The Invisibility of Progressive Christianity

Church-You-Can-See-Through-10Every so often, I’ve heard an argument that goes like this:  “the press only talks about the Christians vs. the gays as if all Christians are against being gay.  Don’t they know that there are Christians who support gays?”

The frustration comes from being ignored by the wider culture, especially the media.  When we think of Christians, we are more likely to think of evangelicals or Catholics, but never liberal Protestantism.  This has long been a problem.  Some, including former evangelical-turned liberal Christian Randall Balmer, think there is a conspiracy afoot inspired by groups like the Institute for Religion and Democracy.

I will agree that liberal Protestantism does get ignored in society.  While groups like the IRD tend to go after liberals, I don’t think they have as a big as an impact as we would like to think.  I think that there is something else going on, something that we in progressive churches are doing to ourselves and it is this: I believe we are so uncritical of socially liberal society that we blend into the woodwork.  In essence, when you say the same thing the wider society says, you tend to cancel yourself out.

I’ve been think about that after reading Ross Douthat’s latest piece for the New York Times.  In this essay, he focuses on Pope Francis and the hopeful revival of liberal Christianity.  Could it happen?  Douthat says yes, but it has challenges:

But there are deep reasons why liberal Christianity has struggled lately, which a Francis-inspired revival would need to overcome. One is the tendency for a liberal-leaning faith to simply become a secularized faith, obsessed with political utopias and embarrassed by supernatural hopes, until the very point of churchgoing gradually evaporates. (It’s not a coincidence that the most resilient of left-leaning religious communities, the African-American church, is also the most frankly supernaturalist.)

The other is religious liberalism’s urge to follow secular liberalism in embracing the sexual revolution and all its works — a move that promises renewal but rarely delivers, because it sells out far too much of scripture and tradition along the way.

The first tendency is one that this pope’s example effectively rebukes. However “left” his political impulses may be, they are joined to a prayerful and devotional sensibility, an earthy, Satan-invoking zeal that has nothing arid or secularized about it.

The second tendency, though, is one that Francis has tacitly encouraged, by empowering clerics and theologians who seem to believe that Rome’s future lies in imitating the moribund Episcopal Church’s approach to sex, marriage and divorce.

I don’t agree with everything Douthat says here, but he is on to something.  Douthat says that religious liberals have sold out to the sexual revolution and that has cost it in many ways.

And I think he’s right.

Now before the pitchforks come out, I should explain.  Being gay, I am thankful of having a church and denomination that welcomes me.  The sexual ethics I grew up with was not something I would share with others, at least the ways it was taught.  The problem is this: liberal Christianity asks nothing of us when it comes to our sexuality.  It never asks how we should live as Christians when it comes to sex.  It never asks when abortions are necessary and when it is morally questionable, it just follows the line that comes from secular feminists.  It talks about same sex marriage as “love wins” but doesn’t ask what is marriage for as Christians.

I’m not urging that we create a lists of dos and don’ts when it comes to sex.  But like so much of the modern liberal church, we don’t think theologically about sexuality.  What liberal Christians have done is just tacitly accept what the wider liberal culture has accepted with out thinking about it critically.

So, if a journalist is writing a story and he or she has a choice to talk to either a liberal pastor who supports abortion on demand or the local abortion rights activist, they are going to go with the activist.  Why go to a pastor who will say the same thing when you have the real thing?

I will say it again: I am not advocating for liberal Christians to give up their support for a more liberal attitude towards sexuality.  What I am calling for is to start to think about the whys more often.  We  need to be thinking theologically and not culturally.

Having been trained as a journalist, I can tell you that writers want to get an interesting angle and we don’t have one.  And part of the reason is that liberal Christianity has lost or squandered it’s theological tradition.  In it’s place we have used culture-talk or politics, which make us sound like the Democratic Party at prayer.  If that is what we are, then I can see why people would rather stay in bed and get some extra sleep than go to church.

If mainline/progressive/liberal Christianity, especially the Protestant kind, wants to stand out more, then it needs to be a unique voice in society instead of an echo.

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The Landscape for Mission (and Theology)

One of the things that my denomination, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is trying to do better is helping people understand the context in which they are to be church.  An initiative, the  Landscape for Mission has come out that helps people explain the changing society that we find ourselves in and insight on what we can do.  I like the production value and I like that the four videos tell some hard truths about the denomination, something that a number of Disciples refuse to admit.

