Continued from Part I. This largely follows up with some autobiographical clarifications of some of the things brought up last week.
I was raised a somewhat-nominal (and a somewhat-moderate) Episcopalian, but the first group I was squarely with of my own choosing (at the age of 19) turned out, disappointingly, to be all about notches on the belt — if I’m not mistaken, they kept track of how many people their members were “sharing the Gospel” with. I was naturally enthusiastic about conversations with others, about spiritual things, and about the textures of arguments, so measuring me was always both easy and tricky. I stayed with them for six months: my interests and spirituality quickly took me outside of that amnesiac and sales-heavy milieu. The second group I tarried with (evangelical/Revivalist Protestants at a Congregational parish, who met on Sunday evening) were largely free of this, but did have some elements of it. It was relatively mild. They weren’t bent on absorbing the world as though they were The Blob, as the first church was. There was a small “cell” group I attended on weekdays in addition to the Sunday evening gathering, which was a group of musicians from this larger evangelical evening congregation. The youth pastor who lead this cell group was worried that playing his saxophone in his apartment at night would disturb his neighbors, and “blow his witness” with them (“witnessing” in the evangelical world means saying or doing something that “bears witness” to Jesus, but among evangelicals this phrase has the very strong and central sense of “persuading others to conversion”). Again, he had some concern for selling himself –and Jesus– as something worth buying from/buying, and a corollary concern to persuade others to a position and a commitment. At the very least, he wanted to make sure he was putting out good PR for Jesus (presumably, because it would be bad if Jesus’ approval rating went as low as that of some politicians).
There is a kind of sales that helps, and there is a kind of sales that merely pushes a product. My wife has had a series of sales positions in her life, and the lower-level ones were always about pushing a product, meeting sales figures. Don’t ask whether the potential customers need the product, just do whatever you can to sell it. At the million and multi-million-dollar sales level, the presence of sales targets never disappears, but the attitude towards selling does change. At the more elite levels it becomes about seeing whether there is a legitimate need that one’s products can meet, and if not, seeing whether one can help the potential client by connecting them to the services that they would be benefited by via another product/service via another company. This builds trust, and, if the potential client would be benefited by one’s own products/services later on, they will have enough capital in the emotional bank account to look you up and seek out your services. Provided that the product is quality, and meets a real need, everyone benefits, everyone profits.
This is not how most sectarian groups, or individuals of a sectarian mindset who live within non-sectarian groups, proceed. (Sectarian is the salient quality, not religious: there is nothing inherently religious about sectarianism, and nothing inherently sectarian about religion.) Are all helped by this-or-that “product”, vi&., by believing the teaching and adhering to the practices of such-and-such religious group? The Episcopal Church of my youth that I returned to at the age of 21, and the Orthodox Church that I was received into at 26, are not interested in such sales — not generally, and not as groups, at any rate. Individuals within these groups are another story. A bit over a month ago I was walking down the street with an Anglican friend of mine whom I went to Seminary with (both of us in academic tracks), and we ran across the new junior priest at one of the nearby parishes (Orthodox are nearly 2% of the population here in the Boston area; there are so many parishes, and an Orthodox seminary). I said a brief “hello”, received a blessing, and quickly introduced him to my friend before passing on. The next day, passing him again in the street by myself, this junior priest asked about my friend, and whether I was persuading him to become Orthodox. He smiled, indicating that he was half-joking, but he was (at least) half-serious. He did not ask about whether Orthodoxy would meet the needs my friend has, given his life-situation and current state of heart-and-mind, or whether, if Orthodoxy would generally slake his spiritual thirst, there were a parish near him where that would be possible, and where he would fit in. I suppose such an approach could try to turn my square friend into a circle, to fit within the circular holes provided by the culture prevailing in any given parish. It’s difficult to see how such a thing is “good news”, however. Happily, the other clergy at his parish would never have approached me with such a question, even with a semi-jocular smile.
Apologetics can have the strong sense that one is selling others what they don’t want, yes. It can also carry the strong sense that one is pushing something that one has –or that one’s group has– which one’s interlocutor simply does not need. We can lack the desire for what we need, and it might be laudatory for others to enjoin such things upon us; but what about when we don’t need what’s being pushed? This anxiety for an apologist is heightened if he-or-she thinks that his-or-her group is the exclusive distributor of the spiritual goods involved. (The opposite of this is not spiritual indifference, nor the all-too-often strawman “relativism”.)
Is one able to entertain the idea that other people might not be benefacted by the resources in one’s own community, or even one’s own tradition, without automatically faulting the other people who are not able to benefit, for whatever reason? (This is an acid test that is failed by the more intolerant Revivalists, the New Atheists, and the Social Justice Warriors, alike. All fundamentalists fail this test.)