The Beautifully Ambiguous Apologetic

The contemporary challenge to the Protestant mainline is realizing that we do not have to explain ourselves to the rest of our culture. Yet, we are called to the work of evangelism. How then do we proceed? The trick will be not repeating the mistakes of American evangelicalism in the process of crafting this new-to-us practice. It’s not enough to craft another set of Fundamentals. No. We need to invent something else entirely.

Or, at the very least, we must proclaim to others what it is that we already offer. We offer people something ambiguous enough for a multiplicity of perspectives to exist in one community simultaneously. No fundamentalism is needed. Instead, we offer faith.

Rachel Held Evans wrote a great piece based off her new book, Searching for Sunday. Keith Anderson responded. Rachel Held Evans responded again (it’s so good). I said something about them both providing examples of a conversation I would like to see more of. Let’s talk about the relationship between mission and liturgy, shall we? Please? Moving on.

Today Tony Jones wrote a thing in response to both of them. Clint Schnekloth wrote a response to Tony and Keith accusing them both of a certain degree of mansplaining among other things. Last but not least, Elizabeth Drescher wrote a piece that helps frame a great deal of all this talk about why church and loyalty and belief specifically where our children are concerned. Why do you make your kids go to church? This is where I want to take the conversation.

As usual, Elizabeth is on it:

Inviting kids to choose whether or not to go to church may not say that God is unimportant, that faith doesn’t matter. It may say that parents cannot adequately and authentically explain why it does matter in the context of lives that are filled with moral ambiguity and contradiction.

For the mainline, a set of Protestant traditions that may have begun as religious dissident movements, but became the establishment religion in the United States for a time, ambiguity is the name of the Christian game. Unlike our evangelical kin, our creedal statements have come with a certain degree of wiggle room. In spite of our traditions being founded on movements willing to go to war over creedal statements (see: Zwingli, the Thirty Years War, etc.), the lived traditions in the United States have learned how to make room for a multiplicity of interpretations of the same religious tradition. Martin Marty called it “Baptistification.” Others have simply called it pluralism. This is what it means to be “progressive” for many of our congregations.

Ambiguity is everything.

This is why so many of our communities depend upon our liturgies to do the apologetic heavy lifting for us. Held Evans’ testimony is a great example of how this can work well.

Liturgical symbols are notoriously ambiguous. They are juxtaposed with one another establishing if not reifying contradictions. Whether or not that was their intended purpose, it’s pretty clear that our communities engage in both official theological definitions of liturgical symbols (action, objects, songs, etc) as well as local definitions. Thus liturgical symbols become an embodied apologetic as essential to our identity as any outreach activity.

An Autobiographical Turn:

I was not raised Christian. In college I started to question my place in the universe. There’s no need to share the whole story here, but I found faith in Christ by singing in worship with the college choir. This initial faith was reinforced and stretched during my time living and working at Richmond Hill, a retreat center in Richmond, VA.

Committed to work of racial reconciliation and justice, the community of Richmond Hill also took vows. We prayed together three times a day. We shared in the Eucharist. The community was ecumenical and socially engaged. Our liturgy became the place for me to hold the strident language of Paul, the definitive claims of the creeds, and the oddity of the movement of the Holy Spirit in creative tension. More accurately, these things would hold me as I came to love them all. Paul’s strident theology, for example, only makes sense in a life of liturgy and justice seeking. It is there that Paul becomes a brother, a person struggling to make peace with God. It is there that the Nicene Creed becomes the testimony of a people rather than the legalistic claim of an ecclesial court. It is there that our prayers mingled with all the prayers of all the faithful in every time and place.

All of the liturgy is a conversation with saints and angels. Theology is a polyphony, a symphony, an ambiguous cacophony of faithful testimony.

The Problem of Fundamentalism:

Ambiguous. Fruitful. Generative. Liturgical signification is polyvalent, don’t you know. The hermeneutic of a community of the faithful is always so. This is what I learned at Richmond Hill. This is what I continue to learn in my communities of faith.

Jones, to the contrary, asks the Mainline to rethink this approach. I get it. He’s looking for a passionate, definitive response to American fundamentalism. He wants to say, for example, that not ordaining women is actually heretical. What I want to suggest is that the mainline in the United States is offering a passionate response to fundamentalism. But at our best, it’s not through a competing fundamentalism.

The difficulty for Tony is that our response is simply too ambiguous. Instead, I believe, he wants us to propose a new set of Fundamentals.

What I think Rachel Held Evans sees as the value of the mainline is that we aren’t suggesting a new set of Fundamentals. Instead, we are offering symbols for people to engage all on their own. We are inviting people to breathe. We are inviting people to open up. We are making room for testimony. We are collecting them with the great cloud of witnesses.

At American Baptist Seminary of The West, we have some working language on all this. We say, “We are a group of radical thinkers in a world where theology is a matter of life and death.”

This kind of ambiguity is a radical posture in a world of digital certainty. It is a radical response to a long-standing habit of fundamentalism. Theology can bring life or bring death. Fundamentalism is death-bringing.

What Jones wants is more of what he knows from evangelicalism…fundamentals. What Evans offers is an alternative to a violent theological praxis that Jones clings to.

The need to be right is a poison in the Church. How do we let it go and practice a more generous hermeneutic?

I have already cast my lot with Held Evans and the rest. That happened a long time ago. Are there risks? Sure. People bail. Our children don’t carry on the tradition. We can slip into a kind of moral relativism. Vaguery happens. More ink has been spilled and blogs shared on this subject than can be counted by Google.

Still, I’ll take the risk. Such an apologetic is too beautiful to ignore. And I want to live.

Rev. Tripp Hudgins is Director of Admissions at ABSW and a PhD student at Graduate Theological Union studying liturgy and ethnomusicology.

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