As someone who spent a significant amount of my life in conservative Christian circles, I understand how sheltering a religious bubble can be. When you grow up having a certain set of views, it can be intimidating to hear ideas and opinions that seemingly go against what you grew up believing. In my youth, it was especially evident in who I chose to associate with in high school. I think the easiest people to be friends with are those we agree with on almost everything. But there comes a point when the groups we associate with turn into echo-chambers. I think we tend to seek affirmation for our ideas and thinking among those who think the most like us. While I see nothing wrong with having affirming friendships, I do believe the longer we remain complacent in a group-think mentality, the more difficult it can be to hear opinions and ideas that challenge our own.
I struggle with expanding my comfort zone and the art of fruitful conversation just like everyone else. When you hold a set of values or beliefs close to your heart, it’s difficult to let external criticism roll off your shoulder. When we hear ideas that make us uncomfortable, our guards automatically go up. It can also be easy to react defensively or go into ‘attack dog’ mode. It can sometimes feel like an attack on your character or identity, or at least that’s how it feels for me sometimes. I imagine it may feel the same way for most other people as well.
Because I’ve spent significant time in both Catholic and Evangelical circles, I talk about the cultural and theological aspects of both camps quite freely. But since I tend to be critical in my observations, I understand that rubs people the wrong way sometimes. And when others (namely friends and family) are critical of my own views, I find myself going on the defensive.
When it comes to religion, I think people take great offence when they see or hear their deity (or deities) being mocked. I imagine those who aren’t religious would take a similar offence when they are told their absence or lack of belief will land them in the hot place. Christians particularly look to Jesus as the source of their identity, whereas those who are non-religious tend to look more within themselves to find their worth. Because the ‘source’ of a person’s worth is often disputed, it’s easy to take offence when you feel like the person you’re talking to is dissing where your worth comes from. The act of proselytizing can make a conversation unenjoyable and quite exhausting.
I find it lamentable how discussion over religion and politics in polite company has often been frowned upon. I think it’s a fair assessment that one of the contributors to the polarization of our current political climate is due to how such discussions have become socially taboo. This is one of the reasons why I love Patheos.com as a platform for religious and political discussion — and even more so now that I’m writing for them. It’s a chance to wander and explore conversations between different schools of thought, and it challenges my own worldview in a way that it helps me understand others better, changes my preconceived notions I once held dear, or strengthens my faith even more so than ever!
As much as I want to encourage people to be friends with those they disagree with, this doesn’t mean they have to associate people who would potentially force them to compromise their values or safety. I think there are cases where boundaries need to be put in place. For instance, I don’t think someone of Jewish or African descent needs to associate with a white supremacist. Or an Orthodox Christian to associate with a member of ISIS. Or even a member of an LGBTQ group with a fundamentalist from Westboro Baptist Church. As much as we are taught to love our enemies, sometimes the most loving thing we can do is to put distance between us and such people so as not to provoke a potentially harmful confrontation. Not all confrontations can be resolved over coffee or sitting around a campfire singing Kumbaya. But to those who are brave enough to put themselves out there and discourse with people they are diametrically opposed to, I applaud you!
This leads me to bring up what Christians call being unequally yoked. Many Christians will suggest that you shouldn’t get married, start a business or even associate with people who does not share the same values. I do agree any factor that makes it difficult to maintain a relationship ought to be considered, such as difference in religious belief. I think the extreme of this mentality would be to have absolutely nothing to do with anyone with even slightly different values or upbringing, such as opposing mixed-racial relationships. Given that we do not choose who our coworkers, classmates or neighbours are, I think having ‘nothing to do with them’ goes against the very character of Jesus. Even He dined and conversed with tax collectors and prostitutes. It doesn’t mean people with different values cannot be friends.
My life in particular has been a crazy (yet amazing) adventure in meeting new people and building new friendships. I went from growing up in a rural Catholic community to having a largely Protestant group of friends as a young adult. Nowadays my closest friends identify as Catholic, Evangelical, atheist, progressive Christian and agnostic — and I am most grateful that we can be open about our beliefs and still enjoy each other’s company.
My biggest hope is that I can continue to maintain these friendships and encourage everyone to do the same. Because you never know, the power of friendship and conversation could collectively change the world.