Do No Shared Christian Convictions Remain?

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Do No Shared Christian Convictions Remain?

Just a few weeks ago over 100 “faith leaders” signed the “Covenant for Civility,” calling Christians to civil dialogue across their differences. Who could be opposed to the call to reasonable dialogue? What could be controversial about asking Christians to be Christ-like in how they defend their Christian convictions?

Yet the responses to the Covenant have been as revealing as the Covenant itself. Shortly after the Covenant was signed, Dr. George O. Wood, general superintendent of the Assemblies of God, asked that his name be removed from the list of signatories. Juleen Turnage, spokesperson for the Assembles of God, explained Dr. Good’s reason for his action. In the process, she explicitly rejected the possibility of any “big tent” within which all Christians might stand:

“The problem is the tent that has grown so large on the signatures of this that are including people who are supportive of gay marriage and abortion rights,” Juleen Turnage, spokeswoman for the Assemblies of God told Religion News Service. “He (Wood) just felt that he could not become a part of a large tent.”

Daniel Schultz, a UCC pastor in Wisconsin, cites this response in today’s blog on He uses it as the occasion to fire back a matching salvo:

“The long and the short of it is this: the Christian Century-mainline church crowd should really think twice before signing on to one of these wild goose chases. They always promise more than they can deliver. The fact of the matter is that the American right wing, religious or otherwise, is only interested in meeting you halfway insofar as ‘halfway’ is defined as you changing all your positions to match their own. It’s all very nice for them to be civil—as long as you give up on gays, lesbians, reproductive rights, and probably a whole laundry list of other positions.”

The symmetry between Rev. Schultz’s piece and those whom he’s attacking is perfect. Schultz rejects dialogue with evangelicals because they’re too far to the right. This drives him further to the left, and now he doesn’t want to be found in any tent they are in.

The whole exchange shows even more strongly how urgent it is to reclaim a Big Tent Christianity, a centrist return to “just Christian” in word and action. The two poles are driving each other ever further apart, spawning ever deeper hostilities. The solution — in American society as in the church — certainly is not to let the other’s anger fuel my own. As leaders it’s our task to help break the cycle of anger, of rejection leading to rejection, and to foster a radically different understanding of the heart of Christian faith.

Does the exchange make me worry that the public conference on “Big Tent Christianity” that we’re planning for Raleigh, NC on September 8-9 is a mistake? No, it seems even more urgent than before to invite the combatants to lay down their weapons and to look for something deeper and more enduring in Jesus’ call to the kingdom of God.

— Philip


Jeff Phillips

April 24, 2010at 10:33 pm


I appreciate your response, but is every verse of the bible open to interpretation? Wouldn’t that mean that the bible would be whatever it means to me? Doesn’t that view contradict directly 1 Peter 1:20 which states that “…no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation.” What I’m struggling with from what I think your view is with, say, someone like Marcus Borg, who has stated repeatedly that he does not believe Jesus was God on earth, but merely a man, how do we worship the same Jesus? If Jesus was not God then our sin is not forgiven, as only the sacrifice of the sinless, perfect fully God, fully man, Son of God could cleanse me of my sin. How is it open to intepretation that Jesus was born of a virgin, when it is taught in both the Old and New Testament? If somone worships a Jesus not born of a virgin, conceived by the Holy Spirit, how can we worship the same Jesus? How is it open to interpretation that Jesus is the only way to the Father, the “only name under heaven by which man must be saved,” when Jesus states this Himself and it is confirmed by Luke in Acts? I understand threre are many verses open to interpretion, but when th bible states something crystal clear, over and over, why is there any need for interpretation? Shouldn’t we just take it for what is clearly stated?

Jeff Phillips

April 24, 2010at 10:49 pm

John King,

Well said and accurate, but how do you reconcile that we have “one Lord” with someone who denies Jesus was born of a virgin, was God on earth, was the lone sacrifice for mankinds sins and that He was bodily and spiritually resurrected? How is someone who denies those things worshipping the same Lord as someone who does believe those things which are clear doctrine in the bible? We can disagree on many things and most definetely should work together across denomintional lines and differences to a certain extent, but how can someone like me who believes in a literal reading of the bible except when clear allegory is used, be reconciled with someone who does not view scripture this way and in doing so denies the clear, biblical representation of Jesus? Jesus told us we need a “faith” like a little child. The gospel is not complicated if we just take God at His word, instead of making it try to say what we want it to say. How is compromising clear doctrinal truths, for the sake of ecumenical peace, in any way good for the body of Christ?

