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Confessions of a Conservative

by James R. Adams

James R. Adams is President, The Center for Progressive Christianity, which sponsors the Jesus Seminar. The following is a transcript from the 1997 Center for Progressive Christianity National Forum. Information and resources from the Center for Progressive Christianity are available at www.tcpc.org


Being new and just getting started, we always seem to be late in whatever we are doing. We hope that this year we will learn from our experiences and that we will get you the details about the 1998 Forum a little faster than we did this time. We didn't even decide to come to Houston until last September, and then it was an accident. We were talking about future places to hold a forum, and Helen Havens said, "Maybe someday you would like to come to Houston?" Five or six people turned and said, "Yes! How about next Spring?" I think we took her a little by surprise. She gulped, but then she said, "Okay." She immediately got on the phone to look for an open date. Helen, I can't tell you often enough how much we appreciate your willingness to jump in and get this wonderful group of yours together, to make us welcome, and to make it happen -- to feed us and to house us.

Now that we are here, I think that paying attention to what we stand for is important. We had a terrible time trying to choose a name that would give people at least a hint about who we are and what we are about. Human beings all need names and so do gatherings of human beings. You can't be just "that group". After much discussion, we settled on "progressive". Progressive--adapting to change and looking to the future--is fine, but I have never been happy with it. I wish we could have called ourselves The Center for Conservative Christianity, but the word "conservative" has been co-opted by some people that I don't think are the true conservatives. I think I am a conservative. You may have noticed that your speakers, all elderly gentlemen, wear coats and ties to address you. We are Conservatives! By conservative, I mean that everyone who has addressed you has some sense of conserving what we learned as children, what we want to continue into our old age, and what we want to pass on to the next generation.

What I Learned in Sunday School

I won't try to speak for Bill Lawson, Wes Seeliger, Bill Martin, and Dick Wheatcroft. I will say, as a child I learned to put Jesus at the center of my life. I grew up in a little town, in a little church that was a federation of Presbyterians and Congregationalists. I learned, from the time I could stand up, to sing a song that must have penetrated the deepest regions of my soul. Maybe all of you older people had to learn it, too. The song is, "Jesus Loves Me." Does anybody know it? Let's sing it. I'd like to hear you sing.

Jesus loves me this I know. For the Bible tells me so Little ones to him belong. We are weak, but he is strong. Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me. The Bible tells me so.*

You do know it. I think we believed it, and I think we still do. That is conservative. Jesus loves us.

The rhythm of weekly worship reinforced that understanding of the love of God through Jesus. In those ancient days, our parents took us by the hand. We went to Sunday School, and we went to church. We heard week in and week out that Jesus loves us, and it became important to keep up the rhythm the rest of our lives. That's conservative. We went to Sunday School, and we learned our lessons.

Not all of the lessons we learned were what the Sunday School teachers had in mind for us to learn, but we did learn. A Sunday School teacher told us that if we asked God for anything in faith, God would do it. I thought that this was wonderful news. My grandmother had given me the pocketknife that had belonged to my father when he was a child. It was a big pocketknife. We called it "the toad stabber". I was very proud of that knife, but I lost it. From what the teacher had said I thought if I prayed, God would give it back to me. That week, every night before I went to sleep, I prayed, "God let me find the toad stabber." But God didn't do what I asked. When Sunday morning came, I reported that the prayer didn't work. The Sunday School teacher informed me that I was impatient. I decided that I had been a little too demanding of God; I would give God a whole year to find that knife. I did. I prayed every night for a whole year, but God did not find the knife for me. As a consequence of this experiment with prayer, I learned in Sunday School class: First, don't trust Sunday School teachers. They lie. And second, don't trust God too much. That experience made me a thoroughgoing skeptic, which I have been ever since. That's not what the church intended for me to learn, but it was an important learning. It has shaped my life and my concern for other people who think that maybe Jesus loves them, but that maybe God won't do what they want.

