Orthodox enough?

My recently redesigned Myspace page has made me plenty of new friends and has received many warm comments and messages from people who are enjoying a glimpse into my appreciation of the Christian mystical tradition. For this, I am most grateful.

Ironically, I’ve also received several messages from people who want to check out my theology and/or my beliefs. A few of these people have even gone so far as to say “before I add you to my friends list I want to make sure _____.” Fill in the blank with any of a number of theological concerns. These persons want to make sure I: adhere to the authority of scripture … have accepted Jesus as my savior … believe in the atonement wrought by Christ’s crucifixion … regard mysticism as subordinate to the necessity for repentance … reject “new age” perversions of Christian mysticism, etc. etc. It all boils down to the same question: am I orthodox enough to be their friend?

Questions like these, from strangers who are trying to size me up theologically, evoke two somewhat opposed responses within me. One part of me wants to hasten to assure the person that yes, I really do deserve to be their friend, I really am good enough. That’s the part of me that secretly doubts whether I am worthy of receiving love, and because I doubt it, I’m always trying to earn love — from God, from my wife, from my boss & co-workers, from strangers who aren’t entirely comfortable with the theology of my online writing. But another part of me wants to lash out at the person who questions me; wants to say, “How dare you test me to see if I am worthy to be your friend! Is this Christlike behavior? Is this really about my theological rectitude, or is it about your anxiety and judgmentalism?” But that’s the part of me that is, on my part, anxious, judgmental, and not very lovingly-Christlike. Projecting my own shadow stuff onto other folks (whether trying to please them because I don’t think I’m good enough, or judging them because I don’t want to be judged) solves nothing.

But why do I feel such feelings? I think it’s because I know, deep down inside, that once someone starts asking me to defend my theological position, we’re playing a no-win game. For the truth of the matter is, I value multiple theological perspectives and therefore my own theology — my own relationship to Christ, the church, and the Christian tradition — is a messy amalgam of such multiple viewpoints. And what this means, practically speaking, is that in the eyes of conservatives I am probably too liberal, even though in the eyes of liberals I am probably too conservative. It also means that in the eyes of Catholics I am likely not Catholic enough (i.e., too influenced by Orthodox doctrines like deification as well as Protestant ideas like the emerging church), even though in the eyes of Protestants I am too Catholic; evangelicals are likely to think I place too much emphasis on the sacraments and not enough on cultivating a personal relationship with Jesus, even though my focus on fostering a loving, heartfelt devotion to Christ might make many Episcopalians squirm. Meanwhile, all Christians who are critical of mysticism will certainly find me too mystical, even while the advocates of the more heterodox strands of contemporary “Christian mysticism” (such as the “Mary Magdalene was Jesus’ girlfriend” folks and the folks who believe that personal experience always trumps dogma) will be troubled by how much I insist that Christian mysticism must be grounded in scripture and tradition.

In other words: anyone who asks me about my theological perspective will likely, sooner or later, find a reason to reject my perspective. It may be a small reason, or it may be a big one, never matter: I’m sure it’s deep down inside me somewhere. And even though I know better when I’m at my highest functioning, that insecure part of me tends to believe that when someone rejects my perspective, they’re really rejecting me.

So I don’t think I’m going to engage with any more emails or messages that simply try to take a reading on my theological correctness. If someone has a direct problem with something I’ve said, so be it; I enjoy receiving honest and thoughtful criticism of my work. But for those who just want to find out how I would answer questions that I don’t even address in my writing (whether on MySpace or anywhere else), I think I’ll just refer them to this post. I can’t go through life trying to convince people that I’m orthodox enough to be their friend. All I can do is express my theological/spiritual convictions as honestly as I can, and then try to graciously reflect on and respond to whatever criticism I might face as a consequence. That, it seems to me, is what a lover of Christ (who also dares to publish his or her thoughts online) ought to do. If that’s not good enough for those who need to evaluate my perspective before deeming me worthy to be their friend — well, sorry. I learned a long time ago, you can’t please everyone.

