Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Finding that Place in the Middle

I'm back from a few days respite -- if you can call a fairly intensive Disciples Michigan Clergy Retreat a respite. Going on a retreat like this isn't necessarily relaxing, but it is both informative and empowering. This was my first Michigan retreat, and many of the clergy I met were unknown to me prior to this event.

It was an interesting conversation, led by fellow Michigan clergy -- no special speaker this year. Our topics were worship and local missions, and the conversation at times go heated (not angry, just intense). We were white and African American, women and men, younger and older, active in ministry and retired, some more liberal and some more conservative. Since it was my first time, I didn't know all the players and their positions beforehand. I understand that the dynamics I noticed occur on a regular basis. There was diversity, and yet there was unity. We might not agree on every particular, but we granted each other the status of brother and sister in Christ. We prayed for each other, and embraced each other as fellow travelers on this journey of faith.

All of this is a prelude to my continuing conversation about living in the middle theologically and politically. Our group is politically and theologically diverse, and that came out in the conversation -- especially regarding mission(s). That diversity is seen in our differences on a number of issues, but none perhaps as striking as on the question of whether Jesus is the only means of salvation.

In my previous posting I asked the question about whether one can be evangelical and liberal at the same time. I believe one can be both, in fact, I would claim both -- but I would have to define those terms for myself. For me to be liberal means being open and inquisitive, tolerant and accepting. It means granting others and claiming for myself freedom to explore faith and social issues without prejudging them.

For me, to be evangelical, is to embrace the good news that God has visited this planet in Jesus, that in Jesus we can know and experience the presence of God, and that in Jesus the world is made whole. I affirm the fullness of the New Testament story, one that begins with incarnation (enfleshment) of the Revelation (Word) of God, a Revelation that is made known in the life and in the death of Jesus, together with his Resurrection from the dead. Now, I don't make a determinative claim on the manner in which the Resurrection occurred. There were no video cameras present. Unlike Thomas I can't put my fingers in his wounds. So, I must take this by faith, but with Paul I do believe that without the resurrection, there is no gospel to preach. As for the fate of my fellow human creatures, I leave that in the hands of God -- but I will and I do declare that Jesus is my Lord! That, to me, is what it means to be evangelical.

So to be Liberal and Evangelical, means that I seek to bring both of these important qualities into my life and into my faith journey. It's not a compromise, but a realization of the full meaning of the Gospel.


Anonymous said...

There are degrees and types of faith. Some can believe in the ways and teachings of Jesus, but aren't blessed with the kind of mind that can grasp total faith easily. If totally honest, I feel the majority would find themselves lacking in certitude, but it’s only a guess at my stage on journey.

On top of that, we are all on a different path, have a slightly different vehicle (body) and location and time of birth. We can share experience though. We are taught not to give up on each other.

Would it be boring, scary, confusing, or glorious if all were to see the exact same wavelength of faith while still on earth? It takes all colors to get true full light, and they mix so well you can’t pick the individual colors out (OK I’m trying to avoid saying white, of course I’m a liberal- but you know what I mean).

We appreciate the challenge to see eye to eye, don't we?

David Mc

John said...

I still don't have an operating definition of "evangelical." Your summary describes my faith life yet I would not feel comfortable with the label, evangelical. Wat makes us different.


Anonymous said...

I have always felt an evangelical will tell you exactly what they believe. The opposite (not sure a term for it) is the person who says, please keep your faith to yourself. Or my faith is personal... (see politicians)
Not sure that helps or not. Clearly the term evangelical has been vilified in the press b/c today's culture wants you to keep your opinions to yourself. Liberal has also been vilified too... probably to keep the conversation lively and to polarize people. Its really a sad affair and I applaud Bob for his willingness to wade through both terms and find an identification with each.


Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

There is no one definition of evangelical. Don Dayton several years ago laid out the possible definitions, all of which depend upon one's starting point. If one is Wesleyan (Methodist) evangelicalism is different than if you are Reformed (Presbyterian).

In Germany, to be Lutheran is to be Evangelical. Thus the name of the mainline Lutheran Church in America is the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). There is Evangelicalism the party, and evangelicalism the ethos. If we believe the gospel and wish to share it with others, inviting them to share in it, that is to be evangelical.

John said...

I suppose the reason why I have problems with the label Evangelical is that for me it contains such strong political overtones.

