Trump and the Practical Apostasy of Evangelicalism

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I am saddened and angered by a sense of betrayal. Betrayal on a number of fronts, but especially from conservative Evangelicals.

Before going on with some of the hard things I’m going to say here, let me qualify myself some. There are Evangelicals I love and respect. I know not all Evangelicals fall prey to the chronic problems in Evangelicalism I will be criticizing. Further, every camp has its own blind spots, including my own. Yet Evangelicalism at large is riddled with problems, and their support of President Trump has exposed many of them like nothing I have seen before.

My background is Evangelical, so I have a long and close connection to these people. I grew up under the influence of Pat Robertson, James Dobson, Rush Limbaugh, and Billy Graham. I know that world intimately. As a homeschooler and then Bible college graduate, my whole life and identity was once wrapped up in that subculture.

But for some time now and for a variety of reasons I have moved away from Evangelicalism. I came to disagree with a lot of its common stances: for example, its rejection of critical Biblical scholarship, suspicion of mainstream science, misrepresentation of history, opposition to LGBTQ rights and identities, complicity with racism, promotion of patriarchy, glorification of violence, unbridled capitalism, antipathy toward pluralism, denialism over climate change, anti-intellectualism, legalism, cultish acquiescence to authority figures, tendency to conflate the gospel with American civil religion, and so on.

But beyond disagreements with specific claims, I also came to oppose what I see as Evangelicalism’s pervasively wrongheaded spirit and priorities. As a rule, I find it anti-intellectual and narrow in loving; emphasizing dogma over evidence, power over love, exclusion over inclusion, security over justice, and entrepreneurship over authenticity.

I’ve had a lot of flashpoints of pain as Evangelicalism and I have gone more and more our separate ways. I remember when 19,000 Evangelicals would literally rather children starve then for World Vision to let married gay people work in their offices. I remember when a swath of Moody students and even a Moody professor attacked a black student group for speaking what should have been an obvious truth about racism in America. I remember these things and more.

But this election cycle and in particular the way white Evangelicals have largely supported Donald Trump has been the most painful unmasking to me of hypocrisy and moral corruption within Evangelicalism.

There is overwhelming evidence that the Bible is fallible (for example, see Sparks or Stark). This does not necessarily undercut it serving as an authority for Christians alongside others such as reason, experience, science, or the fresh leading of the Spirit. My study of both the Bible itself and religion more generally indicates to me that love is at the center of authentic spirituality.

Love is God’s primary attribute and, redeemed and empowered by His love, our primary duty is to love God and love others. This is the central message of Jesus and the Bible. The world religions disagree on many things, but most agree that the Highest Ultimate is primarily loving, good, or blissful and that we are to treat others as we would want to be treated. Such notions are backed up by the phenomenology of religious experience, miracles, and our ethical intuitions.

But because Evangelicals refuse to accept this, they make the Bible into an idol and act in ways that are profoundly unloving.

For example, because of a handful of texts that condemn homosexuality, they treat LGBTQ people in ways that can only be described as hateful.

They mock them and condemn them. They compare their most intimate relationships to pedophiles, sex with animals, pollution, rape, and murder. They isolate them, suspect them, and treat them with revulsion (even those who are trying to follow their rules). They claim natural disasters, terrorist attacks, or AIDS are God’s judgment for our “wicked” acceptance them.

Many Evangelicals insist that not only is their love wrong, but even their unchosen attractions and indeed their sexual or gender identities are as well. Contrary to science and experience, they insist they chose this and can change it. Some of them force their children to go through the torture of “conversion therapy.” Others literally try to cast out the “demon” of homosexuality. Some kick their children out of their homes to the streets, or speak from their bully pulpits about the necessity of doing so -“turning their children over to Satan,” as it were.

They buy into debunked theories about what causes gayness: a distant father or overbearing mother, for example. They offer quack “treatments” to “fix” it, such as exercises to find their supposedly suppressed “inner” masculinity or femininity. As indicated above, other “treatments” such as shock therapy are not so mild.

They do this in spite of crystal-clear evidence of how important relationships are to our well-being – how fundamentally we are wired for that – and how unaccepting environments drastically elevate LGBTQ persons’ susceptibility to depression and suicide. They do it in spite of evidence that these people largely do not choose these identities and  in most cases cannot choose to be otherwise (though they can choose to act in non-conformity with them). They simply refuse to listen to LGBTQ folk when they try to explain these things or share about their experiences.

In recent years, this hostility toward gay and trans people has become a hallmark of their identity and one of their top political priorities. This, apparently, is the line they are willing to die on. Not caring for strangers, widows, orphans, or the poor (even though the Bible has loads more to say about that.) Those things would be too costly and threatening. No, hatred toward gay and trans people is easier. That’s the name of the game.

They actively seek to bar gay and bisexual couples from being able to marry the person they love, with all the benefits that come with that. They seek to pass bills making it easier for LGBTQ folk to be fired or denied housing or medical care simply because they are gay, bisexual, or trans. Under the guise of religious freedom, they seek to pass bills that make it easier for businesses and colleges to discriminate against gay people. (I’ll admit some of the issues and specific cases related to this last point are more tricky and debatable than others.)

They seek to bar trans people from using the bathroom that marches their gender identity – which can endanger trans individuals and is a source of anxiety and shame. They spread statistically and scientifically misleading propaganda about LGBTQ people being sexual predators (or predators posing as such). They’ve done this for years.

