Journeying on a Slippery Slope
A paper given at a seminar held by the Institute for Spiritual Studies on the 21st of March, 2013
Delivered by The Rev'd Dr Keith Mascord, who taught philosophy, hermeneutics and pastoral theology at Moore College, Sydney
Thank you for the opportunity to speak tonight. I am so grateful to Graeme, who it has been my great pleasure to finally meet — though we have been chatting on line for some time now. We have found ourselves to have a great deal in common, not least because we both have a son named Jonathan who has stretched us and prodded us and encouraged us to think more deeply about our faith. For both of us, I think, that has been a welcome, although also sometimes uncomfortable gift. It has been good for us to think through what we believe and why?
Graeme and I came up with the title for tonight's talk which is: Journeying on a 'slippery slope' — the vision of a church including the homosexual community.
It is maybe a little cumbersome, but it does, quite adequately, foreshadow what I would like to talk about ... although I was a bit worried that the title might be interpreted to mean that if we included homosexual people within our churches, more generously and acceptingly, we would, thereby, have gone down a 'slippery slope' of some sort. I think that is what some people think. I don't, though once I might have.
I want to take a step back from that important topic — for a little while — and tell you about my own journey. An earlier incarnation of the topic for tonight was 'Journeying on what often feels like a slippery slope.' In some ways that is how it has felt. For example, there has been a certain sense of inevitability.
I am sure you have all been on a slippery dip — which is a tailor-made slippery slope! The thing about a slippery dip is that once you start sliding (especially on larger and steeper versions) there is no stopping until you arrive at the bottom. That is the scary thing for children when they are young and we their parents or grandparents are encouraging them to let go. Similarly at the top of a water slide — once you are on it, it is all downhill. There is no going back. That is the fearful thing about slippery dips and water slides.
And fear is a good word. When people think about life journeys, there is a fear (especially in Christian circles) that people, if they start to slide, will slide away from Christian faith altogether. That is the great fear.
My wife and I go for a walk most mornings. We live next to a park. I asked Judy one morning, 'Do you think I have been on a slippery slope?' And, as wives are, she was honest. She said, 'Yes, in a way. It has seemed like a slippery slope, and I have wondered where you would end up.' She said, 'People do lose their faith ... completely,' as we know.
There are people who know and love me who worry (and wonder) whether I have (or will) lose my faith by going down the path of critiquing my (and their) inherited faith. Some of them have asked me, 'Keith, why are you doing this? You were so passionately committed to the Christian faith of your youth; the Christian faith of your parents. How could you let that slide?'
Those are poignant questions — as many of you know; from personal experience; from the experience of your children. Let me try to answer those questions by telling you how it happened for me — which I hope will be of some encouragement to you.
There are two things about the slippery slope metaphor that are certainly true for me. The first, as I have mentioned, is a sense of inevitability. From an objective and subjective point of view, I don't think I could have gone any other way — except for some possible slight variations. The broad direction of the slide or journey couldn't have been otherwise for me. And secondly, there is no way back to exactly where I was before. When I asked Judy whether she thought I was on a slippery slope, she also said that one thing she knows about me, which she finds comforting, is that when I head off on some exploratory path, there is always some sort of elasticity that has me kind-of bouncing back — like a bungy jumper who plummets towards the ground, but doesn't quite hit before the elasticized rope pulls him up and back.
And there is definitely something in that analogy for me, but even with the bungy jumper, you don't end up in exactly the same place as where you leapt from. And so my journey has been inevitably away from the fundamentalism of my youth, and there is no way back for me.
Let me try to explain why.
The first, and in many ways, the most important explanation for my journey is that I was nurtured in a journeying household ... both metaphorically and literally.
My accent, which you may have noticed, is Canadian ... well, in actual fact, it is a very worn down and acclimatized Canadian accent. My dad was an Aussie; my mum a Canadian.
My father was, for all his life, a wanderer, a restless wanderer — mostly back and forth across the Pacific — back and forth to Canada with us kids in tow. We loved it. I loved it, and, I think, because of all this journeying about, I never put down deep roots, physically, and, I think, also metaphorically. I have learnt to travel lightly.
