Two Kinds of Christianity (A Conversation Between Mother and Son)

Marcus Borg introduced his book, The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering A Life of Faith, by describing “A Tale of Two Paradigms” where he juxaposed the basic elements of “the earlier paradigm” of the Christian tradition and life with what he labled “the emerging paradigm.”  Many of us who promote an emerging paradigm and participate in the progressive Christian movement were once connected to traditional understandings and practices. The following conversation I had recently with my mother reveals how different these two versions of Christian faith are. 

Once a month I visit with my mother who lives a couple of hours away. Typically, we talk for a couple of hours, I take her out to eat and we run some errands. Though I am a minister, spiritual teacher, and a writer, we rarely talk about religion. There is a reason for this.

On a recent visit, I took her a copy of my book, Being a Progressive Christian, as I have done with all my books, because she is my mother. And because I am her son, she reads them. She doesn’t read them quickly or easily, but she reads them.

She told me, “They’re deep.” What she really meant was, “How the hell did my son come to believe such nonsense?” She would never admit this. She would severely object to the way I just used “hell,” in her view a perfectly sound biblical teaching. I am joking of course . . . kind of.

The conversation turned toward the state of the world. Such a state signals for many conservative Christians that Jesus will soon return. She was reflecting, “I’m glad I am not going to be here. I am glad I will be caught up to heaven.” She asked me initially, “Do you believe Jesus is going to come back soon?” Then, she remembered who she was talking to and rephrased the question rather tentatively, “Do you believe Jesus is going to come back?” She did not appear too optimistic about my response.

Not really wanting to get into a discussion about Jesus’ return, I answered, “Well, I’m not sure what I believe about Jesus coming back.” She couldn’t understand how I could be unsure when it’s clearly in the Bible. It was time to jump in, no matter how cold the water.

I responded, “Well, the early Christians who wrote the New Testament also believed that Jesus would return in their lifetime. Paul told the unmarried people at Corinth to stay unmarried because he believed that the world as we know it was going to end soon (see 1 Cor. 7:27-31). It didn’t happen. They were wrong. Maybe they were wrong about the whole idea of Jesus returning.” At this point, I thought about doing an excursion into apocalyptic thought and imagery, but then came to my senses.

She said that the Bible cannot be wrong. I responded, “Sure it can. It has been wrong about a whole bunch of stuff. You can find support for genocide, for slavery, for female inferiority and subjugation to men—it’s all in the Bible.” I continued, “The Bible contains both transformative texts and oppressive texts. There are both wonderful and terrible texts in the Bible. The Bible argues with itself on any number of issues.” She wasn’t buying it.

I asked, “Do you know any infallible human beings?” She most certainly didn’t—everyone she knew was full of flaws. I continued, “Fallible human beings wrote the Bible.” Her response was that God made sure that what these fallible human beings wrote was infallible truth. She couldn’t explain how that could be so, but she knew it was.

Then she asked, “You don’t believe in hell do you?” Apparently this was something she wanted to ask me for some time and so she seized the moment.

“No, I don’t believe in hell as a literal place, but I do believe in judgment. Judgment, I believe, can be painful, though I think it is also hopeful. I believe in judgment the way I believe in a purifying fire that takes away all the dross and impurities. I believe in judgment the way I believe in the knife in the surgeon’s hands who wounds in order to heal.”

“But the Bible says . . .” And so we were back to the infallibility of the Bible which I knew would take us nowhere. So I asked, “Do you really believe a loving God would torture people?” She tried to defend God, as most Christians who believe in a literal hell do, by saying that God doesn’t send anyone to hell. “We are given a free will. People send themselves to hell.”

“Really, you believe that?” She did. I replied, “If there is a hell, who created it? If people end up in hell, surely it is because God has arranged things that way. If God knows that a person is evil and will always be evil and will never choose the good, couldn’t God just terminate that person’s existence? God wouldn’t have to torture them if God didn’t want to; after all, God is God right? Why would God do that? You wouldn’t do that. I wouldn’t do that. We wouldn’t torture anyone. Are we more loving than God?”

She made a decision at that point not to try to reason her way through it. She said tersely, “It’s in the Bible and I believe it.” She also believes that God is a loving God. I encounter this frequently; people who believe in a literal hell and in a loving God are rarely open to consider how utterly unreasonable and contrary to common sense that appears.

She just couldn’t understand how I could believe these things. I said, “Mom, you believe what you believe because that’s what you were taught. All the preachers and teachers you have ever trusted reinforced these beliefs. I use to believe all these things too, because that is what I was taught. These teachings were reinforced by friends, by professors and ministers I associated with, by the churches I belonged to. But there came a point in my life when I decided that I was going to pursue truth wherever truth could be found. So I am on a journey.”

She declared, “You could be wrong.”

“Sure, I could be wrong. So could you. I’m sure we are all wrong about a whole lot of things. I am very comfortable admitting that. But you don’t seem to be. Why do you think that is?” She couldn’t tell me.

