"Theology for Real Life"
“You are not only a coward but a non-believer as well.”
It may not quite be at the level of Captain America’s vibranium shield, but my skin is a lot thicker than it used to be. When you start a blog that promotes something as insanely unorthodox as the idea that the author of Genesis 1-3 might have (like most other biblical authors) made use of a metaphor here and there, you come to expect that some fundamentalists are going to call Father Merrin and start reaching for the holy water.
It’s unfortunate — and, often, perplexing — but you learn to get used to it.
Even so, there are times I receive emailed messages like the one quoted above, and it hits like a punch in the gut. I know I should just ignore such trollishness. Usually I can. But not always.
Don’t worry, though. This is not a whiny column about how mean the conservatives are to us open-minded, forward-thinking progressives. Instead, it’s about how messages like this are helping me rethink almost everything I thought I knew about the Christian faith.
Pope Francis on Thursday opened a major two-day meeting on the church’s approach to the complexities of modern family life, telling the world’s Catholic cardinals that the church needs a “pastoral” approach that is “intelligent, courageous, and full of love” and not focused on abstract arguments.
In brief introductory remarks released by the Vatican, Francis pushed the closed-door summit of about 150 cardinals to “deepen the theology of the family and discern the pastoral practices which our present situation requires.”
He asked that they do so “thoughtfully” and by keeping the focus on “the beauty of family and marriage” while at the same time showing that the church is ready to help spouses “amid so many difficulties.” Francis added the phrase “intelligent, courageous, and full of love” extemporaneously.
After 36 years of serving churches as a pastor and consultant, I came to a startling conclusion the other day.
Not startling to you, perhaps. I might be the last person to get the memo. But the conclusion drew me up short.
My conclusion: Religion shouldn’t be this hard.
Pope Francis’ comments last week on everything from gays to abortion (less talk, more mercy), the hierarchy (be pastors, not bureaucrats), and religious faith (doubt is part of belief) continue to reverberate through the church and the media.
Here are five broader insights that this wide-ranging interview revealed about Francis — and why they will be keys to reading his pontificate, and perhaps the future of Catholicism.
During the Christian spiritual journey, followers of Christ are forced to eventually face some basic faith-related questions. Here are a few of the most common ones:
1) What is salvation?
What does salvation really mean? When does it happen and is it permanent? Do you choose your own salvation or is it predestined? Is everyone saved or just a select few?
The idea of salvation is extremely complex, and our concept of it directly influences how we live, evangelize, and interact with the people around us.
When denominations, churches, faith-based organizations, theologians, pastors, and Christian celebrities change their beliefs on homosexuality, abortion, immigration, and other political and social hot-button issues, they often face a vitriolic pushback from many Evangelicals. Obviously, many see their final stance — such as supporting marriage equality — as a sin, but more surprisingly, many of the vicious reactions attack the very idea of changing one’s beliefs — as if change itself is bad.
American Christianity has created a culture of theological permanence, where individuals are expected to learn a set of beliefs and latch onto them for the rest of their lives. Many of our first theological beliefs were probably taught to us in Sunday school, which was part of a church, which was represented by a denomination, which had its own parochial schools and Bible colleges.
Theoretically, Christians can go from preschool to seminary hearing the exact same religious doctrines. Theologies are often considered too “valuable,” “right,” and “holy” to change or question. Therefore, pastors debate instead of dialogue, professors preach instead of listen, schools propagate instead of discuss, and faith-based communities ultimately reject any form of honest questioning and doubt.
Indoctrination is preferred over critical thinking, certainty is favored over doubt, and we expect our leaders to offer black-and-white answers. A change of theology is viewed as weakness, poor exegesis, and a sign of insecurity. “If they change their views now, how can I believe anything they say in the future?” Christians often perceive change as a break in trust and a loss of identity.
A “creed” is an authoritative expression of belief, and within many religious communities, such statements generally emphasize a core affirmation of faith.
In addition to articulating primary convictions, creeds are used to oppose alleged falsehoods. For example, the Nicene Creed, composed in the fourth century, is a Christian proclamation that – among other things – affirmed the divine nature of Jesus, and was thus directed against those who believed otherwise. The Apostle’s Creed, developed in the first or second century, emphasized the humanity of Jesus, as some groups rejected such notions. While the history of Christianity is filled with numerous creeds, the Apostle’s Creed and Nicene Creed continue to serve as primary declarations of faith for millions of Christians around the world.
The following is my attempt to draft a contextual creed. In it I sought to stay within the Trinitarian formula, I stayed within the self-imposed length restrictions (it contains 164 words!), my draft has developed over the course of time, and because I fully acknowledge its many shortcomings and limitations, I will surely alter it may times into the future:
I was invited to appear on a Detroit radio show this past week called Christ and the City, hosted by Christopher Brooks. It’s a right-leaning talk show with an evangelical focus, but I was energized and encouraged by the conversation because it was respectful and substantive. We didn’t see eye to eye on much (as you’ll hear), but we made space for the differences, trusting that listeners would reflect on the broadened perspective, with the hope of being enriched in the process.
The premise of the interview was a discussion of my book, Banned Questions About the Bible, but you’ll soon realize as you listen that we got into all sorts of other interesting topics, such as salvation, interpretation of scripture and the difference between “Truth” and “Fact” in the Bible.
Mitt Romney angered evangelicals during his first White House run in 2008 by blurring the theological lines between their faith and his Mormonism. Lurching in the other direction, he irked them again by scarcely mentioning religion at all during this year’s GOP primaries.
But Romney has finally found some middle ground, evangelical leaders say, by sidelining theology and stressing the “Judeo-Christian values” that he shares with social conservatives.
“He’s made it very clear not to gloss over the theological differences that his faith has with evangelicals,” said Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council in Washington. “As long as he talks about the shared values of our religious traditions, I think he’s good.”
Romney did exactly that during a Sept. 9 Meet the Press interview, saying that religion inspired him to run for president — without mentioning the word “Mormon.”
“The Judeo-Christian ethics that I was brought up with -- the sense of obligation to one’s fellow man, an absolute conviction that we are all sons and daughters of the same God and therefore in a human family — is one of the reasons I am doing what I’m doing,” he said.
Conservative Christian leaders are taking the same approach, urging evangelicals to focus on Romney’s policies and principles, not the particulars of his faith.