In this episode, Pete responds to an article from The Gospel Coalition entitled, “3 Beliefs Some Progressive Christians and Atheists Share.” He takes issue with the harmful rhetoric that polarizes Evangelicalism creating an “us vs. them” mentality among brothers and sisters in Christ. He points out that Progressive Christianity shouldn’t be a pejorative term but one that describes a creative and inquisitive faith seeking to evolve with their understanding of the scripture.
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Folks welcome to another episode of the Bible for normal people and for this episode my last solo episode of this year of Season 2. I’d like to talk about a blog post on the Gospel Coalition Web site and it made the rounds about maybe two three weeks ago as I’m recording this, and a number of people have asked me what I thought about it.
The post is called Three beliefs some progressive Christians and atheists share and it’s written by Alisa Childers who is a former CCM artist and has been on her own her journey of faith, and trying to figure things out, as we all are.
So here is the gist of the blog post: progressive Christians and atheists are sort of unknowingly aligned.
They share three beliefs–or as she says in the title–some of them share these three beliefs–that are out of alignment with correct Christian thinking. More important, even though the blog post makes some effort to steer away from this conclusion, it is quite clear to me from the rhetoric of the post makes the case for a trajectory from Progressive Christianity to atheism. In fact a subtext of the post seems to be that atheism a more honest position than Progressive Xty.
So that really struck me and then people started asking me what my thoughts were about this claim. I know many who struggle in this world that the blog post represents, and who are looking for language to think differently about what it means to be Christian. And so I found myself formulating a response.
But still, I asked myself: WHY? Why respond to this blog post on The Gospel Coalition website, when I—to be frank—find much of what is posted there to be misguided, unwise, or missing some crucial pieces of the puzzle. I could spend a lot of time responding to their posts, but I don’t. So why now?
Well it’s exactly because of the responses that I’ve gotten from people who have suffered great spiritual damage and harm from the kind of thinking represented in this post. And I very often find myself in the position having to help some of these people put the pieces together, to help them see that leaving their fundamentalism does not mean they have left the faith entirely.
And blog posts like this one, even if they are intended to encourage people to have or hold on to faith, in my experience, they do more to encourage people to leave the faith. So I wanted to respond to it.
Let me say right away that my response has nothing to do really with the author, Alissa Childers. I don’t know her. I actually respect her journey. She’s had her own process of moving from a place of, I think she would say, simple fundamentalist faith to a period of doubt in her thirties and then moving beyond that to what she feels is a more robust faith.
And I have to respect her journey as a sister as I want others to respect the different kind of journeys that others take. So throughout this I’m going to refer to Alissa by her first name and that’s not out of disrespect. But it’s more an acknowledgement that we’re sort of all in this together at the end of the day and using last names or saying “the author” sounds detached, and almost dehumanizing. And I don’t want to put up those kinds of walls or barriers.
I may also say– in fact I probably will say things– like fundamentalism, which I use as a descriptive category not as a pejorative or negative category. It’s simply a way of talking about a certain cluster of ideas that some Christians hold as non-negotiable for Christian faith, which is normally called fundamentalism.
Or I will at times broaden the focus to include The Gospel Coalition a whole, for this is the institution, the system, that aids and abets posts like this one, and for that reason is much more of a problem for me than what one person expresses on a topic.
But this isn’t a go after anybody piece; this isn’t a takedown piece. This is more trying to look at something and take it apart a little bit and examine some things that are too often left unexamined; to expose and bring to light some things that are too often left buried a little bit beneath the surface, which are the very things that make this post for me very very problematic piece from a pastoral point of view.
Now that’s going to sound ridiculous for some listeners who have an affection for what Alissa is saying. But still, my main concern here is a pastoral one. I’m not playing an academic game of who wins the debate.
As I said Alissa is on her own journey and I respect that. And as he says on our website, which I was able to peruse, she speaks of a movement in her early thirties from–and I think a lot of people can connect with this—she moves from of an unreasonable doubt, a doubt that is rooted in lack of knowledge, toward a more intellectually informed faith. And I get that. I understand it. But one thing I’m after here is whether is necessarily the problem that has to be fixed. Doubt may be a signal from God that your thinking process has gone off the rails.
