For the past few days, I’ve been mulling over a recent short piece by Richard Beck. In it, he observes a paradox that runs through many strains of “progressive” theology (a term I despise, incidentally, but I’ve covered that ground before). Beck states this paradox succinctly:
Rhetorically, the political theology many progressive Christians espouse is Anabaptist. The rhetoric is anti-empire. Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not.
But in practice, the political theology of many progressive Christians is Niebuhrian. That is, Christians must take and use the power of the state to address our social and international problems. The focus is upon electoral politics and democratic engagement: voting, calling Congress, etc. Jesus may be Lord, but in this unjust world Caesar is how we get stuff done. That’s Niebuhrian realism.
In short, it seems to be that a lot of progressive Christians want to be Anabaptist and Niebuhrian at the same time. Or adjust our position when it suits us. Anti-empire when you need to denounce an administration. Niebuhrian when you need to win an election.
As I read this, my first thoughts were that Beck is ironically describing a tension that runs right through many expressions of present-day Anabaptist theology. And it’s not just “progressive” Anabaptists that tend toward this inconsistency. It’s true on both the left and the right. If Facebook is to be believed (and really, why wouldn’t it be?!), Anabaptist friends of mine on the right enthusiastically cheer on conservative politicians when they speak out against same sex marriage or abortion or welcoming refugees or pipeline restrictions (and protest those who do not). Anabaptist friends of mine on the left enthusiastically cheer on liberal politicians who speak out in favour of the above (and protest those who do not). The content that animates the cheering and protesting is different in each case, obviously, but the assumption is the same, namely, that politics is where the action is.
I have no particular problem with blending and borrowing from various streams of the great Christian tradition (indeed, I happily do it all the time). I don’t think the original Anabaptists got everything right (not by a long shot) or that claiming the title “Anabaptist” requires that we adhere to some kind of idyllic (and imaginary) sixteenth century model of faith and politics. I do, however, think that we should at least be honest that our political advocacy represents a significant departure from the original Anabaptist vision and then provide compelling reasons for why this move might be legitimate or necessary. And we should at least ponder Beck’s claim that at the root of all our political fervour (left or right, Anabaptist or otherwise) there might just be a significantly weakened theological vision for and commitment to the church.
I’ve had a number of conversations recently with people about the question of whether it’s easier or more spiritually healthy or more in tune with the way we’re wired as human beings who grow and develop over time to start conservative and branch out into a more expansive worldview or to start liberal and then try to establish a few theological/ideological anchors later in life. In other words, is it easier to expand out from a solid, if rigid and sometimes stifling worldview than it is to narrow in from a worldview where things seem to be wide open.
I recently listened to an interview with Richard Rohr where he advocated the former. He was raised in rural Kansas as a pre-Vatican II conservative Roman Catholic and has spent his life branching outward. He observes that many people he encouters who were raised post-1968 seem to spend much of their time “sloshing around in disorder.” In many cases, these people were raised in reaction to “fundamentalism.” Now, this observation could just be down to sample size. Maybe sloshing around in disorder is the province of the unique subset of humanity that finds itself drawn to a Richard Rohr retreat. But according to Rohr, it’s easier and maybe even more healthy to start with a more conservative “ordered” view of the world and then stretch the boundaries than to start with disorder and then try to get the horses back in the barn.
It’s a very rough generalization, I know, and it doesn’t apply to everyone. Not by a long shot. I hear all kinds of stories from people who have struggled for much of their lives to deal with their oppressively conservative religious upbringing. And there are undoubtedly those who were raised with liberal approaches to faith that have retained these into adulthood. There are always exceptions to the rule.
But for me, Rohr’s view makes sense experientially and theoretically. It makes sense of my own story and many of the stories I see around me (positively and negatively). It makes sense of my pastoral experience in both more conservative and more liberal churches. My experience is nothing more than that—my experience. But I have typically found it easier to encourage a more conservative person to crack open the windows of their worldview a bit than it is to invite a more liberal person to consider that a bit of narrowing might be necessary. Again, there are exceptions, certainly. And others would almost certainly have a different story. But this is what I have found.
At any rate, if learning faith is anything like learning a language, I suppose we might expect that learning the more rigid and inflexible rules and forms would be a necessary foundation upon which to build more creative and attractive expressions. It’s hard to write a beautiful poem without some kind of training in grammar. I wonder if the same might be analogically true with faith.
Anyone who has read this blog for any length of time will know that one of my abiding interests (and laments) is the extent to which our attitudes, habits, and behaviours are conditioned and constrained by the technologies we embrace. The Internet regularly holds up a rather unflattering mirror to our species. I think an excellent case can be made that we are gradually becoming shallower, stupider, more obnoxiously reactive, less charitable and patient with one another, and that our attention spans are gradually being whittled down to nothing by our frantic and greedy search for novelty and distraction (and dopamine) online.
We are also becoming mostly unwitting slaves to massive corporations that have figured out increasingly ingenious ways to monetize our every click and flick of the eyeballs on any one of the myriad screens that we drift around throughout our days. See, for example, a recent piece called The Crisis of Attention Theft—Ads That Steal Your Time for Nothing in Return. It’s a thoroughly depressing piece, yes, but it also delivered one of the more amusing lines I’ve come across in a while:
There’s a big difference between leafing through a magazine, reading articles and advertising by choice, and being blasted at by a screen when you have no place to go. Indeed, consent is the usual way access to the body is conditioned. The brain is a pretty intimate part of your body, from which it follows that your permission ought be asked before having your synapses groped by a stranger.
I’m going to remember this line the next time I’m on an airplane struggling to figure out how to turn off the monitor on the seat in front of me that cycles through advertising until we reach cruising altitude. I’m going to call over the airline attendant and say, “Excuse me, but my synapses do not appreciate being groped by strangers!”
Well, probably not. Because, well, I abhor conflict and will do almost anything do avoid it. Maybe I’ll just throw in my ear buds, close my eyes tight and hold on for the ride. My synapses will undoubtedly thank me for it later.