Recently, the Atheist Greta Christina in the progressive magazine Alternet, offered another complaint about us theologically minded progressives. Her argument: we “cherry-pick,” and we’re not allowed to. Her reason: because there is no God.
Now I admit, I’ve heard this before. Traditionalist Catholics call some of us “cafeteria catholics.” They call Episcopalians, “catholic-lite.” It’s meant to be insulting, but it merely exposes a broad misunderstanding of the tradition and how it was actually lived.
For Greta, along with plenty of Catholics and fundamentalists, doctrine is necessarily rigid and static. But this merely reveals an ignorance about how the tradition evolved. So she argues Atheists are allowed to argue and debate, and religious people aren’t. Because they’re religious.
But this gets some of the history wrong.
Doctrine has always been created through arguing, debating and criticizing – “cherry-picking.” It’s how thinking gets done. In spite of the caricature of Monolithic Christian Tradition, the evidence is that there has never been. Traditions contradict themselves. And the more diversity a religious tradition fosters, the more likely people will have to tools to think independently. That diversity is a strength.
Secondly, although she frets over religion’s fuzziness, the search for truth looks a lot like a religious enterprise. For many believers, “God” is Truth, not merely an object to be worshiped. A scientist’s will to do the work of collecting data does not look much different than a monastic collecting wisdom and information.
Further, religions change over time, because contexts change. To her, this demonstrates God’s non-existence. But for progressive believers, engaging these texts allow us to remember a past that says something about who we are and our own precarious existence.
Religion is not merely doctrine. It is more like a language or music. Some say the words because it makes people feel better, and some would argue that the work of religious institutions make the world a little bit more humane. But to make grand claims about the imaginary snark called “religion” will miss the mark because they will be imprecise and often inaccurate. She uses a sledgehammer when progressive Christians prefer a scalpel.
It may be that the experience of a Progressive Christian is less hearing the voice of the great God named “Stop!” and more like hearing a compelling song. And as Bob Dylan put it, we believe what the song says. For her the song is devoid of content, ugly and unbearable. For us it speaks the truth. And if it not the truth, then it at least keeps us moving.
It profoundly bothers Greta that some people believe in evolution, sexual equality and gay marriage, also willingly participate in religious institutions. In a fit of puritanical judgment she implies that such reasoning is deeply immoral, rather than possibly interesting, insightful, or even fun.
But “cherry-picking” is not the crime she suggests or evidence of hypocrisy. It is instead evidence of critical thinking, of a nascent ability to distinguish between some possibilities while also connecting others. It demonstrates a willingness to live in a world where there are contradictions, where individuals are imperfect, and where even those who believe wrong things may have some insight and wisdom, even if by accident.