Where I think it falls short is in the area of theology.  I think we need to do more than address the situation of a declining denomination and offer reassuring words.  I think that among Disciples there is a massive deficit when it comes to theology.  Theology isn’t something professors do in seminary, it is about trying to understand our faith especially in the light of changed circumstances.  We need to do more than say the church is declining; we have to ask, what is church? Who is Jesus?  What does it mean that Jesus died on a cross?  What does it mean that Jesus was raised?  What does it mean to follow Jesus? What is mission? What is the mission of the church? More specifically, what does it mean to be a Disciple in this day and age?  Even more basic: What is a Disciple?

Fellow Disciples pastor Robert Cornwall has noticed the lack of theological thinking within Liberal Christianity with some concern.  In a posting written last month, he shares a quote from Canadian Theologian Douglas John Hall:

In short, Gospel needs theology; and where it is truly gospel and not just spiritual sound-and-fury gospel will evoke theology. It was fashionable during the Liberal period to minimize the importance of the epistles of St. Paul, or even to dismiss them. But without Paul’s theological acumen, which is reflected as well in the gospels, the early Christian movement would have split into millions of mutually exclusive and quarreling cults, and we should never have heard of the Christian religion. The fundamental claims of the Christian message by their very nature, including their boldness and universality, require the most intensive, committed and sustained thinking that human beings can manage. This thinking is not something added to the hearing of gospel; it is inherent in that hearing—to the extent that where such thinking is not evoked by what is named gospel, it must be questioned whether the thing so named is what it claims to be.

To which Cornwall adds:

If we are to call ourselves Christians and consider God to be a part of our lives, then this will require clear and thoughtful thinking about God and the things of God.  Hall notes that prior to the 4th century, when theology became more clearly the domain of the elite, Christians engaged in a lot of God-talk.   After Constantine, we left it to the experts.  While at one level theology requires significant training and expertise, at another level it can be and should be something engaged in by all of God’s people, otherwise we simply become another group therapy session.
Though we needn’t be dogmatic, and doubt is part of the theological process, we needn’t be afraid to embrace the gospel with its theological dimensions.  The key is holding our beliefs with a dose of an “absolute perhaps.”  That is a phrase I learned from another colleague, who with me recognized the importance of theology.  Can we not engage in conversation with the “absolute perhaps” standing at the center of the conversation?
Cornwall and Hall didn’t write this with the Disciples in mind, but it rings true.  As a denomination we don’t even look to the thoughts and musings of one of it’s well-known founders Alexander Campbell to even have some understanding of the Disciples views on mission and ministry.
I know that I will get painted as a naysayer, but I think one of the reasons the Disciples are in the situation they are currently is because we haven’t really taken the time to think theologically.
Maybe, the Landscape for Mission will foster more ongoing discussion and theological conversation.  I want to believe that.

What Am I?

question markA while back I had a discussion with a fellow pastor who is an evangelical.  I shared some of my own frustrations within mainline denominations and he suggested that I am still an evangelical in many ways.

This has me wondering at times what best describes my theology.  In many ways I do exhibit more evangelical tenets, but the general stance on homosexuality means I couldn’t be a pastor in that context.  However, I really don’t fit liberal Christianity either.  I agree that social justice is important, but at times I feel that God gets pushed aside for what ever issue taking center stage.

So, I’m a gay guy that doesn’t see being a gay a sin, but who has a very traditional theology when it comes to the nature of God, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit?

This makes me a rainbow colored unicorn.

There are some adjectives that come close.  Maybe post-evangelical.  I did have a keen interest in reading some of the post-liberal and neoorthodox theologians while in seminary.  Over those three, neo-orthodoxy tends to be the term that best describes me because it seems to be a mediating theology between evangelicalism and liberal theology.  The downside, is I don’t know if anyone is considered neo-orthodox anymore.

As usual, I tend to not fit the perceived definitions.  Maybe that’s okay.

Random Thoughts on the NSA and Metadata

I actually wrote this over a month ago as the NSA scandal started to break, posting it at Big Tent Revue, my political blog.  An big brotherarticle by Baptist blogger Ed Setzer had me thinking about this again, so I decided to post it here with some additions.

There’s a part of me that’s hesitant to say anything about the NSA scandal. It involves a lot of things that I’m not clear about, such as how you comb through the data without snooping on folks. I still think this story is forming and we don’t know the whole scope of things. That said, I do have some musings which are sure to bug people on all sides. So, here goes.

