Sunday, February 28, 2010

Ripping Up The Pavement - Streetcars And Orthodoxy

Last week I tweeted, "There are so many pot holes on Washington, it's like God's saying, 'Just rip up the street and put in the light rail now.'" One of my friends commented, "I love it when you can actually see the buried street car rails. And then after loving it, it makes me sad..."

People may not realize that Indianapolis used to have a great street car system. We gave it up to embrace the automobile and paved over the rails. Nearly 60 years later, Indianapolis (like many cities) is talking about installing light rail. We want to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to build a system that is eerily similar to a system we used to have - a system we ripped out. It's like a giant civic do-over.

People are divided over the idea, with valid arguments on either side. But you have to admit, it's kind of odd that we essentially want to embrace an old technology - a technology we previously rejected. Maybe grandpa wasn't as dumb as we thought.

In my life, orthodox theology is like a streetcar. Sure it served a purpose at one time, but I grew to view it as quaint and outdated. Cars (liberal theology1 in this metaphor) seemed like a sexy upgrade (and as someone with an unhealthy love for Mr. Rogers cardigans, I need a sexy upgrade.) No more only taking paths predetermined by someone else. With the car, all roads lead - well, they lead wherever I want them to lead. And isn't my destination the only one that matters?

The failings of moving to cars as the nearly exclusive form of transportation are well known. We're fatter. We're more detached as a society. And I would add that the car (and the suburbs) made it easier for us to give up on the city instead of working through the difficult issues that naturally arise when diverse groups of people live in close proximity to each other.

I think the failings of liberal theology are similar. I can only speak for myself, but in my desire to "evolve beyond orthodoxy," I was hoping to find a nicer, friendly, less weird form of Christianity. Like many people, I assumed that by becoming more inclusive - by making Christianity more palatable to the world - that I would make Christianity more hopeful and more fulfilling for myself.

It fell apart. I'd never been so depressed in my life. I was amazed at the pompous attitudes of liberal Christians. (I suppose that happens when you believe you have saved Christianity from itself.) In fact, what I believe to be one of the most racist, most offensive sermons I have ever heard was given by a liberal Episcopalian priest in Oregon, but that's a story for another time.

It was a long road trip through the liberal wasteland, but ultimately, I became convinced of the beauty of orthodoxy. I realized that when you try to stand for everything, you end up standing for nothing. Liberal theology pushes the source of hope from Christ onto ourselves, and we will ultimately fail ourselves.

The beauty of orthodoxy is what I always thought was its worst aspect - how it remains unchanged. It provides a framework within which I can question and push and try to work through the issues that naturally arise when diverse groups of people try to live out the Gospel together. It reminds us that we are naive to believe that humanity can develop new problems that old wisdom cannot address. It reminds us that the God who defeated death is larger than all of this.

Maybe light rail won't save the city. Maybe it won't reverse the negative impact of the car and urban sprawl. Maybe it won't force people in the suburbs to care about what happens in the city. But I do believe that orthodox theology can save us from the failings of liberal theology. I do believe that ancient truths are relevant to contemporary problems. And I do believe that taking a leap of faith to believe in a God who conquered death is the only way to achieve true hope.

A Prayer For The Second Sunday Of Lent
Lord, we have spent great time and energy trying to bury the truth with which we were raised. We have sold out our hope in you in exchange for some watered down, Hallmark branded version of inclusion. We hate salvation that is not easy and does not play by the rules we have created in our own wisdom. We are a stupid people.

But you love us in our stubbornness and our stupidity. You did not let us linger in our sin, but you sent your son to save us. Send your Holy Spirit to compel us to accept your son as our savior. Humble us in our pride. Show us the way back to orthodoxy.

Lord, in your mercy
Hear our prayer

-Ben Reed, February 28, 2010

1When I say liberal theology, I mean the branch of Christianity that tends to assume the Bible and/or church tradition is no longer a valid basis for Christian theology. They tend to want to make Christianity more inclusive and thus de-emphasize some of the more "exclusive" aspects, such as salvation being only through Christ. This is a broad definition and is meant more as a guideline, not a definitive statement about those who would call themselves liberal Christians.

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