I wrote a friend recently about some thinking I have been doing about the Liberal and Conservative arms of the church. Below is the email:
“I attended a conference here in St. Petersburg a couple of weeks ago. The name of it was A Sustainable Faith Conference. Brian McClaren, Doug Pagitt, and Tripp Fuller were the headliners. (OK, so it’s a Vegas term, but many conferences some churches put on are really Vegas shows anyway, right? Or is that a little too sarcastic? I’m a preacher’s kid… religious sarcasm is my blood.) The conference was really good (despite my sarcasm…) and was really more progressive, as you might expect by the headliners. I really enjoyed the conversations during the conferences, when there were breaks, and especially at dinner with a beer or two. Good times.
I have been thinking about the liberal and conservative arms of the church. The conservative church always refers to God as male, while the liberal church either uses non-sexist language, or even more feminine language in reference to God. It occurred to me as I thought about it, that many of the stands of each wing politically, socially, and even religiously or emotively could be either stereo-typically Male/Conservative, or Female/Liberal. I must confess that I am not comfortable with either. Maybe this is some reflection of my forced celibacy…. I find myself blaming almost all my current ills on this…. or a genuine observation. At any rate, I find myself wanting to bring the two together. (I mean, if I can’t have sex, I might as well be a theological matchmaker, right?) The church I have been attending, Missio Dei, was a sponsor for the conference, and I feel most at home there. But there aren’t many single folks close to my age. So I attended a church my brother found this past Sunday: Bridgepoint. I feel at home in the first, and like what I heard from the pastor of the second this past week. I think I can wrangle hitting the first service at Bridgepoint, and then make it to Missio Dei right afterward. I know, I know, I know….. how consumeristic of me…. I’m telling you, celibacy makes you do CRAZY things!
Anyway… it occurred to me that I would like to introduce the pastoral staff of each church to the other, and have a party at my house. While I realize that pastors live VERY busy lives, I also think this is part of the problem in the church today. Pastors need time to breathe.
(Ok…. just overheard a woman at another table talking about her friends that are HEALTHY Christians…. you know, like bean sprouts? I know I need to lose a few pounds, and I WANT to and live a healthier lifestyle, blah, blah, blah; but I don’t really make a priority of being a healthy corpse. A corpse is a corpse and we are all destined to get there one way and time or another. I wonder what judgement she will make when I get up in a second and go outside to smoke a cigarette?) SEE, celibacy makes me more easily distracted… and irritable, Damn-it! Whew…. glad that rant is out of the way….
Anyway, I am finding my way through the middle of both these ideological camps. Does that mean I am a theological bi-sexual? DAMN…. there it goes again…..”
The idea about attending both churches on Sundays has gone by the wayside. I have decided to attend where I feel more at home: Missio Dei. My point about pastors of conservative and liberal churches needing to get together is still in the back of my mind, though. I find that when people with different viewpoints get together with food and conversation, we find how much we have in common rather than dwelling on our differences. I remember when Rob Bell was publicizing his book, Love Wins, with a video that asked questions about conservative viewpoints about God and hell; and John Piper, a conservative theologian and pastor attacked Bell on the internet; I commented on a blog that I wished the two of them would go for a hike in the mountains of Colorado and talk out their differences. The high altitude of the mountains would bring air so thin that yelling would be impossible, and the beauty of God’s creation would inspire wonder, and a sense of exploration, rather than self-assurance. Sometimes, I think our arguments about how we understand God is rooted in our own issues, rather than being open to understand God better. We fight to make our point because our whole identity is wrapped up in a neat understanding of religious systems which work for us. So, the fight is more about ME than about God.
Another issue relating to our understanding of God is based on our interpretation of the scriptures. Scot McKnight does a great job of exploring this issue in his book: Blue Parakeet. Our interpretation of scripture, in my view, is influenced by at least three things:
The culture within which we live…
The cultural perspective of the language which the scriptures are translated into from the original languages…
The culture of the original authors.
All three can be hidden lenses which color our understanding of the meaning of scripture, when we don’t take them into consideration. I grew up in a fairly conservative tradition of Christianity, especially in our expression of life in relation to God and scripture. My tradition usually referred to God as He, and Father. (One of our speakers at the conference threw away a hilarious thought, in a flurry of quick, Groucho Marx-like phrases: “…I always wondered why the Old Testament authors decided to give God a penis…” LOVED that line!) This was a strongly paternal view of God and family, which was orderly, yet not always kind to women as it related to opportunities which were considered to be the responsibility of men. The contrary was also true about men. There were pretty strong stereotypes about what men and women were SUPPOSED to be and act. I continue to see these patterns in stricter forms in the more conservative, evangelical denominations and movement.
The more deeply I get into a more liberal/progressive expression and theological understanding of God and scripture, I find a more maternal view of God and family. As I mentioned in the email, God is referred to in non-sexist, or female terms. (So…. a vagina is better than a penis?) The trend is towards the use of non-violence as a means of responding to aggression or injustice. Talking rather than acting. The idea is that people will act differently if they understand differently. I also think that masculinity is redefined in ways that are less threatening, and in ways that involve partnership rather than leadership.
While these are both general descriptions of conservative and liberal viewpoints, I mean to see them at a thousand-foot view rather than get lost in the minutiae of each perspective, especially as it relates to my own recent thoughts and experience.
I am coming to see that each position sees God in their own image in some ways, then expresses their shade of Christianity into the world in ways which are somewhat congruent with their views. I like that, actually. If we think of conservative as male and liberal as female forms of Christianity, I think great value can be found in the what they bring into the world. However, what if they learned to work together in a dance of intimacy and love? When a man and woman love and respect each other, then become intimate… something generative and creative happens.
What if we learned to work and love together, in spite of our differences. I know, this is not a very original thought. But I am finding that neither perspective fits me very well, yet a combination of the two works great! I could go into specifics about views from each form that work for me, and I think are practical ways to live and love in the world; yet I also see attempts from each form to deny the totality of the other. How generative is that?
In my own journey, I am finding God as BOTH male and female rather than NEITHER male nor female. Scripture uses language in referring to God which show both male and female roles and qualities. I believe the church must talk in more depth about sexuality and about what it means to be male or female. I think in so doing, we will find ourselves questioning the values of our own culture as we realize how deeply they are ingrained within our own views of life and love. As we compare our view of gender, sexual roles, and experience; we might be introduced to God in more depth than we formerly perceived.
If your church decides to engage in such a conversation…. get in touch with me…. PLEASE!