Welcome to the Age of Choose Your Own Theology
In my pre-teen years, I was an avid consumer of ‘Choose Your Own Adventure‘ novels. As the reader (often in the role of the protagonist), I was in charge of my destiny and presented with various options that would determine my glorious future or untimely demise. Inevitably I would bookmark specific pages so that I could go back and choose different paths and realise different endings.
As a Christian, who has been on something of a theological adventure over the past 25 years, I wonder if we apply this approach to our beliefs. As I engage in workplaces, conferences and social media, I am increasingly aware of a pick-and-choose approach to personal theology and its outworking in people’s opinions and lives. Faith practices now transcend the simplistic categories against which we used to align our theology. More than landing on a spectrum or continuum of ‘conservative’ through to ‘progressive’, or ‘right’ and ‘left’, we are increasingly hybrid.
Across the myriad of ‘choose your own theology’ options, ideas, conversations and interactions, there seem to be consistent themes. Here’s what I (broadly) observe about contemporary Christianity in the English-speaking world.
We’re getting more progressive.
We are progressive on tattoos. What Youth Pastor or Evangelist of any repute isn’t sporting a bit of ink these days? Tattoos no longer attract the stigma of days past; they’re trendy, and they offer a point of connection and ‘street cred’.
We are increasingly progressive on gender roles and the leadership of women in the church – though, given the various threads and the recent debate on #ThingsOnlyChristianWomenHear, we are right to wonder how much progress we’re making. We are, however, slowly moving forward, and it is increasingly more common to see women preaching and leading churches.
We’re progressive on slavery (well sexual exploitation, at least).
We also remain very conservative.
We’re conservative on neoliberalism, rampant capitalism and greed.
We’re conservative and increasingly regressive (silent even) on refugees and people seeking asylum.
We’re conservative on climate change and climate justice.
We’re conservative on nationhood and patriotism.
We’re conservative on ‘traditional marriage’.
We’re conservative on social welfare.
So what is our yardstick? By what measure do we choose our theology and outworking of our beliefs as Christians? Is it Scripture?
Of the issues to which we increasingly apply a progressive approach, canonical scripture is often ambivalent but mostly accepting of the status quo. Neither the Old nor New Testaments have much to say about slavery beyond maintaining order and directing slaves and masters to relate well to each other. Similarly, it’s difficult to justify tattoos or female senior pastors (as distinct from deacons and apostles) from any reading of Scripture.
However, littered throughout Scripture are exhortations and clarification on the treatment of foreigners, refugees, widows, the poor, the marginalised and the exploited. Scripture is clear about justice. We read about Jesus discussing and demonstrating the centrality of mercy, forgiveness and love and especially applying such approaches to ‘the least of these’. Scripture is explicit about the folly of wealth and consumerism, idolatry, demagoguery and empire. And yet we maintain a conservative stance on many of these issues.
So if the yardstick isn’t Scripture, is it Jesus? That would seem reasonable given that He’s at the centre of the Christian faith. If we apply Jesus’ various sermons on peace-making, reconciliation, good deeds, resisting violence, laying down our lives and loving ‘the other’ to the ‘progressive’ and ‘conservative’ lists above we can quickly find inconsistencies. It’s almost inconceivable that Jesus would condone the cruel treatment of refugees and asylum seekers in our country and incarcerated off our shores.
We are progressive on the issues that are palatable to us, that serve us well and that seem reasonable; whereas we are conservative and even regressive on issues that threaten our sense of identity and the comfort of our daily lives.
If our consistent yardstick isn’t Scripture or Jesus, what then is it?
My uncomfortable conclusion is that our measure is primarily based on our identity and the advancement of our own lives. We are progressive on the issues that are palatable to us, that serve us well and that seem reasonable; whereas we are conservative and even regressive on issues that threaten our sense of identity and the comfort of our daily lives.
Let’s be honest – tattoos are cool. And who doesn’t want to be cool? Sexual slavery and exploitation, beyond being pure evil, deeply disturbs us (as it should). Slave labour disturbs us less because stuff is expensive and we want stuff. (We’d also have to spend more than $10 on a t-shirt and even more for our smart phones, and who can afford that?) Climate change is inconvenient because we have to change how we live and it makes us want to use our air conditioner more. Patriotism and nationalism help us to feel like we belong, and the redefinition of marriage to include same-sex relationships is (for those of us who were born heterosexual) shocking to our sensibilities.
What do we do with this? If we’re honest (more honest than we are about tattoos), this is confronting. I want to believe this doesn’t apply to me. I want to explain it away and get defensive. I certainly don’t want to be accused of, or own up to, cherry-picking my beliefs. I don’t necessarily align with the lists I’ve outlined above, but I need to consider the means by which I benchmark my theology. In the face of such inconsistency, how do I frame my faith?
A benchmark based on safety, comfort and maintaining the status quo is the antithesis of what Jesus taught and who He calls us to be. Jesus is clear, throughout the Gospels, that the key performance indicator of His followers and disciples is who and how they love. That’s it. The only disclaimers and qualifiers to that are more demanding, not less. Demanding enough for the rich young ruler to walk away and Jesus’ religious peers to have him crucified.
John 5:39 (NLT) quotes Jesus as saying, ‘You search the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me!’ Rather than provide more weight to scriptures and doctrines that maintain privilege and power, that exclude and control, we must consistently view them through the lens of Jesus; and not just when it supports our comfortable existence.
Here, then, should be our yardsticks. Love God. Love your neighbour. Love your enemy. Bless those who persecute you. Receive and pursue peace.
Long may we choose this adventure.