Shuck and Jive

Opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent the views of the congregation I joyfully serve. But my congregation loves me!

Monday, August 18, 2008

The Church and Reason: Four Responses


The Church has had a conflict with Reason for centuries. I mean by Reason, higher criticism (literary criticism, historical criticism, etc.) and science (physics, mathematics, cosmology, biology, etc.)

In this conflict, there have been (for sake of convenience), four responses:

1) Reject Christianity as unreasonable. Europe has basically gone here. Many Americans have as well. They are, as Bishop Spong calls them, "The Church Alumni Association." They call themselves atheists, agnostics, skeptics, or humanists. Secular higher critics and scientists are here. For them Christianity is a lost cause. They tend either
to tolerate it benignly or to challenge it actively. An example of the latter response is Debunking Christianity. Some have embraced an alternative philosophy or spiritual path. They are a growing tribe.

2) Defend the Christian Confessions against the inroads of Reason. Here you find the apologists of varying stripes. They see Reason (higher criticism and science) as a threat to the church and to faith. They may use some of the methods of Reason but only to the point that it does not challenge their confessional tradition.
Usually they practice some kind of smoke and mirrors to show that traditional dogma is reasonable. They do this with the use of fuzzy terms like "postmodern." NT Wright, Mark D. Roberts, and others are here. They are some of the most vociferous opponents to the Jesus Seminar for instance.

3) Ignore Reason and continue doing Church as if the Enlightenment never happened. The majority of clergy in my denomination are here. They don't care about higher criticism or science that much as far as their Christian faith is concerned. Even though they generally assent to it, they see little relation between higher criticism of the Bible and Christian origins (let alone evolution and cosmology) and their ministry. Higher criticism and science detract from their other agendas such as keeping church people happy in their traditional beliefs, embracing social justice causes, or trying to keep their communities afloat.

4) Embrace Reason (higher criticism and science) and try to reframe or reinvent the symbols of faith and the tradition in a way that not only makes sense in light of Reason, but gives 'heart' to Reason. This group, like group 1, recognizes that Reason is the default reality. Theology, if it is to be meaningful, must be based on and speak to reality as we know it through Reason. Unlike group 1, this group thinks that the discipline of theology has a place. Marcus Borg, Michael Dowd, Rita Nakashima Brock, and Matthew Fox would be here along with many other progressive Christian theologians. The Center for Progressive Christianity, Creation Spirituality Communities, and the Jesus Seminar would be examples of organizations of folks in this group. (Although some in the Jesus Seminar would be in group 1). There are many other movements in this group, roughly called progressive Christianity.

I am not sure exactly where to put the "emerging church." Brian McLaren is the leading icon. I am thinking that much of what I see fits in group 4, but the majority is in group 3. They, too, use that fuzzy term, "postmodern," without defining it. This leads me to think that it is used as an excuse to shy away from critically evaluating and reforming the tradition. Nevertheless, I hold out hope for this group. They push some boundaries. It remains to be seen whether they will push confessional boundaries as well by embracing science and higher criticism.

I put myself in camp number 4. Those who might find the JSOR or the Michael Dowd event interesting would fall into this camp.

I should add that 1s will enjoy these events too. They will be pleasantly surprised that these events are held in the Tri-Cities and will want to support them. I really hope some 3s will show. They need it and so do their congregations. 2s are welcome as long as they behave and don't make annoyances of themselves.


It will be interesting to watch if my denomination, the PC (U.S.A.) will circle the wagons and dismiss the 4s completely. If so, the 4s likely will become 1s and then we will have further polarization between the 2s and the 1s. The 3s are asleep and as such let the 2s set their theological agenda. Maybe they will wake up.

28 comments:

  1. Thank you for your well-thought out categories. I think it is very helpful for people to understand that there are people who have very different worldviews and different ways of understanding reality.

    You wrote of category 4, which you most clearly identify with,
    "Embrace Reason (higher criticism and science) and try to reframe or reinvent the symbols of faith and the tradition in a way that not only makes sense in light of Reason, but gives 'heart' to Reason." My question is, how does one do this without deception and obfuscation? My experience with people in this category is that they puroposely sound like people in category 2, but mean completely different things. How does one "reinvent and reframe" in a more honest manner? For instance, they affirm ordination vows, but "reinvent and reframe" so that they are not affirming in the same way as people in categories 2 and 3. How is this not deceptive? How can those in category 4 be more open and honest about their views, or should they?