Some on the fringes insist LGBTQ people ought to be castrated, imprisoned, or executed; something that was not so fringe until just recently (or even today in other countries like Uganda where Evangelicals have actively campaigned for such measures).

And to add insult to injury, they say they do all of these things because they love gay people. They’re just trying to save them from themselves. But as I’ve said, their only basis for saying this is their idolatry to a fallible human book.

Science and experience are unambiguous about what loving LGBTQ people as embodied creatures means. It means welcoming them, listening to them, celebrating them and their families, and standing up for their rights. Evangelical opposition to these things can only be called “love” if love is divorced from embodied flourishing – a sort of Gnosticism.

I have seen the Spirit working in powerful ways in my gay, lesbian, bisexual, and trans brothers and sisters. Many of them are quite evidently bearing the fruit of the Spirit. I can see the wholesomeness and goodness that comes from their partnerships and how they flourish in communities that treat them with respect.

Really this isn’t that difficult. And unlike other minority issues, granting LCBTQ rights doesn’t cost anything (outside of shedding an untenably ideology, which I realize can be painful). Evangelical hatred and willingness to sacrifice their LGBTQ sons and daughters to the idol of inerrancy is scandalous. It destroys lives and brings ill repute to the gospel.

And they voted for Trump precisely because of his promises to enact policies that would make life harder for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and trans individuals and families.

Based on idolatry to inerrancy, Evangelicals also often treat women in dehumanizing and unloving ways. In varying degrees, many of them accept the patriarchal norms of the Bible as God’s unalterable will.

I believe there is a minority thread within the Bible (particularly the New Testament) that is more egalitarian. Both men and women are said to be created in God’s image (Genesis  1:27). In places, women are celebrated as prophets, leaders, apostles, teachers, or deacons (Judges 4; 2 Kings 22:14; Romans 16:7; Acts 18:24; etc.). Jesus treated women with respect and let them learn and follow him alongside his male disciples (Luke 8:1-3; 10:38-42). This was radical for those times. Arguably Paul’s language of mutual submission and his command for husbands to love their wives (Ephesians 5:21-31 Colossians 3:18-19) in his version of the household codes  was meant to gently subvert Greco-Roman patriarchal norms.

Even just the logic of the New Testament’s pervasive love ethic would seem to imply egalitarianism when combined with what we know about history, sociology, and what women tell us about themselves.

But despite this minority thread, the Bible is predominately patriarchal. It teaches in many places that women are worth less than men and are essentially “owned” and controlled by them (see Coogan).

For example, fathers could sell their daughters as slaves ( Exodus 21:7) and were the ones to arrange their marriages . A woman’s vow could be nullified by her father or husband (Numbers 30:3-16). In the ten commandments, women are listed among other possessions men are told to not covet (Exodus 20:17). If a raped woman was not yet “given” to another man, her father might choose to give her to her rapist as a wife, provided they never divorced (Deuteronomy 22:28-29). Captive virgins could be forced to become wives (Numbers 31:15-18).

While the New Testament generally tries to soften and even arguably subvert this kind of patriarchal teaching, it doesn’t do away with it. It gives more explicit “proof texts” to Christians who take a hierarchical view of gender roles than ones who take an egalitarian one. Hierarchical views of women have been the norm throughout church history and they are the predominate ones today among conservative Christians.

For example, the authors of Ephesians and Colossians command wives to submit to their husbands (Ephesians 5:22-24; Colossians 3:18). The author of 2 Timothy prohibits women from teaching men and says they must learn from their husbands (2:11-13). He also implies that the reason for this is that women – like Eve – are more gullible; but that they will be saved if they maintain a traditional docile role epitomized by bearing children (2:14-15). The author of 1 Peter says that wives must submit to their husbands and consider them masters even if they are treating them “harshly” (1 Peter 3:1-6 cf 2:18-25)

Between this and Jesus’ prohibition on divorce, many abused women have been pressured to simply “grin and bear it.” Other texts that encourage reconciliation and forgiveness have been used to pressure victims of all stripes (women, children, etc.) to get back together with their abusers after a simple “I’m sorry.” Religious abusers manipulate this masterfully.

And since women are excluded from leadership, men have the inside track in credibility and in setting the agenda of what issues are on the front burner. It’s no coincidence, for example, that spousal abuse and marital rape were not taken seriously until the second wave feminist revolution of the 60s and 70s, with women gaining more representation for the issues that concerned them.

I could spend a lot of time detailing how much damage these kinds of teachings have done: to women I know, to policies and social norms, in other societies with analogous views (such as traditional Islamic ones). This patriarchal mindset that sees women as objects to be possessed and controlled plays into rape culture, a paternalistic view of women as less intelligent or more fragile, and it plays into male entitlement in men’s dealings with women. It is straight up evil. It is NOT God’s eternal, perfect will. But many of the Biblical authors seemed to think it was. We have to be honest about that.

In contrast, many of the women in my life are strong leaders and gifted co-workers. Relationships I’ve seen characterized by mutual respect and egalitarian decision making seem more healthy and loving.

In voting for Trump, many Evangelicals downplayed the harm his words and actions have caused women. They again indicated how little they value women and how opposed or indifferent they are to many policies which are important to women.

On these things Evangelicals are often wrong, but at least they are consistent. On so many other things, they are not even willing to follow the Bible. Like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, they emphasize purity culture and blind obedience but neglect more important matters of justice, mercy, and love.

