« Respectful Disagreement on the Possibility of "Agreeing to Disagree" »

 

If nothing else, Matthew’s first essay demonstrated that we share a justifiable reluctance to offer definitive predictions about the direction that future winds may blow. Make no mistake, I—and I would be willing to bet we—hedge on pronouncements on the shape of things to come out of self-interest: wagering aloud is one thing, committing forecasts to print is quite another. And the Internet would, no doubt, be all too happy to oblige in one day pointing out how wrong we were.

I think our agreement on this point, however, goes at least a bit deeper. If I read him correctly, Matthew would, I think, agree with my suggestion that the epistemological wall of the future calls into question not only the practical advisability of prognostication but also, indeed, the intrinsic legitimacy of such endeavors. This would be a very different kind of discussion if there were, for instance, only one of us who thought that predictive attempts are more or less doomed from the get-go.

Inadvisable though it perhaps was, we acknowledged the folly of it and logged our guesses anyway. So before diving into the specifics, I want to thank Matthew for his first contribution and for his willingness to go a couple of rounds with me.

The Similarity in Our Wagers

 I’ll begin by highlighting our areas of agreement—addressing the aspects of Matthew’s essay that I affirm.

Neither of us foresees an eminent “fading of the present controversies.”

 It is in disagreeing with the suggestion that the “generation gap” represents a sure sign that the “present controversies” will simply “fade away,” that Matthew and I reach our strongest point of agreement. Chalk it up to the “crown and glory of our youth” that we unite most consistently in rebellion against a popular perception. We both, it seems, believe that the growing “acceptance of homosexuality” amongst younger American Christians doesn’t, by any means, point to as rapid a disappearance of controversy as some might think. I pointed to some broader demographic trends as demonstrative of the possibility of ongoing battles. And Matthew rightly noted that the survey data misses the fact that those Millennials who have held on to a more traditional Christian sexual ethic up until this point may, indeed, be better positioned to articulate their reasons for holding what is an increasingly unpopular view. Matthew convincingly suggested that it seems likely that the Millennials currently holding onto a more traditional sexual ethic will continue to argue their position all the more fervently. We both, furthermore, alluded to the power dynamics within conservative Christian institutions as another contributing factor in the possibility of future strife.

We also both, to varying degrees, questioned the utility and advisability of using polling measures as absolutely indicative of shifts in generational ethos. I clearly relied more heavily on these very surveys as one indicator of the present milieu. But, nonetheless, I hope that my wariness about the limits of their predictive and normative validity came through in my essay.[1]

We agree that there is a potential generational shift occurring in political theology.

I also appreciated Matthew’s hypothesis that the, “the most important and interesting generational gap is not over the substance of sexual ethics, but about political theology,” as well. The dubiousness of polling measures aside, it seems undeniable that there has been a decline in the popularly held, appropriately vague, loosely Protestant, widespread U.S. civil Christianity, as well as its alleged minimum of ethical consensus—if there ever was such a thoroughgoing historical agreement in the first place. The very idea that the U.S. could be conceptualized as a “Christian nation”—whatever that actually means—seems, mercifully, less and less a rhetorical trope these days. Add to that a generation of Christians that is, in my experience, acutely wary of a Religious Right style, theocratically inflected, sort of politics and political theology does seem to be a place where there will be more than just a “generational gap”: we may very well be in for a decisive generational break.[2]

I think that Matthew and I are in agreement that whatever happens with the future of Christianity in the U.S., the hopes of achieving even a minimal religious and social-ethical consensus in the electorate or of the possibility of legislating the “kingdom of God” into existence, will not be as great a temptation as for past generations. I agree with Matthew’s observation that the most prominent present day Christian conservative reform movements, “have not mobilized politically as past evangelical movements have done,” and would add that the notable relative absence of publicly cozy associations between current Christian leaders and those in the highest political offices is further indication of changes in the generational landscape with respect to political theology. Try, for instance, to think of any current U.S. Christian leader who would be able to conspicuously associate with the highest U.S. political leaders as intimately and for as long as either Billy Graham or, earlier, Reinhold Niebuhr. Or who could receive civil commemoration at the level of a Martin Luther King Jr.—as controversial as he was during his life and as long as his posthumous ascent to near universal regard actually took.[3]

