Back in 2011 NPR ran a series on “fractured culture,” in which Laura Sydell pointed out that “Facebook and Twitter can act as echo chambers where you interact primarily with others who have similar interests and politics,” and Elizabeth Blair reminded us that the multiplicity of media options means there is no longer one dominant cultural conversation. The effect is to isolate us in groups that reflect our own biases and preferences.
We Christians are in no position to point fingers. Along with segments on fantasy gamers and hip-hop listeners, NPR included a program devoted to Christian youth. We too have gone our own separate way. It’s getting harder and harder to know and understand others outside our own group.
One sadly ironic effect is that this makes us more susceptible to one of the few moral flaws everyone agrees is wrong: stereotyping. I’ll offer a couple examples, though I’m sure you could come up with your own. Someone told me recently on an Internet forum,
“You Christians are seriously obnoxious. ‘Waaah I’m hurt because someone used science and logic against me.’ Grow up.”
No, actually it’s not true that we Christians are all threatened by science and logic. The suggestion is both wrong and demeaning. But it’s not just unbelievers who do this. I’ve seen sentiments like the following far more frequently than I would care to admit:
“Why would you expect _____ to tell the truth? He’s an atheist.”
Need I say it? It’s just wrong, and highly offensive, to expect someone to be a liar simply because he’s an unbeliever.
These examples illustrate the way stereotyping distorts our image of other groups. That’s not the worst thing about it, though. It’s the way it treats people as undifferentiated specimens of these distorted group images, rather than as genuine human persons. The less we know of other persons, the easier it is to see them as hazy representatives of our beliefs about them, rather than who they really are.
Shortcuts, and Shortcuts to Shortcuts
Now, to a certain extent this is just fine. We can’t know everyone fully, after all. So if I meet a woman in a clinic wearing a white coat and a name badge with M.D. on it, I can assume—without detailed inquiry into her whole life history—that she is qualified to treat illnesses. Or if I run across a teenager sitting on the curbside, wearing earbuds and tapping his foot, I can be confident he’s not listening to Benny Goodman. I could be wrong in either case, but it’s not likely. Social psychologists call this sort of group processing a heuristic (meaning useful or helpful) shortcut.
The problem comes when we take shortcuts to our shortcuts, first of all by believing things falsely about other groups: for example, that Christians are threatened by science and logic. And when we take the next step toward believing that our less-thought-through group shortcuts work for all individuals in the group—that the particular atheist we’re talking to must be dishonest just because he is an atheist, for example—that’s when it turns into cutting persons short. It’s not just incorrect, it’s dehumanizing. It’s immoral. It’s wrong.
In Contrast, A Caring Approach
There is no better corrective to this than spending time in authentic relationships with members of “other” groups. And for Christians, I believe there is no better example or teacher of this today than Doug Pollock, author of “God Space: Where Spiritual Conversations Happen Naturally.”
I became friends with Doug after my family moved to Ohio last year and began attending the same church he attends. My wife and I took part in a community group studying “God Space,” and in it we learned Doug’s guidance on forming genuine human-to-human relationships with “not-yet believers,” as he calls them.
If there’s one key to Doug’s teaching, it’s caring enough about the other person to wonder about their lives: to ask them good questions about themselves, their beliefs, their reasons, and whatever else may be important to them. Don’t misunderstand, it’s not a technique or method: It’s really about caring enough.
And so it was that Doug invited a couple of atheists to share the platform with him the other day at a Christian conference. He wanted to give the Christians there some much-needed practice in listening to people with whom we don’t agree. And so it also was that I found myself enjoying lunch the next day with Doug and the two of them. We did indeed differ on certain things. We agreed on other things. I found I have professional interests in common with both of them, and we agreed to pursue them together as opportunity allows.
Friend of Sinners
Now I have to explain for you my feelings after having written that. I’m worried. I’m worried that some readers will object to Doug’s inviting atheists into a Christian conference environment. I’m worried that some will warn me against being “unequally yoked with unbelievers.” I’m worried that some will be concerned about Doug and me agreeing with atheists on anything at all.
But I’m not that worried, recalling that Jesus Himself was a “friend of sinners,” and it was His loving openness that attracted so many to Him. If He could take the scandalous risk of associating with tax collectors and prostitutes, I can certainly afford to be a friend with a management consultant and a Navy veteran.
There are, as always, worldview implications here. I want to focus on just two of them, and I want to focus on atheists, not because they’re the only “other” group we deal with, but because this experience is fresh in my mind, and also because our cultural distance from atheists is about as large as any we could imagine, at least among persons born in the same country.
My first thought on worldview, then, has to do with the question, what is an atheist, after all? I mentioned that Doug calls them “not yet believers,” expressing the hope that through friendship and the sharing of truth, the Holy Spirit might bring them to belief. An atheist is someone who (like us) needs Jesus Christ.
On the other hand (and this is my second worldview point), we have all been “not yet believers” at some point in our past, if not currently. Christians and non-Christians have that in common, and a lot more besides. We are equally created in God’s image, we are equally loved by God, we are equally involved in the hopes and struggles of life, and we stand equally in need of God’s goodness and grace.
Defragmenting through Authentic Friendship
It is this latter point that provides the basis for friendship. Too often we Christians have based our relationships on the former point instead: the hope, indeed the attempt or even the project of converting the unbeliever. That’s a great hope and a great thing to try for, but it’s a lousy basis for friendship. Friendships aren’t based on differences or attempts to change the other person. They’re based on what we have in common.
Not only that, but every one of us can tell when someone is coming at us with an agenda. It makes us wary. We find it hard to believe the other person has our best interests at heart. We raise barriers, so that even if the other person is offering us something as pure and genuine as the gospel of Jesus Christ, we’ll find it hard to accept it as a pure and genuine offering.
It seems like we’re all raising barriers these days. It’s a natural effect of contemporary culture—and a very negative one. Polarization and stereotyping do none of us any good. If we believe God created each of us in His image and loves each of us equally, we ought to be the first to reach out in genuine friendship, cross over cultural barriers, and engage with others as the real people they really are.
Some of them may ask us to share the truth of Christ. Some of them may come to faith. Whether they do or not, we will have expressed His love to them. And we will have taken at least a small step toward defragmenting our world.
For Further Reading:
Doug Pollock, “'Wondered' into Anyone's Heart Lately?” Outreach Magazine, July/August 2005.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia.
Tom Gilson is the national field director for Ratio Christi, the chief editor of “True Reason: Christian Responses to the Challenge of Atheism,” and the author/host of the Thinking Christian blog.