For those in and coming from the evangelical Christian tradition, which is often designed and constructed around key universal principles (this is a helpful summary) that transcend culture, history and worldviews (despite evangelicalism being a worldview of its own) we are also shaped by scriptural messages and interpretations that are authoritative as well as being about authority.
I find that in evolving conversations and theology in the twenty first century church, academy and communities much of the tension and discord between groups and people who disagree comes back to the fears and changes that deconstruction implies. These fears and the risk of change are massively conditioned by the presence, interpretation and application of certain texts within scripture that make doubting, changing or disagreeing risky and dangerous teaching. Influential passages of scripture in this vein for me were (and are – because I’m always shedding, deconstructing and re-enchanting):
“-many will turn away from me…sin will be rampant everywhere, and the love of many will grow cold” (Matthew 24:9-13) – “But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind – Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do.” ( James 1:6-8)
There are many more that those who have come from, remain within or who have left the evangelical tradition will be able to talk and write about.
I think what I keep encountering and bumping up against in discourse are the evocative pressures these scriptures can and have created, positively and negatively. These passages take, for example, the anxious form of an internal monologue/captivity such as ‘If I utter doubt or disagreement or questions I will be accused of a cold heart, a lack of faith, as weak, unstable and I will be fulfilling the prophecies of persecution in scripture – I’m not in – I’m out. ‘ It’s not a level of anxiety that I experience very much any more, but I think you only have to look at some of the criticism and reviews of different ideas within mainstream evangelicalism that can take on a very personal and judgemental nature and see that it’s a very understandable anxiety.
Faith communities and individuals are particularly unskilled, intolerant, frustrated and impatient with diversity and disagreement both within and outside of the church and faith community. I’d suggest scriptural passages, theology, church history and Christian militarism, extremism, conservatism and fundamentalism all have strongly influenced this. Within faith and encounters with and of God there is a hint of rightness, of perfection, of truth and assurance – a whisper, a taste, a flavour and we in our consumption, power obsessed world have wanted to turn that into something that is OURS, into absoluteness, authority, demands and returns. Ironically scripture is also infused with contradiction, indecision, emotion, pain and change, not to undermine God but to emphasise God. This is not an image or emphasis that is preferred in a world that demands and screams crucifixion. Unfortunately disgreement and difference in and from faith communities has become a version of what did not tolerate the peace, wisdom, patience and time of Jesus.
‘It seems, then,’ said Tirian, smiling himself, ‘that the stable seen from within and the stable seen from without are two different places’ – The Last Battle, C.S Lewis
So here’s some ideas that I think we need to consider in order to respect, draw out and share our differences without people rushing to put their backs against the wall crying ‘persecution!’ and without slapping people back, to be left smarting from accusations of heresy, cold love and not the right faith.
1) We need to make peace with diversity. It’s always been here, it’s not a characterisitic of the contemporary post-modern context. There’s always been different experiences, ideas, discussions and people in the world and in theology. We just live in a time where we can draw them all together, when people are less afraid to express themselves (sometimes only marginally), when a higher level of the population is literate and educated and has access to diverse theology and perspectives about keys issues and controversies. Where visions of the church and faith communities in scripture talked about unity, they also talked about diversity. Ideas about truth, certainty and authority have often been developed via and in response to power structures such as governments, emperors, colonialism and kings and queens. Discovery and knowledge can always explore ideas but not necessarily homogenise (make the same) the experiences, questions and faith responses of people throughout history and around the world.
2) We need to start exploring conflict and disagreement well, we need to be skilled and excellent at it. It’s not something to be afraid of, it’s not something that means we should launch accusations or cast aspersions. We are all discovering and recovering. We need to submit to each other’s experiences, faith and ideas, we need to share mutally in our image bearing place in creation rather than creating any kind of hierachy about who’s right and who’s wrong, who’s worked it out and who hasn’t, who is saved, who isn’t, who is lost and who is found. Disagreement and conflict if healthy can only deepen our relationships with each other, ourselves and with God, it’s usually about listening and listening is usually about attention, attention often is helped by love.
‘You see’ said Aslan. ‘They will not let us help them. They have chosen cunning instead of belief. Their prison is only in their own minds, yet they are in that prison; and so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out.’ – The Last Battle, C.S Lewis
3) We need to consider our strengths, weaknesses, privileges and oppression. When we disagree and when we engage in conflict we need to consider what is weighted behind us in terms of worldview, tradition and theology. The tentative doubt, question or idea may have legacy in the same way as a dominant perspective – we need to consider the ‘least of these’ because I think that is gospel patience, gospel time, and it is profoundly radical.
Many critics will suggest that this approach is ‘worldly’ that it is what mainstream culture does and therefore it is not radical. My understanding and trust is that God is not absent from mainstream culture, sometimes it’s easier for the gospel to be working there than within faith communities, in the same way that Jesus spent more time in a boat than in the temple. Mainstream culture isn’t that radical, but where it is being radical, the gospel is probably already working and the holiness is probably already happening.