Safe Church 2009

I got a heartbreaking email today.  I know it is sincere.  I know it is well meant.  I know it is representative of a large group of today’s United Methodist believers.  What I believe… let me reiterate, it is my belief… is couple-disagreeing1that it is an opinion grounded in fear rather than faith, in exclusion rather than inclusion, and in judgement rather than grace.  Do I hear the deep concern?  Do I hear a perceived problem?  Do I understand the criticism?  I hope so.  I don’t want to hurt or offend anyone.  I want a church based in love, grace, mercy, forgiveness, and justice.  It breaks my heart when what I advocate is seen as sinful and wrong.

I wrote a blog a few days ago sharing an experience I had at the School of Congregational Development, (How To Get in Trouble Without Really Trying).  One of the issues raised was that of evolution and the compatibility of science and religion.  A young pastor wrote me this email (sections shared) expressing concern over my answers to the woman who challenged me on my thoughts.  I share her concerns and comment on three main points:

“What are you trying to do?  There is no way that Darwinism can be reconciled with Christianity.  If the Bible is true, Darwin is wrong.  If Darwin is true, the Bible is wrong.  You must take a side.  Your blog takes a side.  You believe in evolution, therefore you do not believe in God.  You are either:

  • kidding yourself
  • lying
  • crazy
  • ignorant
  • There are no other options.  One pastor has written trying to say this and you have not responded to his issues.  You are an ordained pastor.  How can you promote an unBiblical and unChristian premise as true and call yourself a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ?

    Do you believe in God?  Do you believe in miracles?  Do you believe that our faith has any validity and truth?  I look at the things you say, and I believe you want good for people and for the church, but I do not get the impression you really knowGod.  It is vitally important that Christian leaders exemplify the highest Christian ideals.  You are corrupting the gospel — accommodating the world to compromise the Word of God to make people more comfortable.  This is a pathway to hell, not redemption.

    The church cannot give in to the values of the world.  The church must lead, not follow.  We cannot be a people of science.  We must be a people of faith.  We cannot be a people of the secular culture.  We must be a people who offer a better option.  We cannot be deceived by every new fad and theory and popular idea.  We must defend eternal truth.  I know you think you are doing good, but you are doing incredible damage.  Everyone who listens to what you say is harmed.  You speak and write well, but what you say is not good.  We need to speak truth, and we need to make the church safe against all the forces that work to destroy it.  My appeal to you is to work to make our church safe, and not to continue to make it weak.  Don’t confuse people.  Speak truth, or, please, don’t speak at all.

    I hope this woman is not right.  I absolutely hate it that anyone thinks that what I do is negative, damaging or unChristian.  However, she does make some good points.  But I am not sure that her answers are the only answers.  Case in point:

    1. I do not believe that our world is clearly either/or.  I am a both/and kind of guy.  I actually am not a Darwinist.  I think we have learned a lot since Darwin, and as a person of faith, I thank God for the revelations that have come to us through science.  I believe that the human mind may be one of the greatest gifts to us from God.  What the human mind can conceive is incredible.  As we learn more and more, I believe we gain deeper insight into the incredible complexity of the creation of our God.  I have little sympathy for or understanding of those who believe that human understanding is somehow a violation of the will of God.
    2. I agree that Christian leaders should exemplify the very best of beliefs and behaviors.  But I believe that this includes what we learn from the physical sciences as well as the metaphysical.  I don’t believe in a division between what God creates and what God does not create.  My belief is that God is Lord of all.  I believe that the Bible contains amazing and life changing truths.  I also believe that the Bible contains outdated and provincial beliefs that no longer have validity for a rational and modern people.  I cannot conceive of a defensible argument for slavery or the persecution and oppression of women, no matter what the Bible says.  Ours is an incredible faith in formation.  It has never been finished or complete, and it may never be — given the limitations of human beings to act like Jesus Christ.
    3. There is no greater advocate for the church as a counter-cultural alternative to the world than I am.  I believe we should be better.  I believe we should be brighter.  I believe the church should exemplify the very best that human beings can possibly be.  However, I believe that the best requires an integration of mind and spirit.  I do not believe in an “anti-intellectual” faith.  If our belief-system cannot support the best believing alongside the best thinking, then it isn’t a faith worth holding.

    Obviously, I cannot understand what it is about what I am saying that is viewed as subversive or unfaithful.  I’m okay with differences of opinion and disagreements about what might be true.  What I struggle with are people who cannot allow for alternative points of view.  I do understand that, if I am wrong, I am a danger and a threat, but I wouldn’t staunchly defend a position I didn’t believe in.  (And this is the point the woman is trying to make.)

    Belief is hard.  Certainty is dangerous.  Rigidity is painful.  And judgment sucks.  Being Christian is not easy, no matter how much we would like that to be true.  I don’t want everyone to agree with me — how boring is that?  But, oh, how I long for a church and a world where we can wrestle with these magnificent issues of faith without having to dismiss one another as evil, stupid, crazy, or deluded.

    11 replies

    1. Has any mystic ever claimed to “know” God? As one most comfortable in that minority spirituality, I don’t think I would ever claim to know God, because that would mean complete comprehension or experience, overcoming (or undercutting) mystery and the Trinity remains a mystery in important and life-giving ways.

      And this makes as much sense to some people as 2+2=a banana daiquiri.

      But I want a church that doesn’t force me, even as a pastor, to recite a party line that may be more convenient for most, but doesn’t come from my own experience.

    2. As a former fundamentalist Southern Baptist, I understand the risk for those who hold the beliefs espoused in the note you received. The fear arises from the belief that questioning the Scriptures (or for that matter God) in ANY way leads to the entire house of cards falling apart. Suggest that creation may have not happened in six literal days and suddenly you have suggested that something in the bible “isn’t true,” and since in a post-enlightenment world in which the church has bought into the categorization of all things (taxonomy) as fact or fiction, true or false, right or wrong, that belief suggests that the whole work is fake, made up, not to be believed, and as such, untrustworthy.

