For those of you who weren’t following progressive Christian twitter a few days ago, there was a flareup that has come to be called #ResurrectionGate. I’m not going to try to adjudicate who started it, who was at fault, etc. There was bad behavior; there was misrepresentation of other people’s statements; there were overreactions; it was complicated. I’m more interested in offering some reflections on progressive Christian discourse and whether/how Christian orthodoxy matters. I haven’t been able to organize my thoughts into a single cohesive essay so I’m going to offer eight fragmented points.
1. I believe in Jesus’ physical resurrection
In general with most of the scientifically implausible truth claims in Christianity, I’ve decided just to live inside the story, meaning that I don’t spend time worrying about whether science allows me to believe it. Basically I’m unwilling to say the resurrection can’t be true because of science. For me, it seems very deflating to say God can’t do that because it’s biologically impossible.
I think the main reason I want the resurrection to be true is because I want the story to be that Jesus actually won since I want some things that are not less miraculous to happen in our broken world. To me, the resurrection says “You will be vindicated!” to all the people who are being crushed by the sinful forces of empire. To me, that becomes an empty promise if the resurrection is just sort of a “metaphorical” idea the disciples cooked up.
The actual material composition of Jesus’ resurrected body isn’t as important to me as the conviction that he really did conquer death (i.e. when he died, a real physiological thing happened that was reversed and overthrown by God) and that he currently lives in some form in the universe that isn’t just a sort of literary or philosophical “immortality.” So if you need to believe his appearances were more like a force-ghost (who could eat fish and had nail holes in his hands for Thomas to touch) than a straight-up homo sapien body, I can roll with that. I’m just not willing to say that Jesus’ resurrection is something his disciples made up.
2. I don’t believe in telling people they aren’t Christian because of their beliefs
My American Christianity professor Grant Wacker said something I’ll never forget when we were talking about Mormons. He said that he calls people Christian if they call themselves Christian regardless of whether their beliefs fall outside of Christian orthodoxy. I understand that this kind of stance can cause an existential crisis for conservatives, but I agree with him.
When I was 23, I called myself a Christian pagan. Without judging anyone who identifies that way, I didn’t know what I was talking about. I wrote poetry about making love to the goddess. I kept going to church. And because I was loved consistently and not invalidated or shamed by the Christians in my life with more orthodox beliefs, I stayed in the church. If Twitter had existed them and I had been “owned” by a mob of evangelicals for sharing my quirky heterodoxical beliefs, I might not be a Christian today.
I think it’s valid for denominations and church networks to discern collectively what their beliefs are and vet candidates for ordained ministry according to that collective discernment. For some denominations, using only male pronouns for God is disqualifying for ordination; for others, denying the resurrection is disqualifying. I’m sure you have strong opinions about which of those is valid. I would have a problem if a preacher in my denomination preached a sermon attacking the doctrine of the resurrection both for pastoral and theological reasons and I would not support that person’s ordination if I were on an ordination board (note that’s different than a pastor being unsure or doubtful about it in a way that isn’t stridently antagonistic).
That said, one of the holiest, wisest laypersons I have ever worked with told me she didn’t pursue ordained ministry because she couldn’t accept the resurrection. And I had absolute confidence in her leadership as a teacher and spiritual leader. I’ll even say that her struggle with a historical doctrine made me more confident in her ability to empathize and relate to congregation members than if she had perfect doctrine.
So while I think it’s valid for Christians to discern beliefs collectively to develop a coherent theological vision for their community, if some stranger on the Internet says they’re a Christian and they don’t believe in Jesus’ resurrection, I’m not going to argue them into accepting that they aren’t Christian. There is zero pastoral value in doing that, and God is at work in every life in ways that are beyond my knowledge.
3. Orthodoxy matters immensely but not for its own sake
I think that a lot of conservative evangelicals I argue with believe in doctrinal correctness for the sake of correctness. I don’t. I believe that doctrine matters insofar as it impacts my communion with God. If my beliefs leave me with a barely credible view of God, then my connection with God will be sabotaged as a result. God doesn’t punish me for believing wrong things; my beliefs simply have the consequences of deeper or weaker connection with God.
Jesus tells Nicodemus, “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” (John 3:3). The Beatitudes likewise say, “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8). Right beliefs are about seeing God well and not merely muttering farcical platitudes about him, which is what we’re reduced to when we have a God who is so generic that he has no personality. But to say that correct beliefs are a surefire stairway to heaven is to commit the sin of the Tower of Babel. If divine revelation is not something that we can manufacture ourselves with our beliefs, then we have to accept that some people are “born from above” and gain “purity in heart” without believing the things that historically the church has discerned to be the best path to divine connection.
One thing that has completely rocked my world theologically over the past three and a half years has been my participation in the 12 step addiction recovery community. There people live lives of surrender and repentance that would be difficult not to recognize as God’s justifying and sanctifying grace while having beliefs about their “higher power” that are all over the map. They aren’t simply more moral than a lot of Christians; they are often more grace-filled. Theological orthodoxy has utterly failed to produce good spiritual fruit in quite a few Christians, and quite a few heterodoxical spiritual people find Christ without doctrine. But that’s not a reason not to care about good doctrine, because it does help many Christians seek perfection in love.
4. I believe in liberation theology, not liberal theologyYou’re allowed to have a different perspective than I do, but one major fault-line I see in the progressive Christian world is between what I would call liberation theology and liberal theology.
