Major Distractions: I Know You Are, But Who Are We?

August 25, 2010

Next up to bat for “Team NonProphet” (c/o Kait Foley) is novelist and writing instructor Bryan Parys. On Monday, Lucy Gubbins addressed terminology among secular folks and how those labeled “accomodationist” are often dismissed in our community; in today’s lyrical guest post, Bryan tackles an even larger issue of language: how terminology around secular identity and interfaith dialogue can sometimes get in the way of engagement. Bryan, you’re up!

HelveticaIn the small, nondenominational Christian school that I attended K-12, I picked up a fear of the word “secular.” The way teachers pronounced it was chilling: that snake-like se that begins it, the sec that’s on its way to sex, and those first two syllables intoned like they should be a swear: Sec-u, u mother-sec-er!

I’ve since gotten over this linguistic phobia, but what continues to bother me is that the traditional “opposite” of secular is sacred. How can I — a guy typing shirtless and wearing his wife’s pink shorts — be seen in such holy terms? Particularly since I don’t see myself as opposite or even opposed to secularism.

To me, these seeming opposites are keeping many of us from doing any good in the world outside our own immediate contexts — the interfaith movement getting stuck on the dialogue and not moving into action. You can’t move forward when you’re standing on a soapbox.

“Seculars” are not, by default not-sacred, nor is one venerated to sainthood if one is not primarily secular. There is a vast, unquenchable landscape between these words, and as humans we are by nature at home in the undefined, even if we’re always trying to find new labels to separate us.

I am no expert in Derridean philosophy, but something I’ve always loved about the theory of deconstruction was the rejection of the idea that language contains within itself a morality of opposites — good and bad, black and white, right and left, night and day, and so on. Language should have “free play” Derrida argued. Once a word is written, it becomes autonomous. It doesn’t matter if an author read Richard Dawkins or C.S. Lewis the morning s/he penned a page — what’s left is the intuitive dialogue of words, a subjective audience, and what action that audience will take as a result. Dialogue, action, rinse, repeat.

In college, a religion professor said of inter-church schisms and arguments: “We should be uniting on the majors, not dividing on the minors.” Not many churches heed this advice, and so since leaving high school, I’ve hardly attended a church service. (In fact, when I started writing this it was noon on a Sunday, and instead of wearing khakis and shaking hands with the pastor as I think about where I’m going to get brunch, I’m sitting here more concerned about being accepted by atheists.

But, unfortunately, this adage doesn’t quite translate to the world of interfaith dialogue. The majors keep us separated, adhering to pre-Derridean thought in a post-Derridean world.

A coffee shop recently opened in the sleepy New Hampshire town I live in. It’s the first one in the area to offer exclusively fair trade coffee, and also happens to partner with local charities. Incidentally, their espresso tastes better than a cowboy boot, something I can’t say about the other two competitors.

A few nights ago, my cousin got very heated when he found out that a local church backs the café. It’s one of those trying-to-be-relevant congregations that meets in a cinema on Sundays and uses Helvetica on their website. As my cousin screamed, they are also “anti-gay, pro-life, and so they’re c–ts, and they’re not getting my money!”

I had known about the church, but hadn’t yet done the research to determine if they fell into the disturbingly fundamental camp. The Helvetica got to me, and so did the notion of ethical caffeine.

It doesn’t stop there. I no longer want to shop at Target/Marshalls anymore. I don’t go to the only teashop in the area that offers pu-erh and lapsang souchong because they openly support the Republican party.

Things like coffee and v-necks are minor things, but they point to major, life-threatening things.

I care more about where atheists are buying their coffee than whether or not they think there is an author to the universe. In such a hurting culture, the existence of a deity should be secondary to fighting for human rights and connecting deeply with our immediate and global urgencies.

So: we are divided on the majors. I get it. But who cares? Why are we still talking about that?

If, according to Derrida, polar opposites are extremist, unrealistic, and harmful, then dividing us into theists and atheists is actually going to stop us from achieving anything good in the world. It’s been made abundantly clear on this blog that there are heinous dissenters in both worlds. If we continue to adhere to these traditional poles, then we will always be too busy wondering if there is room for collaboration, scaling slick walls of god-sized abstractions and slipping back into the ambiguous mud of “our side.”

I’d rather not start an interfaith dialogue about where in theism I fall, because truth be told, I have no idea. Through relationship, though, I’m sure it’ll come up in conversation. Hopefully, it’ll be over a gay-affirming, fairly traded double espresso.

