Why Are Christians Scared of Pluralism?
October 26, 2010


Religious pluralism has existed for thousands of years, but we here in the U.S. have been hearing more about it lately, primarily from Christians. Of course, some other major religions are not necessarily fans of pluralism either, but their voices aren’t heard quite as much in the U.S. So this post focuses mainly on U.S. Christians.

Brian McLaren recently posted a blog about pluralism. A reader had asked him the best way to be Christian but nonexclusive, and to have true, meaningful conversation with someone of a non-Christian perspective. The reader was trying to interact with a Jewish lady about religion, and she said that, even though he (the Christian) was being respectful, she felt that his… “perspective still makes it all about [Christianity], still all about Jesus, which still diminishes her faith in the end and leaves her feeling like I’ve just found a way to let her sit with me at the table.”

In response, Brian breaks it down into two categories, an elitist “strong Christian identity” and a benevolent “weak Christian identity.” He sees problems with both and proposes an alternative, a “strong biblical narrative that truly makes…room for ‘the other.'” Here’s an excerpt:

Do we have a strong biblical narrative that truly makes as much room for “the other” as for “us?” Do we have a strong view of God that begins with love for all people rather than condemnation of all people? Do we have a strong understanding of Jesus as a gift to everyone rather than a proprietary product exclusively franchised to Christians? And so on …

One big problem with a weak benevolent religious identity is that it in some ways requires others to tone down their religious identity … which often ends up becoming a kind of tolerant secularism that only allows a least-common-denominator of civil religion into public life. Another big problem is that it is a good predictor of the end of a religious tradition … which would mean, over time, that benevolent religions would die off, leaving only combative ones!

Without getting too theological about it, I agree with Brian that the “pluralism question” is a big one. It’s obviously not a question as to whether it’s a valid reality of today’s world (it is). The question is what it means to Christians. And he makes a good point that if you’re Christian, don’t be ashamed of it… But I would add that you should not let your Christian identity make you arrogant, which it often does even if you don’t think so.

I think that if you’re really strong and comfortable in your Christian identity you don’t have to show it. It will just show. Then there’s no need to feel like you must “defend the faith” or open the eyes of “the lost.”

Being just barely Christian, I’m one who often hides my tradition for the sake of meaningful conversation with others. Part of this is because the term “Christian” just has so much baggage along with it, and I’d rather just be considered as a fellow human, searching alongside others for love, meaning, and value.

I also do this in reverse: I hide my agnosticism in order to have real conversation with Christians. Like “Christian” does for non-Christians, the term “agnostic” just seems to cause a nervous tick in most Christians, sending them into an infinite loop of internal conversation to figure out how they can get me saved, while I’m trying to talk to them, and they just don’t seem to really listen. …OR…Maybe it’s also me that sometimes gets in battle mode when I’m in a conversation. I admit it.

But lately I’ve become more secure, more comfortable in my relatively new, looser skin of agnosticism, or more accurately agnostic theism. And while I may not outright mention that I consider myself an agnostic, I no longer hide admissions of doubt or skepticism, but I also don’t state it arrogantly. And ironically, this often (not always) leads to a more honest conversation. But I think it also depends on the comfort of the Christian with whom I’m interacting. If it’s a Christian who feels they need to defend the faith or at least open my eyes to the deception all around me, we probably won’t get anywhere.

It’s okay to not hide your faith, or your lack of faith. If you’re a Christian, you can say it. If you’re not, say it. But let’s not allow our identities of faith to get in the way of our deeper identities, as humans. We all hurt. We all have things that give us joy. Just don’t trample on the other just because you feel you have to put a stake in the ground for your team.

My truth is that you can retain your theological distinctives, those things that you love about your faith perspective, and at the same time check them at the door to some extent when you enter into a conversation with someone from outside your perspective. I’m not saying to hide them. Just stop treating them like battle shields and lances (or even the “Sword of the Spirit). Remove your war colors. Don’t give in to the feeling that says you must defend. That way, you might realize that there’s nothing to fear from listening.

That’s why I personally say “Yes!” to pluralism. It can help us all dig deeper, beyond our tired catch phrases and marketing ploys, to the part of us that we all have in common. The part that seeks and listens for truth wherever it can be found.

But who knows, maybe there’s something I should be scared of. Did I miss a memo?


A Clarification…

I want to add here, or clarify, that pluralism does in fact include Christians. Including Christians who may be concerned about pluralism. I apologize if I implied otherwise.

It’s easy to say about our conservative Christian friends that “they” are the ones who need to get with the program, and that it’s their fault our world has not progressed beyond exclusive systems. In fact, by blaming those resistant to pluralism, we are perpetuating a climate of fear and accusation.

