Jack Burden, the blogger, tells the story of how he silenced a committee meeting, doubtless an extremely useful skill under any circumstances, but the point is much more important. In discussing who they thought would make the ideal member for their church, the committee members listed a number of things, all of them good, but the suggestion that the ideal member should be a believer silenced them.
I think this should strike committed Christians as a problem, but I don’t think that those of us who deal with mainline congregations should be surprised by it. A friend of mine once commented to me that the main attack form of liberals is intellectual ridicule, while the main attack form of conservatives is moral condemnation. I’ve since had several conservative friends point out that many liberals are quite capable of moral condemnation, and I know the reverse to be true as well. Belief often does not stand up well to intellectual ridicule.
But there is an entire category of Christian church members who are there because they ought to have a church to go to. It’s traditional in their family or community. They want to be known as “church going people.” Now I could expend many words on the notion that “church going” people are better than other categories of people. But there are certainly communities where “church going” is a helpful attribute to have in doing business. Being a true believer? Not so much!
These people often will, out of duty, attend church fairly regularly, participate in activities, give to the church budget and special projects and many other things. Since I have already noted that I don’t think “church going” necessarily describes a better class of people, these folks may well be doing all of the good and moral things called for by discipleship.
The open question is this: Why do they do these things in a church?
I’m sure there are many answers to that question. Liberals are more frequently accused of being unbelievers in church, but I’m not sure this is a liberal/conservative thing. Amongst people that I know, there are very committed believers in both the conservative and liberal camps, but there are also people who are simply checking the right boxes on their checklist in both camps. I have no idea what the proportions are outside of my own experience.
I’m going to be teaching a Sunday School class in less than two hours (the Tifounden Class at First UMC of Pensacola). I taught this class for a few weeks last year, and I was invited for a return engagement with the specific task of discussing the subtitle of one of my books: Not Ashamed of the Gospel: Confessions of a Liberal Charismatic. In particular they’re interested in the combination of “liberal” and “charismatic.”
There are so many ways I could go in discussing this. The title “liberal charismatic” was bestowed on me by someone who didn’t like me at all and was looking for a good insult. When I floated it as a subtitle for my book, quite a number of people–friends–said, “That’s you!” Even my wife said it, so it must be true! I prefer “passionate moderate” myself, but one doesn’t always get to choose one’s labels. One should note, of course, that I didn’t fight this one all that much.
So what, exactly, is a liberal charismatic? I was playing around with many ways of describing what I would mean by liberal, and what I meant by charismatic. The person who first used the phrase to describe me meant that I didn’t accept all orthodox doctrines, and also believed that all gifts of the Spirit were to continue in the church to the end. He was particularly offended by the idea of a prayer language, which is certainly a controversial topic all around.
But when I read Jack Burden’s post, I realized something else. The label “believer” has never bothered me. In fact, I have insisted on it. I even occasionally use “true believer” of myself. Why? I confess that, unlike some Christian apologists, I cannot prove that God exists, that Jesus rose from the dead, or that God communicates to us through scripture. I can’t even match the gentler (and better, in my view) form of apologetics that claims that the evidence is sufficient to make this the best option.
I’ve made the leap of faith. While I am quite unadventurous physically, in the spiritual sense I looked out over the chasm as did Indiana Jones in the Last Crusade, closed my eyes and put my foot down on empty space. I think my foot landed on that hidden bridge; others think they hear the echoes of my screams as I fall. Ah well, it’s my leap of faith, after all.
I don’t mean that there is no evidence at all. It’s just that there wasn’t enough evidence to make me certain, intellectually, of the destination. At the same time my experience means that I believe in God because I experience him, in a way that differs fundamentally and completely from intellectual assent, I know that there is a God. If that means I’m less intellectually sound, then, well, I’m less intellectually sound.
But I remain liberal in the sense that I don’t believe this means that I am somehow more right than others about the attributes about God or about a doctrinal system. It doesn’t mean I’m a better person than my friends who believe differently, or not at all. It is simply an honest statement of who I am.
I was once asked by an agnostic if this meant that, in order to become a believer of my sort, he would have to have his own private hallucination. I told him that bar the slanted terminology (I don’t prefer “hallucination”!) that was pretty much where I was coming from.
I’ve told the story on this blog before, but let me tell it again. When I joined my first United Methodist congregation, I was attending Bible classes at one church, and attending church at another. I had a hard time choosing. When I discussed membership with one pastor, he told me that he didn’t care what I believed. If I would enjoy their fellowship, feel free to join. What I believed didn’t matter to them. The other pastor asked me what I believed regarding Jesus and why. I joined his church. Belief is very important to me.
So for me, the “liberal” in “liberal charismatic” means that I’m doctrinally open. I am skeptical of my own ability to know substantial amounts about God. At the same time, for reasons that have so far escaped my powers of rational explanation, I believe that when I know (1 Corinthians 13:12) I will be happy with that knowledge. I’m charismatic because I believe that God’s presence is not variable, but our awareness of it is. God is as present today as he was on the day of Pentecost. (Perhaps I should call myself pentecostal, but that would be much too confusing!)
That’s it, not in a nutshell, but as close as I get to one–a bit over 1200 words. Is it any wonder I hear this or similar questions so frequently that I decided to write a book just so I could hand it out to those who ask?