Because I think this conversation is essential — and important — I'd like to add one more statement to the set of reflections I've posted in the last several days about the controversy that ensued when Princeton Theological Seminary chose not to give an award to Rev. Tim Keller. I've discussed that controversy in three previous postings — here, here, and here. These three postings engage, in particular, Jonathan Merritt's claim that, in pressing for Keller not to receive an award from Princeton due to his opposition to the ordination of women and openly gay folks and his defense of a "complementarianism" that requires wives to be subordinated to their husbands, liberals are marginalizing people like Keller.
What I'd like to add to this discussion today is the commentary of Michael Boyle at his Sound of Sheer Silence blog. As Michael noted in a comment here a few days ago, he has been following this discussion, and thinks that one of the important deductions that should be drawn from it is the need for progressive Christians to hold true to their beliefs, because they regard those beliefs as true, and as worth defending. Here's Michael's take on this discussion:
Here's the deal--there are two reasons why one might be a progressive Christian, and only one of them is the right one. Either you are a progressive Christian because your reading of the Bible, your grappling with the traditions of the church, your personal experience of God, your prayer life--in other words, your theology, understood in a broad sense (not merely propositional formulations)--compels you to come to those conclusions. Or you consider yourself a progressive Christian because, at the end of the day, some set of non-Christian principles makes you want to adopt progressive positions, and so you do so without regard to your theology. And, if you fall into the second category, we need to be honest about what is going on--everything the conservatives accuse progressive Christians of being is 100% true in your case. You are compromising your faith in the name of a set of secular cultural values, because at the end of the day you are in essence conceding that the conservative vision of the faith is the correct one, but you just don't want to follow it.
If progressive Christians are not willing to stand on their theology as the basis for their position, then they might as well fold up the tent now and go home. If progressive Christianity is going to sotto voce recognize that conservatives have it right about who God is and what God wants, but they don't want to say that or follow that because it "wouldn't be nice," then there is no there there to progressive Christianity. And, frankly, I think many progressive Christians, and I have to say I get this vibe from Merritt in his piece, really do think that the Tim Kellers of the world are right at the end of the day, and are trying to get some sort of special pleading so they don't have to acknowledge or live out that fact.
The Keller thing has nothing to do with being nice, or respecting other views. No one is saying Keller can't speak, or that he must be cast into the outer darkness. This is about how much you really believe what you are saying. This is saying that Princeton Seminary and the PCUSA take their positions on women and LGBT people seriously, and believe them to be a faithful reflection of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Progressive Christianity only has a future if progressive Christians have the courage of their convictions regarding their theology. Such courage requires one to be willing to say "Tim Keller may be a nice guy, but he and his church and his denomination read the Bible the wrong way, in a way that is not ultimately faithful to the purposes and goals of God, and in a way that affirmatively harms people, especially women and LGBT folks." And, if you believe that and are willing to say that, then you have no business giving Tim Keller an award for his theology--after all, you think his theology sucks. Or, more accurately, you say his theology sucks, but do you really believe it?
Princeton is not likely giving an award for theology to a Mormon, or to a Jewish rabbi--however nice those people are, not matter what other good things they might be about, their theology is not consistent with the theological vision of the institution. Invite them to come talk about the good works they have done, sure. Invite them to talk in the context of a comparative religion presentation, absolutely. But honoring them for their theology is endorsing in a generalized sense their theological vision. And endorsing their theological vision is saying that your own official theological vision isn't to be taken particularly seriously. At the end of the day, Keller is basically indistinguishable from a Mormon or a Jewish rabbi--a dude with theology that you think is wrong in a way that matters to your institution. Or at least, in a way that you say matters to your institution.Progressive Christians need to become convicted (to use an evangelical term) that what they are doing is a product of a theology, and that theology matters. That doesn't mean that we need to use theology as a club, or to become excessively narrow in our scope, but it does mean we have to be clear about what we believe. No one is ever going to take this seriously unless we communicate, clearly and unambiguously, that we really believe the stuff we are saying. In this case, we really believe that God is calling women and LGBT people to ordained service; we really believe that LGBT relationships are blessed by God. Otherwise, all of this is an enormous waste of time, and we might as well all stay home on Sundays.