Maybe we can try to enact the idea that everyone really is welcome and deserves to be listened to. I think all of us have some perspective that can help fill a blind spot for someone else. Not just those of us who think of ourselves as the enlightened ones. 😉

The point I’m trying to make is the importance of not hiding what makes us, us…while at the same time maintaining an open attitude. Openness is the key.

July 25, 2010

This is for Rick (and anyone else, of course). What started out as a paragraph became several, and maybe a bit too abstract. Sorry if I rambled too much. Just some thoughts.

Many think we are just selfish relativists who want to have our free will without any responsibility or consequence. We are seen and described as non-committal, apathetic-yet-verbose idealists whose primary desire is to buck the system to conform to and justify our own fleshly desires. We are perceived as having near-demonic repulsion to the holy absolutes handed down by wise, God-fearing prophets, teachers, and/or apostles. We may be seen as naïve. Or if we demonstrate that we are not naïve, we are declared as bitter malcontents whose hearts have been darkened by such sins as pride or rebellion.

These are some of the justifications given for declaring many of us heretics, among many other descriptors. And we know these all quite well. In spite of this, and not merely in quick reaction to it, I think the best way to respond is with words such as those spoken by Dean Thomas Ferret, one of the first Protestants who was burned at the stake during a Scottish inquisition: “I am confident my cause is just in the presence of God, and therefore I am not concerned about the consequences.”

I use that quote not because I piously think of myself or others in similar position as martyrs. I wouldn’t dare compare myself to someone who was questioned by an established regime of Christians who were so confident in their specific form of faith that they felt it okay to literally judge the faith of others. Okay, well, maybe I would. Because in the same way that it has been happening for centuries within Christianity, people have felt so determined to defend “the” faith, or at least their form of it, that they have named “their” faith “the” faith. And to this day the inquisitions live on, albeit softly, through various forms in all denominations of what the Catholic church has progressively re-named from “Inquisition” to “Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith,” the task of which since 1965 has been defined as “furthering right doctrine rather than ‘censuring’ heresy.” And I think such soft-pedaling is disingenuous.

Regardless, what I want people to know is that most of us really are, on a heart level, confident that our “cause is just in the presence of God.” And while some might say that one who is sincere can still be wrong, which just makes one sincerely wrong, I think the crux of the matter is that Christians have come to define a relationship with God with too tight of terms, including “right” and “wrong.” I know this may get into the whole relativism-versus-authority debate, but I’ll avoid that by just pausing to say that one way I have come to define my faith is with the same words of those who established the Christian Biblical canon: “This ‘seems’ right to us and the Spirit.” In other words, it’s all a guess. A hunch.

Whatever label some try to put on me, I am holding fast to this proposal: Faith is not faith if it doesn’t involve uncertainty. If it doesn’t involve some trepidation, mistrust, struggle, fear, blindness, and dare I say, doubt, it’s no faith for me. And if my version of God is a god whose deadly “justice” needs defense, that god must die, because he is apparently too weak to stand on his own. And if, in order to further the legacy of such a faith, I must reject any perspectives that question, deconstruct, or defy established doctrines, that’s a legacy not worth continuing.

So these views might make me an outsider of sorts. A wanderer. A lost “prodigal.” But in this sense, I’d rather wallow and share slop with my fellow pigs than return to a house that promises an inheritance. Because, in this case, the inheritance is conditional upon my acceptance of too many house rules based on imagined certainty, and such an inheritance, in my view, is fools gold. And many have made that house and that inheritance into more of a self-proclaimed kingdom. But it’s an insular kingdom, an incestuous monarchy.

For these reasons, I am content with my wandering. But I am intentional in wandering. It’s part searching and part enjoying the ride. Part sailing, part motoring, and part drifting. Part communicating and part staying silent. And a lot of listening. A lot of sniffing the air and licking my finger and testing the breeze. And occasionally putting one foot in front of the other, not on a staircase that brings me higher, but on a wilderness trail with lots of blind turns. And I’ve grown comfortable in the discomfort of that. Confident in the contradictions.

It’s like I’m suspended somewhere in-between, but not like walking a tightrope, trying to traverse from one side to the other and calling it a success. More like the neon suspended in a glass tube, happy when the twilight comes. The time when the world occasionally realizes that night and day are different for each time zone. Because that’s when I begin to see that I’m not the only welcome sign in our lonely town. With each flicker of light here and there, little signs popping on, I’m reminded of the beauty in the art of divine randomness. It’s the beauty of holy chaos. Reds and yellows and all sorts of colors blinking on, some in steady, predetermined  patterns, some of them stuttering for a while until they’re warmed, and some haltingly flashing, barely humming in their own discouraged dimness. But we all light up our own little portions of the solitary road, letting travelers know that they are welcome to stay a while, to exit the busy highway and rest.

