I gathered my thoughts on becoming a more progressive Christian and wrote it all down.
This is going to be a long post, but I intend to be concise. This week I’m at a Christian conference, because I am being paid to be on the AV team. I dislike Christian conferences for many reasons: a lack of authenticity from many people involved, a wariness of a possible placebo effect within large Christian groups, a cringing at the constant Christianese (currently somebody is praying at length for God to fix the minor technical issues my team is dealing with. All we asked was for her to do a quick sound check!) and how tiring it is to socially engage at such events.
But how did I get here? I’ll start at the beginning.
I am the son of an evangelical minister. God was introduced at an early age, as was Satan. I was taught to believe that we’re all inherently bad (which I still believe) and the only way to make that right with God is to say sorry and ask Jesus “into your heart” (there’s some more Christianese for you). Then you get to go to Heaven and live with him. If you choose not to, you go to Hell. So what do you say, son? Do you want Jesus to live in your heart? Of course you do.
After that, I wanted the same black & white answer for everything. Here are some of the questions I asked when I was a preteen, and the answers provided: Does God want to send people to hell? No, but it’s not his fault - they choose not to believe. What’s heaven like? (I asked this incessantly) It’s better than anything you could ever think of. What’s hell like? It’s worse than anything you could ever think of. How is the world here? God made it in six days. Does God control everything? Yes. Does God control who goes to Heaven and who goes to hell? Yes. Is suicide wrong? Yes. Is abortion wrong? Two wrongs don’t make a right. Is homosexuality wrong? Yes, it’s unnatural and the bible says it’s wrong. God didn’t design us like that.
To be fair, some of the answers to my questions became more nuanced as I grew up, and I also started finding my own answers. But to tell a child these things in such concrete terms? I believe that has a negative effect on that child, and on his friends. For example, if the child discovers one of his friends is gay or even acts effeminate, maybe the child will be quick to “educate” them that homosexuality is wrong. The child may at least become cold & distant from that friend. What if a friend has a brother who killed himself? The young Christian who holds in his heart that the brother went straight to hell will certainly not be as sympathetic or understanding as his friend needs him to be. The potential for lack of love and for inflicting emotional pain on others is vast.
From those beginnings I went on to run children’s clubs where I told other children the gospel message of heaven and hell. I enjoyed reading reformed theology, and by age 20 I thought I had a full understanding of philosophy, morals and the origin of the universe. I tried not to have an understanding of politics or science because they were boring and difficult. My friends from that time will tell you I was insufferable. Even more than I am now!
With the rest of this post, I want to explore how my thinking has changed in these areas:
Well my goodness, how can I have a faith left? I certainly come across as quite critical of the church and certain aspects of Christianity, and I also seem to have no qualms interpreting the bible in ways some might consider quite liberal. But I haven’t lost my faith and I’ll tell you how I got to where I am now.
As I’ve mentioned previously, when I was younger I enjoyed having a black & white answer for everything. I had all the answers, but barely any quantifiable experience of God. I still have not had a major remove-all-doubt experience of God, but I do have a couple of things that keep me holding on by a finger.
I once went to a Christian youth conference where people were being “filled with the holy spirit”. Young people were crying, laughing, falling over - and I was sitting in a chair 2 feet away from the nearest person affected by all this. I couldn’t understand why the Holy Spirit was right there, but not here with me. I still don’t understand why. I thought maybe it was because I didn’t make the first move, and go and stand up with everyone else to be filled. I used to think that maybe I was too proud and God withheld his love (because he’s capricious like that!?). But I’ve since “humbled myself” and given it a go. I felt nothing.
My impression of Christian gatherings like this is that people work themselves up into a frenzy, and make themselves believe they’re feeling something. All they’re feeling is the joy of being in community. And maybe the persuasive hand of someone pushing them slightly off balance so they fall down.
With this lack of feeling God’s direct hand in my life, things began to get cold for me. Lots of stuff didn’t make sense. If there is freedom in Christ, why is most Christian culture so rules based? If Christians are called to be loving, why are evangelicals labelling other Christians “heretics” and ostracising them? For the liberal views I’m about to express, I will most certainly be labelled a heretic and members of my own family will think I’ve lost my way. I feel like a gay person who’s just about to come out, knowing that those closest to me will be saddened by this development in my faith. They won’t even consider this a part of my spiritual journey, but a kind of backsliding. I know this because this is how they’ve spoken about liberals and other people who have gone down this same road. Is that quiet disapproval really the type of Christianity Jesus calls us to? Or is it just hurting others who know you’re doing it?
If there was a worldwide flood, why is evidence of it not observable? Why would God create the world in-situ to appear older than it really is, when creating the world based on a simple formula is a much more elegant solution?
