Does It Matter Who You Live With?
In this age of tolerance, you should be able to room with anyone, regardless of their beliefs, right? Not so, says Theophilus.
“Yes,” I confessed. “Usually I hear people coming. You just shimmered in, like Jeeves.”
“Never mind. Are you looking for someone?” He’d glanced over his shoulder.
“Yes, Sarah and Mary were supposed to be right behind me.” At just that moment they materialized. Sarah smiled. Mary burrowed in her backpack, and with a shower of No. 2 pencils, extracted something and handed it to me.
“Yours.” It was my missing coffee mug.
“I’m glad to see you all,” I said, “But I was just going out for a bite.”
“Have it with us,” urged Sarah.
I asked, “Is there a special occasion?” We walked to the Edge of Night.
“Not exactly,” said Mary, “but we need to pick your brains about living with non-Christians.” When I shot her a puzzled look, she turned to the others and asked, “Doesn’t he know?”
“Guess not,” said Mark. “Mary’s a Christian now, Prof.”
“Congratulations!” I exclaimed. “But why do you need to pick my brains?”
“My fault,” Mark said. “See, Professor Theophilus, I feel that part of my job here on earth is to make friends with people of different religions so that I can bring them into Christ’s kingdom.”
“I don’t see the problem.”
“Just wait,” said Mary. “He’s crazy.”
“Well,” said Mark, “My old roommate moved out. I need a new one, so I’m planning to share the rent with this person I met who follows a different religion.” Mary rolled her eyes.
“Real different.” He told me what it was. I could feel my pupils dilating.
“Told you,” said Mary.
When we arrived at the cafe, Mark asked the waitress for four cheeseburgers with fries and drinks. He had to call her back so the rest of us could order, too. Sarah resumed the story.
“See, Professor, we all belong to the same prayer group. So when Mark told us what he had in mind, Mary said he was —”
“Crazy,” chirped Mary.
“And I thought so, too. So we talked and talked, but without convincing him. Finally we thought of getting an outside opinion.”
“That’s you,” said Mark. “I promised Mary and Sarah that if you thought like they did, I’d give up the idea.”
They looked at me expectantly. I took a meditative bite of my Reuben sandwich.
“Aren’t you going to answer?” asked Mary. She looked sidelong at Mark. “And how is he going to feel when it’s his roommate’s turn to cook and he finds eye of newt in his soup?”
“They don’t do that stuff,” said Mark. “They’re just very interested in spiritual things.”
“Spiritual!” she scoffed. “Which spirits?”
“Mark,” I said finally, “I wouldn’t worry much about eye of newt. But I do get the impression that you don’t know much about your would-be roommate’s worldview and moral outlook.”
“Well, not yet.”
“You see, the problem isn’t just that your prospective roommate’s religion is strange; difficulties would arise even if this person had no particular religion at all. Either way, you can’t expect the behavior you could expect from a committed Christian.”
“I figured that with a little tolerance, we could work our problems out.”
“By itself, an agreement to be tolerant gets you nowhere.”
“Well, tolerance doesn’t mean tolerating everything, does it? It means tolerating tolerable things. To decide which frustrations are tolerable and which aren’t, don’t you need a moral framework?”
“I guess so.”
“There’s the rub. People think tolerance will enable them to get along even if they have different moral frameworks. The problem is that if your roommate’s moral framework is radically different than yours, then your roommate’s view of the tolerable may also be radically different from yours.”
“How do you mean, Professor T?”
“That’s so obvious even I can answer it,” said Mary. “Before I was a Christian I lived for a while with this Christian girl. She expected me to be tolerant of her friends coming over for things like prayer and Bible study, which I considered disgusting. To keep from hearing them pray, I’d turn up my music so loud they couldn’t even hear themselves. I insulted her friends and made her feel like a stranger in her own home.”
“Then she was right,” said Mark, “you were intolerant.”
“The way I saw it, she was the intolerant one. It was one thing after another. She didn’t want to hear my obscene music, she asked me to take down the Crispy Fried Jesus poster I’d put up in the kitchen, and she got mad the day I covered her bumpers with lesbian stickers as a gag. Get it? She was intolerant of my music, my decorating and my sense of humor.”