My Swarm Theory
April 19, 2010

This post is in response to an invite from my friend Julie Clawson to be part of a synchroblog with many others that attempts to answer, “What is emerging in the church?”

I think the church is starting to realize it’s okay to embody what is known as swarm theory, or SI (swarm intelligence). We are beginning to see the value of “all” instead of “me.” We are beginning to see that there is a greater, undefinable, all-encompassing, all-accepting power guiding us (even if none of us know where we’re going).

The biggest objection to the idea that intentionally submitting oneself to a collective (sub)consciousness is that some think this devalues humanity. They may think this flies in the face of the entire Christian thesis that God gave us each free will. If I may call it spiritual swarm theory, I would say flatly that it does not at all erase free will; it enhances it.

What is emerging in the church is a deep listening that doesn’t listen selectively according to a person’s appearance, preferences, or even beliefs. It listens to the person. It listens to that still, small voice inside that person. That voice that speaks to us all from within us all. And that’s what moves us.


Case in Point

Someone who calls himself an “agnostic pentecostal” has been invited to share his thoughts about what they think is emerging in the church. Yes, I am a middle-class, white, straight male, which is definitely not a minority in terms of church leadership. But I have no Ph.D; I am no pastor; I have chosen not to be ordained; I don’t have a book published or a TV program or an album or even a popular blog. Those facts, combined with the fact that I’m just barely a Christian at all according to traditional definitions, would have eliminated me from having a real, valued leadership role in the church. In fact, for some churches, the fact that I come from a pentecostal-type background might even scare some away from me.

So to have been invited to share my voice illustrates my point about what good I think is happening in the church: The entire concept of “leadership” is being redefined, albeit slowly. And this is creating a movement of listening. A movement that’s trying hard to see all stories as equally valuable. A movement that sees importance in being led by the rejected as much as (or more than) the selected.

There is a difference between inviting the rejected into your circle and letting them lead it. As another example, the church of the past, as I call it, would welcome a gay person into their church as long as that person would join a group or class designed to straighten them out. The statement I heard in several sermons was, “God loves you just the way you are — but too much to let you stay that way.” But I am seeing proof that churches are taking seriously the notion that keeps it simple with just, “God loves you just the way you are. That’s it. Nothing else to add. No classes to take before you’re really welcome. You are welcome. Now please tell us your story so we can learn from you.” This is happening in my faith community.

And it’s not just a liberal thing…Tolerance is not just for universalists anymore. It’s not just tolerance either; it’s true acceptance. I think people are starting to see that they can keep their conservative beliefs, without watering them down, share those beliefs, and also find value in the spirituality of others. Because we’re all in the same swarm.

In my case, I feel there’s no need for compromise in being simultaneously agnostic and pentecostal. I can pray in tongues if I want, even if I doubt, for example, that Jesus was the product of a literal virgin birth. And the best part is that I feel supported by (some of) my Christian friends…They’re not only okay with that, but they don’t try to change my view, and they listen intently to see exactly what the full story might be, so they can learn and exchange perspectives.

They see me as a valuable part of a grander story, and I see them the same. We want to learn from each other. Because we’ve started to listen to a still, small voice that tells us that none of us has the whole story, but all of us are an integral to it.


By the Way

Some may see this all as a sign that pluralism, extreme liberalism, and even communism are seeping into the church. I choose to see this as a sign that people are just starting to realize that things cannot seep into or out of the church, because we are all the Church. We are all in this together. And “We” has no walls. Some may see this as a sign that incorrect beliefs are causing God’s presence to leave certain churches. To that I say people are starting to remember that God is omnipresent. He’s always with us. Nothing can separate us from his love. Similarly, some may say that God being present in only certain churches is due to the fact that, according to scripture, “God inhabits the praises of his people,” and that only some are praising him correctly, and only those who do so correctly can truly be called “his people.” I choose to believe that there is no wrong way to praise God, and that all people are God’s people.


