Dear Mr. Lough:
So, let me see if I follow the line of thought you introduced in yesterday’s letter. One point in particular intrigues me. You say that “evangelicalism is the product of modernism.” I had always thought the two were diametrically opposed schools of thought. If I understand what you were saying, however, it seems that, while evangelicalism operates with a different set of presuppositions from modernism, it uses some of the same methodology to make a case for the version of Christianity it represents. Right?
I think I remember hearing you say that, in terms of contemporary Christianity, modernism and liberalism were essentially synonyms. If so, that means that liberalism (aka modernism) differs from evangelicalism more in its presuppositions than in its methodology. You indicated, in an earlier letter, that you no longer share many of evangelical Christianity’s foundational presuppositions. If that is true, then here comes the question you must have been expecting since the beginning of this email exchange. Mr. Lough, do you now consider yourself a liberal?
With respect, truly,
You follow my line of thought with precision, and I suppose I did expect some version of your question. Only I thought it would come a bit later in this series, after I had talked about some changes in my thinking with regard to specific issues. I see that you are reading between the lines, however, (that’s a good thing, by the way) and are anticipating some things I might say later on. Let me begin my response with a story.
I barely remember the occasion. It must have been three or four years ago. A man I had never met before was introduced to me by a mutual friend. We have never seen each other since. But I will never forget what that man said to me.
We spent a few minutes filling each other in on our respective pilgrimages. He had spent all his life in the same Christian denomination, had worked in the same field all of his career—most of it in the same job—and had always voted the same political party line. He listened carefully to my description of a much more circuitous life journey and concluded our conversation by asserting, “Well, I wouldn’t know what label to hang on you except maybe ‘dogmatic eclectic.’ You are a man who defies labels.”
The more I’ve thought about that description, the more I like it. Labels are too easy to apply, too difficult to shake, and almost always inaccurate and unfair. Our tendency to label people or to depend on labels in forming our opinions of people makes us intellectually lazy. Nobody deserves to be lauded or condemned simply on the basis of a label somebody has pinned on them somewhere along the line.
Negative labels generally refer to something bad we have done, perhaps inadvertently, or some position we have taken that defies the mainstream or upsets the status quo. But none of us is simply the worst thing we have done. We all deserve to be evaluated on more than that. A negative label often makes that difficult or impossible.
Positive labels, on the other hand, reflect ideological similarities and common beliefs but sometimes enable people to avoid appropriate accountability. I’ve been amazed at the extremes to which some people will go to defend a rascal just because the two agree on some social or political issue.
When I was writing the book I released in August 2014, I got some really good advice on editing and publishing from Frank Schaeffer. For many evangelicals of my generation, Frank’s parents, Francis and Edith Schaeffer, were hugely influential figures. Over the years, Frank has provided us with some “behind-the-scenes” perspective on his famous parents, particularly his father, and has shown us the elder Schaeffer’s “feet of clay,” as it were. As a result, Frank has himself been labeled in unkind and even cruel terms by those who don’t appreciate his upending the stereotypes they had come to believe about his father.
I’ve never met Frank Schaeffer in person, but I like him a lot. He speaks his mind with an honesty and forthrightness that makes many evangelicals uncomfortable.
He didn’t know me from Adam when, completely out of the blue, I contacted him with a question about self-publishing. (I told him that my familiarity with the writings of both his parents and their positive influence on my life and ministry probably caused me to think of him as a member of my family and not some unapproachable public figure with an international reputation.) He was cordial and prompt in his reply and helpful in areas where I hadn’t even realized I needed help.
He recently wrote a book called WHY I AM AN ATHEIST WHO BELIEVES IN GOD: How to give love, create beauty and find peace. In it he speaks from painful experience, as the object of unfair labeling, to the question I am addressing in this post. Here is part of what he wrote.
Labels don’t mean anything. Who cares about labels when someone is slapping you in the face? Who cares about labels when someone is saving you from drowning?
Who someone is and what they do is all that matters. This is especially true because who we are changes as we grow and as we change our minds. Furthermore, we are never really of one mind about anything. Belief is never the point—actions are. We can be of two minds about biology or God but treat everyone around us with kindness. …
All we have is our stories. Today’s great art is tomorrow’s joke. Today’s joke is tomorrow’s great art. Today’s atheist is tomorrow’s ardent convert. Today’s preacher is tomorrow’s atheist author. I can’t objectively describe reality because I’m trapped in the moving target we call time. That’s what the word “evolution” means. The very fabric of the universe is unknowable and stranger than we can imagine and has a message for us: climb down off that high atheist, religious or agnostic pedestal!
I wouldn’t be surprised if some of my past acquaintances were to pin the “liberal” or “progressive” label on me, based on some of what I’ll be sharing with you in this email exchange. It doesn’t matter. I take comfort in the words of my one-time acquaintance who described me as a man who defies labels.
Oh, there is one label I’m happy to wear. I’d really like it if people referred to me with the label…
All the best,