We value diversity, and by the way, this is what you should believe.

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I suppose it is going to seem like I am picking on a particular church that I have never even visited, but it isn't really my intention to do that. What I really am trying to do is illustrate by example why it is that certain restless and unaffiliated souls like myself who are alienated from Christian orthodoxy but who have an interest in radically progressive Christianity see weirdly mixed messages coming from some churches that seem to proclaim openness to free theological inquiry on the one hand, but then on the other hand define themselves in strictly orthodox terms.

The example I am going to cite here is a church in San Francisco that has a very active web presence and a dynamic pastor who is well respected in his denomination. I have never met the pastor, but I believe that he is well liked by many of his peers and those in his congregation. Here is a brief sample what four Yelp reviewers had to say about this church:

"I'm jewish---and i love going to mbcc."

"We continue come for the community, the openness, the friendships, the intelligent discussions, and the encouragement to follow our own journeys of discovery with God."

"I love to see a place where i can come as i am, and not feel like the place is bound and limited by religious traditions that limit my own personal ideas and beliefs."

"MBCC is not about vestments and pageantry and rigid orthodoxy. The focus here is on building a community of faith where everyone is welcome. "

A lot of people clearly love this church, although to be honest I don't know how much of that is in response to the apparent informality of style found in its worship services (for example, people drink coffee during the services, from what I gather). Still some of those comments about "rigid orthodoxy" and "personal ideas and beliefs" make it seem theologically open. But is it really open to diverse and free theological inquiry?

To find out more, I visited the web site. Proclaimed at the top of the main page is a statement that the church honors "diversity of thinking"--also also taking pains to add that it is "grounded in Christ". Of course, what it means to say that a church is "grounded in Christ" is the $64,000 question. Two people can ground their faith in Jesus's life and message while having quite different views about whether he was divine, for example, but that may or may not be what this church means in this case. To give them the benefit of the doubt, I concede that the emphasis on diversity of thinking seems like a good sign. So then I click on the "about us" link on that page, and see on the resulting page the following quote from a member:

at MBCC I see evangelicals and liberals, ex-conservatives and post-fundamentalists, theologians and even agnostics, holding each other, side by side, embracing our uncertain world and being embraced by the undying love of God.
This sounds even better, suggesting that this is a church that really does embrace diversity of thinking. Or does it? On that page I see a link that says "read more about our beliefs here". I click on that link (I'm now three levels deep in the web site), and here is where all that attention to diversity that was indicated earlier just completely disappears; because here, on this page, I find that, in fact, despite all that lip service that it had paid elsewhere to diversity, "our" beliefs boil down to the same old standard creedal affirmations of orthodox Christianity that I for one do not accept. For example, "our" beliefs include the assertion that Jesus is "fully human, fully God", that God is Triune in nature, that "through Jesus' death and resurrection God triumphed over sin"--and last, but certainly not least, that that Jesus will actually return to earth some day in at some future date.

Having dug deep into the web site I have thus discovered what all this talk about diversity really means. It seems to mean that a diversity of thinking is welcome, and oh, by the way, here is a list of things that you are supposed to believe, and they are quite orthodox. What does this alleged diversity thus consist of? Your guess is as good as mine.

This, I think, is the problem that many of us "believers in exile" (to use John Spong's term) see in Christian churches. I am not opposed to participating in a church that defines itself specifically as a faith community built around the message and teachings of Jesus; on the contrary, if I wanted to participate in an eclectic spirituality that did not focus on Jesus in particular, I would choose the path of Unitarian Universalism. I am interested in the way that Jesus preached and lived--a way grounded in a compassion, in inclusiveness, in overturning the established theological and political order, in the in-breaking Realm of God, but this does not mean that I accept all the dogmas about Jesus that emerged within the Christian churches over the centuries after he died.

The problem is that there is a middle ground between eclecticism and orthodoxy, one that views how we interpret Jesus as a much more open question than that was allegedly "settled" by ecumenical councils held centuries after Jesus died, and which focuses more on how we can transform our lives by following Jesus than on whatever theological spin you want to put on Jesus's nature. I believe I am not alone in being someone who is interested in Jesus, his life, his message, and their resulting implications for today, and who are also interested in progressive theologians like Borg, Crossan, Spong, Fox, Pagels, Hick, and Cobb. And I believe I am not alone in embracing an intelligent reading of the Bible without taking at face value some of the mythological claims found there. I see a lot of churches that talk a good game about diversity; but when push comes to shove, it seems that in many cases diversity really means "think what you what but this is what you really should be believing." If they are really going to tell us what "we" believe by laying out a set of orthodox dogmas, then they should not advertise themselves as encouraging diversity--because they don't.