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  2. I like the way you've summarized those four categories. I think that option four is the only way that Christianity can be rescued. The question is whether Christianity will actually go that way or not.

    Interesting you should mention N.T. Wright under option 2. He is popular with a lot of religious conservatives. I think the thing about him is that he tries to put a reasonable spin on what, in my view, is largely nonsense. Conservatives put him forward as an example of how conservative theology can be "reasonable". But really, it is just the old dogma in new wineskins.

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  3. Adel,

    Honesty is good.

    Seeker,

    The question is whether Christianity will actually go that way or not.

    I remain optimistic. Things have changed a great deal just since I have been ordained. Many churchgoers are reading more widely than ever before, asking questions, and expecting more from their ministers in regards to this.

    Then again, ask me on a different day, and I'll say that we are losing all of our thinkers to the alumni society.

    You question is a good one and it remains, so far, unanswered.

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  4. My concern resonates with what Adel is sharing. I've studied at both progressive, and more conservative schools. My undergraduate major was actually anthropology focused in comparative religion at a secular university.

    I really believe, and I'm not sharing this with any malice at all, but am trying to be honest. I don't think that the 2's, and the fours share the same faith. It's as if we're all playing an adult version of the, "Emperor with no clothes," in church. This doesn't seem very honest or healthy to me.

    I think much of the outward symbolism, and terminology is similar, but the deeper reality of who God is, the truth of the incarnation, the actual content of the gospel is not at all the same.

    So, I struggle with exactly how to respond to all this as a Christian believer within the institutional church. I don't believe Jesus would send anyone away. We're not going to have a perfect church for sure. I mean the "tares will be mixed with the wheat," until the end of the age. I want to show grace, and the love of Christ.

    But, on the other hand, the great truths of our faith are so important to me. And, I'm seeing that we could lose our institutions to the Christian faith. I care for people spiritually, and for the truth of the gospel.

    I can honestly share with everyone here that I would sooner see my own children in the category of honest, and sincere ones, than to embrace only an outward shell of the faith, stripped of it's reality, in a sense, perhaps, forever, inoculated against the "good news."

    Also, I want to say that I love Brian McLauren. His writings, and especially his book, "Generous Orthodoxy," has certainly made an impact in my life. My parish is totally committed to reaching out to post-moderns, and to the emerging church concepts.

    In my own life, I think I'm more a spiritual hybrid, what it looks like when someone with much of the natural mind, and temperment of a 1, or 4, actually hears the "good news," and comes to faith in Jesus Christ.

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  5. I don't think that the 2's, and the fours share the same faith. It's as if we're all playing an adult version of the, "Emperor with no clothes," in church. This doesn't seem very honest or healthy to me.

    I think much of the outward symbolism, and terminology is similar, but the deeper reality of who God is, the truth of the incarnation, the actual content of the gospel is not at all the same.


    I am not sure I agree with you about this, Grace. I think the most important enduring values we do share in common.

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  6. John,

    I can agree that we share many of the same values. But, I could say the same about many compassionate people who are humanists, or total atheists.

    But, for me, church is all about the fellowship, and literal worship of Jesus Christ, and how we walk that out in our lives. Our unity is in Him which is visibly imaged in sharing the sacrament of the Eucharist.

    For someone in group 4, if they are looking at this in a real, and honest way, this has to be pretty senseless, or at worse, even idolotry.

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  7. But, for me, church is all about the fellowship, and literal worship of Jesus Christ, and how we walk that out in our lives. Our unity is in Him which is visibly imaged in sharing the sacrament of the Eucharist.

    I am thrilled that is what church is for you. And you are welcome in the church I serve. But if folks had to see it as you do, it wouldn't work for many of them. Thankfully, you are not the boss of the church.

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  8. I left a comment several days ago elsewhere about some of what you say about option 1. I am going to repeat what I wrote here because I think it pertains to this discussion:

    Europeans are more religious than they might let on, and Europeans are more like Americans on the subject of religion than the stereotypes suggest.

