Evangelicals: Don't Be Afraid of the "L" Word...

And I'm not talking about that cable series about lesbians.

Liberalism.

I've said it before: one of the chief reasons I can continue to call myself an Evangelical is not because I'm consumed with the need to save souls from hell, but because the God I knew intimately and personally as a conservative is the God I still know and love today.

It's a funny, sort of sad thing that liberal Christianity hasn't been given permission to passionately know a personal God, converse to the way that Evangelical Christianity hasn't been given permission to accommodate science or to acknowledge the relativity of truth in experience (these are wild generalities, so try not to jump too quickly).

One of the problems is that traditionally, for one to claim to intimately "know" God consistently translates into a certainty that demands evangelism and conversion.  "If I know the truth, then any disagreement is wrong and I have to convince you of it."  Liberals don't want to convert people against their will, especially not in ways that undermine the tradition and ethos of a culture-of-origin, or downplays/denigrates the personal experience of the other.  Because "the world don't move to the beat of just one drum..."

Conservatives are afraid that if they open the door to the validity of the experience of the other, it undermines their own experience.  "If she's right, how can I be right too?  And what if I'm not right, after all?"  Which is what often happens in college when young Evangelicals take their first Intro To Religion class, or make friends with a Buddhist.

We have choices in life - both corporeal and ethereal choices.  Most folks don't make a choice at all - non-choice is their choice.  Which is a default to the religious worldview of their parents/family-of-origin.  And sometimes that non-choice remains throughout life, but more and more commonly, that posture disintegrates into casual agnosticism or cultural identification.  None of those outcomes is necessarily bad, but I would argue (as a person of faith) that both miss the richness of the spiritual life, and the beauty of religion at its best.

Emerging/Emergent/Emergence Christianity (that's too many damn forms of the same word) continues to be criticized as a slippery slope into liberalism.  I have confessed before: this was for me.  And liberalism is often accused of being a slippery slope into secularism, which it may be.  But what has allowed me to retain my personal relationship with Jesus Christ (my goodness, isn't that an Evangelical statement!) is that I have chosen to reject the false paradigm that to know and love God in my religious context means to reject all other paths to God, all other names for God, or any worldviews/godviews that conflict with my own.  To say that demands I avoid invalidating a fundamentalist mentality, to avoid becoming a fundamentalist myself.  It's a tenuous position, and one I often fail to successfully hold.  But my words aren't for those interested in self-validation.  I'm writing this post for so many conservative Evangelicals who aren't happy with the religion they have inherited, and simply don't know where to go from here - or are scared of losing the GOOD PARTS of the spiritual life they have.  These are folks like me.

For thousands of years, mystics from various traditions (Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Sikh) have been writing about their experiences in the presence of the Divine.  They may not acknowledge the commonality with their sister-religions (some have, like Thomas Merton and Thich Nhat Hanh) but the spiritual experience they write about is very consistent across religious party lines.

You can love and experience God in powerfully personal, intimate ways, and still choose not to force your conceptions of God on others.  You have a choice.  There are countless methods and traditions for interpreting the Bible, and while you may not have experience with them all, you have a choice: you can continue as you were raised, which may or may not be a "non-choice," or you can explore and ask questions and determine if the path you are on really makes your heart sing.  Does your Christianity help you love people more, or does it actually create barriers to love?  If your answer is the latter, then it cannot be Christianity at all.

Too often we Evangelicals have confused the power and presence of God in our lives with the absolute correctness of our theology.  Our theologies are merely tools and gauges, helping us to understand the truth that we know that we know.  When theology gets in the way of knowing God, or of loving people, we have to make a deliberate choice.  I've been discussing this with two friends recently: George Elerick and Chad Holtz.  In truth, I think all three of us agreed on more than we disagreed on.  Our greatest variance had to do with how much effort we wanted to put into maintaining solidarity with the corporate structures of organized Christianity.  And I don't fault either for their positions.  I think I'm still unsure about how important that is to me, personally.

I'll close with this quotation:

The measure of [mental] health is flexibility [not comparison to some 'norm'], the freedom to learn from experience... to be influenced by reasonable arguments... and the appeal to emotions... and especially the freedom to cease when sated.  The essence of illness is the freezing of behavior into unalterable and insatiable patterns.
--Dr. Lawrence Kubie

Are we healthy or ill?  I think the same paradigm can be constructed for spiritual health and illness.

Friends, try to remember: you have a choice.

3 comments:

Al said...

I'm in on so many levels. Thanks for a workable foundation for draining some of the bathwater, but not ditching the whole baby.

Media Mover/Deanna Figueroa said...

What a moving post. I've experienced both Catholicism and conservative evangelical churches.

I left the former at the age of 13, the latter I stayed in for a couple of years before the intolerance and utter rigidity of the literal interpretation of the bible drove me away.

I would be very interested to know your opinion of what's going on with Anne Rice. If you have been following her comments and those of others both pro and con, maybe you could post about it?

Thanks!

Peter J Walker said...

Al, thanks for hearing my heart, here.

Deanna, thank you for your kind words! I hope you'll keep in touch.

Yes, I wrote a little about Anne Rice here:

http://www.emergingchristian.com/2010/07/anne-rice-leaves-christianity-should-we.html

As dialogue about her continues, I think there are people on both sides - pro and con - who have good reasons, and plenty who have bad reasons. I'm in full support of her, though I don't celebrate anyone having to get to a point where they are so wounded and/or angry that they have to give up religious participation out of survival. That's a tragedy. I am grateful she has the guts to say what she has, not because I get excited every time someone "sticks it to the church," but because her words are very true, and her complaints are very justified.

I hope we - inside and outside the church - can grow from the dialogue she's started.

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