As I mentioned, I don't mean to pick on this church specifically, because I find this often in quite a few ostensibly progressive Christian churches. I am not sure that this particular church that I am discussing identifies itself as "progressive". In fact, it is possible that it does not use that label, and I'm not sure that I saw that word appearing anywhere in its web site. But in its lip service to diversity and inclusiveness, it speaks much of the same language that progressive Christianity speaks. You can put a hip veneer on orthodoxy by taking away the pews and serving coffee in the service, but underneath that veneer it is still orthodoxy. And it is precisely this orthodoxy that has driven some of us into exile in the first place.

21 comments:

atimetorend said...

" I see a lot of churches that talk a good game about diversity; but when push comes to shove, it seems that in many cases diversity really means "think what you what but this is what you really should be believing."

This is so true. It is interesting the way you had to dig deep on the web site to find the inflexible "think this way" stuff. The evangelical tradition I've left would consider itself quite intellectual, but it stops as soon as you start asking tough questions. Then it became for me, "Just trust God," and "faith like a child," which seems to me like a process of lobotomy, just trust, don't think. Any questions outside of orthodoxy only are considered of value to the extent that you learn obedience to Christ through rejecting them. Sigh...

Andrew said...

Yeah, there may be diversity of thinking... but who will they let lead? only the orthodox. I think many churches that seem progressive are just tolerant... assured that with time you will come to the same orthodox conclusions they have.

Mystical Seeker said...

atimetorend,

I think that what you say is especially true of evangelical churches, which I think often use intellectualism as a tool to promote the dogma that they've already arrived at, rather than as a means of open exploration that might actually take you outside the dogma.

Andrew, you comment about leading is a good one. There are probably lots of people in the pews or orthodox churches who don't accept the orthodoxy, but they aren't the ones who are defining what is said in the service. My guess is that, in many churches, much the "diversity" is merely found in people's silent reflections rather than anything that ever gets openly said in church.

John Shuck said...

Institutional inertia is a big factor. Congregations that are part of denominations, like the one you highlighted, have to have a bottom line orthodox statement to stay in the game. Especially if the minister is a big player in the denomination : ).

The UCC is the only denomination I know of that doesn't require ordination vows regarding orthodoxy. Since they are congregational, church members don't have the threat of losing their property. Clergy don't have the threat of losing their livelihoods either.

Rare is the congregation or clergy willing (or able) to take on the behemoth.

CT said...

You had to dig deep into the website to find those statements of belief. Maybe those statements are only there as a pacifier for the evangelicals in the congregation. Maybe the church really does endorse diversity and allow for differences in beliefs - but they can point to an obscure place in the website just in case the local evangelicals start to protest ???
Just a theory - but why go to all that trouble to advertise their open-mindedness if the bottom line is adherence to the good old statements of faith ?

Mystical Seeker said...

John, interesting comment about ordination vows and the pressure to conform that lies behind a lot of this. Pastors are understandibly loath to put their jobs and their church property on the line.

I do know that I saw similar language on this church's web site a few years ago, before its pastor was selected for his current high position in the denomination. It is true, of course, that politics plays a crucial role, as you have described in your blog posting about Funk and a new reformation. Given what you have gone through, you certainly know how difficult it can be.

There is a Lutheran church in San Francisco that was kicked out of the ELCA a decade or so ago for having a gay pastor. They have gone their own way since that time, as a small independent congregation. They maintain ties with the larger Lutheran body, but my personal feeling is that now that they have been liberated from the reins of denominational control, they have gone in remarkably progressive directions. (Ironically, there are at least two other Lutheran churches in San Francisco that I can name that have gay pastors, while the congregation that got kicked out has a straight pastor. )

While I see the value of keeping in touch with a larger body of faithful, I also think that there is something to be said for taking a strong stand and facing the consequences. As you pointed out in your Funk blog posting, the Presbyterian Church is losing members anyway. In the face of diminishing numbers, why not take a bold, radical stance for a change?

