Missing the Forest For the Trees

In response to my “Back to Basics” post, many people are asking (demanding?) whether or not theology is at the root of “seeker aversion” to organized religion.  More conservative voices posit that our lack of Biblical integrity and adherence, our loose morals, and our “anything goes” liberalism may be what people are really rejecting, while left-leaning libs conjecture that the stuffy, stifling narrow-mindedness of the religious right is to blame.  What I would lift up is that it is not a particular theological perspective or position that people are objecting to, but the constant theological bickering itself.  People outside of organized religion seem much more tolerant of theological diversity than those inside our hallowed ranks. 

Some “outsider” quotes:

Jesus said, ‘unless you care for the least of these, you do not care for me.’  I don’t care how you decide who to care for and who to ignore — I will decide that for myself — what I need help with is actually reorienting my life to be less self-focused and more other-focused.

Mary a virgin?  I could care less.  It doesn’t change who Jesus is or what Jesus teaches at all.  You tell me I can’t be a Christian if I don’t believe every word of the Bible?  Hey, if that works for you, fine.  I don’t need your belief system — I need a place to explore and question and discover what all this means for me.

I am a lifelong Republican.  I believe history will show that the Reagan and two Bush presidencies are among the greatest in our entire history.  But I am a second generation Mexican immigrant, and I am committed to immigration reform and open borders.  Someone in my church called me a “bleeding heart liberal” and it about killed me.  I went through something like this when my son “came out” and told everyone he was homosexual.  He is the most kind, devout Christian I know, so when I said a person’s sexual orientation has nothing to do with whether they are a good Christian or not, some of my long time friends broke up with me.  I now think liberal-conservative are stupid labels and they do more damage than good.  I am not a conservative and I am not a liberal.  I am a child of God and a follower of Jesus, and I no longer attend any church, because in church I am judged.  I don’t need that.  I need a place that is more concerned with loving people than in deciding who is right and who is wrong.

These quotes bring to mind a favorite passage from one of Terry Pratchett’s wonderful and amazing Discworld fantasy stories, Witches Abroad.  Two witches — Nanny Ogg and Granny Weatherwax — survive a run in with another witch, and they try to figure out who is right and who is wrong, who is good and who is bad.  Nanny Ogg says, “What I want to know is, was Mrs. Gogol really good or bad?”  Granny reflects for a moment and replies, “Good and bad is tricky.  I ain’t too certain about where people stand… Perhaps what matters is which way you face.”  Which way we face — toward unity or division, toward harmony or discord. toward doing good or being right, toward embracing diversity or enforcing homogeneity — is what people are looking at.

The group of spiritual seekers I reference should not be confused with novices or lightweights.  What impressed me so much is that they most resemble the most highly engaged and spiritually mature in our current congregations.  Their misgivings have more to do with the way Christians treat each other than anything else.  They struggle with a faith known more readily for its church suppers, TV commercials, and ongoing debates than for its embodiment of the Christian gospel.  But, as one email put it, “who cares about those people anyway?  We don’t need more liberal malcontents.”

By our fruits we are known.  BP is now known not only for its oil spill, but how it responded to the spill as well.  Toyota is known not only for its accelerator problems, but for how it responded as well.  Athletes and entertainers are renowned not only for a variety of scandals and public displays, but also for how they handle the fallout.  A reputation is built on more than just what we do — it is built on the integrity with which we navigate our ups and downs.  It always surprises me when I share criticisms from outside the church how readily defensive and dismissive so many within the church are.  I truly believe it is because the comments hit so close to home, not because they are unfair.  The vast majority of the criticisms are not cheap shots, but well-reasoned, well chronicled, moderately widespread observations of fact.  It hurts to be misunderstood.  It also hurts to be seen clearly and known intimately.

We can do better if we want to.  We can get along, even though we disagree.  I received a troubling email the other morning that makes me wonder about our future.  In it, a young pastor writes,

There is no “theological spectrum.”  There is no “liberal,” “conservative,” or “fundamental” perspective.  There is only truth, and those who do not accept the truth are going to hell and we can’t change that by voting on it or debating it.  God is God and truth is truth.  In the church we cannot have “a difference of opinion.”  Opinion has nothing to do with Christianity.  I pray that you will stop confusing people and that you will either start telling the truth or stop writing altogether.

Maybe this man’s view is correct.  Maybe I’m kidding you and myself.  But I don’t think so.  I think there is room at God’s table for a wide variety of beliefs and practices.  I think God’s love is greater than our fear, God’s grace is greater than our anger and judgment, and God’s mercy is greater than our condemnation.  At least, I hope so.

10 replies

  1. I think it would help if we could or would clearly articulate a narrow ground that is non-negotiable. It makes it much safer to disagree and much easier to accept difference if – when push comes to shove – we understand the essentials that require unity.

    Our Articles of Religions and Confession of Faith supposedly serve that role, but they do not in practice.

    Wesley constantly urged acceptance of differing opinions about things that were not essential, but he had a clear idea of what was essential.

    We – as a denomination – do not.

    If we did – and I mean in practice not lip service – then it would be much easier to say that as long as we stand together on these essentials we can accept and even embrace a wide diversity beyond that.

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