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Choose Your Shape!

Choose Your Shape!

Well, perhaps, “choosing” should be “recognizing.” Weird? Doesn’t make sense? Read on!

In the late 1990s I participated in a program here in Escambia County called CommUNITY Dialogues, led by a creative and interesting communications specialist (and I had not, up to that time, used “creative” or “interesting” with regard to such people!) named Dr. Dolly Berthelot.

It was a great program, and I learned a great deal. The reason I’m writing about it, however, is that it was the first diversity training program I’d experienced that I considered personally valuable.

While I valued and value diversity, I felt that many interfaith and diversity programs negated their own value by asking people to give up their own beliefs on entry. The result was a debate largely centered around whether divesting oneself of one’s own “diverse” views was a good idea or not.

What Dr. Dolly did was invite us to explore our beliefs and those of others and to look at ways in which we could understand one another and work together by celebrating and taking advantage of our differences. I have always believed that this would be valuable, but in my experience people of strong convictions tend toward excluding others, and those advocating diversity want to diminish the value of one’s own values.

You may, in fact, decide to change your belief on some topic as a result of dialogue, but eliminating the differences before they are experienced and understood is, in my view, suboptimal. (I like that word!)

I say all of this to bring us to the present, and some of the work of Dr. Dolly Berthelot. I publish her book PERFECTLY SQUARE, and I have spent some time looking at a training program she has developed, SELFSHAPES. She has developed a simple quiz based on this program, and I have implemented it on our web site.

I’m not going to discuss it in detail here, because it is best experienced first. I have commented before that I have found things I’ve learned about human nature, including sociology and psychology, and definitely about different personality characteristics more helpful in Bible study and teaching than learning biblical languages. (I in no way regret learning the languages. I say this to emphasize the extreme value of learning to understand people for biblical studies and theology.)

And, of course, for life.

So head on over to the Energion Publications retail site and check out the quiz. It’s called Dr. Dolly’s SELFSHAPES. There are no pop-ups, and very little advertising. At the end we offer you the opportunity to share on social media and to sign up for an e-newsletter to keep up with developments.


Do Liberals and Conservatives Really Need Each Other?

Do Liberals and Conservatives Really Need Each Other?

Early in my college days I encountered a man who would have a substantial influence on my life. It started as he explained textual variants and alternate possible translations in Genesis 1 for 2nd year Hebrew. I’d taught myself that far, and hadn’t done badly figuring out the rules, but my knowledge was less than practical. That man was Dr. Alden Thompson, now professor emeritus at Walla Walla University, and author of several books, two of which I publish.

While showing me things that I had never seen before, and wasn’t sure I wanted to see, Alden displayed a gentleness and spiritual depth that had a profound impact on the way in which my theological understanding would develop. It is an approach he has modeled for decades and truly grown into even more as he moves forward.

Looking at the divisions in his beloved Seventh-day Adventist Church, Alden doesn’t want victory for liberals or conservatives or any of the many other variations one might find. What he wants is conversation and an appreciation of the gifts that all bring to the table.

Even though I don’t publish it, as we approach celebration of Consider Christianity Week, I wanted to call attention to Alden’s book, Beyond Common Ground: Why Liberals and Conservatives Need Each Other. Alden is talking about faith and a church organization, but the principles he discusses apply broadly, most importantly, learning to listen to and value the diversity. He matches that with a willingness I often don’t find in either liberal or conservative circles: A willingness to recognize the fear that new ideas and change may bring and to honor the need of solid ground for some people.

While Beyond Common Ground is written very personally and is anchored therefore in its author’s community, it discusses issues I have seen trouble, divide, and sometimes destroy communities of various types. Consider reading this engaging and challenging book as you think about Christianity during Lent, and of course during Consider Christianity Week.

Here’s a short video interview with Alden:

Would You Like a World that Was Perfectly Square?

Would You Like a World that Was Perfectly Square?

Not sure? Tonight you can find out!

0964440601On the Energion Hangout tonight I’ll be interviewing my friend Dr. Dolly Berthelot, author of PERFECTLY SQUARE: A Fantasy Fable for All Ages, and an all around great person.

