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Rolling Up Our Sleeves: Liberal Religion As Hard Work

From Alexander Carpenter
A friend of mine, Rev. James Gertmenian, delivered the following convocation address yesterday at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities.  Jim raises some essential issues for the future of social justice and I reprint it below, not just because he mentions me in the address, but because his tripartite list of liberal weaknesses casts a vision for a strong progressive Christian future.

By Rev. James Germenian
President McVay, Dean Weis, Trustees, Faculty, Staff, and Students, thank you for the privilege of being your Convocation speaker today.   Though I am a graduate of another seminary – one of which I am most proud – I have felt, over the past decade, the gentle press of United’s influence on my ministry (and, more important, on my soul), so that standing here feels as natural as standing in my mother’s kitchen, and the words alma mater, take on a new, more inclusive meaning.   I also want to express my thanks to Doug and Carol Baker, dear friends, and to the Seminary, for the honor of the new scholarship that bears my name.  This is more meaningful to me than you can know.
Ernst Kasemann, of blessed memory, recounted the following incident that happened when a series of terrible storms and floods hit Holland in 1952. The scene was a small town where strict religious observance was still the norm and where adherence to God’s commandments was the highest value. It was a Sunday, and some of the worst tempests were passing through.  The wind and the waves were so strong that one of the dykes protecting the village was in danger of collapsing.  Immediate work would have to be done to avoid a disaster, and the police urged the local pastor to mobilize his congregation to help. But it was a Sunday, you see… the Sabbath… when no work was supposed to be done. What could the minister do?  Call the people to the task, even if it meant profaning the Sabbath? Or let them be destroyed in order to honor the commandment? Finally, the minister felt that he couldn’t bear the decision alone, so he called an emergency meeting of the church council. The direction of the discussion was clear: God’s will is what is most important. If God wants to, he can always perform a miracle with the wind and the waves. Therefore, the Christian’s duty is obedience to the commandments, even if it means death. The dyke would not be rebuilt, not on a Sunday. At this point, the pastor tried one more argument, maybe even against his own conviction. Didn’t Jesus himself occasionally break the commandment about the Sabbath, and didn’t he say that the Sabbath was made for humankind, and not the other way around? At which point an older member of the council stood up: “I’ve always been troubled, pastor, by something I’ve never said publicly. Now I have to say it.  I have always had the suspicion that our Lord Jesus was just a bit of a liberal.”1
Suspicion of liberals and of our ideas became something of a blood sport in the United States about thirty years ago, and to be honest, I never really thought I would live to see the day when the “L-word” would be willingly embraced again anywhere beyond the academy, but now I believe myself to have been wrong.  The excesses and shortcomings of conservatism – both political and theological – are coming home to roost, and though that storm has not passed, it is surely passing, or at least breaking up, and liberals are beginning to emerge again, as if from their underground shelters, a bit bewildered, to be sure . . . blinking gratefully against the resurgent sun of progressive ideas and stretching their intellectual limbs where before they felt cramped and constrained.   There can be no doubt about it: the progressive religious movement is greening up across the country, from the Center for Progressive Christianity in the East to Progressive Christians Uniting in the West to the Network of Spiritual Progressives everywhere, and here in the Twin Cities – I am proud to say – at the Plymouth Center for Progressive Christian Faith, an outgrowth of Plymouth Congregational Church where I serve.  This is a movement

  •      that values tolerance and inclusiveness,
  •      that embraces pluralism, 
  •      that honors the role of individual reason and the gifts of science,
  •      that is open to an expansive and imaginative hermeneutic,
  •      that envisions world unity and the waning of nationalism,
  •      that seeks the God who transcends all of the various faith traditions but who may be experienced profoundly in each of them. 

