Space Wanted Where Culture War and Theological Enemies Can Meet as Friends

Daniel Kirk Moves On From Fuller

I’ve never met Daniel personally but I’ve been reading his blogging for years. He’s been a full time associate tenure track Fuller prof in the SF Bay Area. He posted today why he’s leaving Fuller and it saddens me.

The True I Understand

  • Communities have the right and responsibility to develop, maintain and publish standards. Religious communities must do this with respect to their beliefs and behavioral expectations. Our pluralistic system of religious freedom demands that we give space for this. (There is now concern by many about the future of the government respecting this space but it remains for today on this subject.) Fuller Seminary has the right to select and de-select its staff on this and a range of other issues. Beliefs in this area are theological and Fuller is within its calling to make these decisions.
  • Religious communities have confessional and behavioral standards (as I just said) and if you don’t fit and you don’t want to stay to change them from within facing the possibility of being forced out, it is legitimate to leave. If you are asked to leave you obviously don’t have a choice.

We Need to Find Spaces to Have Good Conversations and to Process

Schools have traditionally been spaces where disputed issues can be processed for the benefit of their students and the broader community. That space is always held in tension with the confessional and behavioral standards of the institutions. Those standards themselves often give helpful context and structure to the debates. A conversation at Harvard or a conversation at Fuller or a conversation at Calvin Theological Seminary would all be different because of where these institutions lie on our communal landscape. On this subject I suspect the better conversations can be found in places where there are factions on both sides of the debates meaning the conversation at Fuller or Calvin might be more helpful than that at Harvard. Communities in conversation work this way.

I’m saddened because the Fuller conversation won’t have Daniel’s voice in the same way again. These exits define the institutions and the communities. While I might not agree with where Daniel is going with this I’ve appreciated his voice and felt that he was someone who was worth listening too.

We Have Space on the Internet But That Isn’t Enough

I wonder how the technology of the Internet has changed this debate both in the broader society and the church. It seems to be the space where we can in fact exchange ideas freely, whether to allow each of us to grow in knowledge and wisdom or to harden us in our biases and self-righteousness.

The Internet, however, is not the only kind of space we need and its virtual medium famously makes voices more shrill and less caring or contextual. We see each other as avatars and position vocalizers rather than fragile, well rounded, fully formed, image bearing human beings.

Conversations of integrity need to have more life context and community context around them. Some of the most important voices in this conversation have been Wesley Hill and Eve Tushnet. These two have repeatedly and consistently over the Internet from a conservative point of view helped to keep us from reducing the humanity of the opposition. Hill’s post about “Hoping for Love” helps illuminate the tortured three-dimensionality of the debate.

The Position is Secondary to the People

Conservative Reformed theology should in no way harbor the image of St. Peter quizzing us on this question at a heavenly entrance exam. We are not saved by getting these questions right or wrong. We are saved by the desire of our electing God through the work of his Son and Spirit to rescue us from ourselves, the devil, and the age of decay. The judgment we will face will be how well we loved our neighbors, all the way up to and including our enemies. The questions raised by the sexual liberation revolution certainly are germane to how we love our neighbors and will shape them, but loving our neighbors as people comes first.

These questions do matter of course because they will form the specifics of how we love our neighbors as people. Wrestling with the questions in the context of God’s Word and Spirit and in the context of the body of believers is part of the process. Even if we avoid wrestling with these questions overtly we are all, always being formed by our context and the broader conversations. We are better off talking and listening and being together in community than putting up walls.

Needing Space for Belonging in the Church

Again, if you presuppose a conservative evangelical position on this subject the last thing you wish to do is exclude the opposition from the church.

Sunday after I preached I pondered the great gift my congregation gives me every week. I often in one on one situations do more listening than talking. That is usually best. People need to talk.

