While I have a deep and abiding hope in the ultimate purposes of God to restore all of creation through Jesus Christ, when I ponder the near future I tend to be a bit more cynical. We have wars and rumors of war. We have warnings of ecological apocalypse. We face a rampant consumerism that turns people in the developed world into little more than zombies, and turns laborers in the developing world into little more than slaves. The mainline religious establishment which values social justice, civil society and education seems to shrink, while more fundamentalist religious movements that promote exclusion, anger and fear seem to grow. And all the while our government seems to be bogged down in an intractable partisan quagmire.
The near future can seem bleak indeed.
So, it is rather odd for me to encounter a week's events that bring optimism. First off, the Affordable Healthcare Act was upheld. And while it is pretty horrible compromise legislation that was heavily neutered, it is better than nothing for millions of uninsured, and a step toward the National Healthcare system that any reasonably civilized country should have. Next, Marriage Equality was upheld. In the words of one man I talked to: "This means I am fully human now!" Then the President sang Amazing Grace at a funeral and acted as our "Pastor in Chief". And then, to top off an incredible week, the Episcopal Church elected Michael Curry as our 27th Presiding Bishop.
Suddenly it feels like the tectonic plates of cultural gridlock might be shifting. Maybe just a little.
And that gives me some near term optimism.
You might be thinking "Yes! It is great that the Episcopal Church elected its FIRST black Presiding Bishop!" And that is nice. But ethnicity is not what excites me about Michael Curry.
What excites me about Michael Curry, and what gives me hope for the near-term future in an embattled Church, is that Curry loves Jesus. And he is not afraid to say it. He is "out of the closet" on being Christ-centered. He doesn't speak of Jesus in couched terms surrounded by qualifying statements. He just preaches Jesus and offers Jesus as the reason for what he does.
Michael Curry is a Jesus guy. And while Curry is "progressive" or "liberal" (depending on how one defines these terms), he is progressive and liberal because of Jesus, not in spite of Jesus. And that gives me hope for the Episcopal Church.
The Episcopal Church has for the last century been the epitome of the liberal, mainline establishment. And that has not changed. And that is a good thing. But what Curry marks to me is a decisive change in HOW and WHY we are liberal. And since I will be using the term "liberal" a great deal, and since everyone has their own definition of liberal, let me define how I use it.
Liberal is an openness to experience, and a wideness of interpretation and practice, that seeks to embrace all of culture, and everyone in it, and reconcile it all with Christ. As such, liberal theology wants to maximize the conversation and sharing between science and scripture, history and theology. Liberal practice seeks to include as many as possible, and bring hope and healing and justice to as many as possible. This means constant critique and correction of our views of God, our views of Scripture, and our views of socio-economic structures and institutions, as Christ's Spirit leads us into new situations and we encounter new data.
When I first came into the Episcopal Church in 2000, I was scared of liberal ideas in the Church because it seemed like every liberal leader in the Church was scared of Jesus, and scared of the Bible. You see, I had experienced a profound conversion experience when I came into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ at age 18. And after that, I had learned to follow Jesus in evangelical and charismatic traditions. So for me, the key to life was loving Jesus and basing my life and beliefs on the data about Jesus found in the Bible.
So when I came to the Episcopal Church and found liberal leaders like John Shelby Spong, I was horrified. Because in challenging the unjust structures of Church and society, Spong declared war on Jesus as the Incarnate God who connected us with the Joy, Peace and Hope of the God of Love. Or, to put it another way: Spong and his ilk embraced the vision of inclusion, compassion and justice which was embodied in Jesus, while rejecting Jesus himself. Spong didn't speak of Jesus except to question his identity. He didn't quote Scripture except to criticize it.
And while Spong is pretty much the archetype and worst-case-example of the kind of quasi-deist, scripture-phobic liberalism of that latter 20th century, it seemed like much of the leadership of the Episcopal Church was reading from his play book. This type of old liberalism, with its anemia to saying the name of Jesus, and its apologetic demythologization of every facet of Scripture, seemed to me to be the status quo of much of the National Leadership of the Church.
