May 17, 2007

Understanding Evangelicals: Now What?

I received many thought-provoking comments in response to my recent summary of what I learned about evangelical Christians. In this post, I'd like to follow a particular concern raised in these comments - the idea that learning more about evangelical Christians and what they believe may be of little real-world value in figuring out how to relate to such people.

I should say out the outset that I agree with this criticism up to a point. Understanding what evangelicals believe, why they think they believe it, or even how they acquired or maintain such beliefs, offers little in helping me figure out how to live alongside them. Does this mean that such efforts are wasted? I don't think so.

I find learning about the evangelical mind to be quite fascinating even if it does not translate directly into action. Maybe this is just one of my particular quirks and I should not expect others to share it. I've always delighted in trying to understand the human mind and the many things that can interfere with its optimal functioning. We all make mistakes and commit a number of cognitive errors that can lead to emotional problems or derail our reasoning ability. In the case of evangelical Christians, one can find many such errors. In fact, some appear to be evident in this population that are not usually encountered outside of mental illness. Exploring such minds both satisfies and fuels my intellectual curiosity.

But is this merely a hobby, or might it have some utility? After taking the time to summarize the many comments contributed by evangelical Christians, I had two unexpected reactions. First, I found that I could empathize with them to a degree. By realizing that many of them are motivated by compassion and that some genuinely believe that their proselytizing benefits the recipients, I felt less angry. Don't get me wrong - I despise Christian proselytizing. It is just that it bothers me less if I associate it with benevolent intent than simply extrinsic motives (e.g., earning magic Jesus points). Second, I felt far more sad than I did angry. I found myself feeling sorry for the evangelicals. They really do believe some of the nonsense they spout, and this is terribly unfortunate.

Will this experience teach me how better to live alongside evangelical Christians? Maybe not, but I think that it does help me realize that some of the ways in which I am naturally inclined to behave around them may be counterproductive. Understanding may not take us all the way to where we'd like to be, but it may be a necessary first step.

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