Thursday, August 02, 2012

Dogma, Doctrine and Sangama

The recent article by NY Times columnist, Ross Douthat proclaiming the impending death of the liberal church has sparked a lively response. Notably, Diana Butler Bass replied with numbers that argue that the entire church is in a dive with the left wing being the first to droop. But she also proclaims the good news that a new Great Awakening is in the offing. As a former Evangelical and a former liberal (more on that below) I have seen the decline from different angles with different lenses. But since I believe in resurrection I affirm that death has lost its power, so I accept death that makes way for life, and I believe that new life is indeed emerging.

The first thing that I hope will die is the false dichotomy of left and right. I don't believe that the divide is purely theological. Bass laments that too often our only choice in church is between “intelligence on ice or ignorance on fire.” Shifting the focus to the balance between head and gut gets closer to the heart of the matter. Prescribing specific beliefs that must be held in black or white starkness while maintaining a strict behavioral code does have its appeal. It feels good to know that in arguments you can be certain that you are right and as distasteful as it is, feeling holier than thou does feel good. You likely read that sentence with “the other” in mind, I know that I am tempted to do that all the time. But there is the problem. Both left and right can can be cold and stark in expectations. For the purpose of discussion, let's call this dogma; holding the belief that questioning certain beliefs is a questionable act. Evangelicals risk the dogmatism of reading the Bible in only one way that can only be understood correctly when God provides the insight. When liberals dogmatically support the cause du jour through peer pressure to always do justice they risk becoming a mile wide but only an inch deep. The other element to consider is doctrine. For this discussion that will mean any belief set, systematic or not, whether comprehensive or just an isolated piece. While Evangelicals are more likely to risk turning doctrine into dogma, Liberals too often have been overcautious around doctrine to the point that they risk having none. So while it may be true that left will benefit by adding more gut and the right more head, the real shift that I think I am seeing is a move from dogmatism toward a passionate and multi-doctrinal spirituality.

I spent many years in ministry to homeless and and hungry people based in a church. We were clear that there would be no religious litmus test for our services and that we wouldn't require anyone in need to be subjected to pressure to believe what we believed. We were motivated by our doctrine, putting our faith into action, but we resisted dogma. We also couldn't do it alone, so we regularly put out the call to the community for assistance. We found that it didn't matter if a person was a fundamentalist charismatic, an unabashed pagan or raging atheist, they all were compelled by their diverse beliefs to show kindness to neighbors in need. I also learned in that time that our very different faiths could find no way to worship together through seeking the least common denominator since we had so little in common. On the other hand, when we learned to welcome the diverse expressions of our deeply held faiths we had rich common experiences. The lesson learned is that diverse doctrines can lead to unity but exclusive dogma will always divide. And now it is the practices of acceptance and doing justice in the world that are leading Evangelicals into post-Evangelicalism and liberals into post-liberalism and together joining in what Eric Elnes calls Convergence Christianity.

Take the issue of homosexuality as an example. There are post-Evangelicals who are finding that they don't have to abandon the doctrine of the inerrancy of scripture in order to follow Jesus in abandoning judgment. There are post-liberals who are passionately proclaiming the scriptural call to radical hospitality. In worship, post-liberals are embracing creative arts and expression in new ways and post-Evangelicals are more engaged with questions. The great secret that we had forgotten is that especially around issues of ethical practice we have always had more in common than we liked to admit when we were defining ourselves in opposition to the other. We must abandon, as Chris Heuertz says, our false centers. When we define the so-called other by how they differ from us we place ourselves at the center and the person or group described at the margins. We must acknowledge the truth that Christ alone is at the center and that we all share the margins. We all benefit from less certainty and more humility.

The use of the past tense may be prematurely optimistic, yet some of us are feeling the Holy Spirit like a wild goose moving among us now in this way. Convergence Christianity is like the confluence of two great rivers. When a confluence occurs between two strong rivers they may flow together for miles in the new river still distinguishable as the mingling to create the new takes place. Perhaps it is a temperature difference that makes one bit of water flow over the other, or salinity or turbidity or any number of factors. It is clear that the post-Evangelical and post-liberal tributaries off the Evangelical and liberal rivers are nothing if not strong and very different. So we may be so strongly within the tradition we are flowing out of that we don't recognize that we are rushing side-by-side with the other tradition as we converge into an emerging Christianity that is God's way of helping us all to be more spiritual and less religious (at least in the way we have been). Hindus have long understood the power of confluence, which they call Sangama. The point of confluence of three rivers, called a Triveni Sangam, is a holy place where one bathes to remove sins. One such Triveni Sangam, in Allahabad has two physical rivers Ganges, Yamuna, and the invisible or mythic Saraswati River. Perhaps we will learn the wisdom of welcoming an unseen river in our confluence, welcoming the Holy Spirit to co-mingle among us that Jesus' prayer may become real among us, “that they all may be one.”