Saturday, February 26, 2011

Temperamental Truth(s)

Every Monday evening, a few dozen Emory undergraduates gather to share a meal and discuss religion and related topics.

These students have much in common, as all are committed practitioners and most are leaders in the thirty undergraduate religious organizations on campus. Yet the groups they represent vary widely in terms of composition, mission, practice, for these students are aligned with virtually the entire spectrum of religious traditions.

Every tradition represented at Emory is offered a seat at the table of the Inter-religious Council. There are Sunni and Shiite Muslims, Orthodox and Reform Jews, Catholic and Protestant Christians, Hindus, Buddhists and Bahais.

One might expect such a diverse groups to play it safe and stick to points of obvious ethical agreement. Instead, all were invited to share how their tradition has handled one of the most important and controversial questions of our time: does homosexuality result from one's nature or from willful choice?

Last week, we weighed Stephen Prothero's efforts to reinforce the boundaries between religious traditions while calling attention to the diversity and divisions within them. Prothero sharply criticizes the common perception that the world's diverse religious traditions are basically in harmony with one another, providing different paths up the same "mountain" of spiritual enlightenment.

Yet in explaining his personal perspective as a religious studies professor, Prothero provides a more academic formulation of a mystical outlook on the spiritual journey. "This discipline gave me a way to hang in with religious questions without the presumption that any answers were close at hand," he writes. "When, to paraphrase St. Augustine, I became a 'question to myself,' even bigger questions called out to me, and my ongoing conversation with the great religions began."

There are many different ways to define the word mystic . Prothero's quotation captures the sense that mystical truth is "of obscure or mysterious character or significance." There have been mystics who have plumbed the depths of these mysteries in virtually every religious tradition in history.

For mystics like Catholic priest Richard Rohr, the mysterious nature of such insights makes the boundaries between religious traditions untenable. Rohr understands himself to be following the mystical path tread by a long line of "non-dualistic thinkers" who adhere to a wide variety of religious traditions.

I listened to one of Rohr's lectures on the history of mysticism a few weeks ago with a dozen or so women at a gathering called "Praying with the Mystics." The vast majority identified as Christian, but they were more than willing to endorse Rohr's perspective and align with the mystical movement of "non-dualistic thinkers."

Ironically, this commitment entailed an opposition to "dualistic thinkers." A couple of the women shared frustration with their friends and family who weren't able to understand why their religious practices took them outside of the bounds of Christianity proper. Thus, the perspective of the more narrowly bound "dualistic thinkers" was rejected as wrong, creating a new dualism along more ethereal lines.

There are simple and fundamental differences in temperament at work in the divisions between the mystically inclined seekers of esoteric divine truths and those who strictly adhere to the clearly articulated Truth of doctrine.

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is the world's most popular and widely used temperament assessment tool. Many of you who have taken this test have been labeled with a four-letter code such as "ENFP" or "ISTJ." The last letter in this sequence refers to the kinds of conclusions we tend to draw from the information we process: "Judging" vs. "Perceiving."

For J folks, a decision must be made. The world is seen as black and white, right and wrong, truth and falsehood. Once all the facts are in, the choice will be clear. For Ps like me, there is another side to ever story. We struggle to choose from the many shades of gray based on how the light of perception illuminates our view at any given moment. Both perspectives have distinct advantages and disadvantages, as well as significant biases.

If you're a J, you likely see a mystical affirmation of all religious traditions as sloppy wishful thinking at best, willful delusion at worst. If you're a P, confident assertions of absolute Truth probably make you uncomfortable, and the systematic theologies (or assertions of atheism) of the Js seem rigid and dogmatic. Both tend to reject the other perspective, whether implicitly or explicitly. But then again, most of us come down somewhere in the middle ground between these oversimplified poles.

Last night, a friend who is most certainly a J walked into my living room with a group of friends. He was holding a copy of "GA Voice," a local free gay-rights advocacy publication. This week's issue was entitled "God and Gays" and he shared details which sparked a cordial but heated discussion about the issue of homosexuality in the church.

In a sense, the group present was extremely homogeneous. We are all Christian, male, heterosexual, middle-class, well educated and white. Yet significant differences in temperament contributed to a considerable diversity of perspectives.

For the Js, it was quite simple. The Bible clearly frowns upon homosexual behaviors. For us Ps it is an enormously complex issue, and our counterarguments sought to point out tensions and ambiguities without necessarily carving out a clear position. Others remained on the sidelines or vacilated between these positions.

It was an interesting and enjoyable conversation, but I seriously doubt anybody's mind was changed one way or another and I wonder how much we really learned.

The members of Emory's Inter-religious Council did not engage in this kind of debate. There were no attempts to convince or convert. Instead, each member was given an opportunity to share how homosexuality was viewed in his or her respective tradition.

Js at the table tended to cite Scripture or official positions of religious authorities. Ps were more prone to acknowledge tensions, even contradictions, and describe the variety of perspectives within the community. Many provided both. Yet, nobody was vying for moral high ground or political correctness points.

In this case, I would argue that everyone learned something. At the very least, we all gained a greater understanding of the various ways different religious communities struggle with the issue of homosexuality. Moreover, many of us likely came away with a more nuanced approach.

Stephen Prothero is right. All religions include claims to divine truth and their differences are significant and important, especially if you're a J. And Richard Rorty is right, too. All religions have their mystic Ps who embrace the mysteries of the human experience and hold that divine truth is intuitive and ineffable.

Are you a P or a J or somewhere in the middle? How does this temperamental tendency shape your religious beliefs, practices, experiences and perceptions of other traditions?


  1. Scott,

    Why do you assume that people who regard religious traditions as "sloppy wishful thinking/and or delusions" are most likely J's. And vice versa...I do not think there is a positive correlation for nonreligious people to be more "judging"; in fact, I contend that the opposite is more accurate. Due to the nature of their religious traditions and assertions of absolute laws, religious people are much more likely to be J, perceiving and judging other individuals on a basis of "good" and "evil".

    To answer your last question, as a nontheist, I'm pretty skeptical about any claims of universal truth or absolute morality. In this sense, I am more of an observer and perceiver, and I strive to not judge people on the basis of "good" or "bad". In fact, it is nonsensical for me to use the dichotomy of good or bad as the basis of my assessment of other human beings, as I reject the idea of absolute good or evil. Nothing in this world functions in black-or-white. The values and judgments of “good” by one individual will necessarily conflict with the values of another, hence the moral ambiguities of this world.

  2. Hey Cici, thanks for posting.

    Your point is well taken. I would not argue that nonreligious people would be more likely to be Js or Ps. However, I would argue that a strident atheism which assumes that religion in general is inherently "sloppy wishful thinking" is most definitely a J type position. In my understanding, the P/J distinction is all about our willingness to arrive at a firm conclusion. For a pure P, strident atheism is pretty elusive, because there are so many different religious positions that one could never really entertain them all in a lifetime in order to perceive (and reject) each one on its own terms. On the other hand, a J can reject the whole project of religious inquiry as delusional and comfortably reject all positions employing this rejected methodology. Of course, I doubt that any pure Ps or Js really exist, as all of us have at least an inkling of the other. So, as you said, one's P tendencies could lead them to recoil from religious perspectives they perceive as rigid and judgmental. And of course there are many distinct atheistic/nontheistic/agnostic positions with differences significant and subtle, so my parenthetical reference to atheism was certainly oversimplified. Thanks for calling me out!

    Does that make sense? Thoughts?