We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Friday, July 12, 2013

Thinking Beyond the Midterm Grade

In an editorial entitled, "Midterm exams," Presbyterian Outlook editor Jack Haberer grades the Presbyterian Church (USA)'s progress nationally between the 2012 and 2014 General Assembly meetings.  He gives the denomination a good grade for implementing GA policy and a poor grade for unity.  Yesterday, I looked at the grade he gave us for denominational unity, a "C-"; today, I would like to encourage us to think beyond his grading system entirely.

As we saw yesterday, the editorial argues that some of those leaving PC(USA) are doing so in ignorance of the fact that we are not as theologically liberal as they mistakenly think we are.  For example, only a little more than one clergy in ten believes other religions can lead to salvation.  The editorial apparently faults the whole denomination for not working hard enough to inform the misinformed of the real state of things.  Then, the editorial states, "And, while our efforts have been too tepid, too limp, the provocateurs — those who love to play beyond the edges of orthodoxy — use their blog pages and Facebook groups to proclaim their eccentric ideas and pet heresies, thereby reinforcing the negative assessments of the rest of us."  The editorial does not elaborate so we are left not quite sure who these "provocateurs" are or where the "edges of orthodoxy" might be.  Since the editorial focused on universalism, however, it seems that the "eccentric ideas and pet heresies" being expounded on the fringes of the denomination have to do with that doctrine.

There is, in any event, another way to look at supposedly unorthodox, eccentric, and heretical theological perspectives that is itself less provocative and points to the value of thinking "outside of the box" theologically in a time of rapid change when increasingly large numbers of Americans are rejecting the Christian religion out of hand.  Universalism provides an excellent example.  Let's start with the simple fact that most American Christians today are functional universalists. Reporting on research conducted in 2008 in a posting entitled, "Many Americans Say Other Faiths Can Lead to Eternal Life," the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life concludes that,
 A majority of all American Christians (52%) think that at least some non-Christian faiths can lead to eternal life. Indeed, among Christians who believe many religions can lead to eternal life, 80% name at least one non-Christian faith that can do so. These are among the key findings of a national survey conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life from July 31-Aug. 10, 2008, among 2,905 adults.
If these Pew findings are anywhere near correct, belief in universal salvation seems hardly eccentric.  It seems to have become in fact mainstream thinking among Christians.  Our Presbyterian "provocateurs," that is, are evidently working on ideas that reflect the thinking of the majority of American Christians, a majority that we can be reasonably sure will only grow with time.

Universalism may still stand beyond the pale of a traditional orthodoxy based on so-called literal readings of the Bible, but one of the running battles we fought as Presbyterians in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was over the very issue of traditional orthodoxy.  We walked away from the idea that our denomination can or will enforce the twin doctrines of biblical literalism and traditional orthodoxy.  We are not literalists, and we encourage a diversity of theological thought.

Given all of this, those bloggers and Face bookers who supposedly stand at the edges of orthodoxy do  not seem to be so very far out on the fringe as we might mistakenly think.  They, furthermore, have an important role to play, which is to explore new ideas and find culturally relevant ways in which to express our faith.  In the Age of Science, it is important that we constantly explore in a positive way the relationship of faith and science.  In an age of increasingly secularity, we need to learn how to speak with the "nones" in ways that build bridges rather than walls.  In an age of increasing openness to those not like us, we need to learn to be comfortable with diversity.  We live in an age that shatters boxes as a matter of course, and it is vital for the sake of the good news that we proclaim to think "outside the box."

Since the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15), we Christians have demonstrated an aptitude for adapting faith to culture as we seek the redemption of culture.  We speak from within the diverse cultures of the world so that we can communicate to them the message of Christ.  In a culture bent on change, we must embrace change.  We must risk—as previous generations have risked—losing the core of the good news for the sake of speaking about it.  To that end, we need a mix of conservatives who are always in danger of not going far enough and liberals who are always in danger of going too far.  Each have their place as we try again in our time and place to share what is precious to all of us, conservative and liberal alike.  In their day, the abolitionists were widely seen in the church to be provocateurs.  In their day, the advocates of  the full rights of women in the Presbyterian Church were considered by many to be provocateurs.  Those who have argued year after year for the rights of the LGBT community in the church are still considered by many to be provocateurs.  Each in their own time disturbed the peace of the church for the sake of the gospel.  They were the "reforming" part of "Reformed and always reforming."  Now, of course, not all provocateurs are reformers; some are just plain wrongheaded.  But, it is important for us to collectively decide over time who speaks for God's justice and who is just talky-talking.  It is our task, then, to discern anew the time we live in and how we can in the Spirit speak to and through our time.  Amen.