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23.12.03

Jesus Is The Question

Philocrites has an inspiring post up in which he argues that Jesus is not the Answer, but the Question -- a paradoxical figure that refuses to sit still in any of our doctrinal boxes but invites us to chase after him in how we live our lives.

The connection between uncertainty and practice got me thinking about what I see as an important contrast between liberal and conservative religion*, in terms of their outreach. Conservative religion, as I've experienced it, emphasizes evangelism over stewardship, spreading the truth over doing good. It's a self-confident mission driven by that very theological certainty that they're pushing to unbelievers.

Liberal religion lacks that certainty. At its worst, it descends into inward-looking concerns, unwilling to exhort others to believe things that it isn't righteously convinced of. In doing so, it aspires to conservatism, awaiting that sort of certainty before bothering anyone else. At best, however, liberal religion turns to a focus on stewardship. This isn't stewardship in the mode that conservative religion practices it -- service to others as an expression or epiphenomenon or proof of their doctrine. It's service as an exploration, as a test of whatever the participant provisionally takes to be true and an opportunity to engage others in figuring it out.

Last year around this time I came across a moving story about being a recipient of charity (unfortunately I don't have the first clue what blog it was on -- if anybody knows, I'd love to link it, although perhaps the actual story doesn't suit my point here as well as my recollected version does*). The writer described how, when she was a child living in poverty, a charity-giver came to her apartment and left them a box of canned goods, filled with self-confidence about what a good deed he was doing. The writer and her mother were insulted by the way the man barged into their lives, gave them a miscellany of unwanted foods, and expected their gratitude (which the mother faked to get him to leave so that she could go to work). This man is a sort of caricature of conservative stewardship, convinced it has the answers and doing good deeds as an expression of its (presumed -- and perhaps in some cases correct) righteousness. My reaction at the time was of the wimpy liberal variety. I became self-conscious about the unsupported assumptions in any good deeds I might try, embarassed into feeling that I ought to just leave well enough alone until I was sure that my good deeds were actually good, rather than bothersome and condescending. But on further reflection, I think I see a better liberal response. Certainly, I don't want to disparage thinking ahead and trying to figure things out. But rather than being paralyzed by uncertainty, a liberal distributing charity might still have gone to the door with the box of canned goods, thinking there was a good deed in the making. But he would have seen the frustration of the author's mother, and perhaps made some realizations about their life and needs. Maybe his openness would have prompted a more honest dialogue. He would have gone away with a changed view of what it means to help the poor.

*I don't want to make any assumption that the contrast necessarily has anything to do with the inherent nature of conservatism and liberalism. It's a matter of epistemological stance, which is probably at most contingently related to the actual content of the theology.

*UPDATE: Via mattH in the comments, here is the original post I was thinking of.

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