At Subverting the Norm 2, I found myself cringing through most of Tony Jones’s “13 points of challenge and exhortation“. I’d been primed to see Tony as, at best, a ‘difficult personality’, so it was easy for me to seize onto the things he said that angered or unsettled me in order to reinforce the foregone conclusion. Chatting with Christena Cleveland afterward, I was glad to hear that she too was uncomfortable with several points that she thought would be ill-fitting in her home congregation and other Christian communities. At that same time, though, she found other of the points positive and constructive. I was looking forward to hearing which points were which. She said she was planning to write a response, and so I was really interested when she told me the other day that, though she didn’t get to all 13, she’d written a post that addressed one point in particular more broadly.
Christena’s post responded to Tony’s point about loyalty in which he claimed that “[w]e have a better version of the gospel in the West today”. And for whomever the we refers to, Tony calls for “stick[ing] together in spite of our doctrinal/theological/philosophical differences”. The trouble may’ve come from the lack of clarity on who “we” designated, because for Christena it appeared to mean white, well-educated males. I don’t disagree that that’s how it came across, but I also think Tony’s was talking about a group of white, often educated people whose tolerant, (aspirationally) progressive views and that his emphasis was on the fact that, compared with intolerant voices in American Christianity today, what “we” have to offer is better. I leave ‘we’ in quotes because it’s not clear to me given some of Tony’s other points whether I’m included or not.
So if we’re talking about whether the Gospel according to Jay Bakker is a better version than Pat Robertson‘s, I wholeheartedly agree and I am fairly confident Christena would too. I think her write-up, even though it imperfectly engages Tony’s actual point, addresses the dynamic and the context in which he is making the point. There was a lot of talk about diversity at the conference and a lot of earnest white people scratching their heads about why there weren’t more people of color, more women, and more queer people there. (That they weren’t talking much about class is a whole other problem.) What seems to be said is,”we (Tony’s ‘we’ of progressive Christians fits here) have constructed this wonderful welcoming place, we’ve invited the Other, why haven’t they joined us?” Perhaps we (and here I include myself) need to step back from “why haven’t they joined us” and look at the “we have constructed this” bit. These structures are the ones we have built.
I think the major project of white progressive Christianity right now is looking itself in the mirror and trying to make sense of its shortcomings; understanding its privilege and how that privilege has caused and continues to cause harm. Pride is taken in advocating for same-sex marriage and the inclusion of same-sex-attracted people into the Church; in continuing the uphill battle for women’s equality in society and in the Church; in combatting racism and religious intolerance – trying to be neighborly with Muslims, atheists, agnostics, and other Others. All of that, is, of course, worthwhile. But ironically, how these righteous goals are produced and the expectations held for others to reach them can reproduce some of the ugliness being grabbled with in the first place.
This is where I think Christena’s post is really important. What’s being addressed is not only these goals, but how we pursue these goals, why they are goals, for whom they are goals, and what other absent goals need to take their rightful place beside them. Take, for example, a perceived pervasive homophobia in congregations of color. Equality for queer people (or at least certain kinds of queer people) being a major plank of the white progressive Christian agenda can manifest itself in external demands and expectations that look structurally quite similar to other contexts in which white people in America have exercised power over people of color. Male-driven solutions within the Church for women’s empowerment and inclusion are problematic in a related way. Outside-in solutions do bespeak a certain sense of “cultural group idolatry”.
So when Tony talks about a better version of the gospel, I think he’s absolutely right. It is a better gospel for the specific “we” Tony’s talking about because it specifically responds to salient issues in that group. And I think the humility Christena calls for when two better versions of the gospel bump up against each other at the boundaries of a group and within a group is indispensable. Drawing on Christena’s discussion of the body of Christ, I would also say that just as one part of the body is attached and seamlessly connected to the next, the lines are blurry between and among congregations and identity groups. This means that talking about ‘progressive Christianity’ or ‘white Christians’ or ‘Christians of color’ is an imperfect way of talking. We’re all one and holistic health is best for each and every body part. At the same time, a cast fitted to the arm that help heal a broken elbow won’t do much for a foot.
I think the best way we can be loyal to the whole tribe is by going out and getting to know it. Leaving the structures built by those of us who are the kind of people who’ve perhaps had more than our fair share of structure-building and entering into those of others if only to be able to look at our own better and more critically. We might then be able to return to them and tweak them (or tear them down where necessary) rather than twiddling our thumbs sheltering inside them wondering where everyone else is. We can approach our own goals with fresh eyes and understand what pursuing them and what how we pursue them means for others. In this perpetually unfinished process, I think we’ll find better and better gospels.
Feeling like a bewildered apostle during the uncertain interval between Jesus’s death and resurrection, I’ve left Springfield, Missouri and returned to real life, wondering about the salvific potential of radical theology. Subverting the Norm 2 convened academics and practitioners, big names and dilettantes at Drury University for a couple of days to engage with, among others, the question of whether “postmodern theology can live in the Churches”.
Phil Snider, one of the organizers, has offered his thoughts on the conference and provided an important defense of deconstruction as a life-affirming approach to theology and faith. It appears to respond at least in part to Tony Jones who nailed his 13 theses to a keynote by Jack Caputo that addressed the central question of the conference. Perhaps because he didn’t have Jack’s speech provided to him in advance, Tony’s response seemed like more of a critique of Pete Rollins, process theology, etc. Katharine Sarah Moody pondered on her blog whether it was Derridean move while Christena Cleveland plans an upcoming response that promises to include some amens, but also some observations about how it clashes with the realities of some faith communities of color.