Check out these other synchroblog posts on this topic:

Sharon Brown writes about using labels as an excuse. * Pam Hogeweide compares the emerging church movement to a game of ping pong. * Sarah-Ji comments that the emerging questions people are asking are far bigger than any defined movement. * Peter Walker reflects on how the emerging church conversation helped him recognize his power and privlege as a white male. * Dave Huth posts a on new ways to talk about religion. * Kathy Escobar finds hope in seeing a spirit of love in action emerging in the church. * Nadia Bolz-Weber reflects on the the beautiful things she sees emerging in her church community. * Chad Holtz writes on our Our Emerging Jewishness. * MojoJules describes her organic entry into the emerging church and reflects on moving forward with a new public face. * Danielle Shoyer reflects on what is emerging in the church. * Brian Merritt offers his pros and cons of the emerging church. * Julie Clawson is grateful for emerging globalized Christianity. * Susan Philips points out that emergence happens as G-d redeems our shattered realities. * Mike Clawson reflects on the non-western voices that brought him to the emerging conversation. * Jake Bouma suggest that what is emerging is a collapse into simplicity. * Liz Dyer believes a chastened epistemology is a valuable characteristic emerging out of the church today. * Rachel Held Evans writes on what is changing in the church. * Tia Lynn Lecorchick describes the emerging movement as a wood between worlds (from The Magician’s Nephew). * Amy Moffitt shares her journey towards a theology of humility. * Travis Mamone comments on the need for the emerging church to rely on the word of God. * Sa Say reflects on the the prick of doubt. * David Henson lists what he sees as what is emerging in the church. * Angela Harms writes in in defense of emergent. * Wendy Gritter asks how we can listening to the voices from the margins. * Bruce Epperly comments on the largeness of spirit of emerging spirituality. * Linda Jamentz reflects on listening to the voices from the margins in church. * Lisa Bain Carlton hopes that our emerging conversation can respond humbly to our moment in time. * Christine Sine asks how far are we willing to be transformed.

Redefining Lukewarm
March 25, 2010

I’ve been trying to make shorter, more ADD-friendly posts, especially since this particular layout makes paragraphs look longer than they actually are. But I just couldn’t trim this one that much. So I hope you’ll read this short story regardless…

I’m about 95% recovered from a nasty bout with a lung infection. I’m already somewhat OCD when it comes to ailments (of any kind) and I sometimes trend towards hypochondria. If I’ve got a headache I’ll think it indicates a brain tumor. Or if fluorescent lighting emphasizes a bluish hue in my finger tips, I’ll think I’m suffering a systemic blood clot that may result in an aneurysm. So for the past three weeks I’ve perceived myself more as a helpless, pale recipient of The Plague than a normally healthy 30-something.

But this bout did in fact involve several episodes of high fever, terribly painful, persistent coughing, and I ended up losing about 10 pounds over 10 days. And you must understand that I’m not used to fever. One day, for example, I gave a presentation at work, then almost immediately afterward I started feeling awfully cold, almost shivering. I was achy and feverish feeling, so I went home. I in fact had an elevated temperature.

People told me that I should focus on nourishment. Drink plenty of water of course, but feed yourself healthy things. Oh, that was wonderful…because I had absolutely no appetite. The thought of eating was repulsive. And some people say that you should take a hot bath and bundle up. Others say you should go naked.

I took a hot bath and bundled up. That felt right. I donned a long-sleeve shirt and a thick jacket, thick sweat pants, thick socks, wool-lined house shoes…and yes, gloves…In my 75-degree house. But then I got hot as hell. So I started removing clothes. But if I removed too much clothing, I would start feeling chilled. Perfect. I removed the gloves, that was okay, although I distinctly felt the cooler air settle on my hands, I could handle it. I removed my down ski jacket. That felt okay. Rolled up my sleeves. Shit, that’s too cold. Got goose bumps. Pushed the sleeves back down. Ahhh, better. Removed something else. Oops. Too much. Okay, better now. Oh wait, too cold. And on and on the process went, very gradually, until I ended up naked on the bed with the fan on. I fell comfortably asleep and woke up feeling much better (for that day).

But I had to go gradually. I had to pay attention to my body and go at its pace. I couldn’t just apply one rule altogether. I couldn’t just go from bundled to naked or vice-versa in one move. I had to blend practices. And by no means could I freaking “nourish” myself. Water, sure. Fruit? Fuck off. I just could not force feed myself.

During this process a mental light flicked on. I was checking my email while shivering and it hit me. I started crying. Maybe the fever was seeping into my brain and was about to cause an aneurysm and thus the sensitive emotions, but the moment was special nonetheless:

Most of my life I was taught that, spiritually speaking, you absolutely must be on one side or the other. You must be on fire, hot for God, or cold as the devil’s heart, devoted to Satan himself. You cannot be a fence-straddler. You are either fully with God or against him. You are either with the church or with the world. You are either a God-fearing conservative Republican or you’re a left-wing communist dictator lover. You must either go to Sunday school and youth group every Sunday and Wednesday and never ever hang out with those kids who smoke, or you might as well be a devil-worshiper. There is no in-between. Otherwise, according to Revelations 3:16, you are lukewarm and God will spit you out of his mouth like the snot you are.

