On Atheist Church

United Church of Canada minister Gretta Vosper has been open and outspoken about her atheism for quite a while, and the United Church is starting to question her validity as a priest. CBC’s The Current recently ran a short documentary about her and her congregation.

I remember reading about Gretta Vosper in 2009, my first year of seminary. Our class was asked to think through the question of taking Jesus out of church and rewriting hymns (“Jesus Christ is Risen Today” was changed to “Glorious Hope is Risen Today”) and I remember at the time being completely boggled by the concept. My initial reaction, still, is to ask two questions.

First: if you don’t believe in God, why bother even going to church? Perhaps because I’ve never been a member of a liturgical church, I’ve never seen much value in going to church for its own sake. I find the social interactions to be pretty forced (shaking hands and saying hi – or passing the peace, as the high church calls it – without actually having any time whatsoever to actually connect with anyone); I dislike singing on command, and find most modern worship music to be banal at best, theologically questionable and banal at worst; and the number of sermons I can remember even an hour afterward can be counted on one hand, not because they were necessarily poor but because most lectures or sermons render the audience passive and are therefore bad at actually transmitting information in a way that is memorable. The only thing that makes any of these things worthwhile or valuable is because they are a form of communicating with and communing with God – particularly in liturgical, sacramental churches, which believe that the sacraments actually embody God in some meaningful way. Without God liturgical churches are just clubs, and non-liturgical churches are just a show, and there are much better and more interesting clubs and shows to partake in. If you don’t believe in God, you have a get-out-of-church-free card that can be redeemed for sleeping in every week, or for whatever edification or good works you may be up to on a Sunday morning if you aren’t stuck in an awkward handshake with someone you don’t see or talk to any other day of the week.

So why keep it up? Vosper and her congregation seem to emphasize community and ethics, both highly important and laudable. But why dress them up in the trappings of a religion you believe to be false? The reason seems to be that they believe that this is an evolution of Christianity. Which brings me to the second question that immediately comes to mind.

Second: So you like getting together with people once a week for mutual edification: but why call it Christianity? I could understand calling it a church even if it doesn’t believe in God – after all, we have many other organizations that call themselves churches that certainly don’t believe in the God and Father of Jesus Christ. The Unitarian Church, for example, is pluralist and includes room for atheists. The Church of Satan, contrary to its name, does not believe that Satan is real, but uses the name as a provocative way to declare their atheism; from what I’ve heard they value community and philanthropy, like most theistic churches. So why keep up the pretense of Christianity if you don’t believe that Jesus is the Christ, if you don’t read the Bible, if you have to edit your liturgy and songs to remove God from them entirely?

Well, if for whatever reason you no longer believe that God is real, the only way to approach the concept of church is through the sociology of religion. Sociology of religion is a powerful field that examines why we behave the way we do in regard to religion: why we believe in things we can’t see, how we use religion to enforce or reinforce behavioural or belief structures, how those belief structures organize our communities, etc. If you believe that God does not exist, then sociology of religion can provide all sorts of reasons why religion is important – after all, many sociologists of religion (even most?) are atheists themselves, and at least attempt to assume a value-neutral position on the existence of God in their work, studying religion from a why/how/social perspective rather than a so what/theological perspective. In the documentary embedded above, Vosper mentions that religion was useful for so long, but that it no longer is; this is a sociological viewpoint.

Christianity has a long history of taking things that it disagrees with and repurposing them. For example, Christmas and Easter celebrations in the West both incorporate numerous holidays and traditions from various other religions (think: Christmas trees, Yule logs, mistletoe, Easter eggs/bunnies, etc). We take the best of other traditions and use them for our own purposes. Some people see this as syncretism, merging two disparate religions into some mutation that doesn’t truly represent either (such as the Unitarian Church); others see it as cultural/religious colonialism, adopting the things we like best about those we conquer and making them our own, while forgetting where they come from; and still others see it as the natural function of a religion, to orient all things in the world to God, which might mean recognizing the godliness in the best of another’s culture and might mean finding other practices to be void of meaning or resonance with Christ and therefore dismissed or forgotten. It can be all three, and more, depending on the context and the way it is done – and whether or not you’re in the in-group. In any case, I think that this is what Gretta Vosper is doing: apropriating church itself, the outward trappings of the Christian religion, for the sake of their sociological value to the community.