This robust and ongoing exchange exemplifies how productive this conference has been at least in terms of getting people talking. Jack advocated for the devil and spoke of spooks and specters. A couple in particular seemed to haunt these conversations. The first was the individual correlate to the question of whether postmodern or radical (the latter term being preferred by Caputo) theology can live in the church: ‘how can we apply this in our lives’? Katharine, for example, talked about “philosophy as an art of living”, something explored by Philip Goodchild in Intensities. The most striking attempt to put this into practice was a radical liturgy enacted by Jonathan Perrodin and Adam Moore with help from Matthew Lyon and Keegan Osinski. Perrodin’s post mortem asserts
that one can have an event based on Radical Theology and it not just be depressing death & decay, but that one can draw people together and truly touch & inspire each other without pulling any punches.
He also links to resources in his blog post to help others experiment with radical liturgy but fails to mention that his vulnerability in sharing an intensely personal story was the linchpin in drawing those of us in attendance into our own humanity. For Jonathan and the other radical liturgists, lived philosophy meant learning “how to be human”.
For Bo Eberle and Jeremy Fackenthal, living radical theology means a focus on political theology. Bo specifically criticized what William Connolly calls the “Evangelical-Capitalist resonance machine“, though he didn’t offer us any concrete steps to take to spark the revolution.
This question of how to apply faith and convictions is something I wrestle with daily. It’s so easy to think deeply and act shallowly, becoming overwhelmed and paralyzed when faced with taking the risk to live as we believe. I hope to come back to this when I’ve had some more time to reflect and maybe also more courage to act.
A second haunting question was that of diversity. Phil and the other organizers took great care to invite speakers from a wide variety of backgrounds, but inevitably the demographics at the conference skewed white, male, and straight. This was something I’d winced at when I saw a list of “75 reasons to attend the conference” (speakers and featured break-out session participants). Tirelessly committed, Phil included several keynotes and break-out sessions sponsored by Springfield’s Center for Diversity and Reconciliation. He wanted these to be open to the greater CDR-community, so they ended up being on sort of a separate track from the rest of the conference which was great, but meant that many people there for the conference didn’t take advantage of the CDR offerings. When Phil talked about the question of diversity again on the second and last day of the conference, I realized that the CDR roundtable and the closing Subverting the Norm roundtable were happening concurrently. It seemed like this logistical arrangement reinforced a norm that we were trying to subvert. I was really happy, then, when Phil and a few others of us were able to talk about it and he and the roundtable participants were able to make it so that the two roundtables happened in the same place, one right after the other. Rather than being wholly separate, they were in conversation with one another.
Namsoon Kang had already won me over with her talk about “Jesus-community” and hospitality that resonated with my interest in (im)migration, but her remarks after being introduced on the Homebrewed Christianity podcast “Is God Dead?” panel also spoke to the question of diversity. She pointed out that her identity as a Korean woman had been highlighted while Jack Caputo wasn’t designated as a male of European descent. And later, during the closing roundtables, her voice complemented Christena’s in shining a light on the blindspots that we all have in one form or another. She warned against tokenism and against defining ourselves or others by any one identity. “We are many.” Jes and Jim Kast-Keat together with Krista Dalton touched on all this today on PodKastKeat.
So after my lengthy journalistic account of the conference’s greatest hits, I know you’re dying to know more about what I actually thought. Can radical theology live in the churches? Absolutely. As Phil said, “deconstruction actually has more to do with affirmation than destruction”. Living lives where we attempt to look at things radically in the best etymological sense of the word – seeing all the way down to the root, understanding the big stuff in its context, allows us to more honestly choose faith. The question shifts away from the unfalsifiable ‘is there a God’ to, what does it mean to live as if life is truly meaningful – something that Tony got at when he was talking about wanting to engage with radical theologians who “want there to be a God”. And I don’t mean to throw my lot in with the language Tony uses there or to somehow construe my own understanding of faith as a belief in God, but I do endorse faith in the goodness and rightness of the project of creating meaning by how we live.
And as for diversity, I am heartened that people are trying and open. I was and continue to be quick to point out the ways I find the craft beer-swilling straight-white-dude demographic that predominates to be missing the mark, but at the same time there needs to be grace. Above all, everyone I met was willing to learn from one another and ask tough questions not only of others but of themselves. Through continued dialogue, I truly believe we’ll get closer to where we want to be. I think Christena’s entreaty to read more widely, to seek out authors we’re less familiar with who can disturb and provoke and help us reframe things is very valuable. Where I plan to start with this is by reading more from people of color. For others who attended, it might checking out something coming from a feminist or queer perspective. And inevitably, focusing on gender, sexual orientation, and race means we’re missing other kinds of diversity too. No one even brought up disability, for example, in any of the lectures or break-out sessions I attended.
So I’m hoping to live the resurrection of my faith, transfigured. I have my doubts and reservations, but glimpsing what a community committed to radical theology looks like, a community that overlaps with other communities who may not believe the same way, I am encouraged.