Sanctity and Struggle, or, Why Saints Have Chaotic Inner Lives (Hint: It's Because We All Do)
Preliminary Practices for Christian Contemplatives
What Has Not Yet Been Revealed
Pentecost and Ecstasy
About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • http://www.spiritualbirdwatching.blogspot.com Maria

    Amen to that! When I first started reading blogs I decided that the most important thing I could do to preserve my mental health, and probably my soul, was to avoid those writers who were out to judge the theological fitness of everyone else in the world. Coming from the evangelical side of things, I recognize the spirit behind a lot of this is something like — I’ve got to prove you wrong so that I can be right. Needless to say, a lot of babies get thrown out in that bathwater! I have a feeling those potential “friends” will keep questioning until they find their “Aha! See, he believes this!” The whole premise is based on exclusion, unless you’re somehow orthodox enough to fit into their little “we four and no more” club. Surely it’s human nature, but it’s a sad thing to find enshrined in the center of so much church culture.

  • http://mysteryofiniquity.wordpress.com/ mysteryofiniquity

    Amen to Carl and to Maria! Inclusion in the love of Christ is better than exclusion any day!

  • http://wildfaith.blogspot.com/ Hamza Darrell Grizzle

    Those who search for “pure-blooded” Christians will ALWAYS find something wrong. You’re wise to not engage in their exclusionary, holier-than-thou games.

  • http://zoecarnate.com Mike Morrell

    Well Carl, I like most of your spiritual/theological eccentricities–truly, you’ve taught me a lot. As well as reinforced a number of my existing biases. ;) If it weren’t for the fact that we stand on polar opposites of the ecclesilogical spectrum, we’d be almost too alike!

    But that provokes a response in me: It doesn’t matter. It’s cool to find kindred spirits and commonality, but one needn’t do so to love. And furthermore, I think we’re both comfortable enough (/ill at ease) with our own traditions that its not the “where” we come from but how we’re situated in these backgrounds that ultimately makes the difference; what Pete Rollins calls moving from “right belief” to “believing in the right way.” What I see as the promise of the emerging conversation is where E Orthodox, R Catholics, Protties, Evies, house churchers and de/post-churched can come together in mutual respect and precisely because of that respect and a common commitment to living out God’s peaceable kingdom a unity that transcends (and includes!) differences.

    The potential Myspace friends of the world might shake their heads in suspicion about this for awhile, but I think they’ll catch on. Another world is possible!

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

    Well, said, Mike! Thanks. I know you’re a veteran of the MySpace theological correctness wars as well. Here are a couple of quotes from Barbara Brown Taylor’s wonderful book Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith which details her journey from nationally renowned Episcopal priest to decidedly post-ecclesiastical college professor: “I have learned to prize holy ignorance more highly than religious certainty and to seek companions who have arrived at the same place. We are a motley crew, distinguished not only by our inability to explain ourselves to those who are more certain of their beliefs than we are but in many cases by our distance from the centers of our faith communities as well. Like campers who have bonded over cook fires far from home, we remain grateful for the provisions that we have brought with us from those cupboards, but we also find them more delicious when we share them with one another under the stars.” A few pages later, she notes, “While it is generally more pleasant for me to encounter people who support my view of reality, I am finding that people who see things otherwise tend to do me a lot more good. Like quantum physicists, they remind me that reality is more relational than absolute. Every time I am pretty sure that I have some absolute truth all worked out, a human being comes along to pose an exception to my rule. Over and over, the human exceptions prove to be more revelatory than the rules.” Amen, sister. May God grant to all of us the ability to reach a similar place of wisdom.

  • http://www.myspace/com/inkblossoms InkBlossom


    I just received your friend request today, on MySpace, and I’m just so glad that there are actually others out there that have embraced a multi layered, faith based approach to living. I don’t know that I was so narcissistic to assume that I was the only one, but it is indeed more of a rarity than not, to find others of like minds in this respect. Your ‘Orthodox Enough?’ blog summed up all of the eccentricities we who believe such a way experience in our beliefs and the sharing thereof.

    I’ve grown to dislike defining myself via labels (especially with regard to my faith perspective) because, right along with doing so, comes all of the connotations, negative or otherwise, that have long held to such a label.

    I wholeheartedly agree with the statement you made: “All I can do is express my theological/spiritual convictions as honestly as I can, and then try to graciously reflect on and respond to whatever criticism I might face as a consequence. That, it seems to me, is what a lover of Christ (who also dares to publish his or her thoughts online) ought to do. If that’s not good enough for those who need to evaluate my perspective before deeming me worthy to be their friend — well, sorry. I learned a long time ago, you can’t please everyone.”

    Thank you, for sharing your views openly and honesty, and for encouraging us to do the same.

    Very best regards,