Being blessed to differ graciously.
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.