For example, the Bible says in multiple places that God’s people are to care for the “stranger” or “alien” in their midst (Deuteronomy 10:19; Psalm 146:9; Matthew 25:35; Hebrews 13:2; etc.). This isn’t just supposed to be a personal impulse; many texts indicate that it is a matter of (political) justice (Exodus 12:49;  23:9; Leviticus 19:33-34; 22:21; 23:9; 24:22; 25:35 Deuteronomy 10:17-19; 24:19-21; 26:12; Jeremiah 7:5-7; 22:3; Ezekiel 22:4, 7; 47:22-23 Malachi 3:5; Zechariah 7:10; etc.).

The actual sin of Sodom (not the made up one of “being gay”) was greed and inhospitality toward strangers and the poor (Genesis 19; Ezekiel 16:49-50; Isaiah 1:10-17; Matthew 10:14; Hebrews 13:2). And honestly, this is as simple as following the Bible’s pervasive love ethic.

Yet many Evangelicals support policies and a candidate who threatens the lives of refugees and immigrants and often treats foreigners as less than.

In the same vein, one of the Bible’s most dominate themes is care for widows, orphans, poor people, and the vulnerable. This is mentioned repeatedly in the Mosaic law (Exodus 22:21-24; 23:6; Deuteronomy 10:17-19; 15:13-15; 24:19-21; 26:12; etc.).

Failure to insure such justice is one of the prophets’ major indictments on Israel that led to her judgment (Psalm 10:14, 17-18; 146:1, 5-9; Proverbs 14:31; 19:17;  Isaiah 1:10-17; 3:14-25; 10:1-3; 58:3-7; Jeremiah 5:26-29; 7:5-7; 22:3, 13-19; Ezekiel 22:4, 7; 16:49-50; Amos 2:7; 5:10-15, 21-24; 6:1-7; Micah 2:2; Zechariah 7:10 Malachi 3:5; etc.).

Such care is central to Jesus’ gospel (Luke 1:52-53; 3:10-14; 4:18-19; 6:20-26, 33-36; 7:22-23; 10:25-37; 11:39-42; 12:16-34; 14:12-14; 16:19-31; 18:18-30; 19:8-9; Mark 12:28-31, 40; Matthew 6:1-4, 19-24; 10:7-8; 15:32; 18:21-35; 25:35-40; etc.).

And it was distinctively characteristic of the early church (John 13:29; Acts 2:42-47; 4:32-37; 5:1-11; 6:1-7; Galatians 2:10; Romans 15:22-28;   1 Corinthians 11:20-22; 16:1-4; 2 Corinthians 8-9; Colossians 3:5; 1 Timothy 3:3; 6:8-10, 17-19; Hebrews 13:5; James 2:1-17 ; 5:1-5 1 John 2:15-17; 3:16-18; etc.).

Much like with foreigners, many of these texts imply that this care was not just charity, but was a matter of justice. This is implicit or explicit in most of the texts surveyed. But specific examples include the following: Farmers were commanded to leave the edges of their fields unharvested so the poor could eat (Deuteronomy 24:19-21). Usury was condemned so the rich could not prey on the vulnerable (Exodus 22:25; Deuteronomy 23:19-20; Leviticus 25:35-38). After seven years, debts were to be cancelled and slaves set free, and after fifty years land was to revert back to its original owner (Leviticus 25; Deuteronomy 15).

Yet, based on their misuse of a handful of texts (e.g. 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15), many Evangelicals see a special concern for the vulnerable and extra economic measures to ensure their well-being as negotiable or even as harmful “enabling.” They tend to support typical Republican policies that subsidize big business and the rich, cut funding for social safety nets for the poor, oppose health care for everyone, and glorify unbridled capitalism. Knowingly or unknowingly, they support economic exploitation of people here in the US and in other countries. They seem unconcerned about increased income inequality. Though they claim to be pro-life, they often oppose measures to help the poor that actually mitigate the reasons poor women often feel compelled to have abortions.

And now they have voted for a man who literally brags about his greed. In voting for Trump, they are supporting our increased move toward oligarchy and unfettered exploitation of the poor and marginalized.

Jesus said blessed are the peacemakers (Matthew 5:9). He told us to love our enemies and pray for them, forgive those who persecute us, and turn the other cheek  (Matthew 5:38-48; 6:14-15; 18:21-35; Mark 11:25; Luke 6:27-36; John 20:23; etc.). He condemned violence and retribution, instead calling us to leave vengeance in God’s hands. He demonstrated such radical enemy-love and forgiveness in his own example (Luke 22:49-51; 23:34) – an example the New Testament repeatedly call us to imitate (Philippians 2:4-11; 2 Corinthians 8:9; 1 Peter 2:21-25; 1 John 3:16; etc.).

Love saturates the New Testament’s moral vision. It is the greatest commandment (Matthew 22:36-40), the “royal law” (James 2:8), the fulfillment of the law (Romans 13:8-10; Galatians 5:14), and the most enduring virtue (1 Corinthians 13). The early church up until Constantine took this mandate of love and forgiveness seriously (Romans 12:9-21; 2 Corinthians 2:5-11; Ephesians 4:32; Colossians 3:13; 1 Peter 3:9; etc. see Sider). The Bible’s ideal vision for God’s coming kingdom – a kingdom breaking into the world through Christ – is a pacific one, where swords are beaten into plow sheds (Isaiah 2:4).