  • Whenever I hear libertarians complain about this, I have to wonder what they think is the proper response when terrorism happens. More often than not, the answer is that such things like 9/11 won’t happen again or the chances of terrorism happening to us are slim. I would agree that a 9/11-style attack was probably a one-shot deal. But in the years following 9/11 we have had other smaller scale threats such as the Christmas Day attempt to blow up an airliner over the skies of Detroit, or the guy that wanted to set off a car bomb in Times Square and of course, the Boston Marathon bombings. So, how does government best respond to these threats? How do we try to protect the American people and yet uphold the ideals we cherish? How do we keep the balance? It bugs me that libertarians don’t really have an answer for this, which leads me to think that their answer is basically to shrug it off. I hope I’m wrong, but I do wonder.
  • Related to the libertarian argument is a Christian response given by mostly liberal Christians which basically goes like this: only God can give us true security, everything else is just an idol. Daniel Schulz writes “Besides, Christians, Jews and Muslims alike affirm that only God can provide ultimate security—not invulnerability to threat but God’s transformative support and presence amid our vulnerability.”  That’s an easy thing to say sitting in a comfortable coffeeshop or in a church study.  Would you say that to a grieving parent or friend who loses someone to a terrorist attack, let alone a robbery or assault?  Again, I think we have gone overboard on security in this nation.  But downplaying those concerns and whistling past the graveyard is not a real alternative.
  • Are we really surprised the government would start sorting through our data? In an age where Google and Apple collect tons of our data, it would only be a matter of time before the government got into the act. The internet and mobile technology is a wonderful thing, but it has also left us more vulnerable to be followed.
  • We have to start thinking about what privacy means in the Internet age. I tend to think we have an expectation of privacy that made sense 40 years ago, but not now. In an age where we freely share our history on Facebook and where Google can provide us with ads based on our searches, we have to think about what privacy means now and we also have to think about the trade offs of taking part in this new age.
  • Baptist preacher Ed Setzer wonders why more Christians aren’t upset about government spying.  I don’t have a clear reason, but I wonder if it’s how folk perceive the issue.  Many people have now seen acts of terror take place.  We’ve seen the pictures of planes ramming into buildings and bombs going off during a major sporting event.  A terrorist attack is easy to deal with whereas talking about rights and the role of government seems more hypothetical.  If people start to be harrassed because of surveillance, then the tide might turn.  But as long as the civil liberties side looks like a hypothetical exercise then, we will chuck limited government for the false promise of safety.
  • Is it time for some kind of ethic for Christians in this arena?  What would a security equivalent of “just war” theory look like?  Would there be a “pacifist” option?  In this age where so much of our lives take place online, it’s high time we start looking into that.
  • These next few points are Via Peggy Noonan. Politicians tend to look at terrorism through the lens of self-interest. No politico of either party wants to be the one that gets blamed for some major attack because they didn’t do anything. As much as the public might say they are upset at government snooping, I tend to think the public will also punish any politician that appeared to not do respond to a threat. This means, any politician is going to do something that could be incredibly stupid in order to save their hides.
  • A growing surveillence state might thwart some attacks, but it can also not notice other potential threats. It is not perfect. The most obvious example are the Tsarnaevs. All of the apparatus of the security state for some reason didn’t pick up what was going on with these two brothers. The state might be powerful, but it isn’t God.
  • The collection of data could very well be used for bad purposes. The president and Congress can swear on a stack of Bibles that the data is secure, but the people collecting the data are human. The information could be used to threaten innocent people. The temptation for overreach and abuse is high.

I know this isn’t a self-righteous blog post expressing anger either way. But then our post 9/11 world leaves me with more questions than they do answers.

How a Gay Webcomic Teaches Christians About Resurrection

11 Mary stood outside near the tomb, crying. As she cried, she bent down to look into the tomb. 12 She saw two angels dressed in white, seated where the body of Jesus had been, one at the head and one at the foot. 13 The angels asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”

She replied, “They have taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they’ve put him.” 14 As soon as she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she didn’t know it was Jesus.

15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who are you looking for?”

Thinking he was the gardener, she replied, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him and I will get him.”

16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.”

She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabbouni” (which means Teacher).

17 Jesus said to her, “Don’t hold on to me, for I haven’t yet gone up to my Father. Go to my brothers and sisters and tell them, ‘I’m going up to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

18 Mary Magdalene left and announced to the disciples, “I’ve seen the Lord.” Then she told them what he said to her.

-John 20:11-18, Common English Bible

o human starIn a recent post, I said that being autistic makes it somewhat hard comprehend faith.  I also said that what has helped me the most is the use of imagination to make visible what can seem not very visible or tangible at all.  Tales about vampires or to a lesser extent, zombies, are good ways of understanding the afterlife to me.

