Liberal theology decloaking in hostile territory

I don’t often link to the big name bloggers: I assume everyone’s either already reading them or consciously ignoring them. But in this case I can’t help but stand up to lodge an “Amen”–and add a few notes of commentary.

First, please read this excerpt from Rachel Held Evans’ blog. I feel I could have written every thought in it.

Frankly, I find the whole conversation a bit depressing. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want either group to “meet its demise” because I love elements of both! In fact, I think there are a lot of progressive, mainline churches that could benefit from a shot of evangelicalism, and a lot of evangelical churches who could benefit from a shot of progressivism. We have so much to learn from one another, but instead we’re like a pair of toddlers fighting over space in the sandbox.

But if the early church could survive—and in fact, thrive amidst persecution—when it included both Jews and Gentiles, zealots and tax collectors, slaves and owners, men and women, those in support of circumcision and those against it, those staunchly opposed to eating food that had been sacrificed to idols and those who felt it necessary, then I think modern American Christianity can survive when it includes democrats and republicans, biblical literalists and biblical non-literalists, Calvinists and Arminians…so long as we’re not rooting for one another’s demise.

With this in mind, maybe being “in between” isn’t so bad. Maybe being “in between” puts those of us who find ourselves torn between conservative Christianity and liberal Christianity in a position to act as peacemakers and bridge-builders between the two groups. Maybe it enables us to help break down these binaries altogether, as we are living proof that you don’t have to choose one or the other.

I’m not exactly sure what this peacemaking process will look like, but I have a few ideas of how we can get started:

Let’s be ourselves.

This may surprise you, seeing as how I’m a blogger with an outspoken opinion on everything, but when I’m a part of a conservative Christian community, I tend to keep my more progressive views quiet, and when I’m a part of a more liberal Christian community, I tend to keep my more liberal views quiet. I don’t want to cause division. I don’t want to be shamed. I don’t want to make Sunday mornings any more difficult than they already are.

And so I essentially fake it through worship and community activities, accepting whatever “package” that particular church has to offer, then feeling distant and removed as I go through the motions before eventually quitting.

But what if I stopped faking it? What if I brought myself—my gifts, my questions, my opinions—to church? What if, instead of conforming to the mold, I refused to accept it?

[from “Liberal Christianity, Conservative Christianity, and the Caught-In-Between“]

I’ve certainly been thinking along these lines lately. A couple of weeks ago I toyed with the idea of starting something of a campaign among bloggers of my theological ilk, those of us whom Rachel Held Evans might call the Caught-In-Betweeners. This grassroots movement would be about coming out of the theologically liberal closet. If I judge the enthusiastic response to Evan’s latest post aright, it looks like she’s beaten me to the punch!

In my conservative environment, I’ve recently started being convicted that these conservative Christians really need to know that people like me exist. I guarantee that a preposterous number of people in my church have never even considered the possibility that you could trust in Jesus as Lord of all creation and be an evolutionist, despite the fact that I am aware of a couple people in our congregation beside myself who accept evolutionary theory. No wonder they view us as outsiders: they haven’t ever met us inside!

Like Evans, many of us are playing it safe, being in our conservative environments with our in-between-stolid-conservative-and-flaming-liberal faith incognito. Lord knows it’s not easy to “come out”, is it? I have some things at stake, unfortunately: in particular, I have a side job doing something I really enjoy, but it’s run by an outfit that wouldn’t be happy to know my stances on these contentious issues. I have several friends who have suffered some painful emotional persecution when their beliefs were made known. But in most of these cases, it seems they did not freely divulge themselves: they were “outed” by someone else. And that always looks worse, doesn’t it?

I’m not saying that there wouldn’t be negative repercussions from a decision to “stand up and be counted”. But as long as we act in humility, not as evangelists for our pet causes but as honest people who occasionally find the need to gently correct misconceptions about our beliefs when presented as fact within our churches and faith communities, I think we can weather the inevitable storm better. I know it’d be more healthy for me and my poor wife.

If I felt I were part of a bigger movement, one of many friends taking our shades off, hanging up our trenchcoats, and removing our disguises, I think I could handle it. I predict that it would be good for them as well as for us In-Betweeners. It’s one thing to hear that there are weirdos who believe that God created through evolution; it’s another to know and rub shoulders with those people in intimate social settings like being members of the same church. It’s much harder to dismiss them and their strange beliefs when you know them personally.

