Oct. 31 marks a holiday where many religious homes clash over how to view the relationship between material and spiritual reality.
As a young child in a church affiliated with the General Association of Regular Baptists, I experienced Oct. 31 through the innocent presence of dressing up as a pirate with my family and getting candy from my neighbors. But when we moved to a more fundamentalist, independent Baptist church, we were told the origins of Halloween were Satanic attempts by non-religious people to turn us into devil-worshipers. Instead of trick-or-treating, we were allowed to attend church-hosted fall festivals and hell houses held one week prior as opportunities to preach the gospel to our spiritually dead neighbors.
When I grew up and evolved into the conservative evangelical Reformed “baptistic” world, I was allowed to eat candy again on Oct. 31 because ultimate reality was seen as celebrating the doctrines of the Reformation. It was on Oct. 31 that Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany, and the gospel was recovered, which to us was cause for eating candy.
“The gospel was recovered, which to us was cause for eating candy.”
But then when I deconstructed my conservatism and entered into more liturgical spaces, I learned that Oct. 31 is All Hallow’s Eve, the evening before All Saints’ Day. This was an opportunity to remember those who had been martyred for their faith over the centuries, as well as an opportunity to scorn and ridicule death as it fades into the dawn of resurrection.
Christianity’s new Great Awakening
The passing from death to life or from darkness to light often is referred to in terms of waking up to what always has been true.
Every religious space I’ve been part of has spoken with great fondness of the Great Awakenings of the past. Every year, our independent Baptist churches would have at least one week of revival meetings held nightly at the church. And when I moved onto the world of conservative evangelicalism, we focused on the Reformation and rebranded our revival meetings as conferences.
But despite the rebranding of the events, the core theology remained the same. Everyone on the planet was separated from God, in danger of eternal conscious torment and could be made acceptable only by trusting in penal substitutionary atonement.
“We fantasized about the day when all our neighbors would suddenly flock to our church buildings and then begin to believe and vote like us.”
We fantasized about the day when all our neighbors would suddenly flock to our church buildings and then begin to believe and vote like us. The relationship between the material and the spiritual would be defined by society as we defined it.
Little did we know that the next great awakening would be happening not outside the church doors, but within the church as people who had long been committed to the system of separation became aware of how we were disconnecting material and spiritual reality and were becoming disconnected from ourselves.
A theology that begins with evolution
Despite the fact that we now believe the universe is a unified whole made up of relationships that cannot be separated, we live spiritually, mentally and emotionally in exile from ourselves and from one another. In Re-Enchanting the Earth, Ilia Delio says, “The roots of this breakdown can be traced to a complex of factors including industrialization, technology, consumerism, capitalism, radical individualism and religious otherworldliness.”
The Princeton medieval historian Lynn White believed Christianity bears much blame for earth’s ecological crisis due to its uncertainty regarding nature, its fixation with anthropocentrism and its escapist, “otherworldly” theologies. In other words, we have disconnected the spiritual from the material.
Delio agrees with White, adding that “the problem is compounded by ancient metaphysical principles, patriarchy and biblical literalism, all of which appear insuperable in institutional religion.”
She says the “artificial separation between humans and cosmos brought about by the alienation of religion from modern science lies at the heart of our moral confusion. … . Institutional religion will have to let go of everything that prevents engagement in the dynamic flow of evolution.”
“The church still relies on Medieval theology to explain the mysteries of Christian faith.”
In The Hours of the Universe, Delio says evolution “is neither a theory nor a particular fact, but a ‘dimension’ to which all thinking in whatever area must conform.” But unfortunately, when it comes to Christian theology, she says: “Although science has undergone three major paradigm shifts since the Middle Ages, the church still relies on Medieval theology to explain the mysteries of Christian faith.”
Because evolution is the story of the cosmos from which all theology emerges, she believes “a theology that does not begin with evolution and the story of the universe is a useless fabrication.”
What Christianity needs and is undergoing through conversations around deconstruction is a new awakening, revival, reformation or perhaps, more accurately, an evolution of faith regarding the relationship of the material with the spiritual.
Conferences on material and spiritual reality
Earlier this year, I covered two conferences that held different views of material and spiritual reality. While the Exiles In Babylon Conference spoke about spiritual reality, it ultimately denied the material reality, specifically with sexuality, that we exist in. And while the Conference on Religious Trauma helped those who have been traumatized by religion embrace the material reality we share, it was more geared for people who have left religion rather than for those who are attempting to remain in it.
Both conferences provided important conversations. But could there also be a conference for those who want to embrace our modern understanding of material reality while remaining in a Christian conversation about spiritual reality and integrating the two as one flow?
The Evolving Faith Conference
The Evolving Faith Conference was founded in 2018 by Rachel Held Evans and Sarah Bessey as an opportunity for progressive Christians who have found themselves in a spiritual wilderness to “embody resurrection for the sake of the world.” According to their website, they “envision a community where the thirsty become water-bearers, the hungry become bread-makers, the wounded are our healers, the misfits become friends, and the wanderers find a home.”
This year, Evolving Faith featured Barbara Brown Taylor, Brian McLaren, Chanequa Walker-Barnes, Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, Hillary McBride, Kate Bowler and many others.
The 2022 conference was held online. But the platform was not the average Zoom call we’ve become accustomed to. The speakers were featured live from an auditorium stage in Atlanta. The stage lighting, professional camera work and sound provided an experience that was very easy to enjoy watching.
They also provided an online experience that included chatrooms and private messages to interact with speakers or other attendees. Each session included an alternate ASL stream. They had spiritual guides ready to meet with anyone who needed to talk, moments of guided meditation, and private breakout rooms for BIPoC, disabled, neurodivergent, and LGBTQ communities, as well as for faith leaders and pastors, and white people who are deconstructing whiteness.
