One Wednesday last May (2017) I found myself nearing the end of the semester with a pile of work I needed to address. I couldn’t for the life of me focus on the tasks that paid the bills, but instead could only think about one thing: coming clean. My faith and my understandings of God and scriptures were at the time undergoing an excruciating “deconstruction” period, leaving me feeling isolated and depressed and ultimately ashamed. It is my success-obsessed mentality (my idol, if you will) to strive in every social interaction to conform to whatever I think you think is good and likeable. It just so happened that all my life I’d been surrounded by mostly conservative, and mostly white evangelicals; and since puberty I managed to pick up on the virtues in that space and strive to embody excellence gaining favor from leaders who seemed to trust me without looking too deep into my credentials.
Not that I lied to you (my beloved conservative evangelical men). I just habitually and conveniently omitted sharing the ways in which I knew I would disappoint you.
So I made this blog Dialogic Christianities, wrote three posts in one day and posted them fast enough to make it to my afternoon meetings. By that point I felt certain that I’d disappoint just about everybody in my Christian life. But I also knew this was what real growth in my faith would involve. Not everybody is disappointed, but it’s my idol to constantly harp on who is (or might be).
Not surprisingly, over the past year I’ve received some very well-meaning and sometimes constructive criticism. I’ve chewed on these criticisms non-stop, and they’ve certainly made me reflect on the problem-spaces of this project; they’ve also made me wonder what this project promises. Overall, I agree with one of the biggest themes in the criticisms: “Chris, the whole purpose behind the project just seems unclear.” For this post, I’d like to cover some of the recurring criticisms; In doing so I hope to clarify what I think this project is and what it is not. I have to concede once and for all that it cannot be everything to everybody.
Criticism #1: “Did God Really Say . . .?” The project is rooted in arrogance and disobedience
I get accused of being arrogant quite often, and frankly, it’s the safest argument against me. The word is broad enough that it will almost definitely describe a part of me in any situation. I cannot deny that I am arrogant: I’m a presumptuous white man who would dare to believe he deserves a portion of your income or your church’s discretionary fund simply for being God’s instrument in Moscow. Early in support-raising, I compared my ministry in Moscow to Noah’s ark-building project. I have assumed–this is embarrassing– that if there were ever a Biblical canon documenting today’s people who “found favor in the eyes of God,” I would no doubt make the cut. I’m also arrogant in assuming that I deserve to get away with being lazy and sloppy in my thinking, in my relationships, in my work. And anyone who knows me has probably been irritated with me at least once when they’ve heard me boast about getting away with cutting corners on in my life, arrogantly assuming it’s more comical than harmful. I’m arrogant in assuming that people should like me. I’m arrogant in assuming that my white voice in a Critical Race Theory class deserves to be heard because I’ve always felt deserving of an audience as long as I’ve lived. I affirm accusations of my arrogance when they get at the core of my vices.
But these aren’t the reasons this blog gets red-flagged as arrogant for some critics. I think when some people accuse this project of arrogance, they are addressing its relationship to church authority. The arrogance of this blog, as one of my first critics put it, is associated with its focus– am I seeking to “discover the God of the universe” (which would be arrogant); or am I striving to know “how He has disclosed Himself to man” (which would be obedient)? The first option, “discovering the God of the universe,” according to this critic, is ultimately an exercise of my ego. “Those that depart from what God has revealed about Himself, may be academically brilliant, but the results of their efforts are naught and just arrogant.” In this perspective, I am like the serpent in Eden who asks, “Did God really say . . . ?”
Fair enough. I think it’s not unfounded for this critic to hear a thread of questioning in this project. I think every post on this blog could be heard from critics to be asking “did God really say . . .?” but it isn’t the primary orientation we’re (I’m) trying to promote. I think the Serpent is being completely anti-dialogic here asking a coercive “known-answer question.” And if there’s anything Dialogic Christianities tries to resist, it’s coercive known-answer questions (it’s not easy, but we try). But it’s also true that Sunday school teachers ask very similar known-answer questions all the time in the form of “Didn’t God really say . . .?” It’s the same dead-end, monologic exercise.
I want this blog to ask neither “Did God really say?” nor “Didn’t God really say?” but rather, “What is God saying? What has he said? How did he say it? Who or what mediated it? An ancient Hebrew poem? Translated into Greek? Translated into English? A pastor? Trained by a seminarian who was trained by a seminarian? How does this mediation work? How is it being used?” The only answers I’m expecting are those that I couldn’t make up myself. If we ever do slip into “Did/didn’t God really say,” my prayer would be that we are truly asking because we truly want to know something we don’t already know, not because we’re trying to coerce each other to one side or another.
I think this criticism ultimately comes down to a difference in understandings of authority and obedience. It’s true; if arrogance refers to an orientation against mindless obedience, then yes Dialogic Christianities is arrogant. This is where some of us will differ: I do not believe God wants the “obedience” of soldiers in his army who cannot afford to ask themselves about the whys and the hows of directives from their Superior. This project has the arrogance to believe that we can afford to interrogate the truth, believing that God, far from punishing us for asking questions, actually delights in the dialogue.
So yes, Dialogic Christianities is “arrogant” in that it runs on a spirit of inquiry and an understanding that “obedience” in many cases silences the dialogue.