Also, is landing in an intellectually informed faith, as Alisa puts it, really a step forward, or is it more of the same thing that caused the doubts in the first place, just a few more clever patches sewn onto the old garment? The people I deal live I that tension.
So here’s what’s going to happen here. First, I want to give a quick overview of the blog post itself (and you know obviously I encourage you to read it. Don’t take my word for it.) I just want to mention the three main points that Alissa is making. Then I want to move to the premises–the underlying assumptions that are being made that are deeply problematic and that are the very things that need to be debated not simply asserted.
Then we’ll look at something I’d rather not have to talk about but I think it’s important and that is the rhetoric of the piece itself which is probably the most damaging part of this blog post as far as I’m concerned. And then I’d like to move to looking at those three points that Alissa engages in her blog post just making a few more comments about it getting into a little bit more depth not super long.
Then I want to conclude with overall summation of the problems with this blog post and then suggest aa different posture to take is more beneficial both I think intellectually and above all pastorally. I’d even say biblically.
So first: the three points of the blog post and these are I think pretty familiar ones to anyone who has struggled with faith.
The first point is that progressives and atheists both adopt a belief that the Bible is unreliable–or to be fair to Alisa’s wording, they both MAY adopt a belief that the Bible is unreliable. The potential “unreliability” of the Bible is a major concern for fundamentalism, with its strict commitment to inerrancy. And so when that is questioned, one’s Christian faith is soon called into question. I would say, judging from my experience, that a failure to uphold inerrancy is the core concern for fundamentalism, the problem from which all other problems stem, and it is good for Alisa to list this as the first of the three.
The second point is more of a philosophical matter that we probably all kick around at some point in our lives: the problem of evil—why do bad things happen. Why doesn’t God do something about this? Why is there so much needless death? Why is there so much suffering? Where’s God when you need him? That’s the problem of evil in a nutshell and it is absolutely something that drives people away.
And the third point that Alissa talks about is how morality today has become in progressive Christian circles more influenced by culture than simply adhering strictly to biblical teaching (back to the first).
Those are the three points and the solution that’s offered. which we’ll get to in a little more detail, is essentially if I can say a bunker mentality to hold fast, don’t change, don’t waiver. Hold on to the gospel no matter what. Don’t let culture affect you. Don’t let this affect you.
The solution to Progressive Christianity is essentially not to be progressive but to fall back to the old-time religion so to speak which has really answered all these questions for us. We just need to know what those answers are. And I know for myself that is deeply unsatisfying intellectually and spiritually as it is for many other people.
The three points Alisa mentions are very good points and I do think that there are resemblances between progressive Christians and atheists on these problems. What is not being addressed however is that, though these two groups share these same observations, they still address them very differently and we’ll get to that too. We’re still in the intro section here folks so just chill with me okay. Maybe get a sandwich.
So those are the three points. Next, let’s look at the premises. As I said before, the premises are the very things that need to be debated. This is where the discussion has to happen, not on the level of verse wars on the level of premises–and here’s one premise.
The blog post makes a claim, even if it claims to not make it it’s making it and it’s this: There is a trajectory from Progressive Christianity to atheism. “Look at how progressives and atheists hold so many things in common. All you need is give them a little kick to go from being a progressive Christian to a “full-blown” atheist, (I’m not what other kind there are).
I want to push back there rather significantly. That’s not my experience. I don’t really know people who are progressive, and that leads them to atheism and progressives. That MAY happen, but I know many more who are committed to their faith. Much more common in the world that I move in is people who have become atheists because of the kind of thinking displayed in the blog post.
The fundamentalist model of faith drives home again and again that it’s their way or the highway. And if you begin having questions about that your only other option is atheism. I don’t know if fundamentalists really have a sense of what they are contributing to the problem. It’s not progressives who are causing the move to atheism, but fundamentalists who are causing they move to either progressive Christianity or atheism.
Think about this. Why is it that progressive Christians and atheists share a certain set of concerns concerning the Bible or the problem of evil or the influence of culture and Christian faith. Well because they’re seeing the same problem with fundamentalism. But why are there progressives at all? Not because they’re weak kneed or missed the last apologetics seminar. But because they are still people of deep faith.
