Bourbon Cowboy

The adventures of an urbane bar-hopping transplant to New York.

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Location: New York, New York, United States

I'm a storyteller in the New York area who is a regular on NPR's "This American Life" and at shows around the city. Moved to New York in 2006 and am working on selling a memoir of my years as a greeting card writer, and (as a personal, noncommercial obsession) a nonfiction book called "How to Love God Without Being a Jerk." My agent is Adam Chromy at Artists and Artisans. If you came here after hearing about my book on "This American Life" and Googling my name, the "How to Love God" book itself isn't in print yet, and may not even see print in its current form (I'm focusing on humorous memoir), but here's a sample I've posted in case you're curious anyway: Sample How To Love God Introduction, Pt. 1 of 3. Or just look through the archives for September 18, 2007.) The book you should be expecting is the greeting card book, about which more information is pending. Keep checking back!

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Another Response: On The Uniqueness of Evangelical Grace

Another quote from Daniel, then my response. Again, I think the question helped me clarify a point, even if (as I suspect) it winds up being unprovable.


I love the bit about “borftaglock” -- very funny definition. But the term grace does remain something that should separate Christianity from other religions.

Actually, I realized after reading your critique that there is something unique about the evangelical concept of grace. But I need to give a little background.

One thing I’ve discovered, in talking to adherents to every religion I’ve encountered, is that all religions seem to work on two levels, which I guess you could call the popular and the sophisticated. (I hate those terms, since even saying suggests that I’m sophisticated and smarter than the popular people, but just see where I’m going and see if you can think of any different way of saying this.) If you read books on Taoism, for example, you’ll see tons of philosophical treatises on the nature of Reality, the importance of Being and Right Action…and if the writer isn’t a believer in magic, they will also say that the actions associated with Taoism—such as meditation or tea ceremonies or what have you—are merely the vessels for the inner work, which is to encounter the Ultimate. The actions of the faithful person are like the gantry around a rocket; it’s only there to point the rocket in the right direction, and it falls away the second the rocket takes off with real contact. But if you were to go to China and watch everyday Taoists (or if you read the specifically New Agey Taoist books), they tend to emphasize the I Ching (Taoist stone-tossing divination) or feng shui (Taoist magical interior decorating). No Taoist scholar or sage would put much spiritual stock in either, but the regular folks in the pew seem to find it fun.

The same holds true pretty much across the board, and you can prove this by talking to almost any academically-inclined person in any faith community (as I did recently with a Muslim at my local mosque’s next-door restaurant): ask them, “So do you really need to pray five times a day, (or wear that garment, or not kill flies, etc.) to impress God?” They will invariably tell you that the rituals are just that—helpful guides that point our hearts and minds (and sometimes our bodies) in the proper direction. But God can reach us anywhere, and can come in any form. That what I'm calling the sophisticated (ugh) version. And then every religion also has a popular version that focuses on lighting candles or venerating this ancestor or that saint on such and such a day. This includes Buddhism, which has a good reputation in the West at least partly because it was popularized by academics among educated people, not in its vulgar form as you see it in the streets of Tokyo, where (as Julia Sweeney points out in her show “Letting Go of God”) you’re allowed to be scornful of poor people because reincarnation proves they had it coming.

This is actually a point on which C. S. Lewis makes his most egregious error in Mere Christianity. He says at one point that the conservatives in every religious tradition are much closer to each other, and have more in common, than the liberals. Because the conservatives, he suggests, have a shared core of beliefs, while the liberals, ungrounded in any text, don’t know what to believe from one moment to the next.

This is so embarrassingly inaccurate it’s rather startling that Lewis would said it. As any look at any ecumenical meeting (or Unitarian church) will show, it is the liberals in every faith tradition who come together to hold hands and talk about the essentials that bind us. It is the conservatives, surely, who hunker down and refuse to fellowship with people who haven’t passed the proper litmus tests. It’s the conservative priests who will forbid you from communion if you’re not an official Catholic; it’s the conservative rabbis who don’t want Jews marrying goyim. But every religious tradition also has a liberal or embracing wing; one that ignores all the exterior dross and accepts people based on their will and their heart, not their clothes or their knowledge of any one tradition; they believe that God will reach people who reach out to him, and that this connection--this salvation, in traditions that require it--is based on faith and not works. They believe in grace, not in magic prayers or seer stones or the other religious activites people distract themselves with.

What makes evangelical Christianity unique, now that I’ve had a chance to reflect, is that it’s the only religious tradition I’m aware of that claims that everyone else—not just other religions, but other Christians—has grace dead wrong. Not just a little wrong, but completely off; evangelicals are correct, and everyone else is tragically, damnably mistaken. No other religious tradition I’m aware of has ever said such a thing. Usually believing in grace also means allowing other people to approach God in their own way, since actions don’t matter and the heart does. The mountain has many roads to the top! Help your sister or brother along their road! By comparison, the evangelical model of grace begins to look significantly cramped and narrow.

I assume this is because evangelicals, since they see themselves as the only ones who treat the true word of God with the proper level of obedience and respect, can only assume that the evangelical message of grace that they derive from it must be something very different indeed (by definition) from anything any other religion has ever said. This is simply not the case, but I’m damned if I know how to prove it. Precisely because they’re territorial about their truth claims, evangelicals rarely go to ecumenical gatherings and would almost certainly be inclined to judge them as theologically wanting if they did. I could offer up quotes about grace from a dozen or so different religions, but surely any evangelical reading these quotes and eager to establish their turf will cut any quote into a million cavils and conditions (“When that Jain scholar refers to Ultimate Mercy, it’s not the same thing as Christian grace because there’s a different concept of ‘sin’…”) until they’re left with borftaglock and triumphantly declare that no one else has said it. I can only invite the evangelical reader to conduct the experiment I just did—ask any thoughtful or philosophical practitioner of another religion what they need to do to earn God’s favor—and trust that when they do this enough, with an open mind, wishing to learn about someone else’s happiness rather than trying to prove the other person wrong— they’ll discover the same thing I did. The idea that God isn’t impressed by mere human works isn’t much of a brain-buster, it turns out. I wish I could do more to prove it (maybe I'll start working on those quotes), but it maybe be a vain task.

