What should I post about my friend’s (whom I’m calling here “Speakerguy”) invited series of lectures at the evangelical Christian college where I’m on the faculty? Why have so many here reacted with shock, anger, or offense? Why are members of the religion faculty throwing around words like “heresy,” “cult leader,” and “unorthodox?”
This is a guy who has devoted his life to calling Christians of privilege to reorder their lives toward working for social justice and solidarity with the poor. This is a message that resonates around here. It’s one of the reasons I like working here: for all of our inconsistency and hypocrisy, we still take these ideas seriously. What went wrong?
The problem as I see it is theology. Speakerguy’s final evening lecture touched on a challenging and surprising theological idea, prompting further questions from students in the follow-up Q&A. Then everyone went crazy. A few walked out. Students clustered together around the auditorium afterward, confused and angry. Our New Testament prof’s head looked like it might burst like an over-ripe tomato. My teaching assistant, who loved Speakerguy and made a big deal over our history and friendship, texted me from her phone: “Too bad about your doomed tenure review. It was nice knowing you!”
The dismissive accusations I’ve heard the last 2 days of “classical liberalism” and “old social gospel dressed with new arrogance” sound absurd to me. This is a man who wrapped up his lecture by declaring allegiance to and inviting worship for the resurrected Christ, God incarnate, savior of humanity from our sins. This covers a minimum of 2 or 3 creedal affirmations that would make a classical liberal choke.
I think what it really comes down to are four boundary-crossing theological opinions. They are not tightly held by my friend, and he never once invited anyone to abandon any theology of their own to accept his. As far as I can tell, in the eyes of many in my community, he simply believes “wrong” about the following 4 areas:
- Speakerguy said that all Christians find the God they are looking for in scripture. Whomever expects to find a vengeful, capricious, bloodthirsty God will find scriptural passages that describe this God. Anyone who needs a non-violent, all loving, perfectly forgiving God will find that God in the same book. He says most people simply ignore the parts of the Bible that contradict the God they want. He included himself, and didn’t seem bothered by this.
- He said the idea that God controls everything that happens in the world is observably false. It’s obvious to him that all kinds of things happen all the time which are in direct opposition to what God wants to happen. And he went on to say that the reason God doesn’t stop these horrible things from happening is because God can’t. God’s love for everyone prevents God from forcing them to make different choices.
- Speakerguy thinks there’s a Hell. He thinks he’s seen glimpses of it in the neighborhoods where he ministers to the sick and abused people of society. But he thinks one day Hell will be empty, that God’s love will never stop trying to save everyone, everywhere, living or dead, no matter what. He says the kind of God who would turn his back on people in Hell is not a God who deserves his worship.
“The Gays” (TM)
- Speakerguy says to stop obsessing about homosexuals, to just give up these unimportant battles. Homosexual people can’t live whole lives if they’re required to cut off all hope of connecting with a lifelong, loving relationship. Speakerguy says he would bless the marriage of a gay couple without a moment’s hesitation.
Provocative? Oh yes. Challenging and flamboyantly stated? For sure. But heresy? Outside the bounds of creedal Christianity? Give me a break.
This kerfuffle speaks directly to my earlier posts about what theology is for. When did we elevate believing the right theological propositions so far above the work of following Christ? We’re saved by faith through Christ, not by our theology. The evangelical obsession with narrow theological boundaries to the exclusion of people transformed by the saving grace of God expressed through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus (this describes Speakerguy perfectly) has really got me down today.
Not just because Speakerguy is my friend. He spends his days facing down drug dealers and working with kids in some of the worst situations a human being can experience. An indignant, judgmental college professor is not going to leave any marks on him.
Rather, I’m frustrated and discouraged because I live and work here. The people at this school are my friends and colleagues. And although I disagree with some of what my friend argued here this week, I don’t disagree with very much of it. Naturally, this worries me.
Picture by The Searcher via flickr