Trying to understand the missionary’s position
I wrote this earlier this evening under my dailykos pseudonymn. Predictably, it died a quick and anonymous death. So it goes. It ties tangentially into an earlier blog here about a gospel revival, and so I’ll rescue it from one oblivion to place it in a second oblivion. And then contemplate my own…
If you came to visit my home, you would find yourself surrounded by religious artwork. Some of it, along the hallway to the bathroom, is visionary yarn paintings made by Huichol Indians. But most of our walls are covered conventional American folk art (or outsider art, or art brute) filled with visions of heaven and hell, and the roads between.
If you came to my home on Sunday morning, there’s a fair chance you’d find my family at church and me working to the sounds of classic gospel music: Swan Silvertones, Fairfield Four, the recent Como Now compilation of contemporary semi-pro singers from Mississippi.
If you asked me why I had these things on the wall, those sounds on my stereo, I would respond simply that I liked the work, that I like the certainty of it, and the depths of its passion.
My relationship to the message?
In the end, I took “The Bible as Literature” my final quarter of college because I knew that in order to pretend to some kind of cultural literacy I had actually to read the book, and was quite certain that only the discipline of a report card would compel me to do so.
If you asked me about my faith (and never mind that people don’t talk about such things anymore, at least not unless they already know the answer), my pat answer is that sometimes one must appreciate the grandeur of creation, and I do that. Otherwise, the rules to me seem simple: Treat others as you would with to be treated.
The rest? The rest are rules, and excuses, and keys to exclusive clubs to which I do not wish to belong.
I will come to the missionaries, please bear with me.
My father-in-law, who has a Ph.D. in some form of psychology and enough native wit to overcome that, once riffed in heavy traffic that he thought most wars — or at least those wars which were transparently motivated by grabs for land and resources — could be explained by man’s innate need to prove that God The Father loves him best. (And, yes, that’s an intentionally masculine construct.)
Part of what I do for part of a living these days involves managing a handful of eager young Baptists. I am old enough to be their parents, they don’t know my music, they don’t get my jokes, and I don’t understand a world in which one’s relationships are updated on Facebook. But they’re nice kids, and I find myself challenged to work with people who are not rebels. Lessons are where one finds them.
Three traveling speakers came by a week or two back. Just out of college, sharp, polished. They represent an organization which seeks to connect college kids with missionary zeal with organizations who can use them, if I overheard correctly.
(A digression: Years ago, now, my wife was transitioning into teaching and went to substitute at a nearby high school with an uncertain religious affiliation. The principal/soccer coach interviewed her, briefly. “What kind of school is this?” she asked. “Christian,” he answered. “But we have some Jews, Muslims, and Catholics here, too.” “Uh, Catholics are Christian,” she demurred, for she was then Episcopalian and one of her best friends was becoming a priest. That was the end of that.
(A few weeks later she was in the admissions office of a Christian university which proved best able to give her the class she needed to finish her teaching certificate. Her meeting was delayed while the office said goodbye to a missionary heading off to Brazil to convert Catholics to their form of Christianity.)
Back to the present…I listened casually as one of the speakers interviewed one of my employees. The speaker’s command of contemporary sales techniques was striking, and elegantly applied. They spoke of going to godless places like Eastern Europe and Asia, of bringing the word to atheists and Buddhists alike.
As the conversation wore on, I found myself increasingly uncomfortable. These were nice people, smart kids, well-intentioned, and devout. They believed in ways which are simply impossible for me, and they believed deeply in things which I find unnecessary or unbelievable, or both.
I wish to respect their beliefs.
I wish even to honor the certainty of their faith.
But I am profoundly troubled by the suggestion that one human being has a closer connection to God than does another, that one religious sect — irrespective of its beliefs — is in sole possession of the truth, has glimpsed the roadmap to heaven, reads the one true divine word, all that. Speaks directly to God. Speaks for God directly to the rest of us, who will suffer untold punishments (or oft-told punishments) should we fail to come to share their belief.
Missionaries of various faiths go all over the world (I once worked with a cross-dresser who had been a Morman missionary in Northern Ireland; he had stories, but I got too few of them…). To varying degrees their work is supported by the U.S. government, if only that support means that our military and diplomatic forces will generally bail them out of things go bad. My hunch is that the previous administration had a more hands-on approach, but it doesn’t matter.
These people, they go out into the world and they are Americans, they are perceived to speak for all of us (or so I would imagine), and no matter what other good works they do seeking to heal the sick and bring fresh water to the village, they also carry with them the certainty of the truths they believe revealed to them.
I wanted to stop the conversation I was overhearing and ask: How can you be so sure? What gives you the right? Why would you with to take away the faith of a Buddhist or a Muslim or, even, a Catholic? To challenge that faith with yours?
And what if you’re wrong?
I accept that I am wrong, and wrong about too many things. And that I have probably failed even to ask the question I meant to pose tonight.
So it goes.