Other times I think that I learned the lessons that the teachers wanted me to learn, but I didn't understand fully the implications of what they were teaching me. In that little church, the person who most influenced my life was not the minister, an English-born Congregationalist, but his equally English wife, Mrs. Tudor. I am sure she must have had a Christian name, but I never heard anyone use it. Mrs. Tudor was a fascinating person to all of us younger people because she didn't wear glasses with temples on them like mine. She had glasses that had a long chain attached to a button on her lapel. The chain inside the button was on a spring. To get her glasses on, she would pull down the chain like a window shade. She would place them on her nose and read to us out of the Bible. Then when she took her glasses off, she would pull down the chain and let it go, and zap, the chain would rewind. You had to pay attention to this woman. Mrs. Tudor once told me that with a voice as loud as mine I had to be either a lawyer or a preacher. I am sure her observation influenced the course of my life, but the most important thing she said to me was not so affirming. I was embarrassed, if not humiliated, by her response to something I said. It happened when we were in Vacation Bible School. It happened on the Flag Day that followed D-day. D-day was June 6, 1944, and Flag Day was June 14. We were having a Flag Day lesson, and Mrs. Tudor asked us to tell her about the American flag. I couldn't wait to speak. Call on me. "What can you tell us about the flag, Jimmy?" I proudly announced that our flag would soon be flying over Germany. Instead of applauding me, she looked sad. She said, "No. The Germans have to have their own flag. They have to be a free people." You see, God loved the Germans, too. A shocking idea. God loves Germans. Not long after that, Mrs. Tudor spoke up when the high school invited a group of black musicians to come and sing. In our little town, we had only one black person. Everybody loved John, but he was "different". The musicians came to our town, and nobody would let them sit in our restaurants or stay in a hotel. Nobody spoke up and said that this rejection was wrong, except Mrs. Tudor.

When I think about Mrs. Tudor, I think about a great big picture that hung in our Sunday School room. It was a picture of Jesus surrounded by children. They represented all the possible shades of skin color. They were wearing clothing that was once associated with the different continents before all kids in the world wore Reebok's and Levi's. Jesus loves everybody. God loves me, and God loves everybody. That's what I learned as a child. That's conservative.

Acting on Our Convictions

So how do we act out our conservative convictions? We act them out in the world, and we act them out in church. God loves everybody, but does that mean that everybody is welcome? Do we want everyone coming to the table, sharing the ritual meal? Most of my professional life, I have heard people trying to be open and welcoming. We are acting out the vision of Isaiah: God is creating a feast for all people. Is there anyone God left out? Some clergy think they are being inclusive when they say that they welcome all baptized Christians at the meal. That invitation leaves out an awful lot of the world's people. One Sunday at a church I attended in Pennsylvania, the celebrant appeared to think that he was being extremely inclusive when he said, "I welcome all baptized people and Quakers." In one of my E-mail conversations, an ordained minister in New York wrote that she tried to be inclusive. She invited to Communion "all who come in faith." I E-mailed back that she better check First Corinthians, Chapter Twelve. You know the message about the gifts of Spirit: to one is given the utterance of wisdom, to another the utterance of knowledge, to another faith, to another the gifts of healing. You might as well say, "I welcome everyone to the table who has the gift of knowledge." Would you say that? Or how about saying that only the people who have the gift of healing are welcome? What about the people who don't have any faith? Why is faith a necessity for coming to the table? Faith wasn't a necessary condition for Paul, and it wasn't for Isaiah, so why should it be for us?

Early in my adult life, I learned that Jesus loves everybody, not just believers, but also skeptical folks like me. Still I didn't learn all the implications of God's love for a long time. It was hard learning. I learned from my oldest daughter. You know what these oldest daughters are like. They are headstrong; they don't always do what their daddies tell them to do; and they argue. My oldest daughter went off to Smith College and came back saying she had lesbians in her residence hall. I was shocked; I was horrified. I tried to explain to Lesley that this was evil and wrong. She disagreed. I don't remember the whole conversation, except I do remember that she left the table in tears saying she had a hard time talking to her father about important subjects. Time passed. I finally got it. My daughter was living out the implications of what I had tried to teach her. If God loves everybody, God must love gays and lesbians. That's conservative, isn't it?

