Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Thoughts On Post-Christian Living: Relationships

A few nights ago my close friend Jay Moore and I were sharing a beverage on a local patio (my Sam Adams Seasonal Lager was delcious, while Jay's glass of red was "really bad") when we got talking about relationships. My memory is pretty terrible these days, so I asked Jay if he would send me an e-mail containing some of the things we had talked about, which he did. Jay and I sing together, as well as having a similar religious history, both growing up within fundamentalist evangelical Christianity. Both of us have left this religion long ago. With Jay's permission, here are some of this thoughts:

Thoughts On Post Christian Living: Relationships

When one has lived a life, since childhood, that has been structured around a religion like conservative Christianity, it becomes difficult and confusing to navigate in the unknown waters of the new territory. The map no longer applies. What does it mean to be good if it isn’t for God’s sake? Without God, will I sail off the ends of the earth to my moral destruction? And, when it comes to intimate relationships, will I become a blackguard and a fiend, taking advantage  of the innocents I seduce without a care and casting them aside after I've had my way with them?

Not very likely.

I think the first problem here is the idea that morality and religion (or faith) are inextricably linked. This is an age old assumption that pervades our history, especially among the “People of the Book” - Jews, Christians and Muslims. When we are imbued with the concept that God is a father-king-judge deity, so much of how we conceive our relationship to the ultimate relates to how good or bad we are in some arbitrary code from this deity that is instilled in our minds since childhood. Reject the conservative idea of the Biblical God and we will surely turn into amoral hellions, won’t we?

It ain’t necessarily so.

One of the teachings I was raised with was that believing in “situational ethics” is part of how Satan undermines the faithful and we should always be on guard against this heresy. “If ‘God is the same yesterday, today and forever,’ then how can we pick and choose, with our self-centred, sinful hearts, what we think is right or wrong?”

Wake up and smell the coffee.

Situational ethics are everywhere, including within conservative Christianity. I won’t take a lot of time here to describe how this is so, other than to say it only takes a short examination of the myriad of Christian denominations and their wide-ranging doctrines about morality and the slow evolution of these doctrines and the eventual acceptance of various behaviours over time (sometimes centuries) for one to grasp the idea that situational ethics pervades Christianity like everywhere else. We are all in a process of growth, lifting our eyes as we mature, to see a wider horizon and face bigger questions. And when we find questions for which we have no black and white answers, then we can learn to accept, first the greys and then, eventually, the unknowns, perhaps the unknowables - the mysteries.

How’s that coffee smelling?

So what’s this have to do with intimate relationships? Well, if we reject the idea of absolutes in a religious or social or cosmic context, then my implication is there are no absolutes in relationships, either. All relationships are unique. What worked well in the last relationship I had doesn’t work well in this one. What felt right and good in the last relationship doesn’t feel right and good in this one. What questions we had for each other in the last relationship aren’t even close to the questions we have for each other in this one. Every relationship is a whole new ball game and, unfortunately (or fortunately), that means no given rules - no map - no assumptions - no tried and true manoeuvres - no answers.

Uh, oh. Scary stuff!

What to do, then? Where do I start? How can I experience closeness and intimacy with anyone ethically? If we have forsaken the conservative Christian roadmap then what do we replace it with?

I believe there are principles that can be applied in situations that have their roots in our secular history, that have evolved in many societies independent of whatever religious flavour was present in a particular geographical zone around the planet over the centuries. Religions don’t own ethical social behaviour.

Religions don’t own Love.

Love can be the basis of ethical relationships but more on love later.

I like one of Stephen Covey’s principles here as an example of what I mean: seek first to understand. If I recognize that another person is like me, full of unknowns, scared and with a lot of baggage, then I can help us both by listening and understanding. I can offer a safe place for them to begin to express their needs, sorrows, confusions, struggles. I need to focus on the other person and set my own agenda aside for the moment. Paying attention to my own anxieties about my own baggage will not be helpful. Let that go for the time being.

Easier said than done!

Well, start practising now.

Another principle I like is the use of contracts. Contracts between people are clearly spoken agreements about what one person wants from another and what the other is willing to do.  They begin with “Will you.......?” and are completed with the answer, “Yes, I will.” or “No, I won’t.” If I have spent some time “seeking first to understand,” then asking the question or answering it is done in a context of understanding and respect. “Will you listen to my story?” “Will you tell me your story?” “Will you tell me what you’re feeling? What you’re thinking? What you’re believing?” “Will you tell me what you want right now?”  What you want from me right now?” “Will you tell me what you like? What you don’t like?” The answer to these questions can either be “yes” or “no.” Be prepared for “no” which could mean “not yet,” “not sure” or “not ever.”

Uh oh. More scary stuff!

But aren’t I supposed to know what they want? Aren’t they supposed to know what I want?

Hogwash and malarkey! How can this be possible? Remember - no given rules, no map, no assumptions. Every person is unique and every relationship is a whole new enterprise. Believing that we should be able read another’s mind or that they should be able to read ours causes a huge amount of unnecessary pain and suffering in this world.  We are responsible for telling another person what’s in our minds and we need to recognize and honour that the other has the responsibility to tell us what is in theirs. This is respect - for self and for others.
What’s love got to do with it?

There are many really interesting and intriguing definitions of love out there: agape, eros, philia, devotion, forever, ordained by heaven, “love your neighbour as yourself,” “all you need is love,” “ love me tender” and “I love my dog.” Quite a spectrum of ideas.

I like the references to love as a verb - loving, as in loving action. Feelings, thoughts and beliefs all take place inside me but my behaviour is what I do. It’s observable. It’s what the other sees and hears. So when it comes to ethical, intimate relationships I believe we can act in loving ways, applying ethical and respectful principles that make room for each person to decide to give or receive what they choose. Asking the question, “Do I love this person?”  “Am I in love with this person?” “Do I want to live with this person?” might be a rabbit hole you don’t want to go down right away. “Will I act with care, respect, and honesty - loving action - with this person?” can be a better question to answer.

Imagine! Autonomous, free-thinking, responsible adults, free to decide for themselves what they are willing to say or do in any situation and free to act in caring, loving, honest ways with another human being! Wow! What a concept!

Yes, but.....yes, but......what about commitment? what about forever? what about.......?

I know: what about all this baggage I’m carrying that I’m going to put in my way to trip myself up with? Well, start learning to let it go and start replacing it with new principles, new ethics, and making responsible and respectful adult decisions in the here and now. That’s all we have.

Learn what loving behaviour means in your new world beyond your old religion.

Behave in loving ways with anyone, here and now, whether it’s the panhandler on the street, your boss, your adversary or the person who invites you into their bed. “Will I act with care, respect, and honesty - loving action - with this person?”

There is much to learn, much to give and much to receive.

Jay Moore