This went on for a while, then she instructed, “When you preach my funeral, I want you to make it simple. Don’t preach all this other stuff.” I assured her, “I will make it simple.” My assumption here is that “simple” is subject to interpretation.

Please understand that I love my mother. I tend to avoid religious conversations with her because this is typical of how it goes. However, I have some ground to hold a glimmer of hope. She knows what it is like to swim against the current.

In a conservative Southern Baptist church, my mother is a democrat. Before the 2012 election, it had become something of a sacred tradition in her Sunday School class to spend a few minutes bashing President Obama before beginning the lesson. She endured this for many weeks. Finally, she could take it no more. One Sunday she came out of the closet, “I’m a democrat and I voted for president Obama and will be voting for him again. Church is no place for partisan politics.” There are still a lot of elephants in the room, but now they make less noise.

If I write another book, I will give my mother a copy. She will read it, as difficult a task as that will be for her. And I hope that she might lock on to something that will give her the courage to risk the movement from knowing the right answers to asking the right questions. I wish for her the courage to think and move beyond the certitudes that she was taught and explore other possibilities.

Thomas Merton captured it well:

In the progress toward religious understanding, one does not go from answer to answer but from question to question. One’s questions are answered, not by clear, definitive answers, but by more pertinent and more crucial questions.

Without the capacity to live and love the questions, a spiritual life becomes stagnant. We become stuck in a rut. Most of us don’t just fall into ruts, we dig them for ourselves. Then we curl up in them and settle in. There is no doubt that such places offer emotional security and comfort, but growth is sacrificed.

I wish for my mother and others like her the fortitude to confront their religious insecurities and fears, and to discover the Christian path as a journey into the mystery and wonder of a God too great and glorious to be encapsulated in a particular belief system.

Over the next several weeks I will be offering Some Progressive Reflections on Traditional Christian Themes. The reflections are adapted from my book, Being a Progressive Christian (is not) for Dummies (nor for know-it-alls): An Evolution of Faith. The following is a list of the reflection titles and themes to come:

The Bible Is Not an Answer Book (Scripture)
Faithfulness Is More Important Than Veneration (Faith)
Christianity Must Lose Its Dualism (Christianity)
Wendell Berry and the Afterlife (Salvation)
Joel Osteen and the Scandalous Gospel of Jesus (Discipleship)
Hungering for Justice (Beatitudes)


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Chuck Queen is a Baptist minister and author of Being a Progressive Christian (is not) for Dummies (nor for know-it-alls): An Evolution of Faith. He blogs at A Fresh Perspective.

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11 responses to “Two Kinds of Christianity (A Conversation Between Mother and Son)”

  1. I had a similar conversation with my brother not long ago. He asked me if I’m going to heaven, which kind of caught me off guard as it’s not a question I think much about compared to how best to follow Jesus. I said something about how I’m not sure we can know what the afterlife with God is like exactly, and I guess I made the additional mistake of saying something that implied I “hope” I’m going to heaven. My brother replied, “Believers go to heaven and unbelievers go to hell.” He didn’t need to add “The Bible says” because I know that proposition is behind everything in his theology. I did not want to get into unpacking that whole set of assumptions for a lot of reasons, but it’s hard to have a real conversation about what you believe with someone whose presumptions about Biblical inerrancy totally shut down any openness to other points of view.

  2. Alan, thanks for your comments. I agree. I still have friends who are as certain as I use to be about heaven and hell, biblical inerrancy, etc. The difficulty in engaging in conversation with them relates primarily to the totally different assumptions we bring to the table. About all we can do, I think, is start where they are. If I am conversing with someone who gives the Bible a divine status I will sometimes start there and ask them about passages where there seems to be clear contradictions and discrepancies. My hope is that somehow they might begin to see the human qualities of Scripture. But I have to admit, there are times when up against their presuppositions, I am almost left speecless.

  3. Reading the above story, is kind of an answer to my sad story. I lost my sister and brother in law, because of a conversation that turned sour. I have a different view on faith than they. I believe in a loving God. I believe that salvation is not a three secon hand on shoulder/head thing…it’s a long road of learnig….But I feel my brother in law and my sister are frozen in the faith they had as young people…they are saved and can sin no more. They look upon me as an “unsaved”, because they think I’m not “born again”, that meaning I’m not a pentecostal guy. Like when I said I have a lot of questions I ask God, my brother in law told me not to think , just accept that faith is to accept what they preach…for they preach the truth. Well, I know how litttle love thay have when they meet “problems”… then they easily sends people off to hell, because they question their christian life and behaviour. The sad thing is that my sister took me to sunday school when I was a kid…now, through many years she makes me often wonder if believing in God is nothing different then belonging to a political party or a club….Speaking about fatih ripped us apart. I nver thought that was a possibility.It is.