    I was in Denmark a year and a half ago, and I blogged about my difficulties in finding anything resembling the sort of progressive Christianity there that you can find in pockets of Protestant Christianity in the US--the churches that are exploring theologians like Borg, Spong, Crossan, and others. At about that same time, the New York Times published an article which mentioned an article that found that people in the US and Europe tend to lie about their religious feelings. The article quoted a researcher who said, “In America, people exaggerate how religious they are, and in Europe, it’s the other way around. That has to do with the situation of religion in both places. Americans think religion is a good thing and tend to feel guilty that they aren’t religious enough. In Europe, they think being religious is bad, and they actually feel guilty about being too religious.”

    All of which suggests that the real issue is how Christianity or other faiths are perceived in the culture. The best thing that religious progessives can do is to resist the inaccurate stereotypes about religion and to show how religion need not be, as it is in Europe, something to be embarassed about, that religion can be a progressive, enlightened, tolerant experience.

    Maybe the real problem is not that a lot of Europeans are not religious, but that they don't care much for the dogmas they are fed in Christian churches, and the pablum that is passed to them by the clergy who learn about modern biblical scholarship in divinity school but never bother to tell their congregants about it in their sermons. This results in what John Shelby Spong calls the "church alumni society"--religious people who are unchurched. People want to be able to go to church without being expected to believe the unbelievable, without having to roll their eyes and say, "You've got to be kidding me."

    This poses a real challenge for progressive Christians in particular and religious liberals like UUs in particular. The solution, I think, lies not in taking a smug position towards Christianity as if smart people have moved beyond it (which is what those who object to the term "post-Christian" believe that the term implies), but rather to show how it is possible for a progressive, thinking, inquisitive faith is possible within the context of any religion, including Christianity.

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  9. Seeker,

    That is insightful, especially about the European situation.

    The solution, I think, lies not in taking a smug position towards Christianity as if smart people have moved beyond it (which is what those who object to the term "post-Christian" believe that the term implies), but rather to show how it is possible for a progressive, thinking, inquisitive faith is possible within the context of any religion, including Christianity.

    Thanks! Post-Christian is an interesting phrase. I have often wondered what it meant, as opposed to saying non-Christian or something else.

    I thought it had to do with post-Christendom, in the sense that they celebrate the end of Christian hegemony over western culture.

    In that sense one could be post-Christian in that they don't think Christianity should have control over culture and politics, but still be Christian in terms of personal choice.

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  10. John,

    I should clarify the context of that comment, which I lifted almost entirely from something I posted in a UU blog. There has been a lot of discussion in the UU blogosphere about a UU spokeswoman who, after the Knoxville shooting, referred to their denomination as post-Christian. A lot of UU Christians objected to that characterization as suggestingthat UUs have advanced beyond Christianity, which clearly isn't the case for those UUs who adhere to Christianity.

    Not all UUs objected to that term, however, and some possibly might have embraced a definition closer to what you are describing.

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  11. Gotcha! Thanks for that! I missed that discussion along the way about the UUs.

    Back to another point you made:

    People want to be able to go to church without being expected to believe the unbelievable, without having to roll their eyes and say, "You've got to be kidding me."

    What do you think it would take for the church to be in a place where that could happen?

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  12. What do you think it would take for the church to be in a place where that could happen?

    You've got me there, John. I'm not sure what the answer to that question is. I've come to the point where I'm not even sure what I'm looking for in a religious community anymore.

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  13. John,

    Here though, is the huge difficulty. Someone is going to set the theological agenda for our mainline denominations. Who is going to set the course for the whole mission, and outreach of the church? This is a special difficulty in church structures that don't have a congregational form of govt.

    I don't think it's right to try, and have a "power over" people. This isn't the way of Jesus. And, yet, what really can people do when there is serious disagreement about issues so central to the faith?

    Probably there is going to be a seperation that happens naturally, not out of malice, or hatefulness, but simply because there is not a spiritual unity really there in the first place.

    I'm feeling we can only trust God in this. Jesus Christ has promised to build His church, that even "the gates of Hell" will not ultimately prevail against it.

    But, I will share with you frankly. I think what the radical progressive leaders are doing in our mainline denominations is wrong, and immoral.