While admittedly such values can never be fully transferred to a this-worldly government, it does seem that a preference for peace, magnanimity, fairness, and restraint with others (where possible) would be closer to the kingdom ideal. It seems like preventative and restorative measures would be more in keeping with this spirt then purely punitive ones (though obviously the latter are necessary sometimes).

But Evangelicals voted for a bully of a man who glories in brutality: wanting to bring back torture, “pound the hell” out of ISIS, kill innocent people, punch protesters and others he disagrees with, beef up our already bloated military even more, and exploit other countries under the threat of force. He is apparently unwilling to address systemic violence and racism in our law enforcement. In his view, more people need guns, not less. He and Evangelicals tend to favor the most harsh punishments, including bringing back the death penalty.

The Bible is clear that lying is wrong and truth is paramount (Leviticus 19:11; Colossians 3:9; etc.). Just logically, truth and trustworthiness are of bedrock importance in a leader.

But Evangelicals trusted and voted for one of the most dishonest persons to ever run for office. Their tendency to anti-intellectualism and  gullible faith apparently made them easy targets. As Valarie Tarico says, they have become a people of exploiters and exploited.

Relatedly, the Bible is clear that we should not gossip or slander others (Exodus 20:16; 23:1; Psalm 101:5; Proverbs 6:16-19; Romans 1:29; James 4:11; etc.). Common norms of decency and honesty also suggest this.

And yet Evangelicals lapped up the GOP’s slander of Obama, Clinton, and others. To be clear, there are legitimate areas to critique these figures; genuine faults and mistakes. But so much of the angry fervor that was whipped up was baseless (e.g. Obama being a Muslim and not really American, Benghazi, democrats wanting to take your guns, the election being rigged, Jade Helm being a secret plot to take over Texas, etc.).

The Bible and particularly the New Testament exalt humility, servanthood, and sacrifice in a leader (Luke 14:7-14; 22:25-30; Philippians 2:1-11; etc.). But Evangelicals have voted for a man that epitomizes arrogant boastfulness and who is transparently egotistical and self-serving.

Jesus’ teaching about neighbor love ideally universalizes the sphere of people we are supposed to care for (Luke 10:25-37). The teachings of the other great religions and even humanist ethics  have also tended toward expanding the circle of concern. Even so-called “identity politics” aims to do so. For example, feminists at their best aren’t against men or wanting to have a leg up on them; they just want equal rights and an equitable standing to them.

In a globalized and interconnected world that faces challenges such as climate change that will depend on us coming together, things like equality and mutuality are more important than ever.

Yet, in the face of this Evangelicals voted for a man who seeks an “America first” approach. And specifically, a white America, a “Christian” America, a rich, male, and non-disabled America. To the degradation of everyone else. Conservative Evangelicals often seem to buy into a rugged individualism that is neither true to reality nor to spiritual (Trinitarian) values of interconnectedness and loving care for one another.

The Bible’s teachings on love, compassion, and human equality as well as common decency indicate that racism is wrong.

Yet, Evangelicals have a troubling history of either actively supporting racism or not taking it very seriously. Many European Christians appealed to the “doctrine of discovery” and a sense of “manifest destiny” to justify stealing native peoples’ lands and  enslaving or killing them. Evangelical Protestants campaigned to bring slavery to the colonies. Since the Bible has more “proof texts” to support slavery and nothing that directly condemns it, conservative “Bible believing” Christians were among the fiercest defenders of the institution. They saw abolitionism as a liberal assault on the authority of God’s Word.

After the modernist controversy that birthed the Fundamentalist movement, conservatives tended to be suspicious of social justice movements in general. White Evangelicals were among the most resistant to the civil rights movement and this resistance played an integral role in the rise of the Religious Right. Since then they have made greater strides towards racial equality. But for a number of reasons including still segregated churches, unacknowledged privilege, and antipathy to social science and social justice, they are often less than fully engaged allies for racial equity.

But many Evangelicals rewrite this history to lesson their guilt and not have to face America’s “original sin” of racism and white supremacy. They wax eloquent about our “glorious” Christian past. They pretend like they were reformers when they were most often the lethargic or the actual oppressors. The pretend like racism no longer infects us. Or they at least downplay the (structural) complexity of it or the misery it inflicts, from Standing Rock to Ferguson. And now they have voted for the candidate endorsed by the KKK who ran on a barely concealed platform of white nationalism.

They claim they care about religious freedom, but vote for a man that has vowed to strip the rights from people who don’t think like they do. In reality, many only care about their Christian privilege, and for some, a literal Christian theocracy.

They say they care about the Constitution but voted for a man who threatens freedom of religion, free speech and the press, an impartial judiciarate, due process, and who evinces totalitarian impulses.

They say the want to “Focus on the Family” and are the party of “family values.” But what they really mean is white heterosexual middle-class families. They certainly don’t care about gay families. They seek to undermine their rights and family structures at every turn. They don’t care about minority families. They seek to see immigrant families torn apart by deportations. They support the devastation that the “war on drugs” and mass incarceration has caused to black families. They seek to cut off social safety net support for poor families. Until recently, they were disdainful of divorced or single-parent families.

They say they are pro-life, but in terms of policy are often pro-guns, pro-war, pro death penalty, anti police reform or accountability, anti-poor, anti-immigrant, anti-refugee, anti-minority, climate change deniers, anti-gay, against preventative community health measures, and so on.

They say when it suits them that “character counts,” but then elect a vulgar man who is a liar, an adulterer, a bully, a thief, a peeper and genital grabber, perhaps a rapist, a bigot, an arrogant and greedy person, an owner of strip clubs and casinos, a man who glories in power and celebrates violence.

