I am not the baseline. (Neither are you.)

by K.W. Leslie, 10 March

Whenever I have a God-experience—i.e. when he tells me stuff during prayer time, when he confirms stuff through one of his prophets, when he cures the sick right in front of me—my usual response is humility. ’Cause it’s God, y’know. As much as I interact with him, I can’t imagine growing indifferent or jaded to the fact God’s doing stuff. He’s still awesome, and it’s incredibly gracious of him to let me be around, or even get involved in, anything he does.

Of course, I say stuff like this and various other Christians respond, “Excuse me, God does what around you?”

Um… well, yeah. I’m Pentecostal, which means we aren’t just continuationist, i.e. recognize God still talks to people and does miracles. We don’t treat God-experiences like something that might potentially or theoretically happen; we treat ’em as part and parcel of the active Christian life. It’s much like the difference between saying, “Y’know we could go visit Grandma in the retirement home” and never doing it, or calling Grandma every day and planning frequent visits. And sometimes she drops by our house and brings brownies; the homemade stuff, made with the very best medical-grade cannabis. Aw yeah.

Kidding; I don’t do weed. But y’see, depending on one’s expectations, one’s Christian life in practice is gonna look mighty different. So I’m fully aware my experiences aren’t necessarily your experiences. I wasn’t always Pentecostal.

Sometimes the differences are based on higher or lower, strict or loose, iffy or false, expectations. Sometimes sin and fruitlessness. Sometimes a combination of the above. I know dark Christians whose unkind, judgmental, fearful, and ungracious practices turn Christianity into something terrifying, and God into someone to hate. I know unscrupulous Christians who bend, fold, spindle, and mutilate the scriptures so they can justify their desires and excesses. Their response to God is far from humble: If anything, they act as if why wouldn’t God endorse them. They remind me of the spoiled kids of rich people; trust fund babies who were born on third base and act as if they hit a triple. In this case their father is God, whom they totally take for granted. Humility never occurs to them.

Yeah, on TXAB I bring up these people a lot. Otherwise I very seldom dwell on them. I have better things to do. But of course they exist.

And because I seldom dwell on these guys, a few years back I found myself in a bible study, very nearly saying, “When we experience God like that, our usual response is humility…” I had to back up and correct myself: My usual response is humility.

Plenty of other Christians I know, likewise have a good sense of our relationship with God, and likewise respond with humility. But yeah, there are Christian jerks out there who aren’t humble at all. They figure God better come through for them. I can’t relate. But neither should I go around talking about my experience as if it’s the norm. I have no proof of that.

And this, folks, is how we’re supposed to do theology: Don’t go round declaring our experiences, our norms, our preferences, are true for everyone. Unless we’ve done a scientific study or have a properly-interpreted passage of scripture to back us up, we’ve no leg to stand on. We’re claiming a subjective experience is universal.

This is precisely the reason so many people automatically doubt “absolute truths”: Far too often, it turns out they’re not absolutes. They’re just the old prejudices of lazy lecturers—and there are a lot of lazy lecturers out there. Heck, I get lazy sometimes.

But it’s because people like to imagine we’re normal! We don’t wanna be unusual; many of us even fear being weird. So we try our darnedest to find a crowd which is most like us, then claim what we think and like is what everybody thinks and likes. Or what everybody oughta think and like. Our worldview oughta be everyone’s worldview—because we’re “normal” and they’re “not.”

Presuming we’re the baseline.

It just so happens sometimes everyone thinks differently.

Give you an example. About 12 years ago I attended a men’s breakfast at a new church. The associate pastor was also new. We were standing around outside the building, informally, saying hi to one another and he decided to break the ice with a joke. A gay joke. One which really slammed homosexuals.

“Hey,” I objected, “not cool.”

Because I was willing to speak up—’cause that’s all it takes, y’know—all the other men standing round likewise objected to the unkindness and cruelty of the joke. After all, what if one of us brought a gay friend to the breakfast in the hopes of leading him to Jesus, and this joke utterly alienated the friend? Mighta taken months to get that poor guy comfortable enough to set foot in a church, and here the pastor of all people says something horrible.

Our reaction shocked this new pastor—and outraged him. He presumed church would be the one place he could say all the anti-gay stuff he was forbidden at his day job. And here we were telling him he had to be kind all the time. You know, be like Jesus. Not a dick.