Most if not every Evangelical I deal with is not evangelical in their personal interactions - i.e., spirit filled and enthusiastic about sharing their faith. Instead, when matters touching on religion come up, they usually do so in an overtly political context where the Evangelical is pressing for political action or bemoaning the lack of effective political action on the issue.

The matters which most often concern the Evangelicals I know have to do with controlling the ethical decisions of others and/or how the action or inaction by the government or a politician is violative or offensive to some religiously based agenda dear to the heart of the Evangelical.


Mike L. said...

Thanks for the post Bob. I'd love for you to give us a deeper explanation of what you mean that you "must" take this by faith. I'd also like you to explain why there is no gospel without a resurrection. Why do you perceive a requirement for literalism on this one scene in the many biblical stories?

I agree with you that unlike Thomas I can't put my fingers in his wounds, but we CAN study the story and determine the high probability that this is the same type of literature that commonly produced mythical/legendary accounts of other events in other cultures. I just can't get past this mental block with Christianity that suggests, "my myths are the one set of myths that are not myths".

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

In politics the middle of the road is boring. In theology, I find the centrists to be where the most exciting work is done.

I am glad to be a theological centrist.

Anonymous said...

"In politics the middle of the road is boring. In theology, I find the centrists to be where the most exciting work is done."

Nice, I'll be quoting this Mike W H. Thanks.

To Mike L, I share your concerns. Maybe someday I'll understand why it is so important to believe this part of the story. I think there is enough truth without it.

David Mc

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...


I agree that there are ways to look historically at something like the resurrection -- and recognize that there are stories that have a similar feel and texture.

In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul does make a fairly strong claim on the place of resurrection. When I say that if we affirm resurrection we must make this claim by faith, I'm suggesting that "evidential" claims are difficult to make. But something happened that changed the lives of those following Jesus -- I'm not saying everyone has to follow my lead, but for me the resurrection is central to faith. See the evangelical part of me is still present!!

Anonymous said...

Did his Mom die? Did she get beamed up too? Since we're on the subject.

David Mc

Anonymous said...

Checking how much can be posted.
I was wrong, this story is in Slaugterhouse 5 not Cat's Cradle.
Both great books....

Rosewater told him. It was The Gospel from Outer Space, by Kilgore Trout. It was about a visitor from outer space, shaped very much like a Tralfamadorian, by the way. The visitor from outer space made a serious study of Christianity, to learn, if he could, why Christians found it so easy to be cruel. He concluded that at least part of the trouble was slipshod storytelling in the New Testament. He supposed that the intent of the Gospels was to teach people, among other things, to be merciful, even to the lowest of the low.

But the Gospels actually taught this:

Before you kill somebody, make absolutely sure he isn't well connected. So it goes.

The flaw in the Christ stories, said the visitor from outer space, was that Christ, who didn't look like much, was actually the Son of the Most Powerful Being in the Universe. Readers understood that, so, when they came to the crucifixion, they naturally thought, and Rosewater read out loud again:

Oh boy - they sure picked the wrong guy to lynch that time!

And that thought had a brother: "There are right people to lynch." Who? People not well connected. So it goes.

The visitor from outer space made a gift to Earth of a new Gospel. In it, Jesus really was a nobody, and a pain in the neck to a lot of people with better connections than he had. He still got to say all the lovely and puzzling things he said in the other Gospels.

So the people amused themselves one day by nailing him to a cross and planting the cross in the ground. There couldn't possibly be any repercussions, the lynchers thought. The reader would have to think that, too, since the new Gospel hammered home again and again what a nobody Jesus was.

And then, just before the nobody died, the heavens opened up, and there was thunder and lightning. The voice of God came crashing down. He told the people that he was adopting the bum as his son, giving him the full powers and privileges of The Son of the Creator of the Universe throughout all eternity. God said this: From this moment on, He will punish horribly anybody who torments a bum who has no connections!

Anonymous said...

only one more-

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (November 11, 1922 – April 11, 2007)

"I know of very few people," Vonnegut writes, "who are dreaming of a world for their grandchildren." Later he writes this epitaph for the Earth: "The good Earth - we could have saved it, but we were too damn cheap and lazy."

"How do humanists feel about Jesus? I say of Jesus, as all humanists do, 'If what he said is good, and so much of it is absolutely beautiful, what does it matter if he was God or not?'
"But if Christ hadn't delivered the Sermon on the Mount, with its message of mercy and pity, I wouldn't want to be a human being.
"I'd just as soon be a rattlesnake."

roy said...


I too would call myself both liberal and evangelical... and pretty centrist theologically Michael.