Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Onward Christian Liberals

Marilynne Robinson (novelist of Gilead and Housekeeping) has an article called "Onward Christian Liberals" in the Spring, 2006 issue of The American Scholar. It is, as you would expect, a good read. On the cover of the journal it is paired with an essay by Garry Wills and packaged as "The Other Christianity" and hers is subtitled "Why liberal Christians need to pull up their socks." You can google it and find one site where you can read it online with a free trial, or pick it up still at your bookstore. There is also some blog activity on it but not much, and I haven't seen any through UU blogs yet either.

Well, I liked the piece a lot, but I will say up front it didn't quite have the oomph that the promotion seemed to signal (but then, what does?). Still, a good defense of the basic foundations of the liberal tradition in Christianity--focus on God's gift of the mind, social justice, and the spiritual power and necessity of not being too sure of one's self and one's salvation. It is another reminder that we need a series of ".....For Liberals" starting with "Calvin for Liberals."

Side note to those who followed the calvinist thread at Peacebang's blog a bit ago (http://peacebang.blogspot.com), this is a good followup theological discussion.

One of Robinson's thrusts is that "faith is not about piety or personal salvation, but about helping those in need" and develops the concept of personal holiness as one's "openness to the perception of the holy in existence itself and, above all, in one another." Hence, what God calls us to do, and where to be.

The essay is full of great gems of sentences, as any reader of Robinson's would expect and desire. One of my favorites was: "And here is the culminating irony. This movement, which calls itself fundamentalist, subscribes fervently to the principles of laissez-faire capitalism. It has helped to push American society toward what the English economist Herbert Spencer called 'the survival of the fittest." Darwin borrowed that phrase from Spencer to name the dynamic of natural selection in the evolution of species, otherwise known as Darwinism. In other words, our anti-Darwinists are social Darwinists."

And, "The division between the liberals and the evangelicals is often treated as falling between the not really and the really religious, the dilettante Christians and those adhering to the true faith. This is the fault of the liberals in large part, because they have neglected their own tradition, or have abandoned it in fear that distinctiveness might scuttle ecumenism."

Finally: "Liberals assume the existence of what is traditionally called "the invisible church." They believe that no institution is uniquely the people of God, that God knows his own whoever they are and wherever they are. And they believe, therefore, that this invisible church can, of course, include their Christian detractors. This view of things implies that no doctrinal tests exist to distinquish the true faith from the false, real Christians from poseurs, the orthodox from the erring. To object, to dispute, to counter text with text, all this is legitimate and necessary, though liberals have been far too hesitant to make their case, even among themselves. But to judge the state of any soul is to presume upon a perogative God reserves to himself."

I think of myself as a liberal evangelical. I think of the "invisible church" as the presence of the Holy Spirit, which is a liberal Spirit, resting on and emerging through many people and places. But I think Jesus set up some tests about who his true followers are, that are not creedal in the sense creeds came to be created, but which are commanding imperatives nonetheless. So we liberal/progressives should be able to at least echo to the world those commandments (the Great Commandment, with no ifs ands or buts added; the Matthew 25 commandments; the mission of Jesus which stands in the Isaiah tradition), while reminding ourselves that of course we are not God and are not damning our brothers and sisters in Christ.

What does all this have to do with church planting? One of the best ways (to put it mildly) to be good faithful steward and "members" of this "invisible church" and of the commandments of Jesus is to create embodiments of it in the visible, finite world. The Spirit was never meant to be a solo actor in the world. The "invisible church" as M. Robinson points out, is vital to our tradition and who we are, but I think we have relied too much on the Spirit to do its thing in the invisible realm of history and people's hearts. We have let our visible churches die through increasing invisibility and staked all on the actions of the Spirit and the invisible church to carry the ball, or cross. Church planting is a way to show the world that we take seriously the commandments of Jesus and will do our part in our time and place to be co-creators with the Holy Spirit of "the invisible church."

Maybe I just have Pentecost tugging at me.

7 comments:

Roger Kuhrt, PhD said...

Thanks Ron--I will track that down ASAP. Where is it exactly that you are putting collected information about DaVinci Code? Give URL hotlink if possible.

Cheerfully, Roger Kuhrt

Ron said...

Roger, hi. For everyone's benefit let me tell them that you are replying to a request I made on a UU Christian email list for sermons, etc. about The DaVinci Code. These collected will be posted on the UUCF site, www.uuchristian.org, similar to what we did with those on The Passion of the Christ movie. We won't be going into DaVinci here.
Thanks and hope to hear any reflections on the M.Robinson piece as soon as you get it.

Christine Robinson said...

interesting, article, Ron, even though I did have to look up two words. I love her passion and will probably use the article for a Fall sermon. Thanks for the heads up!

Here in Albuquerque, we're puting the finishing touches on a plan to extend UU'ism into the small towns of the state using video feeds and a multi-site/one church concept. Many of the same issues as confront church planting apply, however, so thanks for your writing!

Ron said...

Great Work in NM. Keep us posted as you can Christine on the multi-site approach there and how the video feeds work out. Others have been interested in that too. Content plus Community--a great way to go. Big church product bringing small church together.

What I am interested in monitoring is if, or rather how, those on the receiving ends of the video feeds will be able to move beyond spectator-receiver frame of mind? That was one of my questions about content feeding and about multi-sites as well. Often the anxiety is about keeping the satellite groups connected to the Mother Church, with connection turning into control issues, instead of anxiety about how the groups will become embedded with the multiplying gene themselves. But a great experiment in expanding small group ministry.

Ron said...

I note that this article by Robinson is also the same one included in the Beacon Press book "Getting Out the Message: Challenging the Christian Right From the Heart of the Gospel" published by Beacon Press. At first quick glance through the book it looks like it presents all the reasons why I am a progressive Christian, and yet....as it is all about Message, and not about incarnating that Message in new Mediums of emerging culture, it also is a good indication of how progressive churches are staking so much resources on trying to appeal to people on issues and hope they come to communities to find support for our good and important issues, and thus growing by addition, instead of by multiplication. More in a different thread on that.

Bill Baar said...

What if ones not a Christian. Then this Liberal Christian vs Evangelical fight looks a bit of a waste of time....

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