Thursday, August 14, 2014

We are one in disagreement, we are one in discord

Where's all the doctrinal unity? 

I am intrigued by this discussion, though like most internet comments, it's not nearly as thoughtful as it wants to be.  Most of the discussion, for example, just reduces the issues to one of power:

The deeper you probe on these issues, the deeper the split grows. That is the lesson of the last couple decades in this nation. The progressive agenda has been to try to ignore the conservative problem, but they did that for too long, and now bridging the divide is probably impossible. They need to face the fact that Christianity is now two totally separate religions with two very different Gods. Ignoring this just means all the progressive denominations will continue to be lost.

Which prompted this response:

You make an interesting point - "two totally separate religions with two very different Gods." I'm not sure I'm ready to go that far, but I would agree that progressive denominations have expended (wasted?) a tremendous amount of time, money and energy on trying to accommodate other perspectives where accommodation was basically impossible. We would do well to examine why such reconciliation couldn't happen. I believe it points to a fundamental disagreement about the nature of our mission, because widely divergent groups can work together if they can at least agree on the overarching mission.
What's being described there is nothing less than what has happened in Christianity since Peter and Paul argued over whether to take the gospel of Jesus to Gentiles, or to confine it only to the children of Abraham (who were, in their lifetimes anyway, not yet the "Jews").  How much accommodation, in other words, is too much?  Who to take the gospel to is as bedrock a question as Christianity faces, and yet Paul didn't tell Peter to break the church over it, and Peter never went so far as to break with Paul.  Why can't reconciliation happen?  It's a good question, but you aren't going to find the answer in the last decade or so of American political or social life.  You have to go back to the Industrial Revolution, the Romantic movement, the rise of folklore studies prompted by the Romantics which gave rise to what can be grouped together as German Biblical studies; that will get you started on the "progressive" v. "conservative" split.

As for the "accept" or "reject," that has become the position of those rejecting; why should the rest of us adopt it?  Modern Biblical Scholarship is so widely accepted even Fr. Raymond Brown, a conservative Biblical scholar by most standards, used it and came off as a radical anti-fundamentalist to those who adhere to the Scofield Bible and even the Biblical studies series I grew up with in my church library (the author of the series escapes me, but it took seminary to show me they were hardly the series Biblical studies I thought they were).  Biblical scholars don't insist there must be an "either/or," that one must either be a fundamentalist and at least quasi-literalist, or one must be an atheist.  Rudolf Bultmann's adherence to Christianity and love for the gospel message shines through his work on the Gospel of John, is present in his study of the synoptics, and is the force that drives him to write his late popular works on "demythologizing" Christianity.  He isn't trying to convert believers to atheism, he's trying to make it possible for believers to hold on to their faith in a post-Enlightenment world.  It is the fundamentalists who want to reject such thinking out of hand and insist no reconciliation is possible.  And yet there is still no reason to tell the fundamentalists, or the people who refuse to accept change, to get lost.  The church should never be about power, but only about the power of powerlessness.

But still you have to analyze that split in terms of power, of who gets to decide what is "Christian," of who gets to determine what is doctrine, even on who gets to decide what the 'overarching mission' is.  I grew up in the PCUS, and the dominant mission I remember was helping people; it was not saving souls by bringing them to accept Jesus.  We were actually pretty good about accommodating other points of view, even if that only meant not grumbling too much about the Baptists who dominated the population of the town.  We did, I recall, accommodate individuals from those who seemed more concerned with sin (most of us were agin it) to those who seemed a bit more lax on the subject (we had few Scottish elders of the type P.G. Wodehouse referenced).  That distinction on salvation became an important issue over time.  I grew up with Southern Baptist friends asking me if I was "saved," a question no one in my own church ever asked (nor did we ask others outside out church).  That concern with salvation eventually became almost universal, as American Christianity turned into a religion primarily concerned with individuals and salvation, which became more and more merely "pie in the sky bye and bye."  That movement, too, has its roots in Romanticism.  But watch closely as that argument appears again in this very contemporary discussion:

The differences between orthodox christian belief and progressive christian belief are myriad. Here are some of them:

1. Orthodoxy is a theology of divine redemption. Progressives believe in a theology of divine acceptance.

2. Orthodox: Jesus is the only way to salvation. Progressive: Jesus is one of the ways to salvation.

3. Orthodox-man is basically sinful. Progressive-man is basically good.

4. Orthodox-Core biblical claims are absolute; social and political movements are debatable. Progressives are ambiguous about core biblical claims but express confidence in social and political movements.