Rather than lumping together these two groups as both wrong because they reject fundamentalism, progressive Christians should be acknowledged people who are really trying to follow Jesus in their own way—not because they feel like rebelling against Jesus but because the model that is being championed in this blog post hasn’t been able to explain the world they live in, and not because they weren’t alert the fundamentalism’s latest argument, but because they were, and it still doesn’t make sense.
So I think fundamentalism can breed actually three things. One is a progressive or a different kind of form of Christianity. A second is atheism. And a third is where I think Alissa finds herself: a reinvigorated fundamentalism, which, I feel, given a little time and another set of arguments, will trigger another faith crisis.
Anyway, Back to my main point. The premise here is that progressive Christianity really leads to atheism—in fact there’s really nothing to keep you from simply sliding over to atheism. But that’s only true if you hold to the view that Fundamentalism is the true form of Christianity.
So another premise is the claim to be speaking for so-called “historic Christianity.” And I have to say this is bordering on being rather naive about the history of Christianity. I know it’s nice to be able to say, well what I believe today is the pure faith that has always been the true faith handed down from the beginning of Christianity
Students of Christian history will put that notion to rest quickly. Christian faith is actually tremendously diverse–not anything goes but many things go. So which historic Christian faith are we talking about? Which shade of Roman Catholicism, Orthodoxy, or myriad of Protestant denominations? Or is it simply what TGC claims it is? I think not.
Christians have been thinking about the Christian faith in different settings at different times under different circumstances. This is why you have such a breadth of theology. This is why you have literally thousands of Christian denominations all putting the pieces together differently. And my hackles go up a little bit when I hear anyone claiming to speak for the historic Christian faith on anything.
That claim also presumes a permanence where true faith doesn’t ever move or change—and we’ll get to that in a minute. But when someone claims the authority of “historic Christianity” for themselves as a way of casting aspersions on others, they should be challenged every time it’s brought up.
Another premise is that the evangelical faith is intellectually robust. It’s covered the bases. Sure, occasionally it might need a nip and tuck. A new angle perhaps on an old argument, but the evangelical faith is intellectually robust and stands tall and strong.
I think this does not account for the massive intellectual challenges that confront evangelicalism that many people are talking about—namely them former evangelicals. Why do you have a Rachel Held Evans, Jen Hatmaker, Mike McHargue, Rob Bells and others? Why do people like this exist? They’re not just getting up one day and say, you know I’m going to rebel. I’m bored and I need something.
There is a mass of disaffected evangelicals and fundamentalists out there. This is happening in the academic community, too. Why is it so common that evangelical churches and institutions send their best and brightest to do doctoral work at major, prestigious research institutions and while they’re there they change, because they learn ways of looking at the Bible—like how it was composed and when–that make more sense than how they had been taught to think of it previously.
The problem here is not with those who are going out and learning different things and changing their minds on some issues. Rather seeing real intellectual problems with the “evangelical paradigm” and are finding better answers elsewhere. What really strikes me here is a tone deafness to the degree of intellectual isolation within the evangelical movement—in fact, the degree of intellectual isolation needed to make the evangelical system work.
Of course you can have arguments for remaining as one was—or perhaps returning to a reinvigorated fundamentalism as Alisa has. But the arguments for doing so only really make sense within that insulated world.
Of course, I’m aware that Alisa and other could appeal to scholarly champions on their side who are very educated and still hold to conservative views which is absolutely true. But let me suggest something here: do they hold these views BECAUSE they are smart and educated? Or might it be that their education allows them to find more sophisticated ways of remaining in the fold? I would be hard pressed to find someone who, say, is an inerrantist BECAUSE their academic training took them there. But I have known many whose smarts enable them to construct all sorts of arguments with footnotes and Greek and Hebrew to hold on to, say, inerrancy, but that do not follow from their training. My colleague and guest on this podcast, Kent Sparks, wrote a book a few years ago called God’s Word in Human Words that documented this tendency.
Anyway, don’t assume that just because someone is smart that they arrive at their beliefs through the use of their intellect. That is the modernist lie. Neuroscientists have been telling us now for some time that it’s really our experience and our intuition that guide what we think and what we believe; the intellectual analytical side comes in after the fact as a way to buttress what we believe.
What we believe and why we believe it may have more to do with our social location, our “tribe,” as they say, than apologetics. I think this is what makes us human.
