Consider the Lilies – The CBF & Homosexuality in 2016

Calling of the Apostles - Domenicio Ghirlandaio -1481

Calling of the Apostles – Domenicio Ghirlandaio -1481 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

At the turn of the millennium I was present when the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship voted to establish their now-infamous policy against hiring LGBTQ persons. I was there as part of the first class to graduate from the CBF’s flagship seminary, the McAfee School of Theology at Mercer University, located in the same building as the CBF headquarters. My studies at Mercer had taught me to hope for a future in which Baptists would be united with our fellow, mainline brothers and sisters in a commitment to social justice, progressive theology, ecumenism, and responsible biblical scholarship.

As I wrote at the time, the experiences of that CBF meeting significantly disabused me of those hopes. I listened as speaker after speaker expressed concerns that “good” churches, particularly from Texas, would refuse to join if the CBF set a precedent for inclusion. There was no discussion about the vibrant, thriving LGBTQ-inclusive congregations whose lives and work would have been validated and renewed if the policy were voted down. Instead, I watched as greyed head after greyed head nodded enthusiastically while old men who represented everything I had come to McAfee to escape played to their fears and prejudices.

When the vote was finally tallied, and I listened to the uncharitable comments directed at those of us who had argued for inclusiveness, I realized that the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship was not trying to make a complete break with fundamentalism. Instead, the CBF was destined to be a home for people whose far-right conservativism wasn’t quite fundamentalist enough for the fringe-right gatekeepers of the new Southern Baptist Convention, and who wanted to recreate as much as they could of their memories of the Leave-it-to-Beaver era of the old SBC.

In a concession to the common sense conclusions of the first part of the century that had already ended, they were open to the possibility of female clergy, as long as they did not become too prevalent. Nearly a generation later, the common sense of this century is also starting to intrude into CBF deliberations. Hundreds of people connected to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship signed a “Statement of Solidarity” with LGBTQ persons. (It is worth noting that this statement aligns closely with the position of the older but smaller Alliance of Baptists, which has ordained LGBTQ persons since its inception in 1987.)

In response, several CBF leaders have weighed in, with differing perspectives. Don Durham continues to preserve his prophetic voice, calling CBF to account for its sin of exclusion. He concludes, “I came to CBF over a decade ago with the unfortunate perspective that CBF was the most exclusive inclusive group I’d ever tried to be a part of. I’ve held on more or less faithfully for 25 years in hopes my tribe would prove me wrong.” Bob Setzer has written an excellent piece about why he has changed his view since his “Yes” vote of sixteen years ago. His recollection of the process that created the policy is far more charitable than mine, but I think his logic is sound that it is time to reverse this “increasingly damaging and disastrous personnel and funding policy”

Conversely, Robert Parham, Executive Director of the Baptist Center for Ethics, has written an opinion piece in which he resurrects the arguments from the meeting that closed the previous century. Subordinating the transcendent power of the gospel to the earthly priorities of denominational wealth and power, Dr. Parham asks, “Given what has happened with mainline Protestant churches, what evidence is there that such illumination will lead to church growth and expanded global mission efforts?” The answer, of course, is in Luke 12, when Jesus explains, “For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.”

Even more offensive than Dr. Parham’s prioritization of earthly institutional success – over the eternal priority of offering an inclusive gospel – is his understanding of the key social justice issue of this generation. His article completely ignores the heartbreaking consequences of the Church’s historic prejudice against LGBTQ persons. Instead, Dr. Parham primly dismisses an issue of justice and civil rights as an attempt to “validate [modern] culture’s sexual mores.”

Apparently the “moderate” Baptist movement’s top ethicist needs a primer on the difference between sexual orientation (which relates to either the biological sex or gender identity of one’s sexual partner) and sexual morality (which concerns itself with conditions under which it is ethical to have sex with one’s sexual partner(s)). It saddens me that, in 2016, any theological leader would write in a way that ignores this simple concept. In his defense, however, it is a distinction that would also have been completely lost on the authors of our Scriptures, whose understandings of sexuality were linked deeply to the patriarchal and misogynistic political systems that sought to control wealth and heredity, female sexual autonomy, and the commodification of women’s bodies.

