Tag Archives: liberal theology

Theological “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”

“Don’t Ask, don’t tell” (DADT) was the official United States policy on gays serving in the military from December 1993 until September 2011. The idea behind this policy was to allow closeted LGBT personnel to serve in the military without fear of harassment and discharge. Even without addressing the total lack of moral integrity of DADT–there is nothing remotely moral about forcing people into the closet in order to serve the country they love–this policy never worked. There were still several cases of unauthorized investigations and harassment of LGBT personnel. It has now been a year and half since DADT was repealed, and none of the doomsday scenarios and mass breakdown of military morale predicted by some people have occurred. I can even imagine that without the stress of discovery and discharge hanging over their heads, some LGBT service personnel are performing at even higher levels than they did before DADT was repealed.

There are all kinds of DADT policies out there, too. Most of these policies are not in writing; you just know its best to keep your mouth closed about certain issues. And in my opinion, institutional religion is one of the biggest proponents of various DADT policies. There is, of course, the glaring example of the child abuse cover ups in the Catholic Church which are now increasingly being brought to our attention. Those atrocities, as painful and sad as they are, however, are not the subject of this post.

I’m talking more about theological DADT policies. For example, I remember a conversation I had with three colleagues a few years ago. One was Roman Catholic; one was Presbyterian (PCUSA); the third was Evangelical Lutheran (ELCA). We were discussing a variety of theological subjects over lunch; feeling safe with this group, I shared a few of my more “unorthodox” beliefs. Imagine my surprise when all three of them said that, for the most part, they were on the same page as me! One of them said, “I agree with your comments. I just can’t say those things in my congregation.” The other two clergy persons agreed.

Huh?

Now I do understand the concept of not intentionally upsetting congregants for shock effect. After all, if some congregants have issues with the church colors not being “correct,” can you imagine what would happen if you told them you don’t believe Jesus literally rose from the dead? Also, if you’re going to share some potentially unsettling theological insights either in a class or from the pulpit, you’d best be prepared to cite your sources and share how your reasoning has led you to those conclusions. Beyond that, I believe a pastor and/or teacher should do their best to walk with congregants through any theological disorientation their teachings may bring to these folks. Of course, even after we do our best to walk with these people, some may simply shake their heads and walk away–and that’s OK.

What is not OK is teaching and preaching what we do not believe just to keep the peace–and our jobs. What I’ve learned is, if I preach and teach using a combination of head and heart–if I preach and teach from a place of personal integrity–and if I give people plenty of room to agree to disagree–to believe and to be who they are with their own sense of integrity–things tend to work out because people feel safe, and they trust they aren’t going to be drummed out of the community simply because they don’t agree with the pastor.

I also think it is time we stopped playing DADT within our various denominations. I applaud reconciling congregations within the United Methodist Church; More Light congregations within the PCUSA; and all other openly LGBT affirming groups within various faith traditions. These congregations are doing what they can to say “NO!” to the policies of their denominations which offend their sense of theological integrity and belief.

Beyond policy issues, however, I think–no, I know–some of us feel a certain level of discomfort with the unspoken theological DADT policies in our denominations/associations. For example, we toss the word “Christian” around and write it into our bylaws like it means the same thing to everyone in a particular congregation/denomination/association. It doesn’t–and we know it. So why aren’t we talking about this issue?

Could it be…fear?

Fear of losing our jobs; fear of losing our leadership roles; fear of losing our lifetime membership in Club Christendom? I think it’s all that and perhaps a bit more. Let’s face it, folks. If you’re a pastor in a liberal and very diverse congregation, chances are you’re doing your best just to hold it together week to week. Sure, the journey is exciting and full of possibilities. You feel honored and in awe to be entrusted with the responsibilities of leading a congregation. I know I am.

And then there is all that day-to-day mundane stuff that must be handled. There are multiple personalities with whom we must learn to work–and them with us. Add some serious theological debate and the denominational politics that go with that debate and, well, who has the time? Mulitply that reality by the number of people in your congregation who most likely have some of the same questions as you, yet who are afraid of “rocking the boat.” Now, multiply that reality by the number of congregations in your denomination/association, put yourself in the seats of your senior leadership and, well, you get the point.

