In his book titled “Why Christianity Must Change or Die,” a controversial bishop named John Shelby Spong wrote in very frank terms about Christianity’s growing conundrum. He explained that his faith (and mine) is simultaneously experiencing, among other hurdles, a science problem, and an exclusivity problem, and a history problem, and a doctrine-believability problem, and consequently a credibility problem. He wrote that the Christian faith’s “good news” has been transformed in such a way that the itinerant rabbi who first preached the message would likely not recognize it. And he wrote that today’s Christians, who are largely uninformed about the true roots of the faith, have so bought into the morphed message of fundamentalism that they defend it to the detriment of greater society.
On the outskirts of today’s Christianity exists a small minority of people who after identifying one or all of the religion’s problems, (its science problem, or its exclusivity problem, or perhaps its credibility problem), become distanced from the faith in some way. This creates a subculture of Christians who, rather than leave the faith, carve out an alternative space that doesn’t include institutional worship, or personal doctrinal adherence, or both. This separation is causing a ripple that Christianity is not prepared to address and can no longer control.
Bishop Spong says that these Christians– the separated ones who now peer into the religion like strangers observing a foreign nation– are in exile. This exile manifests itself both literally and figuratively. In literal terms, one may feel unwelcome in the institution and separate himself/herself from the group; in figurative terms, an exiled Christian may sit on a pew every Sunday while feeling wholly disconnected from the words and symbols of the liturgy. The chasm between mainstream Christianity and those in exile, he bleakly explains, is one that will be difficult if not impossible to bridge.
The exile is imposed on Christians by Christians– often with the more conservative religious folks pushing the liberal folks out into the “wilderness” in some way or another. The exiled space is ever-populated by people who were told by members of their own religion: We draw the circle wide, but not wide enough to include you. We draw it wide, but not intellectually wide enough to host your questions. We draw the circle wide, but our circle has high walls. Our circle exists inside an information vacuum, and inside an echo chamber.
I thought deeply about this exile (a state of religious existence that has now been my own for several years) as I read Tony Jones’ latest blog post. In it, he criticized theologian and bestselling author Marcus Borg for his unwillingness to affirm the bodily resurrection of Jesus as historical fact. Borg (along with Spong and myself) prefer to read the Bible’s resurrection accounts as loaded (and certainly powerful) metaphor. The choice to read such a central doctrine as metaphor is never made lightly– particularly in a religion where eternal damnation is the consequence for disagreeing with the church. Certainly, Dr. Borg has good reasons for turning from literalism, as do Dr. Spong. Dr. Borg, and other liberal Christians like myself.
I made peace with my decision about the resurrection many years ago, at a time when I was still an altar worker and Bible study teacher at my former fundamentalist church. When I tried to talk with my pastor about the books I’d been reading and the questions they were raising for me, he told me that he doesn’t read “that stuff” because it’s not “doctrinally sound”… And when I asked a “prayer warrior” to pray for me as I decided how to act on my new theological perspectives, she prayed that I would “stop reading those evil books” because they were “tools of the devil”. I left my church shortly after that, profoundly disappointed that seemingly reasonable people had mistaken something as innocuous as my private book collection for Satan’s hammer and screwdriver. It was clear that I needed to find a new circle, because the one we were “drawing” was simply not intellectually wide enough for me.
Tony Jones’s insistence that we must all “believe in” the bodily resurrection of Jesus reminds me of my experiences at my former church shortly before leaving. Jones seems to assume that the circle we’ve drawn in the liberal realm of the faith isn’t wide enough for people like Borg… or people like me. He doesn’t seem to create a space in which we can all have an equally meaningful experience of the resurrection– metaphorical or otherwise. He only assumes that something must be missing for those of us who can no longer affirm the truth of his interpretation. His approach is not one that says, “This means something to you. I’m glad you find such meaning in the story”… Rather, his approach says, “There’s something wrong with the meaning you derive from the story. Here. Allow me to correct you so that your beliefs match mine perfectly…” In so doing, he exiles the exiled once again– pushing an already ostracized chorus of voices farther outside the religion’s circle.
I’ve said many times that beliefs aren’t turned on-and-off in the same way that electrical appliances are turned on-and-off. It’s not as easy as flipping a switch. Belief systems are intensely personal things that are informed by personal experience and information and needs and community values and sometimes insecurities. Beliefs are based on sociological and geographical context, intellectual capacity and at times, mental stability. Beliefs cannot be boiled down to the kind of black-and-white thinking that we’ve demanded. Rather, beliefs exist on a continuum of gray areas, with some ideas finding more footing in our hearts and minds than others.
In a world where information is abundant and beliefs change all the time, the Christian faith must decide that actions are primary and beliefs are secondary. We must ask ourselves: Is our circle wide enough for those who, after careful consideration of all facts and evidence, cannot believe what they once did? What are we doing to welcome people who have changed their minds, but not their hearts? Is there a bridge that can lead Christianity’s Jesus-loving doctrine doubters home from exile? And for goodness sake, how wide is the intellectual circle in liberal Christianity, really?
You May Also Enjoy These Related Posts:
- Resurrection: A scandalous reading of a scandalous gospel
- God in the Gray Areas: A defense of the spiritual-but-not-religious
- The Trinity: Taking the Logos Out of the Box