There are obviously still Christian leaders and thinkers and laypersons that are politically active. And we should be careful not to reduce the scope of the political purely to electoral politics. But I still think it is safe to question the likelihood that there will be a Christian leader from the Millennial generation who will be on multiple successive presidents’ speed dials—well, perhaps more appropriately, on their iMessage.[4]

There is one more significant point, I think, on which we agree. But I’ll save that one for the end of the post, as I find it illustrative in a summative sort of way.

The Difference in Our Evaluations

While our tentative predictions about the current generational shifts afoot in U.S. Christianity are, in fact, quite similar, our interpretations of the present and future implications of some of the purported changes are starkly different. The most substantive, and at times obvious, difference in our first postings has to do, I think, with our divergent understandings of the legitimate range of possibilities for Christian theology. Before attending to my concerns with Matthew’s position, as I understood it, let me state more explicitly what I think is our most fundamental disagreement:

I articulated a hope that Christianity will become increasingly more open to theological positions that affirm the moral legitimacy of same gendered sexual relationships. Matthew thinks that any such position is, in fact, an inherent theological impossibility within the bounds of Christianity. A Christian ethic that does not maintain a strict gender binary as requisite for marriage is, in his view, a contradiction in terms due to its position as “an architectural doctrine,” the removal of which amounts to “a theological heart transplant.”

Some legitimate concerns…

With the clear divergence in our personal theological positions in mind, I want to briefly address some of what I think are Matthew’s most pressing concerns with “more progressive” positions.

For starters, I will grant the legitimacy of Matthew’s worry over the zero-sum-game stakes of much of our present culture warrioring. And though I have no personal right to say whether the LGBT community ought to grant mercy to Christian groups that hold more conservative views of sexual ethics, I, for one, harbor no gleeful hope for the marginalization of conservative Christians.

I will also grant that there are problematic implications in some traditionally liberal appeals to evolutionary views of human history. Especially, for instance, in the un-interrogated colonialist assumptions inhering in descriptors like “backwards.” Absolute self-confidence that one’s position or that the views of one’s group represent calculable “progress” is a dangerous game—even, or perhaps especially, when there is an arguable measure of truth in the notion that some things have gotten better. The question of what qualifies as progress, or improvement, or betterment, is an intractable difficulty with such narratives.

I fully, furthermore, concur with Matthew’s suggestion that “is it true?” is a stronger criteria of evaluation for an ethic than either, “is it popular?” or, “does it work?”

 …and some problematic suggestions.

I am confident that Matthew personally believes that the move by progressive mainline denominations in the past several decades to try and articulate a pro-LGBT Christian sexual ethic, indeed, represents a theological untruth. But I feel that, while holding up the criteria of truth as a defense for a more conservative view of Christian sexual ethics in the face of shifting social mores, Matthew edges toward leveling the charge that, “it simply hasn’t worked,” at Christian denominations who have historically taken a less conservative approach. He comes perilously close, in fact, to suggesting that the, “bitter dividing of the mainline denominations,” represents proof of their “failed attempt,” “to hold together the affirmation of gay unions with the traditional core of the faith.”

I cannot personally speak broadly for any of those involved in these attempts, but I’d be willing to bet that many were motivated by a belief that holding “together the affirmation of gay unions with the traditional core of the faith,” is not only possible but is, in fact, true. If the decline in popularity of a more conservative position and the probability of ongoing divisiveness in the conservative Christian world over these questions are not an accurate measure of the truthfulness of a more traditional Christian sexual ethic, then the denominational schisms of the mainline ought not be gestured toward as evidence of the untruthfulness of a more progressive stance. As Matthew pointed out, whether something polls well should neither be celebrated nor mourned for those seeking truth.

What, then, would qualify as evidence of the untruthfulness of these attempts or of their inability to hold together the affirmation of gay unions with the core of Christianity?