My father was also a questioner. He questioned his heritage. He was never content to simply accept the opinions of others — no matter how well qualified or well researched. He trusted his own judgement — and taught us to do the same. And he didn't mind a good argument. He wasn't the world's best listener, but I found, from a young age, that the best way to engage dad's attention and interest was to engage in theological debate, which was always fervent and mostly respectful.
My dad was a child of the Reformation; willing to question the theological status quo. He was also, simultaneously, a child of the European Enlightenment with its Greek-inspired questioning spirit. I am grateful for that heritage, but what it meant was that I was going to be questioner; I would always, and have always, asked questions, more and more questions of my own heritage.
Which leads on to a second explanation for this, I think, inevitable journey away from fundamentalism (and I will say what I mean by fundamentalism in a bit), and that is that I decided, as a teenager, to subject my faith to what I thought would be the most searching of analyses.
I don't quite know where I got this idea, but when I was in High School, I thought to myself, 'Maybe you are a Christian just because you were brought up that way. Maybe there are no good-enough objective grounds for your faith — and so maybe you shouldn't be a Christian!'
I didn't really seriously think that could be the case back then, but I figured that if I was going to persuade others — which it had been my passion to do — then I would need to have the very best arguments & evidence to convince them with — so I decided to study philosophy, and later I ended up teaching philosophy and also apologetics with its special interest in whether and to what extent Christianity can be rationally defended as a true path for life.
I wanted to know. I wanted to put a spot-light onto my faith ... which leads to a third reason to think that my journey out of fundamentalism was inevitable.
I have never, ever been able to understand the mentality of those who don't want to subject their faith to critical scrutiny — because of my dad mainly, I guess. And that is where fundamentalism comes in. Fundamentalism is a now broad term that had its origins (as a word and a movement) in the United States around the turn of the last century.
It was an essentially defensive movement designed to stop the erosion of Christian beliefs — in the face of critical biblical scholarship, in the face of developments in the areas of biology, zoology, geology and psychology which were perceived to represent a threat to traditional Christian beliefs.
The fundamentalist movement was Protestantism, and, in particular, evangelical Protestantism on the defensive.
Nowadays, fundamentalism has a bad name, but it wasn't always that way. As a movement, and over time, it gave birth to two offspring, both of whom kept the family resemblance of defensiveness, but each of which was quite different in how they expressed this defensiveness.
The first child of fundamentalism sought to engage the academy, and to defend Christianity using all the sharpened tools of the enlightenment. I was the beneficiary of that engagement — at Moore College. In evangelical Anglicanism, which I encountered as a teenager at university, I encountered a form of Christianity willing to mount a reasoned case for a Reformation understanding of the faith.
Fundamentalism, which, at its outset, was a reasonably robust intellectual movement, spawned a more intellectual child. But ... there was another child who felt especially threatened and overwhelmed by the increasingly dismissive assaults of scientists and (so-called) Biblical scholars, and whose response was, 'To hell with your science and ungodly scholarship — I will go with what God says, thank you very much!' Fundamentalism, at various stages and in various parts of the world, descended into an anti-intellectual obscurantism; with its characteristic catch-cry being, 'If the Bible says it, I believe it ? full stop! End of story.'
You may have seen a book review in last month's Melbourne Anglican, not of my book, but underneath it, a book by the son of Archbishop Peter Jensen ... Michael Jensen.
Michael is a wonderful human being — very thoughtful, very quick to encourage and exemplify respectful debate and discussion. He is a wonderfully gentle son of his father and of the Diocese of Sydney, and he has written a book entitled Sydney Anglicanism: An Apology — by which he means a defence, but also an apology in the more common sense of that word — a saying sorry.
I recommend it. It will help you understand Sydney's very distinctive style of Anglicanism.
Michael, for very understandable reasons, resists the use of the label fundamentalist to describe Sydney Anglican evangelicalism. He is right in saying that the word 'fundamentalist' now has almost exclusively negative connotations. When people think of fundamentalists they normally think only of the non-academic, anti-intellectual offspring; the abortion clinic bombing, Koran burning, young earth commending Biblical literalists who have helped to turn fundamentalism into such a negative word.