Let’s get the commercial part out of the way first. This book was first published in 1994, and its message is still relevant, possibly even more relevant, today. In fact, I suspect that in another 50 years, its message will still be on point and up to date. So I’ve taken up distributing the book. You can find the Energion catalog page at the link above or by clicking on the cover picture.

And while we’re at it, you can find the interview tonight (7:00 pm central / 8:00 pm eastern) via the Google+ Event page, or you can use the embedded viewer here.

With that out of the way, let me tell you about Dolly Berthelot. I encountered Dolly through the CommUNITY Dialogues™ program she offered through the Human Relations office here in Escambia County Florida. I believe I got involved through mutual friends at the Unitarian-Universalist Church of Pensacola (then Pensacola Unitarian-Universalist Fellowship).

My view of diversity programs at the time was negative, to say the least. I had attended a number of these programs while in the USAF and also some with civilian organizations, and they were uniformly boring and generally useless. I remained committed, however, to the idea that we could learn to reap great benefits from our differences by listening to one another.

I’d say that the key failures of diversity programs that I attended were rather straightforward. First, they had a tendency to tell you what a few differences were and basically explain that you had to get along anyhow. Then they’d attempt to make all the diverse people in the room drop all their differences, or treat them as unimportant, so they could get along. It appeared that the diversity trainers really didn’t like diversity. Their hope was that everyone would cut off the rough edges and get along, or just not mention anything that might be controversial.

In CommUNITY Dialogues™, things were quite different. Dolly taught (and encourages) unity in diversity. We are all different, and this isn’t a problem to be solved, but an opportunity to be grasped. We need to make the most of our diversity because it’s a great thing.

So now, 20 years after the book was first released, and quite a number of years after I enjoyed that dialogues program, I’m taking up distributing this book. For various reasons (I’ll get her to explain tonight), Dolly hasn’t been as active. But she’s passionate and ready to go with the message of unity in diversity. Join us!


And Now, Prayers from Everybody

And Now, Prayers from Everybody

… or almost, that is. According to this Christian Post story, quite a variety of clergy have joined in the various services that will be involved in the inauguration.

So if people want to bash Rev. Rick Warren or Bishop Gene Robinson, they should at least consider the broader range of targets available.

Before anyone misunderstands me, let me tell you what does not disturb me here. First, I think that the president-elect is a man of faith, and that should be reflected in his inauguration. Second, I also think he will be president of a diverse nation, including people of a variety of faiths and of no faith (set of religious practices), and that should be celebrated as well.

Under the circumstances, we’re beginning to see the sort of representation that is needed, and some of us, at least, should have expected this all along–that the participants in the weekend would not only include the folks who pray at the inaugural itself, but who would be involved in many events surrounding that one.

What I would be delighted to hear from our political leaders at some point would be an explicit acknowledgement that our celebration of diversity extends specifically to include those who are atheist, agnostic, non-religious humanist, and so forth.

Why do I, as a Christian, get worked up about this? Because recent polls show that these are people who are actually despised by large percentages of the population. An interesting set of poll numbers can be found here, in which I would simply note that 56% say they would be willing to vote for an otherwise qualified homosexual, but only 46% would be willing to vote for an atheist. Both of those numbers are troubling to me, but in the wake of movements such as Proposition 8 in California, consider that less people regard atheists as acceptable. I take the golden rule seriously–do to others as you would have them do to you–and I think it applies here.

The problem, in my view, is that we work on these groups one at a time, rather than simply learning to celebrate diversity as long as that diversity is not injurious in a society with a variety of beliefs and practices. (I don’t advocate tolerance of people who practice human sacrifice, for example.) The reason I would like to hear something said is that it is only by expressing the view publicly that each of these groups consists of people, who should be judged on their merits whether for a job in one’s business or for public office, that we get people to think about them and change their attitudes. If nothing else, the previous century should have taught us that silence doesn’t work.

I grow more able to celebrate the inauguration mix as a whole, though still wondering about homogenization. I prefer a robust diversity where each practices his or her own religion, and it is the differences, not the sameness, that is celebrated. But one thing at a time.

