“The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected.”
-from the Illustrated London News, April 19, 1924
Vida Dutton Scudder (1861-1954) was a professor at Wellesly College, a member of the Socialist party, and a prominent activist in the Episcopal Church. She was involved in the Social Gospel movement, the campaign for labor rights, the equality of women, and (eventually) pacifism. She helped to organize the Women’s Trade Union League, the Episcopal Church Socialist League, and joined the Society of the Companions of the Holy Cross. Vida and her partner, Florence Converse, lived together for 35 years, from 1919 until Vida’s death in 1954. She is celebrated in the Episcopal Church’s calendar of saints: her feast day is on October 10.
Earlier today, as I was reading Diana Butler Bass’s book A People’s History of Christianity, I came across an amazing prediction of Scudder’s that Butler Bass took from Scudder’s 1912 book Socialism and Character. In this passage, Scudder prophesies the advent of mainline church decline, which eventually started to happen in the latter half of the 20th century. I was amazed at how closely Scudder’s views resemble my own, except that she was writing a full century before I started thinking about it. Listen to what Scudder has to say:
One certitude is forced on us : it is unlikely that Christianity will retain so nominally exclusive a sway as it has hitherto done in western Europe. In all probability, the day of its conventional social control is passing and will soon be forgotten. The time will come when the Christian faith will have to fight for right of way among crowding antagonists as vigorously as in the times of Athanasius and Augustine.
And in thoughts like these all genuine Christians must rejoice. Without the call to high adventure, the faith has never flourished.
Start your Monday by singing along with Marcy Matasick. I came across this little ditty through the Christian Left group on Facebook. It’s set to the old Sunday School hymn, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus”. And it’s not a bad bit of gentle fingerpicking, I might add. Enjoy!
I haven’t done a book review in a while, but I’ve been reading some good ones. Just yesterday, I finished Faith Without Certainty: Liberal Theology in the 21st Century (Skinner House: 2005) by Paul Rasor, a Unitarian Universalist minister and college professor who currently works as director of the Center for the Study of Religious Freedom.
Enemies and allies of liberal theology are similarly inclined to use the term ‘liberal’ as a synonymn for ‘other’. Until the last year or two, I myself was completely unaware of the historical depth contained within the joint traditions of Unitarianism and Universalism. Knowing only what I’d been told from my evangelical upbringing, I had always thought that Unitarian Universalists (UUs) were ‘loosey-goosey’ and ‘airy-fairy’ liberals who had respect for neither tradition nor truth and adopted an ‘anything goes’ policy in regard to morality and ethics. I would tell jokes like:
Q: What do you get when you cross a Jehovah’s Witness with a Unitarian Universalist?
A: Someone who comes knocking on your door for no apparent reason.
OK, I have to admit that I still chuckle at that one, even though I know it’s not true. UUs are deeply committed to their theology and ethics. If one knocks at your door, you can bet that it’s for a very good reason. What I discovered is that UUs (as well as other religious liberals) are committed to process over content. In other words, they’re more interested in how you live than what you believe. This is beautifully reflected in the UUA’s Seven Principles. I would love to go into greater detail about them here, but that will have to wait for another blog post. The UUA, while it represents the largest organized group of religious liberals, is not the only place where they hang out. There continue to be many of us who try to embody a similar flavor of religion within our respective communities. What matters is that we who identify ourselves with this label (‘liberal’) must be able to simultaneously hold and share a conscious awareness of who we are and what we stand for in a positive sense.
Given the myriad ways that the term ‘liberal’ gets thrown around without being defined, I’m grateful for Rasor’s concise and readable primer that actually digs into the real roots and trajectories of the liberal theological tradition.
If you don’t have time to read the entire book, the first two chapters after the introduction will familiarize you with what it is that religious liberals believe and how we came to embrace those values. Whether you’re out to support or criticize us, it’s important that you know what you’re getting into. Love or hate us for what we are, not what we’re not.