Back to the premise that evangelicalism is an intellectually robust faith that has stood the test of time, that it just needs some tweaking, is simply not in line with my experience, the experience of many others, and it should not go unchallenged.
Enough about premises. Let’s move now to the rhetoric of the piece. I want to draw this issue out because I see here common tactics, even if they are not consciously deployed, that too prevalent in theological discourse (across the board), and that never really convince anyone of anything. They are more meant to ensure that the protective wall remains thick and sound.
For example, Alisa is quick to raise the specter of famous de-convert Bart Campolo. Bart’s Father Tony is a friend of mine, I teach with Tony at eastern University. I know the story pretty well. For what it’s worth, And I think Bart has made some missteps in how he processes some issues. But the point is that bringing Bart Campolo up at all is really a manipulative tactic to say, “Listen here’s a guy whose dad is this progressive evangelical and look where it got him. This is where you’re going.”
I deal with people all the time who, as I said before, are moving to atheism because of their fundamentalist upbringing. And I could give anecdote after anecdote of people who have not done what Bart Campolo has done, but who have a renewed faith BECAUSE they have left fundmentalism. So which stories shall we listen to.
It really is a scare tactic. For me this is one level up from a Chick Tract (remember those?) So I don’t think this tactic is helpful. And again I don’t think that was necessarily intentional on Alisa’s part, but there you have it.
Second bit of rhetoric that I’d like to do away with forever– and Alisa is not to blame for this nor is the Gospel Coalition–is the use of the word progressive. I really don’t like it. I’m much more with Brian McLaren for example and I think I’m going to get his vocabulary right. Instead of “progressive” he’d rather call them creative types. And call fundamentalists, or non-progressives, preservationists.
And I like that language. A creative type is someone is oriented toward the present and future: “hey listen we have this faith rooted in the past, but how do we engage our world today and how do we prepare for the future of humanity by engaging this ancient text?”
Traditionalists tend to think more about preserving the tradition, to ensure that we stay tied very closely to this past. The tendency will be to think FIRST of like how is this different from the past. If it’s too different we’re just going to nix it.
Now the point that Brian makes that I agree with is that these two approaches to “doing theology” they actually co-exist. I mean creative types are still always engaging the tradition and so they haven’t just said “I’m done with the tradition entirely.” They’re actually trying to engage the past but creatively for the moment. And I could riff here, but I’ll mention later how the Bible itself models for us this creative posture.
Preservationists say, “listen we have to remember there is a tradition here that needs to be sustained.” But even the strong preservationist has to have some type of creative dimension if anything because we are not living in the Iron Age or first century Palestine.
These two outlooks are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they may need each other. I think if we stop to reflect on this for a minute we would see that preservationists have a creative dimension and creative types have a traditionalist dimension. I think what we have to do for the sake of theological integrity is actually embrace that dynamic and not choose one over the other. I would go so far as to say that a tradition dies if that dynamic is not embraced.
But with respect to the word “progressive,” I think it’s a polarizing term. I know that it used as a self-designation for…progressives. . .which is part of the problem and why I don’t blame Alisa or the Gospel Coalition for using it. But I’d like to leave it aside.
OK a third bit of rhetoric is the continued and unfortunate use of the phrase “deconversion” to describe a faith transition out of fundamentalism. People whose faith is shifting have not left the faith.
So for example you have again Jen Hatmaker maker being mentioned or the Gungors, especially Lisa Gungor, in the same breath as Bart Campolo or Derek Webb. If you’re not familiar with them just read the blog post you’ll see. This is a heinous tactic that tells us much more about the critic than those criticized. Alisa even links another Gospel Coalition blog post written by Michael Kruger a few months back that made the same facile equation, and that my esteemed cohost for this podcast, Jared Byas, responded to very effectively, but that Alisa wasn’t aware of or felt it was not worthy of engagement.
I want to be direct here: this type of rhetoric is slanderous and lacking in wisdom. Jen and Lisa are not deconversion stories but stories of spiritual maturation, or perhaps re-conversion. Bart Campolo and Derek Webb are not. Lumping them into one category is a scare tactic. It also rests on the premise I mentioned above that The Gospel Coalition and its bloggers simply as a matter of fact represent the one true faith and to diverge from it is to have no faith.