Consequently, Scripture is as useful a guide on marriage and human sexuality as it is on slavery. Which is to say that our Bible has a wealth of valuable contributions to make in helping us to develop a healthy, Christian ethos on those and many other topics; but that contribution will not be found through replicating the worldview of the people who wrote and edited the Bible. We have found a Christian ethic of human rights and dignity that rejects slavery, despite Jesus telling stories that looked favorably on masters beating their slaves, and St. Paul’s instructions for slaves to obey their masters. Likewise, when it comes to human sexuality, we have to find a way to apply the principles of Christianity to our modern social setting in a way that is not compelled to carry forward the anachronistic superstitions and prejudices of the ancient world that birthed our tradition.

Failing to separate the core values of our faith from those prejudices is at the heart of the fundamentalism which “moderate” organizations like the Baptist Center for Ethics claim to oppose. This is what makes the myopia of Parham and those who share his views all-the-more dangerous. Rejecting biblical literalism about slavery and women, but preserving it on sexuality, also preserves the underlying logic that makes fundamentalism possible, even if it does not apply that logic universally.

“Moderate” opponents of an inclusive view of marriage and sexuality often argue that sex and marriage should be treated as a separate category from the other topics whose relevant passages they re-interpret or ignore. They are quick to point out that marriage is often a metaphor for the Church’s relationship with Christ, and therefore is “unique” among the ancient institutions described in Scripture. This approach, however, ignores the fact that we do not feel compelled to continue to farm using first-century methods, nor are we obliged to preserve the first-century pearl trade.

In fact, oppressing people over hyper-literal fidelity to a metaphor seems remarkably similar to the passionate conflicts of prior eras in which Protestants found themselves the minority group arguing against the literalism of transubstantiation. That argument turned out to be more about politics and regional/generational alliances than theology, something that I suspect is always the case when one group or another claims to simply be following their religion’s Scriptures.

If the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship wants to remain relevant into the next century, they need to move beyond a tentative, piecemeal denunciation of fundamentalism. Instead, they must reject fundamentalism of all stripes and in all its incarnations. Christianity survived learning that the universe is not geocentric, and that women and men are equals, and that some people cannot own others. Christianity will survive the gradual and eventual elimination of all vestiges of the bigotries and superstitions of the era that produced it. The question is, will the CBF?

Share This:Print this pageEmail this to someoneShare on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditPin on PinterestShare on TumblrShare on Google+Share on LinkedIn

Jesus Already Answered the Refugee Question

The Good Samaritan by Jan Wijnants (1670)

The Good Samaritan by Jan Wijnants (1670) (Wikimedia)

Politicians and theologians in the United States frequently turn to the writings of the Christian Bible for guidance on contemporary political issues. Often this requires some stretched or complicated logic, and, at times, texts from the Torah have to be weighed against Jesus’ teachings in the gospels or Paul’s paranetic guidance in his epistles. This is hardly surprising, since the writings in our Scriptures span over a thousand years of different political events, all of which took place in times with radically different questions from our own. Applying those texts to modern circumstances requires some skill and effort.

That is why the question of the Christian response to the Syrian refugee crisis is so refreshing. It’s one of the few times where we have clear, unambiguous, explicit guidance from Jesus about what is expected of those of us who claim to be Christians. That guidance is found in what is perhaps Jesus’ most famous parable, that of the “Good Samaritan” found in Luke 10:25-37. The story is so widely known that in popular, secular culture, someone who goes out of their way to help a stranger is often called a “Good Samaritan.” News reporters and the general public, however, would probably think twice about using the phrase if they knew how Jesus’ original audience would have heard it.

