Spiritually Homeless

When I was in college and grad school, the conservative leaders in both politics and Christianity with whom I was acquainted had a calm demeanor, respect towards those with whom they disagreed, an openness to information, and an acceptance of the secular nature of our government. My father was a good example of this. Conservative Christians divided into fundamentalists and evangelicals, and we evangelicals tended to see fundamentalists as angry and confrontational, suspicious of academics, inflexible, and authoritarian (i.e. using power to control others).  In retrospect, I think they also tended towards apocalyptic thinking (fear of imminent demise) and dare I say, racism (e.g. the anti-miscegenation of Bob Jones).  The “fighting fundies” in turn judged us as being ungodly from their perspective. Regardless of how accurate or inaccurate our perceptions, these were clearly demarcated “camps,” and Billy Graham (an evangelical leader) was a touchstone of the “second-degree separation” issue that made fundamentalists denounce him.

Strikingly, one of the leading individuals today who seems to represent that harsh and aggressive tone and perspective is Billy’s own son Franklin Graham. For many of us, the distinction between the two of them is very palpable and painful, and it has no relationship to a divergence in their stated theology or morality, but in how they perceive society and relate to it. (If you see no real difference between Billy and Franklin Graham, or you see a difference and prefer Franklin, you may not benefit from reading the rest of this post.)

Perhaps that clear divide I saw in conservative Christianity never existed, or perhaps the distinction has broken down, but I feel myself at a loss to know how to personally relate to this new face of a consolidated conservatism.  I feel an urgent need to distinguish and distance myself from the one variety of conservatism while connecting with the other kind.  But if they steadfastly hold together–in the same churches, organizations, and institutions–I find no way to connect to community, but only one-on-one.  This need to distance myself from strident Christians (as I experience them) rises from several important values I hold.

  1. Personal Integrity.  The groups with which a man publicly identifies communicates his outlook on life.  It is disingenuous (i.e. lacks integrity) to be an anti-gun member of the NRA or a pro-choice supporter of Right to Life.  This is especially true 1) the closer a group is identified with a particular viewpoint or attitude; 2) the more central that viewpoint is to their overall outlook; 3) the more vocal and pervasive their message is regarding that perspective; and 4) the more exclusive they are about their view (i.e. rejecting alternative voices).  So I face a deep personal conundrum in locating my group identity.  Some might suggest I find commonality in core theological beliefs and relegate other matters to the periphery, but that only holds if “all other matters” truly are treated by the group as peripheral.  No Jewish organization has anti-Muslim principles in its charter, and yet some are known chiefly for that.  Groups have a wide range of conscious and unconscious norms, fairly consistent characteristics and viewpoints, brand values that define them to the public, and such a context can turn peripheral matters into their most identifiable markers.  Regarding the evangelical brand, I ask myself: “Are these characteristics and viewpoints true of you and what you believe, of what you value and want to promote?”
  2. Theology of Grace.  I deeply value the virtue of grace as applied to our relationships.  Grace, the highest expression of love, is my most core and cherished value (as it is in Scripture, I believe).  However, my point here is much more fundamental than a matter of Christian behavior.  Grace, or unconditional love, is essential to the very nature of God himself–not just the way he relates, but who he is.  It is the very ground from which creation and salvation spring.  It is the quintessence of the gospel, our message of life to the world.  How our message is communicated often trumps the message itself in importance, but in some cases the timbre of our words actually contravenes the message.  Just as some apologies morph into accusations and some commitments end up betrayals in the fine print, our rendering of the gospel of reconciliation may come across as outright rejection.  The method denies the message, like pacifists taking up arms to enforce their views.  I feel morally obligated to distance myself from that rendering, especially since the gospel message is our most crucial moral and spiritual consideration.
  3. Social Responsibility.  As grace is my most cherished value, I feel responsible to make its progress in society paramount.  And as grace is fundamental to the nature and work of God, of how he relates to us and calls us to relate to him, I see it as essential and core to every facet of society.  If I am to promote grace, I must resist all that contradicts grace, whether in myself or in others.  Discerning ungraciousness and determining one’s response to it can be quite subjective and individual, but if grace is a core Christian value, we must confront what undermines it in as gracious a way as we can.  I am flawed in many ways–morally, intellectually, perceptually–so I will make many mistakes in this delicate balance of trying to graciously distance myself from ungrace, but I feel obligated morally, spiritually, theologically, socially, and relationally to resist ungrace.
  4. Internal peace.  Because of my own weaknesses, I often do not have the emotional resources to stay in a harsh context.  I must do my best to determine where my greatest responsibilities and usefulness lie and live in such a way that my limited energies are invested wisely.  So for very emotionally and spiritually pragmatic reasons, I find it necessary to distance myself from too much contact with those who pull my spirit down, primarily those with the characteristics I have described as “fundamentalist” or I will sap the energy I need for personal growth and strategic life investment.
  5. Communal connection.  In the same way that I need to protect my own spirit, I need to support my own spirit by connecting deeply with those who strengthen and encourage my heart, who love and accept me into being honest, brave, vulnerable, faithful, and all that grounds me more deeply in myself, in God and in his world through love.

