Friday, August 31, 2012

Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?

I was able to get an advance copy of Brian McLaren's newest book (to be released Sept. 11) which addresses the centrally important issue of how to be genuinely and strongly Christian, while at the same time respecting and valuing people of other faiths. It is a far-reaching and wide-ranging book, touching on nearly every aspect of Christian theology at some point, yet its main focus in on analyzing and offering an alternative to the two dominant ways that Christians form their religious identity. McLaren labels these two kinds of religious identity as "strong-hostile" and "weak-benevolent." 

A strong-hostile identity has a strongly and clearly defined sense of being Christian, but a hostile posture towards others who disagree with them. In this mode, the strength of one's religious identity depends on increasing hostility towards outsiders. By "hostility," he doesn't just mean actual violence (although it includes that), but an attitude and mindset that sees other faiths as totally bankrupt and their adherents as completely lost. This type of spiritual identity is typical of religious conservatives. 

A weak-benevolent identity, on the other hand, has a very open, tolerant, and respectful approach to people of other faiths, but this is gained by sacrificing anything unique to the Christian faith. In this mindset and attitude, differences among people of different faiths are minimized and commonalities are maximized to avoid conflict. Folks with this type of religious identity weaken their own particular religious affiliation so as to not give offense to others. The type of spiritual identity is typical of religious liberals.

McLaren's goal is to articulate a Christian path that goes beyond both of these options and creates a strong-benevolent religious identity. In other words, to be more loving and open and grateful towards people of other faiths, we don't need to become less Christian. We need to become more Christian. He very compellingly argues that the more we become like Jesus, the more we will want to form friendships with people who are "other" to us, and the better we will be able to discern the traces of divine grace and truth in different religious traditions. 

Thinking through how to be strongly Christian while also being authentically loving towards non-Christians is one of the most important tasks we Christians have today. It is my conviction that our theological beliefs about the eternal fate of non-Christians has a huge effect on how we relate to our non-Christian co-workers, friends, and family members here and now. If you are convinced, for example, that your brother-in-law is going to hell because he is Jewish, it may be hard to really have a good relationship with him here and now! What we believe about what will happen then greatly affects what we do now.

To help us think through this issue, I have invited Dr. John Sanders, a noted theologian and author, and currently Professor of Religious Studies at Hendrix College, to come speak to us at PHUMC on 9/11 at 6:30pm in Wesley Hall. A flyer is posted below for more details. Please invite your friends!

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The First Amendment and the First Commandment

The last several weeks I have read more blogs, articles, and news reports about the Chic-fil-a controversy than I would care to admit. They basically fall in three main categories: Dan Cathy is the anti-Christ, Dan Cathy is now the fourth person of the Trinity, and then there are those that get a little more nuanced and support Cathy's rights while at the same time questioning his statements and business donation practices. I'll go ahead and tell you, this little reflection falls in the last category. 

There is one thing that I think a lot of Christians have overlooked in this debate, and that is that the First Commandment should be more important for our decisions about what we say and how we say it than the First Amendment.  In other words, for followers of Christ, love of God and neighbor should shape the way we choose to exercise our political right to free speech. Although I am a huge fan of free speech (after all, I make a living spouting my views on various things on a regular basis), being a Christian entails only exercising our rights in a way that communicates love to others. The Bible, after all, is centered on a person who chose to give up his rights for the sake of loving others fully (Phil 2:1-11). 

According to Cathy, people who support gay marriage are "shaking our fists at God" and are "prideful" and "arrogant." This kind of accusation has the full support of the First Amendment, but it falls very short of the First Commandment. In numerous conversations, I have defended conservative folks from charges of being "bigots" and "homophobes." While I am sure some are, I don't personally know any of them. Most conservative folks I know do not loathe gay people, wish them no harm, include them in their circle of friends, and may even support civil unions. They simply are being faithful to what they think the Bible teaches when they say that a Christian marriage should be only between a man and a woman. I now think that view is too problematic for me to personally hold, but I certainly do not think that folks who do hold it are necessarily stupid or prejudiced. Figuring out the mind of Christ in the deep moral issues of our day is not an easy matter by any stretch.

So, here is the beef I have with Dan Cathy: his language was not only inappropriate, it is empirically false and, I believe, slanderous. The gay Christians I have known and know have struggled deeply to be faithful to God while coming to terms with their sexuality. The image of closed-fists in arrogant rebellion simply does not match up to the experience of gay Christians. The image of open hands in painful longing probably better fits the experience of most such folks. 

When he made this statement, Cathy assumed the worst about those he disagrees with. If the First Commandment is to have any traction in our lives, and particularly in the way we speak to others, then I think we must strive to assume the best about other people, especially in terms of their motives. I would want those who disagree with me to assume the best about my motives, therefore, if I am to be faithful to what is most important to Jesus, I should do that for others. 

Cathy was well within his political rights to say what he said (and, for what it is worth, I believe the cities that are trying to keep his business out are violating his political rights). It just saddens me that so many Christians seem to care much more about defending his political right to free speech than in considering how hurtful his words must have felt to gay Christian brothers and sisters who are struggling deeply and sincerely with how to be faithful to God in their lives. 

I continue to be amazed that gay people want anything to do with the church. They must love Jesus a lot to put up with some of the things his church does to them. 

As Christians, the meal that we choose to eat that defines us is not a chicken sandwich and waffle fries. It is bread and wine, given to us to empower us to live out the First Commandment.