Intelligence on Ice vs. Ignorance on Fire

The saying “Why is it that the choice among churches always seems to be the choice between intelligence on ice and ignorance on fire?” is attributed in Diana Butler Bass’ book Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening to an unnamed Facebook poster.

I think that this sense that one must choose between these two tendencies is one that has confronted many of us at some point. But I also think it is one that many of us are starting to feel we are over, or are ready to be over. Perhaps I should begin by sharing my own experience.

I’ve been wanting to publicly (i.e. on the blog!) thank Rev. Tom Bartley, the pastor of my church, Crooked Creek Baptist Church, for some time. He has provided me the opportunity to relate my academic exploration of the Bible and Christianity, undertaken professionally in a secular manner and context, to my own personal faith and the life of our Christian community, by teaching Sunday school, but also in other ways. And he’s not merely provided me with the opportunity to play the piano and keyboard in church as part of our worship team, but even to sing on a couple of occasions. I can tell you that, had he not simply told me to do it, I almost certainly would not have! Singing was something that I so long assumed I couldn’t and thus shouldn’t do, that I never worked at trying to improve. And so, while my singing voice is not great, I have been able to be part of the combination of voices leading the congregation in song.

And those two areas have finally come together, and I’ve begun to write songs again recently, giving musical expression to my own progressive Christian faith, perspective, and theology. I hope to share some of those songs soon.

For me, this marks an important moment in my own faith journey. There are necessary periods of questioning and silence. But eventually, it is to be hoped that the journey in silence eventually reaches a place where one does not merely leave behind older ways of speaking and singing, but find new ones. It is not that I’ve started writing songs because I feel like I’ve reached that point, but rather that I feel that I’ve reached that point because I’ve started writing songs again.

I am looking forward to sharing some of my attempts to bring the two together in musical expression, to have “Intelligence on Fire.” Maybe that should be a title for a song, or an album? At some point in the not too distant future, you can expect my own music to be added to the mix of things I share here.

I think that there are many progressive and liberal Christians, and others who’ve felt torn between intellectual seriousness and spiritual fervor, for whom the moment has arrived for us to bring the two together, with a passion that leads to practical actions, and to song.

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  • Ian

    A unitarian friend of mine said once that he thought the cold as a tomb stereotype was because liberal religionists don’t tend to have inflamed passions, and don’t tend to want to confront society in the way that conservative evangelicals do.

    He went on to say this is a deep shame, since if your faith causes you to believe in social justice, there is *plenty* to be livid about in contemporary culture. And there is more genuine evil that needs confronting, than any amount of imaginary demons haunting a conservative worldview.

    It was an interesting point. Why aren’t liberal Christians more intransigent in their own culture war?

    That’s not an admonishment or criticism, just a question I wonder about sometimes. And I realise is slightly tangential to the question of spiritual fervor.

    • James F. McGrath

      I think there are some who are indeed very adamant, but there are probably also significant numbers whose value for tolerance, and/or embarrassment about their past conservative intransigence, leads them to take a more flexible approach, and perhaps too flexible from the perspective of some.

      • Ian

        “embarrassment about their past conservative intransigence”

        That’s a very interesting angle that hadn’t occurred to me. Thanks.

    • Amy Wharton

      I would also say that while liberal/progressive Christians are adamant and passionate–they may also refuse to engage the intolerant. I just shared a post about the choice between being at peace and being constantly in battle–sometimes it feel like if I was intransigent I would be bone-weary.

    • Susan Burns

      I am totally inflamed (but, then, perhaps I may not be categorized as “Christian” because I am sure a human being did not magically rise from the dead.) I know many people who are just as livid as I am so I guess I don’t understand your point. Are you only including inflamed people that also have the ability to suspend reason?

      • Ian

        Susan, I can’t figure out what you are trying to say. I get the negative tone towards what i wrote, but can’t figure out what your objection is. Are you suggesting that I’m wrong that liberal Christians aren’t noisily fighting a culture war? Or are you suggesting I am remiss in only discussing Christians above?

