Thursday, March 5, 2009

A Message about Protestantism from a formerly Congregationalist (U.C.C.) f/Friend

I've been reading about "Protestants" on Quaker blogs. Very interesting. There are times (now no one be insulted) that I think Friends might not actually be quite as familiar with Protestantism as they think they are. They shouldn't feel bad. Protestants aren't nearly as familiar with Protestantism as they think they are either. I read and heard lots of things about what folks think Protestant Christians believe. Horrible things. Infant damnation. Predestination. Human depravity. I'm sure there are people who believe this nonsense but I grew up in a "Calvinist" church and I never met anyone who did. Certainly the ministers that my father (himself ordained as a U.C.C. minister) and I know and with whom we trained do not believe in that. Could be my east coast heritage. Could be that growing up in the heart of the church is its own kind of bias.

I grew up in the Methodist and Congregationalist churches as a preacher's kid. There were several Protestant ministers in family (including Jonathan Edwards). My father's friends and colleagues were, logically, clergy persons. As an adult, I attended seminary and later worked with Protestant clergywomen on the board of an interfaith organization. As an academic, I study the history of the Protestant Church in the United States, especially in the Burned Over District. And, funnily enough, some of my best friends are Protestants. ;-) In many ways, although I consider myself a Neo-Pagan/Quaker, I have lived in the Protestant church both literally and figuratively most of my life. Therefore, I always thought I knew something about what it meant to be a Protestant.

I believe that my perspective of Protestantism is different than most because I actually had access to the academic and organizational level of Protestantism whereas most Protestants do not. (This is one of the greatest advantages Friends have over Protestant laity.) Many Protestants who should know better, believe all kinds of stupid and horrible things that they learned not from responsible religious educators but from similarly ignorant parents and friends. As a Methodist,part of my father's job was to go into "troubled churches" and try to help them become, well, to put it bluntly, less mean-spirited and ignorant. (If my assessment sounds harsh, that's because it is. I'm not tolerant of bigotry justified by sloppy theology and ignorance.) He would introduce inclusive language, try to get them to behave lovingly to each other, and and get them to stop talking about the devil. That kind of thing. It was like being in a military family. We moved around a lot. The bishop would call my father and we would move. Typically, we never stayed anyplace longer than 2 years.

As you can imagine, this grew tiresome so we switched to the U.C.C. This was not an earth-shaking change. In fact, nothing changed except that we didn't have to put up with the super-obnoxious Methodist hierarchy anymore. Dad had more freedom but he kept on doing his thing. The differences in theology between the mainline churches is negligible and/or mostly humorous.* (Mainline would include American Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterians, U.C.C., Episcopalian, Lutheran with the Episcopalians and Lutherans obviously more high church than the American Baptists and Methodists.) You won't get knocked over by differences in sermons, liturgies, readings and hymns. There will be theological differences and historical differences but in practice, they are all, from a layperson's perspective, similar enough that their clergy can share seminary training.

So I finished growing up in the United Church of Christ, the Congregationalist Church, which is a direct descendant of the Puritans. Holy Calvinism, Batman! That must have been horrid! Actually, the U.C.C. is the most liberal of the mainline Protestant churches. UUism is more liberal but then as the joke goes, UUs are merely Quakers with ADHD and not properly an orthodox Christian denomination. I challenge you to find any hellfire and brimstone in a modern U.C.C. church. You know President Obama is a Congregationalist? Well, he's kind of typical of the smart UCC people I know (except none of them are the elected leaders of nations although they may head committees.)

Here is the UCC website for those who would like to browse and see what Congregationalists feel about theology, human rights, gay marriage, etc.

One thing to keep in mind is that the U.C.C., because it is congregationalist, cannot really be completely understood by looking at this official website. The individual congregations, by the very definition of congregationalism, don't have to believe any of this stuff. The reality is that on some issues, the laity are more conservative than the clergy (or more liberal I suppose although I've never once seen that happen). For instance, my father married a lesbian couple way back in the early 1990s and then had his congregation turn ugly on him. (That's one of the primary reason he is no longer preaching but that's addressed in more than one of my other blog entries.)Come to think of it, even though Methodists are supposed to believe what the hierarchy tells them to believe, most of them don't bother. People often choose the church that is close enough to home so that they don't miss the football game.

So what did we officially believe? From memory I quote the Apostles creed.