5 Orthodox-Abortion is always wrong. Progressives-abortion is sometimes a moral choice.

6. Orthodox-tolerance, diversity and acceptance are means to an end. Progressive-tolerance, diversity and acceptance are ends in and of themselves.
Three of those six are explicitly about soteriology, and the soteriology is very basic:  one must be saved from damnation.   The other three rest on the importance of the first three.  Most are problematic because they are matters of definition:  what, for example, are "core biblical claims" in No. 4?  Like as not many Christian denominations would, officially, disagree; and then there is the matter of what individual church members think.  Abortion doesn't even get in there except as a political concern, a cultural marker for what you think government should, or should not, do.  The last is most interesting:  tolerance, diversity, and acceptance set up as means to an end (getting everyone to be like me), v. ends in themselves (allowing everyone to be who they are).

My reading of the Prophets, especially, is that the latter ("ends in themselves") is the proper Biblical claim.  Isaiah's vision of the nations drawn to the light of Israel as the people blessed by God is not a vision of the world subjugated to the will of God, or even subject to the Torah; it is a world recognizing the wisdom and beneficence of the Creator, but not a world where everyone becomes tolerant, diverse, and accepting as a way of finally becoming the world wide nation of Israel.  Or even the world wide Kingdom of God, for that matter.  And the salvation will come, not from becoming acceptable to God, but from learning the way of living found on God's holy mountain.

As I say, I consider that a "core Biblical claim."  But it's hardly in keeping with what most people would identify as "orthodox" Christianity, and certainly not what commonly passes as salvation.  Indeed, it may be more in line with the Orthodox church than it is with American Protestant orthodoxy; and therein lies another problem:  whose Christianity are we talking about?

I guess it gets back to what is Christianity? My answer would have to be I see two different Christianities, conservative and progressive. Conservative Christianity believes all the beliefs, the Bible is true, evolution is not because it goes against the Bible, and Jesus is coming any time now to rapture believers and fight non-believers. Conservative Christians became far more dangerous when they linked up with the fiscal conservatives (Republicans) because the Republicans tell them what they want to hear, and Christians reward them with the votes to win elections, and Republicans use that power to make themselves more rich.

Progressive Christians are the opposite, although they seem to have a hard time understanding just what that means. The beliefs become optional. Adam and Eve is a story and not actual people, evolution might be true, heaven and hell might not actually exist. If you push the point, even the stories about Jesus might be metaphor and allegory, and the miracles didn't necessarily happen. So what is the basic truth of Christianity?
Maybe there is none, and everyone is responsible for their own relationship to the religion. This is a slow process. You can't just make the leap to having no beliefs, so progressive Christianity has to find a winding path that may take generations to get there.
Given that, evangelism becomes a problem. You certainly don't want the conservatives to recruit more people because that way is insanity. Progressive evangelism is needed to keep the church going and growing, but what is it recruiting for? Why is progressive Christianity better than something like secular humanism? Is it just humanism with an option of believing you will go to heaven with your loved ones? I think progressive Christianity is lost, and with no possiblility of finding themselves, because there is nothing to find, other than to find a gentle way to end the religion.
Conservative Christianity will continue to bleed off people, and skew more insane in the process, and hopefully eventually grow too small to do any more political damage to the nation.
Of course this is just a milder variant of what I call the Sam Harris definition of Christianity:  that the true believers are the ones who think Noah actually built an Ark and Jonah was actually swallowed by a whale and Jesus was really visited by magi and shepherds and angels sang for his birth, and anyone who says otherwise is just an atheist afraid to admit they are an atheist.  It's a ridiculous position which ignores about 2000 years of Christian teaching, thought, and doctrine in favor of a handful of fundamentalists from the early 20th century who wrote, interestingly enough, directly in response to those German Biblical scholars I mentioned above.  Everything is connected if you just pay enough attention; but this description of Christianity isn't really connected to anything except ignorance.

Is the basic truth of Christianity, for example, a set of historical events which must have happened as they are set down in the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament?  Why?  Medieval Europe largely took those stories as Platonic allegories, windows like the stained glass of their cathedrals that opened on a truer world, signs (as John called the miracles, which the synoptic writers actually called "acts of power", which is a rather different take than "suspension of natural law (another concept we owe to Christianity; see, Aquinas)) of a truer, better world.  Or what Jesus in the gospels kept pointing to:  the basiliea tou theou, the "empire of God."

