Part 3: Progressive Reflections on Traditional Christian Themes
At the national gathering of the Southern Baptist Convention in 2010, a theme reiterated throughout the meeting was the “lostness” of the world.
One leader said,
“We need to be looking forward with an aggressive agenda to penetrate lostness around the world and in North America.”
Another leader said,
“Every pastor has to walk away from this convention asking, ‘What can I do . . . to make a difference by penetrating lostness?’”
Still another popular spokesperson proclaimed,
“I think God has put in the forefront in all our minds the tremendous lostness not only of the world . . . but also of North America. We are a nation of lostness.”
The reporter for the Kentucky Baptist Paper, The Western Recorder, who quoted these convention leaders, assessed the theme of the meeting as “a fresh look at the lostness of our nation and world.”
I doubt seriously if any of the SBC leaders or members who participated in the conference would consider the possibility that the “lostness” they were talking about might include themselves. It’s always the “other” who is lost.
Until there is fundamental change in the theology, God-image, and basic worldview that undergird all this talk of lostness, I can’t see how such dualistic versions of Christianity will offer any hope to our world.
As membership within American churches declines, the solution for those committed to either/or thinking seems to be louder rhetoric (shout louder) and more aggressive strategies (work harder) to proselytize those they believe are lost.
At one time I believed I was one of God’s chosen and everyone else who didn’t share my faith in Jesus was “lost,” “unsaved,” or “under the wrath of God.” Though it pains me now to admit this, I even used words such as “doomed” and “condemned” and “children of the devil” to describe all those who did not fit my definition of a Christian.
Dualistic Christianity needs to go. Our basic understanding of God and God’s relationship to the world through Christ must become more inclusive, holistic, compassionate, ecological, and reconciliatory or Christianity will increasingly be regarded with both indifference and disdain.
Some secular visions of a global community are much more holistic and redemptive than many Christian dualistic visions (for example, the whole “Left Behind” scenario). It would seem that the spiritual consciousness of some secularists is more evolved and developed than the spiritual consciousness of many Christians embracing “us” versus “them” versions of faith.
There are reasons to hope, however. Case in point: Rob Bell.
Bell’s progressive Christian perspective is, of course, nothing new, but he is the first mega-church pastor (as far as I know), educated in and emerging from an evangelical exclusive and dualistic tradition and having grown beyond that tradition, who has had the courage to publicly proclaim a more inclusive, holistic vision.
We can only hope that other popular evangelical Christian leaders will follow Bell’s lead, but this will be very hard for them to do. Another case in point: Rick Warren.
On one occasion, Warren served on a panel with the late Peter Gomes, minister of Harvard University’s Memorial Church and Plummer Professor of Christian Morals. The question was asked whether one could be saved who was not a born-again Christian.
Gomes responded that he could not imagine that the God who created everything would have no other plan of salvation for the billions of other people in the world, or even beyond our galaxy, except the New Testament one.
Warren, as reported by Gomes in his book, The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus, was as generous as his theology would allow, but could not, on the basis of John 14:6, concede the possibility that others might find salvation outside of Christ.
This did not particularly strike me as noteworthy until I discovered in a book written by Rabbi David J. Wolpe, titled Why Faith Matters, that Warren wrote the foreword. In it, Warren spoke highly of Wolpe as a man of faith and personal experience of God.
“This beautiful book is a gift to all of us. So much of what is published today about faith just rehashes warmed-over clichés and feels out of touch with reality. In contrast, every page of this special volume has the smell of authenticity on it. . . .
The closer I get to David Wolpe, the more I am impressed by this man of faith. As an author, religious teacher, professor, cancer victim, and television commentator, his unique combination of experiences has given him a credible platform from which he presents the case that faith in God truly matters at this critical time in our world.
Regardless of where you are on your personal faith journey, I’m certain that the profound insights in this book will stimulate your thinking and even touch your soul about the reality of God in fresh and surprising ways.”
The reason I find this so intriguing is that, according to Warren’s evangelical theology, Rabbi Wolpe has not been saved by Jesus Christ (in the way that Warren interprets John 14:6) and is, therefore, destined for hell. Wolpe has not been “born again,” is not a Christian, and yet Warren commends Wolpe as a man who knows and speaks about “the reality of God in fresh and surprising ways.”
Here is an example of a highly popular evangelical leader who evidently does not yet see the contradiction he embraces, or else chooses to ignore it. My guess is that Warren is an example of an evangelical leader who has emotionally, spiritually, and psychologically outgrown his dualistic, exclusive Christian exceptionalism, but who does not yet have the courage to admit it, either to himself or his immense fan base.
(Do you think Warren will ever relinquish his exclusive, dualistic beliefs in favor of a more inclusive approach? Share your comments)
It is slow in coming, but there does seem to be an evolving spiritual consciousness within Christianity that is challenging traditional dualistic paradigms. The growth and popularity of websites like Patheos (congratulations on 5 years!) and ProgressiveChristianity.org are witnesses to this emergence.
The sad and ironic thing about those stuck in dualistic, exclusive Christian belief systems like the leaders and members of the Southern Baptist Convention with their infatuation with “lostness” is that the good news of Jesus—the inclusive message he proclaimed around an open table and the compassionate life he lived in pursuit of liberation for the oppressed—is too often “lost” to the very ones who herald him as Savior.
(The above reflection was adapted from chapter 3, “A New Way for a New Day (Christianity)” of my book, Being a Progressive Christian (is not) for Dummies (nor for know-it-alls): An Evolution of Faith.)
Chuck Queen is a Baptist minister/teacher and the author of The Good News According to Jesus: A New Kind of Christianity for a New Kind of Christian. He blogs at A Fresh Perspective.