"I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth and in Jesus Christ, his only son our Lord, who was conceived of the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered on Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried. On the third day he rose from the dead. He ascended into heaven and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty from whence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. I believe in the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins,the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting."

Note especially that the line about Hell is omitted from this version. We never messed with Hell. My father didn't believe in it. If sins are forgiven once and for all in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, then why would people go to hell? That was his answer to me. We believed that there was nothing a human being can do to negate God's love and forgiveness and that the hardest thing we had to do was to remember that the same kind of love was required of us. "Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us."

We believed in liberation theology. We believed in social justice, in feminism, and that God called us to pacifism. We believed in gay rights, anti-colonialism, and that missionaries have no business sending people overseas or even next door to try to convert them. At worst it is a violation of another person's spiritual rights. At best it is just rude and annoying.

Now the was the official story. In our own family, it got a little bit more radical. The virginity of Jesus and his mother were pretty suspect and the special divinity of Christ was optional. Remember that to be a minister, you have to complete three years of graduate education after a four year undergraduate degree (typically in the social sciences or humanities).

Any seminary worth its salt is not going to be tolerant of literalism or knee-jerk dogmatism. Even if you come from a fundamentalist background, you're going to have to learn about some pretty left-wing interpretations of the theology and biblical texts. In seminary you are likely to be introduced to such concepts as Gnosticism and the idea of the feminine divine (Christ-Sophia). In seminary you are expected to understand the bible includes error, politics, inaccuracy in transcription and translation, and omission. You are expected to use methods (feminist, liberationist, historical critical, even archetypal) to deconstruct the text. And the text will never be the King James version, at least not in my experience. Whatever you may think of the KJV as an example of literature, however much you may talk about the beauty of its language, as a translation, it is crap.

Now all this may sound like Dad and I went to a pretty radical seminary, probably Unitarian Universalist. Nope. The seminary my father and I attended was Baptist/Roman Catholic. Imagine that. This kind of liberal stuff comes straight out of a conservative denomination. Imagine just how much difference there is between what the well-educated clergy of all mainline traditions know and believe and what their parishioners know and believe. This is one of the reasons for the serious burn-out and depression that haunts clergy-people. Also imagine how miserable it is to see all Protestantism portrayed in the media as if we are intolerant bible thumpers, dour Puritans, or greedy televangelists.

Popular Christianity, as we all have noticed, has become disturbing lately, so much so that lots of us have left the faith completely and others are loathe to use the word "Christian" in public. Sadly, in the past decade, there has been an erosion of the mainline churches. They are losing their numbers and in an attempt to maintain relevancy, they are turning to some of the histrionics and cheap tricks of's just say "non-mainline churches." Faith bands, prayer hands, fire and brimstone preaching have no place in a rational, liberal Protestantism. The one inheritance of Calvinism for which I make no apologies is intellectualism and I have no use for any deviation that vilifies this. I believe that if the mainline churches are to survive as a vehicle of peace and human equality than they must appeal to their intellectual tradition and not to gimmicks. Better to welcome extinction with integrity than to allow ignorance and populism dictate their future.

They should stand up against illiberal biblical interpretation, dogmatism, intolerance, and spiritual fear-mongering rather than adopt the "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" philosophy. I always say if they're going to go down, they should go down like champions.


Now what does this have to do with Friends? Not much except that I think it is important, critical even, that liberal Friends work very seriously with liberal Protestants for the sake of social, economic and environmental justice. It will never do to make the assumption that Martin Luther's and John Calvin's words hold much sway with a Congregationalist or a Presbyterian just because they are descended from the Puritan tradition. Remember that the Transcendentalists and Unitarians are also direct descendants of this religious family tree. It will never do to assume that the clergy and the laity are in complete agreement or that there aren't regional differences that must be respected. Baptists in NY are a far cry different than those in the South. It will never do to assume that because Protestants are creedal and hierarchical in organization that either the individual laypeople or clergymen/women you meet are going to think of that point as important. We have to listen. We have a big work before us and these folks are our partners. It is time we get to know them.

I propose that we accomplish this by strengthening our commitments to interfaith dialogue already in place and beginning interfaith organizations where none exist. I encourage Friends to do both historical and contemporary reading of Protestant (and Catholic) texts both popular and academic. There's some excellent stuff out there that is well worth one's while. (Paul Tillich, Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza, Renita Weems, Robert Jewett and Rosemary Radford Ruether (R.C.) are some of my favorites.)