Were they right to do so?  Well, the medievalists didn't argue like Bultmann and the Jesus Seminar that the miracles were largely matters of human psychology rather than alterations of reality, or that the resurrection was mere mythology; but they understood reality far differently than we do in this post-Enlightenment age.  Which is not to say we are right and they are wrong, but it is to say that unless we are now bound to a sort of hollowed out logical positivism, we are not advancing our understanding of complexity and reality beyond the realm of medieval Europe, we are collapsing it, to argue that religious belief either must involve acceptance of fairies and magic, or it must disappear altogether.

The irony is that this argument:

I think things are starting to change. There is a new book out on the historicity of Jesus showing none of the books of the New Testament are actually about a human Jesus of Nazareth. They are either about a heavenly Christ, or a collection of myths written for political and ecclesiastical reasons. I am sure it will take a while, but that is where we will end up because you can't fight the actual history with apologetics.

is the argument of the fundamentalists against modern Biblical scholars.  There is, indeed, nothing new under the sun.  Even the extremism, that "none of the books of the New Testament are actually about a human Jesus of Nazareth" is of apiece with fundamentalist Christian critiques of modern Biblical scholarship.  The only difference is, the fundamentalists use it to claim it is the scholars who are undermining Christian faith.  The argument above takes that as a good thing; but it can't even be accepted as a true statement.

Oddly, given that the critiques of Christianity quoted above come from the same person, a persistent critic of religious belief at RD (not that there's anything wrong with that!), I agree with this statement, which could well be understood as the soteriology of much of Christianity:

There may be no salvation, other than to make things work here and save the earth.
Francis of Assisi is reported to have said:  "Preach the gospel constantly.  Use words, if necessary."  St. Patrick brought the gospel to Ireland through example and action, not through preaching hellfire and damnation.  The German Evangelical Church built a hospital, a mental care facility, an orphanage, and even a facility for sailors on the Mississippi, all to provide temporal, physical care to people in 19th century St. Louis and Back Bay, Mississippi.  They were much more concerned with this life than the next.  The idea that salvation is all and only about where you will spend eternity is not the only idea of salvation available to Christianity, and pointing that out is not tantamount to announcing one's atheism.

Thanks for taking time to answer these. Very interesting. I've been reading recently about three different kinds of Christianity, each of which has profound mission implications. They are Christianity as Orthodox/Conservative/Lawbringers (Type A), Christianity as Seekers of the Truth/Liberal (Type B) and Christianity as Path to Liberation and Wholeness/Liberation (Type C). I think most of the denominations you'd call conservative would be A and progressive B and/or C.
I agree with you that the alliance between conservative/right-wing politicians and Type A denominations/megachurches is an unholy one at best. It's terrifying, and utterly out of touch with the spirit of Jesus' life and teachings. I believe that these kinds of churches will decline in the next decades.

I don't quite agree with the divisions here, but that's a pedantic point.  Taking that last sentence as the point for comment: yes, that already seems to be happening.  Megachurches are largely the creations of personalities, and they last as long as the personality heading them lasts.  Robert Schuller's church disintegrated after he retired (as did Oral Roberts' ministry; Joel Osteen's success after his father's death is the exception that proves the rule, the rule being that megachurches stumble on by trying to return to the genes of the man (usually) who made them successful); Mars Hill is facing strife over it's pastor (a subject for another post).  Even Community Church of Joy gave up on the mission of being the biggest set of ecclesiastical buildings in town.  Small churches, even small denominations, last; megachurches collapse under their own weight.  That reality doesn't signal a major shift in Christianity, or even the death of religion in America.

I'd also agree that many/most of the progressive/Type B denominations are weak, uninteresting, boring, irrelevant and unable to find a kind of robust confidence (probably just in their nature) to offer anything that is, in itself, superior to secular humanism. In fact, in my preaching, I've often said, "if you just want to do good stuff, join the Sierra Club. They do it better than we do and they don't ask you to love your enemies."
I dunno; the impression I get of studying the historical Paul is that he was very earnest, but he really wasn't much of a speaker.  Rather than a charismatic preacher who took the agora by storm, he mostly sat and mended fishing nets and talked to people, got invited to their homes, and turned those families (extended households, by our modern understanding) into "churches." (Not unlike, on a larger scale and several centuries later, the conversion of Constantine; as went the paterfamilias, so went the family.)  He certainly didn't build a giant congregation that took over the local abandoned Roman stadium.  But what he offered was clearly superior to the "secular humanism" of his day; or at least proved to be.

