Recently, I had the pleasure of a long-overdue coffee with a sister in Christ and she mentioned how churches need both “progressives” and “conservatives” in order to thrive. “Too many Progressives”, goes the theory, “and we’re always changing and moving but sacrifice tradition.” Too many Conservatives, it goes to follow, “and we’re set in our ways and never make good changes.”

I listened and tried hard not to refute it on the spot, though I already had questions. Labels are always tricky, to start with. Where I just came from (and I’ll talk about my journey with the COC denomination one of these days when I have a full glass of red parked beside me), Progressive was a euphemism for false doctrine, and we used to bandy phrases like “change for change’s sake” to stop anything new from happening ever. Where I stood, the Conservatives aren’t so much preservers of sound doctrine as defenders of man-made tradition (emphasis on man), unwilling and unable to examine the pillars of our faith with any real intellectual honesty for fear of… I never understood what their fears are. Apostasy? Heresy?

Thing is, I don’t know that I ever saw myself as a Progressive or Conservative, so much as curious/suspicious and passionate. But those labels have each taken on a whole system of rules and principles that meant, more or less, choosing a side. And yet we’re never each so neat as a stereotype. I no longer know how to articulate my ‘brand’ of Christianity except it’s birthed from the Restorationist spirit and is deeply suspicious of modern-day evangelicalism that smells more like puritanical Americana than Jesus. I’m a Christian who is egalitarian, feminist (for want of a better descriptor), pro-Life, decidedly left-leaning in morality, and still working through how I love and embrace the Bible. What does it mean to take it as inspired, authoritative and truthful? How do I trust it when I no longer force it to be supernaturally literal and inerrant in order to be taken seriously? How tightly do I hold on to phrasing and word order when I understand how the Ancients chronicle their ‘remembrances’? (Apparently, there is no ancient word for history as we understand it: the dry, objective, verbatim, ‘factual’ recording of events for posterity. Their facts are not our facts. And let’s not forget how so much of it was oral tradition. And not written in English.)

How do I stop missing the forest for the trees? And how do I recognise Jesus again?

My spiritual journey in the last three years has been equal parts deeply lonely and vastly liberating. I’ve lost the community who embraced me when I first moved to Canberra, and I sense the loss of trust emanating from other tiny corners of my Christian community in Singapore. But in leaving my tiny corner of the Christian verse, I’ve embraced more of heaven and found new communities. I got taken in by a beautiful house church like a bewildered and hurt puppy. My world has also been blown wide open and I dialogue daily now with Christians from around the world, covering the gamut of the spectrum. Thanks to this deconstruction of everything I thought I knew, I now have more empathy to speak honestly and listen more closely to people who hold other faiths, including those who hold a faith that there exists no god at all. It helps that I understand so very thoroughly now how little I actually know.

I doubt I straddle the ‘Progressive’ and ‘Conservative’ sides equally. If labels must be used, then I must be Progressive though I find these boxes only serve to push us apart more than anything. While I’m still working through why I think what I think and if I’ve been bonkers, I came across this book that might make for some light reading during the holidays.

New York Times Bestseller

In this “landmark contribution to humanity’s understanding of itself” (The New York Times Book Review) social psychologist Jonathan Haidt challenges conventional thinking about morality, politics, and religion in a way that speaks to conservatives and liberals alike. 

More about the book >>

More helpfully, I found a good summary on an ABC Religion and Ethics article by Christopher Brittain:

In The Righteous Mind, the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt suggests that one’s ethical judgments are largely the product of moral intuitions rather than rational thought. He argues that human beings make moral decisions on the basis of six pre-existing moral foundations that are “prewired” into the human brain: care (compassion), liberty (autonomy), fairness (justice), loyalty (solidarity and group bonding), authority (order and structure) and sanctity (respect for boundaries and the sacred pillars of the community). Different people, Haidt continues, are predisposed to favour some of these foundations at the expense of others, yet all of them are required for human flourishing.

Haidt doesn’t propose that our morality is wholly determined by the hardwiring of our brain but argues that our predispositions incline our moral intuitions in certain directions, unless other factors intervene. His book suggests that “liberals” and “conservatives” operate according to distinct pre-existing foundations. Liberals react chiefly out of the care and liberty impulses, and view appeals to loyalty, authority and sanctity with suspicion. Conservatives, by contrast, operate out of a moral matrix shaped by foundations that include fairness, loyalty, authority and sanctity, while also including liberty and care, albeit with less emphasis than liberals, and sometimes with considerable suspicion.

Noticing this pattern, Haidt continues, helps explain why liberals and conservatives have such a difficult time understanding each other. The only way to counter this, he suggests, is to construct more positive social connections and interactions, which break down the polarising dualisms that characterise political discourse in our time. We need to learn to appreciate all the various foundations of moral intuition, Haidt urges, which is possible only by engaging openly and honesty with one another.

While some might cry that reading books like these is to embark on the slippery slope of relativism, I find it useful to understand my own starting point and how my baseline takes me on a different trajectory from others around me. I grew up with Conservatives, some of them verging on the far-right (or already there). The conflation of Conservative values with Christianity is a messy reality and already I’ve been cautioned more than once to tread carefully and not throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater as I make steps in the opposite direction to ‘conservative values’.

I have no answers, just more questions each day. But part of the new joy I’ve found is a real trust that it’s going to be alright, that my salvation isn’t dependent on knowing the best answers. Well, thank God for that.