Setting Doctrinal Priorities

Setting Doctrinal Priorities

A recent jury verdict against a group of hatemongers has brought up lots of questions. One that I heard was simply this: “The Bible says homosexuality is an abomination. How can you, as a Christian, claim that this group that protests at military funerals is not a good representation of Christianity?”

There are a huge number of reasons why I would say that these people do not represent Christianity, starting with the fact that it is always inappropriate to read a single text and then say, “This is what the Bible teaches.” Why? Because the Bible teaches many things, and often these will be in direct conflict with one another when one reads them in that fashion. Let’s take as an example this command:

No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.” — Deuteronomy 23:1, (NRSV).

Now compare it to this:

?4? For thus says the Lord:
To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,
who choose the things that please me
and hold fast my covenant,
?5? I will give, in my house and within my walls,
a monument and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that shall not be cut off. — Isaiah 56:4-5 (NRSV)

Now my point here is not to make these two commands conflict, but rather to point out that we cannot build a complete doctrine of what God thinks of eunuchs based on just the text in Deuteronomy 23:1. There are other factors to consider if we continue to read.

One of the characteristics of fundamentalist groups is an inability to prioritize their doctrines. All truth is truth, and one cannot lay aside any aspect of truth. I discuss this kind of an approach to doctrinal unity and diversity in a post Unity, Diversity, and Confusion, where I recommend having a defined core that gives a group community, but allowing a broad range on which disagreement is permitted.

I think the common characterization of fundamentalists can be unfair at times, however, as there are many who adhere to a traditional understanding of doctrinal fundamentals and are quite able to see differing priorities within those. I recall that my dad who adhered to every doctrine in the dictionary definition of Christian fundamentalism (per Webster’s 3rd International) being confronted with a situation in which a patient would die unless he could get a particular medication. Now unlike some missionaries I know, my father refused to violate the laws of the host country, even when he could have gotten by with it. In this case, however, when the government refused an import permit, he arranged to have the medication smuggled in and saved the patient’s life. Lying and breaking the civil law became less of a concern than saving a life.

So in this case I’m speaking of those fundamentalists who fit the stereotype and have a hard time prioritizing. One could borrow Tillich’s definition of idolatry, which I quote from distant memory (so be merciful!), making your ultimate concern something that isn’t ultimate. The doctrinal version of this is centering your faith on something that isn’t central.

Fred Phelps and his small gang do, in fact, prioritize doctrines, but they do a very bad job of it. Only a very small portion of the scriptures directly address homosexuality, yet for them being against homosexuality is the central doctrine of their faith, as shown by their actions. It trumps all versions of redemption, God’s love, atonement, grace, and an incredible number of sins that are spoken of more frequently in scripture.

This inappropriate center then leads to behavior that is so far off that we can call it a “wacko fringe.” In a post from Saturday I quoted another blogger who had tied the term “wacko fringe” heavily to the charismatic movement. Well, here’s a truly wacko fringe group. So what’s their key problem? I think it’s an inability to prioritize doctrines and beliefs.

Most Christians will react with horror at their behavior, and justifiably so. Some will also be puzzled when opponents of Christianity respond by pointing out the Biblical texts against homosexual acts that are in scripture. But why should one be puzzled? We know that Christian groups have been taking small selections of texts for some time and creating groups that qualify for the “wacko fringe.” It is one of the hazards of not having the inquisition around. People can come up with their own doctrines.

Of course, depending on your perspective, it could be that the inquisition is the wacko fringe, though they were ostensibly in the service of orthodoxy and of the mainstream of their time. The point is that freedom to study for oneself and create doctrine also leaves open the door to bizarre doctrinal ideas and fringe groups.

Now I’m going to discuss a number of positions and views and suggest some potential for getting off center. I don’t intend to suggest that any of these positions are anywhere near equivalent to the Phelps group. In fact I’m going to include a couple of positions that I personally have held and had to modify as examples. I want to point out the potential danger, and suggest some antidotes.

Let me start with myself and a very simple example. I got married for the first time in my early 40s and acquired a complete family in one step, a wife, three step-children, and one other young person living with us at the time. Now I really like to think I’m non-judgmental, but with a military background and a rather punctual personality, I had a strong tendency to look down on people showing up late for church. If they had children they should just get up earlier and prepare more efficiently, and get those children to church on time!