Many people thought it ironic that when Jerry Falwell Jr. and his wife posed next to Trump for a photo, a prominent framed picture can be seen next to them of Trump with a playboy model. The hypocritical contrast to past Evangelical posturings was palpable. The world took notice.

As Robert P Jones notes,

In 2011, consistent with the “values voter” brand and the traditional evangelical emphasis on the importance of personal character, only 30 percent of white evangelical Protestants agreed with this statement [that a political leader who committed an immoral act in his or her private life could nonetheless behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public life]. But with Trump at the top of the Republican ticket in 2016, 72 percent of white evangelicals said they believed a candidate could build a kind of moral dyke between his private and public life. In a head-spinning reversal, white evangelicals went from being the least likely to the most likely group to agree that a candidate’s personal immorality has no bearing on his performance in public office (emphasis mine).

Blogger Rachel Held Evans recently tweeted, “The culture that warned me against moral relativism is now the hardest to convince that character, truth, and compassion matter.” I agree.

At the root of so many of these problems is that too many Evangelicals hold to a theology that emphasizes power over love. I have written on that here.

While this post may seem harsh, I have elsewhere been more gentle in calling Evangelicals to live up to their own tradition’s high principles.

And whether through gentle exhortation or more searing prophetic critique, I will continue to stand up for the truth and call my Evangelical kin to repent of their practical apostasy from the way of Jesus.

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It’s About Love

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I’ve been thinking a lot about love recently. The love of God. The love of Jesus. The love of people one for another. The more I live, the more I think about it, the more I am convinced it’s about love. What do I mean by love? Is this just some mushy, sentimental, hippy dream? It was Larry Norman who cracked, “The Beatles said all you need is love and then they broke up.” We all know that the feeling of love is ephemeral and often fails us. We know that there are deep-set problems in our lives and in our world that see of no simple solution. So when I speak of love, I’m referencing more than mere sentiment and I’m not saying it’s easy. Simple? Perhaps. Easy? Not so much. We need a love that looks reality in the face and kisses it.

What do I mean by love? I am writing (more or less) about what Christians call agape love. As J. I.  Packer says, agape is a decision to do good to others with the purpose of in some sense making those others great. Right out of the gate we see that this love is more than sentimentality. I will argue shortly that love is not at its most healthy without empathy and warmth; but even when we don’t FEEL like it, we can choose to act lovingly toward others. How else could we make sense of such commands as, “love your enemies”?

Packer goes on to say that agape makes others great by serving not their professed wants but their observed real needs. We all know that sometimes indulging others’ whims is not genuinely loving. A parent does not give-in every time her child “must” have something.

On the other hand, we also know that sometimes others think they know what’s best for us and are unflinching in their assurance that we conform to their unrealistic template for who we must be. That is why the OBSERVED part is so important. Agage doesn’t just give in to others’ whims; but it also doesn’t try to force an untrue or unrealistic archetype onto them. It takes seriously what we learn about the world through all forms of knowledge. It factors in what we know about humans generally. But it pays especially close attention to the person or persons in front of us whom we are trying to love and it sympathetically asks, “what would I want, what would I need, if I were in his shoes, with his set of gifts, flaws, desires, and beliefs…?”

Sometimes “love must be tough.” That is, sometimes love means confronting someone else or denying them something they want that is not good for them. If in our current milieu the non-religious might tend more toward an overly indulgent love, it is safe to say that the religious tend toward the other extreme. As the saying goes, “only Christians shoot their wounded.” We all know the kind of “love” that “confronts” with a sheen of pious “concern” but with no real warmth, no true empathy, no heart. We also know of the spittle-flying rage and judgment that sometimes comes out of religious communities. Such words and behaviors don’t even make a pretense of love.

While love must sometimes be tough, I suspect it usually does not. Even where it does, this must always be done with humility, tentativeness, warmth, and after doing our own soul-searching—taking the beam out of our own eye first, so to speak. It must be undertaken with true empathy for “the other” and with real effort to spend time with them and learn about them. Love at its best spends time with others and really gets to know them.

This ties into my next point. Love is anything but cold, calculated, utilitarian action based on what is in our or others’ best interest. While love is more than a feeling, love is most definitely a “warm” word. And make no mistake; the warmth of real fellowship is one of our greatest needs (if not our greatest one). While love is a choice and an action, I fear sometimes the Christian community underplays the warmth of love in their reactions against sentimentality. When we reflect on love at its best; thoughts of laughter, joy, grins, and ecstasy come to mind. Part of the power of full-fledged love is precisely the joy it exudes.

Agape love also has a trustworthy and persevering quality to it. I see a lot of this in 1 Corinthians 13. Love is patient and kind. It keeps no record of wrongs, it forgives. It’s this graciousness, warmth, and extraordinary ability to see the best in others (even when they are at their worst) that draws people in and can change the world. I think here of Bishop Myriel’s decision to forgive Jean Valjean in Les Miserables.

I also think of the safety and encouragement spoken of in The Choir’s song “A Friend So Kind.” In one of the best summaries of love I’ve heard, they sing, “When you feel ashamed and ugly inside. You need someone who cares, with whom you dare confide. To stare into your dark soul to see hope and light. And tell you, ‘You’re glorious, I know you’ll be all right. You’re beautiful, I love you I know you’ll be all right.’ There is no mountain of virtue higher to ascend. No quality more divine. Than to be a friend, ah to be a friend so kind.” This, THIS is what most of us crave.