BUT, and it has taken a long time for me to get to my point here, Sydney Anglican evangelicalism IS fundamentalistic in more ways than Michael has acknowledged — and in ways that have contributed to my journey out of fundamentalism.
Not only is Sydney evangelical Anglicanism defensive, it has also come to be known for its discouragement of open dialogue and debate, which, as I said, I find so hard to understand or to align myself with.
Let me give two illustrations.
In my early years of teaching at Moore College, and increasingly over time, I became aware of an approach to new understandings that was completely different to what I had learned at home with my dad, and at university doing philosophy — it was the approach that was essentially suspicious of anything new, or that departed from good, solid, evangelical, reformed thinking.
I tell the story, in A Restless Faith, of going for a week of Mission to St Matthias Centennial Park, where Michael's uncle, and his father's brother, was rector and university Chaplain — and of encountering there what felt like a cult. I didn't then, nor do I now believe it was a cult — though, disturbingly, it had some of the characteristics of a cult. What made it seem cult-like, apart from the powerfully charismatic style of Phillip Jensen, was this suspicious attitude to anything new or even slightly different.
What was perhaps even more disturbing was to find out that students at St Matthias were told to be especially suspicious of those most like themselves; those closest to them theologically, with the reason given that you needed to be most suspicious of those closest to you was because they were the most likely to lead you astray. They were the most likely to have you take that first small step onto the theological slippery slope ... and that terminology was used.
Students were also, for similar reasons, discouraged from going to any event where someone of even slightly different persuasion was speaking — for fear that they might be led astray. That way of thinking was so alien to the way I had been brought up. Unfortunately, it is now common in Sydney, which leads me to a second and much more up-to-date example.
During the last few years, I have come to the opinion that as Christians we need to re-think what the Bible says about same-gender sex; sex between people of the same gender. I believe there are some very compelling reasons for such a re-think.
And so, I have written about these in A Restless Faith, and in a series of articles and sermons which are up on the Restless Faith web-site.
This is the most important issue facing the church at the moment. Christian beliefs and attitudes around this issue have alienated whole swathes of our society — especially the young who just can't get their minds around why the church has been so anti-gay — which it has been throughout history and up to the present. This is a really important issue to think through because of its deep and often terrible impact on the lives of so many people, in very large part because of attitudes and behaviour found in many Christian churches. Christianity has a reputation, justly earned unfortunately, of being anti-homosexual.
This is an issue that we need to understand as best we can. So, twice now, I have sought to have published an article in the Southern Cross magazine in Sydney — the monthly Sydney Anglican newspaper — and in both cases the editors have basically said 'Don't contact us, we'll contact you.' The Southern Cross is not known for airing alternative points of view, except within ultra safe limits. I am still hopeful they will print something, but I am not holding my breath.
Let me say, I love The Melbourne Anglican because of its willingness to put alternative points of view up; to have an appreciative review of Michael's book, for example.
Let me briefly re-cap where we have got up to. I have been describing my own seemingly inevitable journey (or slide) away from fundamentalism, and I have pointed out, firstly, the influence of my dad; secondly, the influence of philosophy as a quest to think clearly, and which, naturally, encourages questions, and thirdly, my encounter with the opposite tendency to close down questions; for fear of people slipping away into error.
Which brings me to my fourth and final point for tonight ... though it will be a slightly longish point, with a few sub-points!
I'd like to explore a little more fully why it is that Sydney could become so fearful and controlling in its ways. What is the underlying cause of this fear and control? The answer to this question will, I hope, help to further explain my own flight from fundamentalism — and maybe will be of some help to you as well.
Sydney evangelicals, including Archbishop Peter, prefer to call themselves evangelical and resist the tag fundamentalist. But making that distinction can be misleading, as I have begun to suggest. Michael Jensen, in distancing Sydney Anglicanism from fundamentalism, points out that Sydney Anglican evangelicalism has its deep roots in the mainstream and orthodox theology of Martin Luther and John Calvin. That is right, but what I think Michael doesn't quite acknowledge is that historic fundamentalism was exactly that — mainstream Protestantism — on the defensive. And the thing is: it still is on the defensive — and because of that will continue to display the typical characteristics of defensiveness.