I think we also talk to each other and to our Protestant Friends with a deeper and more critical honesty about what it is we believe not merely to find commonality but to grow to appreciate our differences. Such conversations, though at times uncomfortable, can be liberating and love-filled (I think of my online conversations with Daniel and Cat that have been so heart-melting for me.) When we spend our time talking to ourselves, we begin to calcify, fossilizing our thoughts in our own arrogance. Conversations with others keep us green and fruitful. Loving, faith-ful intellectual exchange keeps us spiritually fertile and is the creative energy that the planet needs right now.


Daniel Wilcox said...

Well, Hystery, thanks for the her-story;-) I hope I don't wear out my welcome here on your blog, but since you mentioned my chilhood denomination, the American Baptists, and we are both preacher's kids too, and now Friends, I thought I would respond a little..

>>the Burned Over District

Yes, I studied that at university. In fact still have the text with that title.

>>the American Baptists

The loved denomination of my childhood when my dad was a A.B. pastor. It was a deeply spiritually meaningful place to grow up. There are many things I love about the A.B. still. (Maybe I should write a post on it--what is a good A.B. kid doing in the Quakers?)

>>So I finished growing up in the >>UCC

When I was attending the University of Northern Arizona, my wife didn't want to attend unprogrammed Quaker meeting, so we attended a UCC church in Flagstaff who had a very scholarly minister. He and I used to dialogue a lot. (He was definitely not Calvinist)

>>We believed that there was nothing a human being can do to negate God's love and forgiveness
...We believed in social justice..

Now there's my kind of theology.
Maybe, you were really Friends;-)

>> a translation, it is crap

I bet you would enjoy reading Robert Alter's literal Hebrew translation, The First Five Books of Moses. I am reading it now. He goes into the word plays and numances which don't come through into any of the major English translations. I started A. B.seminary, but dropped out--a crisis of faith of my own when I was a youth pastor. So I never learned Hebrew, not even when I lived in Israel.

>>Remember that the Transcendentalists and Unitarians are also direct descendants of >>this religious family tree.

Excellent point! Emerson, Channing--a couple of my heroes.

>>Paul Tillich

Which of his books do you like best?

I especially like Dynamics of Faith--that's one of his most powerful. I re-read one of his books every few months.

For a family of "Calvinists", you're not too bad;-)


Lone Star Ma said...

So are we Friends not also basically Protestant? I mean, I know we are weird, but aren't we? I was raised Catholic and must say that much of the culture still appeals to me - I always feel weird thinking of myself as Protestant, anyway, but I thought we were.

Hystery said...

Lone Star Ma,

As I understand it, Friends did not consider themselves a part of the Reformation and do not consider themselves Protestants today. I was going to say they are a third path but that's forgetting Coptic and Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Maybe we could add the Mormons to this list as well. I found this helpful article by Bill Samuel
He's a much better source than I on these distinctions.

For me the most important point of difference is that like the UUs who were originally a Protestant denomination, Friends are not strictly Christian whereas Protestants most certainly are.

Hystery said...

A reformed link:

Are Quakers Protestant?

Hystery said...

Daniel, I love The Courage to Be but it sounds like you know your Tillich better than I do. I also like the sound of the Hebrew translation. I'd love to have a magic library in my house where all the wonderful books my friends suggest would instantly appear for me to enjoy. I tend to read several books at once but even so the books keep stacking up next to my reading chair and I feel that I'm missing so much. I have a hard time deciding which to read next!

I'd love to read a post about growing up as an American Baptist PK.

>>For a family of "Calvinists", you're not too bad;-)

Thank you. I never considered that anyone would even think of us as Calvinists until this week. I knew that our denomination had evolved from that branch of Christianity but I guess I always thought of it as an evolutionary process like lemur-like creatures eventually becoming human beings.

Finally, Daniel, you cannot wear out your welcome on this blog. I welcome your words and am thankful for them.

Lone Star Ma said...

Oh, thank you! I like that much better. I have no problem with Protestants or anything, but never felt right considering myself one - because I'm not, I guess! And your link is not reformed. It is an apostate link. But I found the article - thank you!

Hystery said...

Cool, an apostate link! lmao :-D

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