Vosper’s congregation has changed by degrees, only changing song lyrics or removing prayers (or changing the name of prayer to “community sharing time”) when someone brings it up as something that doesn’t align with their values. The change from a church to an atheist church has been an evolution of sorts, a bridge from a tradition and community into a new kind of community that still believes itself to be in line with its tradition (from what I can tell). This quote from the documentary seems to illustrate Vosper’s view of why her church is still a Christian church:

The United Church has to hear how important it is that our continued use of theological language that posits a moral authority in some supernatural realm and a supernatural being, that that is a very dangerous tool in the 21st century, and that we need to argue strongly and lead the way in the conversation that says we are responsible for our own choices here, we are responsible for deciding how we want to be in relationship, we are responsible for how we want to interact with the world…. If I find out through this review process that the United Church is unwilling to do that work…I will feel betrayed, because that’s my church, and my church doing that will mean that it’s not the church that I thought it was.

It seems that she still very much wants to belong. The fact that she would feel betrayed by an organization that is calling her out on the fact that she has disowned its central reason for existence, its founders, its core beliefs, and further that she would feel that betrayal not just because they would call her on it but because they might not be willing to follow her in apostasy, is fascinating. Of course, she maintains theological language and justification for her atheism, and believes that she can in good conscience continue to sign on to the statement of faith of the United Church, which affirms trinitarian theism – or at least, that it is good enough that she once did. The reversal is possible because of the emphasis on inclusiveness.

I love inclusiveness, but not at the expense of identity. The United Church of Canada has been trying to walk the line of inclusivity for its entire existence, and in some ways it has been a leader in embodying a christlike inclusivity that puts the rest of the church to shame; in other ways it has sacrificed identity and theology for the sake of inclusivity, and created a theological vagueness that allows theologians like Vosper to break away from theological tradition. The other United Church minister in the podcast, Connie denBok, pointed out that as soon as we say that we believe one thing and not another we are already being exclusive, a statement that echoes Vosper’s belief that even using theological language is exclusive. If an organization based around the worship of God cannot speak theologically for fear of excluding someone who does not believe in God, is it really based around the worship of God? It is one thing to question this, quite another to implement it with the level of prejudice that Vosper does. It appears to me that she has good intentions, but that she is misleading herself and her congregation by maintaining the title of Christianity while deliberately and explicitly excising the name of Christ from every other aspect of what they do.

I think they’re doing a lot of good things. They’re bringing people together to forge a strong community. They show grace to one another. They value ethics very highly, and strive for authenticity. When Paul told Timothy (2 Timothy 3) about people “having a form of godliness but denying its power”, he was referring to people who adhered to religious rituals but were hypocritical and deceptive. Aside from the fact that none of us are perfect, I don’t think these people are evil in that way, but I do think that the phrase fits well. These people have a form of godliness in their ethical community, but what is godliness without God? Their ethical community may still even have power – the power to change their neighbourhood, maybe even their city, further into the image of a God they do not acknowledge. But what does the image of a non-existent God look like? They may find that their own cognitive dissonance – calling themselves Christians despite denying Christ – will undercut the cohesion and longevity of their efforts. For the sake of the good they hope for, I hope that is not true.

Theology As Discipleship: A Review

In my last post I began reviewing Keith L. Johnson’s Theology As Discipleship (Downers Grove: IVP, 2015). While initially excited about the book, my anticipation was quickly quelled by the first chapter, in which Johnson appears to contrast discipleship with critical thinking. I reserved full judgment until I had read more of the book, but now that I have I’m still not entirely sure what I think about it.

Johnson seems to spend most of his book rehearsing theology rather than working out its implications for the work of theology as a form or element of discipleship. Scripture is reprinted in full, or in very long paraphrases, and theological arguments are delivered in similarly long form. This is no doubt because he wrote the book for beginners, though he explicitly hopes that it is useful for more seasoned theologians as well. I’m not sure that I can count myself as seasoned, but I’m familiar enough with the passages and theological statements that it was either a long slog or a very light skim. That said, if I were a beginner I would appreciate his thoroughness.

Because of the first chapter’s contrast between the university and the church, I found myself looking for something to explain the apparent anti-critical stance of the first chapter, either to confirm or deny it. I found neither. Johnson is clearly not anti-intellectual – he’s arguing for the intellectual work of theology to take a central role in Christian discipleship, a project I fully and heartily agree with – and he clearly uses a hermeneutic (and apparently decent hermeneutics – he seems to interpret well). As such, I can’t say that he’s arguing for indoctrination. At the same time, his emphasis is on finding an alternative measure by which to judge theology other than critical reasoning. He uses the Augustinian approach of seeing whether an interpretation increases our love for God and neighbour as a measure of its truth, with truth defined by its correspondence to God’s eternal plan: God’s plan is for us to love God and our neighbours, so there’s some logic there, but applying critical thinking for just a moment should blow a huge hole in that argument.