A few things have come to mind as I have thought about this defensive and controlling ethos currently in the ascendency in Sydney. I hope it will change, but that is how it is for the moment. I've tried to put myself into the shoes of those currently in control of the Diocese — to see it, if I can, from their point of view. Michael Jensen's book has helped with that — quite a bit.
It has occurred to me, firstly, that the problem of how this culture presents might just have its roots in a true understanding of the need to hold firm to the faith — I think that is how it is seen — and that questions and criticism and alternatives of understanding are somehow and in some way incompatible with the style of religion that they believe is true religion.
I've grown up, as I've said, with the invitation and encouragement to ask questions — and to be critical, but maybe this is not the spirit of New Testament religion which Sydney Anglicanism seeks to safeguard and duplicate.
Which raises the interesting question: does the New Testament encourage critical thought? Does our Bible encourage us to be critical — to be critical of our heritage? That is an interesting question. It has been asked before in various forms. Tertullian, the 2nd and 3rd century theologian famously asked the question, 'What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?' What does Greek philosophy and Hebrew theology have to do with each other?
It is not an easy question to answer. Socrates, the early Athenian philosopher, was noted, above everything else, for asking questions; questions upon questions upon questions in a quest for true understanding and a wisely lived life. He was adept, even ruthless, in exposing premature claims to knowledge, but that doesn't appear to be the spirit that animates the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures.
It is not that there isn't criticism. There is — lots of it — mostly directed at faulty behaviour, but also at faulty thinking. Jesus was very much in the tradition of the great Jewish prophets in exposing the thinking and behaviour of his contemporaries, and their often self-serving traditions.
And so there is encouragement to critical thought in the Scriptures, but there is also another, perhaps contrary trend towards black and white declaration, often in the language of 'Thus says the Lord!' There are large tracts of the Bible where what is said would not appear to be open to argument or discussion.
My wife and I have recently finished working through the Book of Deuteronomy in our morning devotions, and so much of what is written there is in the form of God's spoken word — similarly with Leviticus — which contains the apparently unambiguous and straightforward condemnation of same-gender sex. Leviticus 18:1: 'The Lord spoke to Moses, saying ...' and what follows is a list of prohibitions, including verse 22, 'You shall not lie with a male as with a woman.'
These prohibitions, coming from the very mouth of God, have inherent authority, and similarly with the whole of Scripture understood to be the Word of God; having its ultimate source in God, and in his inspiring Spirit. And so how could there be argument?!!
But, of course, there is argument, there are arguments about how we are to understand and appropriate these words — this Bible.
I'd love to be able to explore this topic more. There are lots of interesting questions, for example, what is the relationship between declaration and critique, between the priestly and the prophetic? Might it be that some forms of religion emphasize one over the other — each to their own detriment?
Probably there will always be a struggle — between conservatives who want to conserve what they believe to be the fundamentals of the faith, and the radicals, the prophets, who, sometimes rightly, can see the need for change and for fresh understandings.
We need both within our churches. We need both.
A second and somewhat related possible way of accounting for the on-going strength of fundamentalism and fundamentalistic ways is that what is being defended might just be indefensible. It might be that the vehemence of protest against alternative points of view is a case of protesting too much, the strength of protest being indicative of underlying anxiety.
I think there is, for many of us, a deep seated uncertainty — perhaps within all of us as Christians — that we might be wrong, and that we all protest too much against the well-targeted critiques that come from outside, or, as in the case of my son, Jonathan, and Graeme's son, Jonathan, from inside, from within our families.
I mention in the book a conversation I had with Peter Jensen a couple of years after leaving full-time teaching at Moore College. I had written to him about this defensive, I thought over-defensive, Diocesan ethos. Peter didn't contest that there was this defensive ethos. Instead, he offered an explanation. He mentioned what he saw as a succession of challenges that had been faced by evangelical Christianity, and his list included: critical Biblical scholarship, Anglo-Catholicism, the feminist movement, Pentecostalism, secularism and the gay rights movement. These he described as being like one wave of attack after another on traditional Christianity, with the church now reeling, and church-going numbers plummeting, under their cumulative impact.
