The Christian blogosphere has been busy these last few days, as one of us after another has weighed in on Ross Douthat’s New York Times Article, “Can Liberal Christianity be Saved?” Some of the reflections have been insightful — see, in particular, Diana Butler Bass’ argument that Douthat has misread the data and, thereby, incorrectly confined a broad decline in American Christianity to certain denominations. And some of the reflections have been self-congratulatory — while, as an Episcopalian, I am a member of what Douthat identifies as a liberal tradition, I am seriously ill at ease with anyone arguing that the Episcopal church is populated with prophets.
Two questions come to my mind as I listen to this debate. My first question is this: when we say “liberal” or “conservative,” what do we mean? These days, there is something like a binary test to sort folks into the liberal or conservative camps — your position on gay marriage quickly deposits you either with the goats or the sheep. (Given that the catalyst for Douthat’s article was the Episcopal Church’s General Convention and, in particular, its decision to affirm a rite for blessing same-gender unions, I am guessing this is more or less the test which he is employing). My experience is that actual Christians are considerably more nuanced than this binary allows. Categories such as “liberal” and “conservative,” therefore, prematurely end conversations — they are shorthand which allows us to quickly categorize another person and, thereby, to avoid the effort of genuinely listening to her. When we choose to do the hard work of listening, our categories are frequently confounded.
What are we to make, for instance, of the self-identified liberal who believes abortion to be unethical some or all of the time? Is being unreservedly pro-choice the prerequisite for buying a ticket to the lefty dance? Similarly, what shall we do with the self-identified conservative who argues in favor of arts funding or against perpetuating war for reasons of profit (see fine reflections on both of these subjects by my colleague, Eric Blauer). God’s people are more complicated — more messy, if you like — than our categories allow.
It is this messiness which brings me to my second question: what does our own witness teach us? (Let me cheerfully confess, here, that one of things which draws me to Jesus is that I am a lot more interested in stories than in statistics). I didn’t grow up going to church, and you’ll find many of my friends and family at home on a Sunday morning to this day. One of the big reasons I stayed away (and one of the reasons that the people whom I love tell me that they stay away still) is that I assumed that the church, by its very definition, was on the wrong side of the major moral issues of our time; that it was in the business of preserving privilege while neglecting the least of these, our brothers and sisters. It is not an exaggeration to say that I was both flabbergasted and delighted when the Diocese of New Westminster, in Vancouver, BC, publicly announced its support for same-gender blessings and, around the same time, declared that BC’s referendum to limit the parameters of the native treaty process was a racist exercise. To put it plainly, I found an open door to becoming a Christian when I encountered what Douthat calls a liberal church. And I know from speaking with other adult converts that my experience is not unique. Thanks be to God that the Gospel is proclaimed in conservative and liberal contexts alike; that the spirit is moving in such a breadth of communities of faith.
Christians from a broad range of politics and theologies have much to teach to one another. I am immensely enriched every time I say “yes” to seriously listening to someone who pushes the boundaries of my understanding of who God is and where God is at work in the world. What a privilege to put away categories such as liberal and conservative for an hour or two and, instead, to pick up a cup of coffee with someone whose practices and whose understanding of the divine is different than my own. I always learn so much over that cup of coffee. I like to think that the person with whom I share that fleeting time feels the same way.
The Rev. Martin Elfert is an immigrant to the Christian faith. After the birth of his first child, he began to wonder about the ways in which God was at work in his life and in the world. In response to this wondering, he joined Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver, British Columbia, where he and his new son were baptized at the Easter Vigil in 2005 and where the community encouraged him to seek ordination. Martin served on the staff of the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Spokane, Wash. from 2011-2015. He is now the rector of Grace Memorial Episcopal Church in Portland, Oreg.