ProgressiveChristianity.org was a sponsoring partner of the annual Wild Goose Festival in North Carolina this year and, as a member of the Board of Directors, I was sent to represent the organization at a booth to distribute our literature, and solicit inquiries about our “A Joyful Path” children’s Sunday School curriculum. Little did I know, as I hadn’t submitted a topic to speak about, I was also listed in the Festival program as being a speaker as well! In fact, I didn’t learn about this until, I kid you not, 1 hour before I was supposed to speak on one of the larger stages! After an initial “Oh $#i+!” moment (which Rev. Mark Sandlin of Progressing Spirit witnessed), I gathered myself. I reminded myself that I’ve spoken at this Festival twice before, as well as at the Embrace Festival that we sponsored in Portland, OR two years ago, along with several other conferences around the country. I reminded myself that I’m capable, I trust Spirit, I don’t need to be afraid, it’s going to go just fine.
I decided to share about some of the events in my life that have happened since I spoke at that festival last summer (along with test driving ideas for the new book I’m writing). As part of this, I shared about how I learned this past March, that 7 of my United Methodist clergy “colleagues” filed heresy charges against me last October. I was accused of “disseminating teachings contrary to established Church teaching.” This was triggered by a blog I posted on Patheos’s Progressive Christian Portal in May, 2018, “It’s time for progressive Christianity.” The 6 page, double-sided, complaint cited that blog, another blog I wrote, and numerous quotes from my book “Kissing Fish: Christianity for people who don’t like Christianity.” Essentially, they didn’t think my Christology was high enough, that I’m wrong to pray to the God who Jesus prayed to instead of to Jesus, that my understanding of the Trinity is too poetic, that I shouldn’t be saying that Jesus wasn’t literally born of a virgin, that there isn’t a literal hell, that the substitutionary theory of the atonement isn’t the only viable one, and that God is fully at work in other religions besides Christianity.
I find myself asking, what would lead conservative Christians who haven’t even met me, and who live in a completely different state (all 7 of them in Texas) to veer from their lane like over-zealous junior high student hallway monitors and hypocritically file charges against someone – directly to a bishop – without even giving me the courtesy of letting me know about this, let alone without seeking to express their concerns directly with me privately first – as per actual Christian teaching.
Why are they afraid of what I’m saying? Why are they afraid of contacting me directly in a Christian, relational, or even collegial way?
What do they fear?
Perhaps they somehow managed to be in the big tent of United Methodism their whole lives and somehow are unaware that our denomination is highly theologically diverse, and that we have 13 seminaries ranging from the conservative Asbury to the progressive Claremont and the Iliff School of Theology (my alma mater). Perhaps, as I understand someone told them, they “need to get out of Texas more.” Perhaps they were acting out of actual sincere concern for the best interests of the denomination, and they truly believe that my views are so vile and anathema that they pose grave danger to the well-being of the Church.
I had the opportunity to face the primary accuser via a virtual video conference facilitated by the bishop, and I asked them if anyone in their congregations has been harmed by my writings. “No.” To which I replied, “So, the only one here today that’s been hurt by one of us, is me by having these charges filed against me in such a [cowardly] way.” Silence.
Regarding the Trinity, I said, “Is it not the case that the orthodox understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity is that it’s a mystery of the faith?” “Yes.” “So we’re in agreement!” “No, you don’t understand it the right way!” “Did you hear what you just said? That I don’t understand a mystery the ‘right’ way?”
And on it went. I had the chance to educate my detractor informing him that John Wesley intentionally didn’t include one particular Article of Religion adopted from the Church of England in forming the Methodist Church – the one concerning the creeds. Wesley sought to not have the Methodist movement be a creedal one, but rather, one of a truly ecumenical spirit that avoids unnecessary, likely triggers and divisions.
The matter of fact, dispassionate, lack of affect that I felt from my detractor during that video conference left me feeling that this really isn’t coming from a place of sincere concern about the authentic and transformative good news of the undying life, way, and teachings of Jesus – but more that it’s coming from some other ulterior motives.