I really think this needs to stop. In Jesus name.
The fourth bit of rhetoric is the title itself: “Three beliefs some progressive Christians and atheists share.” I do actually appreciate how Alissa is trying to pull back from making absolute claims, which we also see in the subheadings, like progressives and atheists may adopt a belief that the Bible is unreliable.
Having said that, I think this is just putting lipstick on a pig. It give the appearance fair and open mindedness will follow by saying some or many. But at the end of the day the point made is still polarizing. And that’s certainly the tone of the piece throughout.
And you see that most clearly when you get to the last subheading of the blog post itself which is entitled “atheists in the making?” (Question Mark). I appreciate the question mark but you can’t feign civility hiding behind the question mark when what you’re clearly saying is that progressive Christianity is atheism in the making.
And I know that because of the fifth bit of rhetoric where the post ends by aligning progressive Christians not just with atheists but with—wait for it—the serpent in the garden of Genesis. If I may, here is how the post ends:
After all, the contemporary views that many people call “progressive” aren’t progressive anyway: they’re very old, echoes of that primordial question, “Did God really say?” (Gen. 3:1), signs of the most wicked rebellion imaginable. And we all know where that ends up.
You are in league with Satan is the ultimate conversation stopper in any sort of discussion when it comes to theological differences.
This rhetoric is effective for scoring points, to be sure, but–to put it mildly—it is a spiritually irresponsible way of dealing with people of faith of faith that you disagree with.
I deal with people all the time who are walking about wearing the scars of this type of rhetoric. I wonder if those who use it so freely realize the kind of spiritual and emotional damage it does to be told, “Hey, you’re in line with Satan.” This grieves the Spirit, and I’m just gonna say cut it out. Leave it out of your vocabulary entirely.
So those are the rhetorical moves that I see in this blog post. Again, I don’t really know how intentional they are. I think it’s just baked into the system, to speak like this because when someone feels the gospel is at stake, fear and manipulation spring into action.
Now very briefly I want to touch in a tad more detail on the three main points of the article I mentioned above.
The first concerns how progressives and atheists fail to hold on to Bible’s reliability. To make her point, Alissa quotes some people to support her claim. Rob Bell: “The Bible is a profoundly human book.” Well, isn’t it? I’m not sure why any Christian would have a problem with that. It is a profoundly human book. Jesus, too, was profoundly human. This quote doesn’t prove anything. If it does, it actually casts some doubt on Alissa’s theological orthodoxy. But I suspect this quote is less about substance and more just a juicy Rob Bell quote to affirms people’s fears.
I’m quoted. (Glad I made the cut.) “But if we are fixed on the Bible as a book that has to get history right, the gospels become a crippling problem.” Again, why the alarm? I know a lot of evangelicals who would agree with that statement. The Gospel do in fact differ rather remarkably in historical details that simply cannot be harmonized or ignored. Is Alissa not aware of this? If we begin by claiming that the Gospels are of necessity accurate historical records (because we know God would only speak historically accurately) then the Gospels are going to give you a headache—or . . . a faith crisis.
These are the types of claims that actually drive people away from faith.
Rachel Held Evans is quoted too. “What business do I have describing as inerrant and infallible a text that presumes a flat and stationary earth, takes slavery for granted, and presupposes patriarchal norms like polygamy.” Those seem like pretty good questions to me that are worth addressing. They are also, in some shape, almost as old as the Christian faith itself. They certainly do not undermine the Bible’s reliability, unless one has a view of reliability that is out of sync with most of the history of Christian thought.
And not to raise a whole other issue, but we have to ask “reliable for what?” Is reliability simply a historical matter? Does it presume a textbook, owner’s manual view of the Bible, where reliable means fully accurate and always binding information? Or is the Bible reliable in, by God’s grace, forming us into people of faith in ways that transcend our tired categories and presumptions of what the Bible “has to be?”
I think the problem here is presuming the stability, the immutability, of a particular form of inerrancy that most evangelicals I know don’t feel is viable. When people point out that the Gospels contradict each other, or Chronicles and Kings contradict each other, or that there are laws that contradict each other, the quick response it to be accused of denying the Bible’s reliability.