I agree congregations can seem to be boring, uninteresting, irrelevant, and unenthused.  But are they called to worship and know God; or to go out and re-write the world in their image?  To preach and live the basiliea tou theou, or to impose it by sheer strength of passion?*  Besides, passions always cool (ask the Congregationalists and their "Great Awakening," the Methodists and the Southern Baptists, the Pentacostalists, all of whom heated up and eventually cooled down.).

However, I'm not quite yet willing to write off the possibilities of a healthy 21st Christianity, and I am drawn to the Type C approach. It values humanity while recognizing the reality of human brokenness, values a personal experience of transformation through a relationship with Jesus Christ while emphasizing the importance of actively confronting corrupt systems that perpetuate suffering.
This whole idea of "a personal experience of transformation through a relationship with Jesus Christ" is still hanging on to the soteriology that Jesus must be "let into" your heart (will is a powerful player here; God's grace is effective only if you will it to be) so that you can be "saved," always an inward experience that manifests itself in the kind of "robust confidence" that, frankly, I've always found arrogant and off-putting.  It doesn't have to be that, of course, but I think we can abandon even that vocabulary and still be "one in the spirit, one in the Lord."  In fact, maybe that emphasis on commonality is more important than the emphasis on the personal experience, and is a much more Presbyterian ideal, or at least was when I grew up in the PCUS.  Besides, the tribes of Israel didn't so much agree as agree to disagree.  Solid unity is a chimerical ideal.

In other words, I'd call myself a progressive evangelical. I don't hold that Jesus is the only route to salvation (understood as a process of liberation and growth to wholeness and healing), but I do hold that putting our trust in him can offer such a change in ways that are beyond our limited, and likely universally corrupted, reason to achieve. I have experienced those myself, and have found wholeness and, I believe, some clarity, in sharing those experiences with others inside and outside the church.
There, of course, is the rub;  I call myself a "progressive evangelical," too, but I mean the older European version of that term, not the more modern American one.  The distinction is not an unimportant one, especially since my understanding of "evangelical" wouldn't allow the soteriology or some of the other theologies of this commenter.  Would that be enough to cause us to form two different churches, to refuse to worship together under the same denomination's banner?

Well, maybe.  I've seen congregations split over the choice of carpet for the sanctuary, as I've said many times; splitting over vague unease with poorly understood points of theology, or even discomfort with changing cultural mores (which Protestants far more than Catholics have always been vulnerable too, though no Christian church still treats the world as if the society of 1st century Rome was extant) doesn't seem that radical or new a step to me.  Is it the death of something, or just the snake shedding its skin?  There are many branches of Presbyterianism and many denominations in Protestantism, even two great traditions of Reformed and Lutheran that haven't always spoken to each other.  The departure of a congregation isn't radical change; it's "same as it ever was."

As for mission, I believe the church exists to continue to witness courageously and creatively to that reality, the reality of justice, beyond the distorted one that pervades our media and culture, and to provide a way, through a variety of practices, to reinforce an entirely different reality which we would call the Reign of God.

*To be fair, this is a very old argument.  Somehow we remain one in the Spirit, one in the Lord; even when we never quite do.


  1. I clicked over to your piece on the Church of Joy. Having seen the place I am amazed they were only (at the time) 12 million in debt. They must have got the land for nothing before the freeway was built and nearby Arrowhead mall pushed the real estate price up. I can’t imagine what they spend just keeping all that grass green and lush. I went there maybe three times. I think my brother’s family used to go there, or it hosted a couple of events for his children’s school. The pretty, but glass eyed, blonde lady that breathes “Welcome to Joy” at you while handing out the service bulletin had me looking for the alien pods under the pews. Your critique of megachurches being institutions first is really true of any type of brick and mortar church facility. The tension is more obvious in megachurches, but even the small ones have their mortgage to pay, utilities, payroll to meet. I attended three different Episcopal churches in the Phoenix area, when I used to do such things. Two of them were always broke. And that gets tiresome. The tithing harangues, the endless strawberry festival fundraising, the obnoxious MBA speak of referring to the congregants as “Pledging Units”. That last one must have come from the Bishop’s minions. And just the plain worry about getting the bills paid. Being poor is awful. And there is no money or energy for any outreach. And yet one of these places had a committed and noisy lobby for the purchase of more stained glass windows. They only had one. Even the financially sound church was determined to accrue a building fund for a hall they didn’t need. Outreach seemed to be limited to a food pantry that might have something in it if anybody happened to wonder in and ask. I see it as the old Martha and Mary argument. If the actual messiah is sitting on the couch, Mary has a point. Otherwise, listen to Martha.

    On the main point of your article, I wonder if you had seen this:

  2. Very nice Joycean riff on the first line of "They'll know we are Christians."