What could they be?
Well, let’s stay with sincere concern about “right teachings” for a minute. If someone truly believes that there is a literal hell, and that the only way to avoid going there is for people to believe X, Y, and Z – with believe meaning intellectual assent to certain specific truth claims – then, sure it would be cause for concern if someone isn’t toeing that line and is saying something other than that. “This is a matter of life and death!” A matter of people we love and care about going to Heaven or roasting in the eternal fires of Hell! In such a literal, fundamentalist theological approach, faith is like a house of cards, and if you challenge any of those cards in that house, you risk the whole house coming down. “The possibility of salvation gone.” I can imagine how that might feel scary.
The United Methodist Church, however, isn’t a creedal church. We haven’t adopted any theory of the atonement as the one, official one, and we are in fact called to “test, renew, and elaborate” our theological understandings in ways that help the faith be relevant to our world today. If people are seeking out a more fundamentalist way of being and doing church, there are countless options out there in the marketplace. The UMC isn’t one of them …unless, one is seeking to hijack the denomination in the way that happened to the Southern Baptist Convention in 1980. And what happened then wasn’t purely about matters of faith, but rather, politics. The birth of the so-called “Moral Majority” political movement.
In doing my research I discovered that my accusers learned about me and my writings because they read a reprisal blog written by someone who works for the IRD – the so-called Institute for Religion and Democracy. This organization seeks to undermine the liberal and social justice advocacy wings of the mainline denominations, and they have a lot of money behind them from wealthy conservatives. In a legal proceeding there’s wisdom in “not asking a question you don’t already know the answer to.” So I asked, “Is it not the case that you learned about me and my blog because you read that attack blog written by that guy who works for the IRD? Silence. “I scoured the internet and the only blog that’s out there that refers to that blog I wrote was written by him.” “Um, well yeah maybe that’s how we learned about it.” “That is in fact how you learned about it. Don’t you realize that the IRD is no friend to the UMC? That it’s an entity that doesn’t have our best interests at heart? That by you doing what you’ve done to me, you’re being pawns in their political war games?” Silence. An easy case can be made that the IRD and their supporters aren’t sincerely concerned about proper theology, but rather, doing whatever it takes to sway the populace to create conditions more favorable for the US Congress and Supreme Court to pass ever more and more politically conservative policies, rulings, and agendas.
I was already aware that I have been in the cross-hairs of the IRD as they wrote two blogs about my speaking at the Wild Goose Festival in the summer of 2018, both critical, one before, and one after. But I didn’t think they’d go out of their way to write what they distributed in that chap’s blog of June, 2018 – essentially throwing meat to the sharks, inciting their readers to “who’s going to file charges against him?!”
So what is the fear here?
One fear could be: “If we don’t get enough people on board with our way of articulating the faith, it’ll be harder for us to get our way in the marketplace of ideas and in the democratic governmental process!”
Within that fear, there are two possible sub-fears. With one of them being employed as a tactic to assuage the other. People who fear the gradual movement of increased social justice and seek to instead adopt conservative political platforms that reduce taxes, reduce the role of government, and embrace a more so-called strict constitutionalist form of Federalism, intentionally appeal to base fears of the “useful idiot” minions – namely, homophobia, racism, misogamy – gay people, people seeking asylum, and women seeking reproductive rights and control of their bodies. These Powers and Principalities stir up the masses via scapegoating each of those oppressed people groups, rallying their base, and getting them to the voting booths to try to return our nation to some fictitious ideal – to “Make America Great Again” – which for them means no weddings for same-sex couples, no more gays on TV, fewer people of color in the electorate, and no abortions. Having those be “ moral issues” is a cover and distraction from their real work, which is to cut taxes on the wealthy, prevent universal health care, grow the war machine and military industrial complex, and reduce governmental regulations on industry – including their ability to pollute the environment.
