“If we really want to understand in any degree our present situation, we must try to understand better the situation out of which we emerged and which we reject.”
His present attitude was a complete overreaction against his past, one that was handed to him in a way that denied him the choice to accept or reject it. An indoctrination that came pre-packaged, preeminently suppressing what needed to be suppressed. Years later, his attitude toward the world, and particularly toward his tribe, betrayed a deep bitterness and malice, levied at those who led him to believe such thoughtless nonsense.
So every word, every tweet, and social media post was acrimonious and angry. He would rant and rail about social justice, about the misrepresentation of Jesus by white evangelicals (the tribe of his upbringing), and the unnecessary theological acrobatics that many Christians undertake to prop up a particular interpretation of a particular verse or to synthesize ideology and theology. I closely followed his social media posts, looking for every opportunity to pick his claims and opinions apart.
To my frustration, I found myself agreeing with his observations most every time, and our philosophical differences were superficial. This deeply annoyed me. I didn’t want to be associated with this asshole, even in thought. Yes, I found myself agreeing with his philosophical opinions on certain matters important to each of us, but his posture was immature and steeped in the very same ignorance he was self-righteously chiding.
It was like watching one long, deep convulsion, as he violently hurled off a worldview he now believed had been erroneously thrust upon him, and lashed out against its ghost. He genuinely believed, I think, that his acrimony was an attack upon a worldview and ideas, not necessarily those who held such a worldview, but this was clearly false. His questions and remarks were dismissive and sarcastic, and I watched in the battleground of the comment sections as he would, one by one, belittle and berate those with whom he disagreed.
Truth be told, his predicament is not unique. In fact, it’s rather predictable. Countless people―young and old―have ventured through the veil of disillusionment, deconstructing the belief system in which they grew up only to come out on the other side bitter and angry. He is not the first person to renounce the script he was handed, nor is he the first to react violently and intolerably toward those who still uphold such a script. And because of this, much of his evolving behavior, beliefs, and disposition are linear, traceable, and forecasted. Truth be told, the reason I find his predicament so traceable and predictable is because it’s incredibly familiar.
I was him.
And maybe still am.
I can recognize in him―as I have seen in countless others and myself―the internal despair, frustration, fear, and confusion that accompany the process of examining and vacating one’s foundational beliefs: despair and frustration that often spill out into our encounters with others. He and I and others like us often find ourselves the least patient with those from our own tribe, those who still espouse so much of the worldview that we once held dear but have since rejected. What’s more, this churlishness toward those who still hold to the script is understood by too many as an almost constitutional part of what it means to be a progressive Christian. But such an attitude often proves one’s own insecurity more than it does a genuine discontentedness with someone who sees the world differently.
More often than not, the reason we respond with such impatience and intolerance toward those who still carry a familiar worldview we find deplorable is more about us than it is about them. Those of us who have disavow the script we were handed, and for so long believed, tend to tote a deeply embedded sense of embarrassment and shame, unnerved at the idea that we for so long believed and lived in a way that we now find intellectually, theologically, and ethically bankrupt. And every interaction with someone still living in that worldview is a reflection of our past selves, and somehow extracts a chagrin and abashment that some have worked very hard to suppress.
So it is quite natural then, that you and I would berate those people and throw the rock at the mirror. We’re not attacking them so much as we are returning to an unresolved battle with an earlier version of ourselves because, somehow, throughout the process of personal enlightenment, it never dawned on us to let ourselves off the hook. And we have all kinds of reasons for our impatience and all kinds of justifications as to why we should not tolerate such a pedestrian, tribal worldview. And the reasons, the justifications, and the new proof-texts serve as incredibly effective distractions from the elemental reality:
We’re angry. We’re embarrassed. We’re bitter.
So we continue to berate and dismiss and talk under the table those who have come to be the incarnation of an earlier version of me, in some kind of vain, subconscious effort to make up for time lost and fill the void our insecurities have left behind. If you haven’t accepted that life is process and you are a continuum, you are going to continually find yourself seeking recourse and some egotistical solace by way of berating those who are not in the same leg of the journey.
“If we really want to understand in any degree our present situation, we must try to understand better the situation out of which we emerged and which we reject.”¹
Nobody wants to return to puberty. Though I’ve never met someone who isn’t thankful for that awkward, confusing process. No one would prefer to remain in an indefinite state of such a delicate, juvenile period of physical and sexual development. Even so, puberty is assumed essentially good. Not for what it is, but for where it takes us, the new sexual/physical horizon it provides. Few people want to return to the worldview of their yesterday. And virtually no one―like me, like my friend―wishes to return to the pedestrian, tribal, nationalistic, egocentric, fundamentalist worldview that they have long ago abandoned.
But regardless of how we feel about it, that is the backstory to this. That is the “situation out of which we emerged and which we [now] reject.” If this much is true, you won’t understand your present situation until you understand your past. You won’t find peace with your present state until you can find some peace with your past. And there remains one small feature worth celebrating. That was one step in the direction toward this. Which means this is one step in the direction toward an even broader openness to life, love, and meaning.
So take heart.
And let’s stop being assholes.
- Jacques Ellul, The New Demons, preface.