Last fall, I fell into the weirdest exchange I've ever had at a military base hospital. For the record, I've had some bizarre experiences in base hospitals over the years...one of the entertaining perks of military life, I suppose.
On that fall morning, I walked into the blood-draw room, which was packed with technicians and patients. Most of the patients had been fasting and were, like me, understandably grumpy and quietly impatient for their morning coffee. The techs, however, were deep in a lively discussion over science and religion.
One tech, an older man, declared, "I am a Christian who doesn't believe in evolution."
Oh, Lord, I prayed. What have I walked into? I haven't even had my coffee yet.
The tech tying the tourniquet around my arm looked up and said, "Well, I thought all Christians believe evolution is a lie."
Oh, Lord, I prayed, please give me the words.
"Excuse me," I said, reaching for the cross hanging around my neck with my free hand. The tech gave me his full attention. "Not all Christians think evolution is a lie. I am a Christian and see nothing inconsistent between what I read in the Bible and what science has to say about evolution or the big bang theory. And I'm not alone. Plenty of Christians respect science."
"Really?" he asked, appearing rather shocked.
"Really," I replied, putting as much confidence in my voice as I could.
"I had no idea. Thank you so much." He sounded sincere. I hope my words shifted his thinking just a bit.
How disconcerting to encounter the false generalization that Christians all think alike! The truth is, about the only thing all Christians believe is that Jesus is the Messiah...and I bet if you search hard enough in the fringe corners of our faith, you'll find heretical quibblers on that issue, too. Christianity has hundreds (some count thousands) of denominations, and even within a single denomination, you'll find numerous variations of belief.
Actually, within a single church congregation, you'll find huge differences of opinion, a reality that becomes obvious if you sit through a single church committee meeting.
And if this is true of Christianity, isn't it also true of other religions?
A few years ago, I invited some Mormon missionaries to share their faith with me because I knew how ignorant I was, despite having been bombarded with extensive media coverage of polygamists and child abusers. I recognize that the information we have on LOTS of issues comes filtered and packaged by a media with an agenda...and it isn't objective or thorough.
I found the missionaries to be thoughtful, kind, and knowledgeable about their faith. While nothing they said convinced me to convert, they taught me plenty about Mormonism, and for that I was thankful. I still don't know "everything" about the subject, but that's okay. At least I learned enough to overcome a simplistic, one-size-fits-all (and completely faulty) generalization.
But how often do we judge a group--religious or otherwise--because we've consumed a sensationalized, partial, or highly biased view presented by the media? Our friends? Our pastors? How often do we judge based on a single personal experience? How often is our judgment clouded by false generalizations and fear?
Given recent riots in Baltimore, the church shooting in Charleston, and the media spotlight on police prejudice and brutality, we need to be aware of how our opinion is being manipulated, how our fears are being played on. And most of all, we need to be very cautious in making broad generalizations based on limited evidence.
"That mass shooter was schizophrenic, so all people with schizophrenia are murderers and dangerous."
"Those terrorists were Muslim, so all Muslims are terrorists."
"Those Christians hate gay people, so all Christians hate gay people."
Faulty generalizations can be so very easy to make, so very strong once made, and so very wrong! It's human nature to want to know with certainty, and all of nature abhors a void. Are we filling our mental void with accurate, complete information?
My classical education taught me that we never, ever have all the information we need to see all the nuances of the big picture. Our perspective is limited, necessarily so. We cannot know everything, and our judgments should consequently be provisional, cautious, thoughtful. Paul describes our incomplete viewpoint as "looking through a glass darkly" and Proverbs tells us not to lean on our own understanding but to trust the Lord. God's got the big picture covered. We need to do our best with what's in front of us, what we can see.
With these limits to our understanding humbly in mind, let's try to moderate our more forceful opinions with the certain knowledge that we only see and know part of the issues and that our generalizations, like those of the medical technologist I encountered, might be completely wrong. May we do this in a spirit of love and compassion for ourselves and others that daily advances God's kingdom on earth.
For reflection: Have you been a victim of faulty generalizations How did that make you feel? How did you respond? What generalizations do you make? How might you learn a more nuanced view of those generalizations?