Why Can’t We Be Friends? — Pastoral Theology and Education

My sort-of-in-care person, Caroll Cyr, and I were talking the other day. She’s — at first glance — a conservative Christian and I’m — at first glance — a liberal Christian.  In fact, as we talked, and I thought about it tonight, I’m aware that — among conservatives, she’s a bit liberal and I — among liberals — am pretty conservative.  She’s not all about salvation, and believes in the social gospel.  I’m not all about the social gospel. I believe in salvation. To both of us, Jesus is the most important part of the faith and our actions should manifest themselves, so that you know we’re a Christian. To both of us, it’s important that our actions have a basis in the faith’s book, the Bible.  I love people that are acting in ways consistent with the faith, whether they believe or not. I don’t understand how they got there, but I think they’re really worth hanging out with. I like to have a place to check in and remain grounded, and — for me — that’s the Bible — especially the prophets of the Old Testament and the words of Jesus. If you can manage that without it, cool. That makes you a liberal democrat, or a socialist, or a communist. It could also make you a republican, depending on the issue.  For me, it all starts with the Sermon on the Mount. After that, it’s all gravy, as far as life goes.  Then there’s salvation. Jesus’ death on the cross is a weird occurrence among deity, and his resurrection is a weird occurrence among humans. For people who have ruined their lives, salvation is the only thing that’ll get it back. Those are the people I spend my days with. For people who haven’t, it may or may not feel like a necessity. Those are the people I spend the rest of my life with.

For others, it all starts with Jesus on the cross.  For many of them, it also ends there. They are saved, and that’s all that matters. They could care less about someone else.  Those are the people that I least like in the world, I think. Cancel that, people who are just plain evil or have no conscience or hurt each other for no reason but their own stupidity — I like them least.  But shortly after them in line is people who claim to know Jesus or the Spirit or God and it makes them feel superior to others, so they’re rude, belittling, harsh, and generally show none of the marks of the Spirit. Those people keep people away from Christianity, so I really dislike them. I could care less if they are saved. If it were up to me, they wouldn’t be — but it’s not up to me.  The thing they boast most about  and the thing they want respect for most,  from me gets my disrespect. But, then, I’m a Yankee, and we don’t like people who make a big show about their faith.

I like quiet Christianity. I’m not a big yeller. I like peaceful life. I don’t like people waving their arms and legs in face and I really hate the modern “ghetto” attitude known as ” ‘tude”. I don’t like to be scared or threatened anywhere. Christians who threaten are not well tolerated by me.  Now here’s where it gets weird: Many of the people I know who are quiet people and are Christian are conservative politically. Farmers, folks from the E and R side of my denomination, and people who feel called to be humble in a world full of egos tend to not have the values of the last 50 years or so.  Their Christianity is not modern. It is timeless. It is also based in a Bible that was written 2000 years ago and yes, still speaks today. I think that’s where Caroll comes in.  I think that’s her faith, and the quiet part of me shares that part of the faith. I like being hopeful but humble. She seems to like being humble but hopeful.

All of this led to a discussion about why I believe the way I do, while she believes the way she does.  How is it possible that if we start with the same basic book of rules, we come up such divergent opinions on things like “inclusive language” which she says “changes the Bible” or gay rights which puts us at opposite ends of the spectrum or abortion,which we’re not all that far apart about. How is that possible? And how can we both call ourselves “Christian”?

The answer is fairly easy. For every “hot button” issue that we disagree about, there are about 100 or more that we agree about. We both believe the words of Jesus, but we put different emphasis on different passages. We both believe Jesus is God and the Spirit. We both believe God is  ” the Father”, though I can be cool about God having feminine qualities and being called “Mother” because we both understand it’s a metaphor, get over yourselves! We both believe in salvation, and we both believe we are saved. Neither one of us eats lobster — but both because we don’t like it, I think, not because the Bible calls us to be kosher.  We both believe that God calls us to make something of ourselves, to be nice to others and to share the gospel because, as we understand it, that’s what Christians do.

We did, however, stumble on something that explains the rift. I went to seminary and she didn’t. I spent my time in the lofty place of intellectuals who think of the Bible with a certain view, language with a certain view, symbols with a certain view. She spent her time with everybody else — what we used to call “normal” people. They see the Bible as The Bible. If it says “God is the Father”, they think it says “God is the Father”, rather than implying anything else, including some wider, deeper meaning. When she asks why her pastor or former pastor believe this other meaning is in the text, she doesn’t know what he knows.  When explained, it makes more sense. She still may not agree with it, but it makes more sense and we’re not throwing labels at each other.

Seminary taught us to forget what we thought we knew and learn more about what it really means. Later, we go back and reclaim the naive parts of our faith in a thing called the “second naivety”.  Seminary education uses a thing called the “hermeneutic of suspicion” — which kind of means “don’t trust the source to not have their own agenda” and/or “don’t trust the source to be who it says it is”. For instance, the “Letters of Paul” frequently aren’t by the Apostle Paul at all. They might have been “In The Style Of” the Apostle Paul (as we like to say in re-makes and mini-series today).  But before you go ballistic reading this, historically speaking, that was okay for the time.

