Sunday, April 06, 2014

Who Needs Religion? And Are We Outnumbered?: thoughts on grace and the future of the Church

I don't know the numbers, but I can say with confidence that I'm in the minority. For every solitary Christian who reads the bible as a human and living word from God, affirms the ethical legitimacy of same-sex relationships, calls for peace and nonviolence, advocates for gender equality, and calls out for economic justice, there are many many more who read the bible like a manual, have determined that homosexuality is sin, who condone and even encourage militarism, oppress women, and favor the wealthy. As my friend Andrew Hackman put it, "for every Wes, or Rachel Evans, or Brian McLaren... there are a thousand Mark Driscolls" (in the comments).  For Andrew and many others, these numbers provide grounds for an all-out assault on religion in general. It's done more harm than good, hasn't it? The deficiencies so outweigh the benefits, so what use is religion anyway, especially when you can come to quite life-giving solutions without religion?

I wouldn't presume to defend all religions, or perhaps even "religion" in some general sense, from these questions. But I do want to say something about Christianity, then I wanna say something about that first part... the part about the ratio of Rachel Held Evans's to Mark Driscolls....

First, about Christianity... I don't think Christianity is primary about coming to life-giving conclusions.

... bear with me...

I don't think it's about reading the bible well, accepting LGBTQ people, non-violence, gender equality, the feminist critique, or social justice... I think Christianity is about receiving grace... grace for when we do end up using the bible as a weapon (and I think even atheists do this sometimes), for when we don't accept gay people, for when we do end up resorting to violence, for when we do revert back to our patriarchal reflexes,  and for when we don't generously reject consumerism. Christianity is for failures. Now, this should not imply that Christianity does not, then, after receiving grace, come to life-giving conclusions... those to which it may be true that any non-religious person may also be able to come. In fact, there is a sense in which, after having received grace, we have no choice but to come to these conclusions. But Christianity suffers not the tyranny of moralism. Its highest good, its distinctive quality, is not the capacity of a person to be good or to enact justice. And what sets Christianity apart for me, in this regard, is that unlike in a moral/humanist atheism, the life-giving conclusions we've outlined already (though by no means exhaustively) are not the result of moral ambition or optimism. Atheism, or any other religion for that matter, which presumes to think that morality can be expected on the basis of human good or that justice can be hoped for on the basis "progress," fails to take as seriously as does Christianity, the reality of human frailty. It was a Christian theological framework which allowed Martin Luther King, Jr. to say “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”  King was a Christian theologian. Without the grace of the gospel, "life-giving conclusions," namely justice and inclusivity, are superficial and hopeless when they're faced by the anxious truth that they are tragically outmatched by human inability to live by them. Jurgen Moltmann has written, "the gospel is realistic, not idealistic. It does not bring new teaching; it brings a new reality." Without new reality, works of love stand on a flimsy surface. The grace and forgiveness of the cross sustain and give life to life-giving conclusions--grace is the rationale for justice... not vice-versa. It's not that someone who isn't religious can't also have an understanding of grace and forgiveness, but I am yet to discover a rationale for such things that has any real strength aside from the rationale of the crucified Christ. So who needs Christianity? Well, at the very least, anyone--even one with high ideals--who needs a new reality, who needs acceptance when they can't live up to their high ideals. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, "...if Jesus is the Christ... then I am not primarily called to do the things he does; I am met in his work as one who cannot possibly do the work he does. It is through his work that I recognize the gracious God" (Christ the Center, 38). Anyone's capable of conceiving of goodness... you don't even need religion for that... but who's gonna meet you when you're incapable of the good? Christianity, not as judge but only as witness, says that the gracious God revealed in Jesus Christ certainly will.

And now I wanna say something about that first part... the part about the ratio of Rachel Evans's to Mark Driscolls.

It may be true that we're outnumbered. It may be true that open, reasonable, compassionate Christians are fighting an uphill battle. For every one Progressive Youth Ministry Conference, there are a thousand Focus on the Family/Answers in Genesis/TBN/Mark Driscoll/etc.-type conferences. For every committed follower of Christ who attends an "Open and Affirming" church, there are 10,000 Christians worshiping in conservative churches where even the idea of a gay Christian is treated as a work of fiction. This might be true. But I wanna ask, what direction do you think things are going? Do you think we'll always be outnumbered like this? I wonder sometimes if the abolitionist Christians before the Civil War felt similarly outnumbered. It may be trite to reference this example, but I'm doing it anyway. Abolitionists were a minority voice in America. There was a time in history when it was just assumed that Christians supported slavery. They even used the bible to do so. For every abolitionist, there were a thousand others who thought the abolitionists were destroying the Church (even some Christians who opposed slavery in principle couldn't bring themselves to pursue its abolition). But the arc of history, loooong as it is... especially considering that Martin Luther King was still fighting basically the same fight even as recently as the 1960's... seems to be bending towards justice. Even though we're certainly not done with the work of racial reconciliation, it's gotten a lot more difficult to find a Christian in America who supports slavery... they're certainly not the majority anymore. So I wonder if there is actually as strong a justification to give up on Christianity as what seems to be implied in the numbers. I wonder if there's even justification anymore to assume that Christianity, even evangelicalism, means conservatism. Even if the majority represents the present situation in real (sometimes horrific) ways, perhaps the minority--the McLarens and Evans's--represent the future. The arc of history is long, but because of the new reality of grace, I think we can be patient and persistent in bending it toward justice.