If all of this sounds a little too perfect, it is. We are flawed and often act in an unloving manner. We hurt each other and we’ll do it again. But that doesn’t mean this isn’t a worthy ideal to shot for. Many of us have had the chance to see people who exemplify such love, however imperfectly. We can all chose to daily and hourly treat others in the way we would like to be treated. Where we fail, we can apologize, get back up, and try again.

And there is good news! The gospel is that God loves us like this! He loves YOU like this! He came down as a man in the person of Jesus to learn to sympathize with us in our suffering; to teach and exemplify how to love God and others; to call us to turn from our selfishness and malice and instead love others in this way in the new order he was establishing; to die for us to save us from our self-centeredness and shame; to rise again giving us hope that we too can one day fully experience this new order manifest in the flesh. The gospel promises that God’s goodness is big enough to forgive us the worst of offenses, granted we repent. Resting in God’s love we have sanctuary. And our experience of this extraordinary love and forgiveness can and should be a powerful compeller to so love and forgive others.

Introducing a New Series On Essential Theology

I’ve done a lot of questioning in my life. I’ve been on a journey trying to discover what my purpose in life might be. What can make me happy, fulfilled. What, if anything, is most real and right? Not just for me, but for anyone. Is there really something like this? And can I know it? How can I know it? How do I evaluate what I was taught growing up? How do I evaluate the wild diversity of contrasting views I encounter, in person and more widely in my reading?

This is tough, because I’m a person of deep feeling; and my feelings and intuitions often pull in different directions. But I’m also a person of deep integrity (as a value, if nothing else). I don’t want to just believe things that seem appealing to my intuitions or emotional sensibilities. I want to conform my beliefs and actions to evidence and objective fact (as much as we can know such things, which is its own issue). I want to know and be conformed to reality, even if it ends up not being what I expected. But I also hope that reality can reasonably be interpreted in a way that is not innately adverse to what I most value.

So there is a tension between transcendent feeling and cold fact as siren songs. There’s a tension between different worldview claims I encounter. More personally still, there is a tension in me regarding my Christian background that has in many ways dominated my adult life.

I’ve long perceived that some things I was taught were oppressive, damaging, and of dubious purchase on reality. I’ve long guessed that methods of blind faith are a bad way of getting at truth. They create closed off subcultures unwilling or unable to fully engage the broader world in a fair way. They also lead to paranoid, pharisaical policing of those caught within their jurisdictions. My reading, classes, and broadening kowledge of the world has born this out more and more. To a degree I could never have even guessed. I was lied to! That makes me angry and inclines me to be untrusting.

But that is only one side of the picture. I’ve also long perceived how utterly good, beautiful, and true much is within Christianity. Much of it is (or at least seems) liberating, life-giving, empowering, heart-delighting, and worship inspiring. Much of it builds up love, reconciliation, deep community and connection, profound grace, equality, belonging, and acceptance (sometimes where those are elusive everywhere else). I have seen the power and peace it can offer. I’ve seen how powerfully transformative it can be in peoples’ lives.

This is to state the draw in the language of feeling, intuition, and values. But while many of the objective claims I was taught have been disproved or at least seriously called into question by my research, others have seemed to be furthered bolstered. Both in terms of feeling and fact, there seems to be something deeply true within or behind Christianity. And yet paradoxically, in terms of both feeling and fact, there also seems to be something deeply wrong within Christianity (or at least some dominate expressions of it).

This is a tension I’ve lived with and wrestled with for a long time. In a further shade to it, I’ve seen that other worldviews often seem to contain something deeply true in them as well.

All of this has led me to break up and restructure my belief-system to better be able to mine this and account for it. Instead of Christianity alone as the hill I live or die on, I’ve realized that there are different distinguishable, if still connected, levels of things I believe, of descending weight of conviction and evidence. In their simplest summary form they are as follows (from the center moving on out): commitments to truth, to evidence, to ethics, to God, and finally to Jesus.

I hope to write more about what each commitment means to me and the nature of this restructuring in the future. One way to conceive of it is as multiple castle walls circling out from a sacred center.Instead of one battle line that has to be defended or all is lost; my faith is more like a series of stronger and stronger castle walls, one inside another. If one seems threatened, there are other stronger ones to fall back on.

The sacred center is my commitment to the truth (whatever I discover it to be). Secondly, I am committed to using open-minded and evidence based methods as the best way to arrive at truth. This doesn’t eliminate all ambiguity or always guarantee correctness. But it is a more neutral and reliable way to get at truth than blind faith or other approaches that I am aware of.

My next few commitments are selected in the order they are based on their experiential (evidence based) strength. I am committed to a world and humanity affirming ethic of love and justice. Such moral principles convict people across multiple cultures and worldviews and make sense whether or not there is a God or not.

After that, I am committed to belief in an inclusive and loving theistic God. Explicitly theistic beliefs and religious experiences are not as common or as well evidenced as more basic moral principles. That’s part of why a core ethic such as above should be more foundational. But many people do have experiences they take to be encounters with God. I also believe theism has greater explanatory power and is more compatible with a wider range of phenomena than any of its worldview competitors.

To me, pragmatic rationales and experiential evidence show God to be inclusive and show love to be at the center of who he is (though I  believe he is also just).