It took the weekend after we returned from our honeymoon to make me repent of my judgmental attitude and realize just how unsympathetic I was. You know, even when they are older, having multiple people in the household makes it much harder to get everything done on time. That first Sunday we straggled into church over a 20 minute period, all of us late, including me. Now we got better at it later, but I learned a lesson with the first Sunday–it’s much easier said (and judged) than done!

It’s good to get to church on time, but it’s also good to exercise Christian charity to those who have more difficult circumstances. My single male viewpoint and uptight personality on the issue of punctuality made me put being on time to church way too close to the center of good spirituality. There’s a good scriptural point here to help correct this too. Punctuality may be a value, but not being a judge is also a value. Which one is expressed more precisely and repeatedly in scripture? Well, Jesus at least expressed it pretty clearly in Matthew 7:1, and as far as I can see he clean forgot to say, “Be on time for church!” So where should my priorities be?

Let’s stick with my own weaknesses for another paragraph or two. I used to be a very positive preacher and teacher, and I don’t mean by this that I was always upbeat. What I mean is that I preached a message for the successful and victorious. I was balanced enough to remind them that there would be hardships, but I tended to brush past these to the wonderful new heights each Christian would attain every day as he or she walked with Jesus. Now is there a place for teaching about overcoming and to talk about hope and victory? Of course there is! There is plenty of that in scripture.

But then I lived through a five year battle with cancer for our youngest son, which ended with his death. There was no quick solution, no sunlight just around the corner, no moving from victory to victory on a daily or weekly basis. There were lots of times when we had to struggle through and keep plowing forward even when it was hard to see the hope.

Before, I would push very quickly with folks I talked to and try to get them to feel hope right now, and push forward for the victory quickly. Then I learned something new about struggling and hardship. It wasn’t that I knew nothing of that before or that I never taught it. It was simply that I put my emphasis on living the mountaintop to mountaintop life. Now I think I have gained new balance.

A last story on myself comes from just last weekend. I was talking about dealing with very rigid views of scripture with my teacher, Dr. Alden Thompson. He knew me when I as an undergraduate Biblical languages student, approaching the edges of Biblical scholarship very carefully, lest I get burned. I made a snippy remark about someone, and he said, “Remember what you were like when you first came into my Hebrew class.” And he’s absolutely right. I have a tendency to be impatient with people who are slow to come to the same conclusions I do (incredibly obvious and wise ones, of course!).

In this case the lack of balance is that I sometimes do what I accuse theological conservatives of doing: I put doctrines above people. In John 9, we see Jesus and his disciples encountering a man born blind. The disciples are interested in a theological question–whose sin made him blind? Jesus was interested in healing the blind man. I need to watch my priorities and put people ahead of doctrines. (Of course, that dictum is itself a doctrine, but I think it’s a fairly valid one–validated by the actions of Jesus.)

I see a similar issue with the question of who can be saved. Do they have to understand a particular set of doctrines, a particular view of substitutionary atonement, or do they just put their trust in Jesus, according to their best understanding. Hanging on the cross, Jesus used a different priority than we often do today, offering hope on the simple request to remember the thief when he came to his kingdom (Luke 23:42-43).

A very little bit of imbalance can move us toward the fringe, and when one issue becomes our defining issue, unless it’s Jesus himself, it becomes very easy to head out for the “wacko fringe.”

Another illustration may help. Respecting the Bible is good. In this area there are many King James Version Only advocates. They respect the Bible, but only in one form, and so they disrespect it in all other forms. A book now has priority over all other doctrines and over people. One student of mine, a new Christian, was informed by one of these folks that he was not saved. Why? Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God, and the word of God comes only in the King James Version. The fault with his salvation? He had heard the gospel preached from the New King James Version. Skewed priorities led to the distant fringes.

