Friday, 4 April 2008

On Anglican Unity, Evangelicalism, and Conversion.

At Evangelicalism’s heart is not a belief system shaped by the Bible (or to be more accurate, a late 19th century Anglo-American interpretation of the Bible), regardless of how loudly its adherents may profess otherwise. Evangelicals don’t want people to believe their exclusivist dogmata per se: they want people to 'be born again' – to experience Conversion as Evangelicalism has defined it.

Thus when the 16 year old Peter Jensen came forward with his dearly loved younger brother at Billy Graham’s 1959 Sydney crusade, the two weren’t embracing a way of understanding Scripture which seeks to shape conservative white upper-middle class contemporary society without in any way challenging the fundamental injustices, inequalities and systemic evils of that society: in all probability the two had both as children done that quite unconsciously years before. Rather they simply wanted to be 'saved' in response to the evangelist’s call. Their’s had been a childhood in a church which sung Amazing Grace, with the triumphant lines “I once was lost, but now am found” celebrating this moment of transition. They, like the countless others alongside them, now wanted such an experience for themselves. They had believed, but what their belief had lacked up until this chilly autumn evening was this one cathartic moment to which they could point and cry “My conversion!”.

In reality it’s highly doubtful the Jensen brothers were “lost” in any sense but the most intangibly metaphoric. Barely adolescent boys from old money suburbs in Sydney’s east, enrolled in one of the Australia’s most exclusive (and expensive) boys’ schools, and having attended Sunday school and youth fellowship classes since infancy, rarely wander too far until at least a few years later in life. Occasional cheekiness, certainly, perhaps even a day’s truancy and a covert cigarette behind the cricket stadium (although in the case of the Jensens I find even this much very hard to believe), but Hell’s Angels they weren’t.

“Yet aahh” cry the Evangelicals, “that’s just the point! Whoever has sinned in only the least of ways has broken the whole law, and stands justly condemned before God. Childhood mischief or serial murder – they’re all sins which leave us irrevocably separated from the Father, but for the atoning sacrifice of Christ…” Which is exactly why the Evangelical need to feel 'converted' is so powerful: what some of us might laughingly dismiss as naughtiness is, in the Evangelical's understanding, viewed by God exactly as if it were multiple homicide, or pack rape. It’s all the same, and their consequent relief at having left the weight of this guilt behind is understandably overwhelming – albeit incomprehensible to anyone whose faith is outside Evangelical traditions.

As an attempt to transcend ecclesiastical persuasions GAFCON shall ultimately fail for exactly the same reason that all previous attempts to establish union between Evangelical hard-liners and those with different understandings of the process by which we express our faith have failed: the soteriological gulf is invariably too vast for the Evangelicals to accommodate. Any common ground – even that as poisonous as the currently shared misogyny and homophobia - is powerless in the face of the greater, more primeval, difference in soteriology. “I have been born again” (ie. ‘I have had a defining conversion experience’) “and you have not. I therefore am a sheep, and you a goat.”

And how long does anyone think the tough boys in colourful chasubles are going to accept a few chaps from Australia (where????) in business suits telling them that they’re not really Christians?

... to be continued ;-)



First day of the Billy Graham Crusade,
Sydney Showground, April 12, 1959.

10 comments:

Doorman-Priest said...

Do you know - well of course you do - I am so tired of this sheep and goats business. I am always a goat. How does that happen?

FranIAm said...

I always feel a bit reticent commenting on these matters, as both an American and a Roman Catholic. (I mean on both counts, we have so many problems of our own, right?)

That said, I find myself moved by your post.

These two words struck me in particular My conversion!”

To me this is the trap of ego masked in spirituality.

I guess it goes back to the notion that for me - well, I just don't want to be saved without you. And I don't that I can be saved without you.

Or anybody else.

That's just my two cents, perhaps too far afield from your main topic, but just what hit my heart.

Brian R said...

Yes there is this pressure to have a "conversion experience' in Evangelicalism. I was already very religious by the Billy Graham Crusade in 1959 - heavens the teacher put me in charge of class scripture in primary school (probably because his heart wasn't in it) - so I use to point to my time at Beach Mission while on holidays with family at about age 7. However a conversion at that age is even more laughable than the Jensens in their teens. I believe these times (and including a sunday sermon or even private reading or musing) are just steps in the gradual process by which God reveals Himself to us, some more obvious than others. My observation was that the crusades could be a time of jolting a person to make a step that had been developing in their mind. Those "conversions" that came out of the blue usually did not last.