      Of course there are many of us who believe that “truth” can often lay outside of “fact,” especially in the context of faith. You and I would agree that there is truth in the dual stories of creation regardless of their factual accuracy. However, for some (maybe for many) that disconnect between truth and fact is a hard sell.

      In many ways the folks who are “protecting the faith” are to be admired, for from their perspective they are counter-cultural in many ways. However, I believe that they are in fact more in tune with culture they would like to admit — the enlightenment culture of modernity which is uncomfortable with mystery and wants to cull everything into some form of certainty. To suggest that we believe in God as creator of heaven and earth, and yet that we don’t know how that actually happened and are willing to live in that mystery is too ambiguous, too mysterious, to “wishy-washy” for some. Thus, they rely as much on a scientific approach toward proving the validity of the Bible as any scientist uses in proving the theory of evolution.

      Do we as United Methodist pastors have a responsibility to “the truth?” Absolutely! But when I search for “The Truth” in scripture I’m led to what Jesus says is the core of the biblical story — love of God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love of neighbor. Holding those two strands in tension are, I believe, the core of Wesley’s understanding of faith which we attempt to live out in the world today.

      That is, of course, my interpretation of the Scriptural and United Methodist tradition. But then again, I may be crazy or deluded.

      • Crazy and deluded seems popular these days. My ever-present struggle is to stay inconversation with people who come at the Christian faith in such radically different ways from my own. I want there to be a place where we can share differing views and still accept one another. I fear this is my naivete, and my blind spot. I do hear where people are coming from, I sincerely empathize with their concerns, and I adamantly disagree. It is to hard to maintain an inclusive and accepting attitude toward those who won’t do the same, but I really want to. Thanks for the thorough and thoughtful responses you give, Jay. They add a very helpful dimension to these issues.

    3. “Fear becomes monolithic. Reduce it little by little. Often, after a few attempts, it collapses for its rigidity. Then, one realizes how overestimated its power was and how easily one may live by attending to the risk as it is and not as a monolith.” The writer of that email has written much about you for which she has not made the case, at least in the part of her note you posted. If she is referring to Pastor Don in her note, I cannot see that he made his case either.To the extent the pastor is afraid, I have found the above statement to be helpful when I am afraid. Peace.

    4. Not for nothing, but your e-mailer does not express the United Methodist toward either the Bible or science.

      We hold that Bible contains all things necessary for salvation and the moral laws of the Old Testament must be heeded. Nowhere in the Articles of Religion or other portions of the Book of Discipline do we affirm a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible.

      In the social principles – which are not binding but are nonetheless adopted by the General Conference – we say squarely that science and faith are not at odds, but are complementary.

      People can criticize the ideas you raise in the blog, but to suggest you are violating your vows of ordination or your responsibility as a minister of the gospel is simply false.

      Jay is being pastoral and Christian in his analysis.

      • In my best moments I can be pastoral and Christian. Unfortunately after forty years in the church, living through the culture wars in the Southern Baptist Church, and hearing far too many folks tell me that I don’t believe in “truth,” if more often find myself giving up, believing that attempting to maintain relationship simply isn’t worth the amazing amounts of energy required. That is, I fully admit, the broken part of me who in moments of weakness doubt Christ’s ability to truly bring about reconciliation. But then, usually when I least expect it, God’s grace shines through and I believe again.

    5. Wow. It must be national week of screaming righteousness. The national health care debate town halls, your blog, what next?

      Of course many Christians uphold faithful and reverant Christianity and do not see the theory of evolution as a threat to our faith.

      More important to me is the need for clergy to risk in the pulpit responsible, honest teaching. We have a free pulpit in the UMC because Wesley knew honest proclamation was necessary. Thanks for your honesty, Dan, and colleagues who teach responsibly. If I am not challenging in teaching, my congregation does not mature into people who can hold convictions differently without screaming righteousness. If I cannot challenge, I do not mature. This ministry thing is an art–oh my–and maybe a science not yet perceived.

    6. I heard recently (on NPR’s “On the media”) that one of the biggest hurdles in listening to people we disagree with is that things we read and hear that we already agree with reinforce our beliefs (political, spiritual and otherwise), while things we read and hear that we are prone to disagree with reinforce our opposition. It makes logical and aggravating sense, but the story had research to back it up. Sadly it had no suggestions for how we can drop our own well formed positions far enough to really be open to another, let alone how to help others do the same. Dan’s list, shared elsewhere, for how to be open to others viewpoints is helpful, but even it doesn’t overcome the reality that we tend to believe what we already believe and to doubt what we already doubt.

    7. Albert Einstein
      Science without religion is lame. Religion without science is blind.

      In the play “Inherit the Wind,” the 2 lead characters are in the courtroom, with the defense counsel (Drummond) questioning the Biblical scholar (Brady), and a series of questions are asked about the book of Genesis. Among those questions was a discourse on how long the first day was, and where Cain found his wife. If there was only Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel… Anyway, the idea of accepting the Bible version of creation as being literal flies in the face of all scientific evidence.

      In the musical “The King and I,” the King of Siam states that “Moses was a fool,” (or words to that effect) because of what he wrote in Genesis. The character of Anna says, “The Bible was written by men of faith, not men of science. The miracle of creation is still a miracle, whether it took 6 days or 6 million years.” (Again, or words to that effect)

      For us to state that the Biblical story is completely true, then the earth isn’t much older than about 6,000 years. And it’s the center of the universe and everything revolves around it too, right?

      And we wonder why people have a hard time believing in God.

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