2011-10-15

The Unbearable Tediousness of Denial

Denial is so tedious, isn't it?

I know, I know: there are times when someone says something outrageously false, and it's important to point out that it's false. If someone says that tax rates reached their highest under Clinton, it may very well be worthwhile to point out that during 1944-45, income tax ranged from 23% to a top rate of 94%. OK, that was war-time. But under Eisenhower, income taxes were close to that -- ranging from 22% to a top bracket at 92%. Nixon, Ford, and Carter maintained the same tax brackets from 1971 to 1981: from a low of 14% to a top bracket taxed at 70%. Under Clinton, the top tax rate was 39.6%.

I can see how correcting factual inaccuracies has a place.

At other times, though, it works better to embrace the language rather than keep on tediously denying it. For instance, who wants to put energy into denying the claim that homosexuals are possessed by demons? It's ever so much more effective (and fun) to embrace the claim -- and give it new spin. Like these folks do:


Awesome!

The name "Unitarian" was originally a pejorative term hurled at those who read the Bible with thoughtful attention and didn't find the doctrine of the "trinity" supported. When we decided to go ahead and embrace the term, we took the sting out of it.

The cross, as used in crucifixion, was a symbol of disgrace in Roman-occupied Palestine. The early Christians embraced the cross and turned it into the symbol of the identity they were proud of -- thereby rendering it unavailable as an insult.

You might be concerned about the way that evangelical, fundamentalist religion uses claims about God to promote exclusion, hate, violence, and injustice. So what's the best way to resist?

Strategy 1: Take the stand that there is no God.

Strategy 2: Take the stand that God calls us to love and justice.

Notice that the guy with the sign isn't locked in to a commitment to the independent objective existence of demons. He's just going with the metaphor. You may think that God is a fictional character. Fine. Fictional characters say and do a number of things: Oliver Twist asked for more gruel, Scarlet O'Hara coped with the Civil War, and Beowulf fought Grendel. Those are all true. Maybe you want to say that "God calls us to love and justice" is true in the same way, and maybe you want to say it's true is some other way. Either way, it's true.

Moreover, consider the set of things that are all fairly close to the center of what "God" has meant in Western religious traditions:

  • a source of beauty and mystery;
  • a power inspiring gratitude, humility, wonder, and awe;
  • an ultimate context and basis for meaning and value;
  • the widest reality to which our loyalty is owed;
  • a basis of ethics.
  • a person-like entity (person-like insofar as having knowledge and desires);
  • an entity with supernatural powers

Even if we were to dispense with the last two items, we may still want to refer to the source and context from which we experience beauty, mystery, gratitude, humility, wonder, awe, meaning and value. "God" is the traditional word for so referring. We don't all have to have exactly the same conceptions of "cat" or "water" in order to say things to each other about cats and water.

Better to take the language that's out there and go with it. It's more rational, more effective, more creative and fun.
(Isn't "Demons of awesomeness" a lot more alive than "Humbug. There are no such things as demons"?)

Sometimes Identity gets in the way of rational and effective. Some folks have built an identity for themselves as "a person who denies the existence of God." Strategy 2 would feel like a betrayal of the identity in which they are so heavily invested -- no matter how ineffective and even irrational that identity may be. I understand that identity isn't about rationality. The very tediousness of denial can become a point of pride. It may be creatively stultifying, but it offers a kind of security in identity.

I don't mean to disparage strategies of identity. I, too, need to know who -- and whose -- I am. I'm not suggesting pretending to be identity-less. I'm suggesting that we take on the identity as "those who affirm that the ultimate context and basis of meaning and value inclines toward love and justice" instead of the identity as deniers.