I have floundered in my search for such a community.  What I seek is not a perfectly gracious community, which does not exist, but one which values the grace of God as its primary end and means, however faulty those efforts.  Conservative churches are staunch in their beliefs, affirming all who agree regardless of the spirit in which they express those beliefs, as though arguing that God is love is far more important than showing that God is love.  Normative theology is a membership requirement, graciousness is optional, even if valued.  I am not suggesting that most conservatives are ungracious, but that they routinely embrace and welcome the ungracious as long as they have the right theology, and this profoundly shapes the whole community (and its perception by the world).  My inner conflict is not with the theology or even moral positions, but with the spirit.

In spite of this, I feel a great deal of compatibility and connection with my spiritual heritage–its devotional warmth, biblical commitment, and God-centered worldview–so that my dislocation feels like homelessness.  I offer here a painful family critique, not an outsider’s rejection, and above all I write as a support to those who feel these things in silent suffering.  You are not alone, not by a long shot.  I pray for deep grace to flow down in abundance into the minds, hearts, and relationships of my brothers and sisters, and in me as well.  And I journey on with God as best I know how, a wandering pilgrim.

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15 thoughts on “Spiritually Homeless

  1. “Homelessness” for a variety of reasons, in a variety of situations, on a variety of levels is the story of my life since the day I was born. It is the ache and tears of my journey. It is a gnawing hunger and an unquenchable thirst for a place that all the jigsaw puzzle pieces of me will forever belong…the daily hope!

    • I suppose since we are each unique in our experiences, personalities, and perspectives, there is always some level of disconnection from others, and often the best we can hope for, even in our closest relationships, is a mutuality in the major core matters of the heart. May you and I both find more of those who nourish, excite, and understand us, who accept and value us even if they do not agree with us.

  2. You had me with your first sentence. I think many of us who grew up in similar conservative homes, schools, churches identify with what you are saying. I have struggled to find a place where I fit as well. My Facebook “friends” list ranges from far left to far right. The strident ones at either end get removed from my newsfeed for my own piece of mind. We do seem to have reached a point in our society where we are unwilling to civilly debate a different take or differing opinion. Indeed, we all need to strive for and seek grace.

      • Just an idea… you (or a friend could start and you could belong) could start a FB group (secret, closed, open) of those whom you feel are willing to discuss thoughts and ideas respectfully and graciously even if they are diametrically opposed. Depending on the parameters of the group such as “secret”, then only those who are invited by those who are already a part of the group would be able to join. Just an idea…

  3. Argh! my own peace of mind, not piece. I block them to avoid giving them a piece of my mind. I need to hold onto all the pieces I can at this point.

    • I think this ability to be free from the blinding constraints of group solidarity is a positive outgrowth of being different enough to be marginal in any way (culturally, economically, educationally, emotionally). The group norms do not “work” for various reasons with these folks, and so they either keep trying to conform (however imperfectly) or they realize that conformity is not an option. I took the first approach to the bitter end, and was forced into the reality that such an approach could only harm rather than help me.

  4. With you all the way. For me the elements of grace and caring that seem to me to be the very essence of Christianity have become a place of solace. From this position I have built a “community that includes many Buddhists and Atheists as well as many, many Christians who find themselves marginalized because of the realities of their own experience. Either they are, like me, divorced and joyfully remarried (and therefore in a condemned, by some, group for willful adultery) or they are homosexual and know themselves to be neither broken nor created to be “sinful” in this way from birth, or they merely hold political beliefs that cause some of their peers to froth at the mouth for no reason they can fathom. We hold to each other in bonds of mutual respect. Not that this is political at its core, but I remember trying to engage a Christian “friend” on the subject of abortion. I wanted merely to offer myself as an illustration of someone born again and indwelt with the Holy Spirit who is not actually certain that abortion is murder. I thought they would value knowing that someone respectable and with some scientific education could disagree. Boy was I wrong. Turns out my lack of certainty absolutely guarantees that I cannot possibly be a Christian! So I have given myself the gift of not trying to engage and of allowing what was once my community to become more of an object often of incredulous interest. Friends like you, Janathan, and voices of reason and moderation like those often commenting on your posts (and here today, for example) offer refreshment and encouragement to me. But I don’t feel homeless. I feel embraced without judgement.

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