As for the church that I identified in this blog posting, I don't really know what is going on. They say that these faith statements are not a "litmus test", but if so, why lay them out at all as what "we" believe? What that really tells me is that I am free to believe whatever I want as long as I keep them to myself, that my beliefs are second class in comparison to what the church officially believes. This is a message not of diversity but of condescending tolerance.

I think that Christianity does indeed need a reformation.

Mystical Seeker said...

CT,

"Just a theory - but why go to all that trouble to advertise their open-mindedness if the bottom line is adherence to the good old statements of faith ?"

That is indeed the question. Those statements of faith may be a sop to orthodox elements in the church as John suggests, but for those of us who are looking in from the outside, it isn't the arcane politics of a denomination that we see, but rather a message of doctrinal conformity.

OneSmallStep said...

**If they are really going to tell us what "we" believe by laying out a set of orthodox dogmas, then they should not advertise themselves as encouraging diversity--because they don't.**

Unless it's a ruse to get you in there, make you feel good about yourself and accepted, and then want to be just like all those who are accepting you, and so you adopt their belief statement.

Why, yes, I do feel cynical today, why do you ask?

Scott F said...

After drilling down into the site, I get the impression that this church may be struggling to actually have it both ways - traditionally Christian and theologically open. Whether they can pull it off would require a much closer look. They wouldn't be the first set of seekers to founder on the horns of a contradiction. I see it every day.

Mystical Seeker said...

"Unless it's a ruse to get you in there, make you feel good about yourself and accepted, and then want to be just like all those who are accepting you, and so you adopt their belief statement."

I think you are onto something. In fact, I think this is exactly what goes on. It is easy to say that everyone is welcome, regardless of their privately held beliefs, but if unorthodox beliefs are kept out of the public discourse, then clearly the orthodoxy has a leg up on the debate from the word go. I can't but think that the hope is that by giving those free thinkers who are welcomed to the fold a constant exposure to just one side of the discussion, with all the weight of officialness behind it, the orthodoxy will just worm its way into their thinking and eventually they will come around.

It sounds sort of like bait and switch to me.

Mystical Seeker said...

"I get the impression that this church may be struggling to actually have it both ways - traditionally Christian and theologically open."

I think you are right. It's a tough thing to balance, especially if a church is busy making sure that the traditionally Christian views maintain the upper hand. As soon as they open up the debate and allow people to think and openly discuss these issues, is there a fear that traditional Christianity cannot really survive the process?

OneSmallStep said...

**I can't but think that the hope is that by giving those free thinkers who are welcomed to the fold a constant exposure to just one side of the discussion, with all the weight of officialness behind it, the orthodoxy will just worm its way into their thinking and eventually they will come around.**

I would like very much not to think this. The problem I have (generalization ahead) is that the more I see Christian interaction, or discussing a belief set, or even something like this, it just comes across as incredibly manipulative. Do they ask questions and invite you places for the sake of who you are, or to build a sense of trust so that they can convert you?

I read one blog about having a non-Christian friend, and a lot of the comments were interesting. One commentator agreed that it was wrong to view friends as projects, and then raved about this book she read which said the same thing, and how to develop a relationship with people, rather than seeing them as projects. And then this book gave advice on how to determine where someone was spiritually, in order to know how to approach them in terms of their relation with God.

So ... people aren't projects, but you need some sort of procedure to determine the person's spiritual location?

And that's kind of what I'm seeing in this church. If you're not progressive, and do hold to an orthodox belief, admit that up front. Don't hide it behind three Internet clicks. Otherwise, it smacks of manipulation.

Frank said...

Creeds are an inevitability of any organization. You can see this in the emerging churches and so forth. At some point, the community gets together to identify itself and what it's about. "We're this kind of church" etc.

You can't really have a group without having a unifying principle that brings the group together in the first place. Defining that and laying it out there is a pretty normal thing to do.

But if it's not creeds and it is a progressive theological stance that you want, all I can say is good luck. It's not that people are against it, it's that few people have any vocabularly for talking about theology, few read theology.

PrickliestPear said...

To some extent I think I actually agree with Frank, which is not an everyday occurence.

I think a group has to have something that unifies it, something that everyone should have in common. I don't think it has to be as narrow as this church you're talking about, and it doesn't even necessarily have to be beliefs, but it has to be something. Otherwise it's just a random collection of people.