The remainder of the book lays out some of the challenges and frontiers that liberal theology is currently facing in its ongoing development. With the arrival of the postmodern era, liberal religion (as a decidedly modern phenomenon) is reevaluating many of its core commitments (in much the same way that evangelical Christians (another modern movement) are also doing via the ‘Emergent Church’ movement). Hard and fast categories, such as rugged individualism and universal human experience, are being questioned in the light of community, culture, and language.
Rasor is highly critical of his own liberal tradition in relation to issues of race and social class. Despite its value of diversity, liberal religion continues to exist as a predominantly white and middle-class movement. While his criticisms are honest and accurate, I wish that he had spent more time with them. He mentions social Darwinism and the rise of manifest destiny in America, but he says nothing of Eugenics or the Holocaust, both of which were fueled in part by liberal theology. These massive moral failures demonstrate that no one group, however utopian their ideals, is above the human tendency toward self-justified violence and oppression. My primary criticism of Rasor’s book is that it seems to minimize and/or ignore these most prominent failures of liberal religion.
On the other hand, I was highly impressed by Rasor’s distinction between liberal and liberation theologies. These two categories are often associated with one another in the common mind, mainly because of shared emphases on social justice. However, as Rasor observes, they arise from different historical sources, make use of different methods, and emerge with very different values and convictions. Liberation theologians tend to hold scripture and tradition much more closely, even as they criticize and reinterpret them. Not all theological liberals are liberation theologians (and vice versa). One need only look at the sermons of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador to see his deep commitment to the historical orthodoxy of Roman Catholicism. If anything, I came away from Rasor’s book with an awareness that the construction of a theology that is simultaneously liberal and liberationist would prove to be a most difficult task. Indeed, evangelicals would probably have an easier time of it, given the place they grant to the Bible in their theological systems.
All in all, I highly enjoyed Rasor’s book during my two weeks of vacation. I expect that I will keep it on my shelf and refer to it often as a concise introduction to what religious liberals actually believe.
Here is a link to an excellent annotated bibliography of several popular-level primers on Liberal (a.k.a. ‘Progressive’) Christianity. For those who wonder what we’re all about, I’d say this is a good place to start. If your looking for one book to begin with, I’d recommend the one at the very top: Marcus Borg’s The Heart of Christianity. It’s concise and well-written for folks on a non-academic level.
It’s an article on the website Spirituality & Practice, which I found by hanging around at Abundance Trek, which is just one of the blogs kept up by my friend, John Wilde. There are many people in this world who strive to be unique individuals who defy all conventional categories; John is one of the very few souls who actually accomplishes it. How like Jesus…
Today marks the end of a series of blog posts called Evangelical Lessons for Liberal Christians.
I’ve been looking at some of the things that evangelicals do really well and exploring some of the ways in which liberal Christians might benefit by taking seriously the gifts of our evangelical cousins. Life has been pretty rough as of late in the mainline Protestant churches. Battle lines have been drawn between evangelicals and liberals and the armies are loading and aiming. In some sections, shots have already been fired from both sides. I’m beginning to feel a bit like Prince Arjuna in the Bhagavad-Gita: parking my chariot between the two armies and imagining that there must be a better way than war. Perhaps that’s not the best analogy to use since, in the Bhagavad-Gita, Krishna ultimately advises Arjuna to fight and kill. Well, with all due respect to Krishna, maybe I’ll get better advice if I imagine Jesus with me in the chariot.
My colleagues tell me that they expect this summer’s General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church to be a bloodbath. I’m hoping that’s not necessarily the case. With blog posts like these, I’m hoping that we might be able to foster the growth of a more generous spirit within liberals and evangelicals alike. Perhaps, as it was for Arjuna, the end result will be the same, but maybe we can change the spirit of the split, so that the seeds of future reconciliation might be sown today.
Enough of that for now. This series isn’t about denominational schism. It’s about those qualities of evangelicals that liberal Christians can and ought to appreciate and imitate. Let’s get to it, shall we?
In the first installment, God Has No Grandchildren, we looked at the ways in which evangelicals do such a great job of taking personal ownership of their spirituality (a.k.a. their relationship with God). In the second post, Romancing The Book, we looked at the evangelical passion for the Bible. In this final chapter, I want to talk about the evangelical commitment to mission and what liberal Christians can learn from it.