Now, if you start getting confused by hanging out with those kids who smoke or the left-wingers, the demons are starting to get to you (and that’s probably why you’re sick) and they’ll try to pull you over to their side. And since you can’t be in-between, you had better start getting back into the Word of God and nourish your spirit and rebuke that spirit of confusion. You’ve opened the door to demons, so you’ve GOT to take the medicine of the Word. You have to meditate on scripture day and night. Fill your mind with God’s Word so there’s no room for the enemy. You have to get yourself red hot, on fire for God, to burn away the sin in your life.

Those were the instructions. Force feed yourself Scripture. Either spend all your spare time at church or you might as well be getting drunk and fornicating. Admittedly, I may be exaggerating the instructions a bit, but the essence remains.

But I think what I learned from my recent experiences with managing high fever can apply to a spiritual journey as well. I learned that you cannot force feed yourself something you really don’t want. Otherwise you’re just adding another layer of stress to your healing process. I learned that maybe you can’t always apply either the make-yourself-hot OR the make-yourself-cold approach. Sometimes, to remain healthy, you have to alternate between the two. You need a little heat and a little cold. And you need to do it at a pace that feels right, that assists with the natural, intuitive processes.

So maybe instead of stressing about being either-or and condemning ourselves and others for not choosing sides, we can choose to see “lukewarm” as a good thing. It’s about balance, not compromise. And I don’t necessarily mean a balance between “good” and “evil,” but rather a balance in our perception in what really is good and what is evil. And it’s about taking things at a natural pace. Receiving input and giving output as we feel compelled, not as we try to compel ourselves or others.

Maybe I can learn something in conversations with “the other.” Maybe there’s a reason I prefer to hang out with atheists than Christians. Maybe there’s a reason that I am intuitively drawn to rejects more than winners. And maybe, instead of stressing about not memorizing enough Bible verses – or not reading the Bible at all – I can pick up a holy book only if and when I feel compelled to. Maybe then I would actually get something more out of it than the pride of being able to say I spent four hours reading it.

Because, whatever God’s attributes may or may not be, I believe that an almighty designer of the universe might suggest a more holistic approach to spirituality and life in general. By holistic I mean balanced, unforced, intuitive. But perhaps a certain first-century prophet once said it best:

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” (Matthew 11:28)

Peace to you.

Digging for Lent
February 17, 2010

I grew up in a non-denominational church where we never really talked about the Christian tradition of Lent. I never knew anything about it other than, “That’s when the Catholics walk around with an ash cross on the heads.” And as far as what had been implied to me about such things, it might as well have been a Hindu event, because Hindus put stuff on their foreheads too. (as the image above illustrates)

When I went to college, even though it was a charismatic Christian college, there were at least some there who had come from more liturgical traditions, like Lutheran, Methodist, Catholic, Presbyterian, or Episcopalian, but not many. And there were some theology majors who seemed to be trying out the latest tradition they learned about from their “liberal” profs. And I had a little side gig as a singer at a Methodist church, so I started hearing a bit more about Lent.

I learned that it is part of the Christian calendar, for starters. I really didn’t even know there was an official Christian calendar other than Christmastime and Easter. But that explained some of themes our pastor spoke on when it wasn’t Christmas or Easter but it seemed like some special event was going on that I must have missed the memo about. Since then, I’ve learned a bit more about such traditions, and even though I grew up solidly Christian, it seems each year I find out something else I really didn’t know about, like Maundy Thursday and such. Anyway, I just learned a little more about Lent and I’d like to share it.

My friend Julie (julieclawson.com), the gifted author of Everyday Justice (if you’re into social justice, environmentalism, or local food, you’ll love it), posted on her OneHandClapping blog a note that straightens out something about the Lent discipline of personal sacrifice. You should read the whole post, but here’s one thing that stuck out:

“…Lent isn’t about denial, it is about transformation. It is the season in which we prepare to encounter Christ’s sacrifice by endeavoring to become more Christ like ourselves.”

Now, I still find myself quite awkward around Lent season; maybe its allergies. But even as someone who no longer affirms all the tenets of Christianity, I still want to be more like Jesus or at least try to follow his teachings. And so I’m going to try taking Julie’s advice and keep my thoughts about Lent simple: Just try to embody the things Jesus taught. Things like love and peace and forgiveness. I don’t have to be a Christian to do that. So I think an agnostic can practice Lent, and so can an atheist, or a Buddhist or Hindu…and even a Christian. I may not walk around with ash on my head, but I can try to at least walk more than I talk.