But, in addition to that, we were taught to think about oppressive language and the impact it has on people. If I say God is a Man, does it mean that women can’t understand God and, therefore can’t be priests or ministers? Is it racist to say someone’s mood was “black”?  Do we really think of “Man” as meaning “humanity” anymore? Some translations now say “The Human One” instead of “The Son of Man”.  Heck, do we still think of “lepers” as “unclean”? My favorite translation — The New Jerusalem Bible replaces “leprosy” with “virulent skin disease” — a real mouthful —  either because it’s a dis-service to lepers or recent study has shown that not every supposed leper had what we now call “leprosy”! And how serious do we take the Bible, since my wife is a minister (and Caroll is a Christian Educator), do we really still think that “women should keep quiet in church”? Would I tell my daughter that? A resounding “No! Of course not!” would have to be my answer. But some people take the Bible that way and think we’re ignoring the TRUTH of the BIBLE if we think otherwise.

What else? In seminary, they taught us that there were five sources for four gospels. Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and “Q”, the “Saying Source” which is a book that nobody’s ever actually seen but was believed to be kicking around at the time the gospels were written and Matthew and Luke used it extensively.

Then there’s those “liberal” political ideas that came out of the Vatican — “Jesus gives special preference to the poor (and we should ,too) , and “Liberation Theology” which says that Jesus was what we would now call a “leftist”, and that the gospels are against political oppression. The list goes on.  But here’s the kicker — the things I’m saying were believed by educated pastors in the 1950’s (except for liberation theology, which is from the 80’s and some of the “post-modern” word stuff)!  How is it that our congregations never got word of this?

Why do I tell you these things? Because most denominational pastors know about them and believe them, but somehow news like this never leaks out to the congregation, leaving us with people in the pews who think that “the Bible means exactly what it says”, even if we’re not exactly sure what it says because nobody has an original copy, and there are words in Hebrew and Greek that simply aren’t translatable.  We use the tool that the Bible is, with two different understandings of what it’s for!  Folks in the pulpit take these as assumptions, while people in the pew think this is some sort of new-fangled weirdness being imposed by the politically correct higher-ups in the denominations. Change a Christmas hymn? You’d have thought someone had changed the tablets on Sinai! But it’s always been this way? All the way since 1940 or so!

Pastors aren’t trying to change things just because they feel like it. They’re trying to live out the faith that they’ve been taught as the “highly educated clergy” that congregations expect.  This, it turns out, is where Caroll and I see things differently frequently. Some things are “givens” to me that she, as a layperson\semi-clergy person, doesn’t have. Why? Because no one explained them!

Why weren’t they explained? There are a bunch of reasons, all based in that lowest form of ministry for some, Christian Education. First, many churches don’t have Adult Christian Education.  Most people in America think that regular education stops when you’re an adult and get a “real” job. “If “regular” education stops, why shouldn’t Christian education?”, they think.

Many good and nice congregations have “issue” discussions and “mission” films or fundraisers for adults. Those things are great for what they do, but they set up this rift by leaving out the Bible and the way to look at it as adults.  This leaves the education of many congregations at the level of making Noah’s ark with Popsicle sticks.  That’s not enough to make it in the real world, even if they are good stories.

Another reason that we don’t educate our adults? Because “education” wreaks of “Youth Ministry” and I don’t care how much people say, “Youth are the future of the church”, youth programs never get funded to the level that they ought to. Youth Ministry is to the church what Music Education and sports are to public schools — they are the first thing cut because kids “don’t matter”. They aren’t pledging units, so they don’t bring in money. In fact, they cost money. Plus, kids aren’t legally old enough to sit on many boards, so kids frequently don’t have representation.  Plus, (to be fair) many are off listening to their iPods.  I say this because it is my experience (not the iPods part) as a member of the United Church Youth Council so many eons ago. In the supposed “Year of Youth”, spending on youth programs was 1% of the total budget! Camps and Conferences struggle to stay alive (ala Deering) because money goes elsewhere. Seminarians want to become “real ministers”, not “just” Youth Ministers.  And Youth Ministers don’t get paid like “real ministers”, which seminarians need given the costs of seminary.  (Sorry to get off on a rant there. It’s a personal pet peeve.)

The last reason we seldom offer religious education to adults, and not always to children?  In America, we’re suspicious of education itself. Many people in this country simply don’t like people with an education because they’re thought to be “too big for their britches” or because  they become the bosses of 50 employees who have to obey them at work. Education means “aristocrats” and “royalty” and this country was founded on “just plain people” over and against such things. We don’t like those smart (aka “sneaky”) people. And with good reason, I suppose as lawyers and congresspeople and lobbyists make up rules that everyone else has to follow.  As someone who’s really first generation college-educated, education means you can’t go home because you know and care and think about things the folks back home have never heard of.

So here’s a way to make discourse about religion civil in this country: if you’re a pastor, educate your people about what you know. If you’re a congregant, ask about this stuff. Demand an Adult Bible Study and attend it when it happens! Bridge the gap between educated clergy and far-less educated congregations. And if it doesn’t happen, read on your own. Go to the seminary bookstore or look on-line.

Ok, that’s enough rambling for now. Oh, and BTW, Caroll is not in any way responsible for the content of this blog.  These are strictly my opinions.  If you want to know what she thinks, ask her.

Peace,

 

John

 

 

 

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