Listening to Our Critics

I am trying to figure out how we can carry on with what we think matters, which we bring with us from our childhoods, how we can be true conservatives. The best way to figure out what matters is to listen to our critics. Did you know that we have been around enough now to have critics? I am not talking about just the people who call us "renegade Episcopalians". Somebody wrote to me: "You Progressives don't care anything about people's behavior. You are going to let everybody in without any requirements." I wonder where they get that notion. We have it right in our eight points that we care about how people treat each other, but you know that our critics are using a code word. When they say we don't care about people's behavior, you know what they mean. They mean that we don't care about how an adult expresses affection for another adult in the privacy of their bedroom. That's what they mean, and it's true. We don't care. At least I don't. We care about other kinds of behavior. All real conservatives care about how people treat each other.

Last spring, I was back at the little church of my childhood, helping to celebrate the 125th anniversary of its founding. I told the story about how Mrs. Tudor had influenced my life. I told about the great big picture of Jesus and the children that I had remembered, and I reported my disappointment at not being able to find it in the Sunday school room. When someone assured me that the picture was still there, I found it right where it had always been. I had overlooked it because the picture wasn't nearly as large as I had remembered it. The next day, the congregation was reviewing the history of the church. The pastor, Maurine Hale, brought the little picture of Jesus and the children up into the pulpit with her and said, "Sometimes we forget what matters to us." She told a story that brought tears to my eyes, and I think I wasn't the only person there who wept. She said that we had one pastor who had left very quickly, and she couldn't find out why. "So I called him up," she said, "and he told me the story." He and his family had been entertaining at dinner a social worker from the neighboring town. The social worker had been trying to place two brothers of mixed racial parentage. The children's skin color was quite dark. In the conversation, the pastor and his wife admitted that they had been thinking about adopting. They thought they might like more children although they already had two little blond-haired girls. That was a Saturday night. Sunday morning the little six-year-old told her Sunday School class, "Guess what. I am going to have two black little brothers!" By 11:00 church time, people were not speaking to him. Shortly after this, the pastor and his family went on vacation. When they returned, they found a little note taped on the television set that said the personnel committee wanted to talk with him. At the meeting, members of the committee said, "If you bring a black child into this town, you are finished, and if you ever mention race in the pulpit, you are through." So rather than compromise his integrity, the pastor resigned. By the end of the month, he and his family were gone, and most of the people never knew why. After she told the story, Pastor Hale raised the question, "How did we forget what matters? Somehow we forgot that Jesus loves everybody." She said that the congregation's behavior toward the former pastor was a tragedy and must never happen again.

We care about behavior. I think everybody in this room cares a lot about behavior. We don't want behavior that is cruel or oppressive or exclusive. That's what it means to be conservative. How we treat each other matters. We can talk all we want about God and Jesus, but unless we can treat each other with love and compassion, all the talk will not matter.

We have other critics who call us other names. I had someone almost spit in my face saying, "Well, if we take what you say seriously, we might as well be Unitarians." What a terrible thought! I am glad to say we have a Unitarian with us at this forum. I am not really sure how God works. The day before I came here, I was picking up the printing. The printer insisted on introducing me to another customer -- a Harvard Divinity School student, one of Shelly Webb's classmates. He said that he is a Unitarian Universalist. He told me that they have a Christian fellowship of Unitarian Universalists at Harvard Divinity School. The printer was right to make the introduction. These are people we should get to know. I don't fully understand what mainline church people have against Unitarian Universalists. I think perhaps they are a little jealous. The UU church is growing rapidly, and the mainline churches aren't growing at all. Even the Baptists haven't been growing as fast as the Unitarian Universalists for the last two years. They are good folks! I want to make an alliance with them. If other people want to call us Unitarians, fine.

