Messrs. Johnson, Hoge, and Luidens took me back to the experience I had working with military chaplains. For many years I taught a course in the Naval and the Air Force Chaplains' schools titled “Ministry in a Pluralistic Society.” With the Navy I taught the “advanced” course for men (and finally women) who had been in ten or more years and were senior chaplains; with the Air Force I taught the “basic” course, for men and women who were just undertaking the calling of chaplaincy. I soon discovered that my tasks in the two groups were opposite.
In the “basic” course I had to teach my students how to get along with one another despite their differences. To some extent this meant helping them to temper the exclusiveness of the truth claims of their respective traditions—at least enough so that they could meet others as human beings, something they after all had to learn to do in order to minister to the wide variety of people they would have to serve. With the “advanced” course, on the other hand, I discovered that I had to break through years of studied politeness, politeness that often involved a kind of functional indifference to the truth claims of respective traditions. The members of the class had become deeply engaged in the particulars of ministering in a pluralistic setting, and one of the things that enabled them to do this was simply avoiding the question of truth.
The “basic” course required me to teach people how to discern at least the possibility of others being grasped by the same God who had grasped them. The “advanced” course demanded of me that I attempt to return people to the recognition that they had each been grasped by God in a particular way, and that such particularities gave rise to conflicting truth claims and thus to difficulties in ministering with integrity.
However differing the tactics had to be, my basic stance in teaching both courses was the same. What we have to avoid, I would say, are the Scylla of absolutism and the Charybdis of relativism. This is deceptively simple to say and decidedly difficult to carry out in practice. As we worked our way through this problem together, we developed an understanding of the notion of “degrees of truth.” We plumbed our autobiographies and in doing so realized that our own understandings of faith had developed over the years. This development, moreover, had not usually been accomplished by replacing the untrue with the true, but rather by replacing the less true with the more true. (Though some of us, to be sure, had undergone conversions that involved much sharper breaks with our prior positions.)
I have brought up this illustration from my own experience in order to underscore the importance of the question of truth even in so seemingly “practical” a situation as being an armed services chaplain. Neither the younger nor the older chaplains got into such discussions eagerly. The younger ones, especially those from conservative groups, were so sure of the truth of their own positions they weren't really interested in hearing other positions except to rebut them. The older chaplains had reached a modus vivendi with each other and were loath to disturb it. Yet in private discussions over dinner, or in breaks, one could see that they had strong feelings about each other and that these were not always positive. Many had developed a public functional indifference and a private hostility toward the others' theological positions.
Much of the time I was teaching was during the Vietnam War. One reason I chose to teach chaplains during this time was to be in touch with the dilemmas they faced. And so I discovered that chaplains merely face in an acute way what every pastor faces chronically: the possibility that one will be compromising one's position. Which is to say, the chaplain acutely experiences the “heretical imperative” of which Peter Berger speaks. The heretical imperative, the necessity to choose a religious faith (or choose not to have one), is the endemic challenge that issues from life in a pluralistic society and a fortiori in the closed society of the armed services. Indeed, none of us escapes it, whether we know it or not.
How do we cope with it? How do we work and play with people day in and day out who differ from us in religious belief and practice? It seems to me that there are a number of alternatives.
(1) We can seek to avoid the heretical imperative by staying within our reference groups and separating from the wider society. This is the sectarian response incarnated in the Amish but embraced in lesser degrees by many others.
(2) We can engage in open warfare with rival claimants. This is the absolutist response. But it is dangerously vulnerable to idolatry because it refuses to be open to correction or enlargement.
(3) We can embrace relativism wholeheartedly and say that religious truth is a private, or at best a group, affair. Each to his preference so long as we don't harm each other.
(4) We can take a nuanced and dialectical approach that sees the truth as a limit towards which we strive—where judgments of better or worse can (and must) be applied to the variety of theological positions but where the finitude and need for correction and enlargement of all positions is affirmed. This entails a willingness to argue for the truth of one's position, to give reasons why one holds it and holds it to be more adequate than any other position of which one is aware. It also entails openness to correction and a willingness to be as vulnerable to the arguments of another as you ask him or her to be vulnerable to yours.
Obviously I would argue for the last alternative. It incarnates Irenaeus' conviction that “all truth belongs to the Christian.” Our revelation, rather than being unique through exclusion, is unique in its inclusiveness. Its critical norm is Jesus Christ; but as Logos of creation (“all things were created through him and for him,” Colossians 1:16) He is inclusive of all truth. We therefore need not be defensive in our relationships with others of diverse convictions for we can welcome what in their witness enlarges our comprehension of God's revelation in Christ. At the same time, we need not dilute the specificity of our convictions in order to get along with others.
This approach to the question of revelation and truth is critically important today. This was brought home to me especially in the analysis of the decline of mainline churches.
