The more I learn about emergent or progressive forms of faith (for better or for worse), the more I love. I really do. Its so incredibly refreshing to be at the brink of leaving the building permanently, and then discovering that your exit is not only premature, but unnecessary. In the immortal words of Phyllis Tickle (who originally picked up the following idea from Rev. Mark Dyer), the Church as we know it is undergoing a excitingly rapid shift that is often noted as simply the next chapter in the regular 500 year “rummage sale” we undergo as a faith. This present series of changes can be looked at in a positive sense (see:Phyllis Tickle) or through a positively cantankerous lens. Additionally, there are those who see the movement growing stronger, and those who are of the opinion that the whole ordeal is simply a fad and is fizzling out. Either way, there’s certainly no denying that the theological winds are blowing, and they’re moving us into an unknown future, whether we like it or not, and it would certainly behoove us to understand as much as we can about the new direction that many church leaders seem to be pointing us in.
I was reflecting today upon a number of blog posts I’d recently stumbled across in my digital journeying, a couple of which are listed above, and I began to notice a particular pattern emerging (pun absolutely intended) from these pieces. One of the most common critiques leveled against (or hurled at, depending on the writer) this new form of thinking about faith and Christianity is that the emergent and emerging platforms (yes, there is a difference) often seek to churn out more questions and inquiries and find themselves on an infinite series of “journeys” into a metaphysical realm where truth is relative and there are no absolutes. From my own vantage point, nothing could be further from the truth. A product of the postmodern era, I hunger constantly for truth, the light to guide my path, and many of my contemporaries feel the same way. There are two options going forward: we dive deeper into scriptural truths and humbly begin to admit where we may have perhaps committed error, or we leave the building, often never to return.
In response to this critique that is commonly leveled against “progressive” Christianity, I can only offer my own perspective. If there is anything to be learned by studying church history across the millennia, its that we have committed a wide variety of errors against our fellow brothers and sisters on this planet under the banner of our faith, and its high time that we take a step back, admit wrongdoing, and seek to understand the Bible in a more redemptive sense, healing, Christ-glorifying sense. Are we asking a great number of questions, many of which seem to have difficult answers, or no answers at all? Perhaps. But as someone once pointed out to me, there is grace to be found in the struggle. We’re not attempting to appropriate the Gospel for the culture; we’re examining to see if/where/when we’ve made a mistake in our interpretation and understanding. It’s not about redefining anything; we’re concerned with reflecting on deeper truths.
Ultimately, when we differ with those who are more “Christian” in the traditional sense of orthodoxy, we so often gravely miss out on seeing where we find common ground, in asking: How do we, as brothers in sisters on this sacred ground, become hands and feet to serve, and love, and heal this world that is so desperately broken? The answer will only be found in our togetherness, not our divisiveness.
I had the pleasure of speaking with an acquaintance yesterday concerning a variety of matters from the worlds of theology, faith, culture, science, among others. While we may have differed in our opinions on certain topics, we were nevertheless respectful and gracious towards one another in our words. As I’ve recently been on a whirlwind of spiritual journeying myself, this person with whom I was speaking was doing their best to determine where I landed on certain issues, which is understandable, since we inhabit a church culture that thrives off of drawing lines in the sand. Heidi Weaver wrote a wonderful piece last month which deals with the idea that “the place for big questions isn’t the church”, which from my point of view is both tragic and concerning, and I readily identified with her struggle of coming to grips with the understanding that the church writ large, where so many of us developed a sense of community and deep friendships, could no longer be seen as (if in fact it ever was) a place where we, as pilgrims on a never ending spiritual journey, could ask the “dangerous” questions.
This individual was speaking to me about their own spiritual journey, and somewhere in the midst of their explanation, two crucial elements were expressed that, for many progressive people of the faith, sum up two very critical aspects of culture that the church (some factions of it, anyways) has been woeful on. The first element was the issue of evolution, and this individual stated that they saw faith and science as woefully incompatible, at the very least in regards to the mechanistic, naturalistic explanations of how life developed and evolved over time on this planet. The second issue was in regards to human sexuality, where this individual stated that they truly believed there was a gay “agenda” at work in contemporary American culture.
As I sat there listening to these ideas being put forth, I began to understand some of the critical differences between not only progressive Christians and conservative evangelicals, but between how the secular realm looks into the the Church (again, writ large) and how the church might look out into the secular realm. As a millennial, and as a 23 year old with a recently minted Bachelor’s in Sociology along with a neverending thirst for knowledge on a variety of social movements, I’m certainly inclined to recognize collective anxiety within a group when I see it. The person I spoke with represents a certain perspective on the church, from a conservative standpoint. And when I say conservative, I’m noting that “conservative” means, in this context, being in possession of something they believe is worth conserving. With respect to certain issues regarding science, social justice, human rights, my generation is rapidly pushing for progress on these fronts. Every generation that comes to pass wishes to correct the errors of their forefathers and continue to pull our culture over the new horizon we’ve been hard at work on. Weaver sums up the collective zeitgeist of our progressive peers when she maintains that “I’m not going to reason my way out of my faith, I’m reasoning my way back into it”.