In its Christian form, progressive religion eschews legalistic and mechanistic views of the atonement, including those that seem to sacrilize violence, and it replaces them with a view that emphasizes the moral nature of Jesus’ death-defying love.   Through it all, as Professor Gary Dorrien points out, liberal theology offers today, as it always has, a third or middle way between the extremes of atheistic rationalism on the one hand and rigid orthodoxy dependent on external sources of authority the other.2 
Now, news of a liberal resurgence may seem odd to hear at a place like United Seminary where progressive ideas never really ebbed, but unless you have been quarantined on this bucolic campus for the last four decades, you know that United has been the exception, not the rule.   At any rate, like the people of Israel returning to a destroyed Jerusalem after the Exile, we liberals face massive challenges of rebuilding and daunting tasks of restoration.   Put it simply:  Friends, we have work to do.  A lot of work to do.  And given the failures in our recent past as well as some of the soft spots in liberalism’s essential nature, it is not at all unreasonable to wonder whether we are up to the task.   More about that in a moment.
First, though, I want to make sure that I cast our situation in something other than polemical terms, tempting though such language may be.   To begin with, it is simply too easy to set up fundamentalist straw men – Pat Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell are the usual suspects – as though they were broadly representative of Christian evangelicals and conservatives.   They are not, nor is the so-called Religious Right nearly as monolithic as some make it out to be.   Then, too, it is hardly productive – especially in a post-modern context – to continue to envision liberal and conservative Christians at one another’s throats, battling for turf and seeking domination over one another.   We may differ in everything from hermeneutics to theology, from Christology to cosmology, but I take it as a given that the search for truth is absolutely dependent on vigorous argument from both sides of any question.   And the church – the Body of Christ – can only be whole when all of its parts are healthy.     Don’t get me wrong.   There are surely strains of conservative and fundamentalist Christian thought and practice that deserve our censure, but as Bill Coffin used to say, anything worth our censure is also worth our compassion.   So if I speak of the difficult work ahead for us, and of rebuilding the liberal and progressive movement, its infrastructure and its institutions, I’m not suggesting that our task is to achieve dominance or to be victorious over anyone but only to hold up  – ably and without apology –  our end of the argument . . . to seek health for our part of the body.   Conservative and liberal Christianity each need the other in order to be whole . . . not that we seek some muddled synthesis of ideas but that we understand the creative power of a lively and ongoing tension between great poles of thought.
So, back to the notion of liberal religion as hard work.   As I said, we have a movement to build.  I would say “re-build,” but that would imply a simple replication of what existed before.   At a recent gathering of Progressives where I spoke, a lovely woman came up to me at the break and gushed:  “Oh, it’s just like the sixties!”   Ouch!  Friends, the last thing we need is a sixties re-run.   That’s not progressive, that’s regressive.   Actually, the best metaphor I’ve heard recently came up at a meeting where we were planning an upcoming conference that will bring together fifteen of the brightest progressive seminarians from around the country together with fifteen progressive elders for three days of talks and relationship-building.   Dierdre Hinz of United is one of the planners.   The question was:  What to call the event?   Alex Carpenter, a seminarian from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, also on the planning committee, said, “How about this: ‘Re-weaving the Dream?’”  We liked it, and that’s what our conference, to be held next month, will be called.   Whatever the metaphor, though, it’s work that will require creativity, courage, patience, and lots of resources.  It is not for the faint of heart, the weak of conviction, or the selfish of spirit.  Earlier I raised the question of whether we are up to the challenge.   The fact is, I see a series of weaknesses that will threaten our effort.  Time is short this morning, so I will only speak of three.   Each of them, I think, traces to a hyper-extension of what is essentially a good thing:  the Enlightenment notion of the autonomy and value of the individual.   Frankly, I hesitate to take a negative tack like this, but I hope you’ll see that in naming our weaknesses, my aim is to bolster our strength.
The first weakness is a conundrum endemic to liberalism itself.   The belief in the value of the individual, her autonomy, his right to a life guided by his own reason rather than by some external authority, has a paradoxical effect.   On first blush, it suggests a grand permissiveness.   You can believe what you want to believe, and no one can tell you different.   Many people in churches like the one I serve are drawn to those congregations because of that permissiveness.   No priest or bishop will set down doctrine for you.   No minister or church council can dictate the faith.   This freedom is a great gift of the liberal tradition.   But if it is a freedom that fails to mature, it can foster a theological laziness.   If there is no external authority dictating theological orthodoxy, this false reasoning says, then I may be able to get away with not thinking about the questions at all.  If the Bible is not to be read literally, then perhaps I can jettison it – and its insistent, maddening questions – altogether.  Liberalism, taken this way, can be a massive defense against God.   The task of those who would lead the progressive Christian movement is to gently but firmly remind ourselves and our congregants that the freedom implied by the liberal idea demands, in the end, more work and more discipline, not less . . .  and surrender to the Divine not rational garroting of the eternal mysteries.   If no external authority is going to dictate doctrine or prescribe a particular praxis, then the burden is on me, on the individual, on my local community, to do the theological ditch-digging, the ethical heavy lifting, the spiritual scut work.   That initial blush of permissiveness gives way to a daunting, though holy, burden.    The question – to which there is no sure answer – is whether we have the fortitude to wean ourselves and others from the more superficial view of liberalism, that apparent permissiveness, to a deeper view which demands a soul-shaking responsibility, a life-long labor.   Liberal religion is, indeed, hard work