So, how do I come to understand the resurrection?  What did it mean for Jesus to come back to life?  What will happen to us in the future when we are promised to be raised from the dead in the same way?

This is where the androids come in.

Androids have been a way for us to understand our own humanity or lack thereof.  They can also help us understand what it means to live, die and come back to life again.

I’ve been a fan of yaoi comics, the comic style that hails from Japan.  Yaoi roughly translates into “boy-love” in Japanese, which means that these comics tend to have gay themes.  The characters are rich and for a gay man like myself, I enjoy having complex gay characters than the alternative which is…not much.

I recently stumbled upon the web comic O Human Star, by Minneapolis-based artist Blue Delliquanti. It’s a quite engaging story.  Here’s how Lauren Davis of the sci-fi website io9 describes it:

Sixteen years after he died, famed roboticist Alastair Sterling wakes in a robot body to a world he barely recognizes. Artificial beings walk the Earth, many of them based on his own memories and designs. Confused about his resurrection and this brave new world, Al visits his old research partner Brendan to find more surprises in store, including a brilliant young gynoid who looks suspiciously like Al himself.

I know that for some folks it might be a little disorienting to be talking about the resurrection of Christ along with gay men and a transgendered robot, but it works for me.  It gets me wondering: what is the Resurrection?  What was it like for Jesus?  What will it be like for us?

I’m thankful for stories like C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia and stories on vampires and webcomics for helping me in my faith.  Because of the imagination of others, I am able to comprehend the wondrous mystery of God.

 

Fear of a Fundamentalist Planet

So quick, what is a Progressive Christian?
I can come up with two answers.

First, we are a bunch of Democrats who like to go to church and talk about God.

Second, we are NOT evangelicals/fundamentalists.

One of my favorite site to visit is Patheos.  I tend to read from three channels: Progressive Christian, Evangelical and Catholic.  It’s interesting to not how varied the Evangelical and Catholic sites are.  I don’t agree with everything on their blogs, but they do leave me thinking.

When it comes to the Progressive Christian site, however, I never feel as challenged.  Most (but thankfully, not all) of the bloggers seem to be not talking about the Christian life as much as being glad they aren’t fundies.  Bloggers like Nadia Bolz-Webber, Bruce Reyes Chow and Steve Knight tend to write things that tend to be a little more thoughtful and a lot less strident and I am thankful for that.  But most of the bloggers tend to be defined by being against conservative politics and fundamentalist Christians.  What I don’t hear from many is talk about who God is, or what the Church is all about.

Another progressive blogger, Frederick Schmidt wrote a provacative column a few weeks back about how Progressives talk about God.  Riffing off a challenge by Tony Jones, he lists various reasons why we have a hard time talking about God.  His final reason is probably the most important:

Hidden behind the other dynamics that have made us reluctant to speak in a direct fashion about God is something more amorphous, but infinitely more powerful: the Progressive fear of being thought of as fundamentalist. Listen for any time at all to Progressives talk about their faith and you will learn far more about what we don’t “believe in” than you will learn about what we do believe: We don’t believe in being bigoted. We don’t believe in being homophobic. We don’t believe in creationist assumptions about the origins of the universe. We don’t believe in literalist readings of Scripture.

It’s not surprising then, to find that we are reticent to claim that we can or have heard God speak. It’s one more thing “those crazy, ignorant fundamentalists do.” So we certainly don’t do it.

None of this is surprising, of course. The label, “Progressive,” screams “not-fundamentalist” and implicitly makes the really rather silly historical claim that we became progressive thanks to a faith that—if it weren’t for our generation’s synergy of faith and learning—would continue to be narrow, repressive, and worst of all, fundamentalist. Frankly, I find the label self-important and a complete misreading of history which—without Christianity’s influence (not fundamentalism, just garden variety orthodoxy)—would not be marked by the characteristics we have supposedly “discovered.” Read, for example, Marcello Pera’s book, Why We Should Call Ourselves Christians. But because we are hell-bent on making sure that no one thinks we are fundamentalist, we have jettisoned the notion that God speaks—wreathing it round with false humility and skeptical reserve.