The northern and southern regions of what was – for a brief time under Kings Saul, David, and Solomon – a united kingdom had a long history of enmity and conflict. After the death of Solomon, the northern region formed the Kingdom of Israel, and the southern region formed the Kingdom of Judah. Samaria was the capital of Israel, and Jerusalem the capital of Judah. Over time, religious practices increasingly diverged, with what would become modern-day Judaism centered around Jerusalem and its temple. By the time of Jesus, Jews had over eight hundred years of fractious, sometimes violent, conflict with Samaritans. They hated each other for political, ethnic, and theological reasons. Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem viewed Samaritans as polytheistic pagans whose scriptures and practices were, at best, a perversion of the true worship and commandments of God.

Jesus’ own teaching on scripture and practice indicate that, as an orthodox Jew, he agreed with them (see Matt 5:17-18 as an example). In fact, Jesus’ religious movement was so completely entrenched in Judaism that his closest disciples taught for years after the crucifixion that you had to convert to Judaism if you wanted to be saved (they changed their view after the Council at Jerusalem). With that in mind, and considering the centuries of hostility and conflict, if you want to hear how Jesus and his audience heard the word “Samaritan,” imagine how an evangelical Christian living in the United States would hear “Muslim.”

So, with that as our historical framework, let’s look at the parable of the “Good Muslim.” It begins when someone comes up to Jesus and says, “I want to inherit eternal life. What do I need to do?” At this point, anyone who went to the Sunday School I went to as a child knows the answer is, “Accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior!” Jesus, however, gives a very different answer. As a good teacher, he first asks the student, “What’s your read of Scripture?” The response is, in brief, “Love God and love your neighbor.” Jesus answers, “That’s right!”

Apparently it occurred to the person asking the question that if “neighbor” meant more than just the people who are like us and whom we like, “loving” them might be a bit too much to ask, even if the reward is eternal salvation. Their follow-up question is, “So, um, who exactly is my neighbor?”

Jesus responds with a story. I’ll paraphrase it here. A deacon from a church in Nashville came to Atlanta for a religious conference, and was staying at a hotel near the airport. As he was walking back to his hotel from a nearby restaurant, three strangers held him up at gunpoint. They took his wallet, his smartphone, his wedding ring, and then, just for fun, made him strip naked and beat him so badly he couldn’t walk. They left him there, bloody and naked on the sidewalk.

The pastor of the local First Baptist Church was attending the same conference, and was on his way to the restaurant the man had just left. He saw the poor deacon lying there, bleeding, and immediately crossed the street, not wanting to get involved. He was afraid that the man might be an HIV-positive homeless person, and that he would be exposing himself to the disease if he got too close. A Roman Catholic priest, also there for the conference, saw the bloodied, crying man and thought it might be a trap of some kind. What if, knowing there was a religious conference in town, a bunch of thugs had disguised one of their own as a crime victim, hoping to lure a naive clergyman into coming over so that they could ambush the do-gooder? The priest decided to play it safe, and crossed the street as well.

The third person to come along was a Muslim man who was staying at  the same hotel, waiting out a layover on his international flight. It had been a long day for him. The hotel was full of impassioned Christians all attending workshops on “Muslim extremism.” The looks and attitude he had been getting from the guests had not been exactly kind. None of that mattered, however, when he saw the battered man, crying in pain, by the side of the road. The Muslim man immediately took off his shirt, tearing it into bandages to stop the blood from the other man’s wounds. He then picked up the stranger, summoned a cab, and took him to the nearest hospital. At the hospital, the Muslim man gave his credit card, to make sure that the injured deacon would get the best possible care despite his lack of identification or insurance card.

After telling the story, Jesus asked his audience, all good, faithful Christians,  “Who is the one who loved his neighbor in this story? Who is the one who will have eternal life?” They knew the answer before he even asked:  The Good Muslim.