If this church advertises itself as open to diversity when it really isn't, it doesn't necessarily mean they are trying to mislead people into joining. "Diversity" has become a kind of buzzword, something that people are "supposed" to value. It could be that they're just co-opting the term in an attempt to look current.

Mystical Seeker said...

It is true that a group has to have something that unifies it, but that "something" need not be creeds. The Quakers have been around since the seventeenth century and they are not a creedal church.

Faith communities can be brought together by a shared commitment to the process and to a mutual interest in support, service, and community, in a way that is informed by the traditions and practices of the faith community--without imposing the stifling and intellectually crushing constraints of creeds. I believe that creeds kill the life and spirit of a faith.

Mystical Seeker said...

Another thing to remember is that, in fact, there are people who sit in the pews who reject the creeds that are imposed on them. They attend the church for a variety of reasons, but adherence to creeds is not part of it. They may just keep their objections to themselves, or they may not (in which case they become open dissenters), but either way that doesn't change the fact that they are involved in the church community for reasons that have nothing to do with the creeds. So clearly there is something going on that binds even creedal communities together that goes beyond the creeds themselves.

The imposition of creeds often become as much a power trip as anything else. They often become a cudgel used to keep people in line. This is a worst case scenario, and it doesn't happen in every church or faith community, but creeds can and often are used in that way.

Frank said...

MS,

Perhaps your frustration is because you refuse to see creeds outside of a literalist, fundamentalist interpretation of them.

The Christian creeds are not scientific formulae. Reading them that way is going to cause all sorts of problems.

Mystical Seeker said...

Frank,

Marcus Borg agrees with you; he is able to recite the Nicene creed apparently with no difficulty whatsoever. But that never made sense to me. To describe an interpretation of a creed as literalist or fundamentalist is making an analogy with the Bible, but I don't see how the analogy applies. The Bible is not a statement of what "I believe", but rather a collection of stories, myths, metaphors, letters, histories, and a whole lot more.

A creed is by definition a statement of what "I believe"; it comes from the Latin word "credo", meaning "I believe". That's the point of it--to state what we believe to be true.

I am having a hard time understanding what the point is of being expected to recite a canned statement of what "I believe" if it isn't what I believe at all. If I am not expected to believe what it is that I am told to recite that I believe, then don't ask me to assert that this is what I believe in the first place.

The church whose web site I described here listed a series of statements of what "we believe". Am I to presume that this church doesn't really mean to say that this is what they believe, that I would be merely taking a fundamentalist or literalist reading of their statement of beliefs if I inferred that when they said that Jesus died for our sins, they didn't literally mean that?

I think that in general, it is not a case of literalism or fundamentalism to take the statement "I believe" to mean that I believe something.

Frank said...

Ummm... did you just make up that "fact" about the meaning of "credo"?

I don't know where you are getting the root word of "credo" but when I did a word study I found that in Latin (and before that in Greek) it has a very different sense than the scientific way we interpret the word "belief" today. "Credo" is related to the word "credit." It's like a banking term. "Credo" = "I'll bank on that" in my modern interpretation. "I put stock in that".

Mystical Seeker said...

I am no Latin expert. I only know that two different online resources, Etymonline and the Mirriam-Webster dictionary online, both say that the word "creed" comes from the Latin "credo", meaning "I believe", which is the first word (in Latin) of the early Christian creeds. I don't think you have to be a literalist or a fundamentalist to take the words "I believe x" to mean that the speaker in question believes x.

David Henson said...

You know I agree with you on most things, but might I propose a different way to look at it ...

Valuing diversity means also valuing orthodoxy and conservative beliefs within one's congregation. That these beliefs are buried could mean they are trying to hide their true nature. On the other hand, it could be that this the least common denominator "creed" that most of their members can agree to, that it is a statement of unifying disparate elements, which will necessarily offend some on either side of the divide.

I have recently discovered that I attend a fairly conservative (in terms of orthodoxy) parish, yet am in leadership positions. Balancing the left and the right is difficult, and I'm afraid it is usually the left (in terms of orthodoxy) that can do the linguistic acrobatics to interpret creeds in creative ways, not unlike the Arians in the third century when presented with a suggestion of orthodoxy.

Or maybe, the creed is the way to get out of the way all these questions about belief so the church can get on with the important stuff of being a community of faith rather than a community of belief.