    They have left their ordination vows given to God, and used their position of trust, and authority, to basically introduce another faith into the church which will ultimately destroy, and rip their denominations apart.

    It's especially deceptive because much of the same language, and symbolism is used, but interpreted to give a very different meaning.

    And, you're right to say that there are more than a few folks asleep in the pews who have no clue about what's actually happening.

    Sincerely,
    And, I hope still your friend,
    Becky.

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  14. Grace, this is the same ad hominem smear against progressives that you have repeated over and over again.

    It gets a little tiresome to see you slandering other people, Grace, attacking their motives and their sincerity simply because you disagree with their interpretation of the faith. For someone who has this ability to sit in judgment of other people's morality, it is a shame that your own morality does not include the ability to respect differences of opinion without impugning the motives of other people.

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  15. But, I will share with you frankly. I think what the radical progressive leaders are doing in our mainline denominations is wrong, and immoral.

    They have left their ordination vows given to God, and used their position of trust, and authority, to basically introduce another faith into the church which will ultimately destroy, and rip their denominations apart.


    Grace, I appreciate your view, and you are, of course, still my friend.

    I think your claims are exaggerated and misrepresent what progressives are doing.

    The church has consistently been in the process of reinterpreting its symbols to address realities that have come to us through reason.

    Some think this reinterpretation is too fast, others too slow. We disagree about that.

    You may think the motivation is from malice or deception. Not much I can say to that, except I disagree.

    I think the motivation comes from honestly seeking what is true and keeping the dialogue going between reason and confession.

    I can't speak for other denominations, but for the PC(USA) we require clergy to have an undergraduate degree. Presumably, they will have been exposed to some science. We also require a Master's degree from a seminary (preferably a PCUSA one). In these seminaries, students are exposed to higher criticism. In fact, higher criticism even reached confessional status in the Confession of 1967.
    So enough of that nonsense about ordination vows.

    What I think is a bigger threat to our denomination is biblicism disguised as piety or orthodoxy.

    Frankly, I don't think anyone is ripping the denomination apart. I think having these conflicts in the open is healthy for us.

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  16. Nicely put, John. I'll avoid beating my favorite dead horse (The Five Fundamentals versus the Auburn Affirmation) if at all possible.

    Grace, you seem to be wobbling between an authoritative dogmatism and a call to democratic power from the pews. IMO the two cannot be reconciled except by the form of government we Presbyterians already use. We are not congregational, nor are we hierarchical.

    We DO have doctrinal standards (as John pointed out, they do embrace higher criticism), and they were determined democratically. Even translations of historic confessions are debated. The structure of the government helps prevent frequent radical changes from both the congregational and the leadership level. "Radical progressive leaders" in this particular denomination simply don't have the power you seem to think they do. Trust me, sometimes I wish they did.

    To insist that anyone swear their allegiance to a list of doctrines is antithetical to the principle of "God alone is Lord of the conscience". The key in regulating the earthly church (which is done in trust by fallible humans on behalf of Jesus himself) is consensus, not fiat.

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  17. You can keep beating that horse. I don't think it is dead yet.

    "Radical progressive leaders" in this particular denomination simply don't have the power you seem to think they do. Trust me, sometimes I wish they did.

    Radical progessive leaders. Pretty impressive sounding all right.

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  18. I keep wondering where all these "radical progressives" are that I am hearing about.

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  19. "Radical progessive leaders. Pretty impressive sounding all right."

    Indeed! Where do I sign up?

    Here's a little advice for folks, like grace, who have somehow convinced themselves that liberals run the PCUSA:

    This constant smear against the vast radical progressive conspiracy in the PCUSA has been around forever, it seems. It only betrays the profound lack of understanding that some folks have about our form of government. Don't like the so-called "radical progressive leaders" who are supposedly pulling all the strings in the PCUSA? Then Don't. Vote. For. Them.

    Ticked off that the Stated Clerk isn't filing charges against someone you're ticked off at? First of all, that's clearly not his job. But if you're still annoyed, Then get off your lazy butts and File. The. Charges. Yourself.

    It's easier, I suppose, just to blame some nebulous "they" for the direction of the denomination, but if the right wing knew anything at all about the PCUSA in particular, or Presbyterianism in general, they'd realize there is no "they", there is only "us."

