Here is the typical scenario when religion meets journalism: There are traditional believers holding the line against liberal activism. The reality is rarely as simple as usual meme would have us believe.
The simplistic binary, we-versus-they approach to the dynamic world called Christianity is so common, that many ordinary believers buy into it, and journalists, many of whom peer into the Church only when news is breaking, and who often see the world through the lens of the horse-race make matters worse.
Where this meme does us all dirt is that it refuses to recognize that very often change happens in the church when honest believers of good faith read the same scriptures and hold the same essential doctrines but come to different conclusions as to the applications of our beliefs in society. Our own language of “liberal” or “conservative” (or, if you like “reasserters” and “reappraisers”) obscures the fact that very often the differences we experience are not the result of different beliefs–or even different theology–but from different understandings of the implications of our common faith.
To assume that someone in favor of full-inclusion for gays and lesbians including marriage equality must necessarily be a a “post-Christian” is as much non-sense as assuming that everyone opposed to women’s ordination must always be a fundamentalist.
Mark Jordan reflects on this complexity and why most of the media miss the nuances and complexity of Christianity–all religious communities for that matter– in a blog post on Religion Dispatches.
Jordan starts with Peter Steinfels’ last “Beliefs” column in the New York Times as a starting place. In the columns, Steinfels sets up the typical understanding of conflicts within and around religion: that religious tradition is in a pitched battle against secular liberalism.
Of course, the division is also misleading—to use no stronger word. It depends on two sleights-of-hand. First, Steinfels has to forget that “significant elements” of Christianity hold, often for traditional reasons, that same-sex marriage is religiously justified—indeed, that refusing it constitutes a religious fault. Then Steinfels has to ignore all the ways in which current “traditional” positions aren’t traditional at all.
The first trick is easier to catch than the second. While there are of course figures who criticize church teachings on “cultural and political” grounds, there have been for half a century now dozens of theological and historical writers in favor of changing those teachings. Those writers don’t take themselves to be resorting to secular principles to make their arguments. Indeed, they have frequently been critical of social views toward gender and sexuality.
Take Sherwin Bailey, who published Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition more than fifty years ago—thirty years before Steinfels began his column. As a writer and church lecturer, Bailey helped lead the Church of England to review its teaching on homosexuality. An Anglican priest, a pastor, and a historian, he had theological reasons for thinking the churches should change their teaching on sex, some of them drawn from new medical or psychological discoveries. But he also knew—he meticulously argued—that “traditional” church teachings on sex had themselves been cobbled together over centuries out of dubious material: misreadings of biblical passages, undisguised social prejudices, fantasies masquerading as science. When “significant elements” of the Church of England began to change their view on homosexuality, it wasn’t because they wanted to throw over religious tradition in order to embrace some passing secular trend. It was because they had been led, for religious reasons, to re-examine what was being claimed as traditional.
Bailey’s story has been repeated many times in the last fifty years. It’s impossible even to summarize all the teaching, writing, and preaching that has gone into distinguishing the core of Christian traditions from their accretions and deformations. What we are living through is not a fight between a pristine Christianity and the encroaching world, but a divide within Christianity over what exactly should count as tradition. It isn’t a fight between religious conservatives and activist revolutionaries. It is a deep disagreement inside Christianity over what conserving faithfulness means.
Jordan says that in the end “no reporter has yet bought my story.” Just the same, he pleads that journalists to reconsider the usual story-line saying “It’s not a story about the debate so much as a position within it.”
Jordan’s advice is one that we believers ought to consider as well. Does the usual story-line of “we-versus-they” which ends up minimizing both the people we agree with (the heroes) along with those we disagree with (the ignoramuses) in the service of an easy to remember conflict narrative really serve the God and the Church we all claim to love?