In many ways, mission is at the very heart of what it means to be evangelical. The name evangelical comes from the Greek word euangelion, which means, “Good news.” Evangelicals are all about announcing good news to the world.
They tend to mobilize quickly and effectively using grassroots techniques. Evangelicals were the ones, primarily through the Baptists and Methodists, who most effectively brought Christianity to the American frontier during the periods of colonialism and westward expansion. During the 19th and 20th centuries, they spearheaded international missionary efforts to Asia, Africa, and Latin America. In fact, evangelicals did such a good job at this that the churches they started a century ago are now sending missionaries back to North America and Europe to “re-evangelize” our increasingly secular societies.
Take my own denominational tradition (Presbyterianism) as an example. We have our historical roots in Scotland but, numerically speaking, the Presbyterian Church of East Africa has about twice the membership of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and more than eight times the membership of the Church of Scotland. The world’s largest Presbyterian congregation (Myungsung Presbyterian Church) is located in Seoul, South Korea. Say what you will about evangelicals, they know how to get things done!
Liberal Christians, on the other hand, have a tendency to be more self-critical, inward-focused, and reliant upon institutional infrastructure. The one thing that we constantly seem to forget is that the church is ever only one generation away from extinction. A church is never so well-established in a community that it can excuse itself from putting faith into action outside its own walls.
When liberal Christians talk about “doing mission,” they usually mean supporting various nonprofit organizations that do good work in a community. If you were to look at the various projects supported by the mission committee at my congregation, only one is operated in-house. Another was started by a former-pastor, but is now run by folks from other churches. Most of the time, they send money to other agencies. Don’t get me wrong, that’s a good thing. These agencies desperately need the support. Last winter, a low-income daycare provider in our county would have shut down or reduced services if it had not been for the last-minute financial support of congregations like ours. However, I worry about us when we limit our sense of “mission” to just giving money to nonprofit service agencies. I would like to see us also donating our time and talents to these groups.
Let our churches develop a reputation for the kind of hands-on care that made Jesus and the early Christians (in)famous. The Roman emperor Julian complained to the pagan high priest of Galatia that these “impious” Christians were winning converts because of the way they cared for the poor. This was particularly true during times of plague, when Christians would risk their lives by staying in the infected cities to treat the ill and bury the dead, regardless of religious affiliation.
St. Lawrence the Deacon, when ordered to turn over “the treasures of the church” to government officials, emptied the church coffers into the street and then gathered the poor and destitute together in front of the governor’s office saying, “Behold, the treasures of the church!”
Doesn’t this provide a stellar model for socially engaged, grassroots ministry among liberal Christians? We come to the mission field with a sense of self-awareness, cultural sensitivity, and respect for pluralism. At our very best moments, our acts of service and justice preach silent sermons to the lost souls of this world who are looking for a place to belong. In times more recent than those of Julian and Lawrence, pastors such as Walter Rauschenbusch (early 20th century Baptist) have found their social consciousness awakening as they serve churches in communities like Hell’s Kitchen in New York. The Social Gospel movement, of which Rauschenbusch was an early leader, is responsible for many blessings that we now take for granted: child labor laws, workplace safety regulations, weekends, paid vacation, retirement and healthcare benefits, and minimum wage, just to name a few. Later in the same century, Martin Luther King led his prophetic grassroots campaign against racism, poverty, and militarism. Dorothy Day and the Berrigan brothers led activist campaigns for labor rights, racial equality, and nuclear disarmament. The Catholic Worker movement, which they founded and supported, now has houses of hospitality in almost every major city in the United States. When liberal Christians get engaged in mission, we do it well.
Even though we don’t tend to go out with gospel tracts and religious sales pitches for “winning souls,” I consider these efforts of liberal Christians to constitute an effective witness for Christ. People are drawn to communities with open hearts, open minds, open arms, and open doors. In our individualist and increasingly isolated North American society, people are looking for belonging more than believing. They are attracted to churches that make a difference in this world. They want a spiritual community where they can feel welcomed and get involved in something that really matters.
That’s where folks are most likely to discover for themselves that God is real and Jesus is worth following.