“Couldn’t you negotiate?”
“Sure, but I’d always win.”
“Because I held all the cards. Like the Prof said, we had different ‘moral frameworks.’ When we disagreed about what was tolerable, her rule was ‘Love your enemies’ but mine was ‘Get even.'”
“Your story is so extreme,” said Mark. “It’s hard to imagine anything like that happening in my case. My future roommate seems so — well — so nice.”
Chuckling, I leaned back to flag the waitress for an espresso. Mark looked puzzled.
“Why did you laugh just now?”
“I’m sorry. It’s just that the word you used always reminds me of an old family story.”
“What word? What story?” he asked.
“Nice,” I answered. “You said your friend was nice. When my Uncle Millard finished serving time and they finally let him out, the first thing he said to Aunt Martha was ‘You know, you meet some of the nicest people in prison.’ I’m sure he did, too.”
This time they all laughed. It broke the tension.
“OK, Prof, I’m almost convinced,” said Mark, trying to look serious and failing. “But are you saying my whole idea is wrong?”
“What do you mean by your ‘whole idea’?”
“Deliberately seeking out a non-Christian roommate. Suppose we did get along. Would you still think a non-Christian roommate was a bad idea?”
“Tell me again why you think it’s so important to have one.”
“You know, to have an influence. To win someone for Christ.”
“Like I said, crazy,” said Mary.
“What if you’d never had any Christian friends?” he retorted.
“It’s not friendship you’re talking about.”
“Mary makes a good point,” I interrupted. “In some ways, living together is much closer than being friends. Suppose you do get along. Suppose you do have influence. How do you know your roommate won’t have greater influence on you?”
“Prof!” pleaded Mark. “Is that all you think of my faith?”
“I have great respect for your faith. And, in most respects, for your maturity. But is it your faith speaking, or your pride?”
“How could it be proud to want to evangelize someone?”
“Mark, forgive me for saying so, but you’re still being formed. We all are. You can have lots of non-Christian friends, but your closest comrades should be your brothers and sisters in faith.”
“Don’t you think I can resist peer pressure?”
“Why exhaust yourself resisting peer pressure? Just get the right peers!”
Even Sarah seemed scandalized this time. “What?”
“I said, get the right peers!”
“I don’t understand,” said Mary.
“God didn’t make us to be immune to the influence of other human beings,” I explained. “He gave us social natures. The way to resist bad pressures isn’t to pretend that you’re made of steel. You resist bad pressures by putting yourself in the path of good ones. So, as I said, you need the right peers.”
“Who are you calling my right peers?” asked Mark.
“Your right peers are your partners in Christ, the people with whom you share the household of God.”
“So I can go ahead and evangelize my non-believing friends, but I shouldn’t — I shouldn’t put myself in an isolation chamber with them.” He sighed.
“Still not convinced?”
“No, I’m convinced all right. It’s just that she was already planning to move in, and I don’t look forward to phoning and telling her it’s off.”
“Excuse me,” I said. “Did you say her? The person you were planning to room with is a woman?”
“Didn’t I mention that?” said Mark. He shifted uncomfortably. “It’s not like I’d have been sleeping with her or anything.”
“That was one of the issues we’d argued about before we brought you in on the discussion, Professor T,” said Sarah.
“Yeah,” said Mary.
“See, I was trying to convince Mark that his living with someone who didn’t know the Lord was a lot more serious than my just dating one,” said Sarah.
“Suddenly this conversation seems to have speeded up,” I said. “Did you just say that you’re dating a non-believer?”
Mark perked up. Sarah reddened.
“She’s crazy, too,” said Mary.
“Maybe we should order dessert,” I suggested. “I don’t think we’re quite finished with this conversation.”
Copyright 2000 J. Budziszewski. All rights reserved.
About the Author
Professor J. Budziszewski is the author of more than a dozen books, including How to Stay Christian in College, Ask Me Anything, Ask Me Anything 2, What We Can’t Not Know: A Guide, and The Line Through the Heart. He teaches government and philosophy at the University of Texas, Austin.