So how do we avoid it? Well, I think Jesus provided us with a guideline when he said that all the law and the prophets hang on the two laws–love for God and love for our fellow human beings (Matthew 22:40). Now it’s not impossible to get off track even with that. For one thing, our definition of love can be skewed. But let me suggest looking up and down the line. As we get more detailed in our doctrinal pronouncements, ask ourselves if them fit the two laws. Can we hang them there? When we’re looking at love, does our definition fit the life of Jesus? Can we see our definition of love in the way God has acted in history? It’s a two-way test. (For my application to Bible study see Hanging Biblical Interpretation in which I express my hanging rule.)

In all of this we do need to express our beliefs. If those who seek balance do not speak, Christianity will be defined by whoever does speak. We are to be witnesses. We think of knocking on doors and bringing in conversions. But what about simply representing in our own small sphere who Jesus can be in our own lives? One of the blogs I read regularly is Allan Bevere. He wrote a post on preaching, starting a series, and his first principle of preaching was to preach to the audience that is there.

That relates closely to a principle I teach in Bible study–look first in the Bible for the things that apply to you, rather than to other people. Let God’s word correct you first in all cases. That should happen before you preach, teach, or share. Let it hit you and convict you! Then go talk to other people.

As a church, we could apply that very appropriately as well. Look for the things that correct your own action. How about heterosexuals spending more time looking at the sins they themselves are tempted to? Would that not provide a bit of balance, no matter what one’s conclusions were about homosexuality?

I’m simply suggesting that we try to put first things first, and that we each look for the first things that we ourselves need to hear. Other people’s sins will quite often take care of themselves much more effectively when we’re spending most of our time on the most important things!

The Joys and Sorrows of being ex-Seventh-day Adventist

The Joys and Sorrows of being ex-Seventh-day Adventist

I don’t actually view myself as “ex” anything, even though we all are ex-something and headed onward to something else, I hope. But I don’t shun contact with members of the church in which I grew up, and thus I sometimes have to deal with the default identity of ex-Seventh-day Adventist.

Now don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of SDAs who see me as a person apart from that one point of identity. There are even some non-SDAs–who were never SDAs–who define me as an ex-SDA. The connection between the church in which I grew up and my present identity cannot be severed in their view. What they would like me to do is cut all ties as clearly as possible and make myself anti-SDA. It’s the old “if you’re not for us, you’re against us” approach. And of course that approach isn’t bad if the question is good and evil, God or satan, constructive or destructive. But for brothers and sisters in Christ, I reject that approach.

I can illustrate this through two experiences. The first came as I was coordinating a series of events with Dr. Alden Thompson, professor of Biblical Studies at Walla Walla University. One of these was at an SDA church. While I was in the back of the room selling copies of Alden’s book, a young man approached me and asked me about my own affiliations. When he found out I had been raised and educated SDA and yet was now a Methodist, he said, “I just can’t imagine how anyone could have issues with Seventh-day Adventists doctrine!” Well, I can.

The reverse occurred when I gave a copy of my mother’s book Directed Paths to an evangelical non-SDA to read. She objected to the fact that I quoted Ellen White in the preface, even though the specific quote was certainly harmless. To her, my quoting Ellen White implied some kind of endorsement of every word she had said, and thus put my dedication to orthodox Christianity in question.

But I simply don’t see it that way. I’m ex-SDA, and now United Methodist because I do not agree with certain specific SDA doctrines that would make it difficult for me to worship and do ministry as a member of an SDA church. There are similar doctrinal issues that would make it difficult for me to work and ministry through a congregation of the Presbyterian Church in America, the Southern Baptists, or the Assemblies of God. Yet I have no problem calling all of the above groups Christian brothers and sisters. In fact, rather than calling myself a Methodist, I like to call myself a Christian who is a member of a United Methodist congregation. You see, there are plenty of Methodists with whom I have similar doctrinal disagreements.

I would prefer to ask just what strengths there are in the Seventh-day Adventist tradition, and to look at just how I can benefit from those strengths. In my own experience there are quite a number. I was steeped in the Bible as a young person. I took an extraordinarily varied set of courses in Biblical studies and Biblical languages from skilled instructors in Seventh-day Adventist schools. I got an excellent view of ethics and some holiness teaching. I don’t agree with everything I was taught, but I have to ask who does agree with everything they were taught in school? More importantly, who should agree with everything?