        • Susan Burns

          I have not been following the discussions of the different kinds of Christians so maybe I am the one that is remiss. There is a noisy culture war going on and i just don’t understand how you could miss it. I remember shouting until I was hoarse holding a sign on an overpass that said NO WAR. There were many others with me. My question to you was concerning the reason we were not included in your grouping of Christians unwilling to compromise? I took my daughters out of their Sunday school class because gay people were being compared to murderers and adulterers. Does that remove me from the classification of Christian? When I used to commute on the subway and someone would sit next to me wearing a fur coat I would tell them to find another seat. I have seen the videos of how those animals were murdered. I can’t help it – I just get so livid!!! Am i not uncompromising enough or am I not included in your category of Christian?

          • Ian

            Susan. Thanks for this. A superb response!

            I think, if you call yourself a Christian, you’re a Christian. End of. So I’m definitely not excluding you.

            Your description of your attitudes to injustice and immorality are exactly what I had in mind. So yes, you’re definitely uncompromising.

            So I’m just plain wrong!

            In my defence, I wasn’t thinking that *every* liberal Christian was cool and neutral. I was responding to the stereotype that James raised, which is one I’ve also heard. Also I wasn’t trying to admonish.

            But still, perhaps I’ve just assumed the stereotype uncritically, do you think? There’s a very good chance of that.

            Do you think, then, that the stereotype of a morally crusading conservatism and a morally apathetic liberalism is pure conservative propaganda? Or is it a media construct?

            I see more portrayal of conservatives taking explicitly faith-based moral stands in the media, than liberals. But is that just a function of the fact that liberal moral concerns are based on reality, so are shared with a broad causus beyond the faith, so a liberal can appeal to reason and harm, not just dogma?

            Thanks for calling me on this.

          • Susan Burns

            Thank you too! I have never heard of the stereotype of apathetic liberal. I thought we were all “bleeding hearts” which sounds more like we are willing to shed blood. Maybe it’s the people I hang with or the area I live in but I don’t know any apathetic Christian liberals.

          • Mary

            I think “bleeding hearts” refers to the fact that liberals have a more compassionate nature, which for some reason conservatives think is a bad thing. They associate it with social programs for the poor, for example.

          • Claude

            I see more portrayal of conservatives taking explicitly faith-based moral stands in the media, than liberals.

            Perhaps because of the foundational separation of church and state in the US liberals are more wary of appeals to faith in the public square. Movement conservatives clearly do not struggle with this conflict.

          • arcseconds

            Sort of along the lines of what Claude has already suggested, you may have seen plenty of examples of passionate liberal Christians doing things out of their passionate liberal Christianity, but not noticed it.

            If you had seen Susan waving around the sign and yelling, I’m guessing there’s nothing there to tell you she’s a liberal Christian.

            I’m wondering though whether we’re starting to conflate political liberalism with theological liberalism. Susan is clearly politically liberal, but I have a vague impression (quite possibly entirely wrong! so feel free to correct me, Susan…) that she’s not that theologically liberal — at least, considerably less so than James.

            In practice they often go hand in hand, but while I get the impression that theological liberals are almost always politically liberal, politically liberal Christians are often only mildly theologically liberal and can be quite traditional.

            Were you thinking of political or theological liberalism, Ian?

          • Susan Burns

            I would say I am more liberal than James inasmuch as there can be many ways to evaluate any data set. Truth is not determined by a process of peer review. Every paradigm shift started by a deviation in the well worn path. I think every human has the capacity to know truth if they seek it. That is the nature of the Holy Spirit.

          • Ian

            I was conflating the two. In my experience they have been quite strongly correlated. But that is probably selection bias, since I tend to rub up against conservatives of either stripe.

            Susan speaks for herself, below, but I took her statement “I am sure a human being did not magically rise from the dead” as theologically liberal enough :)

          • Mary

            I think a lot of liberals are passionate. It is just that the conservatives shout louder.

            I got run out of one blog when a crazy lady accused me of being a secret muslim out to destroy America. Suffice it to say that is not conducive to a productive conversation.
            I also think that liberal Christians would rather relate in a loving manner rather than use the hate and shame tactics that the conservatives use.