Lessons Learned

In this series of “Respectful Conversations,” each set of contributors is invited to use their third and final posts to point to issues that require more thought and that could use further conversation. There are any number of fascinating questions and implications that have arisen in my exchanges with Matthew that could occupy the time of Christian thinkers with far more time and talent than I personally possess. In the confines of this final post I can’t, however, begin to address even a fraction of these issues and won’t, therefore, try for comprehensiveness. I hope that any readers joining us at this point will kindly look back to our previous posts to get a sense of the flow of things.
Coping with the Inevitability of Disagreement

In this past month of conversation there is, nonetheless, one particular idea that I have been chewing on…in the attempt to stop it from gnawing at me.

And it comes, of all places, from the two strongest points of agreement that Matthew and I consistently reached: 1. That predictive attempts are largely folly and 2. the unlikelihood of the “fading of the present controversies.” We doubt the efficacy of prognostication but, when pressed, we both put our chips down on the side of the probability of ongoing and, indeed, rancorous debate. Matthew, furthermore, highlighted the necessity of attending more directly to the present state of affairs in U.S. Christianity rather than being caught gazing either longingly or warily down the road too far—I heartily concur.

I highlighted these convergences in my second post. And Matthew’s second essay mercifully helped further clarify the nature of my personal mental itch. I can’t, you see, escape the idea that the strength of these two points of agreement highlights a larger present reality within the wide and wild ranks of U.S. Christianity that could use some triage…and stat.

So I’ll devote my final post to the idea that has been plaguing my thoughts since the day our first posts when live. I owe Matthew a good deal of thanks for engaging with me the past few weeks as this summative hypothesis, which I have been nursing, draws as much on his contributions as it does my own.

My big-picture, far too simple, broad-in-scope, pipe-dream hypothesis is prescriptive, rather than predictive and is as follows:

Regardless of the future probability of outcomes in the debates around the “present controversies,” it is absolutely clear, as of today, that the apparent shifting tides of consensus will not be enough to eradicate dissent. I want to propose, therefore, that U.S. Christians ought to think about the form of our disagreements as much as we do the content. It is impossible to change the fact of Christian disagreement and diversity of interpretation—and if the history of the Church is any indication, we are probably in for, shall we say, vigorous debate for the long haul—but I would like to believe that there is room for improvement in the ways in which we disagree.

Drawing on the most salient lessons that I have personally taken from this series of exchanges, I’ll highlight some characteristics that I feel will be necessary for the very possibility of ongoing conversations amongst disagreeing U.S. Christians—both young and old.

But first, one brief but enormous caveat: I by no means want to be heard as suggesting that this post contains the key to bringing the in-fighting that has plagued the Christian tradition since its very beginning to a successful détente. I am neither proposing to have found the answer nor suggesting that the current state of U.S. Christianity represents a catastrophe unprecedented in Christian history. There are, nonetheless, certain characteristics of the “present controversies” within U.S. Christianity that present particular kinds of difficulties that warrant careful reexamination. And each new manifestation of inter-Christian debate should, after all, signal a chance to handle it better than we have before.

Lesson 1: While potentially useful as diagnostic tools, polls and surveys about religious affiliation are poor authorities for the task of Christian theology and should, perhaps, be shelved in times of intense disagreement.

 For instance: in my previous post I did not mean to suggest that the possible correlation between the “rise of the nones” and popular perceptions of Christianity as anti-gay pointed definitively to causation.[1] I acknowledge, however, the possibility of interpreting my suggestion of correlation as an attempt to pin the blame for the declining Christian affiliation of Millennials exclusively on a more conservative sexual ethic. I stand by the suggestion that some Millennial disassociation with institutional religion has, at least, something to do with perceptions of Christianity as anti-gay. But Matthew correctly cautions that there is far more to the story than this.

I won’t belabor the point. But as I suggested in my previous post, this lesson cuts both ways. If Christian institutions taking a more conservative position on sexual ethics can’t be held solely responsible for the rise of dis-affiliation with Christianity, then the institutions that have taken a more progressive stance in the past few decades can’t, by extension, be labeled “unsuccessful” because of declining membership.

