Monday, May 20, 2019

Whole and Nothing But?

(An insistence on) Absolute honesty can be burdensome and hurtful.

Immediately, you may remember being the recipient of cruel or condemnatory honesty. You may, in turn, have opted not to hurt someone with such honesty. In this post, I am more interested in the other side of the coin: in those times where honesty is demanded by a listener who makes a speaker vulnerable.

People have a right to privacy: to protect their inmost selves from scrutiny. Scrutiny is not neutral: it belongs to a viewer, who by definition interprets. Can you trust the way they will 'interpret', or judge, you? How do you know? If you're unsure, you are wise to hold back.

'Honesty' is often demanded by a person in power. A child gets in serious trouble when his parent / teacher / priest finds out he 'lied'. He can in no way command the same level of accountability from them. There is no equality. We would hope that the parent / teacher / priest were benevolent - but .........

Thirdly....the pursuit of honesty takes place in biased, sometimes hostile, contexts. CCTV cameras everywhere might seem ok to those of us who have 'done nothing wrong'. AKA are 'in the dominant group'. Imagine yourself a Muslim in Trump's America, and new camera installations seem far less objective.

Closer to home, an insistence on more honesty can be a sign that something is wrong in a relationship. Can reveal a current of hatred, objectification or need for control.

Freedom to be honest about our deepest thoughts and feelings can aid well-being. The confessional, for all its pitfalls, recognises this. As does its modern-day equivalent (and its pitfalls): therapy. The aim in these contexts is for honesty to be made safe. (Suggesting that it is not always so.)

Honesty can enable listeners to pin onto you their unrecognised issues and responsiblities; to make of you a scapegoat.

When arrested by the religious authorities, Jesus infuriated them by keeping silence. When quizzed by Pilate, he refused to give straight answers. His refusal to be honest did not make him safe but it gave his death great weight. In refusing to be 'honest', Jesus refused to take responsibility for others' interpretations of his words and actions. They had to own it. And, thus, were shown the deeply uncomfortable way towards discovering the truth about themselves.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Am I Free to Go?

It's almost impossible to tell how much any choice I make is independent and how much it is a response to social pressures and influences.

For example, I choose what to wear in the morning but any 'freedom' in that choice is bound up in a context. And people who lose their grip on dress-code conventions are rarely labelled 'free' - more likely, we think they're nuts!

My dominant context as a child was one that valued - possibly above all else - those who made an independent choice to become a Christian. This choice was called Conversion. I grew up in church communities and, more importantly, non-conformist church communities. These got their sense of identity from being different to more hierarchical (such as Catholic) churches, where parents and priests passed faith on to children and they adopted it. In my place, a verbal explanation of one's independent conversion to the faith was a sign of authentic belonging.

I remember, at the tender age of 5, choosing to follow Jesus. This made sense in my context and was a response to social pressures and influences. I saw that a certain decision would lead to acceptance, belonging and respect. Why would I choose otherwise? There is nothing wrong with this: embracing a supportive culture, a tribe, a place to belong, is good.

That said, it is false to claim that my choice was made 'freely' from external pressure. For me, things go wrong when that argument takes hold. When a particular decision to join the tribe is conflated with a step into ultimate freedom, like taking the red pill, people are later held back from journeying past this point. *

My founding tribe is not the same as yours, no doubt. Some are religious; some are family - 'blood ties'; some are about political or intellectual affiliations; some relate to careers. But I suspect that genuine 'conversion' experiences feel similar regardless of context because they always involve loosening ties with your tribe. They are recognisable because we resist them intensely. A profound change feels like threat. It is not an escape or a refuge; it is more like a death. It involves periods of deep uncertainty and sadness; a sacrifice of safety. Conversions are inexplicable; they necessitate leaving your tribe for the wilderness.

Like Eliot's Magi, I expect my path towards the 'truth' will feature hard and bitter agony. I am also pretty sure that I will always have the option to ignore it. The best tribes will never deny the existence of pathways 'out' or insist that those who wish to travel these are deviant, back-slidden.... or nuts.

* (See Fowler's Stages of Faith for one model explaining what comes next.)