Friday, June 18, 2010

Enjoying Skittles in Big Tent Christianity

Philip Clayton, Brian McLaren, Sojourners, and many others have talking about the importance of "Big Tent Christianity" in our diverse world. The idea is great. But there are many questions to consider. Is there too much diversity to build such a tent? Can we bring our authentic selves, no matter how different the other people in the tent are? Should we meet in the middle? Who gets to define what the middle looks like? Is any of this actually important? Well, here are my two cents on "Big Tent Christianity."

It's hard to rally people behind a moderate message. It's easier to rally people behind something bold (e.g. liberal or conservative). I'm not saying this is right or wrong, but it just seems to be the way the is culture right now. We live in a culture that likes things bold. The trick is to make sure we don't attack the other bold people who may disagree with us. And this makes "big tent" movements especially important - and difficult. Some suggest we should meet in the middle and hide our distinctive qualities. But "big tent" movements don't mean we need to meet in a smaller, moderate tent. Or only be allowed in the tent if we promise to leave our commitments, perspectives, and uniquenesses behind.

I'm very supportive of interfaith and ecumenical collaboration. One of my professors in my seminary days was Michael Kinnamon, who inspired me to care deeply about the helpful and important work that is done through these collaborations. This is especially important in a dualistic, us-versus-them culture. But a commitment to collaboration doesn't require us to meet in the mushy middle - or to be something we're not. Instead, it requires that we bring our authentic selves to meet the authentic selves of others.

I recently joined the Consultation of Religious Communities, an interfaith council composed of more than thirty religious communities and related agencies. We don't pretend to all be the same. We don't leave our uniquenesses behind. We don't all pretend to meet in a safe middle ground. Instead, Jews come as Jews, Muslims come as Muslims, Catholics come as Catholics, Protestants come as Protestants, etc. Instead of a grey melting pot, we form a colorful bowl of Skittles. The variety of color is the thing that makes it interesting.

Here's the color I bring: I'm a progressive pastor in the United Church of Christ. And I'm this kind of pastor for many Biblical and moral reasons. I'm also compelled by process theology and open theism. To some, these commitments put me in the "liberal" camp. And if it does, then that's where I stand. I can do no other. My hope is that others are allowed to stand where they feel compelled to stand, too. I fully realize that my perspective will be different than other people's perspectives. It's the dialogue and collaboration among diverse peoples that makes the collaborative dialogue and work interesting. It's all about embracing the rainbow of colors.

Rather than attempting to unite everyone in a mushy middle, why not use a more postmodern approach that honors unity-in-diversity. This model would encourage many diverse peoples to be united under one "big tent." Distinctiveness and colorfulness in tact. This means that liberals, moderates, and conservatives can be unified despite our different commitments, perspectives, and uniquenesses. To use the language of Apostle Paul, we're each different members of the one and same body. And each member of the body has a different-yet-important function for the body as a whole.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his book The Dignity of Difference, describes our hope and challenge well:
"Difference does not diminish; it enlarges the sphere of human possibilities. Our last best hope is to recall the classic statement of John Donne and the more ancient story of Noah after the Flood and hear, in the midst of our hypermodernity, an old-new call to a global covenant of human responsibility and hope. Only when we realize the danger of wishing that everyone should be the same...will we prevent the clash of civilizations, born of the sense of threat and fear. We will learn to live with diversity once we understand the God-given, world-enhancing dignity of difference."
May these words be a mission statement for Big Tent Christianity. They might help us to open the flaps of the tent wide enough for everyone. Letting the Black Church come as the Black Church. Letting the Evangelicals come as Evangelicals. Letting the Progressive Protestants come as Progressive Protestants. Letting the Quakers come as Quakers. Letting the Roman Catholics come as Roman Catholics. Letting the Pentecostals come as Pentecostals. And on and on until all our different colors are included. Then we can enjoy our Skittles under one big ol' tent.

If you're interested in exploring more, please check out the Civility Covenant or the Big Tent Christianity Conference.

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