Still, I think we’re risking a lot by not having these conversations; and not just between like-minded colleagues at retreats and/or at church conferences. I mean trusting our congregants enough that we can have these conversations and still be communities that follow the spiritual paths to which we’ve been called. I mean trusting the senior leadership of our denominations/associations enough that we can say, “This is the spiritual path our congregation is following. It doesn’t fit your bylaw requirements, either. Can we talk?”

Well, can we?

Blessings on your journeys!

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The Illusion of Inclusion

“All are welcome!” “Wherever you are on your journey, you are welcome here!” “Open and affirming!” “Come as you are, believing as you do!”

These are just a few of the phrases communities of faith use in their (mostly) sincere attempts to welcome diverse groups of people to their communities. I say “mostly” because I think it is fair to say some congregations use these phrases primarily as marketing tools. That is, facing declining numbers, some conservative and liberal religious groups are tweaking not only their orders of worship, music, “clerical drag” and programming; they are also tweaking their advertising techniques to boost attendance numbers and financial support. I understand this desire for survival. Still, the challenge is, after people arrive–if they haven’t given up on religion altogether already–they eventually learn there is often some “fine print” attached to those messages. In other words, there are some exclusions in the inclusive message.

For example, one friend of mine started attending a large non-denominational Christian church that proclaimed everyone without exception was welcome there. This group had amazing music and programming as well as positive and uplifting messages. There was a lot of Jesus–just without all that annoying discipleship business–well, with perhaps the exception of financial discipleship, that is. He attended a membership class and liked what he heard. Then my friend spoke with the facilitator after the class. He told the facilitator he is gay and asked if that would be a problem.

The facilitator of the class was obviously flustered and said, “Well, yes. I mean, you can come here and all, but you would have to commit to celibacy or repent and convert to heterosexuality before you could be a member.” Then, to add insult to injury, he placed his hand on my friend’s shoulder and said, “I don’t have a problem with homosexuals personally. See? If I did, I wouldn’t be touching you like this.” I’ve lost touch with this friend over the past few years; so I don’t know if he ever darkened the door of any church ever again. I can’t say I would blame him if he didn’t.

Now, not all churches that claim to be inclusive and welcoming are like the one I’ve described here. And sexual orientation is just one example of the “fine print” in some welcoming congregations. Another example is women (“Of course you can serve–just not in leadership that includes supervising or teaching men.”).  I’m sure you can think of other examples, too. At the same time, there are many, many communities of faith that strive to be as welcoming and inclusive as possible. I know because I am honored to be the pastor of one such group.

The challenge remains, however, that there is always fine print–either spoken or implied. You could call this fine print “boundaries,” too. Some are healthy; some are not.

I’ll use the congregation I serve as an example. In our Inquirer’s classes I now identify as a Unitarian Universalist Christian at this point in my life journey. I go on to explain that while this is how I identify, no one is required to share that identification in order to be a member of our church. People can be as creedal, conservative, born again, “washed in the blood of the Lamb” as they choose–or not. At the same time, they aren’t going to hear creedal, conservative, born again, “washed in the blood of the Lamb” music in our worship services or that theology in my reflections. So, if they absolutely need to hear affirmations of things like virgin birth, bodily resurrection, Jesus as God, blood atonement, hell, the bible as literal word of God and the like, they may not be comfortable at our church.

Again, I emphasize everyone is welcome at Holy Covenant and–like our Unitarian Universalist sisters and brothers–we affirm every person’s free and responsible search for truth. Yet I can see how a moderate to conservative Trinitarian Christian (straight or gay) could feel excluded at our church. And people who aren’t “Jesus-centric” probably wouldn’t be too comfortable with our focus on the teachings of Jesus and other biblical teachings, either. In other words, our church has “fine print,” too. And while I believe our fine print represents some healthy boundaries for what people can expect to see and hear at our church, others might see us as “exclusive.”

So the more I consider what I call “the illusion of inclusion,” the more I think some of us in “church world” stress out far too much over who we’re not, rather than celebrating–and not just affirming–the wonderful parts of who we are. Every religious community has a culture of its own; and while every community of faith has room for healthy growth, challenge and change, rarely does everything about those communities need an overhaul. Besides, when we try too hard to be something we’re not in any area of our lives, we can cause more hurt and pain to others and ourselves than any good we hoped to accomplish.