Take, for example, John Piper’s view of God. By Piper’s view, everything that happens is willed by God and for the specific purpose of God’s glory. Somehow, according to Piper, the most awful things that happen in the world bring greater glory to God than even good things do – God is glorified more in, say, genocide, than in peace. Piper believes this because it’s the only thing that justifies the existence of genocide in a world that exists for God’s glory; if the world existed for any other reason, and/or if God did not have complete control over the world, then horrible things would be just horrible. Here’s the thing: Piper’s bizarre reasoning actually increases his love for God, because he can praise God for genocide. He can also be thankful for his neighbour’s cancer, which also increases the glory of God somehow. So his interpretation, according to Johnson and Augustine, is true – but so would an opposite interpretation that had similar effects. Meanwhile, critical thinking would tell us very quickly that two completely opposite interpretations, regardless of their effects, cannot simultaneously be true except in some form of paradox. Critical thinking would suggest that we should examine Piper’s premises and assumptions, and decide that perhaps it’s not true that God obsessively controls reality for the sake of his own glorification.

I can’t tell at this point (I still haven’t read the entire book, but enough to know I don’t particularly want to), but I think that Johnson is a determinist. He talks quite a bit about God’s master plan, to the point that all reality must be interpreted according to God’s master plan. This is a pretty big flaw, considering that the Church has varying views about what God’s master plan really is, aside from the redemption of humanity – and even there, Johnson pits the redemption of humanity over and against creation as the centrally defining aspect of the world. I’m not sure those things can be separated, much less contrasted. These and a few other underlying theological assumptions are evidence that his views are very theologically rooted, which is excellent – but they’re rooted in theology that I personally disagree with.

It seems, then, that Johnson is not arguing for anti-intellectualism, he’s arguing for pre-critical intellectualism. I’m not sure that he realizes that in so doing he’s arguing for a biblicist crapshoot, in which everyone feels affirmed in the eternal truth of their own uncritical interpretations of Scripture because doing so enhances their discipleship. Sometimes the best discipleship happens with the worst theology (cults enjoy great support from their followers), and Johnson seems to be suggesting that rooting theology in its function as discipleship will ensure the quality of that theology.

Ten years ago, I would have given this book an A+. It would have fit right in with my pentecostal experience-driven hermeneutic, and it serves up a lot of theology as a basis for its arguments. I’m opinionated enough about theology now to say that I think he has an excellent target, but he’s shooting in the wrong direction. There are no grades for that. I’ll keep picking away at it, but I have enough other books on my to-read list that I won’t be writing about this one again. If you know someone who thinks theology is a bad thing, I recommend it – they probably won’t be theologically picky enough to question the underlying theology here, and it will get them in the door of thinking theologically. That in itself is well worth it, and the method can be refined from there.

Planks in our Eyes: Hypocrisy and Foreign Policy

I went to a new church today, and heard a good sermon on Matthew 7 – a passage that, oddly, I don’t think I’ve heard a sermon on for a very long time:

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

The pastor did a good job of pointing out that this passage is not saying that we should not exercise good judgment, but that it is instead suggesting that we should examine ourselves for faults before condemning those same faults in others. As usual in our individualistic society (and I think this is especially true of evangelical churches), the sermon focused on personal sin, but all I could think about were collective issues: cultural racism, and foreign policy.

Why Facebook is a Terrible Place

For the last few months, social media has been awash with debates about Muslims, refugees, and security. Social media has a way of reinforcing what we already believe: Facebook curates our newsfeeds in order to show us the posts that it believes are most relevant or interesting to us, based on our past browsing history. So if you hold strongly to a particular viewpoint and tend to read articles that confirm that viewpoint, in time that’s almost all that you’ll see – until you run across your friend who holds to the opposite viewpoint. Often, by the time this happens your two views of reality are so far apart that they almost don’t resemble the same story, and it’s nearly impossible to find common ground. If it seems like Facebook is a nasty, polarizing place, this is part of the reason why.

Media are increasingly making their stories friendly to social media, recognizing that this is the fastest way for any story to spread. As such, speed is of the essence: better to get a story out quickly and update it later than to wait for all of the facts to come together in a cohesive narrative. At the same time, the blogosphere has turned most people into pundits, and even mainstream news sources have almost as many opinion and editorial pieces now as they do actual news, so the facts we receive are already interpreted for us, more than ever.

