Conviction without Evangelicalism 27 December 2014

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Andrew Grey explores whether there can be a middle ground between proclaiming your religious faith at every opportunity and hiding your personal beliefs.

A well-known, vulgar and probably controversial online meme compares having religious faith to having a penis. Please excuse the vulgarity as I quote it here:

“It’s fine to have one. It’s fine to be proud of it. But please don’t whip it out in public and start waving it around.  And please don’t try to shove it down my children’s throats”.

The message here about religious faith will resonate with a lot of people – religious and non-religious alike. There is little as effective at putting a new acquaintance off you than talking about your religious faith – it is certainly not advisable to open with it at parties. Indeed, philosopher Richard Rorty declared religion a guaranteed “conversation-stopper” – the moment one’s religious convictions are part of an argument, there is nowhere for the conversation to go, so it simply shuts down.

As a typically reserved, slightly awkward British person, I am inclined to steer clear of anything that would be a conversation-stopper, especially when meeting new people. This hasn’t always been the case – in my former, more conservative evangelical days, I relished opportunities to discuss my faith. At secondary school there was not a single person who knew me who did not know of me as a proud Christian; I proudly co-founded and led the school’s Christian Union, and spoke boldly of my faith in school assemblies in front of hundreds of fellow pupils. A committed member of an evangelical church, I relished public displays of faith – Good Friday walks, Palm Sunday processions, open-air services. I was determined to get the message across to anyone who would listen.

EvangelismSuch passion is not uncommon amongst Evangelical Christians – unsurprisingly, given that proclaiming the good news is the essence of the term ‘evangelical’. But amongst many Christians who would consider themselves under various other labels – ‘liberal’; ‘progressive’; ‘scholastic’, this passion is often lacking, if not entirely absent.

Again, this is not unexpected – religious believers in the latter category tend to approach faith with a more critical eye, with more nuances and caveats, and openness to diverse interpretations, in contrast to the bold truths that those of more conservative shades tend to proclaim.

But need that critical eye bring with it a cooling of all passion? Does openness to diverse readings of Scripture demand the eradication of conviction? Is there not a via media between Rorty’s “conversation-stopping” religious intervention and treating religion as an elephant-in-the-room?

It might seem that the nature of a more critical faith necessitates this. Most conservative evangelical Christians, for instance, believe that Christ is the only way to God, and those who fail to find God via this route are doomed to eternal suffering (with notable exceptions like Rob Bell, author of Love Wins). It isn’t hard to see why such a belief would motivate a religious believer to be passionate about their faith.

But if one believes God can reach people through other religious traditions, and finds the concept of eternal suffering and isolation from God incoherent with the notion of God’s love as universal and unconditional, there is no longer an urgency to ‘convert’. People’s eternal destiny is no longer in one’s own hands, but is left to God.

Without this obligation, the passion and conviction seemingly disappears. Often, Christians of more liberal shades, far from declaring their faith boldly, bend over backwards to avoid acknowledging it. Some might choose not to fill out the “Religious views” section on their Facebook profile. Alternatively, they try and find any other term but “Christian”, or use the term, but qualify it as quickly as possible: “Christian –liberal, that is”; or in person (and I’ve certainly been guilty of this one), responding to questions about their faith with: “Well, I’m Christian, but I’m not like lots of other Christians…”

Surely there is a middle ground? Can’t non-Evangelical Christians have conviction, even be “evangelical” insofar as they believe that salvation in Christ is Good News, without becoming paternalistic or imposing?

Thankfully, it seems this is a possibility – but it is most evident outside the Church. Around the country are many members of other faiths – Islam, Sikhism, Judaism, for instance – who practise their faith without feeling the obligation to convert everyone around them to it. Yet in most cases, their faith is expressed without disguise. It comes through in their regular worship rituals, their values, and their way of viewing the world. 

Religious people cannot and should not consistently hide their beliefs in public – these are part of who they are, intrinsic to their way of existing in the world. Instead of shying away from faith as if ashamed of it, or taking the opposite extreme of declaring one’s faith in the hope of persuading others to adopt it, Christians can and should learn to acknowledge their beliefs where relevant, practise their religion without shame, and stop apologising for it. Conviction is not exclusive to conservative evangelicalism.

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About Andrew Grey

Andrew Grey graduated from the University of Oxford with BA and MPhil degrees in Theology. He is a Writer and Editor at a national charity. The opinions expressed in his articles are his own.