But I’m not sure if ignoring or papering over the Bible’s self-evident “behavior” is good theology. Thoughtful Christians will engage that issue and not draw lines too quickly. But presuming the non-negotiable inerrancy of scripture raises more problems than it solves—which I why you have people questioning evangelicalism’s “reliability”. At least try to appreciate and understand why people struggle with something you might feel is so obviously not a problem.
It has been said to me when I say I don’t believe in inerrancy, “Oh then you’re an errantist.” If you’re not an inerrantist you’re an errantist. Gee, who wants to be called that! My response is always the same. No I’m not an “errantist.” That’s a category mistake. I don’t accept that either-or as the starting point, the premise for discussing the issue of what the Bible is. We have to move beyond that rhetoric of reliability-unreliability as it has been co-opted by the inerrantist agenda.
The second main point of the blog post is the problem of evil, which Alissa acknowledges as a real problem and it has been for a long time. Why do really really bad things happen? Where is God when you need him? It’s a question of theodicy really: the defense of God. It’s as old as the Bible. and Second Temple Judaism. This has been an old old question.
I do agree with Alissa on something she says here. She says we should create safe places for people to express their doubts on this issue. I couldn’t agree more. But I want to suggest that you can begin by not writing blog posts like this that creates very unsafe space, by using deconverstion language, or being in league with Satan, or you’re just one turn away on the slippery slide to atheism.
And the question I want to ask—not directed towards Alissa specifically—is, “OK, how do YOU handle the problem? And how do you handle pushback when those answers are shown to be wanting? How do you handle an omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent, and all loving God. . . and the Holocaust? Or being buried alive in a mudslide as you’re driving to work? Or . . . the countless untold stories of the suffering of people whose names we will never know who died under the most heinous and horrible circumstances both in natural disasters or things that humans do to each other?
The problem of evil isn’t going anywhere. I think it’s the biggest problem that people have in trying to work within a Christian system. And I think that’s minimized in this article. It’s acknowledges the need to create safe space but that safe space is probably very small. You can walk outside of that space very quickly.
The third point is how progressive Christians, like atheist, take their morality from changing human cultural standards rather than from the Bible.
This section is a very brief and focuses on the LGBTQ issue, which has certainly caused no little concentration among fundamentalists and evangelicals. And here again, Jen Hatmaker is mentioned (sort of pile on Jen season still at the Gospel Coalition).
Now this immediately raises the question of how Alissa might deal with the pressing moral challenges that come from the Bible itself (like exterminating Canaanites, treating virgin daughters as property, or Israelites diving among themselves woman as spoils of war). Does the Bible nor raise moral issues for us rather than simply solve them at every turn?
And does not our own moment in time—call it culture if you want—affect how we process our faith and our here and now moral actions? Let me give an example. Biblically speaking, what do you do with outsiders. Should they just be judged and killed by God. Well that’s what Nahum thinks about the Assyrians. And then the book of Jonah comes along a couple of centuries later and says, “Well no, maybe God has a place for Assyrians as well.”
See the issue here is the very thing Alissa decries. The culture of the time affected how the biblical writers wrote. They do not have the same opinion on the Assyrians. Nahum is writing at the time when Syria is coming to the end of its power and a pretty horrible reign they had. Jonah is writing at a different time from the point of view of a different culture–a postexilic culture where the question of what God thinks of outsiders has shifted, probably because the Judahites in Babylonian captivity came to see their new neighbors as people rather than the “others.”
The focus of this blog post, however, is on changing views among Christians the LGBTQ issue, and displaying that change as Exhibit A for what happens when you don’t listen to the Bible and simply let culture affect your morality. I think that argument is the last gasp of inerrancy as a functionally meaningful view of how to look at the Bible. It’s the last gasp in my opinion of seeing the Bible as a rulebook that simply gives you moral answers—just find the verse and do what it says.
And that’s why any shift in thinking about this issue is met with such a visceral reaction. I mean the Battle of the Bible was lost with respect race in the 19th century and now with respect to women in the church. But now we have human sexuality and the Bible seems to have such clear things to say, and since the Bible is our moral rulebook, we have to stick to it.
This issue is the Alamo of biblical inerrancy. And I can understand for an inerrantist why this is such an important issue. But the argument that culture should never affect morality is demonstrably false, even within the Bible itself.