As sociologists, Messrs. Johnson, Hoge, and Luidens have offered a trenchant analysis of the present condition of the mainline churches, but have said little in the way of prescribing for the situation. Their research shows that “the single best predictor of church participation turn[s] out to be belief—orthodox Christian belief, and especially the teaching that a person can be saved only through Jesus Christ.” Ninety-five percent of the church dropouts they studied did not believe this proposition (and 68 percent of those who are still active members of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. don't believe it, either). Among what they term “these nonorthodox ‘religious' baby-boomers” they discovered a pattern of thought they call “lay liberalism”:
It is “liberal” because its defining characteristic is the rejection of the view that Christianity is the only religion with a valid claim to truth. It is “lay” because it does not reflect any of the theological systems contained in the writings or seminary lectures of today's post-orthodox Christian intellectuals.
The researchers note that while many lay liberals “prefer” Christianity, they are unable to ground their preference in strong truth claims. The lay liberals' pattern of belief and behavior contains some other interesting items as well. They desire a strong moral code, especially for handing down to the next generation; this leads them (along with some out-and-out agnostics) to desire religious education for their children. They firmly reject the doctrine that God consigns anyone to Hell. They rarely try to convert anyone to their point of view.
Johnson, Hoge, and Luidens conclude that lay liberalism is “not an empowering system of belief but rather a set of conjectures concerning religious matters”—one that does not inspire the kind of conviction behind the creation of strong religious communities. One is moved to ask, “What kind of conviction does create strong religious communities?” Their answer is: belief that Christianity is the only religion with a valid claim to truth, that persons can be saved only through Jesus Christ and otherwise go to Hell, and that therefore one should try to convert others to the Christian faith.
In one sense, of course, this analysis is clearly on target: lay liberalism's indifference to truth claims, its fundamental relativism, is disempowering. Convictions not grounded in truth claims are not convictions that can “create strong religious communities.” Furthermore, without convictions grounded in truth claims the backbone of the “strong moral code” people desire in their children is undercut. But what kind of truth claims are we talking about? Claims to the truth of what? And is the claim to truth of an exclusive or an inclusive sort (granting, of course, that any claim to truth excludes its opposite)?
Before answering these questions, we need to take a look at some of the reasons for the development of this “lay liberalism.” Take the case of those naval chaplains. They had fallen into what I call functional relativism as a way of coping with the acute challenge of working in a pluralistic society. They in effect say to themselves: “Here are people with whom I have to work, day in and day out. They clearly differ from me in their religious convictions, sometimes painfully so. Yet they are also clearly good people. They are intelligent as well. They are neither bad nor mad. We are not going to get along with each other very well if each of us is seeking to convert the other to his position. And in order to achieve our ‘mission' we are going to have to get along with each other.” (Thus the Navy Chaplains Corps motto: “Cooperation without Compromise.”)
The “lay liberalism” that characterizes many within the mainline congregations is a similar modus vivendi, developed by people as they live and work with others in the face of the chronic challenge of the “heretical imperative.” Those people with whom they live and work are neither “mad” nor “bad.” And they, too, must be gotten along with. The relativism of lay liberalism is a way of dealing with the cognitive dissonance that would set in if one believed that all these folk with whom one is working are going to hell in a handbasket, all the while one was experiencing them as decent, caring, intelligent human beings.
Many people believe that the only alternative attitudes on questions of truth are an absolutism that says if my position is true then yours is false, or a relativism that says it really doesn't matter since all roads lead to God. Given these starkly stated alternatives, it is not surprising that in a pluralistic society such as ours many decent folk opt for relativism.
Clearly, mainline churches ought to be preaching, teaching, and embodying nothing short of Christian orthodoxy. What leaves me dissatisfied with the beliefs said to be necessary for the creation of “strong religious communities” is that they are relatively peripheral doctrines. Furthermore, what we need is not merely the affirmation of specific doctrines (for example, in Christology) but a way of affirming their truth that is open to correction and new insight.
The mainline churches are churches that know the Enlightenment has happened and affirm the critical capacities that grew out of it, even as they have been applied to the religious tradition. We use these capacities in the service of the truth; in David Kelsey's phrase, we seek “to understand God truly.” The stronger our faith in God and in Jesus Christ the more tentatively we are able to hold on to any particular articulation of that faith. The more we trust God the less we have to defend our time-bound descriptions of God and the more open we can be to correction and enlargement through dialogue with others.
Such tentativeness is because of truth claims deeply held and of a commitment to God which demands that we not mistake our doctrines about God for God himself. It is this kind of commitment that we mainline clergy have not been able to communicate to our laity. We have left them, therefore, with the unsatisfactory alternatives of an arrogant absolutism or a flaccid relativism. Thus our evangelization of the lay liberals has become urgently needed, indeed, essential.
