“Judge not lest ye be judged.” Matthew 7:1
As a Christian I take this rule fairly seriously. It appears repeatedly in the New Testament. I’d tell you how good I am at following my own advice, but that would be cheating.
How can I assess my own behavior without judging whether I live up to standards? Repentance calls for self-knowledge and Christianity asks for repentance. Worse yet: how can I be truly curious about another person, without wanting to know their standards, both what they practice and what they profess? Love calls for curiosity and Christianity calls for love. Indeed, Christianity calls for love above all else. So, the issue of judgment cannot simply be ignored.
I have heard that we should be “discerning” but not “judgmental.” I have heard it most often from people who are discerning that I am not right with God. This makes it less helpful. That kind of talk is exactly the judgment Jesus seems to be ruling out.
I go, but I go carefully, recognizing the danger. And I go openly, so that you can follow along, up until I fall into the quicksand. With luck, you will help me out again. Deal?
With those preliminaries out of the way, let’s talk about what it means to be curious about people. I ask for more than surface curiosity. Yes, I’d like to know where you work and what music you listen to. I’d like to hear where you vacation and what you read. I’d even like to know what religious label you identify with, be it Atheist, Buddhist, Neo-Pagan, Presbyterian, or Post-Denominational. I’m interested. And for all of those categories, I don’t think I’m supposed to judge whether you are closer to or farther from God/Enlightenment/Goodness/What have you. I’m not supposed to have a little meter in my mind that goes from evil to holy, ridiculous to sublime, or even simply bad to good. I think of these as “soteriometers” which is just a theology geek way of saying, devices to measure salvation. I avoid the soteriometers, because, nine times out of ten, they have fine print. Just like the speedometers on foreign cars that have kilometers in big numbers and little miles-per-hour numbers underneath, most soteriometers run from “negligible” to “fascinating.” We use them as excuses to ignore people who don’t measure up.
Worse yet, the final one in ten soteriometers attempt to measure dignity – how much people are worth. They run from “worthless” to “praiseworthy.’ Worthless people don’t measure up and harming them is, to those who read these meters, no big deal. Just as I would not consider a rock’s feelings when I move it out the way to sit down, so I would not consider the feelings of a worthless person when choosing my actions.
For the record: there are no worthless people.
Neither are some people worth more than others. Think about that for a while. I strive to care about the feelings and priorities of everyone I meet. Here’s the rub. Deep curiosity (and love or compassion) requires you to ask exactly this question. What are his feelings? What are her priorities? Those are the meaningful questions I want to ask and the profound answers I want to hear. That’s what I look for. And, because I care about those things, I will be looking for times when your priorities don’t match up – when what you say, what you do, and what I thought of you don’t all match up.
It’s not the same as judgment. There is no scale running from bad to good. Instead, I see a range from comprehension – this is the person I know – to confusion – this is someone new. Comprehension is comforting and confusion provocative. One is not better than another, though there is definitely a time and a place for each.
When someone tells me they are Christian and does not show love, it confuses me. I have to hold my idea of “Christian” in tension with their demonstration of “Christian.” That’s frustrating. It is not (or should not be) a judgment of their worth. Rather it is a judgment of our relationship with one another. It invites me to learn more. It also causes pain. We always feel pain when we realize our picture of the world is incomplete.
We can respond to that pain by making the provocation disappear; we can ignore or even eliminate the problem. Or we can respond with curiosity.
Whenever someone applies a religious label to themselves, it sparks this kind of curiosity in me. The word means something. What does it mean? And what does it tell me about the person? And does that word match up with all of the other words shouted by their actions?
“Atheist” causes problems when it comes to values. I could take the word at face value and assume that a person has no substantial priorities, no feelings or preferences, which I could respect or ignore. I have yet to meet a single atheist for whom this was the case. I know many atheists with profound ethical commitments lived out beautifully. Honestly, I care more passionately about what you hold dear than I do about your abstract intellectual commitment to a personal all-powerful deity. If I say, “I’m a Christian,” and you respond, “I’m an Atheist,” we may be talking past each other.
Most atheists in my experience, don’t take the word at face value either. The ones I know are usually rationalists (who value thinking clearly and worry that belief in God works against it). I enter these discussions with the assumption that I share a value for rationality with them. When someone tells me that they are Atheist and then demonstrates poor reasoning, it confuses me.
I’m tougher on Atheists than I am on Christians when it comes to reasoning, just as I am tougher on Christians than I am on Atheists when it comes to love. It has to do with my best guess about their priorities and how to honor them. It has to do with how I attempt to communicate with the words I use. It has to do with curiosity and, when I’m doing well, it has nothing to do with judgment.
I listen and talk in the hopes of honoring other people’s priorities. I have noticed that many Christians and Atheists do this silent work of judging – the good kind and the bad kind – while speaking of their “faith” or “lack of faith,” but fail to communicate. They worry that the other person is avoiding the “real issue,” partly because they have different ideas about what the real issue is. For me it’s love-as-curiosity and for that reason, I hope reading this will help you listen and talk just a bit more clearly.