There is, furthermore, a strong thematic emphasis in Matthew’s first post on the idea of a smaller, more sincere, true Christian remnant in the future—pictured as holding out against the shifting tides of the surrounding culture. As evidenced, for instance in the following description:

Instead, our increasingly fragile social position will winnow away those who are not substantively committed to the faith, and the deep hope of the gospel will become more deeply embedded in our own hearts. The glad light of good cheer among the faithful remaining will grow brighter in such circumstances, and conservatives will announce the word of grace while holding firm to their convictions about the shape that grace takes.

In this narrative, the future battles over these controversies will largely demand negotiations between two key players: 1. The “faithful remaining” Christians, with their more conservative sexual ethic and 2. everyone else—essentially, the increasingly secular, pro-LGBT, broader U.S. culture. The section of his essay expressing the tenuous hope for the boon of grace to conservative Christians from increasingly victorious LGBT rights advocates, for example, paints this very sort of picture. This scenario subtly sidesteps, however, the question of the ongoing role of Christian LGBT advocates and “affirming” Christian denominations and organizations within this very debate—not to mention the pro-LGBT Christian organizations that position themselves as more theologically traditional.[5]

Due to the acute disparity in their respective agendas, the foregrounding of the debate between conservative Christian institutions and broader secular LGBT advocacy groups may be warranted. But the prominence of this prospective David and Goliath scenario heightens my suspicion that the first post was written with an assumption that the various pro-LGBT strands of U.S. Christianity are not only illegitimate but, in fact, largely irrelevant.

In Matthew’s first post, the most conspicuous fear about future developments seems to be the increasing marginalization by the surrounding culture of the strands of U.S. Christianity that maintain a more traditional sexual ethic. While I think that he is justifiably apprehensive about this possibility, I think the future of “inter-Christian” diversity around these questions is more complex than the particular emphases of his first post might suggest.

Which brings me, actually, to my final point of agreement with Matthew’s post.

The Limits of Christian Diversity?

I think that, like our convergence around the projection that the “present controversies” will not soon “fade away,” Matthew and I are in agreement on another aspect of the broader future outlook for the shape of these debates within various iterations of U.S. Christianity. When he suggests, then, that, “I suspect the ‘generation gap’ will not be wide enough to avoid the ongoing balkanization and fragmentation of the Protestant world,” I am afraid that he is absolutely right on this one. Like Matthew, I have a hard time imagining, for instance, that it will ultimately be “feasible for institutions to somehow leave room for both positions.” I don’t foresee any individual denomination or congregation escaping this with the “agree to disagree” approach in place for the long haul.

But while individual Christian institutions will likely be hard pressed to sustain a wide diversity of perspectives on these questions, I like to imagine that the broader Christian tradition might. If historical precedent is any indication, there have been divisions both as bitter and as polarizing as these throughout Christian history and many of the warring factions have been able to still conceive of one another as Christians.

Are there outer limits to the possibilities of diversity on theological and ethical positions still classifiable as within the realm of the Christian tradition?

Probably.

But I don’t think that differences of opinion on, for instance, the legitimate possibilities of the gender of one’s spouse put us very near the boundaries.

I personally believe that a lot of Christians are woefully wrong about any number of things—double-predestination Calvinists, for instance. But being wrong and being “beyond the pale” are, in my humble opinion, two decidedly different things.  

 


[1] I believe that I successfully avoided the kind of “weaponization of polls” that Matthew pointed to in his essay. If the reader, however, disagrees, rest assured that it was not my intent for them to serve as any kind of ultimate authority.

[2] Which is not to suggest, however, that 1. all of the religious right were theonomists; 2. that there weren’t many streams of U.S. Christianity that concurrently offered alternative political theologies, or 3. that there will be Millennial consensus on what should replace it. I will, however, go so far as to say—and I think Matthew would agree—that the most prominent and loudest versions of the political theology advocated by the “Religious Right” is not likely to be replicated by “the next generation.”

[3] If there are any names that would even come close, I would all but guarantee that they don’t belong to anyone who is also a “Millennial.”

[4] My apologies to Android users.

[5] See, for instance, The Reformation Project: http://www.reformationproject.org/

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