The combination of these two phenomena has led to all sorts of viral posts, some from major media sources and some from average joes, that both feed off of public sentiment and feed that sentiment further. In this case, while security concerns about bringing 25,000 Syrian refugees into Canada as quickly as possible may have been legitimate at some point, they have become a justification for racism for many: I’ve had people tell me sincerely that racial and religious profiling is a “no-brainer”, and that we should not allow any Muslims into North America. Take a moment to surf through twitter hashtags like #refugeeinflux and you’ll see some lovely comments, and some terrifying ones – and the comments usually match the tone of the article they’re attached to.

To counter this, some on social media are posting articles that try to bring perspective to the issues. For example, faced with post after post about Muslim terrorists, many have been posting about the white and highly armed militia that has taken over a government building in Oregon to suggest that not all terrorist groups are Muslim; or in the face of floods of posts about US gun control, either being for or against it, some have started posting articles about Black Panthers celebrating Texas’ new open-carry law (as presumably the gun-toting Texans who celebrate the 2nd Amendment aren’t as thrilled about a Black Power terrorist movement also being able to legally and openly arm themselves in public). Posting this type of thing instead of adding to the already ubiquitous posts about Muslim terrorism is a deliberate way to undermine the feedback loop of social media and, hopefully, calm some of the fears and cool some of the heat surrounding the topic. Unfortunately, it does not always have that effect: it has caused many to suggest that political correctness (podcast link), interpreted as refusing to speak the truth for fear of being labelled a racist, has undermined good sense and put us and our national identity and values at risk. So we remain polarized, with some posting blatantly racist things, some refusing to even comment on major issues for fear of feeding that racism, and most of us somewhere in between but probably only being fed half the story by our social media feeds. Most of us don’t really know what’s going on, but we have very strong feelings, thoughts, and comments about it. We’re the blind fighting the blind.

While all of the finger-pointing and name-calling happening online should be a sufficient example of the kind of hypocrisy Jesus was talking about in Matthew 7, there’s an even bigger hypocrisy behind it, something those posts about the Oregon militias only scratch the surface of: the role of our governments in the “war on terror”, and their refusal to address the ways that we’ve exacerbated the situation abroad and ignored the situation at home.

Foreign Policy, Domestic Terrorism

Recently I listened to a fascinating podcast that asks “is there a better way to fight terrorism?”(podcast link) One of the insights they note is that suicide bombing, perhaps the action most associated with terrorism, is almost never a religious act (though it is often dressed up in religious language), and is almost always in response to military occupation. That is, suicide bombings happen in the Middle East primarily because either Westerners have invaded there, or because we have set up governments there as our proxies (or at least, that’s how people who live there perceive those governments). In other words, the number one cause of terrorism in its most extreme form is our anti-terrorism efforts abroad. Once again, this should not surprise us: the Parliament Hill shooter told us that this was precisely what motivated his attacks.

Today I listened to an interesting podcast that talks about home-grown US white terrorism, and how the US government has deliberately focused its efforts on Islamic terrorist threats(podcast link) both abroad and at home. The guest on the podcast used to work for Homeland Security studying white supremacists, freemen on the land, and other anti-government or racist militias. His department had been asked to research the possible response to a black president before Barack Obama ran in 2008, and they continued to research after he was elected. When they released a report, the Republicans spun it, saying that Obama was getting Homeland Security to spy on all conservative Americans. The department was reassigned to focus on Islamic organizations, which were less politically problematic, even though it is estimated that there are around 100,000 members of anti-government or racist militias in the US.

To bring this into a Canadian perspective: I’m very proud of our government’s current stance on pulling out of our bombing missions. Every bomb we drop is a recruiting tool for ISIS, particularly because our bombs don’t always hit their mark. This is just a first step, though. Accepting as many refugees as possible is a second step – 25,000 is a good start, but we should continue to bring in refugees, especially from Syria, Iraq, and other nations fighting ISIS, and offer whatever aid we can to those who are unable or unwilling to relocate. We should also offer aid to legitimate governments in the region to maximize their aid impact, and I suggest this as an alternative to offering military support or training, or at least in addition to it: we could be offering training and resources for emergency relief programs, medical training and personnel, and even educational resources (if local governments invite and allow it) throughout the region. Finally, if we maintain any military involvement it should be to push toward de-escalating conflict rather than eliminating the enemy – because an ISIS without war is simply a local government, and we may actually have the power to limit their capacity to wage war, in large part by refusing to fight. If we are able to empower the nations around ISIS while at the same time dialing down the polarized worldview that we’ve been reinforcing in that region through decades of war, we may be able to cut off the streams of support that feed ISIS. At least, that’s how I understand the situation: I should be clear that I’m not a military tactician, but I have spent quite a bit of time studying the way people respond to violence on either end of the gun, and I’ve become convinced that nonviolent conflict resolution holds greater promise for ending conflict than violence does.

