For the last month, I had been getting to know a new professor at the graduate program where I was also a prof. We had many fun conversations so far, and I had helped him settle in and had driven him around to show him the town. During our talks, he would occasionally pepper his conversation with religious comments to which I would tactfully not respond. Instead, I would just translate his religiosity generously and let the conversation move on. Then suddenly, one day, he confronted me, “Sabio, what do you think about Jesus Christ?”
I knew where this conversation was probably headed. And I knew that if I was honest I might offend him, but if I was illusive or vague, he would only bring it up later. So before preceding with a frank answer I checked with him, “Are you sure you want me to tell you honestly what I think about Jesus?” He replied, “Yes!”
So I told my new friend my honest opinion: “I feel Jesus was just a person who was later mythologized and then deified by his followers. But I feel that belief in Jesus as a god can serve people very well if they use it correctly.” My colleague looked a little surprised and was quiet — did not respond. In fact he did not talk to me for about two weeks after that until I broke the ice and asked him, “Hey, what is wrong? You have been avoiding conversation for a while now?” He looked at me with irritated eyes and said, “Look, don’t you think it is rude for you to have told me that my faith is all a myth?”
I answered, “Look, I was honest with you. You asked me for my opinion. Besides, which is more rude: for me to tell you I think your faith may be a myth but may be useful for you. Or for you to quietly think that my beliefs sentence me to torture without end?”
My new friend looked at me with puzzlement, paused and then said, “You are absolutely right, I never thought of it like that.” And we remained good friends after that.
Concerning the generous translations I mentioned above:
This new colleague was highly educated and a very bright. When I heard him making religious statements in the beginning of our conversations, I could have said to myself, “What a whacko ! I can’t believe he believes that bullshit.” But instead, I knew he was not a whacko and though he may hold some presuppositions I strongly disagree with, I thought of ways to translate what he said into terms I could agree with and assumed he used these beliefs to serve himself and others well. See my post on Generous Translations.
However, of course my colleague could not reciprocate and that is what led to our conflict. In my colleague’s type of Christianity he could not generously translate my statements, because in his world I was damned for eternity and all my beliefs and good actions counted for nothing. There was not one ounce of generosity that he could afford me because my friend was an exclusivist Christian. Months later he embraced a more pluralist position in his Christianity which allowed us to be much more genuine friends.