LATER: Ooh! Wait! I just thought of a way to do it! What if, in my book, I got a whole bunch of different quotes on grace from all different religions (the forgiveness of God, the vanity of mere works, etc) and then MIXED THEM UP and challenged the reader to tell which ones were Christian and which ones weren't? I think that might work!

Maybe not though. It's late, which is when I'm inclined to giddiness.



Blogger Chad E Burns said...

This is the best post I think you have ever done.

I understand the assersion to the terms sophisticated vs popular. It needs to be more "judgement neutral"--I was thinking (and I'm going to do a post on this concept in my own blog) of Spectral vs. Laser. Both are manifestations of light, yet one is broad and wide and one is narrow and pinpoint. (How ironic that their approach to the world, would then be the exact opposite.)

I agree with you and CS Lewis (though not in the way he thought). As far as interfaith ecumenism--you are right--but it is conservatives of every religion who are also very similar. The strict adherance to rituals, routines, traditions and beliefs; the exclusionary attitudes; and the passionate defense of their beliefs/mode of believing and distorted fear that to disagree constitutes persecution.

As far as grace--VERY interesting comment about evangelicals (who I think might be a bit better off if they had written down some of their rituals and routines--I've long said there are as many evangelical rituals and routines as in Catholic churches--the Catholics just codified them--but again, another post).

I think the evangelical concept of grace is two-sided. On one hand, because they are so literal with the Bible-then G-d is a personal G-d, Jesus died for them specifically; and part of their approach to grace is from a sense of gratitude for that personal gift. They are deeply appreciative they don't have to "do" a bunch of stuff--because like other spectrals-they only look at the spectral side of other religions--I've even heard it argued that (using my terminology) the Lasers in other religions are actually just getting closer to what Evangelical Spectrals know is true.
The 2nd hand goes right back to the "Who's" in your objection #2. Everyone else HAS to have grace (faith, mercy, forgiveness, salvation) dead wrong; precisely becasue evangelical spectrals BELIEVE it is not satisfying or fair for them to believe so ardently and live by so many literal limitations, moralism and judgements (even though they claim to be living by grace) that they want their "toys" too. To the evangelical, grace is not the end (which would have been a healthier approach) but a means to "pearly gates and streets of gold". Any evangelical I know has a serious problem with the Eleventh hour workers--and if they do "deal with it" they often claim that at least they were working in the same field for thesame master. Grace only comes in one form--again back to the black or white view. Which is a direct result of all the "bible is literal" teachings.

2/01/2008 9:38 AM  
Blogger that atheist guy said...

Did Sweeney mean Hinduism? I don't think the classic idea of reincarnation is a part of mainstream Buddhism. Wiki says:

"Belief in reincarnation is an ancient phenomenon. This doctrine is a central tenet within the majority of Indian religious traditions, such as Hinduism (including Yoga, Vaishnavism, and Shaivism), Jainism, and Sikhism. ... The Buddhist concept of Rebirth although often referred to as reincarnation differs significantly from the Hindu-based traditions and New Age movements in that there is no "self" (or eternal soul) to reincarnate."

2/01/2008 10:44 AM  
Blogger Cowboy Dave Dickerson said...


Thanks for the nice comments! Part of me wants to use the terms "mahayana" and "hinayana" (the "wide" and "narrow") bridges of Buddhism, because that nicely reverses the usual categories: mahayana, the wide bridge, is actually LESS ritualistic because it lets more people across, while the hinayana is the form where you are encouraged to give up all worldly possessions, shave your head, get out the begging bowl, etc. (At least if memory serves. I'm definitely a novice at Buddhism, especially when it comes to the terminology.)

But now, thanks to your laser analogy, I'm thinking it might be wiser to simply focus on "external" and "internal" forms of religious expression. Someone focused on externals is clearly missing the big picture, but they're not necessarily foolish; we all live by observing externals (people's appearance, covers of books, etc.) and it's reliable enough that you can understand why folks would do it. I think that's the most minimally elitist way of thinking about it--though I think the distinction both really does exist, and really is unavoidably elitist to at least some minor extent.

Atheist Guy--

I'm almost positive that's what Sweeney said. It's in the section of "Letting Go of God" where she gets into Buddhism and finally actually flies to some retreat in Thailand or wherever...and discovers that the Buddhists she meets in the street are as much a mixed bag as religious people over here. The line she uses is, "The Buddhism we get over here is sure cleaned up a lot!"

It's a great performance, by the way, and available on CD. Everyone should hear it.

2/01/2008 5:26 PM  
Blogger that atheist guy said...

Dave, you're right. I found the book that came with the CD and checked the transcript. She travels to Tibet and Bhutan, and then to Thailand as you described.

My original comment was based on my experiences in Japan. But even in Japan alone there is a large variety in the types of Buddhism. (I should have also remembered Tibetan Buddhism, where the Dalai Lama is a classic example of reincarnation!)

My guess is that the "cleaned up" Buddhism we get in the US is mostly imported from Zen Buddhism, which is pretty atheistic.

2/12/2008 1:15 PM  

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