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Saturday, May 22, 2004

When is politics theology? And vice versa.

Two articles in the New York Times worth reading in juxtaposition: On the front page, "Conservative Group Amplifies Voice of Protestant Orthodoxy" by Laurie Goodstein and David D. Kirkpatrick, and Peter Steinfels's "Beliefs" column, "A Thorny Issue Begets Much Reading" (reg req'd).

I think it's indisputable that "the church elite in the mainline denominations are to the left of the people in the pews," as Diane Knippers, one of the founders of the American Anglican Council and president of the neoconservative Institute on Religion and Democracy, says. I also find it disheartening how many religious liberals just skip theology on the way to the protest rally. But this doesn't mean that theological and political conservatives occupy the moral high ground. It does mean that liberals have their work cut out for them, though.

One of the most vexing problems in the church today is that most people have already arrived at their conclusions, would prefer not to know how they got there, and have no interest in what other people think. Steinfels reviews The Way Forward? Christian Voices on Homosexuality and the Church, a 1997 collection of essays that happens to include liberals like Rowan Williams and Jeffrey Johns, who have both become much better known in recent years as the archbishop of Canterbury and the priest he asked not to become the first openly gay bishop in the Anglican Communion. Steinfels writes:

Despite the inevitable unevenness of any collection like this, and a disappointing sense that the evangelical authors of the St. Andrew Day's Statement have not quite engaged their critics, "The Way Forward?" operates at a level far above the usual battling about a handful of biblical passages and the usual volleying of stereotypes and sentimentalities. Yet to read these essays is almost to despair.

For one thing, simply by way of contrast, they bring to mind how rarely it is acknowledged that the current debates about homosexuality involve matters that remain unsettled, matters about which serious thinking is still required and about which more than one side may have points worth considering. The prevailing attitudes are quite different: Either resistance to revising the traditional Christian teaching (or the traditional legal arrangements) can only be the fruit of bigotry or uninformed fundamentalism; or the demand for change must spring from accommodation to a permissive culture or surrender to relativism, individualism, hedonism, etc., etc.

But still more daunting is the fact that these theological essays are in fact genuinely theological. The St. Andrew's Day Statement begins its brief exposition of underlying principles with the straightforward declaration, "Jesus Christ is the one word of God. He came in human flesh, died for our sins, and was raised for our justification." And the essays, even where they attend to empirical and cultural issues, make God and God's self-revelation, whether in Scripture, creation or tradition, the framework for their judgments.

This is not, in other words, psychology or sociology or political philosophy presented in a religious wrapper. It is theology. It is a theological exploration of a theological question. And who, in the sound-bite-driven state of religion no less than of secular culture, actually has the patience, the appetite or the resources for that?

And that is the problem with the conservatives, whose talk of "gracious" separation is really a quest for the power to kick liberals out the door, and a problem with the liberals, who sometimes say they want "dialogue" while looking down on people who don't already agree with them. It is easier to see enemies than to hear what the Spirit is saying in their lives.

Yes, I think the well-funded Institute on Religion and Democracy is sowing division — Schism R Us! — but I also think liberals do themselves and the church a disservice when they fail to notice that their opponents sometimes tell the truth. Is it a problem when denominational structures don't represent their members? Yes. So should the denominations simply adopt whatever is the more popular position? No. But they must find ways to offer the theological, scriptural, and pastoral resources that will help bridge the gap. Since it is more likely that liberals will learn to take theology seriously than that conservatives will learn to take dialogue seriously, we have our work cut out for us.

Copyright © 2004 by Philocrites | Posted 22 May 2004 at 1:05 PM

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