Alcibiades said...

franiam: it may be just two cents to you, but believe me your comments are worth a whole lot more from my perspective - and that's not just because of the difference in exchange rates!

The beauty of the net is that for the first time in history people on my side of the planet can easily share ideas about everything & and anything - including our faith. The tyranny of isolation which fostered the kind of spiritual inbreeding that created so much of the religious landscape in parts of my country, or yours, or anyone else's for that matter, is broken. In discussing things with people once so far beyond our horizons people living in places like mine can get a bigger, more Godly perspective.

To hear many of the Christians with whom I lived, studied and worked, you could be forgiven for thinking the world (or at least those parts over which God has any influence) ceases to exist beyond Sydney. Input from people such as yourself - who live and pray thousands of miles from Sydney evangelicalism (both literally and figuratively) shatters this delusion: which is for all of us here - both dissidents like myself and "true believers" - a great blessing of God.

Also don't be too hard on yourself for being both Catholic and American. Your church not only held the flame of faith aloft for a whole lot longer than mine has, for every smutty priest or power-crazed pope it has produced there are literally thousands of profoundly wise believers whose faith shines like a beacon to the world - and that kind of thing is only caused by God, so the 'Church of Rome' has got to be doing something right ;-)

Incidentally, the most astonishing example I've ever seen of living Christ's command to love one another is a little Chinese lady who works for a company I deal with. She loves the Pope, thinks ++Pell is from God, is as into all the trappings as it seems possible to be - and yet in her daily life simply amazes everyone who meets her. Her compassion, charity and grace is astonishing, as is her oblivion to the effect she has on those around her - which just goes to show how little I think the Holy Spirit cares about which brand of doctrine we choose to wear on our chests.

And as for being American - sure you're country may have problems, but have you looked at what else is around in the world super-power stakes? Anyone from the country that invented the Fender guitar, Bourbon, jazz AND rock and roll (not to mention F. Scott Fitzgerald, E. Annie Proux & the internet) will always have every right to hold their head up high in my opinion. Sure, I might make fun when some idiot says or does something stupid (Hello George Bush) but that's just typical Australian disrespect, and not to be taken too seriously. Let's face it: you folk are the reason my folk aren't speaking Japanese, and that entitles you to be forgiven a whole lot of really crappy television shows, and (maybe) even country & western music.

FranIAm said...

Peace to you and gratitude my friend. How grateful for this community of blogs so that we may be in it together, with so many astounding people.

Oh dear, I might be getting weepy over MadPriest- that I cannot do!

A hug and a prayer from afar dear Albicaides, to you and to all of yours.

Maureen said...

Hello from a "true believer" who was "saved" but didn't have a "conversion experience", no, not one, but many, as is the way with God. I'm no scholar, but I know what I know and I have studied the bible in the past, for a number of years, using a concordance. I'm not really certain what your problem is with Billy Graham, he is one of the nicest, most genuine people on the planet. Just because he believes the bible is the inerrant word of God does not make him a monster by any stretch, nor do we believe you have to have a "conversion experience" or else you'll go to hell. Yes, we believe you must be saved, but as a Christian you believe that, too. Those boys must have felt in their hearts that they had not accepted Jesus as their Savior, thus what you call the conversion experience at the crusade.

Do you know these boys personally, do you know what was going on in their hearts? I don't ask that sarcastically, I really want to know. It just seems that I can't find anyone in the blog world who believes as I do. Who doesn't use the bible conveniently. God is not a convenient God. He has said what he has said and we are not to use it to our ends. We are to take the good with the bad, the comfortable with the uncomfortable.

Yes, sin is sin to God, it is all the same, it is all filthy rags to him. It is sin, he is holy. Why is that so hard to understand that a holy God does not think as man thinks? Why do we want to make him in our image?

Well I sure have said a lot! Forgive me, it's only an opinion.

Carry on.

Alcibiades said...

Hi Maureen - thanks for your comments both here and on other posts. What you say may indeed be "only an opinion", but it's your opinion and since you've expressed in a way that's courteous and respectful of others it’s truly valued here. Consider yourself welcome!

