Christianity exists “outside” the person because it is a social phenomenon. However, Christianity does not exist above and beyond the individual, because it is always embodied and expressed by individual persons. It shows up socially, too, social or political movements. I’m still working out what this even means.
  • I’ve come to realize more and more that I cannot universalize my personal experience and call myself a responsible person. I don’t call what I do “common sense,” “the way things are,” etc. I own what I do, say, and believe to the point that I recognize I have to demonstrate to others how I’ve come to some of my conclusions. I can’t take for granted that people share certain elements of experience with me to come to the same conclusions. And so this gives me room to hear other people’s stories and how they’ve constructed meaning on their journeys and not dismiss them out of hand; those are their experiences, as important to them as mine are to me. True dialogue can occur after each person recognizes this in the other, once we accept that we are not the same, and then attempt to find shared spaces or possibly create them.
  • There’s a world full of religions (one could just as easily say cultures since “religion” and “culture” intersect so seamlessly sometimes) that have worked for peoples to organize their societies. It’s interesting to learn how diverse understandings of religion arbitrate the relationship between church and state, individual and group, secular and sacred, what actually constitutes “religion,” male and female, or beyond binaries in more recent thought.
  • The word “religion” means something obvious to everyone else besides religious studies scholars. Ninian Smart outlined seven elements that most religions of the world have at least some of: doctrine, ethics, narratives/myths, ritual, experience, material culture, and institutions (here is a picture showing the interrelations of six of those dimensions, minus material culture). Some religions will denigrate others for not emphasizing what they emphasize. Some emphasize ritual and minimize ethics and doctrine, while others do the complete opposite. Both wonder at each other as a foreign, exotic “Other,” which is nonetheless wrong. Religion can also be defined in other ways: functionally, essentially, descriptively, and normatively.
  • There are lots of smart people in the world. I no longer feel the impulse to be the smartest in the class or see myself in competition with others to do better. I’ve adopted a more cooperative attitude that feels better. When I treat my classmates as fellow scholars or collaborators rather than as competition, we all benefit. I don’t glean nearly as much as when I share with others and they with me in a dynamic relationship. I just do my best and hope for the best.
  • Facebook and other internet activities waste a lot of my time. So does Netflix. Not to say these aren’t wonderful things in limited quantities, but they kind of contribute to me being a more passive than active person, making my brain feel kind of mushy after indulging for too long.
  • After reading an article by Richard Godbeer (his writing is as cool as his last name sounds), I encountered the idea that discourses of sex are always present in every sex act. One never “just has sex”; one is playing a script, like it fulfills a biological need or emotional desire, acts as a means to bond with a lover, a duty to fulfill, a peak experience with another involved, etc. He was drawing his ideas from Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality in three volumes, some of which I’d like to read this summer. The class I was in, Sexuality and American Religion, has actually given me some ideas of possible minors I’d like to pursue alongside the major of religious studies, like gender or sexuality studies and their presence in religions.

That is all I can think of for now. If I think of other things, I’ll edit this post and add them. Ask questions or comment if you want.

The Difference between a Monologuer and a Dialoguer

I was talking with my dad last week about the benefits of dialogue and its difference from a culture of monologuers. What I mean by that is that many merely pontificate without any thought that they could be wrong. It’s like a choir with everyone singing their own parts dissonantly at fortissimo. This sets up a barrier around the person who sees himself as right and the search for truth. Of the few things I believe in, one doctrine is that no one has life all together, all figured out. If there are two people pursuing truth together and one lone person speaking on a topic, I will typically pick the former. Does that mean I always do that? No, two people can be twice as dumb as just one person. But I think if attitudes are checked, and one wants truth, I believe it is best to do that in a community where presuppositions can be laid bare and analyzed, where systems can be constructed from the ground up, little by little in dialogue and debate. The dialoguer is also different from the typical debater. Essentially the debate consists of two monologuers talking at each other, trying to persuade an audience to one’s side. However, they are not generally known for recognizing strengths in the other’s position or weaknesses in their own. That sets personality above truth, and I have a problem with that. True dialogue consists of two capable minds who respect the other’s contributions, respect their own capabilities, and love to see the sparks fly as they test, rebut, retry, poke, prod, whittle, polish, fell, or sand a topic.

I guess where I’m coming from is my life story of talking with people about theology. A typical conversation would go like this. One person starts with a theological position. Another would say, “That’s dumb. I believe this.” “Oh yah? That’s wrong. I believe thus.” It was a closed circle of argumentation. I don’t know if I could call it argumentation. Systems weren’t tried on for size to see what results might emerge. Weaknesses in logic weren’t recognized, generally because the ability of each was wanting. There wasn’t conversational intercourse. It was a circle jerk but with everyone looking away. Maybe that conjures the wrong picture. But I think it makes the point that most of my experiences with theological conversations were anything but mature adults being honest. Each essentially came to the table with the question, “Does this other person read the Bible the way I do, or think like I think?” If the answer was a negatory, that person had nothing of note to say. They could effectively be pushed to the margins as a heretic or ignoranti (I really don’t think this is a word, but it sounds smart. I don’t feel up to looking it up. Booyah). I was there once. I feel I’m much more open to talking through things with people. There are times, though, when my defenses are up, particularly with someone who is subconsciously other than me. Only when they smack me in the face or say something off-putting do I get snapped back to reality and realize my fallibility. Then I have the opportunity to stop and consider my similarities with the other, and see what we can build together. Maybe that’s a hippie notion, but I think it’s beautiful, and I’m caring less what others think of my opinions these days.