In a recent conversation with fellow Christian Humanist Michial Farmer, I noted a certain paradox about my relationship with Brian McLaren and other public Christian intellectuals who often get labeled “liberal” or “heterodox.” (This little essay is not about the content of their views, so I’ll leave the scare quotes there for the time being.) If truth be told, some of the things for which those writers get in the most trouble aren’t things about which I’d take up with “the other side” if the chips were down. I’m not committed to anything like the strong Wheaton-flavored doctrine of inerrancy, and I’ve known too many women who can preach better than too many men to oppose women’s ordination on principle. And as folks who have listened to the last few podcasts know, I tend to think about the nature of Scripture differently than do many evangelicals.
All of that said, I still think of myself as differing from self-proclaimed “progressives,” not least because I believe that most important questions demand answers more complex than a one-dimension spectrum. In other words, if I’m not A, that doesn’t mean I’m B, and most of the time I’m not content to say that I’m somewhere around (A+B)/2 on a number line. Instead, I think that if the word “liberal” has any content beyond “not us” (and I believe it does), and if “conservative” has a meaning that is not identical with “right wing” (and I think it does), then reality is complex enough to deserve language more complex than one-dimensional comparisons.
All of that setup is simply to say that when we Christians think about intellectual life, we ought to do so in robust, historically-rich terms, allowing Calvin to differ from Luther in ways distinct from how Jack Spong differs from both of them. We should not forget that there was no singular thing called “the medieval mind,” no monolith that would recognize itself as “the modern era.” We should attend carefully and respectfully to the texts that shape us and the ones that have not yet shaped us (I’m convinced that the list old books my children’s generation will find most compelling will differ at least to some extent from the list that moved the folks with whom I went to college). That goes double for those books whose ideas, on first read, strike us as most distasteful.
I’ve told folks before that I teach the books I teach not because they’re right but because they answer interesting questions wrong. To have the right answers to dull or unimportant questions is not worth much to me as a teacher; the questions that defy the formulae, because they ignore the stock answers entirely or because they call into question the assumptions and ideologies that make the stock answers intelligible, are the questions that remain, for my money, the most worth devoting one’s life to, and neither the platitudes of the Capitalist New Left nor the foot-stamping protests of the fundamentalists (often themselves Capitalists) give me much pause at all for genuine thought. Give me Plato and Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas, Erasmus and Calvin any day. Let me dig my teeth into Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor or Homer’s heroes-against-the-gods. But by no means assume that I’m “one of them” because I want to ask questions not yet entertained by “us.”
My blessing in all of this is that I’ve been a part of a congregation in Athens willing to shake their heads and note that Gilmour is “up to it again” when I entertain readings and theories, and I’ve been a part of college teaching communities eager to hear from folks with strange ideas. I do not pretend the courage of a Socrates; I don’t know whether I’d drink hemlock for the truth or not, but I doubt it. What I do know is that, being a part of those communities, at the minimum the duty I owe them is to proceed in my inquiries, whether in the Sunday school classroom or in the college classroom or in the academic conference room, under the assumption that the traditions that define this or that arena of inquiry were there before I got there, and my duty is to pay them due respect, even and especially when I call them into question. That means respecting the culture of a place, all of the complexity that lies just below the surface to be found if one has the patience to weather the first shocks of distaste. That means attempting to “read” an institution with the same care that one would read a philosophical text. That means submitting to what I find less than ideal, assuming in the way I carry myself that I must earn rather than seize the right to steer things.
Such is not any sort of heroism, and I am no “organization man” or “quietist” for starting from that point; I only hope that, when I’m the one who has invested my life in the shape of a community, those who come behind will show me the same sort of respect, even and especially when they strive to replace my ways.
So when I teach Sunday school, the folks in my class know that I might reach conclusions that differ from their own, but they know that I’m going to explain those conclusions without insulting those who differ and in terms that are intelligible to the folks gathered. In my college classes I’m going to serve the institution in the capacities I agreed to when I signed on. In venues like this I’m going to assume that those with whom I disagree have the best intentions at heart and are at least as literate as I am, and I’m going to present my arguments for readers’ scrutiny rather than assuming that the really bright folks already agree with me and thus don’t need an argument.
Since this has turned into more of a manifesto than an argument, I’ll end with this: every tradition is an argument, and a tradition within which there are no more arguments is a dead tradition. All that I ask of those who walk alongside me and those who come after me is that we remember that living in a polis requires some politeness, that the stability of such communities, while not the summum bonum of their pursuits, is nonetheless a good that should bear some gravity when on the balance against the impatience of the young.