Liberation theology is the understanding of the Christian gospel that marginalized people like black slaves and poor communities in Latin America grabbed hold of in their desperate quest for liberation. Liberation theology is absolutely not monolithic, but the understanding of it that I have is that Jesus’ call to holiness, to take up our crosses and follow him, is a call to adopt the discipline required to offer my life in solidarity with the oppressed. Liberation theology is derived in marginalized peoples’ fight for survival and the obedience of their accomplices to their cause.
Liberal theology on the other hand is theology shaped by the crises that modern science and philosophy create for Christian thinking. Frederick Schleiermacher famously sought to make Christianity palatable to its “cultured despisers.” From my vantage point, liberal theology seems to come from a place of privilege. James Cone wrote in The Cross and The Lynching Tree that black slaves didn’t have the luxury of debating God’s existence because they needed God to be real.
Because this distinction is always in my mind, I’m always listening for whether a particular theology sounds like solidarity with the marginalized or rich liberal angst. Admittedly, that can make me pastorally insensitive to someone with a liberal perspective who is simply trying to believe things with integrity. I don’t think people with doubts or disagreements should be shamed or silenced if they come from privilege. But I do give more credibility to theology shaped by marginalized struggle.
5. Don’t prove your orthodoxy by throwing others under the bus
I’ve been really bad about this one at times. In a social media landscape where our words are all that’s visible, it’s very tempting to prove ourselves through performative posturing by saying all the right things whether they’re all the right progressive things or all the right orthodox things or all the right progressive orthodox things. This performative posturing gets ugly when we use other people’s out-of-context quotes for our own orthodoxy proving. If I make a display of objecting to the Extremists On Both Sides, then that means I must be Reasonable.
I’m not sure it’s possible to avoid performativity in online conversation, especially on Twitter, because Twitter incentivizes hot takes and take-downs and pile-ons. Performative take-downs have zero ability to influence other people you disagree with, but they sure do make you feel satisfied and look good to your fellow ideologues. The theological opponents who have the most influence on me are those who have invested a lot of vulnerability in relationship with me before critiquing an idea that I put out there. I listen the most intently to people whose weaknesses I’ve been allowed to see. If you quote-tweet me as a stranger to build your platform, have a great time but you’re not going to win any influence with me.
6. If Jesus is actually alive today, he cannot be enchained to the biblical text
If Jesus is alive in the universe today, then there’s more to Jesus than strictly what the Bible has to say about him. If you believe that Jesus cannot possibly speak or relate to people personally except through the biblical text itself, then for all practical purposes, you don’t believe in the resurrection, even if you claim it as a doctrinal conviction. Obviously, the Bible gives us a critically important rubric for learning how to hear Jesus’ voice in the universe, but one of the most relevant applications of the doctrine of the resurrection is that Jesus continues to speak and move in the universe today even in the lives of people who don’t know anything about him.
7. Spiritual evolution is neither linear nor uniform
Pardon my French, but James Fowler can go fuck himself. I’m sure he was a wonderful person. I only use that ugly, offensive language because so many liberal Christians refer to Fowler’s Stages of Faith to point out how they’re more evolved and sophisticated than conservatives who are deemed to inhabit a more primitive stage of faith. I have absolutely done this and I’m sure you can find a few blog posts that take this tone. But it’s wrong.
People evolve in all kinds of directions for multiple reasons. There isn’t a linear path to spiritual maturity. What is a stumbling block to me might be a life raft to you. Furthermore, God might be using your theological stubbornness in clinging to a doctrine I belittle to shatter my theological arrogance.
8. *How* you debate spiritual beliefs shows how spiritually mature you are
A person can profess perfectly orthodox, flawlessly articulated Christian beliefs that John Calvin and Thomas Aquinas would both sign off on, and be a complete asshole who is a toddler in their walk with Jesus. Every time someone with orthodox beliefs is uncharitable, self-righteous, or malicious in conversation, they become evidence against the relevance of orthodoxy. Likewise, every time someone who values inclusivity belittles or slanders someone else, they reveal their inclusivity to be a farce.
What’s beautiful is when people can somehow convey the passion of their convictions without denigrating others’. There is one major exception. Jesus trashed the religious authorities in his time consistently for one major reason: whenever their stringent orthodoxies were harming a marginalized person. It is valid and important pastoral work to forcefully rebuke any ideology that bullies marginalized people. What I always try to do is attack and critique things like white supremacy or heteropatriarchy as ideologies rather than publicly humiliating individual people, but every circumstance is different.
The specific thing I look at when I’m trying to understand how deeply I should listen to someone else’s wisdom is whether they are capable of apologizing, changing their minds, and/or finding truths to affirm in their opponents’ views. People who are absolutely sure of themselves regardless of what they believe are not trustworthy to me, though they certainly have truths that should be affirmed and validated as well.
One of the beautiful things that happened after the #ResurrectionGate flareup was that somebody started a thread asking people to share their favorite lines from the Book Of Common Prayer. Reading those lines was holy and life-giving. Sharing inspiring truths is immensely more productive in my view than boundary-policing.
I hope that everyone who was part of the #ResurrectionGate kerfuffle learned something constructive from the experience. I learned that I can be very arrogant and patronizing even when I think I’m taking the high road, and that I need to cherish the faith journeys of other Christians who disagree with me, so that nothing I say could ever become the reason somebody says you know what, forget all of this, I’m done.