Hypocrisy, Self-Examination, and When to Keep Our Mouths Shut

So there’s rampant racism, xenophobia, and political correctness on social media, and the same things are affecting our government’s ability to address terrorism effectively. Make no mistake, we should not be afraid to criticize certain groups or actions simply because they are representative of a racial or religious group: we must be able to distinguish between people and their actions, and judge actions based on the ethics of those actions rather than on the race or religion of the people involved. “Political correctness” interpreted as the refusal to speak out against injustice because of fear of being perceived as prejudiced against the minority committing the injustice is wrong and dangerous – but we must always remember that our words have an impact.

Words spoken on Facebook seem benign to us: our brains perceive us to be alone at our computer, rather than in a public forum, so we’re more likely to say things that we would never say in front of other people. But those words get repeated, and the more we repeat something the more we believe it. And the more we believe something, the more likely we are to act on it. They say that if one person takes the time to write about something, one hundred people are thinking it; I think the reverse is also true to some respect. If a thousand people write (or re-post) something, one person is probably going to do something about it. A few months ago someone in Peterborough Ontario burned down a mosque; last week someone in Vancouver pepper-sprayed refugees at a welcome party. “Lone wolf” terrorists like Anders Breivik may act alone, but they are supported by the words of others.

But words don’t just inspire attackers, they also inspire politicians. Would Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Ted Cruz all be trying to out-xenophobe each other if there wasn’t widespread support for xenophobic policies such as building a wall to keep out Mexican migrants or refusing to allow Muslims into their country from any source? Politicians pander to our worst impulses as well as to our best impulses – and it’s often easier to pander to the worst in us. Western foreign policies that incite violence against minorities also incite terrorist responses.

But the key to all of this is that we’re blind to the negative role that we play. The preacher this morning held a two foot length of 2×4 to his eye to illustrate Jesus’ words in Matthew 7 and show how ridiculous the example is, and in the process he almost hit a child in the head with the plank as he turned to look around. The point, he said, is that our own attitudes not only blind us, but we can also inadvertently hurt people even when we’re trying to help, or simply when we’re looking around. Our self-righteousness destroys any good that might come of pointing out the faults or crimes of others, and we often end up hurting more than we help.

So before posting anything on the internet or invading another country to impose democracy, take a look at yourself. It might change what you have to say, or make you decide to say nothing at all.

The University and the Church

In the first chapter of Theology As Discipleship, Keith L. Johnson notes that theology is not always welcome in the church. He shows that this is at least partially because of the changing orientation of theology, from being rooted in and focused on the church and discipleship to being housed in and based on the presuppositions of the university. The church, he suggests, is wary of theologians whose first loyalty seems to be to the secular and critical assumptions of the academy. He holds that the problem is not that theology brings together the church and the university, but that it does so in the wrong order, starting with the presuppositions of the university (e.g., objective critical reasoning) rather than those of the church (the self-revelation of God), and I expect he’ll spend the rest of the book fleshing out what that might look like.

If I understand him correctly (and I hope that I’m not), I have to disagree quite sharply. Not in his assessment that the church doesn’t welcome theology (on that point I think he understates the problem), or even in his aim of bringing the church and the university together in the discipline of theology as an act of discipleship (an excellent goal!). Rather, I think that he has made a categorical error about the nature of academic discipline and the presuppositions of the university by contrasting them with Christian discipleship and the content of God’s self-revelation.

The presuppositions of the university are not necessarily a particular method or set of practices that can be contrasted with the practices of Christian discipleship. There are certainly methods involved, such as the scientific method, but that method has been formulated as a way of getting results that are critical and can be reproduced in order to establish the truth of any conclusions a scientist might make; statistical methodology rests on the same principles, though it is quite different in practice from the scientific method. In all cases with critical methodology the goal is the removal of assumptions that might alter our perception of reality. This contrasts with Christian discipleship only if we understand discipleship to rely on assumptions. This seems to be what Johnson is saying here, and suggesting that this is a good thing.

Traditionally, Christian discipleship has involved indoctrination. While the term wasn’t always pejorative, the reason it has become so is because we no longer value assumption-laden teaching. The purpose of indoctrination was to ensure that disciples of Christ have orthodox or correct theology, and it was not considered important that they arrive at that theology through critical study. It was highly important that disciples have the right beliefs, and critical study cannot guarantee that people will come to certain beliefs, particularly if those beliefs themselves preclude critical study. Certain core doctrines, such as doctrines about the divine inspiration of Scripture, were interpreted to mean that critical study of Scripture was the opposite of faith – rather than receiving the Bible on faith as God’s good word to us, critical study involves questioning the authority of the Bible itself, something that even today fundamentalist believers refuse to do (please note that I’m not using the term “fundamentalist” pejoratively here: Christian Fundamentalists called themselves that because they believe that the divine inspiration of Scripture is a fundamental doctrine that cannot be critically questioned). Questioning the authority of Scripture has not harmed my discipleship – it has enhanced it. The Bible can stand up to criticism, but much more than that, God can stand up to criticism. We have learned to engage academic study as an act of discipleship, reading the Bible for the purpose of serving the church but doing so with critical methodology designed to reduce our own assumptions so that we can see God with less distortion.