And while there is much to admire in our last two Presiding Bishops-- Frank Griswold and Katharine Jefferts Schori-- one has to admit that Jesus was never the first word off of their lips, nor seemed to be the driving passion behind their vision. I have met Schori personally a few times and celebrated Eucharist with her at the college ministry at Southern Methodist University. Despite the worst caricatures of her public persona, I found her to really connect with my college students, to exude hospitality and compassion, and to present a compelling vision for spiritual growth into the God in whom "we live and move and have our being".
But, as I have written about before, even in preaching and teaching about "Who Christ is for the world" and "Who Christ is for me", Schori seemed hesitant to name the name of Jesus, and burdened with a scientist's need to qualify everything she says about Christ. And this is a laudable trait in a scientist. But as a theologian and pastor, it smacks of the old liberalism. And this does NOT mean I doubt her commitment to, or relationship with, Jesus. It just means she speaks of the Christian faith in Theocentric terms, not Christocentric terms, in a way similar to one of my favorite writers on Science and Religion, John Polkinghorne.
But there is another way to be liberal than to deny or downplay Jesus in order to heighten themes of inclusion and social justice. There are other reasons to be liberal than a carefully qualified commitment to a minimally involved God. I know this because I have also learned since coming into the Episcopal Church in 2000 that one might actually become liberal BECAUSE following Jesus seems to entail it, not in spite of Jesus. I have explored this idea in-depth in other essays, but briefly stated:
By reading the Gospel accounts, and comparing Jesus with those he criticizes, one might come to the understanding that Jesus advocates for a progressive, inclusive, compassionate vision of social justice over and against the purity-based legalism of his opponents (which can look a great deal like some more "conservative" versions of modern religion). To illustrate, here is a chart I created for my New Testament class.
One may read Scripture NOT as a series of proof texts to confirm or deny ideas, BUT as a narrative presenting a trajectory that is only fulfilled in and through Christ. Thus, we can interpret Scripture NOT as a puzzle to be put together into a seamless whole of inerrancy, BUT as a sign post pointing beyond itself to the fullness of God's life in Christ.
This leads us to realize that God's love, shown in Christ, is maximally inclusive and "liberal": All humans who have ever lived, past, present and future, are fully God's children (whether they realize it or not). And thus it really is necessary to "respect the dignity of every human being" without qualification or pretense. Because Jesus really DOES love the little children, all the little children of the world. Red and yellow, black and white: They really, really ARE precious in his sight.
Thus, by looking at the examples of Jesus and Paul, one could come to see that practices such as women's ordination are not only compatible with Scripture, but fulfill the trajectory of Scripture. And by looking at the examples of Jesus and Paul, one could also come to see LGBT inclusion as not only allowable "as a lesser evil", but it is the fulfillment of Scripture's trajectory as a positive good.
In fact, a rigorous reading of Scripture, and discernment of the trajectory it points to in Christ, leads us to an inclusive vision of the Truth embodied in Jesus. This also leads us to a liberal, progressive understanding of our place in the world Christ created, and an open engagement with the sciences and even with other religions. It leads us to understand how evolution expresses the action of a loving God, and why we should care for the world God has gifted us with.
This Christocentric reading of Scripture leads us to critique the economic system we live in, and propose economic solutions that help all of God's children obtain "their daily bread". It helps us understand how to create and sustain a society of progress, and understand the consequences of failing to keep developing and evolving in Christ. Finally, such a reading of Scripture helps us understand how even hell may be redemptive and part of God's plan to reconcile the whole creation to Godself in Christ.
This is a qualitatively different kind of liberal theology and praxis, because it finds its source in Jesus, its center in Jesus, and its ultimate fulfillment in Jesus. And it is this kind of liberal vision that is embodied in the leadership of Michael Curry. I think-- I hope-- that his election signals the end of the era of old, sterile, politically-correct, quasi-deist, scripture-phobic liberalism, and the full flourishing of a vibrant, inspired, courageous, warm, Christocentric liberalism.
Curry is liberal because of Jesus. I am liberal because of Jesus. And if the Episcopal Church is to be liberal, let it be because we are following Jesus into an open, expansive, abundant, just and compassionate vision of God's Kingdom. Because if we are not following Jesus, it is all for naught. But if we are following Jesus, then the Kingdom of God is at hand.
May the Risen Lord Christ bless Presiding Bishop Curry and the Episcopal Church, and grant us all clarity of vision, purity of heart, and steadfast commitment to follow Jesus wherever he leads.