Since Meg and I aren't actively engaged in dialog anymore, I decided it's time to wrap up this series of blog posts. (Click on "dialog" in the list of labels to the right to find the first four posts.) I have to say that engaging in this kind of intentional dialog about theology has been enjoyable and educational. I'm grateful to Meg for her willingness to be open, thoughtful, and unflinching in both her questions to me and her responses to my questions. Though we differ on many points, on this I think we agree: we are called to serve the holy and to encourage everyone to live into their own sacredness. Like the blossoms on the columbine above, Meg and I are separate but connected - by our common humanity, our common Christian roots and our common call to ministry. I wish her well in her present and future ministries!
In my last post, I reported some of our discussion of justice - a topic about which we both have strong feelings and opinions. Previously I related our dialog on retribution and forgiveness and universalism, but didn't quite get to the heart of my objection to traditional Christian theology, which I expressed to Meg in an email this way:
I don’t understand how gathering some to heaven and consigning others to hell is a sign of a just deity. In this context, I especially don’t understand the notion of grace, as explained by some theologians, as some sort of ‘get-out-of-hell-free’ card randomly given to some and withheld from others, such that those who have grace can believe and be saved while those who don’t are incapable of belief and salvation. This goes beyond the scope of my original question a bit – but it applies to the notion of the elect, a Calvinist idea though certainly not exclusive to his thought. I see this expressed as an "in" crowd and an "out" crowd. The "in" folks are in God's favor and destined for Heaven; the "outs" are out of favor and, well, not destined for Heaven.This view of Christianity is what I understood from the few churches I knew prior to discovering Unitarian Universalism. The Lutheran church my brother joined, the independent and Baptist churches I attended as a teen, and the Catholic churches of many of my friends all seemed to present similar theologies - though with different formulae for achieving "in" status. Meg's response included an illustration of her being required to preach on a text from Isaiah about God choosing one nation over another, and her struggle to figure out a way to present this. Here's how she resolved her dilemma:
The best way I could explain that idea was to make a metaphor from marriage. At a wedding ceremony, the bride and groom promise to "forsake all others" and we think that is right and good because it is, in fact, the level to which a husband and wife live out that vow, embody their commitment to one another that others (children, church family, etc.) are drawn into and blessed through their union. Ultimately, then, when God chooses some people, there is a hidden agenda of wooing and drawing others into that love.
Now, I don't know about anyone else, but this sounds a lot like process thinking. One professor used a very similar illustration, of God enticing and wooing humanity into relationship with him [sic], as an example of process theology. One has to give up some of the absolute power usually attributed to a deity in this construct, and I do know a number of liberal Christians who are quite comfortable with that approach. I'm not sure the wedding analogy works for me, though. Meg also wrote that,
"...the church has been hideously at fault in presenting this doctrine by presupposing that they've got the secret "in" and can therefore pick for themselves who to treat as "insiders" and "outsiders." ... No Christian should ever presume to know who is in and who's out."I still have a problem with there being a group of "outsiders." To borrow from an elevator speech I've adopted as my own - I believe that as earthly creatures we all come from and return to the same source. If this is true, there can't be an "in" or "out" group.* And with that, we seem to be at a familiar impasse, but at least I understand how we got there, now. Meg, and a lot of others, read the same scriptures I do. But, we read them differently. I read them to glean truths that overlap with other faiths and traditions, to see where we humans agree should be our highest aspirations. I also read them with more detachment, understanding that the stories presented in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures have many parallels in the mythologies of other cultures. Others read them as inspired by God, though often unclear. Some read them as direct pronouncements and claim to know what the unclear parts mean. Of course, this leads to our differences in creeds, beliefs about the divine, and the end goal of humanity - all topics on which Meg and I have worked to explain our views to each other. While my dialog with this specific person ends now, I fully intend to continue engaging in dialog with others over issues of theology and faith. I'm grateful to be at a seminary that encourages such dialog, both in and out of the classroom.
I believe, however, that such dialog also needs to take place within our churches. In my experience, we're not always thoughtful enough, respectful enough, open enough to these questions from each other. Sometimes I - and perhaps we - need reminding that we're all engaged in search, and we need each other to help us on that journey. Where better to find companions than within our own communities?
*(I'm afraid I've forgotten the original source of the elevator speech, I've heard so many over the past couple years!)