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. At the ecumenical councils at Nicaea and Constantinople, early church leaders gathered to hammer out those things that were truly important theologically for the unity of the church. They wrote and agreed upon a short statement summarizing those core ideas. The Nicene Creed (or technically, the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed) has served as a guidepost for many Christians for many centuries.

    There are two important things to notice:

    1. The bishops gathered for the Ecumenical Council, because it was necessary to come to a consensus on what was true. There was healthy debate among faithful Christians. Some say that those on the “losing” side were unjustly excluded from the Church. Whether that is the case or not, there was certainly a process of the faithful debating and coming to consensus on doctrine. Those who seem to think they have The Truth, should remember that the history of the Church is full of efforts to refine our understanding of what is true.

    2. Those Bishops were able to summarize the core items of faith in a very brief creed. There were (and are) many sources of disagreement. But it was only the core faith that was emphasized. I think it’s worth noting the many topics that never found their way into any creed. And the many things that we Christians can agree to disagree about while maintaining our unity.

  2. Yes, we can and almost unavoidably will have disagreements among folks who are Christians.

    Some of those disagreements will be theological, if not doctrinal.

    The distinction for United Methodists is we have doctrinal standards, but we are given fairly wide berth to develop all sorts of things around them, provided we don’t actively transgress them.

    I’d say most of our debates these days have little to do with our doctrine, except perhaps to show how little we live it. Or even know it.

    I do think if more of us knew Wesley’s sermons better– and especially the spirit of them– we might spend less time trying to divide over issues they and our other doctrinal standards didn’t address in any final, univocal way.

    But the larger issue is, as your quote implies, whether we will stand facing the same direction with each other.

    Will we love each other and be there for each other while also disagreeing with each other?

    That takes discipline, patience, and love.

    Which means the even larger question– Will we engage the discipline, take time to develop the patience, and constantly work at showing love, not just when it feels good to do so?

    A community that will do that will not only stand together, but continue to stand.

    A community that will only agree to tolerate each other and not actually develop the discipline, patience and love to stand together facing the same direction will neither stand together nor stand long in the face of hostile environments.

    It will crumble. It will bicker. It will divide. It will fall.

    May we do what we can with each other to develop the discipline, patience and love to stand facing the same direction.

  3. What’s interesting is that sociology has studied this, and the research is rarely cited. (It may not be correct, but it should be mentioned!)

    TAILS. In the early 1960s sociologists Rodney Stark and John Lofland studied the first conversions to the Unification Church or “Moonie” cult in the United States as a means of identifying why people convert, with the following scientific conclusions: Proselytizing bore fruit only when it followed or coincided with the formation of strong social
    attachments, typically family ties or close personal friendships. Successful conversion was not so much about selling beliefs as it was about building ties, thereby lowering the social costs and raising the social benefits associated with changing one’s religious orientation. The converse was also true. Recruitment failure was all but assured if a person maintained strong attachments to a network of non-members. Many people spent time with the Moonies and expressed considerable interest in their doctrines but never joined. In nearly every case, these people had strong on-going attachments to
    non-members who disapproved of the group. By contrast, those who joined were often newcomers to San Francisco and thus separated from their family and friends. In short, social attachments lie at the heart of conversion, and conversion tends to proceed along
    social networks. This discovery has been replicated in scores of subsequent studies all over the world. (Quote from Laurence R. Iannaccone, The Market for Martyrs – context is my DMin project http://www.disciplewalk.com/files/Seminar_Three_Decision.pdf)

    Therefore, it’s neither theology nor social service nor hypocrisy nor high/low expectations or lack of hospitality – but the fact that the way we practice love for neighbor and/or one another leaves people unconnected socially in any intimate way. No relationship, therefore, equals no conversion. All the other suggested causes can function as means to distance or dehumanize others, protecting us from what we fear: intimacy and true community (which I define by M Scott Peck’s “The Different Drum”) with unbelievers.

  4. The above is a bit of a paradigm shift, but it seems to me to fit Occam’s Razor – the simplest answer, considering the biblical commands to love people. In regard to fulfilling those commands in a quality way, we just suck.

  5. Dan,

    As a 1st year M.Div pursuing ordination in the UMC, the young pastor’s quote deeply disturbs me. I don’t recall seeing those sentiments anywhere in our discipline, or social principles, and if I had espoused those ideas in response to Wesley’s questions, I don’t think the UMC would’ve let me in. I love our church, and believe strongly in a future where we can be a big tent, a place of love, respect, and growth. I guess I’m frightened by the negative, black-and-white thinking expressed by a member of our own clergy. It’s okay to be rudimentary in other denominations, I suppose some call for that. I just pray we’re more grace-driven than division-prone. Maybe the cure is purging the extreme, on both sides, in favor of those who would accept a doctine of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, and the rest of the fruits? That’s what I pray to offer the UMC someday; it disturbs me that members of our clergy have forgotten that the seeds of these fruit were planted long ago in a garden with love that desired unity, not damnation.

  6. One thing I have come to understand is that for most people, no matter how different someone’s theology is from mine, I cannot deny that it is very real to that person. I know that for some, their faith even compels them to tell me that I am wrong and risk going to hell. But even if I disagree, I cannot deny that their faith is powerful in their hearts.

    • Michelle, you make a really good point. I too know how real it is to each person. Sometimes in the passion of the moment I do forget that. I will often regret it when I forget it. It really hurts when we are told we are wrong and risk going to hell. Sometimes others infer we are saying that even if we just ask questions. Good topic to think about.

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