So again, I’m toying with the idea of advocating a campaign, or probably better, a resolution to decloak.

Not sure how thrilled the Romulans will be about the Enterprise “boldly” showing up like this.

Abandoning the most conservative brands of Christianity doesn’t entail either abandoning the faith or, at best, adopting a wishy-washy spirituality. Our hard-won faith and theological perspectives are worth more than that: if we believe our understanding of the faith is true and worth holding onto, then it deserves attention and devotion; it deserves to be understood by our fellow believers; at least it deserves to have its existence acknowledged.

I know what many of you are thinking. “Why rock the boat?

I want to address one of the better reasons for remaining quiet and not disturbing things. Many of us do so out of a conviction that we don’t need to challenge people’s faith when they’re not ready for it. I hear a couple of my friends saying things like, “Far be it from me to upset them and send them on the sort of precarious journey I’ve been on. They’re happy in their faith, not hurting anyone.”

But they are hurting someone.

  • They’re hurting their children by leaving them unprepared for incontestable scientific evidence against their creationism.
  • They’re hurting society by polarizing political, social, and religious positions on dramatically sectarian lines, painting Evangelicalism and the GOP platform as coterminous, etc.
  • They’re hurting the viability of faith in Christ in a world that won’t simply accept their claim that the inerrant Bible dropped in our laps from heaven above.
  • And they’re hurting us, by persecuting us and making us so frustrated with them that we are reluctant to even fight to have fellowship with them, when we should and could be learning things from them.

To return to the first bullet point above, the biggest reason they need to know this is the biggest reason they fear us: their children. These kids going off to college have been prepared for assaults on their faith by their families and their faith communities, but research shows that whatever they’re doing is just not enough. And as we are now seeing highlighted in the news story prompting Evans’ post, it’s not just conservative forms of Christianity that are losing the battle. Kids who are taught to accept the whole package or throw it all out, who are never told that they must examine the contents and accept what’s good, are leaving the church in droves.

No matter how kind and loving they’re being, no matter how much sin they’re resisting, no matter what lives of holiness they are striving to live, there are factors endemic to mainstream Evangelical theology that disqualify it from being sufficient salt and light in this world. Indeed, in some of the most important ways Christianity is supposed to be ministering to our world, Evangelicals are far behind unbelievers.

For instance, look at the most common Evangelical response to homosexuals or to those in need: first we blame the individual, try to get them to repent from their lifestyles that leave them where they are, demanding that they jump through difficult hoops while offering the hope of communion with God as a carrot. Christians have to be able to minister to and accept those groups, no matter what we think their sin is, be it the sexual deviancy that is allegedly responsible for homosexuality or the laziness and selfishness that supposedly causes people to become parasites on society, rob the upstanding producers through taxation, and vote Democratic. Christians have to dine with those groups as Jesus did with the “tax collectors and sinners” of his day. We have to engage them, love them, and let God deal with the personal holiness of each individual as He sees fit.

Letting conservative Christians be without challenging their assumptions will eventually have the effect of leaving Evangelical faith with a pretty short shelf life. Isolating ourselves and simply letting them soldier on will render them irrelevant. Among those unbelievers who believe conservative Christians when they say, “It’s conservative or nothing,” our non-conservative theology is flushed down the same toilet as conservative theology. Remaining cloaked is a no-win situation.

By all means, be tactful. Know your audience. I’d caution against intentionally rocking the boat at all: that’s not what this is about. But let me make a couple of suggestions about what adopting this decloaking resolution might look like.

When someone in Sunday School waxes eloquent about the evils of godless evolution, swallow your fear and tactfully suggest that however evil godless evolution might be, evolution isn’t necessarily godless. When your Bible study assumes the legitimacy of capital punishment or the divine justice of U.S. foreign policy, be the voice that encourages them to be consistent in their convictions about the sanctity of life.

But whatever you do, remain engaged. Don’t lie, and don’t stay silent. Don’t withdraw to a safe distance. Try to learn what you can from them; share life with them. Don’t zealously divulge all of your heretical beliefs and them expect them to come around to them. Live out your beliefs with fear and trembling, including the belief we liberals think should stand out the most: love one another. Maybe even these conservative Christians will fulfill Jesus’ words and eventually be convinced that we are Jesus’ disciples by our love.

So what do you think? Are you in?

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