It’s been an interesting year for me as I’ve consciously completed a theological shift that began almost a decade ago. In many ways, it feels a lot like a return to a trajectory I was on before I immersed myself in the subculture of fundamentalism during high school and college. As I’ve stated elsewhere, the years I spent in that subculture pretty much ruined me for evangelicalism, even in its more moderate, intelligent, and compassionate expressions. This blog represents one attempt on my part to think out loud and publicly about the theological implications of my current trajectory.
The past few weeks have presented me with an unbelievable diversity of reactions from folks in the evangelical camp. At one point, things got so bad that my wife asked me if I was “a lightning rod for angry fundamentalists.” At another point, I was being thanked for my words by evangelical members of my own denomination.
[Side note: Before I continue, it bears noting that I do not use the related terms evangelical and fundamentalist synonymously. All (Protestant) fundamentalists are evangelical, but not all evangelicals are fundamentalists. I would once again recommend the many fine books of folks like Brian McLaren, Jim Wallis, N.T. Wright, and Tony Campolo. I would describe all of the above authors as non-fundamentalist evangelicals. And this list is by no means exhaustive. Most of my evangelical friends tend to identify themselves with Martin Luther and John Wesley rather than William Jennings Bryan and John Gresham Machen. End side note.]
With all of this activity going on, it seems like a good time for me to list the things that I value from my evangelical upbringing. These are the gifts of this tradition that I hope to carry with me and use to “brighten the [theological] corner” where I now find myself. There are three such gifts, which I will label as follows: Spirituality, Bible, and Mission. The first two I came up with through my own reflection but later found in Jack Rogers’ book, Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality (WJK: 2006). The third gift is one that Rogers listed and I missed in my initial assessment. These gifts are not unique to evangelicalism, but represent distinct theological emphases that the movement has embodied and enacted in a particularly effective way. I will discuss each of these gifts in separate blog posts.
“God has no grandchildren.”
This particular turn of phrase came to me from my mother and I love it. To me, it speaks of taking personal ownership of one’s spirituality. In an effort to respect diversity in church, liberal Christians have too often shied away from being very public about their personal relationship with God. Such reticence has led many unsympathetic outsiders to presume that we don’t have one (which is not true). We tend to do such a bad job at this that our own children can grow up in our churches and leave without coming to an awareness of the spiritual depth that is there. A few of them find their way to evangelical churches but most simply abandon church altogether.
The necessity for taking personal ownership of one’s spirituality is one thing that evangelicals do extremely well. They intentionally provide an access portal to the divine that allows their adherents to engage with faith and grow in a way that is energetic and dynamic. While I hate it when people bash the term religion (a beautiful word that needs rescuing these days), I can appreciate what evangelicals mean when they say that, for them, Christianity is “a relationship, not a religion.”
I think it’s high time that liberal Christians got more vocal about our personal relationship with God. We need to build one another up with the stories of our encounters with the divine. We need to let our children (and the world) know that there is a vast and deep reservoir of power and love in which we live, move, and have our being. This reservoir is available to any and all who desire to drink from its living waters. Respecting diversity does not mean watering down our spirituality to the lowest common denominator. Consciously embracing the life of the spirit does not necessarily make us into fanatics. In fact, it has the effect of empowering us in our ministries of compassion and justice. Too often, I’ve seen well-meaning activists burn out and lose hope in the struggle for justice. They have a desperate need for enthusiasm in its most literal sense (“God-full-ness“).
I am reminded of Martin Luther King’s famous “kitchen table” experience where he found himself exhausted and at the end of his rope late one night after a threatening phone call. He sat with a cup of coffee at his kitchen table and contemplated giving up the fight for justice and equality. In prayer, he confessed his weakness and asked for help. And, just then, he felt like he heard an inner voice saying to him (I paraphrase), “Stand up for righteousness and I will be with you.”
Liberal Christians need to start sharing stories like this one with one another. Too many folks inside and outside our churches assume that, because we don’t talk about our relationship with God, we don’t have one. Many (unfairly and erroneously) call us “dead churches.” It’s time to show them how wrong they are. Gone are they days when speaking openly about spirituality was taboo. Provided that we maintain respect for those whose spiritual experience is different from our own, we carry within ourselves the capacity to feed ourselves and one another with our stories. The light that is within us can help to illumine the path for those around us. Let’s not hide that light under a bushel! Liberal Christians, let it shine!