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  20. Wai..ittt a minute here, guys. I decided to go back, and re-read my posts. I don't think we are all on the same wave length.

    I'm not even Presbyterian, or right wing for that matter. At least, I don't think of myself in that way, at all. But, let's face it, these terms are all relative anyway.(My own priest, and I are friends, and riding partners. :) She would think of herself as a progressive, and a feminist, I"m sure.) We don't always agree, but, I love her, and think she's my sister in Christ.)

    And, I don't agree with filing charges against people. What good is it about to do? Chances are they are going to be pushed even further from the gospel, and out the door somewhere just teaching heresy in another setting. I'm looking at the church from a global perspective. We should pray for each other, share , and trust God's spirit to bring truth, and unity.

    By radically progressive thinking, I'm not talkin about some concern like, oh I don't know..Well, a difference of opinion concerning the authority or inspiration of the Scripture, or various views of the atonement, or differing interpretations of Genesis...Or, even a difference of view in various social, and political issues. Oh no!

    These differences between us go right to the heart of what we're all about as a church, to the reality of the incarnation. It involves things such as the unique divinity of Jesus Christ. Who is the historical Jesus? It involves the reality of God as trinity, or even if there is a personal, loving God who is able to intervene in our lives at all.

    In my denomination, retired Bishop Jack Spong, would probably best represent the "radically progressive" viewpoint. This man has totally, and utterly left the Christian faith. It's a heart-breaking situation. (We should all be loving, and holding him in prayer.) He is sincere, though, feeling that Christianity must "change or die."

    I don't think radical progressives do actually "run" the denominations. Praise Christ!!

    But, I think this type of thinking and belief system, if it continues to grow over time, and gain a greater foothold will surely, and eventually tear all of our denominations apart.

    Alan, and Fly, my brothers, how could it be otherwise?

    We are about so much more than just a kind of liturgical unitarianism, or a social justice organization, with a pluralistic, spiritual twist.

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  21. Actually Alan, you forgot the important first step: JOIN THE PC(USA). It always bothers me when people who have no idea how a Presbyterian church governs itself preach to us about how "the leadership" is abusing its "power".

    This constant smear against the vast radical progressive conspiracy in the PCUSA has been around forever, it seems.

    Depending on how you count, 1934 (when Machen left) or 1741 (Old Side-New Side split, not to be confused with the Old School-New School split).

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  23. But, I think this type of thinking and belief system, if it continues to grow over time, and gain a greater foothold will surely, and eventually tear all of our denominations apart.

    This argument suggests to me that this is an argument that is based on fear. It expresses a fear that orthodox Christianity might not be able to stand on its own, that through the free exchange of ideas, more progressive thinking will become increasingly attractive at the expense of orthodoxy.

    I see this same type of argument from fear cropping up in other contexts. Anti-evolutionists express the fear, for example, that once you let evolution in the door, their theological house of cards will collapse.

    It is kind of fascinating to me to see Spong dragged into this discussion. I have been to a lot of progressive churches in my area and have found very few people, if any, who actually find themselves in strong agreement with Spong's theology. If only there were a tenth as much of this "radical progressivism" as some people seem to think there is.

    It is also interesting that the same people who assure us that the Holy Spirit was hard at work making sure that institutional Christianity made all the right theological decisions at the Council of Nicea and at other times in the early history of the faith is now somehow powerless in the modern era to prevent the intrusion of free thinking ideas from polluting theological purity of Christian churches. Hmmm, maybe the Holy Spirit isn't so adept at pulling the strings of theological decision-making processes as She is made out to be.

    To be honest, I'm not sure why anyone who is so concerned with making sure that everyone in the pews and the pulpit is in lock step with the orthodox party line would actually object to the denominations tearing apart. Given that there is probably a fair bit of questioning going on in the pews right now that a lot of us may not otherwise hear about, a split in the denominations such that only orthodox Christians would share the church with other orthodox Christians who thought like they did might be attractive to some people; it means they would never have their minds polluted with ideas that contradicted any of this.

