An interesting discussion, somewhat peripherally about me …

Terry Mattingly wrote a piece about whether the label Evangelical fits me any more. That’s certainly a legitimate question – one I’m sometimes curious about myself. (I wrote about Conflicted Religious Identity Syndrome in my new book.)
Greg Metzger called me (a nice thing to do!) and asked one of the questions Terry Mattingly raised, and then wrote a response.
I think it’s fair to say that Terry’s original piece implied that one can identify a bona fide Evangelical (or smoke out a covert Mainline Liberal Protestant) based on three questions:

(1) Are biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Did this event really happen?
(2) Is salvation found through Jesus Christ, alone? Was Jesus being literal when he said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6)?
(3) Is sex outside of marriage a sin?

Terry’s three (actually five) questions make perfect sense to him, I’m sure. I suppose a simple “yes” answer to each means passing the Evangelical test. But to me his test questions are too interesting to simply pass or fail. They are jammed full of so many assumptions that they defy a simple yes or no (which is why Greg Metzger referred to the “do you still beat your wife” question). As I say in my new book, it’s very hard to understand a different paradigm from the outside.
Terry may intend his resurrection question as a test regarding whether one is an “Enlightenment rationalist-reductionist” who believes in a mechanistic universe in which nothing happens that can’t be explained by physics and mathematics, where the “supernatural” is absorbed into the natural, and the natural is reduced to the physical and mathematical, and so on. This is what Francis Schaeffer used to call a “closed impersonal universe of cause and effect.” There was a lot of surrender to these Enlightenment assumptions in the old liberalism – and Terry would be right to resist surrender.
Here’s where the paradigm problem comes in … part of what happened to me in my adult life is that this familiar dualistic world – that sees everything in terms of natural-supernatural, us-them, liberal-conservative, etc. – collapsed (or deconstructed) beneath my feet. I think that songwriter Peter Mayer captured it well in Holy Now. I didn’t go from being a supernaturalist to a naturalist: I went from a place of seeing a secular/natural world interrupted by a few sacred/miraculous interventions to living in a world where everything’s a miracle, where everything is shot through with the holy, where I have to take off my shoes (not literally) because it’s holy ground. (Songwriter Carrie Newcomer also captures this in her marvelous song Holy as the Day.)
Some folks will mock this, of course, or see it as evasion of the only question that matters.
As I told Greg Metzger when he called, I believe in the resurrection and have based my life upon it. The resurrection event has captured my imagination, won my heart, and become the story by which I seek to live. Here I am in my mid-50’s, and I confess that the event continues to bubble up with new depths of meaning I didn’t grasp before. So my faith in the resurrection is for me what has been called a “saturated event” – an event surpasses and overflows every attempt I have ever made to contain it. I guess that’s what faith is about – saying “I trust something is true,” while simultaneously saying, “And there’s more to it than I understand.”
Regarding his second question … one of the central discoveries of my adult life – that I’ve written about extensively – is a conviction that the word “salvation” doesn’t mean what I was taught it meant in my Evangelical upbringing (justification through penal substitutionary atonement that reverses the ontological curse of original sin so that individual souls can go to eternal bliss in heaven, not eternal conscious torment in hell). As I understand it now, it means something much closer to liberation (evoking the Exodus), rescue from being held captive by “this present evil age,” restoration on the path to original goodness, reconciliation with God, neighbor, enemy, self, and planet … reintroduction to abundant life, shalom, the reign or commonwealth of God, the healing of the earth. Ask me if Jesus is central to all this and I can give an enthusiastic yes.
I certainly believe John 14:6, but I don’t think it’s wise to interpret it as if John 14:5 said, “And Thomas came to him and said, ‘Master, what about those who have never heard of you or who follow other religions?'” Nor do I think it’s wise to assume that “through me” in 14:6 means “through the Christian religion,” or that “come to the Father” can be reduced to “going to heaven when you die.” (I explain all that in some detail in A New Kind of Christianity.) And my new book grapples with these matters in even more detail.
His question about sex outside of marriage is equally interesting. I’m for celibacy and fidelity – not promiscuity and infidelity. But the question may be intended to smoke out those who no longer hold to the traditional position against homosexuality (which has itself, of course, been changing, but that’s another story).
So does the E-word apply? I think all my books are works of evangelism, expressions of a truly evangelical spirit – in that they proclaim the good news of Christ (as I understand it) and call people to rethink everything and become followers of Christ’s new way of life and new vision of truth. But the Evangelical label/brand is being managed by others, so they’ll have to decide whether my assessment matches theirs.
I often think that my worst Evangelical sin isn’t dropping my opposition to gay people. I think it’s dropping the narrative I was taught that imposed on the world a liberal-conservative dualism where Evangelicals/Conservatives were the clean, the children of light, the faithful, etc., and Mainliners or Liberals or whatever were the unclean and apostate children of darkness. I think that both sides – along with all of us who don’t fit in either bucket – are a mix and mess of clean and unclean, light and dark, smart and stupid, etc. And I think God loves and blesses us all, even when we refuse to follow God’s example.
As I see it, something new is (sorry for this word) emerging. Many Mainline Protestants are (re)discovering the possibility of what Evangelicals call “a personal relationship with Christ.” They’re experiencing the Holy Spirit in ways that Pentecostals and monastic mystics used to feel they had a monopoly on. And many Evangelicals are (re)discovering that you can love and believe the Bible without using terms like “literal” and “inerrant” to describe it. More and more Mainline Protestants are warming up again to evangelism – not meaning proselytism, and not meaning accepting a certain theory of atonement, but meaning boldly proclaiming Jesus’ good news of the kingdom or reign or commonwealth of God and calling people to repentance and wholehearted, lifelong commitment in it. Many Evangelicals are becoming equally passionately committed to social justice – working for the poor, for peace, and for the planet. Many are moving beyond both pre-critical Evangelicalism and critical Liberalism to a post-critical terra nova … which is hard for many Evangelicals and Liberals alike to understand.
More and more of us are convinced that there is a convergence taking place among a growing minority of both MLP’s and Ev’s … along with Progressive Catholics, the peace churches, many in the ethnic churches, and still others as well. Someone recently told me that when she is forced to choose between the old conservative-liberal polarity, she feels she is being asked to choose between “the blind leading the blind” and “the bland leading the bland.” (I wouldn’t say it exactly that way myself.) Another friend describes those options as “ignorance on fire” and “intelligence on ice.” I’ll say it like this: God gave human beings both minds and hearts, and they want to employ both fully in the love and service of God, and sooner or later, we’ll all need to make room for that.
So, God bless Terry Mattingly and those who worry that the Evangelical label is being used too broadly. God bless Greg Metzger and all who fear the label is being constricted into something far more narrow than the love of God would mandate. God bless those who have the label and love it. God bless those who lost the label and still love it. God bless those who have no idea what the label means or why it matters. And everyone else too.