A friend who is a deeply committed Christian and scientist said the following about the scathing comments by a number of evangelical Christians on a denominational website in response to his expression of belief that God created the cosmos through evolutionary means: "These were people with Jesus — and hatred for fellow Christians — constantly on their lips." I cannot imagine a more tragic contradiction.
Such words are an extreme expression of a stream of American Evangelicalism that will, hopefully, not have a viable future. It is a stream characterized by a vitriolic mode of engagement with those who disagree. It is fueled by an unyielding belief that "I have the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth" about the issue at hand. The words "I may be wrong" are seldom, if ever, spoken.
To be sure, it is generally admirable to have a deep commitment to one's understanding of the Truth and a desire to express that understanding with clarity and conviction. That can be a healthy antidote to the prevalent "whatever" epistemology in our American culture — a sheer relativism where "you have your truth and I have my truth," so there is no good reason for us to talk about our disagreements.
But this deep commitment to one's beliefs goes tragically awry when it is not accompanied by openness to the possibility that one may be wrong. This lack of openness reflects a disturbing lack of humility that denies one's humanity; it fails to acknowledge that as a finite, fallible human being I do not have a "God's eye" view of the Truth as only God fully understands it. As taught in 1 Corinthians 13:12, I "see through a glass darkly" and can therefore benefit from listening and talking with those who see things differently.
The late Christian scholar Ian Barbour captures this extremely rare combination of commitment and openness in his definition of "religious maturity."
It is by no means easy to hold beliefs for which you would be willing to die, and yet to remain open to new insights; but it is precisely such a combination of commitment and inquiry that constitutes religious maturity. (Myths, Models, and Paradigms, 138)
I believe that it is adherence to this mode of engagement — embracing the tension between commitment and openness by having "respectful conversations" with those committed to other faiths, religious and secular — that will open up the possibility for a vibrant future for American Evangelicalism.
But as important as movement from combativeness to respectful engagement is, we evangelicals cannot focus exclusively on our "mode of engagement" with others. What about the content of our evangelical beliefs? Here complications arise because of the diversity of beliefs and ecclesiastical practices among those American Christians who self-identify as being evangelicals. Is there a "Center" that can hold evangelicals together, forming a focus for the content of our respectful engagement with others?
David Bebbington famously identifies four qualities that have been the special marks of evangelical Christianity: conversionism, activism, biblicism, and crucicentrism. But there is room for considerable diversity in how evangelicals articulate these characteristics. For example, some evangelicals view Bebbington's biblicist assertion of "a particular regard for the Bible" as requiring a belief in biblical "inerrancy" while other evangelicals subscribe to the older and broader notion of biblical "infallibility," with considerable room for disagreement as to what these two key words mean.
In light of this diversity, where is the "evangelical Center"? My own articulation of these four characteristics revolves around the integrative thread of "God's Project of Reconciliation," as follows.
Crucicentrism holds that God's "project of reconciliation," made possible through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, extends to all areas of life. Activism holds that Christians are called to "partner with God" in God's project of reconciliation. Conversionism points to the commitment to be a follower of Jesus that is the primary motivation for seeking to partner with God in God's project of reconciliation. And Biblicism points us to the authority of the Bible as the primary source of teachings as how to understand and participate in God's Project of Reconciliation.
Evangelicals will disagree about the various dimensions of "God's Project of Reconciliation," which calls for further conversation and diverse initiatives toward reconciliation with God, with other human beings, and with all aspects of Creation. Taking my cue from the teaching of Jesus recorded in Matthew 25, I believe that a central dimension of our partnering with God in the project of reconciliation is our addressing the needs of the oppressed, disadvantaged, and marginalized peoples in our midst and beyond.