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On Being An Outsider
November 8, 2008, 2:51 pm
Filed under: Christian Experience, Culture

The other day a friend from my department walked in wearing a poppy.  I told him that I had thought about wearing one, but that I was a bit concerned about the political message it would send.  (Mostly in the ‘office politics’ sense of politics.)  He laughed at me.  He said that you’d have to be a real asshole to misinterpret the wearing of a poppy as anything other than a sign of respect to those who died in battle. 

You should know that this friend is about as conventional as you get, in terms of his philosophical views.  At least conventional in terms of the conventions of the modern university and the tradition of analytic philosophy.  Me, I’m much more of an outsider.  As an outsider I’m very concerned with the message that I send out, both in terms of what I say and what I do.  I’m very careful to craft just the right kind of persona.  It’s not that I try to suck up, or pander to people with power.  Far from it.  I’m pretty sure that I come across as slightly mysterious and aloof.  (That actually works in philosophy.  Even if it doesn’t help you navigate a successful academic career, it does makes you seem deep and thoughtful.)  I’m always trying to destabilize prejudice and introduce surprise.  And so I’m concerned with whether or not poppy wearing will confirm somebody’s prejudice against me.

Anyway, I’ve always understood myself to be an outsider.  I may not be a visible minority, but I am a kind of intellectual and spiritual minority.  I get the sense that most folks assume that to be a seriously devout Christian person is to be perfectly aligned with the power structures of our culture.  Maybe in Alabama.  But I’ve never experienced that ’round these parts.  To be a seriously devout Christian in the major cultural institutions of the modern west is to be an intellectual and spiritual outsider.

In this way, I think I understand what it is like to be a Muslim in the modern west.  In fact, I’m pretty sure about that one based upon my direct and indirect experiences with Muslims on campus.  The funny thing is that if my full blown views about Islam were aired, I’d likely be brought up on charges or at least publicly shamed.  But throw me in a room with some seriously devout Muslims and we’d get along fine, even as we deeply disagreed with each other about important matters.  

Still, I’m very comfortable as an outsider.  In a sense, I understand myself to be a cross-cultural missionary.  And I’m more comfortable out in the mission field than back home.  Make sense?


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