The parallels are less than subtle. When we look at a Syrian, Muslim refugee we see someone who is politically, ethnically, and theologically a “stranger.” Jesus makes it extraordinarily clear, however, that there is only one way to see them: as our neighbor. Knowing that, Jesus’ command is clear. “Love your neighbor as yourself” is, along with loving God, the heart of all God’s commandments (Mark 12:30-31; Matt 22:37-40). Simply put, if a person claims allegiance to the teachings of Jesus, there is no other option than to help someone in need, no matter how different they may be from us, no matter how much we may dislike them, even if we think it’s a trap or dangerous, and even if they are our sworn enemy.

Few of us live up to that command perfectly, and I sincerely hope that God will be more merciful to us (in our failures to love one another) than we are toward those whom we are commanded to love. Let us pray that is the case, because, in the gospel of Matthew, when Jesus taught about who would be saved, he did not say anything about what people believed regarding who was their “personal Lord and Savior.” Jesus gave only one criteria: those who help vulnerable people when they are in need are the ones who are saved (Matt 25:31-46).

Our political leaders are quick to claim religious justification for the policies that serve their interests. They would do well to remember Jesus’ words of caution. Simply claiming to act in his name is not enough (Matt 7:21-23). Jesus expects us to act, not according to some bigoted stereotype of what we think it means to be a Christian, but in accordance with his clear and unambiguous teaching that every single person is our neighbor, our brother or sister.

An entire nation of people very different from (yet remarkably like) us is lying, bloody, by the side of the road. We can cross the street and pretend it’s not our responsibility, or we can take the risks and costs on ourselves to help. For those who rely on secular sources of guidance, the appropriate response may be more complex or nuanced, but for those who claim the label “Christian” the choice is clear. Like the Good Samaritan, we must find a way to help, even if it means reaching deeply into our national resources of ingenuity and wealth to do so safely, effectively, comprehensively, and quickly. It’s the neighborly thing, the loving thing, and the Christian thing to do.

Share This:Print this pageEmail this to someoneShare on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditPin on PinterestShare on TumblrShare on Google+Share on LinkedIn

Pondering the Cross

Women at the Crucifixion - Andres Mantegna

Women at the Crucifixion – Andres Mantegna (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

In the eighth chapter of Mark, Jesus is finally revealed to be the “Messiah,” one anointed by the Creator to change the world on behalf of the created.  Jesus immediately explains to his followers that being the anointed one of God means he will suffer rejection and pain to the point of death.  When Peter is horrified, Jesus explains that his friend is looking at the moment of Jesus’ execution from a human perspective, not a divine one.  To help him understand, Jesus gathers the whole crowd and explains that life is more than our physical existence, and that if we live for the things that are eternal – rather than the transitory distractions of everyday life – we will truly live, forever.  “For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”

Shortly thereafter, a voice from above reveals Jesus to be more than simply one of the anointed ones, the messiahs who – throughout history – have rescued humanity at God’s behest.  We hear, “This is my Son, the Beloved;  listen to him!”  Again Jesus is quick to clarify, “The Son of Humanity will be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and after three days he will arise.”

Twice Jesus is proclaimed by others as one set apart by God, and twice Jesus speaks up to make clear that this does not mean glory, power, and respect – it means betrayal, torture, and execution.  To be the Child of God and the child of humanity, both, means to be stretched out on the altar of human fear, weakness, and greed.  Living at the intersection between divine truth and human experience, Jesus’ path has only one possible destination:  the grave.

In response, Jesus’ closest friends, those who were tasked with establishing his Church and passing on his teachings to subsequent generations, “did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.”

Not much has changed in the two millennia since. We are still confused and afraid of the idea that even the Son of God, that especially the Son of God, would be the victim of all of the worst elements of what it means to be human.  Over the course of history we have, in our fear and embarrassment, offered many explanations in the hope of applying some sort of logic to the incomprehensible death of God in human form.  We have argued that only the blood of the Messiah could ransom us back from the devil who had made us his vassals.  We have portrayed Jesus as a benevolent Lord who stepped in to pay the lengthy bill we have racked up against God, each itemized value representing the sum total of our failures on earth.  We have even depicted Jesus as a willing sacrifice before a God who demands the blood of an innocent in propitiation for our multitude of sins.