In listening I sometimes get frustrated because there is a lot I wish to say to people. I want to talk about what the Bible says about what they are struggling with. I want to encourage them to stay in the place of suffering where they are trapped and look to Christ for resources to endure. So much of the Christian life is lived in trapped suffering spaces and so many of our costlier and stronger spiritual fruits are born there. In one on one conversation I find there is little space or capacity for these messages. People are in too much pain and what they really need in the moment is someone who loves them and with whom they can share the pain. Pain shared is pain divided as Dale Cooper used to preach at the old Knollcrest Worship Services.

On Sundays, however, I am given the mike. I get a one hour conversation with the Adult Sunday School class and about a half hour with the congregation for the sermon. In that space I can walk through the gospel, the sufferings of Christ, the power of the Spirit, the determination of our Father to rescue us and deliver us from ourselves, the present evil age and the devil. Folks sit, listen as they can or will, and sometimes profit. It is a huge gift.

We also share the table where God feeds us spiritually. There is danger at the table surely for those who would abuse the gift but we bank on the generosity of God to feed us an nourish us beyond our understanding.

Is it not in this space where our “enemies” are most generous towards us when they sit with us despite what has come between us? Doesn’t the most famous Psalm note that “He sets a table before us in the presence of our enemies, our cup overflows”?

What breaks my heart is the closing of the spaces where ideological or even theological rivals and enemies can meet with grace, with good will and with a desire to learn and grow even while we differ or no change is immediately apparent. I don’t know how to do this but my heart longs for it.

Jesus Was Our Enemy

We should remember that Jesus was our enemy when he came to us. We know this because we killed him for saying what we didn’t want to hear and doing what we didn’t want to see. He died for us while we were still his enemies and this is precisely the heart of his call to us. What poor disciples he sees I fear.

So when Daniel quits I feel the poverty of our witness and the paucity of our generosity. I see how much a failure I am and we are together at Misery, Deliverance, Gratitude.

Capitulation to the other side (depending on what side you are on now) isn’t the answer. Neither is imagining that it’s all about “the journey” or “living in the tension” as if there wasn’t a destination. Those are sometimes cliches that don’t necessarily help us arrive at shalom.

Outliers Grace Us By Their Presence

It is hard to be an outlier. If you are conservative in a progressive context or visa versa you do your community a gracious service. I deeply appreciate my gay friends who don’t break ties with me because I didn’t rainbow my Facebook avatar. I deeply appreciate my conservative culture warrior friends for whom this issues is very much a felt an existential threat to God’s church and a nation they love and they get frustrated with me for not being more “outspoken” or “clear”.

I think about the father of Luke 15 who desperately wants both sons together and so throws a banquet for a son who deserved a beating rather than a fattened calf. The father who goes out to the angry, elder brother in the field who is filled with self-righteous and possibly justifiable indignation. The father isn’t naive about the consequences of his sons’ sins but looks for a way to have each of them reconciled and love each others like siblings can.

So I’m sad Daniel is leaving . My reading of Scripture suggests to me that not all will be reconciled, but I can still want it and shed tears for it just the same because I believe God himself does.

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
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3 Responses to Space Wanted Where Culture War and Theological Enemies Can Meet as Friends

  1. Harris says:

    Yeah, you get an hour and a half, but it is still an hour and a half with you. Not to name names, but I think you are at least in the upper half. The hard part, is that we don’t generally have the spaces that let us talk to each other, let alone with an ordained expert.

    Or maybe it’s just me.

  2. Bill Vis says:

    Paul, I read you material often, and always appreciate it. This is one of your best. The closing three paragraphs are powerful. Thanks for saying what I wanted to say but didn’t know how.

  3. karl J Westerhof says:

    Your call for a space to have ongoing, safe, gracious, robust conversations about our differences really resonates with me. Could colleges, or sem, be conveners? I think we don’t do this well, and it’s one of the greatest services we could offer our membership and our culture. I agree with your comments about the dialogs we can have on the Internet. Of course f2f dialog is not without risk as well! Safe places where we can learn, and question, and be loved are places the church is uniquely able to provide. But I think the formal ecclesiastical structure probably can’t host these very well. Too fraught. But need for places to talk is urgent.

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