Jun. 10th, 2012

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My friend Dan Fincke is doing a blogathon to support the Secular Student Alliance. This is a cause near and dear to my heart. There are lots of reasons for this - partly I think religion (and humanity generally) is better off when the smartest people in all groups think long and hard about our institutions and core beliefs. Iron sharpens iron, as they say. Even more than that, I can only imagine how cut-off secular humanist students are in many communities. If your life is organized around youth group and church friends (mine was at that age), then coming out as atheist means losing all that or at least having it strained. I'm all for giving kids the social support they need to deal with that constructively.

Many American high schools (mine included) have lots of clubs. These are student-led groups with a faculty member mentor that meet before or after class at the school. They're not part of the official curriculum or anything but they are sanctioned by the school; quite often you can't put up signs advertising them if they're not an official group, and you can't meet on school grounds. The SSA provides administrative support to these groups, including legal advice when necessary (in lots of places there simply isn't a club for atheists, and there's resistance toward setting one up), and they also organize conferences for student leaders, giving them a chance to network with the larger atheist community.

Dan's blogathon is part of a fundraising drive for the SSA. He's posting twenty-four original posts in twenty-four hours (*eep*) and as part of that he's interviewing lots of people. Interviewing is really the wrong word; it's more a conversation between equals rather than him asking questions and us doing all the talking. But I do say us because he's asked me to be one of the people whose conversations he features. This is the first time I've done anything of the kind, and I'm excited both because it's for a cause I support and also because it's great to get my thoughts out there. It's also a nice ego-boost that he asked.

(You can read more about Dan's blogathon here, including an invitation for people who might be interested in talking with him. As he says: if YOU are a big time atheist, or a scholar with a unique vantage point on religion, atheism, or philosophy, or somebody with a book to sell, or a believer who would like to mix it up with me, or are just another academic philosopher or long lost personal friend of mine, and you would like to join me in conversation for three hours sometime on Thursday June 14, 2012 or especially if you are available for the hard lonely hours late in the blogathon—from Friday June 15, 2012 midnight EST to 7am EST—then, then PLEASE don’t be shy!)

That's it for the announcement, but I do want to say a bit about Dan's bio of me. He writes: Marta Layton, a Fordham graduate student in philosophy and progressive Christian who writes many thoughtful retorts to Camels With Hammers posts will finally get some answers from me to all her objections. It's the "progressive Christian" label that caught my attention. If Dan had called me a liberal Christian I probably wouldn't have been too happy about it, but progressive strikes me as just right.

See, I hate hate hate that label of "liberal Christian." Part of it is that I don't feel like a died-in-the-wool liberal. (I know, I sound like one but that's mainly because modern day Republicans + Tea Partiers have gone so far into reality-denying idiocy these last few years. Also because many positions advocated by the right aren't really that conservative.) It's truly odd to think of myself as a liberal sometimes. Don't get me wrong; I think that liberty requires equality we don't have in many regards, and that welfare and other social programs are crucial, so I am a liberalism in other regards. But especially when it comes to my faith, I don't see myself as being particularly liberal.

More to the point, though, the name suggests that what we call liberal Christianity isn't "true" Christianity - that the homophobic and misogynistic "preachers" who get on the news are the real deal. They're not, historically. I'm not saying that Christians have always been big on rights for women and other minorities (they aren't that either), but what I'm really objecting to is the idea that Christianity = do whatever the Bible appears to teach on its surface. This is a tradition starting in the Bible (look at Jesus's reinterpretation of the law) but continuing on past it. The idea is that revelation is supposed to be dynamic so we learn things in different settings throughout history.

When I think about religious tradition I find myself reminded of that other tradition Americans participate in, the rule of law, and in particular a quote that comes up all the time on Law and Order: that the law must be stable but never stand still. Religion should be the same way. My religious tradition emphasizes love, for instance, but what does love mean? With Cain and Abel we learned it meant not being so jealous of those who had something you wanted; with Joseph (as in Jacob's son) it meant protecting your brothers even after they'd wrong you. Ruth and Boaz show us that love is due to other tribes if they will join with us (that filial responsibility is not inherited), and with Jonah and the people of Nineveh we learn they don't even have to become like us for us to have to love them. And then with Jesus, there's the granddaddy of all expansions: love your enemies. If one of those hated Roman soldiers should demand you carry his pack for a mile, go a mile beyond even that. Don't build yourself up over others but instead attend to your own sins. And on throughout later history - the debates over slavery, over sexuality, over so many other issues.

The point behind all of this is not that the Bible's teaching on love is perfect, or even good (though obviously I think it is). It's that it's growing as humanity grows. This is why I love Dan's description of me as a progressive Christian so much, because it gets at the issue much more clearly than the liberal label does. I do view Christianity as something that progresses throughout history, though obviously certain guiding principles will always be in play. The faith, to paraphrase, must be stable but must never stand still.

I'm still not crazy about the need for "progressive." To my mind, I'm just a Methodist. That means I hold to the Wesley quadrilateral, meaning that my reading of scripture is informed by both the trajectory of history and the light of reason. That doesn't mean every belief needs proof (we're not full out logical verificationists or anything) but it does mean that your beliefs can't contradict reality - and if they seem in tension, the solution isn't to ignore one or the other, but to try to understand both revelation and what the sciences/philosophy tells us about reality at a deeper level. Truth does not contradict truth. To my mind this is a core Christian doctrine that's been emphasized by most types of Christians historically, and it's a sad statement that we even need the qualification today. A part of me wonders whether we're not giving fundamentalists too much power in defining what "Christian" means when we say that. (I get a similar reaction to the way the label "Christian" is used in books and music - like Left Behind is a Christian movie but Moonrise Kingdom isn't?)

Anyway, none of that is Dan's fault. The "progressive Christian" label is at least a major step up from "liberal Christian." I'm looking forward to discussing these and other issues with him on Thursday.

(Originally posted at LJ; please comment there.)

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