To be sure, this sounds somewhat abstract. Let me illustrate what I mean by citing two essays in the Fall 1992 issue of Prism: A Theological Forum for the United Church of Christ. In these essays a scholar-pastor and a seminary scholar-administrator grapple with the issues facing mainline churches today as a result of the feminist critique of the tradition. In good “mainline” tradition neither pastor nor administrator shirks the task of facing up to the critique. And in one way or another both agree that aspects of the critique are warranted. But in both cases they do so not despite, but because of, their strong truth claims about the Christian faith.
One of these essays, by Richard Floyd, is called “. . . And to the Son: The Gloria Patri and Inclusive Language.” He is clear about the necessity of language for humanity that includes women, and also of language more inclusively descriptive about God. Yet he points out the dangers associated with throwing out the “naming” language of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He tells us that when a United Church of Christ colleague objected and suggested using depersonalized language, he replied that “an impersonal God would do little justice to the biblical narrative and would lead inevitably to Unitarianism.” And his colleague's retort was, “What's wrong with that?”
Floyd is clear about what he is not saying: “I am not saying that God is male; Christian discourse about God and liturgical speech to God has been sufficiently apophatic in adjectives such as ‘infinite,' ‘eternal' . . . to guard against the idolatry of ascribing sex or gender to the Godhead.” What he is saying rather is that there is truth about God contained in the traditional Trinitarian formula that we have not yet been able to articulate otherwise. Therefore, “since the church [does] not yet know its own mind on the subject” it is better to “retain the status quo which has at least nearly two millennia of Christian liturgical practice behind it.” Which is to say, he is interested in sustaining the truth articulated in the doctrine of the Trinity. He is not wedded to its present formulation, but will not give it up until another formulation as adequate can be found. His commitment to Christian orthodoxy is clear; and part of this commitment is the willingness to hear and respond to criticism. His colleague, on the other hand, was willing to forego personal categories for the sake of “political correctness.” He either has a tenuous grasp on the importance of truth for the theological enterprise, or has defined truth against the grain of the Trinitarian tradition of faith and life.
The other essay is by Mary Luti and makes the point about truth even more poignantly. She accepts feminist analyses of patriarchy's power to define and its systemic male bias—she is a feminist herself. But she raises questions about the epistemological challenges inherent in a perspectival approach to the topic.
If it is true that all language about God and Christ is susceptible to manipulation and abuse, then more than a confident avowal that subjectivity can be avoided in our choices and usage is needed. Biblical, historical, communal, and rational correctives to such tendencies even among feminists must be forthcoming. If those correctives are not grounded and applied in the constructive task of re-imaging Jesus, it is not far-fetched to imagine that feminists will be as prone as anyone else in Christian history to mere projection.
In spite of how deeply I believe that women's lives belong at the center of theological attention; no matter how fiercely I resist ignoring, rationalizing, or trivializing the ruinous dimensions of the moral evils perpetrated against women in history; no matter how humbly I intend to remain open to the horizons of others who are different from me, I also believe that the relativizing tendency of the feminist theory undergirding the constructions of many of the theologians I have been reading will result in a break with historic Christianity.
Here too we see a person not only open to criticism of the tradition, but engaging in it herself. Her disclaimers are not for the sake of ideology but in the name of the truth she perceives has been given in Jesus Christ.
I do stake my own Christian faith on the conviction that Christ is not an attitude or a way of being in the world. He is not even really, in the end, my role model. He is the Christ I am damn well going to get, the one I do not decide for myself, but the one who has decided for me.
This last sentence puts the matter pungently. In theology we are dealing with “the one who has decided for me.” Lacking this conviction we lack the kind of conviction necessary for building a strong religious community. (Though we build the community because we hold the conviction; we do not hold the conviction in order to build the community.) It is this “critical realism” that underlies the essays by both Floyd and Luti. We are dealing not merely with our own conceptions, but rather with that about which our conceptions purport to be. It is our duty to be sure our conceptions are as adequate to that reality as we can make them and to resist any attempt to change them that will reduce their adequacy. It is our duty because we are committed to truth.
We are back again at the beginning. If relativism and absolutism are not acceptable options, what is? An old professor of mine once sought a way through this dilemma by stating that our convictions, at any particular time, are to be held as “relative absolutes.” By this he meant that we must stand behind them with the fervor of those who take them to be absolute—for they are of the absolute. But we must stand behind them with the critical capacity of those who realize all such statements are relative—for they purport to be of the absolute.
In short, both our defense of doctrines because they make truth claims, and our critical attitude towards all doctrines, stem from the same basic commitment to God. Such doctrines are too important not to be taken seriously, and they are about the ultimate so they must always be open to revision. If we can communicate this attitude to our people, and they can appropriate it, they can hold religious convictions in such a way that we can together build strong religious communities. In so doing we shall build communities not for their own sake, but for the celebration and propagation of the truth of the Christian faith.
And we can avoid the Scylla of absolutism and the Charybdis of relativism.
M.B. Handspicker, a new contributor to First Things, is Professor of Pastoral Theology and Evangelism at Andover Newton Theological School.