The second weakness, like the first, grows out of liberalism’s essential nature; it is the flip-side of one of our great strengths.   Liberals are, congenitally, an “on-the-one-hand-this-and-on-the-other-hand-that” kind of people.   The liberal idea itself invites a host of competing views, and that’s a wonderful thing, but it leads, too often, to a fractured vision.   Paul asked, “If the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will prepare for the battle?”  And a contemporary evangelical leader said, “People will go out on a limb for an exclamation point, but they won’t go out on a limb for a question mark.”   I’m not sure he’s absolutely right about that, but his point is still telling for us.  How do progressives, who entertain a pluralism of ideas, come together enough to sustain a cohesive movement?  How do we find our exclamation points?  I listed a few of them earlier in my talk, but I have no certainty that they are broadly representative even of this community, let alone the greater progressive movement.  This too, then, is hard work that will demand difficult soul-searching, painstaking coalition-building, and not least what Bob Edgar, formerly of the National Council of Churches, calls “ego-disarmament.”3   For progressives to come together around a common vision will be no easy task.
The third weakness (and here I realize I may step on some toes) is what I would call the cult of self-care.   It has become particularly popular in the seminaries in recent years, and it is an understandable corrective to the masochistic self-abnegation that marked generations of clergy who went before.  So don’t get me wrong.  I’m not against ministers seeking balance and wholeness in their lives, ministers who set appropriate limits on what their churches may require of them.  I’m not against Sabbath or the regular laying aside of our work.  But I am concerned about clergy whose view of self-care makes them so intent on avoiding burn out that they never experience the ravaging joy of being on fire with their calling.    Yes, “Come to me all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”   But also, “The harvest is plentiful and the laborers are few.”   Yes, “Jesus went to a secluded place to pray,”   But also “Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every disease and every infirmity.”   Yes, “I have come that you might have life, and have it more abundantly,” but also, “Whoever seeks to save their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.”  The ministry, especially now for progressives, is no place for those who aren’t ready to work hard.   In a conversation among a small group of clergy, one was complaining endlessly about how exhausting the work was.   Finally, a wiser colleague, in a moment of fine pique and excusable theological incorrectness turned to him and said, “Hey man, get down off the cross.   We need the wood.”   
Indeed, we need the wood.   And we need the brains and muscle and endurance and sweat and courage of people ready to “re-weave the dream,” to re-build a movement.   We need a strong, growing United Seminary, and other seminaries like it.   That means some of us (and I speak here as a Trustee) need to be out there seeking support, raising money, telling the story.   We need to be encouraging the difficult intellectual work that liberalism undertakes on the boundaries of orthodoxy.    We need to be in that exhausting, tenuous place where faith and politics overlap.   We need to endure insult from those who would draw a restricting line of Christian doctrine that leaves us out.   We need to be about, with quiet perseverance, the inconvenient demands of pastoral work, the challenging regularity of sermon preparation, the tedious but necessary tasks of church administration.   What we need, heaven help us, clergy and laity alike, is to be so swept up by the majesty of God, so seized by a vision of God’s shalom, so flooded with compassion for the world, and so consumed by the primordial and everlasting love burning at the heart of the universe that even when our work leaves us tired and worn and spent, we will still rejoice and feel ourselves strangely filled.   I think it is possible.   I know it’s possible.  Our movement alone will not save the world.   But without a strong progressive presence much that is necessary and many who are precious will be lost.  In this time, United Seminary is a great inspiration to me and to many; the work you do here is as encouraging as anything I know.  Thank you for that.   As you go about your tasks of teaching and learning, of research and exploration, of administration and service, and when, in the end of the day, you find yourselves exhausted, may it be said of you – may it be said of us all – as in the blessing from an unknown fourteenth century writer:
To [them] shall be proffered and returned gifts of such an astonishment as will rival the hues of the peacock and the harmonies of heaven, so that though [they] live to the greate age when [they] go stooping and querulous because of the nothing that is left in [them], yet shall [they] walk upright and remembering, as one whose heart shines like a great star in his breaste.
Thank you.
1 Käesmann, Ernst, Jesus Means Freedom, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1968, pg. 16.
2 Dorrien, Gary, The Making of American Liberal Theology: Imagining Progressive    Religion, 1805-1900, Louisville: Westminster John Know Press, pg. xxi.
3 Unpublished paper from Res Publica, “The Future of the Progressive Faith Movement,”   2004, pg. 14.

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