So this is freakish. But … well, here it is. I woke up this morning from a dream in which I had been hastily summoned to a crowd that was gathering in a vast hilly meadow of tall green grass. Unprepared, I was wearing pants but no shirt. A Christian-market literary agent I used to know tells me that my turn to speak to the crowd is coming up. I have no idea what he’s talking about—but he’s on to other things.
I move with the growing mass until we come to a makeshift performance platform of dark raw timber. It’s clear that this is where the speaking will be happening. The agent, accompanied by some pastors, reappears at my side. He ushers me around to the back of the platform and tells me that I’m up next. I look at the stage and see that it’s empty. A pretty strong wind starts blowing. I begin to panic. I look out at the crowd to see people of every race and ethnicity waiting for … well, me. My acute anxiety is replaced with a deep sense of peace. These people are good and kind. They aren’t going to hurt or judge me. That’s not what they’re here for. And it’s clear that I am supposed to be speaking, that in the past I must have agreed to speak at this meeting and then forgotten about it.
I spot an old trunk in the grass. Inside are a bunch of clothes that are old but clean. I pull out a worn brown flannel shirt. I put it on. It’s soft, but crazy: the sleeves are unwieldy, the front of two different lengths. While still trying to properly button the thing I resign myself to walking on stage. I have no idea what I’m going to say. But I feel that God is with me, and that I’ll be okay if I just remember that and think of nothing else. I stand for a while dumbly looking out at the crowd. I’m hoping God will give me something to say. I don’t rush it; I can tell the people are okay with me waiting for as long as it takes. This relaxes me; I’m with friends. Still, they’re friends who are expecting me to actually say something. I stop fiddling with my shirt; it’s hopeless. I slowly scan the crowd. This is it; I have to talk. I open my mouth and these are the words that come out:
Every time you look at a newspaper. Every time you watch TV. Every time you go online, there it is: evidence that if people don’t resolve their religious differences we will all fight and kill ourselves until there is nothing left to live for.
So what do we need? How do we solve this problem? Well, what we hear all the time these days is that we need religious tolerance. But do we really? Is that really what we’re after: tolerance? Is our goal to be tolerated? Is anyone’s? No. Who wants to be tolerated? You tolerate a cold, a barking puppy, a wart. You tolerate things that annoy you. To “tolerate” a person is to look down upon them. Nobody wants that.
So what do we do? Because we do, after all, believe that our God is the only God. The best God. The right God. The exclusively right God. There’s no way to believe in God and feel any other way.
Our God is the only true and real God. Ergo, everyone else’s God is a terrible mistake. Everyone who believes in a God who is not our God is wrong.
So when we are talking to someone who does not believe in our God, we cannot help but feel that they are beneath us. Because they are. We have what they need. We are the person they should be.
How could they be so stupid as to believe in their God, we think. So ignorant. So lost. So fundamentally wrong about everything they should be right about?
What a tragedy, we think. How happy they could be if only they knew the one true God.
But they don’t. They are lost to the truth. They are stubbornly lost to the truth. They prefer their ignorant blindness to liberating enlightenment. They prefer their God over ours.
They think we’re the lost ones!
And so on and so on. This is how enemies are made. This is how one group comes to view the other as fundamentally immoral animals.
So how do we solve this ancient problem? How can we not just tolerate someone who believes differently than we do, but actually respect them for those beliefs? Because nothing less than that will do. It can’t. Simply tolerating someone who believes differently than we do isn’t enough. “Accepting” them isn’t enough. Having true and abiding peace with them means loving them. And that means respecting them. Because love without respect isn’t real love at all. It’s at best condescending patronization.
I am a Christian. How do I fully, earnestly, deeply and truly respect the Muslim? The Jew? The Hindu? The Buddhist? The atheist? How do I embrace each one of them with the same respect and love with which I want and even expect them to embrace me?
Here’s how: by telling myself the truth—and reminding myself of that truth, over and over again, for as long as it takes—that what another person believes is none of my business. None. None! The second I start thinking about someone else’s religious beliefs is the second I move out of the realm of my proper concerns and into the realm of concerns that are God and God’s alone. The moment I concern myself with what you believe is the moment that I screw up. That’s the moment in which my claim to be a person of God is shown to be a sham, since I have just proven that I am more concerned with who you are, and with what you believe, than I am with my own relationship with God.
I’ve shown that I’m not a religious person at all. I’ve shown that I’m nothing but a busybody.
If it is not resulting in harm being done to anyone else, then what a person believes about God is entirely, fully, one hundred percent their business. I must resolutely put that area of concern out of my mind. What a person believes about God is a matter between that person, God, and no one else. Anything else is a lie that I tell myself in order to feed my own ego.
Do unto others as they would do unto you? Great! How? By loving them. And how to do that when in your heart of hearts you know that you know God better than they do? By trusting the God whom you love so much to work out his/her/its relationship with everyone else in the world, the same as he/she/it did with you.
Then I woke up. That was the whole dream.
P.S. On a separate but related note, if you’re a Christian disinclined to throw out Jesus with the bathwater, consider joining us over at Unfundamentalist Christians (which for months now has been growing at the rate of 10-40 new members per day.)
P.S.S. Not too long ago I had another dream kind of like this one. See An Open Apology From Christians to Gay People.
P.S.S., etc. I know saying that I had these dreams can’t help but make me seem like I’m trying to … I don’t know, start a cult or whatever. But what can I do? These are actual dreams that I actually have and start typing as soon as I wake up. I just have to trust that most of you know me well enough to know that trying to position myself as Joe Divine Visions, or whatever, is hardly my thing.