If other Christians are acting like they’re so blessed and happy, how can they possibly identify with me in my more depressed moments? Are they really that happy? Do they really have everything figured out? Or is there just a complete lack of integrity on their part? That’s would be the simplest explanation. Many questions, always, since I was a child.
Recently I spent a year in mission in Romania, looking for answers. I mostly found only more questions. But two important things happened.
We decided the time was right to have a baby, and were choosing names while in Romania. A common name among the people we worked with was Reuben. I sent Rachael a text message while working, saying Reuben would be nice if we have a boy. Later she told me that she had been remarking to her friend about what a nice name Reuben is. My text came in 10 minutes later. 2 weeks later we learned that the baby would definitely be a boy. The meaning of the name Reuben is ”Look, a boy!”. The biblical Reuben is the firstborn in a long line of firstborn sons, as is my Reuben. For me, there’s a tiny chance these could be coincidences. But I choose to believe that God had a hand in this, and that he cares about me and my son.
I listened to this podcast, where Rob Bell is interviewed. The interviewer is in a similar position to myself: disillusioned with the church and the faith he was brought up with; In search of a way to make sense of the world to include God - not to ignore or downplay scientific or rational thinking processes, but to use them as the gift God has given to understand Him and our world.
I also began to read Rob Bell’s tumblr blog, wherein he outlines a really great way to read the bible. Let me summarise: I believe that the bible is primarily a library of books written by humans. That’s it. Each of the authors had a genuine encounter with God, and they wrote that down using the language, culture and understanding of their time.
For example, in 2 Samuel God tells David to take a census (so he can build a conquering army) and in 1 Chronicles Satan tells David to do the same thing. As we now know God is loving and doesn’t want us to go to war with each other, it’s clear to me that the author of the earlier book (Samuel) had a less progressive understanding of God than the author or Chronicles. Our human understanding of God is developing over time. Our morals are on an upward slope, as evidenced by the bible - and they have continued to improve after the bible writings. For example, Paul says to treat your slaves well, but now we have abolished slavery entirely. Even Jesus & Paul took their scriptures and interpreted them in very progressive ways for the time, going beyond what was the established interpretation and ending up with a more moral stance than what had been handed down previously. I believe we need to learn to do the same thing with our scriptures that they did with theirs.
By understanding the bible in this way, I can make much more sense of it. The creation story? A poem, written by someone who was inspired by God’s world and wrote about it using his level of understanding. All those people the Jews killed in God’s name? The Jews attributed that to God, but later grew to realise that is not actually what God desires. The apparent contradictions? It’s just a series of books written by people - it wasn’t dictated verbatim from God. They wrote about their encounters with the Divine as accurately as their resources & ability allowed.
I find the bible much more interesting now. It’s more real. It doesn’t have to be twisted into being a guidebook for my life. It doesn’t have to provide assurances of the afterlife built on the shifting sands of biblical interpretation. It’s just a fantastic window into the encounters with God we’ve been having over the centuries.
The rubric is love
At that point I had to consider this: What about all those things the bible says about homosexuals & people considered sinners? Is it saying loving things? Is it saying things that would encourage Christians to be loving? Or are Christians using the Bible to hate other people? My rubric is love. If we are not being loving, and are hurting other people, then we’re not fulfilling God’s will for our lives.
I can hear the arguments against this already: “But telling people hell is waiting if they don’t repent is loving them! We are saving them!”. I personally question whether hell exists in that form (and even questioning the existence of hell will get me in trouble with evangelicals. It seems to be very important to them for some reason). It seems to me that we make hell for ourselves and for others by our selfishness. People being held hostage in underground dungeons for ransom? Columbus’ men slicing pieces off the local Indians just to test the sharpness of their blades? Hell is not just the afterlife.
Jesus called us to bring the Kingdom of God. He talked about Kingdom a lot more than he talked about being born again. He called us to change this world with our love. Kingdom is not about holding a ticket to heaven for the afterlife. Love is not about convincing people they’re going to heaven in the afterlife, while not bothering to improve their actual life. Love is fixing the hell that they’re living in - including the hell that we create for people we consider “sinners”. The isolation, the misjudgement, the dehumanising, the disgust we level at homosexuals - to choose just one group of people - is creating hell for them. It has to stop now. This year. Just stop it. We’re not being Jesus.
The rubric is love.
And that’s hard. It’s much easier to justify our lack of love by finding bible passages that fit our outlook or aligning with a group of people who have the same opinion we do. I do this too - I’ve done it throughout this article. But you have to acknowledge that we all do it. Conservative Christians emphasise some parts of the bible while downplaying others. Liberal Christians do the same. But we all have to at least, at least, be open to the fact that we might be wrong about our chosen interpretation.