Although superficially satisfying, none of these rationalizations stands up to close scrutiny or logical analysis.  None is consistent with a God whose steadfast love never ceases, and whose mercies are endless.  An omnipotent God who seeks to offer mercy to sinners would surely not do so by cruelly punishing the only true innocent.  Simply put, the crucifixion makes no sense.

Those whose faith relies on simple formulas to explain the mind of Almighty God will be quick to point out that it does make sense if you recognize that the reasonable and fair punishment for every single human who ever lived is eternal torment and damnation in Hell, and that only the profound love of God, literally embodied in someone punished in our stead by the concentrated power of that divine justice on the cross, could save us from the fate we all deserve.

If that is true, then we are either at the questionable mercy of a tyrannical Creator who could not devise a system that avoided the murder of innocence and the eternal torment of all creation; or we are all part of a cruel and capricious universe that punishes us and our Creator equally.

As one uncomfortable with either conclusion, I must confess that I find all of the easy explanations for the nature of the cross to be unsatisfactory.  I think it is best to follow the example of Jesus’ own apostles, and recognize that in the death of Jesus there is a mystery that encompasses all our fears, and all our hopes – one we are afraid to understand.

Like Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of Jesus, and the other women who gathered to watch the kind teacher and powerful prophet suffer and die, we must simply stand before the cross in horror and grief.

Our horror is the realization that we are capable of such brutality and cruelty.  Our grief is in seeing in the loss of the Child of Humanity the losses that every human faces:  the deaths of our loved ones, the ends of our dreams, the depredations of illness and disease, and, ultimately, our own demise.  When we look into the pained eyes of Jesus, we see ourselves reflected in a mirror that shows our failings – individually and as a species – and our own pain.

It is the brutal honesty of the image in that looking glass that makes us want to find explanations of the cross that are centered on ourselves:  Jesus did this for our sins; God required this for our mistakes; look how horrible we are.  Maybe, though, we should look through that darkened glass and focus instead on the Jesus of the cross, not the Jesus who exists as a strawman for our guilt.

I do not mean focusing on the humanistic, secular Jesus who fought for social justice, healed this sick, fed the hungry, and cared for the poor.  He is important, and we should not neglect him as part of the whole truth of the gospel, but standing at the foot of the cross is the time to ponder the divine Jesus, the holy Jesus who is – against all reason – both God and human in one wounded, bleeding, sobbing package.

Leaving aside all of our justifications and seeing only the person of Jesus, I am struck most powerfully by the inevitability of it all.  As Jesus said, to his disciples in Mark 8, this is what had to happen (δεῖ in Greek, often used to indicate an obligation or an inevitable consequence).  The very act of God taking on human form, of experiencing mortality, is not only death, but a brutal murder at the hands of a callous empire that places no value on human life.  Jesus stepped into our lives knowing that this must happen, and did it anyway.  Whatever the reason that it had to happen, the greatest miracle of the cross is that it did happen, that a God who is beyond our comprehension, our own Creator, is so drawn to us that nothing – not even the inevitability of agony and death – could hold God back from stepping into our lives.

Another miracle is that it is possible at all.  For many of us, the slow slog through adulthood is one of a gradual surrender of our belief in the miraculous.  We “grow up” and learn to live in the “real world,” and the myriad challenges of our mundane distractions cause us to deny the possibility that there is divine, holy, metaphysical reality beyond the one that demands that we feed our bodies and pay our mortgages.  Yet at the cross we can see the collision of the world we deny with the world of our limitations.  The reality of God becomes physical, not in a voice from the heavens or words carved on stone tablets, but in the lifeblood of a single person, given up freely out of love.