And, frankly, when it comes down to it, the IRD and other such groups, are motivated by the fear of losing their cottage industry of fear-mongering. Like parasitic vampires, they feed, exploit, and capitalize on the fear of others. Simply put, they truck in fear. It’s their M.O. It’s their business. And they don’t want to see it threatened by Christians who actually are transformed by the good news of the Gospel to see that they don’t need to live in fear, but rather in faith. They thrive on people’s fear.
After several uncomfortable months of effectively holding my breath wondering what would happen, the charges filed against me were dismissed as my accusers weren’t interested in signing any of the proposed just resolutions.
So how are we to respond?
Not to what happened to me, but to this constant raging from that part of the Church that would seek to limit our theological explorations – even to the point of seeking to clip our wings, control us, and even excommunicate us? We could seek to rally our own base and to fight fire with fire. We could assertively argue with them point by point. We could engage in proof-texting of our own. Yet, all that does is perpetuate bad theology and dysfunctional ecclesiology and fuel their fires and ire. No, instead what is needed is to truly be our transformed, faithful selves. To live out the fruits of the Spirit. To show self-control. To be as much of a non-anxious presence as possible. To be with our detractors, to hold space for them just as they are – including their fears. To seek less to argue with them, and more to love. We can’t argue anyone away from fear and into real, transformative faith, we can only love them there.
…Is it that they fear the pain of death?
Or could it be they fear the joy of life?
Pray your gods who hold you by your fear
For they are quick and ruthless punishers
Or lay upon my altar now your love
I fear my day is done
There are armies moving on
Be quick, my love
It seems to me, when it comes down to it – there are fellow Christians who “fear the joy of life.” They (and likely we to some extent) fear that life might just possibly be bigger, more generous, and more gracious than they can fathom. There are people who fear being exposed to themselves for devoting countless hours of their lives, donating thousands of dollars, alienating themselves from members of their families – all for the cause of a false religiosity that isn’t an authentic faith that transforms lives. They fear that the legalism and nationalism that they’ve made into idols are in fact false gods – adventures in missing the point, dabbles in spiritual by-passing, and avoiding real transformation. They fear that maybe Christianity doesn’t have a monopoly on God, and that the Holy Spirit is in fact at work in healing modalities and venues outside the Church (yoga, shamanism, kirtans, tarot, shadow work, EMDR, therapy, etc). They fear experiencing agape love – for fear that it might not actually be unconditional. They fear being real before their Maker – they fear possible rejection by “Him” as they fear that “He” is as petty and vindictive as they tend to be. They assume (in truth rightly) that progressive Christians also contain some pettiness in them, and, as an analogy, like the white people of South Africa (“conservatives”) after the end of Apartheid, they project and fear that the black majorities (“progressives”) will do unto them as they’ve been doing unto them.
I can be petty. There are vindictive feelings within me. I’ve considered filing reprisal complaints of my own. I’ve imagined donating money to church youth groups near my detractors to toilet paper the trees outside of their homes… But I’m a product of my mother and the United Methodist Church that I love. At their best – they bring out my best. For years, my mother has had a bumper sticker that reads, “Save the World, Hug a Republican.” I finally get it. And it isn’t about politics. It’s about love. Soulful, agape love, that while it may involve boundaries for self-care, primarily means presence. If nothing else, Jesus’s work was a ministry of incarnation, a ministry of presence, bold, heart-felt, sincere, genuine, compassionate presence. Being present to people and their fears. Owning and welcoming our own fears and wounds, to model for others how this is done, so we can transmute them – so we don’t transmit them.
God bless my mother, and my fellow United Methodists (progressive and otherwise), for their increasingly converted hearts. God bless the actual possibility of being people of faith and not fear.
Rev. Roger Wolsey is a certified Spiritual Director, United Methodist pastor, and author of Kissing Fish: christianity for people who don’t like christianity
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This article is a modified version of an essay in Progressing Spirit Aug. 1, ’19.