Notes from a Byzantine-Rite Calvinist

18 July 2012

Liberal and conservative Christianity . . . and 'in between'

Ross Douthat and Diana Butler Bass have had their say. Now Rachel Held Evans has weighed in on the issue: Liberal Christianity, Conservative Christianity, and the Caught-In-Between. She finds lacking in both positions a sense that "we’re in this together, that, as followers of Jesus, we may need to put our heads together to re-imagine what it means to be the Church in a postmodern, American culture where confidence in organized religion is at an all-time low." In the meantime, however, she professes to be caught between the two:
For one thing, I don’t "fit" in the conservative evangelical church:

I believe in evolution.
I vote for democrats.
I doubt.
I enjoy interfaith dialog and cooperation.
I like smells, bells, liturgy, and ritual—particularly when it comes to the Eucharist.
I’m passionate about gender equality in marriage and church leadership.
I’m tired of the culture wars.
I want to become a better advocate for social justice.
I want my LGBT friends to feel welcome and accepted in their own churches.
I’m convinced that the Gospel is about more than “getting saved” from hell.

But I don’t "fit" in the progressive, Mainline church either.

I love a good Bible study.
I think doctrine and theology are important enough to teach and debate.
I think it’s vital that we talk about, and address, sin.
I believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus.
I want to participate in interfaith dialog and cooperation while still maintaining a strong Christian identity.
I want to engage in passionate worship, passionate justice, and passionate biblical study and application, passionate community.
I’m totally down with a bit of spontaneous, group “popcorn” prayer, complete with hand-holding and references to the Holy Spirit “moving in this place.”
I’m convinced that the Gospel is about more than being a good person.

On one level I can sympathize with Evans' feeling of being caught between polar extremes. Too often I experience this with respect to the political options on offer in North America. I have rarely voted enthusiastically. I generally vote against rather than for. Our electoral systems exacerbate the artificial duality of our politics. With respect to church life I am a member of a Presbyterian congregation, where I know in my heart I belong. I strongly believe that the Reformed tradition is most faithful to God's word revelation. However, I could wish that Reformed Christians celebrated the Lord's Supper as frequently as Anglicans and Lutherans, whose liturgies are much closer to the historic shape of western worship as it has developed over the course of nearly two millennia. So even on the ecclesial front I know what it is to feel caught in between.

However, something about the tone of Evans' piece bothers me. If she were arguing that her own position were somehow more biblically faithful or more obedient to God's expressed word than those of evangelicals and mainliners, then what she says might be worth hearing and weighing in the balance. But I don't hear her making such a case. What I do hear is: "I enjoy. . .", "I like. . .", "I'm tired. . .", "I want. . ." (this last one four times). I don't quite understand "I’m totally down with. . .", but I think it means she approves! In other words, Evans appears to be presenting a checklist of personal preferences which together make up something idiosyncratic at best. I could come up with a similar checklist, but all it would add up to is something that might as well be called "Koyzism," a religious "tradition" with, to put it mildly, precious few adherents. It would be presumptuous of me to stand in judgement on various Christian communities for not conforming to my checklist.

Obviously I would never try to assess the merits of Evans' personal faith. Nevertheless, because she hasn't really presented a solid justification for her somewhat eclectic collection of preferences, it is difficult to know why her remarks should have relevance for the rest of us. Admittedly, Evans does offer this near the end of her post:
I have no problem with Christians arguing with one another. Really. We’re brothers and sisters, for goodness sake! Of course we’re going to argue! We just need to learn to do it better.

Good advice, that last sentence. Yet arguing implies offering an actual argument, that is, the articulation of a reasoned defence of one's position by appealing to commonly acknowledged standards and authorities. Unfortunately, mere checklists will not take us very far in this direction.

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