Bright Lines

Bright Lines July 17, 2012


You know when you hear a word or phrase you’ve never encountered before, and suddenly it’s everywhere? While listening to the SCOTUS arguments on the health care case, I first heard the phrase a bright line used in its legal definition: “a clearly defined rule or standard, leaving little room for varying interpretations,” as Wikipedia has it. I liked that notion, and could even visualize it. In the months since, it seems I’m hearing it used by news commentators in a slightly different sense, to indicate a clear distinction between two concepts or proposals. From justices to journalists, however, there seems to be agreement that a bright line is hard to find.

I’ve got bright lines on the brain these days, as I struggle to live counter to a culture that doesn’t appear to have many, or to have much respect for those who draw them. Anything Goes is not just a witty Cole Porter lyric anymore, and I don’t only mean that in the shocked, morals-are-collapsing-everywhere tones of the aged curmudgeon I’m terrified of becoming. In politics, in social issues, in relationships, and particularly in the pool of religion and spirituality where we Patheos bloggers swim, anything had damn well better go, or you’re a bigot, an oppressor, ignorant, and out of touch with the real world. 50 Shades of Grey, indeed, but no bright lines, please!

Conservative critics, especially of academia, have made much over the years of the Tyranny of Tolerance, the ways in which thoughtful exchange among those who differ is purposely derailed by accusations of privilege and claims of victim status, examined for evidence of political incorrectness with a scrupulosity usually reserved for clerks of the Spanish Inquisition. I am not a conservative critic—I don’t even want to play one on TV, in spite of my new crankiness—but I’m starting to think they’ve got something. Being Catholic again has suddenly moved me (an old 60s hippie, an erstwhile political liberal, a woman, a person of complicated sexual identities) from US to THEM, from ally to enemy, in so many situations. And after a few weeks spent banging around the threads of the Patheos bloggers’ Facebook page, being tarred with the general brush of Privilege-Majority-Intolerant-Disrespectful by Pagans and Progressive Christians and the Spiritual-But-Not-Religious and even an Atheist or two, I’ve finally figured out why.

I have come home to a Church that is all about bright lines, honoring clearly defined rules and standards that leave little room for personal interpretation—not in all areas, by any means, but in the ones that count. I have come home to a Church that does not tolerate everything and does not apologize for that—but one that, get this, does not mistake tolerance for love and intolerance for hate. I have come home to a Church that is hierarchical in structure and teaching, one that privileges Scripture and Tradition over personal revelation, natural law over experiment, life in its messiness over temporal expediency, the common good over the individual entitlement, God’s will over what I want. In a world of Anything Goes, I have come home to a Church that says No, It Doesn’t.

I understand that this is, increasingly (and even for Catholics), few people’s experience of religion. I am nowhere near, myself, the point of giving joyful, and not merely formal, assent of will and intellect to all of this. I will be in dialog with my Church for the rest of my life, and I look forward to that. It doesn’t leave me much time, though, to engage in the kind of dialog with other traditions that many are asking for—a “dialog” in which, seemingly, I must defend my Church’s teachings and my commitment to them, or apologize for them, or humbly submit to the judgment of others regarding the error of my ways. No disrespect intended, but I send my regrets. I can’t pretend, even for the sake of interfaith conviviality, that I don’t see the bright lines.

So, yes, politically incorrect as it is, I believe Catholicism is true and that its teachings are right. I’m not shopping around, waiting to hear a better deal. That belief of mine is in no way intended to oppress you, coerce you, belittle your beliefs, or even convince you of the rightness of mine. Apologist is not on my resume. If I blog on a topic on which my beliefs differ from yours, or even one in which I have lots more to learn about why my own Church teaches what it does—abortion, say, or marriage, or the male priesthood—or if I share my beliefs in a comment on one of your posts on these topics, I am not doing it to hurt you, or to hate you, or to exercise unjust privilege, or to be intolerant. I am not, on the other hand,  inviting you to tell me what a crock my religion is and how much nicer, smarter, and freer I’d be if I just ditched this medieval nonsense. In this, I suspect (though I have not heard their voices in the conversation yet), I differ little from followers of other bright-line traditions, such as Islam or Orthodox Judaism. Nor is my mind, in perceiving bright lines, closed to other sources of illumination. I interrogate myself, my world, my faith, my presumptions, on a daily basis—not to find fault or to dissent, but to seek deeper wisdom.

I would be interested, I think, in a discussion of the meta-discussion. Is it possible for bright liners and grey liners and no liners to talk to one another at all? Or must we only talk among ourselves? Do we have things to learn from one another’s positions, even when we cannot subscribe to them? Are there some issues we have to keep off the table? (That’s a funny question, when you consider I grew up in a time when it wasn’t considered polite to discuss religion or politics. Now that’s what all my discussions are about.) Must privilege always be used as a stick? Are there times when tolerance is intolerant? Can we stop assuming that “all Christians” think or act one way, any more than “all Jews” or “all Pagans” or “all Muslims” or “all Atheists” do? How do we thread our way through the things that divide us to find possible commonalities? And can we do any of this without name-calling, insult, the imagining of insult, the taking of offense, the lecturing of one another on what our traditions should do or believe? Can we stipulate to the fact that there are bright lines of distinction between us, but that these need not be insurmountable walls? (I ask these questions of myself first, and my sister and brother Catholic bloggers as well.) Do these questions, which began as a reaction to interfaith rumbles, have relevance for Catholics of differing positions, too?

I’m not sure. I’d like to think so. I do know I don’t have the temperament for unresolved and continuous sniping. If we can’t agree to disagree, I’d rather we just found a virtual bar that could meet our diverse proclivities (the Mos Eisley Cantina comes to mind—though I hasten to add I mean that only in terms of its eclectic population, and not because I think we are a wretched hive of scum and villainy!) and just hang out. Have a few laughs. Spin a few tunes. The kind of place where the only bright line worth looking for is the neon script that reads WE’RE OPEN—COME ON IN.

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