If I am to criticize my SDA education I would say that I actually agreed with way too much of what I was taught, and was not challenged by enough “foreign” ideas. I didn’t spend enough time sufficiently early in my life learning to evaluate a variety of ideas.

As a Methodist, I’m not going to make the same mistake. I have a particular heritage because of my background. That gives me the opportunity to bring the broad center of Christianity into contact with Seventh-day Adventists and vice-versa. I think this is a good thing. It does force me to fight the ex-SDA label from both sides, but that’s worth the price. That is not the only barrier I’m interested in crossing, but it is one that I am well-equipped to challenge.

As Christians we are far too fearful of seeing our beliefs challenged, even by those within our own faith. As a Wesleyan-Arminian, I need to be challenged by Calvinists, and they by me. Those who tend toward antinomianism need to be challenged by the more positive view of law present in the Adventist tradition, and of course the reverse is true as well. If our doctrinal beliefs are so fragile that hearing a sermon or a teaching that challenges them frightens us and makes us want to go hide in our denominational caves, then those beliefs are too fragile, either ontologically or perhaps merely in our own minds. Fear is a sign of weakness, not of strength.

This weekend there is a conference going on at Andrews University commemorating the 50th anniversary of the publication of the book Questions on Doctrine. Some SDAs would prefer this event not be commemorated. I think it’s a good thing, simply because it stirred up thought. The bad thing is those who try to smooth the waters before the benefit of living water is gained by all.

At the same time I will be putting my words into action, as Pacesetters Bible School again hosts Dr. Alden Thompson on the campus of a United Methodist Church, in our conference on restoring Biblical literacy. This is too late for advertising. I simply provide the link as evidence that I practice what I preach on this point.

Those who tend to think of me as a closet SDA because I was raised SDA, have to do no more than read a little bit of this blog (the creation vs. evolution entries would do nicely) to realize that this isn’t the case. SDAs can ponder how I could possible reject SDA doctrines, and that’s fine too. Other ex-SDAs can wonder how I can both leave the church and still have a positive view of it. I hope they do think about that. One of the greatest tragedies is someone who lives their life in resentment over how someone treated them and whose identity is truly provided by what they have rejected.

There are joys and sorrows to being ex-SDA, and in the end, I find it’s not so different from any other piece of my life that I’ve left partially behind, but is still part of me.

GMC not Ford

GMC not Ford

When I see a headline like The Search for the Heterosexual SUV, I go to the actual source hoping against hope that it will turn out to be in the Onion. Of course, since I know that the American Family Association has called for a boycott of Ford, I know I don’t have much hope.

But I go read the source story anyhow, and there I see this:

The ministry leader says Ford’s diversity policies meant his ministry could not purchase a Ford vehicle. “Ford lost out on a huge amount of money,” he points out. “And this was money that was raised by SBM’s ministry partners — and it is just very sad that Ford continues to promote this agenda.”

Instead, Bennett’s ministry purchased a GMC SUV that will be used to crisscross the nation, transporting a ministry team of former homosexuals who will visit churches and give their testimony of freedom from homosexuality through Christ.

This is followed by comments from dozens of people talking about how horribly they will hurt Ford’s business by going and buying GMs or Dodges. The interesting thing is that the Human Rights Campaign (HT to Ed as well for this link) rates GM, Daimler-Chrysler, and Ford all at 100% in their support of equality for gays and lesbians. I’m really hoping to see all these people refuse to buy any of these models of cars because the employers treat their employees fairly. This isn’t family values; this is a campaign against fairness and decency!

Folks this is why “hate the sin but love the sinner” has such a bad reputation. The problem is that in most cases when someone says they hate the sin but love the sinner they actually hate (or at least despise) the sinner as well, and that is especially true in cases of sexual orientation. When one can’t even tolerate someone else treating a person fairly, then one needs to look more carefully at just how one truly feels.

Not All Doctrines are Equal

Not All Doctrines are Equal

Before I carry forward into my discussion of the nature of authentic Christianity, I want to link to a couple of posts in which I have discussed my view of what Christianity is. I wish to do this near the beginning, because I will be making a number of statements about what Christianity is not, and it’s easy in such a situation to define oneself by what one opposes rather than by what one supports.