We liberal Christians need to get a clue from our evangelical brothers and sisters. We need to get out of our pews and into the streets to share some good news in word and deed. The only way to save our lovely churches is to get outside of them. So, let’s get out there are let people know who we are and where we’re from. Speak up and act out in the name of your faith!
Just as the disciples left their nets in the boat to follow Jesus, leave your capital campaigns, steeple restoration projects, stained-glass windows, pipe organs, and hymnals. Take to the streets again!
The fact that the word “evangelical” means “good news” doesn’t mean that liberal Christians don’t have good news to proclaim as well. We do. In the same way, the fact that the word “liberal” means “freedom” doesn’t mean that evangelicals don’t value freedom of heart and mind. They do.
Some folks wonder why I’ve decided to be so intentional about using the loaded terms “evangelical” and “liberal.” Many think we should do away with labels and categories altogether. I’m not convinced that’s such a good thing. First of all, it’s just plain inaccurate. We have two very distinct versions of Christianity that are currently coexisting in our mainline churches. We’ve got to call them something, otherwise we won’t have an accurate picture of who we really are. The various attempts to hold “the middle ground” seem to have resulted in an amorphous and watery theology that fails to challenge or inspire anyone. Rather than eliminating our theological categories, why don’t we be honest about our diversity and focus instead on how our camps are relating to one another?
I don’t want to meet evangelicals on “the middle ground.” I want to be a liberal Christian who respects evangelicals and makes room for them to be who they are and do what they feel called to do, so long as we get to do the same. I hope this series of blog posts has contributed to making that dream a reality.
This was a video that I meant to include in the previous post, Romancing the Book: Evangelical Lessons for Liberal Christians.
It was produced by Fr. Matthew Moretz, an Episcopal priest and classmate of my wife’s at Davidson College. He does a great job of discussing the Bible in this installment of his enlightening and hilarious series: Fr. Matthew Presents…
You can see them all on YouTube!
This is part 2 of 3 in a series of posts called Evangelical Lessons for Liberal Christians. Evangelicals, much maligned among liberals, nonetheless possess an impressive array of gifts and skills that can benefit the larger Christian community, including those who do not share their beliefs and biases. Liberal Christians are so quick to self-identify as “not evangelical” or “not that kind of Christian” that we have developed a nasty habit of tossing babies out with the bathwater. I’m suggesting that we all go outside and recover these babies from the muddy ground outside (although we may have to give them another bath before we bring them back into our house).
Wow… I’m really stretching that metaphor.
In my first post, entitled God Has No Grandchildren, we talked about how evangelicals have done an amazing job of taking personal ownership of their spiritual lives. For them, Christianity is not a set of dogmas, morals, and rituals to which one defaults by accident of birth. For them, it is a whole-hearted commitment of one’s self to an ongoing relationship with the divine.
In today’s post, I want to talk about the Bible.
As far as religious communities go, none have had a more passionate love affair with the Bible than have evangelicals. They tend to take it with them wherever they go: church, work, school, and vacation. They sometimes refer to it as their sword (a source of strength) and other times as their love letter from God. Most of the time, they simply call it the Word of God. They have confidence that the voice of the Holy Spirit is able to reach, comfort, and guide them through these words on a page. Like newlyweds in the bedroom, evangelical encounters with the Bible are intense and frequent (if a bit messy and awkward). They tend to devour it, even though they don’t understand much of what they’re reading.
Liberal Christians, on the other hand, tend to relate to the Bible like an older couple in a long-term relationship. In place of the young lovers’ passion, they have developed a deep respect for its mystery and complexity. They let those old, familiar words wash over them and anchor them to all time and eternity. There are still some things they don’t like about the Bible, but they’ve learned how to accept those things and still appreciate the Bible for what it is.
Liberal Christians, while they tacitly accept the appellation “Word of God” as applied to the Bible, tend to cringe at notions of inerrancy and infallibility. For us, the Bible is not a magical book that was somehow “beamed down” from heaven without flaw or error. Why then do we still refer to them as the Word of God? I love the answer given in the Catechism found in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer (1979):
We call them (the Holy Scriptures) the Word of God because God inspired their human authors and because God still speaks to us through the Bible.