Bryan ParysBryan Parys recently earned his MFA in creative nonfiction and is working on a memoir called, Wake, Sleeper that is about faith, death, and how 7th grade is nothing short of soul-destroying. He currently teaches writing at the University of New Hampshire.

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12 Responses to “Major Distractions: I Know You Are, But Who Are We?”

  1. Hitch said

    Overall a nice and interesting piece. I think the explanation is a notion that Derrida certainly understood. Hegemony. Not all narratives and not all voices have the same power. And the danger, is the universalizing of narratives.

    Major differences are indeed ignorable when they do not interfer with people’s lives.

    We could ignore the need to get on sandboxes and speak against the dominant discourse if indeed we had an equal voice.

    That we do not have those equal voices is critical. That is why we should be gay-affirming, atheist-supporting, equal-rights-enhancing, human-rights advocating, fair-trade buying. And it is why we should give a voice to as many people as we can.

    And there is this problem that those who are in the comfortable position often assume that others do not live in a situation of lesser privilege. A kind of blindness to the troubles that even just saying “But who cares?” implied.

    Some people have no choice but to care. It is, after all about their lives and their circumstances.

    Interfaith should be reaching out and hearing of all these voices. And a caring where these voices come from.

    If we do want to have a nuanced critique that Dawkins is not particularly post-structural. I think that’s rather true. But this is not a reason to reject his narrative. No more so than why we would reject deSaussure on the same point.

    If we can deconstruct sides and destabilize labels, we will have improved things. A lot. Those who suffer from labels the most will benefit the most from particularism and perspectivism.

    • bp said

      Thanks for the thoughts, Hitch. And I don’t think we disagree. I’m not looking to rob anyone of their voice, nor am I blind to the trouble of being outside the dominant discourse. Though I’m not an atheist, I would not consider myself in the dominant discourse either, and this blog is oddly one of the few places where I feel the liberty and comfort to speak from the heart.

      So: my main point was to say that sometimes we need to be “more than words” (even though I hate that song) and move into action. Sometimes that means soapbox-speaking. But dialogue is nothing but a distorted megaphone if it’s not followed by action. To me, that means less time focusing on what divides me from others who seek to help the voiceless, and more on combining with those positive efforts.

      • Hitch said

        I agree with you. I don’t like soapboxes. We need less grand-standing, and more real talk, and often indeed less talk and more doing. Thanks for the clarification. I’m looking forward to more posts.

  2. Taylor N. said

    Thanks, Bryan.

    I have to admit this post really confused me. I get the idea this guy has something to say, and I want to know what it is, but his point is very very unclear to me. Darn it. Does he patronize that coffee shop anymore?

    But I like the discussion about the words secular and sacred. To be honest, I don’t think there’s much that isn’t sacred in this world. I hope nobody is trying to avoid being sacred, because the pure fact that you are alive and breathing air is downright holy.

    Last thing, I’m sorry, but being pro-life is NOT the same thing as being a fundamentalist.

    • bp said

      “I don’t think there’s much that isn’t sacred in this world. I hope nobody is trying to avoid being sacred, because the pure fact that you are alive and breathing air is downright holy.”

      Couldn’t agree more, and eloquently put. I certainly was not arguing against the sacred, but rather too often labels like this become full of stereotypes and thus lose their original meaning. Thanks for that addition.

      And yes again: I also do not equate pro-life with fundamentalism. In fact, the whole pro-life/choice discussion is another that’s suffering from Label Syndrome.

      Sorry to be confusing! Chalk that up to first-post nervousness! Let me know if I can clear anything up further.

    • Yeah, the idea that women cannot be trusted to control their own lives is not limited to fundamentalism.

  3. […] you no doubt have seen, I’ve been talking to atheists–a word you taught me to pronounce in a somber, low tone. I spent a lot of time on what I […]

  4. […] Major Distractions: I Know You Are, But Who Are We? by Bryan Parys […]

  5. […] This isn’t really the forum for it (but hey, who makes the rules here, anyway?), but writing reviews for experimental long-form music has been fascinating. Oftentimes, the albums I dislike are the most fun to write about–and not because I make a habit of eviscerating the poor saps. In fact, when I don’t like something, I have to work harder to push into the why behind the emotion. People are more apt to not question your argument when you’re being positive, but the minute you name a critique, you better be ready to admit your own shortcomings in assessing such a subjective point. Perhaps, then, this isn’t so much of a tangent, given my burgeoning interest in interfaith work. […]

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