Few books in the medieval world made a splash like Bernard of Clairvaux's "On Loving God." In it the Cistercian monk unravels the intricate nature of loving God. The degree to which he, as the author of such a book, could also become a co-opted preacher for the miserable Second Crusade is perplexing. Bernard is a dizzying example of the complexities of religion; he is a reminder that a faith can be as diverse and inconsistent as those that embrace it.
When it comes to the Crusades, these are the voices we tend to remember most. The moderates -- and there were some -- tend to vanish into the woodwork. After all, Westboro Baptist Church's protests and Ann Coulter's outrageous outbursts will always get the most headlines.
But why do discussions of religion often result in uncivil behavior? Why is it so hard for many of the religious and the non-religious to engage each other peacefully? How could Bernard deeply embrace the theological notion of love, while simultaneously endorsing violence toward his fellow human beings?
While I try to keep an understanding voice, there are beliefs, ideas and individuals that can push my buttons -- and I have plenty of buttons. The boundary between being open to others and being justly offended by the bad beliefs they hold is not always clearly demarcated. Even so, there are a few points I try to keep in mind -- like notes on a refrigerator -- when engaging others. I hope that these not only direct me from leaps of rash judgment, but also keep me a critical thinker.
I should not judge a whole group by the beliefs of one individual. For example, many evangelicals believe that women must not be pastors, deacons or sometimes even ushers. In fact, evangelical John Piper, who actively opposes feminism, recently stepped into controversy when on his podcast he said that a man could read a commentary by a woman. His enlightened explanation? Books, after all, put a woman "out of my sight and in a sense takes away the dimension of her female personhood."
His response, however, hardly represents all evangelicals. For example, the evangelical magazine, Christianity Today, published a response by Rachel Pietka challenging Piper's problem with female personhood called, "Hey John Piper, Is My Femininity Showing?" As much as Piper's position is offensive, I would be remiss if I said he represents all evangelicals.
It is also possible that a position represents the majority in a religion. This may feel like a contradiction of the first, but it's not. While I would not want to assume that every evangelical believes X or Y, it is also true that there are practices and beliefs that represent the trends of the majority.
According to the 2011 Pew Global Survey of Evangelical Protestant Leaders, 96 percent would say that "Christianity is the one, true faith leading to eternal life." There may have been 4 percent somewhere else on that issue, but the sheer numbers mean that if you are talking with an evangelical leader, they are likely in the majority position.
Sometimes individuals act and believe in ways that appear inconsistent with their religion. There are several possible reasons for this. Outsiders can misunderstand the beliefs of others, or adherents may be inconsistent in practicing a religion.
For example, a very recent Pew Survey of the world's Muslims shows that a global median of 85 percent say that "wives should obey their husbands." What is interesting is that 53 percent say that "women should have the right to decide whether to wear a veil in public." One might assume that wearing a head-covering automatically goes with submission, but this is not necessarily the case.
Similarly, a Reformed Calvinist I know insists that human beings are totally depraved sinners, but also opposes most market regulation, arguing for the natural goodness of an absolutely free market system. While I would think that one belief does not go with the other -- since if you cannot trust people to do good why would they in a free market -- these oddities exist.
Unlikely beliefs do not a simpleton make. There are beliefs that appear to me as clear vestiges of an ancient world. The traditional idea of Christ's ascension, as I've written here before, belongs to a pre-scientific cosmology. But does that mean one must be crazy or naive to believe it?
In an interview on Al Jazeera with Mehdi Hasan (political director of The Huffington Post UK), Richard Dawkins expressed serious concern about anti-scientific religious beliefs. "If you actually believe that Muhammad flew to heaven on a winged horse, that's an anti-scientific belief." He was stunned when Hasan affirmed his belief in it. "I'm fascinated by how ... a respected, sophisticated journalist in the 21st century could believe that a prophet flew to heaven on a winged horse," responded Dawkins.
In a subsequent discussion on Twitter, it was clear that while Dawkins saw Hasan as a "nice guy & good writer," he could not wrap his head around the apparent disconnect he felt over Hasan's unscientific beliefs. Whether it is Dawkins, Christians opposed to Westboro Baptist, Christians who reject young earth creationism, or different faiths opposing each other, at some point everyone can name a religious belief they find absurd or unlikely held by someone they otherwise find articulate and intelligent.
Evil and good in the name of religion is a very complicated thing. It may be easier to label individuals who hold beliefs we are repulsed by as "bad" or "evil." "That's not a true Christian," one might say to protect Christianity. Not liking a belief or action, however, does not mean I can claim it isn't true religion.
It is here that I think things get the most complicated. Do I blame the person or the religion? Are either inherently good things spoiled by the other? I can't say that I've discovered a full-proof way of looking at this, but I do know that evil and good, and the motivations behind them, are complicated things to unravel.
It makes sense when I see an unpleasant or angry individual gravitate toward beliefs that help satisfy that temperament. Do those beliefs inherently attract bad behavior? I recognize, however, that nice individuals also hold to beliefs often labeled bad. There are bad people, but surely there is also bad religion. It just does not appear to be as easy as a label.
As Kelly J. Baker notes in her recent piece ("Evil Religion?") at The Christian Century, "White supremacy negated the presence of 'authentic' religion. Labeling Klan religion as false became a method to claim that religion was by definition not associated with movements that were hateful, dangerous, disreputable or even unsavory." She continues:
Marking religion as good or bad might reassure us about our own choices, but it doesn't explain anything about how religion functions in the lives of people. What's more, it often obscures the complicated place of religion in our historical and current worlds. False or true, evil or good -- these are normative claims, not analytical ones, and they simplify the fraught complexity of human lives that are often mired in violence.
Lastly, advocating my position does not mean I have to treat others poorly. In my recent interview at The Discarded Image with Chris Stedman, author of "Faitheist," I asked: "Should atheists engage in activism for atheism? If not, does that say something about the value of being an atheist?" His response stood out to me, "You can be an activist and an advocate for your own beliefs without making the elimination of others your priority."
I admire this ideal. Being an educator, I do want individuals to discard faulty and dangerous beliefs, but I find that they are more likely to do so if what I do allows them to arrive at the conclusion on their own. Maybe that line is not always easy to find, but it is worth pursuing. The Golden Rule, for me, is essential in making that happen. If I wouldn't want to be bullied, then I shouldn't do it myself.
When someone asks me about the way I see the world, I'm certain that they will think I'm inconsistent and maybe even absurd; but when attempting to discern whether I'm evil or good, I hope they give me the same breaks I'm going to try to give them. The world would be much better if we were Bernard, the Cistercian monk who believed in love, rather than the Cistercian monk who preached the Crusades.
Follow Brandon G. Withrow on Twitter: www.twitter.com/bwithrow