I was recently asked to answer a question in writing for a Pastor Nominating Committee. It was a pretty good question, with implications broader than even the initial question itself. After I submitted my answer, I thought it might make a halfway decent blog post, and that it would offer a bit more insight into my personal theology; so here, with only a few small tweaks, is the original question and my response.
We are a very liberal and theologically progressive congregation with an exceedingly wide interpretation of the Trinity – from those who believe in Jesus as Christ, fully human and fully divine, to those who question and may no longer believe in a literal interpretation of the Trinity. How would you preach to and engage a congregation such as ours, most of whom share very liberal beliefs, but includes those whose beliefs are more conservative?
Whether as Christ-followers we consider the nature of God, traditionally understood via the concept of the Trinity – or the nature of Jesus, as simultaneously fully human and fully divine – there is a broad diversity of understanding, within any congregation. These theological concepts were derived by believers trying to understand and describe things that by definition transcend all human understanding, and working from within their particular temporal/geographical/cultural contexts. What these early church fathers came up with were theological doctrines defined by statements that were challenging, to say the least: How can one sentient being simultaneously have two distinct and different natures, with neither nature diluted, diminished, or alternatively assumed; as orthodox Christology defines? Or how does a person define the concept of the Trinity, staying within the conceptual boundaries laid out in the ancient Athanasian Creed without tripping into one heresy or another? Goodness knows I’ve tried, and the best I’ve ever come up with is to just restate the words of the doctrine, and then to offer words that perhaps sounded educated and profound, but which ultimately boiled down to “that’s just what it is, and what we’re supposed to believe; it really can’t be explained.”
And so on a personal level, I do, in fact, believe. While my personal theology is overall quite liberal/progressive, I continue to ascribe to the traditional understanding of the Trinitarian God and the dual divine/human nature of Christ.
I do so in part because I understand that we’re considering matters of faith, and matters of faith often can’t be truth-tested merely by means of human logic, so the apparent illogical or irrational nature of these theological principles are not automatic intellectual deal-breakers to me.
I also believe these doctrines because I understand the dilemma faced by those who originally devised them. They were trying, with the noblest of intentions, to find a way to grapple with and explain eternal mysteries through the limitations of human grasp; and with those noble intentions, they probably did the best they could. I believe them because I think I understand the larger point they were trying to make with them. For example, in considering the dual nature of Christ, Bishop Spong writes as he considers the question of the literal nature of the birth accounts of Jesus:
“This was the early church’s way of saying, ‘What we have met and experienced in Jesus the Christ we do not believe human life alone is capable of creating. He must be of God. If God can be met, engaged, and embraced in and through the adult life, the death, and the resurrections of Jesus, then surely God had to be in this Jesus…. We cannot meet Jesus without experiencing God.’ “
In a way, I also believe these theological concepts by default: I can’t personally devise a better way to explain their underlying beliefs, without creating explanations that have different, but just as many, problems. I also recognize that a significant part of my belief of them is due to my own social/cultural location – I have no doubt that if I’d been born in a different cultural mix, my sincere desire to express love for God and others would almost certainly been expressed in very different ways, even completely non-Christian ones, orthodox or otherwise.
Finally, I have to ask myself what would happen to my faith if any of these doctrinal concepts were in some way to be scientifically, historically, incontrovertibly proven to be false – I’m not quite sure how something like that would actually be possible, but let’s grant that for the sake of discussion. Would that fact change in any way my faith and trust in the God I’ve experienced, and in the Christ I’ve encountered, in countless ways in my life and which give me life and hope? I have to say that no, it wouldn’t. My trust in God, and in Christ, is something that transcends those concepts. If that were to happen, I’d simply find another way to try to explain the faith that dwells within, that is in some way consistent with that new contextual reality – which is exactly what those early church fathers were doing, in their own place and time.
All of that is a rather long-winded preface to say that because of the inherent difficulties of these theological principles, all Christians actually believe some form of heresy regarding the Trinity or Christology (not to mention other orthodox Christian doctrines), whether they know it or not – and this is true whether the individual, or the congregation, is the most conservative, or the most liberal.
That means that the question that you pose is not at all unique to your own context – that of being a very liberal/progressive congregation, with some difference of belief regarding these two specific theological points. Frankly, a pastor in any typical Presbyterian congregation has to be a pastoral presence for a gathered body whose theological range is quite broad. In fact, given your self-description, the full spectrum of theological belief within your congregation may well be even narrower than the average!
The impossibility of getting one’s hands completely around these theological principles means that I will not – I can not – negatively judge anyone who follows Christ yet who does so with unorthodox understandings of the Trinity or of Christ’s nature. To me, to try to judge someone as “in” or “out” of the Body of Christ by the litmus test of adherence to doctrines whose own creators admitted were ultimately inadequate to fully explain the mystery of God and Christ, is the height of Pharisaic arrogance, for which Jesus himself reserved his harshest criticism. If a person can say, as Bishop Spong wrote, “If God can be met, engaged, and embraced in and through the adult life, the death, and the resurrections of Jesus, then surely God had to be in this Jesus…. We cannot meet Jesus without experiencing God”, that seems to be a sufficient profession of faith, and a sufficient understanding of the mystery of Christ to me. Everything else is detail, upon which we can, and do, and will, disagree. Discussing and debating those details may make for interesting conversation and intellectual engagement, but in the end, they matter very little in shaping the way we live for God and others as followers of Jesus. In considering others, we need to remember that in one way or another, we’re all heretics, and all nonetheless recipients of God’s grace.
So how would I serve as a pastor to a congregation like yours? I suppose that I’d do so just as I would serve any other congregation – with love, and compassion, and a balance of pastoral and prophetic voice, and with respect for the freedom of conscience of every believer who can agree with that most ancient and simplest of professions of faith: “Jesus is Lord.”
My own journey of faith has taken me across almost the fullest possible range of Christian belief – beginning in an extremely conservative, Evangelical/Fundamentalist strand, and moving to my current location as a liberal/progressive pastor. At every point along that journey – conservative, liberal, or otherwise – God has blessed me by placing me in relationship with people who were sincere, devout, committed, and loving followers of Jesus. I have personally known their compassion, their friendship, their mentorship, and their support, even when we disagreed theologically. Because of that personal experience, I have little tolerance for bigotry within Christ’s church, whether it is conservative bigotry against progressives, or progressive bigotry against conservatives. While I strongly advocate for the church to move in a more progressive direction, I can still reach out to many conservative Christians, many of whom would put the level of my own faith and devotion to shame – and who, frankly, were the ones who led me into the faith to begin with.
I hope that through this reply to your question, you can see that wherever someone in your congregation finds himself or herself theologically, my primary approach as pastor would be one of acceptance and love, and walking the rest of their – and my – faith journey forward, together. That pastoral principle served me well while I pastored a small, extremely conservative, rural congregation. It’s serving me well now, as I pastor to a large, moderate, suburban congregation. And I’m convinced that it would be just as effective in serving as pastor of your congregation. I hope that you agree, and that we would continue our conversation regarding that possibility.
 Spong, John Shelby. Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1991), 216.