The "two boys" to whom I referred grew up to be the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney and his brother, whom he appointed as Dean shortly after his enthronement. While I couldn't claim to have been "close" to +Jensen, I did know him quite well: once upon a time we would share a lunch several times a week, I’ve been a guest in his home on numerous occasions, and my (then) wife would meet his wife for coffee & Bible study weekly. And I've heard him speak on the event of his "conversion" many times, both publically and personally - so yes, I do have a fair idea of the circumstances surrounding the event I described.

Consequently in questioning their theology (or more accurately, their soteriology, or theology of salvation), I'm trying to do so by viewing it from within the context of their own experiences. You say yourself that you "didn't have a "conversion experience", no, not one, but many, as is the way with God" and I agree with you totally, I think that more commonly is indeed God's way. Unfortunately, however, I live in a diocese where that would be strongly disputed by many of the heirarchy, and believing as you do could even be taken as grounds to block one from entering ordained ministry. That's the environment to which I'm addressing, and into which much of what I say needs to be understood.

I don't have any problem with Billy Graham, although I've got to admit I'm not crazy about many of the political movements and people he seems to have supported over the years. I've certainly never sought to suggest he's any kind of a monster, and he's undoubtedly an extremely sincere and well intentioned Christian man. But I also happen to believe that his focus has often been seriously misplaced, and that some of the priorities of his ministry, as well as those of ministries he has inspired, have been hurtful and alienating to large groups of people (such as, but not limited to, members of the GLBT communities). In saying this I'm not tearing down the good he has accomplished, but rather recognising the challenges which must now be met in order to move forward.

I'm sorry, but I'm not too sure what you mean by using the Bible "conveniently", so I'm unsure of how to respond on that point. God does indeed transcend our understanding - and yes, the person with whom we are confronted in Jesus can (and should) make us feel uncomfortable about blithely accepting the values of our societies. - so I don't see how that means we should simply accept what is bad in those societies and take it "along with the good".

I'm very familiar with the "sin is sin to God" line of argument, having even stood in pulpits and taught it. These days, however, I'm not so certain, and would very much like to go back to my poor parishioners and say "hang on - perhaps it might be a bit more complicated than that” - don't worry: there’s little chance there is of that happening ;-)

You see, Jesus clearly seems to have got a lot more worked up about some things than he did about others. For example: he was furious with the religious elite's judgementalism and arrogance - but never once seems to have got around to mentioning masturbation or homosexuality. Or a whole host of other ‘sins’ that so much of our attention gets focused upon. Surely if all these things were actually one and the same he would have been a bit more balanced in his approach - or at least have mentioned the other stuff at least once?

What I'm arguing for isn't that we discard the Bible, rather it's just the opposite. Perhaps we need to admit that in the Bible some ways of acting are condemned as worse than others, and as a result we should primarily direct our energy towards changing those things which Christ found most abhorrent –things like materialism, injustice and discrimination - rather than those things which our culture has declared unpalatable - such as certain expressions of sexuality, or working-class mannerisms, interests and "vulgarity". Ultimately I'd like our society to be more "biblical" (though i'm not all that happy with using that word in that way, and would prefer to say "Christ-like"), not less so - but I've yet to be convinced that a virulent focus upon inerrancy, or most of things that conservative Christianity (now there's a oxymoron when you think about it) seems by, will help us head in that direction.

Maureen said...

Wow, thank you Alcibiades, for your detailed response to my comment and I have to tell you, I agree with you wholeheartedly.

Thank you for taking the time to address my points and to say what I could not. And in so poignantly.

And thank you for welcoming my opinion, such as it is.

Bless you and may the world become more Christ-like as we hope and pray it will.

Maureen said...

One more question, who is Caliban and what is the dream?

Alcibiades said...

You're welcome Maureen!

Your question about Caliban pre-empts a post I've been meaning to finish for ages, and should have had finished long ago. Thanks for the nudge to get around to finishing it.

In the meantime the origin of the name is a charachter in Shakespeare's play The Tempest - your can read more about him here - and in a moment of whimsy the name "Alcibiades Caliban" appealed to my sense of humour. I promise to explain more soon... ;-)