By Fred Plumer
I was sitting on an airplane last month reading a book by Calvin Mercer called Slaves to Faith. Mercer is a former fundamentalist Christian who has been “born again” as a competent theologian and university professor of religion. When he realized what he had been through and how hard it had been to break free, he became fascinated by the fundamentalist mind. At one point his interest was so great that he returned to school got a graduate degree in clinical psychology and was in private practice for over a decade. His book is wonderful primer on understanding the fundamentalist perspective on theology, the bible and Jesus the Christ. In this book, he also offers a psychological profile on the fundamentalist mind with some limited suggestions on how progressives Christians and others might dialogue with them.
When my seat mate saw the title of the book, he assumed that that title referred to the “born again Christian’s” commitment to Christ. In other words he thought we were on the same page. With a smile he said: “Wasn’t great when you have finally made that commitment? “ Now, whenever something like this has happened in the past I usually make some remark that assures this person that first, I am more educated than he is or she is, and second, we don’t agree. Although that does not always work it usually does and at least give me the first punch in what may be an uncomfortable ride at 30,000 ft.
This time I just smiled and asked him what he meant by that question. It took him less than five minutes to articulate how his life had changed when a friend took him to his evangelical church and within three months he had committed his life to Christ as his lord and savior. His next question was; “When were you born again?”
I had to think about my response since it was a full flight and we still had two and half hours left. So, I simply said, “I not certain what you mean by that?” I actually had become interested in how he would respond to that, so I tried to listen with an open mind. I was surprised how easy it was when I made the effort not to judge or critic his comments as he was making them. I did my best to shut down the voice that wanted to make fun of his naïveté and lack of biblical training. But I became far more fascinated by how comfortable he was talking about something that was so important to him. It was clear that he had done this before on many occasions and that he was completely at ease and if I did not evaluate what he was saying, instead of how he was saying it, it was impressive.
I suppose it had a special impact on me because we had been working on our most recent eBulletin that deals with learning to talk about progressive Christianity. Of course it will always be difficult to talk about one’s faith when we are talking about great mysteries and a lot of questions that will never be answered because they are dealing with issues and things beyond our comprehension.
But is that hard to refer to Christianity as a path rather than a belief system-a path that is guided by love rather than fear? Is it hard to explain that this is a path that is more interested in fulfillment than it is in atonement? Is it that difficult to say that you have faith in a God or Divine Spirit or Sacred Unity or whatever you choose to call this energy-an energy that is part of all creation and is in and part of each and everyone one of us? Is it too difficult to say I don’t know how it works because it is beyond my comprehension but I know when I live my life a certain way, including intentional spiritual practices my life is more abundant, less anxious, more peaceful, less fearful, and at the end of each day, more joyful? Of course this begs the question. Do we really try and walk path? Do we have intentional spiritual practices and disciplines? Do we really believe that our path is about change and transformation? Do we think “our way” will actually lead to an experience of the Sacred or the Divine? Then why do we have such a hard time expressing ourselves and sharing our experience?
I suppose that if we really did live this way, we would have a much easier time on airplanes explaining what it means to be a progressive Christian. I would guess that if we had some of those experiences, we would have an easier time explaining what it is that we actually believe, not what it is that we don’t believe. I suspect that we would be a little more enthusiastic explaining why progressive Christianity can be a wonderful guide to one’s life. But then if we were living it we probably would not have to explain it would we? For the record, I did explain my view of my faith and briefly shared what I saw as our differences. He looked at me like I was crazy and finally said, “That’s cool,” and went back to his computer games. I put my seat back and took a nap…