It’s interesting to note how some of the folks I hang with tend to make fun of folks who talk about God.  They go into some fake Southern accent and start talking about “Jeeeesus.”  On one level it is funny, but scratch deeper and one wonders.  I mean okay, so you don’t like their take on faith.  But what is your faith?  Can you talk about it?  And if not, why?

I think that instead of running away from the label of Christian, progressives should be embracing it unapologetically.  To talk about God, to state that you are a Christian doesn’t have to mean that you have to be a fundamentalist.

The funny thing is we progressives have a heritage that thought deeply about what it meant to be Christian in the world and they weren’t afraid to be Christians.  We have a heritage of theologians like the Neibhurs and Paul Tillich and Karl Barth that is both progressive and orthodox and yet we have jettisoned it for some that is far more shallow.

If Progressive Christianity is to thrive then it needs to develop a theology, an understanding of God.  We need to be able to define ourselves not by what we are not, but by who we are as children of God.

Being not-fundamentalists is not enough.  It’s time to be Christians.

Theology and Same-Sex Marriage

In a few weeks, my partner Daniel and I will celebrate five years of marriage.  Since we live in Minnesota where same-sex marriage is not legal, it was not something recognized by the state.  But our marriage, our joining together, was blessed by the church.  We had our ceremony at an Episcopal church in the southern Twin Cities suburbs.

As Minnesota gears up for a vote on the state limiting marriage to just between a man and a woman, I’ve been thinking about same-sex marriage and marriage in general.  What is the theology behind it?  Is there one?  I know that conservatives will say that heterosexual marriage is ordained by God and liberals will talk about same sex marriage with talk of equality and love, but frankly none that really satisfies me.  What does it mean for two people, regardless if they are same sex or traditional, to come before God and the gathered community to have their union blessed?  Is it important to be married?  Why is infidelity wrong within a marriage?

I don’t think the church has done a good job of figuring this out.  We haven’t done it with heterosexual marriage and we seem to be doing the same thing when it comes to same-sex marriage.  As followers of Christ, what does it mean to be married, especially in a culture where marriage seems to not be taken so seriously?

An Episcopalian has written a blog post where he tries to talk about marriage in the context of the church and what this all means, especially when it comes to same-sex couples.  He writes it as a response to a Catholic friend. Here’s a little snippet:

“And the LORD God said, ‘It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper comparable to him.’  -Genesis 2

This seems exceedingly clear to me.  Many people have made the argument that men should be with women and vice versa.  It’s terribly important to separate out the arguments here.

1) It is not good that the (human) should be alone.  [“Adam” is not yet gendered at this point in the Hebrew Scriptures.]  I believe this in my heart of hearts.
We are all called to live in society.  It would be placing unreasonable burdens on the people to block them from forming loving relationships.  We should – of course – test everything to see if it really manifests the gifts of love in society.  This applies to marriage, friendship, monastic communities, even states.

2) The Bible does not say every man should have a wife.  Marriage and procreation are wonderful blessings, but the idea that every man should have a wife and every woman a husband is an import from other forms of philosophy.  Indeed tradition is abundantly clear in the examples of Jesus, Paul, and countless saints.  There seems to be a strange notion that procreation is an obligation in Christianity.  It is in Judaism, but Jesus and Paul both argue for celibacy (vowed singleness).  Modern thinkers have argued that “biology is destiny.”  We’re built that way.  As an evolutionary biologist, let me say that we are also built for promiscuity, selfishness, and greed.  Christian testimony has been unequivocal on this; we are more than our bodies.  Whether you say, “biology is destiny” or “natural complementarity” or “the design of our bodies” you have made a profoundly anti-Christian argument.

3) Not all people are called to celibacy (I Cor 7:8-9).  This has never been about whether a woman should find another woman to marry or find a man.  It is a question of pastoral advice for her.  If she has no romantic, emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual attraction to men, should she live alone, or do we give her an option for an intimate relationship with another woman.  Can a pastor bless and advise a same-gender romantic relationship?  The church has said yes.  In the Anglican Tradition, we say “all may, some should, none must.”  Many relationships, both heterosexual and homosexual are unhealthy.  Some heterosexual relationships are healthy.  The church has said to priests, if you believe (with due reverence, prayer, and study) that a particular same-sex couple has a healthy relationship – you may bless and advise that relationship.

At some point the church needs to have a discussion about what marriage means to Christians.  Not simply who can get married, but why marriage matters. It’s not the only way for Christians, but it has to have some sort of meaning more than what the wider society bestows upon it.

What is the theology of marriage?