On Anger, Righteous or Otherwise

A friend of mine has cursed me for an article that I shared on Facebook. When I say "friend," perhaps I should say "ex-friend," clearly not someone who values my friendship sufficiently to engage me further in conversation now that he has formed his opinion of me based on the things that he knows I read. When I say "cursed," I mean f-bombing me. Twice. His final contribution to the exchange we had in Facebook Messenger: "Seriously. Fuck you. Keep score for yourself. I want no part of you."

What, you may be wondering, could a mild-mannered fencing bear have possibly said to elicit such a gut-felt response? It's been a good two weeks now, and I am still trying to figure it out. Oh, I know what we were fighting about: I shared an article by David French, one of my favorite writers from National Review, about the storm then raging over Professor Larycia Hawkins' being put on academic leave from Wheaton College while the administration conferred with her about certain statements she had made about the theological relationship between Christianity and Islam, to wit, whether Christians and Muslims "worship the same God." In sharing the article, I added the following header: "David French, with a brief lesson in some fundamental theological truths. Tolerance is not about pretending that we have no differences. It is tolerating even those whom we are convinced are wrong in their faith." I followed up with a comment: "The real question is what political system can sustain this kind of religious diversity."

Now, to be fair, I was trying to be somewhat provocative, as is my wont as professorial conversation starter, but I thought from my header that it was clear I was on the side of tolerance, my question being what actual tolerance actually means. And, to be clear, I agree with David French that Christians and Muslims do not worship "the same God," the difference being implicit in their very names. "Christians" worship Jesus Christ as the incarnate Second Person of the Trinity, one in Godhead with the Father and Holy Spirit; Muslims insist that Jesus was not God, only man. As the Wikipedia entry on "Jesus in Islam" notes (hardly, one would hope, a controversial source): "Islamic texts regard Jesus as a human being and a righteous messenger of God. Islam rejects the idea of him being God or the begotten Son of God. According to Islamic scriptures, the belief that Jesus is God or Son of God is shirk, or the association of partners with God, and thereby a rejection of God's divine oneness (tawhid) and the sole unpardonable sin." Christians say Jesus is God, Muslims say Christians are wrong--more precisely, blasphemous--to worship Jesus in this way. Bluntly, if Christians worshiped the "same God" as Muslims, they would not worship Christ.*

What, as fallible human beings prone to believe ourselves infallible and anxious when others point out our fallibility, should we do with such differences in faith? My friend was categorical. In the first message that he sent to me having read French's article and discovered the context in which French was writing (which my friend could not have done simply from my post--see screenshot above): "I am thinking of unfriending you again [I can't remember why he did so the first time, but it was a few months ago, most likely over something I had shared from National Review]. You're just too mean-spirited. You have too [sic] make conservative points with your new group of friends, even on the back of a colleague's misfortune. But then, I suspect you are not at all upset with the suspension of a someone who is suspiciously liberal, and a person of color at that. Intellectual freedom is a noble idea when your intellectual freedom is assured. But not for those god-damned liberals." 

When I first read this message, I was flummoxed. What was my friend talking about? All of the other friends who had responded to my post** had taken up the theological question and were engaged in a fairly substantive discussion about how why Christians have found it so difficult to talk about their distinctive doctrines (the Incarnation and the Trinity) and how to deal with these differences in the public sphere. And yet, all that my friend could see was that I was trying to win points with my "conservative friends"(--at last count, about a dozen of my nearly 400 friends on Facebook, some of which dozen I have known either since high school or college, which doesn't really make them "new," which I have tried explaining to my anxious friend, to little avail. He clearly needs to see them as a novel group.) What was going on here? Had I attacked him in some way? Did he not understand the theological question? At this point in the discussion on my Facebook wall I had completely forgotten about the whole Wheaton issue, and it took me some time after reading his message to realize that he and I were talking about radically different things. I saw an opportunity to raise the issue of what it means to hold substantively different beliefs and yet still live together in a civil society; he saw me siding with the enemy because I did not see the issue in the same terms that he did.

The conversation went more or less relentlessly downhill from here. I would try (at least, that was my intent) to explain better where I was coming from, how I really do care about tolerance but that I do not think it helps to pretend that differences between the faiths do not exist--quite the reverse. He would come back with further allegations about how Wheaton was being "petty and defensive and narrow-minded," with the implication that I was simply being bigoted for even raising the question that I did. At one point, I had hope that we were coming to some understanding, when he professed himself an "old radical," inclined to come out with guns blazing when he sees an injustice--at which I thanked him and lauded him for helping me see where he was coming from. But the more I tried to explain where I was coming from, the angrier he got. "You won't think outside your own safe categories," he told me. "A conversation with you can't take place outside your set of acceptable categories." Which, of course, was precisely the point of the article that I had posted. How is it possible to have a conversation with anyone when we do not share the same faith? 

In David French's words:
There is immense cultural pressure to paper over the differences between religious faiths. We live in a fractious, violent world, and people are understandably weary of conflict. But we also live in an ignorant world, where millions know little about religious faith, believe the lie that all faiths are essentially the same, and grow irritated if not furious at the "true believers" whom they see as the source of all conflict. Empty-headed love for "diversity" often depends on false presumptions of core commonalities. What we really want is an easy diversity — where people of all colors and sexual proclivities have essentially the same beliefs. Different religions would simply provide different flavoring, in much the way that salad dressing changes the taste of lettuce. But you’re still just eating lettuce. However, we can affirm our common humanity — that we are all created in the image of God — without papering over our profound differences. Moreover, a truly robust culture of liberty doesn’t depend on common beliefs to protect radically different faith expressions. Americans are fully capable of believing that a faith is false while simultaneously protecting its adherents from persecution and repression.
I am still having a hard time understanding quite how I made my friend so angry. Was it for explaining how hurt I felt by the way in which he had cursed me, insulted me, belittled my friends, and called my arguments stupid? (What he meant by my "keeping score" when I pointed this out to him.) Was it for insisting that the theological differences between Christianity and Islam are real and worth talking about? Was it for the suggestion that it is not pointing to these differences, but rather the unwillingness to allow these differences that is fueling the hate which he sees as rampant in our country? Or was it that I challenged the very narrative of rampant hate by citing the statistics that the FBI has collected about hate crimes, which tend to suggest that Americans are actually extremely tolerant of religious differences, despite what the media tends to report? Or was it simply that I disagreed with him? Yes, and no. As best as I can tell, it was because I did not share his understanding of what was at stake in the conversation about whether Wheaton should stand by its statement of faith (French's position) or not (my friend's position). In other words, it was a difference of faith. For which, it seems, I needed to be banished from his life--ideally silenced***--and cursed.

*Which tends to beg the question of whether they would, in fact, be Christians, but let's not go there for now.
**Well, almost all. One other friend took a similarly anxious position, calling French's argument "sad," and his willingness to broach the differences between the Abrahamic faiths "not surprising" in the present "divide-and-conquer" climate. I could not tell whether this friend had actually clicked through to read the whole article. 
***"Go ahead and read your National Review. But resist the impulse to link that drivel to social media." In other words, I should shut up on my own Facebook feed. By this point in the conversation, I had already honored his original request and unfriended him.

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