Christianity is not totally unified. That is an understatement, of course. But while I would like us to be more courteous and open in the way in which we approach one another, I don’t believe it is essential that we be identical in order to be unified. Thus I can object to the behavior of other Christians, or disagree with them on points of doctrine without also regarding them as outcasts. The feeling may even be mutual.

Not all doctrines are equal. I’m more concerned with someone’s belief on the incarnation, for example, than I am with their beliefs on baptism. I’m more interested in their commitment to the two laws (love God, love your neighbor) than I am about their orthodoxy on the trinity, though I am a fully orthodox trinitarian myself, to the best of my knowledge.

So here are a few posts on Christian unity and diversity to provide an anchor point before I go talking about how different we are and how much we have changed and even should change. They are in order from oldest to most recent.

. . . and just for fun Only Evil People Disagree with Me!

I’ll refer back to these as necessary.

A Static and Authentic Christianity?

A Static and Authentic Christianity?

In a previous post, I promoted some comments in which Barry Jones of The Village Atheist web site questioned whether my version of Christianity was authentic. In particular, he believes that Christianity should be based on the Bible and should be singular.

This post is not in direct response, but I will say a number of things here that are fundamental to my view on this issue. There is no way that I can deal with all elements of this debate in a single post, and the main reason I have decided to carry on the discussion is that it will be such a fruitful place for me to post on my own view of Christianity. Some terms simply beg for further definition, such as just what “Bible based” actually means. Since the Bible contains no constitution for a church congregation, but rather stories about and letters to various churches, just what singular church administrative structure should be used? This, along with many other things, has come about by tradition–often by a scripturally informed tradition, but tradition nonetheless.

But the issue I want to begin to address today is this. What validity would there be to a Christianity which is singular both now and through time? Would such a Christianity be possible, and would it be authentic?

What I have a hard time seeing as authentic is a static Christianity. The fact is that Jesus came in and spent his time doing anything but trying to conform to a common definition of Judaism. In fact, he proposed some rather challenging ideas. Now one might claim that he was going back to an earlier time historically, but I think one would be hard pressed to find the time that Jesus was pointing back to.

This type of approach to religious ideas is actually very common. People frequently assume that the oldest source is the most reliable in terms of theology. If we can get back to the authentic words of _____, we will just have the truth once and for all. In most discussions of authentic Christianity, there will be a common acceptance of the view that we should get as close to the apostolic church as we can. The debate is simply about just what it was, and how close we can get to it under our circumstances. The person who challenges this assumption is often the odd man out.

But the challenger will have the historical advantage. There was no singular, unquestioned apostolic church that passed on a singular tradition. That was why debates had to take place in the early church. If one could pick up a unified theology simply by reading the Bible, we would not have needed church councils to define doctrinal positions. But the fact is that without such church councils there wouldn’t even be a “Bible” from which to derive those doctrines. Those councils had to define what would be regarded as authoritative and what would not.

The interesting thing about this apostolic church is that it grew out of the ministry of a man who challenged much of his surrounding culture (though he remained Jewish throughout), who was definitely pushing for something new and different. The Sermon on the Mount with it’s “you have heard that it has been said . . . but I say unto you” statements is not one that would be preached by someone intent on maintaining tradition and the status quo.

But once that ministry was complete this apostolic church moved forward with wrinkles and debates, with agreements and disagreements, in other words, it wasn’t static either. So why is it that we can see a modern church as credibly apostolic if it does not itself have a lively theological dialog going on?

Now my area of expertise is not church history, though obviously I have to spend some time there. I studied the ancient near east. My approach to Biblical studies was from ancient near eastern languages and literature. From that approach I would maintain that Judaism was no more static than Christianity was, and indeed changed greatly over time. We tend to miss this because we have in scripture a collection made over a fairly short period of time. We don’t have much documentation on the losers. What we have is documentation of the stream of tradition that became dominant.

Now there was no absolute suppression involved. There are plenty of tracks left in Hebrew scripture by which we can tell that there was development in the thought of Israel. If we add the deutero-canonicals into the mix, we see an even more diverse mix of thinking. (Which relates to another question I ask about “Bible-based Christianity.” Which Bible?) Thus we have a new movement (Christianity) growing out of an existing diverse movement, and developing immediate diversity of its own.