When it comes to survey data, differences of interpretation will undoubtedly continue to plague U.S. Christianity—specifically around questions like “what do U.S. Christians believe about _________,” or, “why are ___________ leaving the Church in such large numbers?” But Matthew’s point that the weaponization of these numbers represents a sure sign of a diseased culture war is well made.

With this in mind it would, I submit, behoove U.S. Christians—myself included—to take at least one step back from appeals to the latest denominational membership numbers or “religious landscape” survey data as proof positive of anything definitive.

Lesson 2: The possibility of finding healthier ways for U.S. Christians to disagree on these questions will absolutely depend on the intentional diversification of both conversation partners and conversation mediums.

 This very blog series is, I think, one such attempt. By requiring longer-form pieces and multiple responses over a more sustained period of time, as well as by inviting conversation partners who will inevitably disagree but hopefully without resorting to name-calling, Respectful Conversations aims, it seems, for both of these measures. A twitter debate is, after all, going to have certain limits that are hopefully—though not necessarily—subverted in lengthier exchanges.

It, furthermore, bears mentioning that the corners of the Internet where Christians often congregate are no exception to the unending dross of banal and angry noise being broadcast online daily. Conspicuous Christian online presences tend, in my experience, toward either a) reactionary responses passed virally in an echo chamber on an unending loop or b) ad-hominem attacks directed at both “the world” and each other, rivaling and even surpassing the vitriol of any other Internet comment section. Any attempt—like the one made in this series—to subvert these tendencies through creative adaptations of available online mediums is, in my humble opinion, a worthwhile experiment.

That being said, I firmly believe that it is incumbent upon U.S. Christians with varying degrees of social privilege to work oh-so-very-much harder at broadening their purview of possible conversation partners in matters ethical and theological. Though I obviously can’t speak for everyone else involved in this particular set of exchanges, I, for one, have personally noticed the striking white-ness of these conversations. And I am, furthermore, worried that every time I wrote “U.S. Christianity” in one of my posts, I probably should have written “white U.S. Christianity” as a qualifier—I admittedly assumed, after all, a primarily white audience.

We do all streams of the Christian tradition a disservice when we assume that they are monolithic. So, while I’m not suggesting that there is such a thing as an essentialized “white Christianity” or a separate essentialized “black Christianity,” the absence of Christians of color in debates such as these is both unconscionable and, indeed, unrepresentative. Matthew and I, for example, are both straight, white, U.S., Protestant, Christian males. The divergence in our hopes for the future of U.S. Christianity is, indeed, a kind of diversity in that we have potentially opposing perspectives. But diversity of perspective doesn’t necessitate diversity of experience by any means, and it seems increasingly likely that folks that look like me will exert less and less influence on the future directions of Christianity.

U.S. Christian leaders—particularly the white male Christian leaders—presently holding tense conversations around these theo-ethical controversies would, I think, be better equipped for the inevitable future negotiation of difference by listening carefully to Christians outside their own narrow sub-culture. And I would be remiss in not explicitly stating that the persons most equipped to address the future of U.S. Christianity as it relates to generational shifts and the “present controversies” are, in my opinion, those who are most affected by them: the young LGBTQ Christians negotiating the often dire straits between a community that may malign them for their sexual/gender identity and a community that might deride them for their faith.

I think that the voluntary and un-coerced presence of LGBTQ Christians in any venue of conversation about “the present controversies” is a non-negotiable necessity for more just forms of Christian theological disagreement. It is, in my experience, easier to unpardonably collapse people into mere “issues” when they aren’t in the room with you. Disagree though we might, Christians should, as an absolute minimum, strive to talk with persons rather than about “issues.”

Lesson 3: Though there will never be an actual and absolute homogeneity of belief in any individual Christian institution, it is abundantly clear that there are Christian institutions in the U.S. going all-in for both “sides” of this debate. The possibility of future conversation will, I think, depend on the ability to acknowledge the reality of historic and present Christian diversity.