Johnson suggests that we should begin our academic study with the presuppositions of the church rather than those of the academy. In so doing, he effectively throws out the chief presupposition of the academy, which is that we should not have other presuppositions. Instead, I suggest that we should practice the presuppositions of the academy in the church, and see the doubts and difficulties that come with critical study as an essential part of discipleship – because indoctrination makes for a weak discipleship that grows up quickly but withers because it has no roots, while rigorous and nuanced study forges our beliefs in the same way that the community and practices of Christian discipleship forge our behaviour and ethics. Perhaps when indoctrination was a primary form of teaching we were able to rely on the strength and centrality of the church community to reinforce such shallow understanding, but that is no longer the case; rather than the community defining and reinforcing knowledge, shared ideas and knowledge must now define and reinforce the church community.

But what does that look like? How can we even get theology into a church that seems to avoid it, and integrate it as a central part of Christian discipleship? These questions have been on my mind, in one way or another, since my first year of Bible college.

I grew up in the church, but I took some time away to let off steam in my youth before finding a self-focused life to be lonely, unfulfilling, and depressing. When I came back to church and found Jesus, as they say, I figured that if I was going to be a Christian for real I should probably know what I was talking about a bit better, so I went off to Bible college. I started with a one-year discipleship program, which integrates some basic academic study with worship and practical service to complete the “Head/Heart/Hands” motto of holistic discipleship. It was an incredibly powerful year for me, and I found myself repeating the thought all year, “why didn’t they teach me this in church?” It was not only the first time in my life that I had been challenged theologically, but it was also the first time that I had been taught that service to others was integral to the gospel and Christian discipleship. (My young adults group did some service stuff, but it certainly wasn’t integrated into the church as a whole.)

I’m sure that the way that theology could find a more prominent place in the church would depend a lot on the type of church. Most churches have some sort of theological initiation or catechism, but it usually stops shortly after membership – it could be extended. Some churches explain the sacraments/ordinances before performing them – this could be more widespread. Theologically void worship music could be cut: honestly, some songs just sound like a string of vaguely Christian-themed words strung together in random order, and while I’m not a hymns-only curmudgeon, we should at least look to the classics for a sense of why they’re classics and emulate their rich theological content in our new worship music.

Churches should also embrace theologians. I come from a fellowship in which theologians often either inactivate their ministerial credentials/ordination or else join the Anglican church, simply because they don’t feel particularly welcome at conferences and there is no real place for a non-pastor in the structure of the fellowship. The people who are most interested in studying Scripture and theology are leaving because they feel so isolated and excluded. Instead, why not encourage every church to have a theologian in residence? Like a “teaching pastor”, but actually embracing the word “theology” and including research specialists in the pastoral staff and life of the church. This is a critical role, not because a senior pastor or associate pastor is unable to lead Bible studies or anything like that, but because the ministerial functions of pastors often leaves them little time for keeping up with the best in theological scholarship. People are hungry for good theology, but without years of study they often find academic texts to be excessively dense and difficult, not to mention intimidating, so they look to popularizers like Rob Bell and Mark Driscoll. If you follow contemporary church superstars you know that both of those names carry enormous followings and incredible baggage that can actually be disruptive in a church, even if their work can keep people engaged in somewhat contemporary theological discussions. But while a theologian in residence could arguably do a better job of popularizing good theology for their congregation than Rob Bell can, they can also do something that Rob Bell certainly can’t, which is to raise the congregation’s level of theological discussion so that they are no longer so dependent on bestselling and polarizing popularizers. They can teach people enough basic theology and research skills to get them off of “milk” and onto “meat”, as the good book says we ought. Sermons have not proven sufficient to do so in most congregations (and a sermon/lecture is one of the worst forms of andragogy), so it’s time to shift the focus of community learning away from the centralized lecture hall and toward more engaging learning environments and practices.

In regard to learning practices, practical service is a learning practice and a worship practice. I would love, love, love to see a church that includes regular service as a whole-church activity. Many churches have a potluck meal once a month – why not have one every week, and open it up to the homeless? What about taking one week per month in which the church skips the Sunday service and spends that time on a communal project instead, or even multiple projects that the church and work on in smaller groups oriented to the skills and gifts of the people?