Finally, this is capped by my belief in Jesus as the fullest revealer of this God and His will for us. At the least, I believe that God works through Christianity – as I believe he is able to do in other religions as well. I have committed my life to following Jesus’ teachings and example, his way of radical love for God and neighbor.

Further – although I’m more tentative about this – based on miracles done in his name, his transformative impact on others, etc. I embrace the creedal/orthodox view of Jesus as God incarnate. Jesus is not only my teacher but my Lord. That said, I believe the incarnation allows for some cultural elements to (innocently) creep in to Jesus vision. My lower levels of commitment come into dialogue with Jesus’ teaching, sometimes being reshaped by them but generally serving as baselines of what I appropriate as Jesus’ core message.

Obviously, these categories don’t stand alone. They are not airtight. The outer ones cap off the prior ones and refashion them in some ways. But I would also contend that the more central ones establish baselines that effect how I approach and appropriate the outer ones.

For example, seen from my final Christian viewpoint, Jesus is God incarnate, the primordial source of all truth, and my most significant ethical source. However, I believe in him because of evidence and only to the degree his teaching does not violate it. Seeing the physical world as better evidenced in experience than the spiritual realm and seeing evidence that love is central to both ethics and God’s nature influence how I approach Jesus’ message and what I appropriate from it.

Hopefully the reader can see the progression from the general, widely experienced, and well evidenced to the specific, less commonly experienced, and more debatable. To me, that is the rational way to proceed. But there is another movement connecting them too. That golden through thread is love.

My love for truth is a mystical love for it’s source in God. I also love the truth, not just for it’s own sake in the abstract, but because I love people and I see how lies hurt them.

My commitment to evidence is just a logical extension of this love for truth, my commitment to truth as a practical way of loving others, and seeing that evidence is the best way to get there.

My commitment to ethics is unabashedly a commitment to human flourishing and loving others in a sympathetic and socially aware way. I see a passion for justice as logical social outworking of that commitment.

My commitment to God sees love as at his center; is graciously liberated, redeemed, empowered, inspired, and transformed by this love; and worshipfully seeks union with its Source.

My commitment to Jesus is a childlike trust in Jesus’ loving Abba and in his only begotten Son Jesus, who emptied himself, taking on the form of a servant to save us. It is a way of imitating this sacrificial love for the good of others.

So on this journey, this is a sketch of my core commitments and the overall shape of my worldview. In my next post I will move on to focus particularly on my core beliefs about God and why I have felt the need to step back and spend a season of my life wrestling with these sacred matters, specifically. I will spend a post explaining my approach and then devote further ones to various attributes of God as I understand them.

 

 

A Letter To My Mom About My Progressive Christian Faith

I wanted to share (below) a text I started a while ago but never finished until now. This isn’t meant as an attack on you. I know we will disagree on some things and I can respect that. You are are the wisest, strongest, and most good person I know. I’m not looking to argue with you about any of these things. I was just trying to find a way to explain about some of what I’m learning and where my journey is taking me:

I’m ok. Still reeling with all the new things I’m learning from classes and friends. It’s heady stuff that in some ways raises more questions than it answers. It’s so weird because aspects of it strengthen my faith and fit nicely with core values I hold dear.

For example, in both classes we talked early on about ethics in research and in practice. So much of boils down to respect for personhood, beneficence, honesty, and social justice. I know many atheists who passionately seek to live out such values (and on some things they strike me as way more rational and just/fair than a lot of Christians). However, such absolutes seem more at home to me within a theistic context than outside it.

Our readings and my friends’ posts on systemic racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. and police corruption definitely show how evil and opportunistic humans can be. This sometimes fits with sin and certainly shows human brokennesss and the need to resist “principalities and powers” that are evil. It might suggest that any ultimate hope for perfection depends on divine rescue; although I think it’s a cop-out if we are not doing everything we can here and now to make ourselves and the world a better place.

My classes show me more than ever how crucially important families and healthy community are. We are inescapeably social beings. My reading and classes demonstrate experientially how powerfully transforming a positive spirituality centered on God’s love can be.

In these and other ways my classes further strengthen my progressive Christian outlook.

But in other ways they turn what I thought I knew on its head. I can never again see this country as a Christian nation. I know that this will sound extreme, but it was clearly founded on white supremacy. Inequality was and still is ubiquitious, and it’s effects, large and small, are ugly.

Poverty is not only or even primarily a result of bad values or moral inadequacy. Instead, it often stems from cyclical systems of inequality. This does not fit notions of a meritocracy I used to believe where everyone has equality of opportunity and just needs to work hard. It doesn’t fit diatribes I used to hear on lazy poor people who abuse welfare.

I’m becoming a passionate advocate of robust social safety nets and a broader understanding of human rights. I’m not saying people don’t have to work hard. Of course they do, and most want to. I’m saying there are systems of oppression related to things like classism, racism, and poverty that can keep even hard working people down.

I am becoming a passionate ally for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender rigths. I’ve known many LGBT persons in my work and at my church. My relationships with them and my academic study on their experiences in the world and why they are the way they are can never allow me to go back to beliefs and attitudes I once had that cause tangible harm to these people.

I see the beauty in the love many of my gay friends have for each other. I see the loneliness and despair of some of my single gay friends. Relationships that intrinsically cause harm (say, between a pedophile and a child) are always wrong. But to me, all loving, consensual, relationships between non-related adults are equal in God’s eyes. Man was not meant to be alone. I also see the genuine love for God many of my gay friends have.

