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.