I love this answer’s dual emphasis on inspiration and continual speaking. Liberal Christians believe that the divine Word is speaks to us “in, with, and under” (a phrase I’m borrowing from Luther’s sacramental theology) the human words on the page. For those of us in the Reformed (and always reforming) tradition of Protestant Christianity, we identify Christ as the true and Living Word of God. The scriptures, as we have them, constitute a witness to that Living Word. In other words, the early disciples experienced something extraordinary in the person of Christ and spend the rest of their lives wrestling with what it meant. The Christian churches have continued to wrestle with that mystery for almost two millennia. These days, we are less certain than ever about our particular answers, but more convinced than ever about the overall importance of what we’ve found.
In our less glorious moments, liberal Christians have tended to abandon this treasure of the faith to those who would abuse it and co-opt it for their own selfish ends. Our respect for the complexity and mystery of the Bible has sometimes led us to throw our hands up in despair that anyone could ever know what this crazy book is talking about. We despise trite and easy answers taken from text on a page, which leads us to sometimes give up hope of finding any guidance at all. In our very worst moments, we tend to cut and paste the parts we like and throw out or ignore the parts we don’t. My favorite example of this kind of project is the famous Bible produced by my American forbear, Thomas Jefferson. He didn’t like the idea of supernatural miracles, so he just cut those parts out. These days, many liberal Christians have a tendency to cut out the parts about judgment and sex, as if the Bible had nothing valuable to say about these topics. To be fair, many evangelicals do the same thing. They underline their favorite verses about individual salvation and “the pelvic issues” while they ignore the passages that emphasize the importance of social justice or suggest the possibility of universal salvation.
The tendency toward idolatry is a human universal, not unique to evangelicals or liberals. We all have an instinctual urge to recast Jesus as an advocate for our own personal ideology. We all tend to hear our own voices, rather than God’s speaking to us in the text of the Bible. Anne Lamott once wrote, “You can safely assume that you’ve made God in your own image when she hates all the same people you do.”
I was speaking with a colleague once at a pastor’s retreat on Christian spirituality. I was talking about the central role that the Bible plays in shaping our spirituality. He asked, “Does it have to be through the Bible?” I responded that it doesn’t have to be through the Bible, but it gets to be. As Christians, we have the privilege of conducting our collective faith-journey in dialogue with this cacophonous chorus of voices from the past. I see the Bible as a library, rather than a book. It’s a messy collection of stories, poems, and letters that chronicle our ancestors’ relationship with God. They stretched to describe the indescribable. They failed to capture the essence of the divine in their writings, but they did leave a number of helpful signposts. I love the scriptures for their messiness. It gives me hope for myself. God never gave up on Abraham, Israel, or Peter, so I have every reason to trust that God will not give up on me.
The exercise that has most helped me recover the Bible as a tool for my spiritual growth is a practice developed by monks over a thousand years ago. It’s called Lectio Divina, which is Latin for “Divine Reading.” Here’s how it works:
- Sit down with a short passage of scripture (e.g. Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15). Read it slowly. Out loud, if you can. Maybe even stopping at every verse or sentence.
- Pay attention to any words or phrases that “jump out at you” or seem to touch your life in some significant way.
- Take a moment to process what that word or phrase means to you right now, in this moment. You’re not looking for once-and-for-all absolutely authoritative interpretations. You’re listening for what God is saying to you today through this passage. God might be saying something completely different to someone else through those same words. God might say something completely different to you tomorrow through those same words. The Spirit blows where it wills…
- Craft a prayer of response to what you think you’ve heard. This can be a prayer of thanksgiving, a request for help, or a dedication of oneself to service.
- Sit still for a period of extended silence while you contemplate God’s presence within and around you. It might help to focus your attention on the normally unconscious act of your breathing or perhaps pick a special word to guide and focus your meditation.
- Close by reading the passage slowly once more. Be thankful for what you have encountered in this process.
I think that liberal Christians have an opportunity to re-engage with the Bible in a passionate way. We can begin our “second honeymoon” with this old partner and rekindle in ourselves the romance we admire in our evangelical brothers and sisters.
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!