Like every card-carrying evangelical, I am a proud believer in the Wesleyan quadrilateral – that the order of Christian authority descends from Scripture to Tradition to Reason, and finally, to Human Experience. It really is a fantastic system. The problem, however, is that it is employed by less than fantastic people like myself. The subordinate position of Experience was meant to check the volatile tempest of “feeling” against the more stable revelation of Scripture and the teachings of the Church throughout history. So, for instance, all those days when it felt as if God was some distant sadist are challenged by the testimony of the Bible and history that tell of a passionate, loving God who is near. If my experiences dictated my perception of God, I would probably be one of those crazy angry people who only believe in God so they can ridicule him. I certainly wouldn’t have made it very far at all.
And yet out of fear or uncertainty about the role experience plays in the Christian life, evangelicals all too often disregard the profound reality of, well, reality. We are too eager to judge the nature of someone without ever listening to his or her story. This is because stories are powerful things. You can’t disagree with someone’s life story (well, you could try, but you’d look dumb); it simply is. It doesn’t matter how flawlessly I can articulate orthodox doctrine about the problem of evil, the moment I am confronted by a woman who watched her child die of cancer as she prayed and prayed and prayed to a God she had always thought was on her side… well, my super awesome arguments seem woefully inadequate to address her suffering.
This is because they are inadequate. And so the evangelical church, with its love of easy answers and apologetics, tends to shy away from the painful histories of those around them if those histories pose a “threat” to standard evangelical beliefs. So here’s my mantra (as of three seconds ago):
Stop trying to find the quick way out of the tension. Sit in it. Live in it. Learn to love in it.
Tension sucks. We don’t like it. I don’t like it. It complicates everything. As some dead philosopher (the best kind!) once said, “Certainty is to the mind as rest is to the body.” I think this is true. But haven’t we always likened Christianity to running a race? Rest, in the sense of freedom from effort and struggle, is strikingly foreign to our faith. Christ rarely gave straightforward answers – he always liked to catch the listener off guard and set her mind reeling. You comment on some nice architecture, he responds with an apocalyptic prophecy. Stuff like that.
All this to say, the Church needs to repent of its sinful addiction to easy answers and a tension free existence. We live in a society where churches have split because they couldn’t handle different opinions about what color of taupe the sanctuary carpet should be (the correct answer is, of course, neither, because taupe is a result of the fall and should never be used ever). This is a huge barrier to constructive, gracious dialogue of any kind.
Sexuality defies easy answers, especially today. I used to think I had it all figured out; “I may have given up pursuing romantic relationships, but at least,” I thought, “I wasn’t a nominal, uncommitted Christian like all those other gay people pursuing romantic relationships.” Then I met some. It’s funny how easy it is to “know” people until you actually meet them. I’ll save the story of how these particular men and women changed me for later, but I want to put forth just one thing God taught me through our friendships that I think is necessary to begin building bridges of grace and humility:
Any belief, no matter how seemingly orthodox, is sinful if it is founded in anything but passionate love of God and neighbor.
It is not wrong for me to think I am living in accordance with the truth of Scripture and God’s desires for human flourishing. It is not wrong to have convictions that exclude other convictions. It is not wrong to call sin “sin.” But it is wrong, absolutely evil, to base these convictions on a fear or alienation of another. It is wrong to turn a person into an “issue” so that his story can be more readily categorized and disregarded. It is wrong to use theology as a weapon that tears apart the humanity of someone God would have me meet in love.
It seems the evangelical church’s stance on homosexuality is not so much based in the goodness and love of God as it is in some bizarre, righteous xenophobia. We have to move past that. For me, this has meant shutting up and listening. It has meant countless coffee dates and walks around town. It has meant bawling at my computer as I vividly imagined the abuse suffered by one of my new friends at the hands of the church, hands that should heal, not wound. It has meant becoming vulnerable, open to ideas and experiences that hurt me and complicate the categories to which I have grown accustomed. It has meant asking for grace and forgiveness for all the times I contributed to the stigma and pain.
Everyone has to come to the table ready to ask forgiveness and grant pardon. This is true for every area of life, and if we want to have any chance at moving forward, I simply ask that we never forget that we are dealing with people, each one seen and loved by God. I know I want people to take the time to actually get to know me before they start slinging judgments my way. Didn’t Jesus say something about this?
Be bold, be passionate, be convicted, but always start by listening.