Inside, outside, upside-down. The more life moves toward binary code—what isn’t computerized these days?—the more scholars are moving away from simple binaries. Just when I thought I was getting used to this sacred/profane divide, academics are scrapping it for more nuanced paradigms not based on any assumptions of presumed deities and their projected wishes. Nothing as simple as “either/or” could justify all these salaries for stuff you can just look up on the internet, after all. Still, binaries are a very human way of looking at the world. Light and dark doesn’t mean there aren’t all the shades in between. And the very basic difference between inside and outside may be far more helpful than it might appear.
Being inside a religious tradition—really being inside—creates a pattern of thinking that frames all of one’s experience of life. While reading about the Book of Mormon recently this became clear to me. Looking at it from the outside is something those on the inside have great trouble doing. The same is true of various Eastern Orthodox Christian traditions, or Evangelicalism. Those living on the inside of tightly constrained ways of thinking—believing—can’t see what it looks like from the outside. I suspect that not all religions traditions fall into such ways of thinking; there are shades here. “Mainstream” Christianities, for example, tend to blend at the edges and those inside might have an idea of how those on the outside view them. Lutherans know the jokes about their outlooks and can even tell them. Methodists and Presbyterians too. They tend to conform a bit to expectations and tend not to be extremist about things. Being mainstream will do that to you.
It is unusual for a person to change religious traditions. Those who do can see their former tradition from the outside—whether mainstream of not—with a kind of objectivity that frightens true believers. Most religions have some tenets that look a bit unbelievable when viewed from outside. Once seen from that perspective, however, there’s no unseeing it. I grew up Fundamentalist. After some time in the mainstream Methodist tradition I could see Fundamentalism from the outside. When I eventually joined the Episcopal Church I had been viewing it from the outside my entire life up to that point. Looking at faith traditions inside out offers perspectives otherwise not to be had. Nobody wants to believe the wrong religion. Perhaps that’s why it’s so difficult to look at your own from the outside. You have to be willing to accept shades of gray, even if looking at it in a binary way.