Where do you feel the greatest threat to having a healthy and Biblically weighted Christianity comes from? Do you feel the most pressing threat is from ‘the right’ (those more conservative than you) or is the danger you feel most keenly, from ‘the left’ (those more liberal than you)? I use the word ‘feel’ deliberately, because while we would all say that any extreme would be unwelcomed – we tend to have a stronger emotional reaction to one of them than the other.
We all like to assume that ‘where we’re at’ (theologically speaking) is the best place. Indeed it’s a logical necessity of holding a viewpoint or position that you think it is right one to have. If you felt your opinion on some matter was wrong or deficient you would change it to one you felt was better – obviously! So we think that those on ‘our right’ (regarding theology & practise) would be better to move a bit to their left – i.e. to where we are! And vice versa, as regards those on our left.
But it doesn’t take long to realise that one of those (as we see it) off-balanced positions tends to arouse stronger antipathy in us than the other. For myself feelings of emotional up-tightness and anxiety come predominantly when faced with those on my ‘left’. But that’s not because there is no-one to my ‘right’, or that I would want to be pulled in that direction. Nonetheless, the views & practises of those on my ‘right’ tend to unsettle me less psychologically. I might see extremes on my right as, ‘not helpful’, OTT, even a bit quaint – but I can engage with them feeling fairly relaxed. In contrast, when I feel pulled to the ‘left’ or sense the views and practises of those to my ‘left’ are pressing in or gaining ground, I can start to feel physically uneasy, tense and agitated. For me the theological shadows that I fear most are very much to the ‘left’ of me.
However, I observe the opposite in others - folks whose theological positions are pretty much the same as mine – that is, we would both want essentially the same kind of church and have the same general position re: our beliefs and practises. In contrast, however, the shadows they fear most are on their ‘right’. So while they can be relaxed when confronted with liberal-leaning theology and practises – they can quickly get stressed when they feel more conservative influences are knocking at the door. For them the ‘bogeymen’ they fear most come with black suits & hats as opposed to goaty-beards & toe-rings.
Past experiences will often play a big part in determining where our main fears lie. Of course, all this has implications, because even if the starting point is the same, those with an emotional aversion to the ‘right’ are more likely to get tugged over time ‘leftward’ and vice versa. Interestingly the drift of the church over past decades has generally been ‘left-ward’. Some of the reasons why ‘moving left’ theologically is much more common than ‘moving right’ are outlined HERE. In a subsequent post I’ll argue that the two directions are not equally dangerous in one key regard. But, for now, let me conclude my main point here with a final observation...
I think it’s helpful to see the part that our emotions play in how we react to different positions (at least it is for me). As noted, I personally start to feel uncomfortable when I feel the defences to the left are being slackened by those around me. This can happen in a discussion when the predominant criticism is towards more conservative thinking & practises, while liberal-leaning positions are more generously entertained. The reality though, is that often the essential beliefs of those in the discussion are the same as mine – the difference is in how individuals are reacting emotionally to alternative views. Recognising this is a big help in dissipating the social tension that can creep in at such times.
Which means that the next time you’re in a church/theological discussion, remember it may be that the tightening in your stomach is more experiential than exegetical, and that sometimes apparent differences are not so much about the light we should stand in but the shadows we fear.