That leads to one more miracle of the cross.  The blood that falls to the ground looks like a loss, a terrible, incalculable loss – and yet it is a victory.  Every terrorist, every tyrant, every abuser has claimed their power through the threat of violence.  They hold us hostage with the ultimate menace of their power over whether we live or die.  However, as we see the shadow of the cross loom across the generations, we see that death is only defeat for those who lived their lives for the pleasures of the moment.  The paradoxical miracle of the cross is that in loss is victory, in sacrifice is gain, and in death there is life.  Our priorities do not need to be dictated by the standards set by others or by our own fears of loss, because real accomplishment looks nothing like what those with temporal power would have us believe.

If we focus on the person of Jesus, we see the miraculous mystery of the cross.  We see love that cannot be dissuaded.  We see the reality of the presence of God in our world.  Finally, we see the truth that that the things that matter most in our lives are not the things that can be taken away, they are the things we can give to those we love, to those we do not know, and even to those who will follow in our footsteps.  The story of the cross is not the story of our sin, it is the story of the person who represents the best of creation and the best of the Creator: the Child of Humanity and the Son of God.  It is the story of the glorious and traumatic consequences of eternity’s collision with mortality.  It is the ultimate story, in which all good things come to an end, and we learn that – all evidence to the contrary – endings are beginnings.

Share This:Print this pageEmail this to someoneShare on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditPin on PinterestShare on TumblrShare on Google+Share on LinkedIn

How I Can Be a Christian

Origen of Alexandria

Origen of Alexandria (source: wikisource.org)

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.

3.  Accountability

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.

5. Reality

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.

Concluding Thoughts

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.

Share This:Print this pageEmail this to someoneShare on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditPin on PinterestShare on TumblrShare on Google+Share on LinkedIn

Easter Wishes

The Empty Tomb by van Eyck

The Empty Tomb by van Eyck

The earliest gospel account closes with the mystery of an empty tomb. The disciples found themselves at a loss to understand how to move forward without the teacher and friend who had claimed to be the Son of God but died the brutal death of an executed criminal.


Later accounts describe the return of Jesus from the dead, offering anecdotes in which his disciples touch him, walk with him, and share meals with him. It is then, when they have encountered Jesus alive and in the flesh, that Jesus’ followers are able to believe.

For those of us who try to follow in their footsteps, we are again faced with the dilemma of the empty tomb. We do not have the luxury of touching his scarred hands or watching as he breaks bread with us. We struggle with doubt. We fear that the time and energy we have put into following this itinerant carpenter were as wastefully spent as the herbs and perfumes that were futilely plied against the pervasive odor of decay in the place where they laid his lifeless body.

The only chance we have for faith in the resurrection is to find hope where the disciples found it: in the living Body of Christ. And therein lies the greatest challenge of Christianity. For us to believe, Jesus must be physically present in the world, but Christ is only present in the world if we are willing to become him.

Even still, for thousands of years the miracle of Easter has repeated itself time and time again. Against all odds, people find ways to rise above their weaknesses, fears, and selfishness to work for a world where the meek, the poor, the merciful, the hungry, and the peacemakers are the blessed, the honored, and the privileged.

We cannot ignore the eternal hope joyfully proclaimed on this day everywhere around the world: “Χριστός ανέστη εκ νεκρών, θανάτω θάνατον πατήσας!” (Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death through death itself.) But we must also honor the miracle that keeps that hope alive and remakes it anew with every generation.

With those who share my religious tradition, I proclaim “Χριστός ανέστη!” – in honor of the risen Son and also in praise of all those who through their faith and sacrifice work to keep the Body of Christ and alive and present in the world.

With those of other traditions, I can understand why today of all days the claims of Christianity seem suspect. Time and again the Church betrays its promise and its potential. Even still, I hope that in each of our journeys we will hear the voices that call us beyond the limitations of fear and death. In this season of Resurrection, may we all find ways to keep alive those things that really matter, that allow us to become more than we are even in our dreams, that draw the presence of divine reality into our everyday lives.

Share This:Print this pageEmail this to someoneShare on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditPin on PinterestShare on TumblrShare on Google+Share on LinkedIn