Saturday, October 15, 2011

I'm Such A Tolerant Guy...Or Am I?

Today I find myself in a crowded Starbucks sipping on a free grandé coffee when I asked for a tall coffee which would have probably cost me just under $2. I'd mention the barista's name, but wouldn't want to get her into trouble. She's the best.

What feelings come up for you when you hear the word "tolerance." Is it a positive word for you or does it grate on your nerves on just how tolerant of a society we seem to have become here in North America (well, in Canada at least).

Tolerance used to be a dirty word for me when I was growing up as a conservative Christian. I was tolerant of others...if they fit into my picture of who they should be and how they should believe and how they should act. Therefore, I was not tolerant of people such as Muslims, Buddhists, atheists, and certainly not gays (AAAAHHH STAY AWAY FROM THE GAYS!) (Funny side story: When I was a little kid I was so uninformed when it came to sexuality that I would sometimes worry when sleeping in the same bed as another boy that I would end up getting AIDS. True story.)

Fast forward to 2011 and 10 years removed from conservative Christianity and I love the word tolerance, and I like to think that I am quite the tolerant person. In fact, I seem to be so tolerant, that my brother Dave (who I'm very thankful to have in my life) once asked me "You claim to be tolerant of every kind of belief out there, but not my evangelical beliefs. Isn't that a contradiction?" I've been thinking about that question lately, and will attempt an answer.

It is true. Today I am tolerant of quite a lot and I am proud of that. I would say that I am tolerant of gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgendered persons, etc, but I am not just "tolerant" of them. They are important friends in my life who are no different from myself, though the struggle continues for many of them to be fully accepted in our society. I say this often, but I often find members of the LGBT community to be some of the kindest, warmest people I know. I am thankful. And I would ask some people who rail against gays and homosexuality this question: "Have you actually ever met a gay person, and if so, have you taken the time to actually build a friendship with them?" I know someone who will not watch Ellen DeGeneres or Rosie O'Donnell because they're lesbians. I am tempted to ask them if they're confident that the couch they're sitting on was manufactured by a straight man, or if the burger they're eating was put together by a heterosexual woman. God forbid a gay had some part of they're day!

And then there's religion. As I mentioned before, for about 21 years of my life, I considered every Buddhist, Muslim, Jew, atheist, Hindu, etc to be not only wrong but on their way to that fiery place known as Hell (which shall only become abnormally chilly when the Toronto Maple Leafs next win the Stanley Cup). Again, I really didn't know any Muslims, Jews, or Hindu's. I stayed within my Christian circle of friends and within a Christian sub-culture and was quite isolated from those who believed differently. Fast forward to 2011. I still strongly believe in the Divine, but I believe there are infinite ways to connect with and understand that Divinity. Some take the path of Buddhism, some Islam, some Judaism, some Christian, some Wiccan, and the list goes on and on. We honour all of these paths at my spiritual community (I hesitate to use the word church anymore). I believe that the diversity within humanity is such a wondrous thing, and that as we encounter those with different beliefs then we have, we learn more about life and have an opportunity to share stories. In the end we are all one I believe.

So, I like to think that I am tolerant of a whole lot of things. But are there limits? I've come to this answer: Yes, yes there are. Does that make me a hypocrite? Some may say yes, but I don't think so.

It's easy to say that you don't tolerate certain things. Like when a certain religion finds it perfectly alright to lash people with whips as punishment for so-called crimes, or when acid is poured into people's eyes. Or stoning. Or the subjugation of women, or the imprisonment of homosexuals.

But how about the conservative Christianity that I grew up practising? They don't stone people, they don't whip people as punishment. They don't throw acid in people's faces.

But then it becomes a bit murky. Many conservative churches preach against homosexuality because of roughly 5 passages in the Bible, and it is often considered the "worst sin" (oh my God, you put what where?) It's the terrible highlighted sin that abortion used to be back in the 80's (which most would still consider a terrible sin), and the thing to yell about such as when The Lord's Prayer was taken out of the public schools years ago. Many of these Christians like to tout the literalness and totality of the Bible, yet many attend churches with women pastors, women teachers, and women on the board. Yet what does the Bible say? 1 Corinthians 14:34 clearly states: "Women should be silent during the church meetings. It is not proper for them to speak. They should be submissive, just as the law says." Also, women should not be in leadership over men. this a verse to conveniently overlook, while having a temper-tantrum over the gays? (I should say here that there are still many Christian churches who DO NOT allow women in positions of leadership; it is an ongoing battle.)

So I guess you can put two things on the list of things that I am intolerant of:

1) Any inequality shown toward the LGBTQ community.
2) Any inequality when it comes to women.

Let's see what else we can come up with.

I strongly believe that ALL people EVERYWHERE have direct access to the Divine and that there are infinite valid pathways to experience this Divinity. Conservative Christians point to certain scriptures, namely "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me" to affirm that only followers of Jesus are acceptable to God and will make it through the pearly gates. Firstly, there are MANY different interpretations of that particular verse, and again, I believe many ways to take the Bible other than just literally. But in doing this, conservative Christians exclude millions of people from the richness of a spiritual life - which may look VERY different than the Christian version. Instead, these people are most likely headed to hell. So let's add a couple more to my list of things I'm intolerant of:

3) The assertion that there is only one way - my way - to experience the Divine.
4) The abhorrent belief that anyone who doesn't believe what I do will face some kind of eternal damnation.

Now, here I must say that there is some change happening within the Christian church. Authors are coming out with books that challenge things like Hell and the idea that Jesus is the sole pathway to God. And these authors are often railed against in publications and on social media. I am encouraged by some of this evolution in the Christian church.

One book that I picked up recently and must read is The Evolution of Faith by Philip Gulley, a Quaker minister. He co-wrote another book called If Grace Is True: Why God Will Save Every Person and I highly highly recommend it.

And then there are even more visionary authors (many would say heretical), such as John Shelby Spong (Why Christianity Must Change or Die), and Gretta Vosper (With or Without God)

I would just quickly say that if you are a Christian who is reading this but is struggling with some of the major theological points of what you've learned, there ARE other ways of being a Christian or being spiritual. Part of me regrets completely leaving the Christian church rather than staying in it and bringing about change. The future may still hold some of that work for me. For now I'm happy in my spiritual community.

So, in conclusion, I guess while I take pride in being quite a tolerant person, there are certain things that I can not tolerate. Today I've come up with four:

1) Any inequality shown toward the LGBTQ community.
2) Any inequality when it comes to women.
3) The assertion that there is only one way - my way - to experience the Divine.
4) The abhorrent belief that anyone who doesn't believe what I do will face some kind of eternal damnation.

I think I'll leave it at that for now. Enjoy this cool Autumn Saturday!

Mark Andrew Alward