    Ultimately, I think that this fear that freedom of inquiry and progressive theological development will threaten the church somehow shows a real lack of confidence in the ability of the supposed Truth of orthodoxy to stand on its own. However, I think it also reflects a naive concept of how theology comes into being in the first place. It did not drop out of the sky, and modern theology is not the inevitable result of a straight line of progression from some so-called "apostolic witness". Terms like "apostolic witness" are a convenient fiction that help the believer to be in denial about the fact that theology is inevitably an evolving process of dialogue and discussion.

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  24. "But, I think this type of thinking and belief system, if it continues to grow over time, and gain a greater foothold will surely, and eventually tear all of our denominations apart.

    Alan, and Fly, my brothers, how could it be otherwise?"

    Hmm... You mean like say, a denomination started by serial adulterer and fornicator Henry VIII, who simply wanted to divorce his first wife? Really Grace? Do you honestly think that denominations are such a big deal. ;)

    Tear denominations apart? I'm sure people thought the same thing about the gnostics, the arians, the pelagians, etc., etc. Instead, the only heretics that really lasted any length of time are those damnable and pernicious Arminians, Papists, and Anglicans. But I'm still pretty sure they're only temporary distractions from the truth that we Calvinists have in abundance. ;)

    If denominations die, Grace, then they die. Please demonstrate, using Scriptural evidence & quotes, that denominations are in any way important, and/or part of God's plan for the Church. That's not to say there aren't good things about denominations, but there's nothing particularly holy about them.

    Christ's church (aka the Body of Christ) hardly needs the likes of me or you to defend it. It has survived pretty well for the last 2000 years or so -- usually *in spite of* people's attempts to "save" it.

    As for Spong, Grace writes, "This man has totally, and utterly left the Christian faith."

    I don't think he'd agree with you. But if you feel qualified to judge someone else's heart, more power to you, Grace!

    Speaking of Rev. Spong, I'll tell you what, Grace. I'll stop comparing all conservatives to Fred Phelps when conservatives stop comparing all liberals to John Spong. (Note, before anyone hyperventilates, I'm not making any particular comparison between Spong or Phelps, other than they're both simply used as some sort of bugbear in these discussions: the other side's vision of the most unholy, heretical terror imaginable.)

    Really, can't folks find someone scarier to use as a bugbear? Spong is *so* played out. I think it's time for a new uber-scary heretic ... Like John Shuck? LOL

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  25. Mystical,

    I think God's truth will prevail, and we can trust Him to preserve His church in a universal sense. But, we could lose our mainline institutions to the faith.

    I don't know if this is so much fear, as a legitimate concern. It would be sad to me. But, your post made me think.

    Do you feel that it's possible some people come to orthodoxy out of a deep conviction of truth, and because of free inquiry? Or, do you think we all have these fearful, closed minds?

    I feel badly that we always seem to be on this wrong foot with each other. I'm so different than what you think.

    I loved the study of other religions, and philosophies. I'm interested in other cultures, and ways that people think. I care.

    One of my strong interests is Celtic Christianity, and the ways this expression of faith images the beauty of the natural world.

    Mystical, I don't see you as this awful person, or someone that is there polluting my mind if we shared a church. Please don't think that.

    But, my whole faith is tied up the reality of the incarnation. I think it's through this that we can know God, and His love for us. My mind is focused in the worship of the trinity. It's in and through our unity with Jesus Christ, that Christians are renewed, and have our being, so to speak.

    You and I, we just don't share the same faith together. We don't have a spiritual unity. Surely, this all plays itself out in how people view church, and do mission, and worship with each other.

    I'm so sad, and feel at a loss for words. It seems that the more we talk, and share, the more you are feeling, angry, alienated, and just pushed away.

    I'm so sorry. I think I'm going to be quiet for awhile, and take a break from blogging. Maybe all this is doing more harm than good.

    God's peace to you, Mystical, and to you, John.

    Sorrowfully,
    Becky

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  26. Grace,

    I don't want to be responsible for your decision not to participate in these discussions online. You give me far too much importance. Please do not stop leaving comments on my account.

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  27. Really, can't folks find someone scarier to use as a bugbear? Spong is *so* played out. I think it's time for a new uber-scary heretic ... Like John Shuck?

    I always volunteer for the role of bad example.

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  28. Thanks, ((Mystical))) But, you matter to me, and even more so to God.

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