This is the second part of my response to this list of email questions I received on Monday. Again, text is verbatim from my email response.
At any rate, your questions.
While I don’t want to go through the list of excellent questions you’ve posed in bulleted form, I do want to make a couple of comments on some of the general form of questions you’ve posed.
The first type is the question: “Do we really believe it is wrong to ___?” I think, unfortunately, the answer in many cases is yes. While this may be incomprehensible to some of us, there truly are people in our church who feel, with what they believe is biblical basis, that it is wrong to have a quartet, it is wrong to have a female speak, even on a video, that it is wrong even to separate communion and the offering. These positions seem absurd to us, of course, but to them they are very important, very real, and very grounded in “scriptural fact”. We, based on our interpretation of Scripture, disagree, but here comes the hard part – how do we conclude that one of us has the correct set of Scriptural facts, while the other group doesn’t. Both sides would of course say that the other side is somehow being dishonest, or at the very least looking at things inconsistently or starting from bad assumptions – but therein lies the problem. *Both* of us are using the same set of reasoning to say that we’re right, and the others are wrong.
One of the most difficult spiritual questions I’ve been grappling with over the past 6-8 months as I’ve been in discussions with a variety of my friends is how to resolve this dilemma – in some sense, any scriptural interpretation by a community of faith actively examining scripture and honestly seeking God is valid in their context. While “actively examining scripture” and “honestly seeking God” are certainly somewhat subjective terms, and while there is a very thin line between syncretism and discernment, this is both a very disturbing and liberating statement, and it may perhaps form the basis for a post-modern Christian context. Simply because we have chosen to interpret Scripture in a pseudo-historical/critical nature doesn’t mean that is the only way Scripture can be interpreted, or even that it is the best way. The uncomfortable thing for many of us is that this idea reframes the question of “Who is right?” and answers it with the rather odd statement: “Both are, or can be.”
Let me explain with a more concrete example: you ask the question “Do we truly believe it is wrong to listen to a choir, etc?” Let me reframe that question: “Do we truly believe it is wrong to believe it is wrong to listen to a choir?” In other words, we may believe their particular interpretation of scripture is incorrect (i.e. we believe it is fine to listen to a choir, have instruments, take the Lord’s supper on Tuesday at 3:40AM), but do we believe they are wrong for believing it? This ties in closely with Question 7 you’ve posed. As I’ve visited other denominations and churches, I am clearly convinced that unfortunately, the answer is a resounding “yes” – but not only for us. This is a subtle point, but I think an important one – obviously *everyone* believes their interpretation is correct – everyone believes they are right. The best we can do is Brian Mclaren’s now famous and attacked statement – “I know there are many things I am probably wrong about, but I don’t know which things they are.”
Also, it is important to remember that there are many ways in which we ourselves may be perceived as allowing “fear to hold us back” in how we live our lives. Even among those who call themselves “progressive”, I think the discussion of whether or not it is acceptable to drink alcohol in any quantity or situation would be a divisive issue. We *must* be able to work together and worship God with people we sincerely and profoundly disagree with. I will not lie that there are many times I don’t enjoy the thought of this proposition – most often on Sunday mornings, the time of the week when I generally feel furthest from God, the time of the week when I see just how far my goals and desires are from the people who stand around me. Some Sundays I want to walk away and never come back – like the first Sunday of the semester when Kelly spoke about the waitress and there was general laughter from the left side of the auditorium. But then I speak to someone who was listening, who was open, and whose perspective was changed, at least for a moment, by those words. If some of us do not remain, there will be no voice, and all our efforts, hopes, and dreams will be for naught.
Finally on this question, the more I speak with these people, the clearer it becomes that they don’t believe these things because they’re trying to annoy me, or because they are simply stuck in the 50’s. They often have clear, thought out, logical reasons for thinking the way they do (though again, reasons I disagree with). It is easy to cast them as resisting change simply for the sake of resisting change, but I am less and less convinced of that as I’ve discussed with them.
Another form of question you pose which is closely related, but importantly different is “Why do we believe it is wrong to _____?” The why, I think in this case, is very important. I’d like us to consider the case of a particular very conservative man in our church. He did not grow up in the CofC, but was “converted” around the time he was in college. He turned his back on his parents and family, almost to the point of disowning them, truly believing to this day they were not saved because they did not believe what he does. This is a sad tale, and one that speaks unfortunately of just how far we have to go. Consider, however, this man, and what it would require for him to change his viewpoint. Think of the amount he has invested over his considerable life in what he believes, and think of what it has cost him. Think of the broken relationships with his family, all because of his desire to be “right”, and his certainty that he is. How hard do you think it will be to change his perspective? What will it do to the tapestry of his life to admit he was wrong?
I drove back from Dallas yesterday, and before I left I had 4-5 cups of coffee with my sister. I dropped her off at the airport and headed back. I wanted to get to Ennis before stopping, because I knew there was a gas-station and a place to eat there. The problem, of course, was that I really needed to go to the bathroom. I knew I needed to stop, but I was sure I could make it. As the miles ticked off on the odometer, my situation became more and more painful, but even though there were plenty of places to stop and relieve my burden, my original goal was still in my head, and I thought to myself “Well, I’ve already endured this much and come this far, it’s only a bit further…” Eventually, of course, I stopped about 15 miles short of Ennis to go to the bathroom, but the point remains – the further I went, even though I knew it would be better if I stopped, the more invested I became in my original plan, and the more difficult it became to want to change it.
Final installment tomorrow…