“My fiancée is having an affair with my friend.”
“My pastor was caught having sex with the principal of the Christian school.”
“When my baby came I started going to church. Not because I believed, but because I needed a place where I could sing—a place to express my joy and thankfulness.”
The price of truth-seeking is high. Ask anyone who has walked away from a relationship or a belief that turned out to be false, or whose entire life was changed because they fell in love. And where this thing is central to our self-identity, we do not simply choose what to believe or how to act but must actually—and necessarily—embody who we most truly are, and wish to become.
A philosopher I read called such moments “boundary situations,” situations of intense grief, despair, or love, where the stakes are so high that one cannot but respond with one’s whole self.
1 year ago I moved from a big city to a small rural town, in part because I hoped to find more authentic community here, in part because my pastor friend here seemed enthusiastic about my grad work in philosophical theology. I had hoped to jump-start this process through the summers that I spent here with friends I had had, and through exposure to people in the community through my friends’ church.
However, I came to see that these pre-established relationships were mostly based on who Church people thought I was or, better, what they thought I believed. They were based on them thinking that I was a member of their Christian “tribe.” They weren’t so much accepting me (there was little interest even in who I am or questions about what I believed) as granting me membership, by association.
In small towns I had assumed ignorance to be the main reason that certain, faulty, religious beliefs were held: lack of information and / or lack of better formulations of the information that they have. But after living here for a year I now see that ignorance or, better, complacency about knowledge, also has a social value. It is an important denominator in communal identity.
In other words, where the most important thing in a small town is being part of the community, holding certain beliefs (or sets of beliefs) cements identity and delimit inclusion (and exclusion).
On the one hand, then, the content of a set (or sets) of beliefs is only every generally expressed and is not much at issue. Rather, belief sets indicate which group one is part of, with different groups having different combinations of belief sets with variously different, though general, content. Instead, membership is what counts. On the other hand, attempts to examine (or worse, critique and modify) such belief sets will often be met with staunch resistance, because the issue is not so much what people believe but who they are and how (and whether!) they are rightly related to their fellows.
So the point is not that obtuse or uneducated people feel at ease with other such people. Nor is it that rural people can’t be bothered thinking about whether a given belief is right or wrong. Rather, it is that life is already hard enough and ready explanations and traditional views make life easier, particularly by facilitating bonding between people. So by believing (by and large) what Joe believes I am accepted by Joe. Or more generally, by believing what a group believes, I am accepted by this group.
And in a small community avoiding conflict and maintaining acceptance is crucial (to my identity and, to a certain extent, even happiness and prosperity).
Sadly, because they idolize acceptance, they also disparage conflict (and so avoid dialogue on contentious issues). So tribal churches necessarily orient themselves toward anti-intellectualism (versus critical investigation) and conformity (versus diversity). By thus dumbing-down the process of truth-seeking with respect to the gospel they also trivialize conversion into a mere “decision,” rather than a living encounter with a being toward whom one cannot but respond with one’s entire self.
For how could an encounter with a being who is love be less than a boundary situation?