An Open Letter to My Evangelical sister

Dear Sister,

Some time ago, I stumbled into… okay, no. I boldly but cautiously (is that possible?) engaged in a tense, yet playful, yet challenging exchange with you. You are dear to me, and highly esteemed. We have our differences, and often play with these differences in what I believe to be fruitful ways. You are certainly more ‘conservative’ in your ideological and theological leanings than me. This often leads to engaging and lively conversation about social and spiritual matters, and I love you for it!

In reflecting upon our recent conversation-turned-debate, I am so aware of how surprisingly defensive I felt. You named this response, as you saw it before I did, and I thank you for that.

As our conversation quickly moved from the micro-issue of a mother’s feelings around her child[ren]’s spiritual choices to the macro-issue of identity-in-faith to the meta-issues surrounding the existence of hell, or who’s ‘in’ or who’s ‘out’ [of either hell, or God’s grace], with a few typical other stops on the ‘Fundamentals of Christian Faith’ checklist.

What are the fundamentals of Christian Faith? These vary, depending on who you ask. This is the problem of our Protestant heritage. There has been so much division and protesting against heresy, church corruption, or other social and spiritual ills, that we Protestants seem to have whittled our understanding of who acceptably shares the faith down to a strangely narrow point. I feel, dear sister, that our last conversation was a symptom of the bottleneck created by this little feature of identity development: the more precisely we try to delineate who’s ‘in’ versus who is ‘out,’ the narrower our field becomes. This applies to both the field of candidates from whom we can effectively learn, as well as the field of influence we can potentially have on others around us – our mission. And the more I learn about and get to know Jesus, the more concerned I get about anything that smacks of exclusive or narrow spiritual identities. Jesus somehow managed to hold the tension between orthodoxy and invitation in a way I can only hope to emulate. Yet I find that in my readings of his teachings and works, Jesus seems to to favor the side of loving invitation and embrace more often than the alternative. Jesus’s critical and judgment teachings seem heavily weighted toward the religious folks– those who held to a rigid and exclusive orthodoxy.

I find it depressing how much time I could spend defending my own faith – for other believers! What a waste! And what impact does that have on those who may be observing our lively exchange? I am aware that in our earlier conversation, there were three men present who awkwardly disengaged – became silent (Oh the vestiges of Adam!) in the midst of the exchange. I desire, and feel called to a much more generous, inviting belief system — one that would not defend itself, but humbly learn from and with even those who disagree. For a great text on this, check out Generous Orthodoxy, by Brian McLaren. I long to see us live together in peace, without a need for sharp and quick tongues or defensiveness.

As I have considered my own defensiveness, I am intrigued and curious about what in the conversation felt unsafe to me. I still don’t know for sure. Perhaps the nagging concern that you might decide I didn’t belong in your tribe. Perhaps confusion about how the existence of hell, or whose names appear on its roster became a critical determinant of the truth or validity of my belief. I felt that the sheer mention that said mother might not grieve a child’s choice to go a different way led to a rapid need to identify me as a universalist or relativist. I am still amused, and a bit dumbfounded by the urgency with which I was called to identify and describe Hell, and who will be sent there. Why should I presume to have the authority to make that call. It is not my decision whether Jane finds herself in heaven or hell, and I am thankful for that. Might focusing on the theology of hell distract us from our failures to love and turn us back towards a sales-like praxis of sharing the Gospel message: create a need (focus on the terror of hell) and then resolve that need? Whereas, living a life of love for one’s neighbor in the here-and-now makes this focus on one’s idea of hell seem irrelevant, or at least a less significant criterion.

Yes, I believe that God is one and triune. Yes, I believe that scripture is God’s living word revealed to us. Yes I believe Jesus is the Son of God, fully human, and fully God. And I wish to follow in his ways, and be more like him in this life. I believe that many of us (Christians) fail to recognize that love and acceptance can be offered without necessarily giving approval. I think Jesus modeled that well. I wish to follow that lead. How different would the world’s view of the Church, Christians and Christianity be if we truly lived out an incarnational stance of love and tolerance (or acceptance), whether or not we approved of all of her choices?

Thanks for the challenge.

Warm regards,