To finish this section, a quick side note on liberal Christianity. I will most certainly be branded a liberal Christian by people reading this, and I am glad about that. You see, liberal was a dirty word in the evangelical circles I was part of before. The concrete factoid I was given was: “Liberals just believe whatever they want, and they just think everyone is going to go to heaven”. In its early days, liberalism was a reaction against the hard line traditionalism of the evangelical interpretation of scripture. Liberals didn’t really know what they were - they were just defined by what they were not. A negative definition. For me, to be liberal is to be defined by these positive things. This will wrap this section up nicely:
Love is the rubric Kingdom is more important than being born again (social action as evangelism) Our understanding of God has progressed through history, and continues to progress beyond even what was in the Bible Christianity is a way of life, not an ideology I’m fairly certain many more points will be added to this list as I grow older. But right now, these are some of the guiding principles that shape my faith and how I live.
Given that my mother is quite a strong independent woman in a position of authority and respect, you’d think my younger self would have been a better feminist. Unfortunately not. Like other teenage boys, I objectified women and grasped at least 2 butt cheeks in school before I felt bad and stopped doing it. But no matter how much I quelled my external actions, in my heart I still didn’t see women in a healthy way.
Women get grabbed all the time. It happens in bars and schools. They are considered to be inherently bad at some tasks and good at others. They are described as emotional and sentimental. They get guys commenting on their looks, whether or not those opinions were invited. I have been guilty of not speaking out against all these things. These might be minor things - but why are they accepted en masse by men in this society?
Check out this pyramid of abuse. At the bottom is jokes about women. I would actually place silence on the bottom. If you’re not speaking out against everything on the higher levels, you are contributing to what happens on those levels. If misogynist jokes and objectification are allowed to continue unabated, they form a good bedrock for the attitudes that make rape and abuse seem ok to some unhinged men.
Some of the things that shaped my thinking on the invisibility of misogyny:
This was a big one, and I have a lot of judgementalism to repent of. Strange as it may seem to some of you reading this, I considered love between two human beings to be “unnatural”, if they were of the same gender. I used the word “gay” to unironically portray something in a negative light. I teased boys in school if they seemed a bit effeminate, although I received a lot more of the same teasing because I’d never had a girlfriend during my school years! I hadn’t satisfactorily proven my heterosexuality. However, I figured lesbianism was ok, because that’s hot!
Everything around me gave me an unfair view of homosexuality. According to movies like Police Academy and the general opinion I was exposed to, gay culture involved promiscuity (which, of course, was also wrong among heterosexuals) and a sort of “worship of the flesh”. Also it was gross to think about the sex act itself (as if the act of sex is all there is to sexuality!). Finally, God had condemned Sodom to fire and brimstone because it was full of homosexuals, so obviously he disapproves. Even the judgemental word “sodomy” is labelled after this story.
I used to think that people couldn’t be born gay. I decided that they made a decision at some point in their life. Or that they were abused, or had Daddy issues. As I said - I loved having a nice wrapped-up reason for everything. But none of these opinions make sense to anybody but those who want to condemn homosexuality (and by extension, homosexuals). Let me take a couple of these myths and explain why they are untrue. I may not be saying anything you don’t know already, but for some people I am. This was revolutionary for me:
Myth: “People can’t be born gay”
Many of us have an attraction to other human beings. We have various tastes. Some men are boob men, some are leg men, some are ass men. Some like muscular men, thin men, nerdy guys. Humans see beauty in other humans, and are attracted to that. In a minority of people, they see beauty in people of the same sex. An even smaller minority are attracted to both. I have heard the stories of gay people who discovered their sexuality at around the same age I began discovering mine (9-11) and they describe the same things I experienced: attraction, nervousness, in awe of beauty - except towards people of the same sex. This isn’t a decision they made - this is something that happened to them, just like it happens to many of us at that age.
Myth: “They must have been abused”
Abuse does not cause homosexuality. Neither are gay children more likely to be abused. But predators can have a radar for a young person who is a bit different. They can tell. They can draw alongside such children and can be the only person who understands them, and who thinks it’s ok. Then the abuse starts, and the child doesn’t get to explore their sexuality in a safe place. We’re robbing them of that if we force them into silence by our disapproval of homosexuality. And nasty people are more than happy to step in where we fail.
I haven’t looked into the “daddy issues” theory, but I’m sure it’s just as poorly thought through and destructive as the other two.
So I used to believe those theories. But even if I had realised they were rot, I would still have objected to homosexuality based on the promiscuity of the community. That’s still wrong, isn’t it? Personally, I do still think promiscuity is a bad idea. I wouldn’t label it wrong, because I only do that if somebody is doing something that hurts someone else. If two consenting adults want to have meaningless sex and one isn’t hurting the other in a physical or emotional way, that’s fine. But from the experience I have (read: none), it seems like sleeping around and not having a faithful partner is a difficult life. There are pitfalls, complications, health concerns and lots of potential pain to be had in that lifestyle. But honestly - what do I know?