More than anything, I’d love to see pastors embracing theology. When I did my internship in college, the only author the senior pastor told me to read was John Maxwell; when my wife was ordained, the pre-ordination classes were all about organizational skills and how to control the church Board. A pastor from my fellowship was attending the Seminary where I was the Registrar, taking a program in Counselling, and complained that he had to take any Bible or Theology courses for an MA in Counselling – after all, he had a diploma in Bible and Theology from 1987, and had been a pastor for thirty years, so why should he have to learn anything about theology? Many pastors in my fellowship don’t even have undergraduate degrees, and many pastors who feel they need more theological education than a BA can provide simply can’t afford to go to Seminary on a church salary. Churches should be paying for their pastors to engage in ongoing theological education, so that pastors can be serving their churches from the overflow of their own learning; and denominations should be requiring ongoing education rather than just baseline educational requirements for ordination, because after all, all of the anti-intellectual pastors had theological education at one point, even if it has seemingly worn off since then.

I look forward to seeing what Keith Johnson has to say about how to integrate theology into Christian discipleship. I hope I’m reading him incorrectly to this point, but so far my initial excitement for this book has become fairly subdued. I’ll do a full review when I’ve finished.

Is it just me, or are these guys whistling?

Neither A Liberal Nor A Conservative Be

I should start by pointing out that I largely reject the terms “liberal” and “conservative”. I think that they are terribly vague terms whose highly nuanced meanings evolve so quickly that most of the time when two people use them in discussion they each have very different assumptions about what they mean at all. But they’re also terribly common terms, and it’s difficult to avoid them. I’ll leave their precise meaning up to you, as most of the time I’ll be focusing on the many things in their semantic range that do not apply to me.

You see, I always thought that I was a conservative.

The first church I really remember was Baptist, I don’t know what kind for sure. Fellowship, maybe. Then I went to a Christian Missionary Alliance church, and eventually a Pentecostal church, all the while knowing very little about the differences between them (if there were any), but knowing that they were different from the “liberal” churches – you know, the United Church, and by association any liturgical churches that weren’t Catholic. (I didn’t know where the Catholics fit in the liberal-conservative divide, but I was pretty sure that they weren’t on the field at all.) Anyway, all of my music and movies had to be approved by Focus on the Family (Plugged In), liberals were undermining the moral foundations of society and didn’t even believe in Jesus (yes, even the Christian liberals didn’t believe in Jesus), and even though we didn’t use the term much I knew through and through that I was conservative.

When I was 18 I voted Conservative. I voted for Darrel Stinson, who wore a cowboy hat and sometimes yelled in the House of Commons. He was there to remind all of those Liberals back east that the West (with a capital W) wouldn’t be pushed around, or at least that’s how I saw it – he’d been my MP since I was 9, and all I really knew is that he stood up for us. I’d heard talk of the western provinces seceding, along with Washington and Oregon, and making a new country, and that sounded alright to me because by the time we even get to vote out here the Liberals in Ontario and Quebec have already decided the election.

Looking back, my family didn’t talk politics and rarely talked religion. We didn’t use the word “conservative” at all, but I remember other people talking about “liberals”, and I sure knew that wasn’t us (for all I knew of my parent’s politics or theology).

Then I went to a Pentecostal Bible college, and learned that there were two ways to apply the terms “liberal” and “conservative” – politically (which I knew) and theologically. There was a tremendous amount of overlap between those two realms, it seemed, but I became focused on theology, and it was more clear than ever that I was a conservative: liberals don’t believe that Jesus existed in a literal sense OR that God created the world in six days in a literal sense or even (or perhaps especially) in pre-tribulation, premillennial eschatology.

As I progressed in my studies I learned that there was a lot of nuance in all of these things, and my views around them shifted tremendously, gaining depth and changing in perspective. Some of them I discarded altogether, but I never doubted that I was a conservative; once again, my conservatism was assumed rather than stated. I had heard about an exciting theologian, whom some had labelled as a “liberal”, named Brian McLaren. When I asked the president of my school about him, he snorted: “he’s a heretic.” That was all. So while I now had nuanced views of eschatology (I was pretty close to fully adopting an amillennial perspective in spite of the premillennial views of my denomination), creation (I was an Intelligent Design guy at that point), and I wasn’t fully sure that Jonah was an actual guy, I knew I wasn’t a heretic, so therefore I couldn’t be a liberal. I had been wondering for a little while, but with that snort my status as a conservative was assured.

