While watching an interview of John Shelby Spong on Youtube, I heard him articulate an area of tension that I’ve experienced in my own life. It occurred when Allan Gregg inquired:
Do any of the people ask, “Why do you stay inside the church? Why don’t you try to advance your interests outside the church if you have such difficulty with the traditional teachings?”
Well, I love this church, and I think what makes me different is that I insist on keeping one foot in my faith tradition and one foot in the world in which I live. Now that’s a difficult spot because the people who’ve only got both of their feet in the religious tradition and none of them in the modern world will attack me for not believing enough. And my secular friends who’ve got both of their feet planted in the 21st century or in the secular world still attack me as an irrelevant old fashioned religious man. I think we’ve got to expand [the] middle. The primary reason why I try to be as public as I can is I think the world must know that there is a different way to approach Christianity, [which is different] from the traditional ways of the Jerry Falwells or the Evangelical tradition, or the Catholic tradition that doesn’t seem to be able to talk about anything other than birth control or abortion. There’s got to be a way that people can engage their minds with the content of the Gospel, and live in a wonderful tension, as they try to clarify those issues and make them real in their own lives.
Indeed, some are unable to understand why “liberal” Christians remain interested in Christianity after leaving old beliefs about the Bible, God and Jesus behind. I receive questions about this from time to time in the world of social media, with the most recent conversation occurring on Twitter when a user asked me, “If you’re so liberal, then why Jesus? Why this one figure instead of so many others?” I replied, “Answering this question is perhaps as difficult for me as it might be for someone to explain why they chose their spouse or lover… Of all the options I could choose, Jesus is the one who most captures my heart.”
The “Why Jesus?” and “Why Christianity?” questions are seemingly based on the assumption that Christianity has no redeeming qualities once one has ventured outside the traditional sphere– but this has not been my experience. For instance, the gospels gained a greater element of depth for me when I realized how much of them could be interpreted as loaded metaphor. Similarly, the person of Jesus became an object of fascination for me after learning about the power of the Logos in ancient philosophy, and about the manner in which Jesus himself was used an object of metaphor for gospel writers.
The expectation seems to be that the journey into liberalism will ultimately lead to something other than a deepened expression of the Christian faith. While this may be true for some, we must remember that it is not the case for all of us. Liberal Christianity can lead us into a prolonged dance in the wondrous tension of faith and reason… of mysticism and traditionalism… of belief and doubt, all while incorporating the influence of scripture and tradition. An embrace of reason, history, context and controversy will not necessarily lead to the end of faith. For many of us, these places of tension are only the beautiful beginning.