Timothy Dalrymple writes concerning the growing tendency among progressive Christians to launch vituperative and scornful attacks against ugly liberal caricatures of conservative Christians in order to represent themselves as more loving to the world. He remarks:
This is selling anger, not offering enlightenment. Anger is not always wrong, but it’s always a dangerous substance to deal with. In its anger, posts and billboards like these lose the capacity to understand believers who disagree. They rush to judge our elders and dispense with humility or nuance. Instead of saying, “No, most conservative Christians are not hateful or deceptive. Here is where they’re coming from, but I stand with you” — they say “I am with you” because “I scorn them too.”
Does it happen on both sides? Absolutely. I cannot stand the glib, bigoted “ain’t no homos gonna make it to heaven” video that’s circulating. But one would never know, from a post like Evans’, that there are loving and thoughtful and self-sacrificial people on the conservative side of the argument who are genuinely trying to do the right thing for all people.
There is a growing genre — call it Progressive Christian Scorn Literature — about the scorn progressive Christians have for conservative evangelicals. It seems to be celebrated on the Left as a kind of righteous comeuppance for the Christian Right, and it wins the applause of the Left for the Christian Left. But it’s wrong and it needs to be called out. It’s neither winsome, nor loving, nor constructive, nor right. It will not improve our witness because it’s soaked through with bitterness and rancor. I hope that people of good heart and mind, like Evans, leave it behind.
We cannot get beyond the culture wars by simply joining one side and lobbing bombs against the other. We cannot improve the reputation of the church by throwing half of it under the bus.
One of the things that I have increasingly observed among such progressive evangelicals is the tendency to cast all arguments in terms of false and extremely polarized dichotomies. The culture war seems to have attained such a dominating status in the imaginations of some individuals that they find it impossible to envision options that aren’t one of two supposedly mutually exclusive arguments on the table. No middle ground exists, and any criticism of their position will lead to you being demonized. This is the classic dynamics of the scapegoat mechanism, and we should all pray that Christ deliver us from it.
Many of the individuals in question have come from unhealthy and abusive forms of evangelical background. Unless we are careful, such a background can become an extremely caricatured and emotionally charged polarity against which all of our subsequent thought is a reaction. Sadly, there are a number of progressive Christians blogs around that seem to encourage such forms of thoughts. They haven’t succeeded in moving beyond their background at all, as its themes and framing continue to dominate their current thought, which is merely its antipathetic inversion.
When, rather than thinking in terms of the Scriptures and other secondary authorities, thought is framed in terms of extreme polarities, the rejection of one pole is taken as proof of the other. No alternative options or framing can be considered. I have observed this producing an atrophying effect upon the imagination, reasoning, and Christian spirit within conversations. When all supposed opposition can be lightly dismissed in the form of a ridiculous straw man, the onus upon us to examine and question our own positions is never addressed. When probed, persons who think in such a manner can seldom give much of an account for their position. An obnoxious certainty that we are completely in the right, and our opponents entirely in the wrong, can easily develop when we succumb to this. It also encourages a revelling in supposed ‘righteous’ anger, and a failure even to attempt charitable representations. Theological imagination is lost, as the current framing of the debate rules out any possibility of alternative visions. Thought becomes trapped in deep ruts. Anyone observing the dynamics of such a debate needs to appreciate that it is being driven by emotional dysfunction and mimetic violence, rather than by thought. It is usually best to stay well away.
I am thankful to know many conservative and progressive Christians who do not exhibit such forms of behaviour. Such Christians can express strong differences, while still charitably representing those with whom they differ. Such Christians are not driven by the emotional and mimetic polarities of the debate, but by careful and thoughtful engagement with each other’s arguments and with the Scriptures and other relevant sources.
Keeping one’s head and a loving spirit in such an environment is difficult. In my experience, the best way to escape such polarities is to frame our thought and debating in terms of a non-antagonistic engagement with a third party. When engaging with an antagonistic individual, I mentally focus on the person quietly and non-aggressively listening in, and address the antagonistic party with them primarily in mind. Their non-aggression mediates my relationship to the other party and makes it much easier to retain my cool.
I believe that Scripture needs to function in a similar way within our thought. Rather than seeking to identify Scripture entirely with our own pole of the discussion, we need to recognize it as a third pole, to which we continually need to be attentive. If we focus primarily upon sustaining our own healthy relationship with the non-competitive pole of the Scripture, we really won’t get so caught up in opposition with others, and will find it easier to disagree without this disagreement completely dominating our relationship with Scripture, or producing a polarization.