Jesus said to them, “Come and follow me . . .”
According to the Gospel records, Jesus issues that same simple invitation repeatedly. He tells the fishermen that he will teach them to fish for people and he calls on a rich young man to first, “go and sell all that you have, and give it to the poor.” He asks Levi to leave his work as a tax collector.
The invitations are simple and direct.
He does not ask them for an affirmation of faith. He does not ask them to believe in him or have faith in him or believe anything about him. He does not ask them to believe anything at all. They don’t have to affirm a doctrine or recite a creed, or even say a prayer.
They are simply invited to follow.
I thought about the simplicity of that original invitation as I read a recent post by Mark Tooley on the “Juicy Ecumenism” blog of the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD). His essay is a critique of a blog post by Rev. Roger Wolsey, a United Methodist elder, who was writing about Progressive Christianity.
Mr. Tooley begins by quoting what Rev. Wolsey says he doesn’t believe:
“Friends, Jesus isn’t God. Jesus didn’t die for our sins. Jesus wasn’t killed instead of us. God isn’t wrathful or vindictive. There isn’t a hell (other than ones that we create here on this earth). Going to heaven after we die isn’t what the faith or salvation is about. God didn’t write the Bible."That sounds a lot more radical than it is.
One of the hazards of Progressive Christianity is that it is too often more about what we don’t believe than about what we do believe.
But one of the reasons Progressive Christians expend so much energy on what they don’t believe is because allegedly “orthodox” Christians say so many things that require response. The affirmations of the current “orthodoxy” are often little more than a thinly veiled biblical and creedal literalism. And sometimes the literalism is not veiled at all. Consequently, Progressives often find themselves correcting notions they thought had been laid to rest in the middle of the twentieth century.
Tooley does not quote the whole paragraph of Wolsey’s disbelieving. And the last part sounds more like mainline Christianity:
“Jesus’ resurrection didn’t have to be understood as a physical one for it to be a real and meaningful one (Paul and many of the early disciples encountered a spiritually risen Christ). Science and faith aren’t incompatible. God didn’t create the Creation in 6 literal days. The earth isn’t only 6,000 years old. Human aggravated global warming isn’t bogus. God isn’t male. Women are fully equal to me. Homosexuality isn't a sin. Being transgender isn’t sinful or to be rejected. Racism is sinful. And Christianity isn't the only way for humans to experience salvation.”Given his perspective on the far right end of what he calls “orthodoxy,” Tooley’s critique is not surprising, and he makes his points without a great deal of rancor. At the center of his criticism of Wolsey is his rejection of what he calls “the old modernist Protestant liberalism,” which he declares to be “mostly dead.”
He correctly identifies the major problems with the old modernist liberalism as the deification of science and rationality.
But his critique of Wolsey’s progressive Christian vision has two major problems.
The first is inherent in the very idea of “orthodoxy” itself. It’s a long way from the original invitation of Jesus. The spiritual journey to which Jesus invites his followers ought not to be confined by a narrow orthodoxy. It ought to be broadly expansive and open to new ideas and insights. We should be looking for more light and more insight, not trying to find ways to limit our thinking. The Council of Chalcedon (or any other) may be a great subject for historical inquiry, and that study can certainly teach us things, but it ought not to limit our faith.
The second problem is identical with his critique of modernism.
The current rebirth of biblical literalism might seem to be the very antithesis of the modernist “deification of science and rationality,” but it isn’t. Literalism is anti-science, but it arrives at that position by treating the biblical witness as if it were its own kind of science.
Scholarship and science argue that facts matter. Literalism counters by turning faith into fact.
The majestic poetry and deep religious symbolism of the Bible are reduced to factoids. The narrative is just a list of events. The warmth that was so vital to the evangelical witness is lost in the insistence on facts.
Rooting out heterodox theology is not the path to authentic faith. Maybe we could just help each other follow Jesus and see where he leads us.
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