by Will Small

This post is part of a loosely themed series called ‘God in Skin’. It will still make sense on its own but if you want to follow a longer flow you can go back and read the previous posts.
Click here for part 1, part 2 or part 3.

How did we get here? 

In the last decade there seems to have been both a resurgence of hardcore, reformed theology, attracting fresh neo-calvinist recruits to the cause of rebuking the evils of ‘liberal Christianity’, alongside simultaneous waves of ‘exvangelicals’ finding solace in podcasts that deconstruct and critique every aspect of the faith many of us grew up with. 

The result is a pretty disorienting landscape. There are corners of Christianity that seem so intent on post-post-post-enlightenment-new-age-spirituality that what remains is a bland, politically correct wash of confusing and nebulous views. While other corners so condemn the ideas of progress and open-minded conversation that they white-wash the evils of the past and insist on dragging the church back to the ‘good old days’ of ‘true’ Christianity as espoused by the Puritan forefathers who (inconveniently) owned slaves and hated Jewish people. 

I admit these sentiments are simplistic and unfairly represent people with complex views — but perhaps examples from the extreme ‘edges’ serve to remind us of something that is true, and has probably always been true, long before this cultural moment. 

Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. 

And there will always be a tug of war between tradition and progress.

The impulse to hold onto the past can come from a noble and beautiful place, not wanting to lose the best of what has come before us, and seeking to preserve the wisdom of those who have laid the foundations for the very paths we walk on. 

The impulse to move forward into the future can come from an inspiring and wonderful place, wanting to cut loose from all that has caused harm, and see new and alive ways of putting fresh skin on a faith that deserves to be as potent and energised as it was when the women first discovered an empty tomb. 

Neither tradition or progress is evil on its own,

and yet, 

surely they can both become idols, 

can’t they?  

Cards on the table, the majority of my theological views would generally be classified as progressive. I don’t feel the need to hide that. But I have always felt uneasy with these simplistic labels we throw around: ‘he’s a conservative!’; ‘she’s a liberal!’; ‘that’s orthodox!’; ‘that is heresy!’ Are we not more complicated than this? Is there not space within us to hold multiple perspectives at once?

Sometimes when I listen to the to and fro between the traditional and progressive impulses within me (and they are both there), I find an alternative that pushes me beyond the simple claims existing at either extreme.

Sometimes people call this non-dualism. The rejection of an either/or approach to life. Developing a non-dualistic approach to spirituality is a lot more difficult than throwing rocks from our preferred side of the fence. But I think it’s kind of the whole point of any spiritual path worth its salt, right?

Undeniably, Jesus was a master of non-dualism. People repeatedly tried to back him into a corner with questions that were intended to reveal which label to slap on him. And he basically always refused to play that game. Quick example (slightly paraphrased from Mark 12:15-17):

“Jesus, should we pay our taxes?”

Expected answer a) “No way, let’s overthrow these Roman tyrants already!
Expected answer b) “Sigh. Yes. My teachings are a cute distraction, but the empire still rules the day.

Unexpected non-dualistic answer: “Sure, go ahead and give that dude the coins with his face printed on them. But you bear the image of God, and understanding that could ignite a much deeper revolution than those swords and spears will.

It is a difficult muscle to grow, but non-dualism insists that life isn’t just a tug-of-war your team needs to win. And if it is a tug of war, it’s happening at some kids birthday party and everyone there is a KID (at a party!) You don’t ‘win’ the party by winning the party games. Quite the opposite; bullies who win don’t always get invited back.

So, next time you feel tempted to dig your heels in and feel the rope-burn between your palms, what if you took a deep breathe, and asked: is there another way to look at this? What is motivating the person on the other side of this rope? A little curiosity here might even see us attempting to love our enemies? And what if, for many of us grappling with this tug of war of faith, our ‘enemies’ aren’t ‘out there’ in other spaces, but right within our own tradition?

Maybe what we set up as oppositional, are best viewed as counterweights, that can, if we handle them well, carry us forward, while honouring the story of where we came from. Maybe it was always meant to be this way?

Please insert nuance here. Because I’m not saying we don’t need prophetic fire. I’m not saying there aren’t parts of our lineage that we absolutely and wholeheartedly need to reject. I’m not saying every idea is equal.

And genuine non-dualism isn’t just conflict avoidance.

It’s learning to resist polarisation,
look for complexity,
and be confident in your convictions
while compassionately honouring the God-breathed humanity of those most different from you.

If I zoom the microscope in, from global systems to this little human life I inhabit – I can be at war with the conflicting parts of myself, or I can create a conversation between them. And maybe, just maybe, if we can learn to be honest and gentle with our own internal contradictions, we could start extending others the same treatment?

This doesn’t make it easy though. And having the courage to examine our own internal contradictions and our cultural and social positioning may lead us to some confronting places. May you walk that path with courage and kindness, in equal measure.

And may you, like Jesus, resist the simple labels and find fresh angles for looking at old conflicts.

Questions to chew over/chat to someone about:

  1. How do you feel about the tug of war between ‘tradition and progress’?
  2. What do you think each of these have to offer us at their best?
  3. What are the blind spots on either side of this divide?
  4. Do you know anyone who demonstrates a non-dualistic approach to faith and spirituality?

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