I didn't know that the other half of the Unitarian Universalist name was also a swear word until it was thrown at me. I was in the Carolinas leading an all-day workshop on evangelism. All through the workshop we had endured the muttering of a retired Episcopal clergyman who was obviously filled with anger. The next morning, after the worship service at which I preached, he said, "I've got you figured out. You! You are a Universalist!" I wish I had had the presence of mind to say what I had learned as a child. "Do you mean, do I believe that God loves everybody? Yes, that is what I learned as a little child in Sunday School. I believe that God loves everybody. I suppose that makes me a Universalist."

Another epithet critics have thrown at us was reported by an old friend of mine who was at our last forum, held in Columbia, South Carolina. He is active in community work. During the convention of his diocese, he was sitting at a table with some bishops, who were guests of the diocese. One of them said, "Did you hear about the awful group that met at the Cathedral in Columbia last spring?" My friend's ears perked up, and he said, "I was there, why?" One bishop responded, "They're a bunch of pagans, terrible people." My friend said, "I thought they were all right." Just then, as the bishops were blustering, their faces turning purple as they tried to explain to my friend what a dreadful group we are, he was called up and given an award as an exemplary Christian in the diocese. Apparently, God blesses pagans. Why not? If people want to call us pagans, I will accept the term because I believe that God loves pagans as much as God loves anybody.

Wanting to be Special

I have seen that many of us who call ourselves Christians really don't believe God loves everybody. We want to think God loves us specially. Jesus loves me and my kind, and not anybody else. My identity depends upon being special, being different, being better, being more loved than all those other people out there. The notion that God loves me better is the source of most, if not all, of the world's ills. If I think that God loves me more, if I think that I have better access to God than you, then I have the right to be in charge. I have the right to tell you what to think and what to do.

Just let your mind roam around this country and around the world -- right now. Think about the school system in Texas. Think about Northern Ireland. Think about what we used to call Yugoslavia. Think about Palestine and Israel. Think about India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Think about Rwanda. Then let your mind go back in history: inquisitions and crusades. True believers are the source of the world's misery. Is it possible to believe that God loves us all the same and that nobody is special? I think that is what I learned as a child. The trouble is that some people worry about how they can feel like they matter if they are not better than everybody else. How can you feel like you matter if you can't say, "God loves me more than God loves you?" Maybe that's too hard, but I think that is the message of the gospel. Some of those people who want to be special don't really think we can honestly say that we follow Jesus. We do follow Jesus, but we don't think that makes us better than other people. We follow Jesus because we learned through Jesus about God's love for us all. We don't have to say ours is the only way. We can say that Jesus is our way. That's why I tell you to read Wes Seeliger's book, Western Theology. In Wes's book, Jesus is a scout for pioneers who are on the trail. Why do we have a scout? We are going to lose our way if we don't have somebody to go ahead of us. So we have decided to follow Jesus. That's fine. Other people have other scouts. That's fine, too.

Some people worry about how we can be passionate about our religion if we don't think it is better than everybody else's. Do we have to be passionate about our religion? Julie Wortman told me we have to be, so I have been working on that ever since the September meeting of our Advisory Committee. Yet I wonder, how can you be passionate about ambiguity? How can you be passionate about perplexity? How can you be passionate about diversity?

Perhaps we can't all be passionate, but I think we can be compassionate. In our declarations about the Jesus whom we follow, we can insist that we conserve the best of what we know and what we have always known: God loves everybody, and it is up to us to demonstrate that love within our congregations and with our lives in the world. That to me is a conservative position, but I don't know what to call it except "Progressive Christianity".

 

* At the conclusion of my remarks, Sandy Havens -- The Director of the Rice University Players and the husband of Rector Helen Havens -- stood to report the words of a song once popular in Texas bars: "Jesus loves me, but he can't stand you."


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