Thoughtful. Independent. Moderate?
A tagline for The Pietist Schoolman
I’m a Bethel professor who attends a Lutheran church, so it shouldn’t surprise anyone that I’m also one of those evangelicals who reads The Christian Century.
Earlier this year the flagship magazine of mainline Protestantism not only went through a redesign, but introduced a new tagline: “Thoughtful, independent, progressive.” It stuck with me, since two-thirds of the tagline could (hopefully) describe this newsletter. And the other word? Well...
Thoughtful. It’s the word I’m always happiest to see when readers share my work on social media. So I’d like to think that what Century editor Peter Martysays of his publication could describe my newsletter as well: “Thoughtfulness is not only one of the finest fruits of life, it’s at the heart of all good writing. At the Century we prize reflective writing that’s clear, considerate, and intellectually rigorous… Courage and humility remind us that convincing others of what they should believe and think is not our mission.” Likewise, I hope anyone reading my attempts to “think in public” will come away not necessarily convinced of something, but seeing the complexity of an issue a bit more clearly — or, at least, from a different perspective.
At its best, the Century is also thoughtful in ways that go beyond what you might expect a Christian publication to think about. Recently, for example, it published an excerpt from philosopher Mary-Jane Rubenstein’s new book on “the dangerous religion of the corporate space race.” Likewise, I want The Pietist Schoolman to be a place where you might come to read a devotion on Scripture, a reflection on a chapter in the history of Christianity, or just a Christian scholar wrestling with some aspect of education, war, literature, or some other topic.
Independent. Though originally published by the Disciples of Christ, The Christian Century has long insisted that is “under obligation… to no society, no denomination, and, therefore, is in a position to speak its convictions concerns events or personalities or doctrines or institutions without let or hindrance from any established interest whatsoever.” I hope readers know that I speak as freely, often commenting on — even critiquing — the institution that employs me.
But always out of love, and in the hope that what I write might help Bethel — like the church it serves — be reformed when amiss and redirected when in error. Like the editors of the Century, I try to speak not “as a detached and irresponsible outsider, but as a sympathetic and loyal insider, from the bosom of the church itself.” I admire what Marty calls the magazine’s “rooted and independent” spirit, and likewise aspire to be “loyal without being servile.”
Progressive? Here’s where things get complicated.
“Although for many people this word denotes a political label,” Marty defines The Century as being progressive because “it represents a kind of Christianity we take to be broad-minded and forward-looking… grounded in theological commitments that are open and expansive, not closed and exclusive.” Now, “broad-minded and forward-looking” Christianity in this context often seems to walk in step with progressive politics. But I understand what he means.
At times, progressive even resonates with me, as a political and (less so) theological description… but only to some extent. In more progressive spaces, I often find myself thinking of conservative counter-arguments. And vice versa. Before writing this post, I took two political typology quizzes: one placed me on the “ambivalent right”; the other plotted me as just barely into its left-libertarian quadrant.
I think Amar Peterman is probably right that “Both ‘conservative’ and ‘progressive’ are handcuffs that align us with an in-group and ultimately distract us from thinking and acting with charity, nuance, and love. When we take on these identities as our own, we allow them to form our imagination of faith, our world, and the ideological ‘other.’ We also place ourselves within the social commitments that these labels hold which limit our ability to speak truth in love.”
So where does that leave me? I’m tempted to substitute moderate, but less confidently than the other two terms.
When I say I’m moderate, it’s not because I’m interested in claiming the middle ground on a political (or theological) spectrum. Instead, using moderate as an adjective reminds me to use it as a verb and consciously restrain two of my more problematic tendencies: to make decisions too impulsively and emotionally, and to insist that I’m in the right too quickly and too stubbornly. When I call myself moderate, I’m telling myself to slow down and live out the first two words in the tagline: to have the thoughtfulness necessary to embrace complexity and practice humility and empathy, while maintaining the independent-mindedness necessary to resist any obligation to institution, group, or doctrine that might make me compromise core convictions.
But even then, I’m inclined to stick a question mark after moderate, since it’s not always something to aspire to. I can’t see that word without thinking of how Martin Luther King Jr. used it in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,”to describe the supposed white ally of the civil rights movement
who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can't agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by the myth of time; and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.”
King’s line about “the absence of tension” is particularly convicting to the part of me that worries that my high-minded language about complexity and humility is mere rationalization for my instinctive aversion to conflict and confrontation — what MLK himself deliberately meant to provoke (non-violently) as a means to the end of social change. After all, sometimes the most thoughtful, independent thinker can only conclude that progress demands the “extremism” of which people as moderate as me accused King in 1963. “Freedom is total or nothing,” editorialized The Christian Century later that year. “An equality which is negotiable is by definition inequality.”
So for now, let’s put the tagline this way: Thoughtful. Independent. Moderate?
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Also pastor of an ELCA church in the Quad Cities. And yes, the church historian is his father. His brother John was my state senator for many years.
Published in the June 12, 1963 issue of The Christian Century, among other publications.