At the risk of getting into this too deeply and turning this into a 3-day marathon podcast, let me just say that the Bible is replete with examples of how views of many things are directly affected by when and where the biblical authors wrote. The legal tradition in the Pentateuch differ because of when and where they originated. And the Babylonian Exile had profound effects on how ancient Jews articulated their faith. To suggest that the Bible has a clear consistent moral standard, free of cultural influences, makes me wonder how carefully the Bible has been read.
The entire history of Christian and Jewish thought has been engaging this very issue of how to act today, embracing this tradition but also recognizing that are embracing it at a very different time and place than the biblical author. Biblical faith is one that says retreat to the past. It says respect the past but live in the present. How does that work? Well welcome to Christian theology. That’s that’s not an easy question to answer, but it is our sacred responsibility to try. But it’s incautious to say, “well you’ve got a choice: you get your morality from culture or you can get your morality from the Bible.” That false choice, ironically, ignores the biblical witness.
Let me move now to a brief summation of blog post by making 6 brief interconnected points. So first, just to reiterate I think that the argument and the rhetoric of this blog post are spiritually harmful. Alissa is not the problem here. It’s part of the tone and tenor of evangelicalism. We have to find different ways to talk about this.
Second, I’m not surprised but what strikes me is the utter failure of any sense of curiosity and self-criticism. This gets back to one of the premises: if you hold the truth, there is no need to be curious about how God is moving in the world. We know it. We know it biblically. Therefore self-criticism is off the table. We are right and we are here to correct you. There is an arrogance to that. And heaven help us all for being arrogant. I hope I’m not being arrogant now. I don’t think I am. I’m just trying to articulate what I think about this approach to theological dialogue.
Third point. In see a willful isolation from larger and older conversations on these issues. I see a naivete and even an ignorance of the beautiful depth of the history of Christian theology and contemporary Christian theology. Let me be clear: when I say naive and ignorant I am not being in any sense insulting of anyone because I am naive and I am ignorant of a good many things. Naivete and ignorance are part of human existence. But those who are wise will know it.
But the kind of isolation I see here from the larger conversation, making believe it’s not even there is inexcusable. There can be no dialogue here, only a bunker mentality, where all that is needed is apologetics—which is the stated purpose of the Gospel Coalition: to defend the Christian faith against the weak minded, people who disagree, who think differently. And that agenda can only be carried out if you’re isolated from global Christianity
Which is to say (here is my fourth point) that what we have here is really a failure to do theology. Theology is all about being in conversation with the world around you and saying how does God want us to respond to this world around us. And again I never get tired of saying that within the Bible itself you see that dynamic.
What does it mean for God to show up here. Just think of Paul. Circumcision and dietary laws moved from non-negotiable commands from God to no longer necessary. That’s a pretty big shift, which happened because Paul’s eyes and ears were tuned in to the moment, and now you have to think differently about the words of God from the past.
That is a sacred responsibility that Christians have. That is what doing theology means. Theology is not apologetics. True Christian theology is not a canon theology, a defense of a theological canon or system. Theology is of necessity and biblically speaking a creative act, not simply an act of reiteration. I think that’s our calling to be creative.
My fifth point, as I mentioned before, is that the rhetoric of the post is inexcusable and we should all be willing to call each other out on these sorts of moves. We may not always like hearing it, but we still need to be willing to listen.
I think that rhetorical moves that are aimed only at winning a debate and not actually maturing in faith are a barrier to faith.
My sixth and final summative point is the failure to take responsibility for playing a major role in spawning the very things this blog post denounces: progressives and atheists. Again, I can’t tell you how many people over the years I’ve talked to who have either left Christianity entirely or have moved on to atheism or very different expressions of Christianity because they have been told that the only real Christianity is what their tradition is curating–and that doesn’t explain the world that they live in. It doesn’t answer the questions that they’re asking.
So let me conclude with what I think needs to be keep in mind for talking about people moving or progressing or being more creative in their faith or whatever. Right.
First of all I think we need to be more biblical than what this post models. I said this before and I’ll say it again because I think it’s very important: within the Bible itself we can see, without too much searching, writers engaging and adapting—not simply repeating—past traditions. To be truly biblical means to embrace that dynamic, that biblical dialogue, and ask ourselves what it means for us to do likewise in our contemporary situation.
