I’m taking an early Spring Break this week and will be running a guest blogger series featuring some of my favorite writers. Today meet biblical scholar and author, Dr. Eric Elnes.
The move to “sequestration” in Washington, DC is the most recent product of a three-decade trend toward political polarization in America. Yet in the last several years a curious counter-phenomenon has been quietly taking shape underneath the surface of North American religion. Within the Christian community the trend has become pronounced enough that some of us have begun calling it Convergence Christianity. What is converging are two groups of Christians who are making an increasingly massive exodus from the ranks of both sides of the Great Theological Divide. Many liberal and conservative Christians no longer believe what their fathers and mothers did. Even the fathers and mothers themselves have been changing. This convergence is not a blending of liberalism and conservatism into some “moderate middle,” but is rather a transcending of both liberalism and conservatism into a new alignment that embraces – and rejects – certain values and beliefs associated with their native traditions.
As I walked across the country with CrossWalk America in 2006, for instance, I found Christians associated with the theologically moderate and liberal mainline church who were no longer content to eliminate from their faith and practices whatever the conservatives were doing badly. They were wanting to reclaim Jesus for themselves – but not the Jesus of the fundamentalists. They were getting into Bible studies for the first time in years – but not reading the Bible literally or inerrantly. They were actually praying and opening themselves to having a personal relationship with God. They were in the process of becoming Holy Spirit people without becoming Holy Rollers.
Yet these same people were bringing with them into the wilderness some of the truly wonderful gifts of their mainline traditions. Gifts like commitment to social justice, openness to other faiths, an appreciation of science, inclusion of LGBT persons, and a greater appreciation for diversity of all kinds.
On the other had, we found Christians associated with the theologically conservative evangelical traditions who were leaving behind biblical literalism and fire-and-brimstone theology behind. They were also leaving behind theological rigidity and conformism, lack of concern for the environment, and most every kind of certainty they had ever clung to.
These folks were taking gifts with them into the wilderness as well, which had once made their evangelical tradition strong. They still loved Jesus, for instance. They continued to engage in regular prayer and Bible study. And they continued to be breathtakingly committed to their faith, refusing to practice it simply as a serious hobby, like many mainliners have done in the past.
For years now, these two tribes have wandered the wilderness largely on their own, without being aware of, or acknowledging each others’ presence. After all, they were raised to be instinctively distrustful of the other tribe. Thus, their paths may have run parallel but they have rarely intersected.
Ever since CrossWalk America’s 2006 walk, which was the subject of my book Asphalt Jesus and a documentary film, The Asphalt Gospel, I have been convinced that if these two tribes ever did pay attention to one another, they would discover that each tribe is bearing gifts that the other has been longing for. And they would realize that the other tribe is no longer carrying the baggage they’re used to experiencing of the other, too. I have said that when these two tribes converge in the wilderness, this is when Christian faith will once again find its soul and come alive in more powerful ways than we have witnessed in many generations.
In the last few years, there has been more and more evidence that this Convergence is actually happening. I see it when I go out on the road speaking and leading workshops. I see it happening in churches around the country and in a large audience that regularly tunes into an online television program I host called Darkwood Brew (www.darkwoodbrew.org). And I see Convergence happening on grand scale at the Wild Goose Festival where thousands of wilderness-wandering Christians from both sides of the theological Divide meet and have the most wonderful time together. Former liberals and former evangelicals act like long-lost sisters and brothers. They actually tend to get along even when they disagree. And they are becoming friends. While differences remain between these two groups, their differences pale in comparison to the common ground they share. (For more on this common ground see my “Characteristics of Convergence Christianity” or Brian McLaren’s “A New Christian Convergence,” or watch Darkwood Brew’s special episode on Convergence featuring Brian McLaren.)
With Convergence becoming a quiet yet increasingly relevant part of the religious landscape, I am cautiously optimistic about the political future of America as well as our religious future. If religious developments continue to foreshadow political ones, as they have done since America’s founding, then what we may see one day is a massive exodus of people from both sides of the Great Political Divide as well. It will be an exodus where people slough off the baggage that has become untenable and burdensome from each political party yet where they continue to carry the rich gifts that have always brought life into both parties and made America great. This will be no blending of Right and Left in America, but truly a new way of being American.
Will this ever happen? Or is this just the pipe dream of an optimistic preacher? Honestly, politics are not my strong suit, and I place my trust in the Spirit far more than a political system. I make no strong claim about what will happen in politics.
Yet for most of my adult life I have not believed that I would ever see a time when mainline and evangelical Christians would “sit down together that the table of brotherhood,” let alone begin building a glorious Tabernacle together to the glory of God. Funny things happen when people let down their egos enough for Spirit to enter. Sometimes the Spirit shows up and confounds us all!
Whether or not political convergence ever happens, there is one thing of which I am certain: convergence is happening within Christianity at the grassroots. (I see signs of it happening in other faiths as well.) I am more hopeful about the future of faith in America than I have been in decades. Whether politics eventually comes along for the ride or not, I know that I’m coming along for the ride. Because what I see converging is a form of Christianity that reflects widespread experience of God’s love and grace, and a deeper commitment to finding our place in this world together with the Spirit’s guidance.
Dr. Eric Elnes is a biblical scholar with a Ph.D. in Biblical Studies from Princeton Theological Seminary. He is also a leading articulator of Convergence Christianity and Senior Minister of Countryside Community Church (UCC) in Omaha, NE. Eric has written several books on faith, theology and culture including, The Phoenix Affirmations: A New Vision for the Future of Christianity (Jossey-Bass, 2006) and a book on experiential worship called Igniting Worship: The Seven Deadly Sins (Abingdon, 2004). In 2006, Eric also helped lead a 2,500 mile walk from Phoenix to Washington, DC, to promote awareness of progressive/emerging Christian faith and practice and meet with Christians at a grassroots to hear their hopes and dreams for the future of faith in America. His journey, which is the subject of a feature-length film, The Asphalt Gospel, is recounted in his book, Asphalt Jesus: Finding a New Christian Faith on the Highways of America (Jossey-Bass, 2007). Elnes lives as an “empty nester” in Omaha with his wife, Melanie, dog Roe, and cat Tamar. They have two college-age daughters, Arianna and Maren.