The question is this: Where is the static point in the past that should be preserved by all modern, authentic Christians? I don’t see it. I can see the drive to get at the pure words of Jesus, but even though I believe fully in the incarnation, I cannot see how Jesus would or could define a static point for all history. Whatever divinity was there still had to communicate with finite humanity, and thus those statements also are conditioned by time, place, and culture. They are extremely important, indeed foundational, to my own thinking about Christianity, but there are far from complete in answering questions.

So what is that point? Let’s have a time slice in history that should define what a singular Christianity should be, and then consider why that point/period should be accepted as definitive.

Mainliners Stand Up!

Mainliners Stand Up!

I use “mainliners” for lack of a better term. I’m a member of a United Methodist congregation, and it will probably shock many of my readers that it is, in United Methodist terms, a fairly conservative one. I’ll even be preaching one service there tomorrow.

The problem I’ve found with mainliners is less that they don’t know what they believe, though they are often accused of that (sometimes justly), but that they sometimes have a hard time believing anyone else could believe something different. For example, in all of the United Methodist congregations of which I’ve been a member (three so far), and in fact generally all those I’ve visited as a teacher, there was a general acceptance of women as pastors. People would discuss the possibility of congregations having difficulty accepting a woman as pastor, but the overwhelming belief among the leadership was that those congregations would come along at some point, and no doubt at all that they should.

Though there have been a wide variety of personal opinions about abortion and abortion rights, there is an overwhelming consensus against violence against abortion clinics and abortion providers and a certain discomfort with protesters holding up signs with mangled fetuses.

While the views in the pew differ very often from more extreme views in Nashville (for non-Methodists, that is the center of Methodist boards and agencies), they also differ from fundamentalist churches and from far right politicians (and obviously far left).

But there often seems to be very little action. We’re often willing to allow extremist viewpoints to dominate the representation of Christianity, and we don’t really want to stand up for who we are and why we believe that Christianity is not about the things that drives the American religious right. Now my point here is not that someone can’t be a Christian and hold right wing views on many topics. Rather I’m saying that those views don’t define Christianity, and it would me a good idea to let people know that there are Christians who differ. Nor should this be limited to political issues, but should reflect theological issues as well.

I was reminded of this when I encountered PamBG’s blog. She is a Methodist pastor in the UK, and she wrote a post on sexism and the Methodist church, in which she said:

We don’t take this theology seriously because we don’t hold it. However, ‘complimentarianism’ is held by many Christians in the United Kingdom including the growing ‘New Frontiers’ denomination. Complimentarianism is ‘preached’ by the Calvinist theologian John Piper who seems to be increasingly popular with many younger Christians in the UK as well as in the US.

I think she’s right, and she’s right not just for British Methodism, but also for American Methodism. There’s a certain arrogance in failing to take seriously movements in other churches, but I suspect there’s more complacency. We’re used to being the second largest protestant denomination here in the U.S. (I don’t know what excuse our British brethren have, but hopefully it’s better than ours!). At the same time we’re in continuous decline. Some people think liberal religion will inevitably decline. Now I prefer to be called a passionate moderate, but I draw the “L” word often enough to at least embrace it with one arm. I’m really talking to everybody who’s to the left of the Southern Baptist Convention, however, moderates, liberals, mainliners, progressives, and any other set I may have missed.

I don’t think liberal religious will inevitably decline, unless its own adherents fail to take it seriously. There are several ways to carry out this failure. One is to assume that one is the voice of the future and thus that everyone else will doubtless follow along as they evolve to new social heights. There is, however, no certainty of that.

Another way is to assume that Christianity, as such, is of no great value. If the adherents don’t consider it valuable, it will inevitably decline.

A third way is to ignore what everyone else is doing because we know where we’re going. But we don’t live in isolation. It’s quite possible that many of the nasty things we pride ourselves on not doing will become the norm while we’re not paying attention. That would be a tragedy, but with our current behavior, I think it would be one we richly deserve.

Even if, especially if your positions differ from the noisy types, this is a good time to stand up and be counted.