How can you be a Christian? How can you be a pastor?
I suppose, as a socially progressive, academic clergyperson who lives in the Deep South, it is hardly surprising that I get asked these questions…a lot. When someone learns that I teach that the Christian Scriptures are a collection of documents written and edited over centuries, and that those writers and editors were influenced by political and social forces as well as theological ones, they are often surprised to learn that I read the Bible and pray every day – even while knowing that not everything contained therein actually happened. When they learn that I have a long history of advocating for same-sex marriage and reproductive freedom (including access to abortion) they are surprised to learn that I also believe and preach the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The question comes from both sides. Christian fundamentalists (or “evangelicals” as they prefer to be called to avoid confusion with people who hold identical social beliefs but attribute them to a different collection of scriptures) often believe that their interpretation of Christianity is the only authentic one. For them, failing to hold to the beliefs they impose on the tradition is a rejection of the tradition as a whole.
Interestingly, non-Christians seem to be under the same impression. Presumably their understanding of what Christians believe is based upon the portrayal of Christians on TV and in movies, and upon the representation of Christians on the news. From that limited perspective, Christians are people who cling to a quaint, “traditional” understanding of society and a “literal” interpretation of the Bible.
So, from the perspective of the left and the right, those of us who take a more thoughtful, historically-conscious approach to our faith must not be “real” Christians. Here are some reasons why that view is short-sighted:
1. Fundamentalists aren’t really that “Fundamental”
Fundamentalists of every stripe like to portray themselves as biblical literalists who cling to the “timeless” truths of their tradition. This is very far from true. The beliefs and practices of twenty-first century evangelicals would be viewed as permissive and libertine by their nineteenth-century predecessors, and would be almost unrecognizable from the perspective of the Early Church. Since most people lack the historical perspective to recognize any changes that go back more than a century, modern evangelicals get away with calling themselves “traditionalists” when it’s really just that their innovations are slightly less recent than those of “progressives.”
They also are no more “literal” in their treatment of the Christian Scriptures than anyone else. I have already dealt with that here, here, and here. I do not feel the need to rehash all of those points in this essay, so I will limit myself to the observation that fundamentalists only treat texts literally when it supports their social agenda. Those texts that run contrary to that agenda, or which undermine their claims about the Bible’s divine authorship or historical accuracy, are interpreted allegorically – often with astonishingly convoluted logic.
Consequently, I see no reason that non-fundamentalists should be held to a standard that the fundamentalists themselves do not keep. Perhaps if fundamentalist Christians become pacifists who hold no property, fast multiple times a week, gather to stand for worship services that last an entire day, and require years of study before a person can become a convert – then I might find their argument more compelling.
2. Knowledge Moves Forward
The reality of the history of Christianity, however, is that beliefs about doctrine, Scripture, worship, and the nature of Christian obligation change dramatically from century to century. Every religious tradition does this. If they did not, those traditions would quickly fade into irrelevance.
Studying the evolution of those changes, and the process that produced the Christian Scriptures, often poses a dilemma for young seminary students. They essentially have three choices. They can reject what they learn in seminary, and persist in a more simple understanding of the faith. They can reject Christianity, believing that if the understanding of Christianity they had in Sunday School is not true, they cannot be Christians any more. Or, they can find a way to participate in the tradition that is honest about biblical and historical scholarship.
I have chosen the latter option. In every area of knowledge, our understanding of how to interpret observable phenomena changes as new information emerges. We do not consider physicians “liberals” or “heretics” because they do not think a fever comes from an imbalance of the “humours of the body” or because they do not treat it with bleeding. Nor do we claim that fevers did not exist in the eighteenth century because physicians of that era described them imprecisely and did not understand their cause.
The practice and study of faith should not be exempt from this process. The Bible is the record of several generations’ encounters with the presence of God. Those encounters were interpreted through their cultural beliefs, political concerns, prejudices, and superstitions. Subsequent generations then re-interpreted those writings through the lenses of their own assumptions and limitations, as our generation does as well. Being honest about that reality does not minimize or contradict the reality of those original encounters with God. Nor does it impugn the honesty and sincerity of the faith journey of subsequent generations.
So should we just believe whatever we want and call ourselves “Christians?” Nothing could be farther from my point. To continue the example above, if a physician said, “Well, if fevers aren’t caused by a humour imbalance then I might as well believe they are caused by aliens” one would question the legitimacy of their medical training. Likewise, recognizing that biblical and theological scholarship calls into question the assumptions of past generations does not mean that we should all run willy-nilly into whatever theological trend or ludicrous spiritualism seems appealing.
Through seminary training and graduate school, the ordination process, and continuing, prayerful study of both scholarship and Scripture, I hold myself accountable to the history of the tradition and the perspective of my colleagues. This is an important element to Christian practice – it is not an expression of individual belief. Christianity is about living in community. Recognizing that the history of the tradition reveals drastic sea changes in belief does not mean abandoning accountability to the community that is rooted in that history.
4. Comfort with Ambiguity
Yet, as we have discussed, very few of the members of that community agree on everything. Even limiting the boundaries to mainline Christianity, there is considerable diversity in belief and practice. The obvious reality is that we cannot all be right, and – based on the long history of changes in Christian assumptions about “incontrovertible” truths, the Church has likely been wrong more often than it has been right. An honest assessment of the truth of the Christian tradition means comfort with ambiguity; far fewer truths are as certain as we would like them to be. Christianity is about a journey toward truth, not an affirmation of it.
Finally, I am a Christian pastor because – for me – the Christian tradition helps me understand the world as I have experienced it, and because Christian worship draws me closer to the metaphysical world I have glimpsed from afar. There have been times when the presence of God has been a real and sustaining force in my life. Prayer has brought me peace and focus, and I believe – along with Martha Berry and my Great Grandmother – that “Prayer Changes Things.”
I would not presume to claim that Christianity fully encompasses the depth and complexity of a transcendent God, but it draws me closer to that God whom my own experiences have convinced me is real.
A famous seventeenth-century quote by Rupertus Meldenius, but often attributed to St. Augustine, can be translated: “In essentials, unity; in uncertain things, liberty; and in all things charity.” This logic is at the heart of why I am comfortable as a Christian and a member of the clergy. Our essentials come from the broad consensus of the tradition, yet an honest appraisal of the history of Christianity reveals that – beyond those essentials – there is far more uncertainty than some might wish or claim. Ultimately, if the gospel is to be “good news,” we must seek it – charitably – together as a shared question, not a settled answer, and my life is the richer for that journey.