Criticism # 2: “What is Truth?” The project is too “postmodern”
Many people have critiqued Dialogic Christianities on the basis that it seems “postmodern,” “relativistic,” and ungrounded in any firm understanding of truth. The project is wishy-washy and doesn’t take a stand for truth or morality one way or another. These criticisms often remind me of the language in my Christian high school apologetics courses, language that fights hard to establish an absolute truth based on the scholarship of R.C. Sproul, J.I. Packer, C. S. Lewis, Lee Strobel, Tim Keller, Francis Schaeffer, Nancy Pearcey etc. I find some of this helpful. In my own apologetics training, I found myself aligning with the common argument that absolute truth is the only basis for any type of morality. But, feeling the need to really do my homework if I were to engage in these struggles for truth on the front lines, I sought to brush up on my understanding of Postmodernism, beginning with some of its literary thinkers: Li Young Lee, Toni Morrison, Chinua Achebe, Sherman Alexie, etc. And I found along the way, that these writers seemed to have very “biblical” things to say, despite being called “postmodern.” I tried to be even more thorough in my apologetics homework, looking into the seminal philosopher/thinkers like Foucault, Derrida, Bourdieu, Marx and Feuerbach– and much to my chagrin I found that if I read them honestly, my apologetics training often mischaracterized their main ideas and the nuances of their thinking. These thinkers are easily written off as anti-truth, anti-God, anti-morality. Sometimes they are; but sometimes they’re not.
What really changed my thinking about post-modernism is that some of the most moral (and “biblical”) movements I know of in the domain of educational research employ the vocabulary of these post-modernist thinkers to make the case that Black people in the U.S. deserve quality education. It seems like no small coincidence that many white-dominated private Christian school curricula work agressively the make the “post-modernists” out to be “anti-truth” when really postmodern insights can provide convincing critiques about abuses of power and privilege. Postmodernism, as I’ve engaged it, is not any more of an enemy to truth than evangelical Christianity is; but rather it provides tools to expose the truth of evangelical Christianity’s most inconvenient realities. If I am to be an honest evangelical Christian (which, I’m still trying to be), I need to stop waging war on inquiries into “power” and “perspective” and humbly listen to the truth in what these postmodern critics are saying.
So, Dialogic Christianities recognizes that truth is always knotted up in issues of politics and power. Because many of us come from evangelicalism, we pay special attention to the critiques against our own in the service of humility and due diligence.
Criticism #3: I do not feel welcome here. DC is exclusivist, overly academic, and inaccessible.
Some critics of this project have been disappointed that the discourse is too academic, others have been disappointed because they thought the discourse should be more academic. Some misunderstand the discourse to be argumentative, others believe it isn’t argumentative enough. I think there’s confusion about what this whole thing really is, and how to do it well. I’m confused about it too, which probably makes matters worse.
Here’s one thing I do know. A friend wrote to me recently, calling attention to the possible similarities and differences between this blog’s facebook group and Francis and Edith Schaeffer’s L’Abri Fellowship in Switzerland. Francis and Edith Schaeffer opened their home “to be a place where people might find satisfying answers to their questions and practical demonstration of Christian care. It was called L’Abri, the French word for ‘shelter,’ because they sought to provide a shelter from the pressures of a relentlessly secular 20th century.” As much as I love the idea of the Schaeffer shelter, it’s clear to me that this blog and its corresponding facebook page are very different.
I don’t think I can promise shelter in this dialogue. A dialogue isn’t necessarily safe, and I think of it in terms opposite of shelter, that is, exposure. Not only exposure to other perspectives that may or may not be dangerous, but also exposure of my own perspective, which, in this climate is equally dangerous. We know what happens when Christians go public with their questions. It’s risky. There’s a lot to lose when a person states publicly that they’re embarking on an inquiry about what God’s word is and what it’s not and how we know. So I kind of imagine dialogic Christianities to be an open plain, a place of exposure. Not a ton of safety, necessarily. But I say that trusting that we all have plenty of shelter options for when the sun gets a little too intense. Bring your sunscreen, and drink lots of water. But, a little bit of exposure every now and then (and this is the heart of my faith) won’t kill us.
So it’s true, everyone is welcome to share in the facebook group and even to post on the blog (seriously, let me know if you have something), but not everyone will be completely accepted and understood. That is its risk. Exposure is never safe. But as an observation over the duration of this blog, it is interesting who is more inclined to expose their thoughts and who isn’t. Who feels welcome in this space and who doesn’t. The week I started the blog, I made a point to try to get as many white conservative male perspectives as I could, personally emailing and inviting white men of good reputation in their church to share their thoughts in the form of a blog post or positionality statement. Still none has taken me up on the offer. I can’t blame them. They have way more to lose than I did when I came off the mission field into academia where no one really cares what I think.
But I still believe that whether you’re academic or not, whether you’re a good writer or not, you are more than welcome to share in the inquiry in this space. It’s a sacrificial service to do so. Like MLK said, “You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.” The invitation is open. The more voices in the dialogue, the merrier.
So, Dialogic Christianities is exhausting and dangerous. It cannot promise safety, it can only promise exposure: exposure to new ideas (most of which are probably wrong), and exposure of your own ideas (most of which are also probably wrong). The cost of exposure is worth it to some people, and not worth it to others. Participate as you wish, and feel free to take breaks.