I understand so much more now how men and women are equals and how harmful sexism and patriarchy are. I know so many people devastated and abused by that. You for one. I want to say again how sorry I am for the way I treated you and Barbi.

I understand better in general how all-encompassing and pervasive various systems of power, privilege, and oppression are. It’s so much more than personal animus. It’s often about assumptions and social “paths of least resistance” that we take for granted. It can involve segregation (whether enforced or de facto); unequal access to education, resources, or power; it can involve a lot of things. And because people caught up in it see it as “natural” and “fair;” when things start to change toward true equality, this can seem very threatening and “unfair” to those in the dominant group. Sometimes our particiaption in such systems is willful and sinful. But often it is very subtle and unconscious. As the saying goes, the only thing evil needs to succeed is for good people to do nothing.

These systems and what I’m learning about biology, genes, environmental factors, mental illness, and other things call for a nuanced understanding of sin and what it means to bring God’s redemption to others and the world. Our problem involves personal sin, but it also involves brokenness and oppression by others (human and demonic). And where personal guilt ends and simply being a human caught in this world begins, sometimes only God knows. I’ve come to be more hesitant in judging others. Only God knows the full story of who they are, the things that have brought them to that place, or what he might have in store for them. All I can do is love them, resist tangible injustice, and testify to what I take to be what God has done in my life.

Although I don’t agree with atheism, I understand it and sympathize with it so much more than I used to. As I’ve said, I don’t think I could ever be an atheist. I’m too much of a spiritual person. I’ve felt God’s hand in my life too much and love him too much to probably ever give that up. But I have friends who have not experienced that, despite good-faith efforts in seeking God. I have friends who have suffered horrendous amounts of abuse at the hands of religious people, including devout Christians. I know intelligent atheists who have difficult questions and strong arguments against the idea of God. In some cases, there are strong counter arguments to those. But it is clear to me that there are sincere and rational atheists. Many of them are extremely loving and loyal people as well. I’m sure some atheists sinfully (that is, culpably) deny the God they truly know. But many atheists do not fit that. Many are sincere in their unbelief. I don’t know why God would create this world with the degree of ambiguity he has; but as I’ve wrestled with the evidence, I can’t deny that ambiguity is there. I choose to believe God will someday reveal himself more clearly to them; in this life or the next.

This relates to people in other religions as well. I’ve read of miracles and deep spiritual and moral transformation in other religious contexts. I have friends who have vivid testimonies of God’s love and work in a broad aray of spiritualites. This doesn’t mean that all beliefs are good or true. This isn’t a carte blanche, knee-jerk acceptance of anyone and everything. Some beliefs are explicitly evil and demonic. For example, the Aztecs waged constant warfare on their neighbors to maintain a steady stream of human sacrifices to their chief god. That is wrong! I still believe that God will judge willful, unrepentant evil.

This doesn’t mean that there might not be a specific religion that is true and the truest fulfillment of God’s broader work elsewhere. I still consider myself a Christian. But God’s love and justice imply to me that he meets people where they are and the observable evidence clearly seems (to me at least) to show many people in other religions loving God and bearing the fruit of the Spirit. Also, as the Bible itself shows, God can take on different forms.

I see more and more the danger of blind, dogmatic faith. We see that (for example) in ISIS, Scientology, North Korean ideology, and in some Christian circles too. There is a place for faith, but it needs to be a humble faith that takes in and learns from what God reveals in science, experience, and by the Spirit.

Of course, it needs to learn from Scripture too. But my study continues to show me the many ways the Bible is a human book. It is a testament to people’s experiences of God and ideas about him. Above all, it bears an honored place in our lives because of its testimony to the person and work of Christ. But like other human books, it is wrong in places. Sometimes seriously wrong. I wonder too if the doctrine of the incarnation allows for Jesus to be man of his times on a few issues–even while being God and largely right in his core message.

A lot of this might seem quite drastic. Indeed, sometimes I feel disoriented. I feel a lot of anger at the harm that is so often done in Jesus’ name. I feel a lot of anger at the falsehoods and half-truths propogated in the name of religion. I feel like I’m constantly having to play catch-up to my peers because of things I “learned” at Moody and elsewhere.

But there are also increasing moments of healing and grace. This is part of maturing. And there is a consistency, simplicity, and direction to all of this. It’s about prizing experience above ideology in learning more about God and the world. Personal experience, sure. But also the testimony and wisdom of others. And not just any one individual (after all, we are sinful and prone to error); but what rigorous science can help us uncover. Faith has a place here. Indeed, we EXPERIENCE God and moral goodness in much the same way as we can experience other things. But again, it is a humble-learning faith.

It is about valuing love and compassion above rigid rules or schemas. In a lot of ways, I see where I’m at as simply trying to live out love as described in that post of mine you like in an ever broadening, more inclusive way. Broadening knowledge and experience play into it. I actually see this as quite consistent with the overarching spirit of Jesus and his message.

And I’m sitll in love with Jesus. Watching “Jesus of Nazareth” helped remind me of just how much I do and why. I still love God. At my best moments, more than ever. It’s been a long, painful time coming; but I genuinely think I am now able to see God as bigger and grander than I could have ever imagined before.

Anyway, this text started out small and kind-of took on a life of its own. I don’t say these things to offend you. I know we won’t agree on everything. I don’t think we have to. I have so much respect for you and I think we agree on so many things. I guess I wanted to try and clarify some items that came up in an old conversation and also share some of where I am at. Thanks for being a mom I feel comfortable doing that with. You’re the best!