Two middle school boys were enjoying a laugh and sharing a sense of superiority as they described how a woman had made a fool of herself by just standing in front of people and waving her arms around. Happily unaware of how much they didn’t know, they were describing the church’s choir director. Their judgment was of the type most absolute and self-assured because it was based upon undisturbed ignorance. It occurred to neither boy to ask what the choir director was doing and how it worked. They did not ask because they knew already all they cared to know. Nothing supports certitude so well as unquestioned ignorance.
So-called social media have become our society’s means for sharing thoughts and opinions. Leaving aside the ease with which these media enable the spread of misinformation and deliberate lies and leaving aside also the nastiness and absurdity in many of the comments made in the constant crossfire between left and right, I see a subtler problem in such easy and rapid communication. For inspiration and even insight, we use memes, a word apparently coined by Richard Dawkins in 1976 to refer to that which is imitated. The meme became an element of culture or behavior passed by non-genetic means, especially imitation, and now refers to supposedly humorous or insightful tidbits passed around the Internet.
I admit that I see memes I appreciate. Some I even “like” on Facebook. But after having scrolled down Facebook’s endlessly replenished succession of postings, I find myself feeling a mental sogginess. Many of the memes I see posted have not even been checked for spelling and grammar let alone for coherence of thought or fidelity to the complexities and struggles of human life. Many pretend to be wise without even being thoughtful. Worse, some pass judgment upon people without any evidence of understanding them. What presents itself as decisive and authoritative is, rather, carelessly dismissive. Suddenly, I am back in the room with two preteen boys pontificating without knowledge about the foolishness of directing a choir.
Because theology continues to be my life’s struggle and quest, I notice especially the pronouncements for and against what people think they know of religious faith. For example:
It’s possible to be a good person without being religious.
God is not real because God cannot be proved.
If it weren’t for religions, we wouldn’t have wars.
Religious people are hypocrites.
All religions are the same.
“Etc., etc., and so forth,” as the king says in the musical.
Consider just the first one: “It’s possible to be a good person without being religious.” I recognize the self-defense here against condemnations from other people or from the speaker’s own conscience, and I sympathize. People who break free from the belief moorings of family or society or just slip loose and drift away get criticized, sometimes condemned, maybe even shunned. But freedom requires good questions asked and pursued if soggy minds and shallow lives are to be avoided.
What is religion, and what is it to be religious? Consider that biblical Hebrew lacks a word for religion. I would take that lack as a hint that we are dealing here with a concept somewhat foreign to the biblical faiths. Most theologians I read use the word religion more often in the negative, in contrast with the life of trust and discipleship lived and shared within communities of faith. The concern of the many and varied books of the Bible is life, not religion, and biblically understood life is created to be relational. The goal is the restoration of our denied relation to God and relatedness with each other and all creation. In contrast, religion has often served in practice as people’s attempts at gaining security from God (or the gods) and as rulers’ means for controlling societies by making the systems in place seem sacred. The God to whom the Bible bears witness cannot be controlled but can be trusted and obeyed in trust. This God disrupts the systems of power, frees captives, cares for the vulnerable, restores the lost, and reconciles the estranged. This God loves the world and will neither give it up nor enslave it.
What is good? This question is not simple, and while simple answers may be helpful (or harmful) as starting points, they will not take us very far without more effort at thinking. Is the good whatever feels good to me? Is it whatever might make me superior to someone else? Is it virtue? Kindness? When he was addressed as “good teacher,” Jesus of Nazareth replied: “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God only.” What is goodness, and what would it mean for me or anyone to be a good person?
What is a person? Am I a person all by myself, such that being a good or bad person could be a self-contained matter of me and me alone? Is it possible for me to diminish or even lose my personhood? Can it be regained or restored? Can the way I am a person be changed, healed, forgiven? Can the person I am be known? Understood? Loved? Can I myself know the person I am? Understand the person I am? Forgive that person? Love that person?
Maybe because I am rereading Douglas John Hall’s book, Thinking the Faith,” I am taking extra notice of the superficiality of our social media conversation-by-meme. Hall writes: “Undoubtedly the existence of God, which is presupposed by biblical religion, is a vital concern for many of our contemporaries; but a much more immediate concern is whether our own existence has any purpose in it!” (326)
Learning comes through asking good questions and pursuing them, not by memorizing answers, let alone by picking the correct answer from a short list of choices. Yes, theology is thinking the faith but as such must not become merely explaining or defending doctrines but thinking life. And thinking life is not at all the same as the modern technological drive to make life artificially legible, manageable, and exploitable but is a matter of wonder that engages us with life and all the living with humility, empathy, and gratitude.
We have lived through a time called modern when we took for granted that we could prove or disprove what were presented as facts and that truth would be the sum of all the proven facts. We let ourselves imagine that the existence of God was the religious question we needed to prove, disprove, dismiss, or just ignore. But what (if anything) does it matter that I exist? What does it matter to me that you exist as you, a person distinct from me? What does it mean that you are distinct from me (a person in your own right) but not unrelated to me (not a person of no concern)? What is it to you and to me that God knows and loves each of us and both of us together, and not only us but all people, all creatures, and the whole of creation? The question is not, “How can I be a good person?” but how are we to keep becoming human in relation to God, each other, ourselves, the non-human creatures, and all of God’s creation? Within that overarching question, I may find and keep finding answers for what it means for me to be a person.