Leaving aside whether promiscuity is right or wrong, this video changed my life. You must watch it. If your opinion is the opposite of mine, please watch this. I hope it changes your life too. Come back when you’re finished.
The people in that video are telling real stories. They have been hurt by us. They just want to come home to their partner and have that person smile as they walk through the door. That’s not promiscuity. I can identify with their love. Initially I thought they were talking about being nerds growing up, so for the first minute or so I was identifying with them in that regard! But their struggle for acceptance has been far more uphill than mine. It still took a few years before I came to the LGBT affirming position I take now, but that video was the thing that stuck in my head and slowly changed my perspective.
In our churches, how many gay teenagers have heard their friends say negative things about gay people before they come out? Each time this happens, they cross another person off the list of people who will understand when they come out. They will end up with not a single person in their church they can speak to about this, and will likely be rejected by those people when they do come out. They’re very unlikely to stay among that group of people, and are at risk of being isolated from Christian community. To be frank, they’re better off.
When I was in between opinions on this, I thought it was ok to love gay people anyway, while still considering their sexuality (and eventually only their sexual acts) as all part of the spectrum of sin. This was a view a gay speaker espoused at a church service I attended when I was 23. I thought this was a fair position to take, but apart from being incorrect (homosexuality is not a sin condemned by God, according to the bible) it’s hurtful. Your opinion will come out in the way you treat them, no matter how much you declare you love them. If they push you on it, you’ll end up telling them you consider their lifestyle a sin. They will know you quietly disapprove of them. They will know you have a standard of living that they are not matching up to, and they will resent your judgement.
This is not a position that I ever took, but the only other possible argument against marriage equality is that God instituted marriage to be only between a man and a woman. However, the authors of the Bible also advocate polygamy and a whole host of other marriage configurations (including women being forced to marry their rapist by law) so I think there is enough doubt there to allow a more loose interpretation of what marriage is. Or at least to realise that the bible cannot be used to dictate what marriage is. Our society has developed the ideal that marriage is between one man and one woman who love each other. For me, the operative part is “who love each other”. Many of the marriages in the bible are repugnant to me; Jacob & Leah is hardly the ideal God-ordained marriage. So love is the rubric, and the major part of what defines marriage. No matter the gender of the lovers.
You may say that the old marriage laws were abolished along with the old covenant, and that Jesus affirms one man and one woman marriage in the new covenant. But this assumes that God sanctioned the configurations that appear in the old testament, even if he no longer does. I can’t accept that. There’s no way God said this was ok for those times if he is unchanging yesterday, today and forever. If he loves humanity and wants humanity to love each other he wouldn’t have sanctioned those genocides or those marriage configurations. There’s no way he put a Holy Stamp on a man-made law forcing a woman to marry her rapist - it causes her too much pain. Even if that law was a step-up from isolating her from society, it was a tiny man-made step-up based on a growing understanding of what God really wants. We make our laws according to our growing understanding of God’s love - including the law on marriage equality. To disallow two people who love each other to commit their lives to each other cannot be God-sanctioned.
This is urgent. You need to stop & listen to God here. Now. When you’re using the “authority” of the bible to say what you believe is “the truth”; when you therefore hurt others, despite your heart and their words saying “Stop this, you’re hurting me”, you are reading the bible the wrong way. The God revealed in scripture //demands// that we interpret his word with compassion, not authority. He has lavished compassion upon us - we can lavish that love on homosexuals by being 100% affirming. Anything less is hurting them. As I mentioned earlier, even silence is part of a pyramid of abuse.
I will move briefly on to transgendered people, and I won’t say too much because I am still learning. Transgendered people appear to be extremely misunderstood. It’s very simple: Gender is a spectrum. It is not binary. You are not either a man or a woman. You have masculine or feminine qualities, and you may feel more like one of those genders than the other. There are some people who feel more feminine than masculine, regardless of what their biological gender is. My ignorance in this matter has been betrayed in the past by referring to them as “he-she” or just by making a big deal out of how I should refer to them.
Transgendered people’s sense of gender is different than their sense of sexuality. They may be attracted to men, women, both or neither. So banning them from the bathrooms they feel more comfortable using is pointless.
I can’t thank you enough for taking the time to read this massive article. I’ve been boring my friends and family with all this for a few years now. It’s good to lay it all out in final form. All this has been kicked back and forth in my mind and in conversations. I’m not saying I won’t budge on it, but it’s all been well thought through and does not require further thrashing out. I’m always open to criticism and am very happy to clarify any of the thoughts that I’ve not fully fleshed out here. But please let your rubric be love as we have those conversations :)