I think Michael's right on track with these comments. I'm struck, in particular, by his suggestion that "I think many progressive Christians, and I have to say I get this vibe from Merritt in his piece, really do think that the Tim Kellers of the world are right at the end of the day." That strikes me as a pretty accurate assessment of the situation, of the place from which commentators like Merritt or Jacob Lupfer are coming when they argue or imply that there's something qualitatively different about the opposition of some contemporary Christians to LGBT rights, and the opposition of Christians of previous generations to the rights of people of color.
How can anyone propose this unless he or she believes that there is some kind of theological or biblical validity to Christian opposition to LGBT rights, or to Christian proposals that women be submitted to men? When we stress that of course racist ideas cannot be validly grounded in the scriptures and in Christian belief — though almost two millennia of Christian history demonstrated that such views can, in fact, be strongly grounded in the bible and in Christian belief — but misogyny and homophobia are credible expressions of scripture or Christian faith, what are we saying except that these are legitimate, defensible interpretations of the Christian tradition?
One reason I tend to prefer drawing a line between progressives and liberals is that, in my view, liberals continue to think that there's some middle place in which the hard right and the committed left can meet and compromise. I personally don't think that place exists. I think it's a mythic place.
My own thinking about these matters will forever be colored by my experience growing up in the midst of the Civil Rights struggles in the American South in the 1950s and 1960s. What I saw very clearly through those formative experiences is that there simply is no possible meeting place in which those who defend racism and subordination of people of color to white people, and those who see such ideas as heinous and flatly wrong.
There are no "two sides" to the question of whether human rights should be doled out according to complexion. There's a wrong side and a right side to that question. And a society faced with two opposing forces, both claiming to be right but holding mutually contradictory positions about matters of such fundamental importance, is a society that has to choose between the two sides — not endorse both of them simultaneously while claiming that they can meet in the mythic middle. As I wrote on Facebook this fast weekend, regarding the culture of cruelty being promoted by Republican leaders across the U.S. right now,
A democracy that hopes to have a viable future cannot "debate" a culture of cruelty as one among several possible options for its future.
It cannot call for "understanding" and "listening to" those who promote the culture of cruelty.
It cannot talk about how "both sides" have a point and let's all just pull together — when the culture of cruelty is one of those sides.
It either has to decide to turn its back on the culture of cruelty as a prescription for its future, and on those who are pushing for that culture of cruelty as their country's future, or to admit frankly that its experiment in democracy has failed.
There are no other options, when a democracy reaches a crossroads of this sort — and people calling for "understanding" of "both sides" and their points are assisting in the fraying of democracy and the disguising of the unthinkable as thinkable.
I hear the Jonathan Merritts and the Jacob Lupfers and many others like them in the world of religious commentary in the U.S. right now proposing that we continue to pretend that there are "two sides" to the question of whether LGBT people or women should enjoy the same rights men (especially white ones) have long taken for granted, at a point when this kind of "both sides have a point" rhetoric is no longer sustainable for increasing numbers of people including increasing numbers of people of faith. Religious people certainly have a right to insist that their God endorses misogyny and homophobia.
They have a right to insist that their God wants LGBT people to be hidden in the closet or even to be non-existent, and that their God wants women to subject themselves to men. They do not, however, have a right to claim that these ideas represent an adequate and defensible reading of the Christian tradition and its scriptures — any more than they have a right to insist that the Christian tradition is all about upholding white supremacy and proclaiming the inferiority of darker-skinned human beings.
People do not have a right to make such equations and not expect to be challenged by large numbers of Christians who read the Christian gospels to mean something entirely different from racism, misogyny, and homophobia. Most Christian institutions and most many cultures have long since recognized that the equation of Christian faith with racism is indefensible.
We're now involved in a protracted discussion about the defensibility of bible-grounded, theologically enshrined misogyny and homophobia. It's taking us a long time to get to a point at which we can begin to recognize that these ideologies are as indefensible, from the standpoint of gospel-based Christianity, as is the ideology of white supremacy. Unfortunately, one reason that it's taking such a long time to move this conversation forward is that the people who have historically controlled the discussions of Christian communities and represented those communities in the public square are for the most part men. White ones, at that, and usually straight ones.
We do not give up our own unmerited power and privilege very easily at all.