  4. Svein, thanks for sharing your story. I know that the breach in the relationship is hurtful and I am sorry you had to experience it. I hope you will be able to sustain a relationship with you sister and brother in law beyond your obvious religious differences. I hope you will find the spiritual resources to love them across the divide and to embody in your relationship with them the more compassionate and transformative Christian path.

  5. I was raised a Catholic, but now, in my twilight years, I am an atheist. I have two born again daughters who firmly believe that I am going to hell. Their basic creed is, “The bible says it, I believe it, and that’s that.” You can’t have a rational discussion with people like that, so we just don’t talk about it any more.
    It’s true that most people’s religious faith is derived from their parents and from those whom they consider authorities. They have faith in those who told them to have faith. As long as you are questioning those authorities, why not question even deeper and question that there is a god?

  6. Jim, good question. I entertained that question at one point in my spiritual journey. I asked myself what do I believe in? I started thinking – I believe in loving relationships, in forgiveness, in the beauty that can be experienced in the world, etc. I thought surely there is a source of all these good things, there has to be Someone to whom to give thanks to. Jim, I can offer no proof of God — it really comes down to choice. I choose to believe that a Good God is behind all the good at work in the world. I want to believe, I want to give thanks to a Someone who sustains life and is the reason for life. All I can say is that in my most alive moments it rings true in the core of my being.

    And if God is really good then God loves us no matter how screwed up our thinking. Just keep loving your daughters because if there is a God surely that’s what God would do and when all is said and done, how well we have loved one another is all that matters.

  7. Before the culture wars, there were two kinds of traditionalists in the pew. 1) Yes, there were proto-type precursors to the present religious right. 2) But, there were working class people like my Mom and Dad who believed in a balance of a traditional God and the need to deal with new present problems. It was many of these that both neo-orthodoxy on one hand, and Billy Graham on the other appealed to in the 1950s-1960s. Such people were not monolithic nor stuck. There was some play in the wheel…and that play was abandoned. “Progressive” theologians wrote people like my Mom and Dad off…cut their losses…all “progressive” or nuthin’ became the decision. And that is why Mainline died.

    It is an unnecessary and un-progressive act to lecture old people about genocide in the Bible. I would point out, Sir, that in view of our common historical critical knowledge, the business of editing texts includes maintaining them…and I would point out to you, sir, just who maintained the Hebrew Scriptures…us Jews. And if you think, Sir, that we kept all the dirty linen including the genocides IN the canon because we want our children to learn that behavior as role model, then I have to trust your mother’s gut more than yours.

    The whole history of edits is part of the text, sir. If the Bible presents human sin and misunderstanding of God unflinchingly…due to Jewish decision not to bury the sordid past, but to learn from it……THEN WHY CAN’T YOU TEACH THE SAME WAY, SIR? The moral seeds of progress are already in your mother’s gut if first and foremost she assumes a loving God. And then you criticize her on theodicy…DO YOU HAVE ONE THAT WORKS??? If so, state it. Bring it.

  8. I enjoyed the balance of disagreement, respect, and validation that I read here.

    Wish I could emulate that more.

  9. I enjoyed your article immensely. As an atheist from a deeply religious household, I’ve had similar conversations with my own mother, with similar results. We differ greatly on our interpretations of Scripture but we do love each other. While she does not like that I’ve forsaken faith, she understands now that I did not do with to uspet her but to find my own path to truth.

  10. It is unfortunate that too many times the more fundamental wing of Christianity refuses to wrestle with faith questions. We should not fear any question that someone could pose, but rather openly and gracefully welcome all inquisitors. Still, the basic approach of progressives is frustrating at best. Once you open the door to an uninspired and (flawed) human authorship of the bible, then you have no leg to stand on for any claims or questions. You can entertain yourself all day long with “deep” questions or musings, but the fact that you have made scripture subjective eliminates any possibility of drawing valid conclusions. You can only end up in a circle of questions with only possibilities or reflections and no solid ground. But an honest reading of the scriptures (and yes, this is quite possible) disallows that. Scripture itself directs the reader towards answers without hiding from the seemingly contradictory and atrocious events contained within. If scripture is not inspired and if the questions of life are not answered by a God who created all things (as scripture clearly presents), then why are you wasting your time speculating on a book in which you yourself cannot tell fact from fiction? This is why the premise of the inspiration of scripture is so vital today – once you deconstruct inspiration, then you can make scripture say anything you want and no one can disagree. Then the arguments ensue that drive people apart, as attested to here. If there is no knowable basis for truth, then even the deep questions of the progressives are meaningless. Yet. scripture undeniably presents itself as that basis for truth.

  11. John, I appreciate your response though I very much disagree. This idea that one has no leg to stand on, if Scripture is flawed is a very weak argument. If I tell my wife something that is not true inadvertently, does that mean I cannot be trusted at all? Or even if I spin the truth in a particular situation, is that grounds for divorce? The Bible didn’t float down from heaven on the wings of angels; it is, I believe, very much a collection of sacred human documents. Is there much truth there? Certainly. Is it flawless? No way. The Bible argues with itself on too many issues.