What strikes you about that list? What strikes me is that many, if not all, of Peter's isms are unproblematic. Although there are aspects of all of these movements I wouldn't entirely agree with, on balance, I would think that most have been positive, which, I think, goes to the heart of a problem facing evangelicalism in general, and not just Sydney evangelicalism — and that is that it is unreasonable in its resistance to new and often better ways of understanding reality.
Which leads to a third and, for now, final observation about my own fundamentalist and/or evangelical heritage — and why I have left it behind, and why it will continue to be a defensive and (sometimes) controlling and cranky movement — and that is that its approach to Scripture isn't sustainable.
Back at the time of the Reformation, Luther and his fellow Reformers, decided, for a raft of reasons, some of them good and understandable, to restrict their attention to the literal or straightforward meaning of Biblical texts. They were, of course, aware of poetry and parable and hyperbole and metaphor, and so weren't unsophisticated in their literalism, but they set aside — as unhelpful and uncontrollable — other possible meanings of the text.
Specifically, they rejected earlier efforts to go beyond the literal sense to two or three other levels of meaning, including allegorical, moral and eschatological understandings of the text.
The early church fathers recognized problems at the literal level — which could be rendered less problematic by other readings of the text. But the Reformers decided to shed these other possible readings to stick with the literal — and thereby found themselves stuck with those earlier recognized problems.
And then, over time, this fateful choice became even more problematic — as advances in understanding made it harder and harder to stick with a literal reading of the text. First came Copernicus, whose theory was described by the Reformer Melanchthon as 'pernicious' because it contradicted (as it does) a literal or plain sense reading of the Bible.
Then came the discovery of the New World, including ancient lands like Australia — which didn't line up with a literal reading of the early chapters of Genesis, the details of which are assumed throughout the Bible. Then came Darwin and a whole raft of biological and zoological and geological discoveries that made it impossible to reasonably persevere with a plain sense, literal reading of the Bible.
You see, Protestantism (or at least conservative Protestantism) has been on the defensive from the very beginning. Fundamentalism just made things worse by insisting on inerrancy (that the Bible has no errors, of any sort), and by insisting on this being one of the fundamentals of conservative or evangelical Christianity.
To the extent that evangelicalism is tethered to literalism and to a doctrine of inerrancy or infallibility it is intellectually doomed; it is doomed to always be on the defensive, it is doomed to always be resistant to genuine advances in understanding — including advances in understanding about why it is that between 3% and 6% of every human population is gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transsexual or intersex.
The Bible is consistent in its ancient cosmology. It is consistent in its ancient anthropology which has the sexes neatly and permanently divided into just male and female ... and nothing else.
For me, that is a no-where-nearly-good-enough reason to not rethink our understanding of gender, and to not re-think our ethics and our faith.
We, as Christians, need to always be re-thinking our faith, and to always be re-appropriating its riches, not just on this hugely important topic of same-sex relationships, including marriage, but in all aspects of our faith.
That has been the process of my life.
Has it been like a slippery slope? I guess it has. Those looking on have certainly seen it like that, those who have been nurtured in this way of understanding the Bible.
It has looked to some that I have slipped out of Christian faith altogether; not just that I have gone down the slippery-slope, but that I have drowned at the bottom end. I can understand people thinking that way.
But the truth is I haven't.
The truth is that my experience of the slippery slope has been like the experience of going down a slippery dip or slippery slide. It has been fun.
Slippery slides and slippery dips are designed to be scary, yes, but ultimately they are meant to exhilarate — and that is how it has been for me mostly.
As I look back on my life, I am grateful for every stage on that slippery slope; or, to use imagery I am happier with, I am grateful for every turn in what has been like a meandering river headed for the sea. I am glad that the journey has taken me where it has; and I look back with deep nostalgia to every place I've been to along the way.
And I have figured, as I still figure, as I keep seeking, and keep submitting to truth as I become persuaded of it (no matter where that truth is found) that, ultimately, this path is of God — and will lead to God.
I don't need to be afraid or defensive, I don't need to determine in advance what I will find, I can be at rest in my faith. That is how I feel at the moment.