Lately, I’ve been reflecting a bit on a kinda ironic turning of the tables. When I was at Southeastern, I found that generally I was one of the more liberal-minded students. Now that I am at Yale, I am discovering that I am among the more conservative students here, which is a bit of an odd role for me. What I am realizing, however, is that the Church needs people from both sides of that divide. Here are two reasons, I think:
- For the sake of maintaining an effective Christian witness, we need “progressives.” I think it is very true that the Church has to change as the times change. We have to deal with the changing, fluid reality of the society in which we live. To do that we need people who are raising the problems our society faces within the walls of the Church, forcing the Church to rethink its stances and reengage the world. For the Church to maintain a “prophetic witness” this has to occur.
- For the sake of maintaining Christian identity, we need conservatives. As significant as the progressive agenda is for the life of the Church in a changing society, progressives have a tendency, I think, to loose sight of where they have been for the vision of where they want to go. That can be dangerous. We need to address the problems of our day. But we need to address them as Christians, not invent a new “church” that doubles as a solution for the political issues we face. There is a particular identity that we take part in as Christians, and to loose that identity to any agenda is not something to be taken lightly. Conservatives are more focused on maintaining that identity (sometimes too focused on that), and so they can act as an anchor to more progressive minded individuals to prevent that identity being lost to whatever cause is being championed.
Essentially what I’m saying amounts to a claim that Christian thinking about any issue should come from a dialogue, a holding in tension of various viewpoints, in order to arrive at some sort of consensus. Historically I think this is how the Church has thought about a variety of issues, and generally it has been the case that extremes at both ends of the spectrum have been rejected in exchange for a more moderate (and often more open ended) conclusion. I’m also claiming that to maintain this sort of dialogue, unity is an extremely important goal (and I realize, writing that as a Protestant, that we have some serious work to do on that front). What bothers me more and more in the “progressive” circles in which I now find myself is that dialogue is often seen as worthless and irrelevant. “It’s our way or the highway” seems to be the order of the day, and then ironically any claim to disagree is seen as bigotry and narrow-mindedness. My contention is that dialogue is important for our own self-understanding as well as for progress to be made in the Church. Thinking about our society as a whole, it wasn’t until segregation was ended and the two sides were forced to mingle with one another that real progress was made on the issue of racism in this country. I think analogously, if an agenda is pressed to the point that it forces a division, there will be no progress made. The arguments for each side will become more entrenched and without any counterbalance the rhetoric more politically charged and the hope of a solution less and less realistic. Unity is something that we as Christians need to strive for, unity in spite of disagreement, so that we can sharpen and encourage one another to be more and more effective in our distinctively Christian witness to the world.