How can we follow the biblical trajectory here and now? Not by proof texting; not by thinking of the Bible as a rulebook and here are the verses, plain and true, no need for discussion. But a lot of people have pored over this stuff and found the Bible has more to it than meets the eye. It’s actually beautifully complicated. That’s the Bible we have. That’s the Bible I love reading, trying to understand, and passing on to others.
To be more biblical means not to find better verses and to argue versus with each other but it really means to take that dynamic of engagement to heart, which will yield various points of view, which can certainly be debated and even judged. But it is only by accepting this dynamic that true debate can occur, not by one side nursing predetermined conclusions.
The second thing I would say is let’s be more compassionate—meaning all of us. I know that person X believes certain things that are abhorrent to you but, do you know their story? And what obligation do we have to be Jesus to others rather than demonizing them?
I wasn’t too sure what the purpose was of putting Lisa Gungar’s recent video promoting her book right smack dab in the middle of this blog post. What it for the purpose of listening to her story, her experience, and trying to let it affect you? Or was it to look past the humanity and simply show her to be that person all true believers should shun, or at least safely ignore? Do you look at that video and see the enemy, or someone who has struggled, is open about it, and has processed through it?
Be compassionate to Derek Webb—yes, even him. Be compassionate for someone who has become an atheist perhaps because of something your tribe might have done—knowingly or unknowingly. Rather than pulling out an incendiary quote to shock us, look what he is saying and put yourself in his shoes. He and others like him have a story. They may have real reasons for why they’re thinking what they’re thinking.
Another point is to be more willing to be open to the spirit of God who moves in ways we don’t control, who is beyond us, and who, as the Bible itself shows us, is not limited to the words on the page. I believe God surprises us more than we might think—and that thought is, for me, a beautiful thing to remember, even a comfort, knowing that God is not locked into my way of thinking.
The freedom of the Spirit is a proper context for theological discussion and even debate. Let’s not assume that God is bound to Bible verses and certainly not to our interpretation of these verses but by definition has to be above and beyond all that.
And with that, I want to say I love the Bible. I love reading it, I love studying, and I love teaching it. It is a complex book of spiritual nourishment, and also—if the history of Christian thought has anything to say about it–a source of a lot of questions and yields diverse answers. And that’s the beauty of it. The Spirit is moving and it is responsibility to work out our faith here now in our circumstances and not think that the Bible is something like a teacher’s edition textbook where we go to the back and find a verse. That is not being obedient to God. That is not being open to God. That is being closed off to God.
Along with that I think humility is something that we could all remind ourselves of is pretty important in the Christian faith. I remember in seminary one of my wonderful professors telling us in class about how was introduced at a conference: He wrote this and that, got his PhD from such and such a place, etc. And then at the end the guy who introduced him added, “And he is a humble man.”
Our professor—and this was one of those unscripted seminary moments that sticks with you more than the readings—he looked at us and he said, “Why did he add that, as if it was remarkable? Humility is the most basic trait that Christians should have. It shouldn’t need to be said.” Right? You shouldn’t have to say, oh by the way on top of it all, the guy’s one of these rare breed humble Christians.
As simplistic as this sounds, I think we all have to remember that myself included. How often do we catch ourselves failing to be humble towards God and towards each other, thinking that we have captured this mystery of faith and are now its custodians? And now it’s our job to dispense it on other people. That is not humility. That’s not faithfulness. That is pride.
And if there’s any moral issue that I think Paul talks about as much as any other, and more than most, it’s humility. I would say that and forgiveness of others. Those are the things that mark the Christian faith and a fifth.
My last point in how I would approach all this is to think of faith as evolving. As I’ve been saying, true faith never really stands still. That is not remotely a biblical idea but is contradicted again and again on its pages. Is God’s purpose for us to remain as we are, with no sign of movement, of growth? Are we not human? Are we not always experiencing life, the world in which we live in? Who of us here listening has not had a shift in faith on the basis of their experience. That’s just the way it happens.
That is why faith is a journey, not a fortress. Faith is always engaging and taking responsibility for this journey, and it’s a beautiful thing when we sense God’s presence with us along the way.
Let’s leave it at that. It’s been a bit long already anyway.
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All right folks. Again thanks for listening and hope you listen in again. Bye bye.