John L

April 27, 2010at 11:26 am

I just saw that three of Dr. Clayton’s books are being offered as prizes for joining the Metanexus Institute. Anyone with an interest in the intersections of science and spirit should consider joining. I’m a member and can attest to the excellent work they are hosting.

From the website:

The Metanexus Institute, founded in 1997, promotes the transdisciplinary approach to research and education about the most profound questions of nature, culture, and the human person. Metanexus serves an ever-growing network of locally-acting, globally connected scholars, researchers, teachers, students, and ordinary citizens committed to exploring our world from a rich diversity of intellectual, cultural, and spiritual perspectives. Metanexus conducts innovative research projects, hosts international conferences, holds engaging lectures, and publishes an award winning e-magazine, the Global Spiral. More than 11,000 creative and visionary people from over 40 countries have participated directly in our programs, and our online publication garners more than 280,000 page views per year.

Our key interests include the development of rigorous transdisciplinary methodologies, the question of the possibility of the unity of knowledge, the constructive engagement of science and religion, the quest for wholeness, and ultimately the transformation of the university to restore the pursuit of wisdom to the center of its mission. We like to say that we’re “seeking the whole story of the whole cosmos for the whole person.”

John King

April 30, 2010at 8:31 pm

Dr. Clayton,

A very good review of your book Transforming Christian Theology on the blog of Thomas Jay Oord. I follow his blog and have found his comments very helpful.


May 5, 2010at 5:30 pm

Philip, both you and Brian Mclaren came to faith in Christ under the aegis of the “old story”. Now you want to come up with a “new story” to present the Triune God. The acid test for the new story you come up with is whether it will pass faith in Jesus on to the children of those who believe in the new story and also pass it on to new converts. Obviously a previous attempt to update the gospel failed in the mainline denominations as their children didn’t pick up the torch and few if any converts arrived and embraced the liberal gospel of “who can know if the tomb was empty ( but probably not), but there is a God we think somehow, and the Bible has good moral teachings, but in any case let’s be nice people and help the poor and stand up for abortion rights and it will all work out for the better if we’ ll try hard and spread love and kindness”. If the new story doesn’t pass this test (only time will tell if it does), it will be a parasite that gains converts from those converted or influenced by the old story and for some reason have grown dissatisfied, something like a high end Mormonism or Jehovah Witnesses.


May 5, 2010at 5:45 pm

Rephrasing the above – What is the “children’s version” of theology transformed or the new story you would use for the new convert, the uneducated, the child, for that is where it all starts in real life and our growth and maturing is but a deepening and expansion of that original story.

Brian Brandsmeier

June 18, 2010at 9:27 am

It’s hard to rally people behind a moderate message. It’s easier to rally people behind something bold (e.g. liberal or conservative). I’m not saying this is right or wrong. But it just seems to be the way the culture right now. We live in the culture of the bold. The trick is to make sure we don’t attack the other bold people who may disagree with us. And this makes “big tent” movements especially important. But “big tent” movements don’t mean we need to meet in a smaller, moderate tent. Or only be allowed in the tent if we promise to leave our commitments, perspectives, and uniquenesses behind.

I’m very supportive of interfaith and ecumenical collaboration. One of my professors in my seminary days was Michael Kinnamon, who inspired me to care deeply about the helpful and important work that is done through these collaborations. This is especially important in a dualistic, us-versus-them culture. But a commitment to collaboration doesn’t require us to meet in the middle – or be something we’re not. Instead, it requires that we bring our authentic selves to meet the authentic selves of others.

I recently joined the Consultation of Religious Communities, an interfaith council composed of more than thirty religious communities and related agencies. We don’t pretend to all be the same. We don’t leave our uniquenesses behind. We don’t all pretend to meet in a safe middle ground. Instead, Jews some as Jews, Muslims come as Muslims, Catholics come as Catholics, Protestants come as Protestants, etc. Instead of a grey melting pot, we form a colorful tossed salad.

Here’s the color I bring: I’m a feminist, earthist, ONA pastor. And this kind of pastor for many Biblical and moral reasons. I’m also compelled by process theology and open theism. To some, these commitments put me in the “liberal” camp. And if it does, then that’s were I stand. I can do no other. My hope is that others are allowed to stand where they feel compelled to stand, too. I fully realize that my perspective will be different than other people’s perspectives. It’s the dialogue and collaboration between diverse peoples that makes the collaborative dialogue and work interesting.

