At the emergent/progressive Christian Wild Goose festival this year, I was extremely fortunate to meet a new kind of Christian.
I was raised with a sort of American Zen / New Age philosophy. But growing up in the American Southeast, I met a lot of Christians. Christians I’ve known well mostly fall into a few well-defined categories:
- Christians who are devout, and concerned about the fate of my soul, and actively trying to convert me. For the most part, these are family members. There are, of course, devout Christians outside my family who try to convert me, but I never get to know them well, thank the gods.
- Christians who are devout, and probably concerned about the fate of my soul, but are more interested in me as a human being they can relate to. These folks generally avoid discussing religion with me, because that might be awkward, and imperil our friendship.
- Christians who are not particularly devout, or religious at all; or perhaps they’re spiritual-but-not-religious. Again, these folks are more interested in our friendship than the fate of my eternal soul (or theirs).
- The rarest type: Christians who are devout, but cognizant of the place of Christianity as one faith among many, and comfortable enough with their spirituality to openly and easily discuss theology with me without trying to convince me. When we discuss religion, which is awesome, we mostly tell about our personal experiences, listen without judgement, and walk rather gingerly on our common ground.
But at the Wild Goose I met devout Christians who not only discussed theology openly, and were conscious of Christianity’s changing status in western culture, but dove deep into areas where they were uncertain. That takes courage.
The Wild Goose was a large festival with many different sects and sub-faiths represented, and it’s not my intent to survey it all here. You can learn more about it at the web site and from the other people blogging about it, especially my amazing fiancée, who’s doing a big three-part series on the festival. But, if I may be allowed to summarize and simplify, everyone there agreed that Christianity is at a crossroads. It cannot continue as it has.
There are too many questions — about the environment, poverty, the status of the LGBTQ community, abortion, war and peace, etc. etc. — questions that the old church authority and traditional interpretations of the Bible no longer answer to everyone’s satisfaction. And this dissatisfaction has been driving people away from Christianity.
But — and this is important! — the Christians at this festival were not asking, How can we bring these people back to the Church? No, instead they asked, How can Christianity answer these questions deeply, insightfully, and compassionately, without losing its Christian-ness?
Asking that kind of question takes tremendous courage. The answers will take you away from dogma, and also away from your comfort area, towards truth.
These are questions about right and wrong. But the thing about morality is that regardless of your religion, usually your ideas about right and wrong come from your family or your peers, not from your good book or church authority.
This statement is liable to be controversial, so let me go a bit deeper into it.
For example, most Catholics in America today approve of the idea of homosexual marriage. Why did they decide this? The church didn’t tell them, and they didn’t get it from the Bible. Most likely it’s just a reflection of the strong recent general trend in America towards approval of equal marriage rights.
Another, perhaps more surprising, example. When most people think of family values (monogamy, abstinence before marriage, and avoidance of adultery, divorce, promiscuity, and remarriage) they often think of fundamentalist Christianity; but in fact most of the earliest Christians — the Greeks and Romans — lived in a much more freewheeling society. Around the time of Jesus, divorce, remarriage, adultery, and children outside of wedlock had become quite common, especially among the upper classes, and the pagan emperor Augustus felt it necessary to impose harsh penalties on those who broke their marriage vows. Things continued to grow more relaxed and easygoing over the ensuing centuries, as Christianity spread and the Empire became officially Christian.
So where did “Christian family values” come from? From the invading pagan Germanic tribespeople, who toppled the Empire as they converted to Christianity. They felt the Christian Romans, with their sex and children outside of wedlock, and their easy divorce and remarriage, and women with almost the same rights as men, were decadent. It was they who believed most strongly in the family values still held so dear by their fundamentalist Christian descendants today. You can read a few more details here.
So for most people, the wellspring of moral feeling is friends and family, not church. Even Richard Rohr, a Franciscan friar, said at the Wild Goose: “Culture, not religion, forms morality.”
Of course morality can come from other places too. Compelling personal experience obviously shapes one’s moral character: if you are raised to think women or blacks or Mexicans are lazy and stupid, but then go out into the world and see counterexamples everywhere, you will (with luck) be compelled to change your moral stance on prejudice. And sometimes, I believe, Spirit itself can reach into your heart and lead you to a new moral horizon (Carl McColman, a Catholic contemplative author, spoke movingly on this topic at the festival).
But regardless of where your heart finds its moral center, it almost never comes directly from church authority or a Good Book. And this leaves you with a quandary: because, if you want to call yourself a good Christian, or a good Buddhist or Muslim or whatever, you have to bow to the authority and swear by the book.
What most people do is just ignore the parts of the doctrine they don’t agree with, and hope it will go away.
But the Christians at the Wild Goose were not satisfied to do that. They had the courage to look their doctrine in the eye and say, “I believe. But we need to talk.”
In the second part of this post, I’ll give examples of conversation with doctrine, and ask what doctrine is really for.