Generous Orthodoxy  

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Theological sickness in the churches

For some years I have been searching for a short, pithy description of the deep divide in the American mainline churches. This week, I think I found it; and yet I did not find it.

In the February 19-26 New Yorker magazine, Peter Boyer, who often writes about the Church, speaks of "two fundamentally different views of the Christian faith, one oriented to a judgmental God and the promise of redemption, the other seeing God's will at work in the pursuit of social justice."

I believe that a great many on the so-called "liberal" end of the spectrum in the church would assent to this as an accurate description of the distinction between themselves and the so-called "conservative" or (alas for the hijacking of these formerly good words) "orthodox" wing. In this respect, therefore, I believe I have found a useful capsule identifying our dilemma. I think this is the way that many leaders in the mainline churches, both lay and ordained, would describe the division.

In another respect, however, Mr. Boyer's description is disastrous. I can't prove it, but I would guess that he got this formulation from someone on the "left" of the church controversy. The use of the word "judgmental" is the tip-off. In American usage today, this word always has a negative connotation. In the churches it is constantly used, especially by the theologically liberal wing, to discredit the more traditional wing. The implication is that the liberals are loving, accepting, embracing (not always the case, as many can attest) whereas conservatives believe in a "judgmental" God and are themselves judgmental.

Yet in the Apostles' Creed we still affirm that Christ "will come again to judge the living and the dead." In the Te Deum we say "We believe that you [Christ] will come to be our Judge." Most important, the Hebrew prophets speak constantly, as if with one voice, of God as judge, measuring all injustice against his own righteousness and condemning it wherever it is to be found. Nor is the idea missing from the Wisdom literature. Therefore, the continuing resistance from liberals to the idea of God as judge is perplexing. How can God condemn social injustice if God is not "judgmental"? And, more subtly, isn't it a form of anti-Judaism to imply that the God of the Old Testament is "judgmental" and therefore inferior? To be sure, Boyer's description does not mention the Old Testament, but the fallacious notion that the "New Testament God" is not "judgmental" pervades the church, as I am in a position to testify.

As an ardent student of the Hebrew prophets, I understand them to say that the God who repeatedly and in no uncertain terms summons us to resist injustice is the selfsame "judgmental" God who condemns those who perpetrate injustice. More often than not -- and this is a crucial insight -- it is God's own people whom he addresses. It is of utmost importance to understand that both victim and perpetrator are in need of deliverance -- of redemption. This theme is found throughout the Pentateuch, the history of the monarchy, and the prophets. There are no "good guys" in the Old Testament; there are sinners in need of redemption. When theological liberals call the church to do the work of justice -- to "build the Reign of God" -- there are certain implicit assumptions. Rarely do we get the sense that the speaker understands himself/herself as one under judgment and therefore just as much in need of redemption as the "unjust."

I have been rereading some of Will Campbell's writings. He was neither a "liberal" nor a "conservative," but radical -- a man who knew himself to be one who shared in the general human condition. He would be the last to suggest that our need for redemption has been overemphasized. Once when I said smugly that I had repented of the racism that was taught me by my family, Will said sharply to me, "Fleming, we're all racists." William Stringfellow was another who, for all his seeming hauteur, knew that we all stood under the judgment of God and were radically in need of deliverance.

From the perspective of theological "conservatism," there is much that is lacking as well. The current issue of Christianity Today describes the sadness and discouragement of blacks who have tried their best to serve with white evangelical agencies. Everyone is ready to hug them and call them "brother," but few will truly engage with them as equals. Personally, I am suspicious of the new evangelical enthusiasm for William Wilberforce. It is a lot easier to wax sentimental about "Amazing Grace" and send money overseas to redeem slaves (a worthy project but of dubious usefulness, I have gathered from my reading) than it is to address the serious racial divide in our churches here at home. (Footnote: I have recently come from a meeting with the Evangelical Covenant Church, whose leaders are very unusual in their commitment to racial and ethnic diversity not only in their national and regional headquarters but also in local parishes. This has not come without pain, as they are quick to admit.)

There are signs of movement on the Christian Right with regard to poverty and the environment, which is very encouraging. Still, the left wing of the church is justified in its criticism of the right for its continuing neglect of social justice, especially here in our own country. We should all be studying the prophets more diligently. Nor should we think that we can escape into the New Testament; Stringfellow has reminded us that there are no more political passages in the Bible than the Passion narratives and the book of Revelation.

The worst thing about Boyer's formulation is its implication that judgment and redemption are somehow unworthy of God, diminishing to humans, and in opposition to social justice. The Old Testament, just as much as the New (re-read Jeremiah 31) teaches us that the judgment of God who redeems humanity and the creation is eternally preceded and followed by his grace.

Boyer's description, though it is quite true on the operational level, can only encourage an entrenched, and tragically false, dichotomy on the theological level. We should resist this false antithesis at every possible opportunity.