In the end, perhaps the best we can do is take the advice of St. Francis de Sales who was quoted as saying, “Be who you are and be that well.” That “who” may very well evolve and change over time, too. Besides, organisms (including churches and religions) that don’t evolve usually die anyway. Still, healthy change (boundary shifting)–either individual or communal–cannot be forced, even with the best of intentions and advertising campaigns. Healthy change takes time, “prodding” from the Divine within each of us, and our willingness to listen to and act upon that prodding.

After all, we cannot be all things to all people. So, “be who you are and be that well.”

And be at peace.

Breaking Up is Hard to Do

This week I stated reading Paul Rasor’s “Faith Without Certainity: Liberal Theology in the 21st Century.” Although I have only finished the somewhat lengthy introduction and am now about 1/4 way through chapter one, I can already say this book is challenging me in positive ways.

First, I thoroughly enjoy Rasor’s definitions of religion and theology. He states: “The term theology is often associated with arcane and academic or technical concepts that focus on abstract doctrines. But the purpose of theology is really quite simple. If religion is about the large-scale world pictures that orient us in the universe and help give our lives meaning and purpose, then theology is about examining those worldviews and the assumptions that go into them.”

What I like most about these definitions is they recognize the fact that everyone is a theologian at one time or another–including people who either question–or who do not believe in the existence of–any representation of the divine. That is, we all have questions about things like how life works, why life isn’t always fair, the ultimate meaning of life, and if there is anything beyond our current existence. One way of looking at religion then is our viewpoints represent those large-scale world pictures; and when we examine those pictures, we are doing theology. As Rasor reminds us, “our struggle and our outrage are always grounded somewhere.” And I would add, whether that grounding is in what some of us call “God” or not. So for me, identifying that grounding is “doing theology.”

Another quote from Rasor I like is: “Theology is not something we do just with our heads. We must also use our hearts and guts, as well as our hands and feet.” To me, that means theology is something we think about, feel, and is reflected in the words and actions of our lives.

Now, an integrity (or wholeness) of thought, feeling, and action is a “trinity” in which I can believe.

So how does my appreciation of Rasor’s viewpoints regarding religion and theology relate to the title of this post, “Breaking Up is Hard to Do?”

Well, if–as Rasor asserts–“liberal theology is characterized by the belief that human religiousness should be understood from the perspective of modern knowledge and experience”–and if we acknowledge that our knowledge and experiences evolve and change over time, it follows that many of us are going face the prospect of “breaking up” with some of our most cherished and deeply-held beliefs at one time or another in our lives.

And as Neil Sedaka reminds us, “Breaking Up is Hard to Do.”

For some, these changes involve breaking up with the idea of a supernatural being who controls every detail of our existence and has a specific plan for every person who ever has, and who ever will, live. Some  have broken up with the ideas of Jesus being literally God Incarnate, as well as literal intepretations of heaven, hell, virgin birth, miracles, resurrection, the rapture and second coming of Jesus, and an inerrant bible.

Some people are even breaking up with the idea of worshipping God as we often do now. By that comment, I mean there are people who are questioning not so much the existence of mystery that is beyond our comprehension, but why we continue to relate to that mystery much like our ancient ancestors did: offering thanks often out of fear of punishment or to gain favor not only in this life, but hopefully in the afterlife as well. I mean, we may not actually believe a lot of what we’re saying in these worship services; but hey, it can’t hurt to hedge our bets, can it?

Now before anyone thinks I am poking fun at certain beliefs, let me be clear that I respect all peaceful paths to truth and understanding. So if the beliefs I mentioned above are part of your path, blessed be–seriously. At the same time, these same beliefs are no longer useful for many people–including me. Rasor points out that “what we long for is a theology that both makes sense and feels right. Until we find this, we haven’t finished our naming process. And when we do finally get the intellectual and spiritual dimensions in sync, our theology becomes not just a label but a resource, a grounding for spiritual practice, for social critique, even for healing.”

So know that if you are in the process of a religious/theological break up, you are not alone. And while break ups are often a painful process, there is often hope somewhere deep in the midst of that pain just waiting to be born. Finally, if you will allow me one more musical reference, from the group “Shinedown:”

“Sometimes good-bye is a second chance.”