 I turn to this final lesson partially in response to a question that Matthew posed for me in his second post. Pointing to my previous suggestion that, while I hope that U.S. Christians can negotiate the “present controversies” without resorting to the extremity of heresy-izing one another, I could not personally affiliate with a “non-LGBTQ affirming institution,” Matthew writes:

I am interested to know how Sharp reconciles this hope with the conviction that he could not, in good conscience, align with an institution that refused to affirm gay unions in the way he deems fit. In that claim, he seems to grant that there is a point at which separation is justified, at least among individuals.

My reconciliation of these two suggestions is based largely on the fact that Christianity, from its inception, has included a fairly wide range of theological interpretations. There are admittedly Christians that, as is almost always the case, disagree with the following suggestion. But I personally think, for instance, that Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, as well as the various and diverse range of Protestant denominations, all fall within the bounds of Christianity “proper.”

As with the example I provided in my second post of double-predestination Calvinists, I do not personally agree with a number of the particular theological interpretations officially advocated by various other institutional iterations of Christianity. Matthew rightly judges that I do indeed think that there are points, “at which separation is justified, at least among individuals.” I, furthermore, believe that institutional separation is, in fact, justified in some cases. Though I dearly love my Catholic brothers and sisters and strive to learn from them as much as I can, as a Protestant I think that the Reformation was, for instance, one such example of “justifiable separation.”

The denominationalism that has dominated Protestant history—waning though it might be—is, by my estimation, a helpful example of the distinction I have been aiming at. There have regularly been occasions when a group of Christians thinks that the prevailing interpretations of the faith are mistaken on a number of key points—the prerequisites for communal membership, for instance—and takes it upon themselves to form a new community that more faithfully represents the dictates of their consciences.

And there have been times when some previously established institutional bodies subsequently and effectively declare that the new fellowship of dissenters are heretics beyond the pale of “true” Christianity. In such cases, there are often obvious power dynamics in play such that the established institutional leadership fears the loss of control in dictating the legitimate range of Christian belief.

There have also, however, been times—generally after a sort of “cooling off” period—when the divergence of interpretations amongst Christians allows both for individual breaks with one Christian institution in favor of another that more accurately represents one’s own beliefs and an eventual ability for estranged institutions to suggest things like,  “just because they are Methodists doesn’t mean they aren’t Christians!,” of one another.

When applied to the possibility of ongoing “conversation” amidst “the present controversies,” the difference looks, I think, like this…

Matthew and I both agree that it will be increasingly difficult for particular institutions—colleges, denominations, non-profit organizations, etc.—to maintain close fellowship within their ranks across the “affirming” and “non-affirming” lines. In-house conversation across these divisions might possibly, I think, continue in some of these spaces for a short while longer—and I know some brave congregations that are trying. But I think that Matthew and I are also in agreement on the likelihood that this possibility will not last indefinitely.

As these groups are forced to make their institutional positions clear, individual Christians will affiliate or dis-affiliate with these institutions based on their personal interpretations of the ethical demands of their faith.[2] The real question, I humbly submit, will be whether or not the two “sides” will be able to continue any meaningful conversation across institutional lines—or for that matter between individuals affiliated with opposing institutions.

I believe that the very possibility of ongoing dialogue between the coalescing “non-affirming” and “affirming” sides of U.S. Christianity is predicated on the ability to view one another as mistaken, but still Christian.

I will close, then, by answering Matthew’s previous inquiry as succinctly as I can: my conscience indeed dictates that I can longer personally associate with institutions in which my LGBTQ Christian brothers and sisters cannot participate as fully as I can. But I possess neither the desire nor the ability to say that these kinds of institutions are, therefore, excommunicated from the wide stream of Christian tradition. To be able to personally engage in ongoing dialogue with these institutions and their representatives will, however, depend on whether or not they can say the same thing about me. 

[1] I personally, nonetheless, think that there is at least some correlation and that there are some minimal indications—beyond the Barna study—of a causal link. See, for instance, the Public Religion Research Institute’s study at:  http://publicreligion.org/research/2014/02/2014-lgbt-survey/#.Vp7aaFMrKHo.

[2] This is less a prognostication than it is a description of what is already happening.


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