This is hardly the only situation I’ve been in where people were startled to discover they’re the odd person out. Happens quite a lot. I could tell you about the outspoken atheist who found out everyone else at the dinner party totally believed in God. Or the Dodgers fan who discovered everyone else at work was an A’s fan. Or the kid who discovered nobody else in his youth group played video games. (Like at all. I know; weird. Still.) When people find out they’re all alone, they usually freak out: I’m in the wrong place.

Me, I was one of those child prodigies who frequently wound up the only little kid in the big-kid classes, or the only child in a roomful of adults. I grew used to being the oddball. Doesn’t faze me whatsoever. I actually have fun with it; I found out if I’m confident enough, it makes everybody else wonder if they’re in the right place. (But I don’t do this too often; it’s mighty fun, but it’s kinda evil if I take it too far.)

But other people are really bothered by it, because our culture has a really bad habit of categorizing people, then sticking them in their peer groups. Some of ’em never learn to interact with different people. Hence too many people desperately want to be “normal.” And if they’re not, it’s sort of an automatic psychological defense mechanism to declare, “No you’re the freaks; this situation is just a rare anomaly.” (And sometimes, “And I gotta get out of here!” They’re just that uncomfortable.)

This discomfort is the basis of peer pressure. Kids, when they’ve never been taught to be comfortable being themselves, really wanna fit in with their peers, and do whatever the group’s doing. I used this tendency to my advantage: I’d arrange my classroom so it looked, to the troublemakers, like everyone else was doing their work. Most of the time it worked. Works on adults too; they’d much rather conform than stand out.

But it’s why it’s so very hard to get Christians to stand out when we really need ’em to.

What’ll happen instead is people will try to find their comfort zone. Usually it’s surrounded by other people who are just like them. Who think like them, like what they like, share preferences and values and prejudices and politics. Who can function as an echo chamber… and now all of them get the idea everybody thinks like they do, because everybody they know does think like they do.

(Or they think everybody they know thinks like they do. Some of ’em are stifling what they really think in order to fit in. Sometimes these real thoughts show up in polls, and shock everyone. Surprise!—the United States is more liberal than you thought. Who’da thunk it?)

In any event, we shouldn’t presume we’re “normal” just because we’re just like everyone else. Sometimes we’re not like everyone else. And that doesn’t automatically make the other folks weird or wrong.

But it always make us weird and wrong when we dismiss those other people, and try to promote our preferences with no thought for their preferences. You do know we’re taught to be better than that in the bible:

Romans 14.5-13 NLT
5 In the same way, some think one day is more holy than another day, while others think every day is alike. You should each be fully convinced that whichever day you choose is acceptable. 6 Those who worship the Lord on a special day do it to honor him. Those who eat any kind of food do so to honor the Lord, since they give thanks to God before eating. And those who refuse to eat certain foods also want to please the Lord and give thanks to God. 7 For we don’t live for ourselves or die for ourselves. 8 If we live, it’s to honor the Lord. And if we die, it’s to honor the Lord. So whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. 9 Christ died and rose again for this very purpose—to be Lord both of the living and of the dead.
10 So why do you condemn another believer? Why do you look down on another believer? Remember, we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. 11 For the Scriptures say,
“ ‘As surely as I live,’ says the LORD,
‘every knee will bend to me,
and every tongue will declare allegiance to God.’ ”
12 Yes, each of us will give a personal account to God. 13 So let’s stop condemning each other. Decide instead to live in such a way that you will not cause another believer to stumble and fall.

Different is fine.

Christians are free to disagree about a whole lot of things. We don’t have to function in lockstep. My church prefers one style of music; your church prefers another; one isn’t holier than the other, for we’re all singing to Jesus. My church holds certain beliefs about holy communion; your church holds others; the important thing is we obey Jesus and do it, so we both do it. My church’s way isn’t “normal” and yours “weird”; my church’s way isn’t “orthodox” and yours “heretic.” We’re just different. Different is fine.

Yeah, there are a certain differences which aren’t fine. The creeds spell out the ones which aren’t obvious sins. The problem is too many people are willing to turn these differences into make-or-break issues, and act as if God’s gonna kick everybody out of heaven but them. It never occurs to them maybe God likes our differences and diversity. Or that God’s fine with our differences of opinion—they don’t affect him any, and because they resonate with different people in different ways, some of ’em actually get people to follow him better.

The problem is we too often presume we’re right, when we should be aware we’re totally not. We too often presume we’re normal, and there really is no “normal.” Worse, when we use our preferences and prejudices to drive other people away from Jesus. That’s when our differences quit being interesting and turn into sins. That’s what we need to resist most.

We need to be humble, presume nothing, study the scriptures, and love our neighbors. Theology done any other way is always gonna go wrong.