I was a fly on a wall recently at a coffee shop and overheard a conversation between something like a counselor and a counseled. The counseled, it seemed, had initiated the meeting and was thrusting a series of questions at the counselor. In this coffee shop there are small tables and bars, but then there are “common” tables surrounded by couches and lounging chairs, and it was hear that I was privy to the dialogue. The counselor spoke with such aggressive volume that I did not have to work hard to hear him. I hardly count it wrongful snooping. It was voluntarily offered by these two who could not help but be aware of my proximity.
From what I could tell the counseled was a member of some sort of religious sect. He seemed sincere and inquisitive and yet, college age that he looked, he appeared lost and befuddled.
The counseled kept referring to the voice of a god that was directing his path. This he seemed confident of. But the very setting in which they talked betrayed the confidence with which the counseled spoke. Why was he peppering the counselor with twenty questions if the divine was speaking so clearly about next steps? These religious sects train their initiates to speak in ways for which no understanding is possible. Then, they praise those ways while chastising efforts at understanding. The result is a combination of superficial confidence masking deep anxiety and insecurity. The hugging of words is such a farce. There is so little in them. But the counseled was talking like a prophet while inquiring like one desperate for direction.
When the counselor inquired about the goals of the counseled, the counseled guy said family and “missions”. When the counselor asked him whether “missions” was suitable for raising a family the counseled balked and spoke of faith that it would all work. The counselor smiled. This lad had been taught that when the conversation became difficult and when thinking was called for (weighing, measuring, analyzing) to say “faith”. That would cure all. The counselor told the counseled of past efforts to have faith that his bank account would grow or that he would become otherwise powerful. Both agreed that faith was unsuitably used in these cases. But why was the faith in the balancing of a wife and young children in a foreign country relying on the charity of others any less wildly unsuitable? There were no words from the counseled. He was stuck. Sure that he was supposed to say “faith”. Unsure of how to answer its unsuitability in some cases.
Once the counselor had the counseled broken in this way, and there was much more in their dialogue, the counseled was ready to listen. The rhetoric of his religious club was shattered. He was lost. Here is what the counselor told him. Faith is for righteousness and virtue. Thinking is for moving bodies, production, trade, defense against aggression. Faith is for doing thinking well. But it doesn’t replace thinking. Faith is for not sinning. Thinking is for deciding when and where and how to not sin. Woe to the community that shames thinking and praises intentional blindness!
The counselor implored the lad to consider his future and loving of his future wife in such a way that there was tension between what loving his future wife might require and what being praised by the religious authorities might require. The former looks for strength and security. The latter looks for abandonment of thinking and embracing insecurity. The powerful love to find those willing to take great risk to advance their power. It is not as if the two satisfactions (wife and religious authority) are easily reconciled.
A final question from the counseled rings in my ears. Slowly, almost stuttering, having to force himself to utter the question he said, “You mean it is not wrong to have, like, an IRA?” My heart melted for the lad. I wanted to slap him silly and hug him and tell him it would be ok all at the same time. The counselor smiled. He told the counseled that any saving he did, knowing the heart of the lad, would be saving that was for the love of wife, children, or charity. What could be better?
The counselor reminded the counseled that the missionaries who he revered lived off of just such prosperity. There are some who will stay no matter what, but the vast majority will stay only as long as the charitable prosperity that they live on remains. And it will have to be sufficient. That this lad was under the impression that productivity, saving, prosperity was wrong or might be best avoided made me wonder what demon had taken up abode in his heart.
I thought for the rest of the day about whether that youth was representative of a subclass of lads in one of the most prosperous and comfortable places on earth. That he was sincere and willing and even ready to do the right thing was beyond doubt. But his questions and responses were so confused. That faith could somehow be substituted for calculation where calculation was necessary. That reckless adventuring in foreign countries with no skill and nothing to offer locals (missions) could be considered praiseworthy but production and saving deplorable.
Where did my thought end? The demon in him had been placed there by the religious club he was a part of. But this seemingly pagan counselor had at least disturbed it. The counseled will return to his flock. But I doubt that he returns the same. The counselor returns to his world, whatever that was. I continue to be surprised by where I am, what is going on around me, how long it can all last.