Then I went to an evangelical Seminary, where I was taught by Anglicans, Baptists, Anabaptists, Reformers, Pentecostals, and Evangelical-Free-ers, and talked theology around the water cooler with Pentecostals (even an American!), Evangelical Covenant-ers, Mennonites of several varieties, Anglicans, a Catholic, and even a Lutheran or two. I no longer had any assumptions about which denominations were conservative, because we were all at an evangelical Seminary – clearly we were all conservatives. Not that we used those terms, but again, this was part of my largely unexamined self-concept. I still knew that the United Church didn’t really believe in Jesus, and though I now had a stronger sense of the theological traditions that brought them there, I still knew that wasn’t for me. Though I was now certain that Jonah was a work of theatre, the primeval prologue of Genesis was written in the genre of myth and Adam and Eve were merely representative of early humanity and probably not real people, the conquest of Canaan probably didn’t happen anything like it was recorded in Joshua, Jesus wasn’t a teetotaler, Revelation is largely representative of the genre of apocalypse and is not predicting the future, and Hebrews wasn’t even written by Paul – still, I knew I was a conservative.

But in my first year of seminary I took a course in Christian Ethics, and was hooked. The course texts were by John Howard Yoder (The Politics of Jesus) and Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Ethics), and they helped draw out my Pentecostal pragmatism: I realized just how important it was to me that theology mean something, and by mean something I mean take up space in the world. The rubber always has to meet the road if you want it to take you anywhere, and I wanted to ride good theology to the New Jerusalem – Jesus, B., and me on a road trip through life, the universe, and everything. So I became intensely interested in the texts that tell us what to do, and the implications of the texts that only hint at it: how should we then live? I became more and more politically engaged, and took a course in sociology. I started an annual social justice fair, debated about globalization and capitalism, and gradually became aware that although I was clearly still theologically conservative (but not a fundamentalist any longer), politically…

…I was a liberal. *Gasp* A flaming liberal! When did that happen?

Of course, I wasn’t a big L Liberal, as in the Liberal Party of Canada. I knew enough about political and economic history at this point to know that the LPC is both socially and economically liberal, while the Conservative Party of Canada has a reputation for being both socially and economically conservative but is actually economically neo-liberal and socially doing nothing at all. I was always attracted to the Green Party, probably because of their pragmatism and their refusal to play the liberal-conservative game. When I ran for the Greens in 2015 I maintained the line that we’re a fiscally conservative party, not only because it’s true and because the word “liberal” in my riding is a cussword (it’s a good Christian riding, after all), but also because I still have a self-concept that includes being conservative, for whatever reason, even though I no longer believe the term means much of anything at all.

Which is my point. How can it be that conservative Bible study led me to so many so-called liberal beliefs? I still believe in the Bible as being authoritative, though not handed down from the sky, and I believe that Jesus Christ is not only a real person but that he’s the son of God, a member of the holy trinity, and alive today. It is that belief and his teachings that inspire my interest in ethics and politics, and my so-called liberal political views stem directly from my understanding of Scripture and my pragmatic understanding of the best ways to go about accomplishing the ethical demands of Christ.

What does it mean that I can hold conservative and liberal views, both theologically and politically, at the same time – and even have them be inspired by each other? I’m fiscally conservative because I believe that the government needs to have its house in order if it’s going to be able to sustainably maintain the welfare state; and I believe in the welfare state because it is an effective way for us to collectively serve the poor and promote justice, which I learned to do from Jesus’ teachings and I take seriously because I believe he’s really real. Given the polarization between so-called conservatives and so-called liberals, both in the church and in politics, you’d think my head would explode.

The terms “liberal” and “conservative” have maintained their popularity because they’re handy umbrella terms: they cover a lot of ground. That makes them useful, so long as we don’t care about nuance or accuracy and don’t mind lumping things together. Mostly, they’re useful as umbrella terms for everything we disagree with someone else about; it’s tribalism in a neat package, and we’ve found ways to distort the meaning of those terms by throwing in all sorts of other things we don’t agree with, or finding a new sense of the word by applying it in a new or more nuanced way, which of course only makes the whole thing more confusing.

Let’s just stop. Rather than insisting on calling people, or ourselves, “liberals” or “conservatives”, let’s use words that are actually descriptive of what we do believe. We might discover that our views aren’t that different from others, or that the heroes we’ve claimed (e.g., Dietrich Bonhoeffer and C.S. Lewis are both often claimed by evangelicals) have many views that we would ordinarily dismiss. But perhaps more than anything else, we might discover that other people’s ideas are not as dangerous as the labels we place on them, and that maybe serving Jesus together is more important than agreeing with each other.