Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Puget Sound Civil Religion

Two or three years ago, my wife recommended Life of Pi, an engaging novel about a boy from the Indian subcontinent who finds himself trapped on a life raft with a man-eating tiger. In an entertaining if largely irrelevant opening chapter, the author tells how Pi came to consider himself simultaneously a Hindu, a Muslim and a Christian, falling in love with all three religions independently. The poor Pi felt no sense of divided loyalties, and was unable to understand why his fellow practitioners couldn't sympathize with his sense of universal devotion.

I've always enjoyed this sort of splendid absurdity, so it was with great delight that I recently read a Seattle Times article about an Episcopalian priest who considers herself both a Christian and a Muslim. I've long been wondering whether the Episcopalians were headed into the theological loony-bin, and anything that confirms my prejudices in such a remarkable way could only give me joy. I was even more delighted when I read that her bishop was "excited about the interfaith possibilities" represented by her conversion to Islam. (Remember everything I said about the dangers of feeling self-righteous and superior? I take it all back, at least until this Sunday, when I'll need to repent. There's no way I can pass up an opportunity like this.)

A year or so back, I gave a talk at my church about the "Puget Sound Civil Religion" (PSCR). The PSCR is the religion that is accepted by most folks around Seattle, and is the only religion that's really socially acceptable for us to profess. Its defining characteristic is a "narrow toleration", in that it tolerates nearly any religious point of view which does not commit the faux pas of asserting that other points of view are wrong. Like other religions, it has mythological explanations for the existence of evil ("intolerance"), theological touchstones ("faith"), and institutional expressions (the "New Dimensions" NPR radio show, to take one example). Adherents of the PSCR love the mythology that's grown up around the Gnostic Gospels, though not so much the gospels themselves, as they generally haven't read them. The PSCR takes two possible positions relative to orthodox Christianity: sometimes it acknowledges that Christianity is fundamentally exclusive (and has the guts to criticize it accordingly), but most of the time it insists that Christianity is just another way of describing God, and is as right and valid as, say, Islam or Buddhism.

The Rev. Anne Holmes Redding is a shining example of the PSCR.

The fundamental problem with Seattle's dominant religion, of course, is that in its sincere attempts to be inoffensive, it offends nearly everyone. I'm not offended by a Muslim who insists that Jesus was not divine, nor by a Buddhist who insists that Nothing is Everything (or whatever it is that a Buddhist would really insist on). And I don't even know if I'm precisely offended when the PSCR tries to tell me that I don't really believe what I do in fact believe. But I do feel annoyed.

I want to do Muslims the honor of trusting what they say, and taking them seriously when they say it: by understanding them, affirming what we agree on (which is substantial), and then settling down into a long, pleasant argument over our very real remaining differences. About the only time I feel annoyed is when anyone tries to tell me that those differences aren't real, or are unimportant. I don't think you can be all things. There are some roads which only lead one way.

Lewis could have been describing the PSCR when he wrote, "The attempt [to marry Heaven and Hell] is based on the belief that reality never presents us with an absolutely unavoidable 'either-or': that, granted skill and patience and (above all) time enough, some way of embracing both alternatives can always be found; that mere development or adjustment or refinement will somehow turn evil into good without our being called on for a final and total rejection of anything we should like to retain."

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