I think as progressive people of faith, we must extend a hearty measure of grace to those inhabit the space under the large (very, very large) tent of Christianity. Differences, even critical ones, have always had their place within the conversations and dialogue that have taken place under this proverbial tent. The argument, as much as is possible, can be summed up rather succinctly: those from the more progressive constituencies often accuse their more conservative brethren of inhibiting the march of progress on deeply important social justice, environmental, and economic issues, while those in the more conservative camp often accuse their progressive brothers and sisters of weakening the faith at its core, of abandoning defining principles and value systems, and worst of all, denying and rejecting the Gospel at the heart of the the faith.
Accusations on both sides are painful. They’re often devastating to hear, particularly from the mouth of a loved one, from those whom you care for deeply, and individuals from both camps have absorbed more than their fair share of flak from the culture war we so often find ourselves embroiled in. The divisions we often create within our ranks quite often originate from fear, from misunderstandings, from a lack of grace that we fail to extend to our brothers and sisters. Infighting is inevitable, but it does not have to ruin anyone’s life, and can often be an opportunity for growth if handled appropriately.
I don’t remember who said this first, or if I somehow managed to snag it from the recesses of my mind, but its a quote that I often find apropo: “We used to burn one another at the stake for supposed heresy. Now we have blogs”. A great number of Evangelical gatekeepers (see: John Piper, Albert Mohler) are quick to make declarations of excommunication when a speaker/author/writer from the more progressive camps begins to propose “dangerous” questions (see: Farewell, Rob Bell). Not only are these denunciations damaging, but they often rally the various adherents to one “side” or the other, creating further divisions. Mclaren has a wonderful examination of the idea concerning how how we might learn to “differ graciously”. I strongly encourage anyone who seeks to continue the reconciliatory work between people of faith to carefully reads his thoughts on the subject.
In a colloquial sense, the vast majority of us consider the Lenten holiday to be a time of moderate deprivation, wherein we allow ourselves to be somewhat removed from the pleasures of this world, pleasures that we hold dear to us, whether they manifest themselves in the form of chocolate, social media, or what have you. The practice of “doing” Lent is often thought of in the framework of a forty day fast, wherein we seek to gain an enhanced appreciation for a spiritual renewal and a refreshed sense of wonder of the lives we live.
Traditionally, at least during the early phases of the Lenten holiday, it was considered customary to remove oneself from the consumption of all animal products for the duration of the forty day period. This practice of complete abstention did tend to vary, however, between the various geographical regions and variety of cultures that practiced Lent within the Catholic and Protestant traditions. A more careful examination of the abstentions (or lack thereof, as history moved closer to the present day) regarding the consumption of living creatures allows us to understand that, as we see today, our forefathers and various ancestors were often just as confused and unaware of the moral implications of their dietary habits as people are today.
During the Middle Ages, a prohibition on meat during Lent was generally considered to be the law of the land, but dairy products were exempted if one were to provide a donation to be put towards the constructions of the churches, highlighting just how connected we were (and still are) to the idea of animals and economics being bonded together rather inseparably. Many years later, the admonishment to remove all dairy and eggs from one’s Lenten practice was temporarily retracted if an individual were to provide his service to the Crusades. I find these practices to be fascinating from a sociological perspective, while I’m nevertheless horrified from a compassionate perspective.
While there were several varieties of prohibitions on the consumption of animal products during historical occurrences of Lent, the vast majority of us no longer take our marching orders from a hierarchal, overarching religious order such as the Church, and society is no longer structured around a communal adherence to a single abstention, such as the forty day prohibition. By and large, we choose our own practices to adhere to during lent, and we don’t often see millions of people going vegan for lent, with one key exception. Through the Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic churches throughout Europe, its still quite common to consume animal-free, or vegan, meals during Lent, as well as consuming less food in general, so as to practice the ideals of fasting, in order to bring about a sense of communion with the more spiritual aspects of ourselves.
From a moral perspective, its still a bit unethical to temporarily abstain from consuming violence and suffering and then pick up the habit once more, but the priests who commissioned their flocks to eat and live compassionately during this time of Lent were certainly aware of something critical. When we remove anguish and misery from our plates, we begin the process of removing them from our spirits, as well. As we eat a compassionate, cruelty-free meal in which no living being was harmed, we move closer to a sense of peace within our souls. The season of Lent traditionally ends with concept of regeneration, the rebirth of a Savior, as the world leaves the darkness of Winter and begins the embrace of the light, the Spring. May we as individuals recognize that this form of rebirth is possible even outside of lent, as we move towards living a life that provides peace, health, and wellness, along with the practice of compassion towards all living beings.