[Living Church, June 28, 1992]
"It’s like trying to grab a handful of jello!" A frustrated conservative Episcopalian was trying to describe his attempts to dialogue with members of the liberal wing. "We all use the same words, but we mean different things," said another. "I want to talk things out and identify our differences, but it seems like that’s bad manners‑‑if we talk about differences, we’re being divisive," contributed a third.
When attempts at dialogue in a controversy are marked by frustration and confusion, it is likely that the culprit is unstated premises. The opposing sides have begun the dialogue in the middle, assuming that unspoken underlying beliefs are shared; when they are not, dialogue is doomed.
Conservative Episcopalians have generally failed to understand that the foundational assumption of liberal theology is that people are basically good. The thought is that we are born good, loved and affirmed by God, but the trials of life damage us to one extent or another. It is in these depths, these dark places of pain, that we are most real and vulnerable. In our pain God keeps caring for and healing us, calling us to be our true selves, with a love that is unconditional and beyond understanding. Very simply, people are good, then are hurt, then are healed.
For conservatives, however, the underlying premise is that, although God loves us fully, we are essentially fallen; we take to sin like ducks to water. Our unhappiness is caused less by external damage than by our interior impulse to be each a petty emperor, our selfishness spinning us into a pit of estrangement from each other and God. The depth of our sin proves the height of God’s love, for only the great sacrifice of the Cross could rescue us; we accept it with humility and gratitude, resolving henceforth to obey God’s will though it often runs counter to our own. This "dying to self", because it conforms human will to God’s will, has the side-effect of healing and self-fulfillment. In short, people are fallen, then rescued, then obedient, then healed.
Misunderstandings abound. For example, conservatives are often perplexed by liberals’ penchant for referring to their own emotions as authoritative factors in the dialogue. For liberals, emotions are important guides to personal truth, a light on the path of God’s healing in their lives. A theological or moral assertion is disqualified, "true for you but not for me", if it produces in them feelings of rejection or oppression.
Those who question this argument have termed it "Feelings trump truth." Conservatives expect that God’s will is seldom our natural own; it is holy and challenging, and bound to make humans uncomfortable at certain points. Emotions may be useful guides to insight, but they may also be deceptive, leading us back into selfish willfulness; it is safer to listen carefully to the objective authority of Scripture as interpreted by the church’s ancient witness.
In line with this orientation toward emotions, liberals tend to assume that conservatives are driven by their feelings, particularly fear. They believe that conservatives are fearful of change, fearful of unfamiliar people and practices, and fearful of the onrushing Holy Spirit who is ever doing a new thing. Liberals believe that if they treat conservatives with loving patience, these fears will be eased, and conservatives will no longer clutch at a rigid external moral code, or Biblical literalism, for security.
Conservatives, unsurprisingly, find this treatment condescending and frustrating, as if they were being offered petits fours at a house fire. They believe that matters of eternal salvation are at stake which are not dependent on emotions, but rather rest on the objective events of a Friday and a Sunday two millenia ago. They are amazed at liberals’ ability to be content with a world view that strikes them as shallow, lonely, and impotent, warmed only by the circular movements of a petty self. Liberalism seems hollow and placid, lacking the stunning passion of the Cross—that drama ranging from knowlege of our desperate lostness to our plunge into grace through submission to God’s will. Conservatives have fallen wildly in love with one they call Lord, and see Scripture as His love letters—not handled with rigid literalism, but warmed and nuanced by the interpretation of the Church, the centuries of lovers gone before.
In addition to confusion caused by clashing premises, the dialogue is further hampered by conservatives’ own reluctance to state their theology clearly. Cultural resistance to the concept of "sin" is decades old, and conservatives have responded by fudging on that point—emphasizing a warm-fuzzy God who loves us just the way we are. Christian bookstores, radio broadcasts, retreats and music are long on feel-goods and short on repentance. This may have been an effective evangelistic approach as long as the choice was between secular and God-oriented life, as long as the task was to sell an attractive, inviting God to folks who thought they didn’t need one. Now conservatism is faced with something new: ranks of sincerely God-loving people who do not share the premises of falleness and sin, and do not agree that they need to change their behavior to please a transcendent external God.
Conservatism has several tasks ahead. First, it must realize that it is futile to begin the dialogue at the point of sexual behavior or liturgical language, when the unstated premises of the conversation are themselves already confused. It must overcome fear of being divisive and learn to express itself clearly on these basic points; only in this way can dialogue advance. It must find a way to express the freedom, release, and joy found in admitting one’s sins and taking responsibility for them in the light of God’s forgiveness. The association of sin and repentance with judgementalism and low self-esteem has prevented many from sharing the joy known by those who love much because they are forgiven much.
Conservatism must also take a hard look at its own sins, applying the thirst for righteousness equally to gluttony, adultery, profanity, divorce, Sabbath-breaking, and covetousness that it brings to more colorful sexual sins. Lastly, conservatism must remember who our Enemy is (not any bishop) and who the Church is (not any organization). We have been fighting interim battles and putting out brushfires, while forgetting to proclaim the vast and grand central tenet of our faith: we are sinners saved by the blood of Jesus Christ. Let us go forth in humility and boldness to lift high the Cross. Through it alone can we hope to draw all people unto Him.