Rather than attempting to unite everyone in a mushy middle, why not use a more postmodern approach that honors unity-in-diversity. Many diverse peoples united under one “big tent.” Liberals, moderates, and conservatives can be unified despite our different commitments, perspectives, and uniquenesses. To use the language of Apostle Paul, we’re each different members of the one and same body.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his book The Dignity of Difference, says it best:

“Difference does not diminish; it enlarges the sphere of human possibilities. Our last best hope is to recall the classic statement of John Donne and the more ancient story of Noah after the Flood and hear, in the midst of our hypermodernity, an old-new call to a global covenant of human responsibility and hope. Only when we realize the danger of wishing that everyone should be the same — the same faith on the one hand, the same McWorld on the other — will we prevent the clash of civilizations, born of the sense of threat and fear. We will learn to live with diversity once we understand the God-given, world-enhancing dignity of difference.”

Philip Clayton

June 18, 2010at 9:43 am

Dear Friends, I’m sorry I went silent & didn’t respond in a timely manner to your last posts. Way too much travel, too much time on the road, too many publication deadlines. I’ll do better in the future. I propose doing a post that addresses John and Jeff’s closing concerns, and a separate one that responds to Brian Brandsmeier. (Brian, your post actually inspired some intense discussions with other Christian leaders, and has actually led me to change how I will present my message in the future. I don’t want to respond as the 58th response to this older post, but in a fresh blog.)

For years I wrote theology books where the only responses I got were in other publications and debates at professional meetings. By the time the responses came in, one had already moved on to other topics. Your responses come in while the thoughts are still fresh. As a result, my thinking evolves in dialogue with you. This is an amazing change, and I value it very much. So thanks!

— Philip

Brian Brandsmeier

June 18, 2010at 10:16 am

Thank you for your work and ministry. You have changed my perception of theological scholarship, re-interested me in academia, and given me much hope for the future of the Church. Please keep engaging us and exploring with us. And keep on bloggin’ away!

Big Tent Christianity » Blog Archive » Announcing the Big Tent Christianity Synchroblog, August 9-13

July 28, 2010at 4:45 am

[…] (coming up September 8-9 in Raleigh, NC), has written about “big tent Christianity” before and said this: “[It is] urgent … to reclaim a Big Tent Christianity, a centrist return to ‘just […]

Ian Carmichael

August 1, 2010at 11:41 pm

Here’s something I wrote for our local paper’s ‘faith’ column. I think it’s relevant here as well:


Technology, Entertainment and Design. (TED for short: It’s has interesting, challenging, thoughtful speakers. Speakers who sometimes can refocus thinking into new clarity.. I was pointed to a TED video by Seth Godin about “The Tribes You Lead”. He was speaking about the way we connect in communities and the change which that can bring to our impact on world circumstances. This fired me up to think about belonging to tribes, and different ways of relating across tribal boundaries.

How are we connected in this world? We have communities of interest: our hobbies, sports and other recreations. We have workplace communities, political memberships, religious communities. And there are more communities we can be, or are connected to. We belong to the groups we do because we love the activities, the people, the culture, the results…

But what about the other ‘tribes’? Often between the tribes there is a history of hostility. The team rivalries and conflicts. Union demarcation disputes. Distinctions which became walls between religious denominations… If we belong with one group, the assumption seemed to be that we must be opposed to the others. Yet, we could wonder – although we somehow seem to have learned conflict between the ‘tribes’ – must it be so?

Can we be proud, without being prejudiced? Can we grant difference, without divisiveness? I think you can, I think I can, I suspect we must. It requires a mindshift. We haven’t usually thought in peacable ways across the tribes. We’ll need to be able to be FOR something, without being AGAINST someone. Our historic training and our public culture doesn’t like that: conflict is deeply woven into our experience. Our histories have often not been pretty, blighting our past and clouding our present. Our practice of contemporary culture: current affairs, reality TV and other media are centred on conflict and opposition: seemingly the more extreme the better.

We can be better than that. And Jesus, as he trained his disciples, taught them so. One day they came to him saying that they’d met someone working in His name, but they stopped him, because he was not one of them. Jesus told them to leave him be “Whoever is not against you is for you!” (Just because this person wasn’t one of them, didn’t mean he wasn’t one of His!)

We can belong with fewer barriers around us and our tribes than we usually do, if we take seriously the boundaries which Jesus draws and stop drawing our own.

Best wishes

Ian Carmichael

Ian Carmichael

August 2, 2010at 5:55 am

Aargh! I didn’t recognise the double paste in my last post. Sorry. I didn’t think it was THAT good!

Blog Administrator

August 4, 2010at 7:36 pm

No problem. The duplicate has been removed.

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