5 comments:

Andrew said...

"Without the grace of the gospel, "life-giving conclusions," namely justice and inclusivity, are superficial and hopeless when they're faced by the anxious truth that they are tragically outmatched by human inability to live by them."

I can be with you on a lot of things Wes but, to me, this is where religion sells a bill of goods. This notion that justice and inclusivity - all things good, right, and noble - can only be achieved through religion (and particularly yours) is simply wrong. This is just another spin of original sin/total depravity... we just can't be good people. On the contrary, I think religion takes our goodness, repackages it, and sells it back with their brand name now stamped on it.

SDtoDC said...

First though in NW DC churches that hold your view are the majority. Second thought the majority of churches world wide and in history reject your view and always will. The biggest point of contention being homosexuality. There is a lot the church can learn a lot from their liberal brethren when it comes to looking at their on bias. But they can never call sin like homosexuality good. To do so would to provide people with a false hope. It requires some serious theological acrobatics to make homosexuality permissible.

Also comparing it to abolitionists is not a fair comparison. One aspect not mentioned by those who compare the two movements is that churches involved with the abolitionist movement and churches that attacked racism in the civil rights era held strong holiness doctrines. The list of rules and order they adhered to would make Driscoll look like a liberal. Yes pro slavery churches used the bible, but so did the abolitionists. Unlike the issue of homosexuality it doesn't require theological gymnastics to understand that slavery is wrong. In this case the opposite is true.

The history of how slavery gained such a foothold in the American church and culture has more to do with secular thought then religion. After it became so prevalent churches had to adept to the culture cherry picking verses to support slavery just as I would claim liberal churches do today to say that conversation does not require a change of nature and conduct which would exclude homosexual behavior which God abhors. Interesting enough it is the same mainline churches that find themselves in the this place. Not being those who influence the culture but rather being influenced by it and reflecting it. Powerless.



Wesley Ellis said...

Andrew, you know I disagree with you. We talked on Facebook :)

SDtoDC, whoever you are... is that San Diego to DC? I'm from San Diego! Do we know each other? All I have to say is that I don't think it takes theological gymnastics to affirm the ethical legitimacy of LGBTQ identity and relationships. It would be exhausting to demonstrate that now, so I won't. Suffice to say, the bible doesn't talk about homosexuality, per se, and I know a lot of gay Christians who seem to be pulling it off. It would take some gymnastics to show why their lives are "wrong" and to prove, among the myriad of exegetical options, that the bible is as clear as conservatives think it is. Clearly, we disagree. Whatever you think of me, please know I've come to my conclusions because of scripture, not despite it. Thanks for reading the post and for offering a comment!

SDtoDC said...

Its James Graham. sorry about the google account name. If it doesn't take theological gymnastics it shouldn't take long to explain. And I do not doubt you came to your conclusion using scripture and that you don't believe you're contradicting it. I am well aware of conservatives short comings in understanding scripture. But yes we disagree. I do hope I am wrong but when I read scripture and when I study the way God has been experienced in church history I do not see support for the move towards sexual liberalism that exists in today's liberal Christianity. I would quote scripture but I am sure you know all the verses I would refer too and have dealt with them in your world view. And many unrepentant people pull off "Christianity" but that does not mean they have been truly converted.

Wesley Ellis said...

Hey James! Good to hear from you!
"If it doesn't take theological gymnastics it shouldn't take long to explain." Two things on that... first, it's not that it would take long to explain... it's just that I anticipate that you'd have remarks. For example, if I said something like, "human love in ethical commitment and intimacy is reflective of God's covenant with the world, regardless of gender identity, etc., and is therefore sacramental not according to standards of gender binaries but according to love"... that wouldn't be gymnastics (and it could definitely be put into simple terms)... but it would get exhausting once you cited some passage of scripture to refute that claim, perhaps from Genesis or some Pauline text which you're right to assume I'm familiar with. Then I'd have to ask you to do the gymnastics of proving that your passage does indeed deal with homosexuality, in light of all the other exegetical options (which would indeed take gymnastics on your part given, at least, the fact that sexual orientation wasn't an available concept to the biblical writers) and then I'd have to show you why there are better ways to read the given passage and fuller theological lenses through which to see the issue, etc. etc... see how it would get exhausting?

And secondly, I should mention that gymnastics doesn't preclude truth. If a conclusion is difficult to reach, it doesn't automatically mean it's wrong. The "simple reading" of a text is not always it's best interpretation... I mean, you had to do some gymnastics to permit women to speak in your church, didn't you?... 1 Timothy is pretty clear, right? If someone came up to you and said, "women shouldn't talk in church," you'd have to do some work to explain to them that they're wrong... especially given the legacy of patriarchy in church history. So, even if you think it's gymnastics, don't dismiss it just yet, you might find out that the simple reading was the wrong reading.