Access to view the Evolving Faith 2022 Conference may be purchased until Jan. 9, 2023.
Tasting death and embodying resurrection
In the first session, Jeff Chu began to name his experiences with death: “I’m sad because things around me keep dying. As I have tallied the death all around me, big deaths and little ones, the final death to which we’re all subject as well as the incremental deaths to which we subject one another, I’ve been struck by something about death. Sometimes we act as if death were a moment, as if it were a singular event, when in fact all the evidence around us points us to a different reality. For us, death is a culture. Death is our habit; death is our way of life.”
Yet, while acknowledging his sadness, Chu asked, “What does resurrection matter except to those who have tasted death?”
Because Chu believes that “resurrection is our inheritance,” he said: “Resurrection fills the silent space between me and a friend wise enough to listen to my lament. And then just to know that nothing else needs to be said aloud and everything can be communicated through presence. Resurrection is solidarity. I have tasted resurrection too, and I bet you have as well. Resurrection surrounds us. All these little resurrections point to a greater truth, a greater resurrection. Death will ultimately have no sting. Death will in the end not have the victory. Resurrection is God’s presence in all these tastes, all these glimpses, all these moments which mount in a rousing chorus about God’s steadfast love.”
He concluded his talk with a question: “What might it look like to make resurrection your culture, resurrection your habit, and resurrection our way of life?”
Being honest with material reality
One of the most brutally honest, direct and difficult sessions to grapple with was given by the Latinx liberationist theologian Miguel A. De La Torre.
“I embrace that hopelessness because hope domesticates the oppressed.”
“I’m not even sure if there’s going to be a Sunday resurrection,” he confessed. “I live in the Saturday because that’s where the vast majority of the world’s oppressed are living today. And to come into that Saturday and say, ‘Oh, all things work for good for those who are called according to God’s purposes,’ sounds cheap and dismissive. So I embrace that hopelessness because hope domesticates the oppressed.”
For De La Torre, being present in hopelessness prioritizes action more than theological correctness.
“I do not seek answers that lead me to a correct doctrine as to why people are suffering,” he said. “Instead, I am looking for correct action, correct practice, orthopraxis that I can employ fully aware that the injustice that my practices are meant to deal with may as well continue or even lead to my demise.”
He admitted that after he dies, “racism, ethnic discrimination, homophobia and all the other oppressive structures” will still exist.
So why bother pursuing justice?
“I don’t do it because I expect an extra ruby in my crown when I get to heaven. Now, I’m not even sure if there is a heaven. … But even if there isn’t, do I do the work of justice as a transactional agreement that I’m going to get something when I die? No, heaven forbid. I fight for justice because it defines the faith that I claim to have. And more importantly, it defines my very humanity.”
Evolving faith as becoming
The process of pursuing justice can be seen through the lens of evolution. Brian McLaren noted: “If the universe is evolving, if it’s on a trajectory, if it is currently moving as it appears to be from simplicity to complexity and from small to expansive and from lifeless to living and from unconscious to conscious and from isolated to interconnected, then every generation will need to rethink what it inherited.”
This is a conversation that should be familiar even to many conservative evangelicals. Many conservative evangelicals grew up in fundamentalist churches that banned such things as pants on women, drinking alcohol, or contemporary worship styles. And even though conservative evangelical churches remain hierarchical and very exclusionary, their churches feel like freedom to many former fundamentalists who rethought the many rules they inherited.
So in a sense, even if we reject biological evolution or the evolution of faith, the reality is that we are all evolving whether we’re aware of it or not.
Deconstruction as repentance
The gatekeepers and overlords of conservative evangelical hierarchy towers think progressive Christians and ex-evangelicals need to repent by going back under their authority. When John MacArthur told Beth Moore to “go home,” he was essentially telling her to submit to male dominated hierarchy.
But Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg sees repentance as a returning to a different kind of home. In her session, Ruttenberg said that teshuva — the Hebrew word for repentance — “literally means return. Like you’re coming back. And in modern Hebrew it actually still means that. It’s returning. It’s about coming back to where you are supposed to be before you erred, before you caused harm, before you sinned.”
Notice how she equates sin with causing harm. She continued: “After you have caused harm, you have to do teshuvah, you have to come back to your integrity, to your values, to your best self, to the person you’re supposed to grow into, to your relationship with God, with the divine, with the universe, whatever you want to call it, right? You need to come home because you have gone off someplace where you are causing harm, and that’s not where you’re supposed to be.”
Causing harm to others is by definition creating a power dynamic of hierarchy over them. So communal repentance would not be returning to a home under the hierarchy of men. Instead, it would be returning the place where you are in a spiritually healthy relationship with yourself and your neighbor.
The rest of the Evolving Faith conference explored what it looked like to come home to ourselves and to one another:
- Joyce Del Rosario spoke about learning how to listen.
- Alma Zaragoza-Petty illustrated how repentance is a reclaiming of our identity.
- Michael Curry, Charlene Han Powell and Canice Marie Benbow focused on themes of evolving faith and love.
- Kwok Pui Lan, Shane Clifton and Barbara Brown Taylor explored how evolving faith would affect the way we read the stories of Scripture, noting that “faith evolves or it passes away.”
- Artists such as Amena Brown, William Matthews, Propaganda and Maggie Smith shared their stories of coming home through poetry and song.
- Leila Ortiz and Kate Bowler described healing through the freedom of vulnerability and the justice of sabbath.
- Christina Beardsley, Jaeanelle Ablola and Eric Thomas discussed what it means to see the wild as your home even when your feet are “too soft and smooth for the wilderness.” They asked, “Will you accept an address in the wilderness?”
- Marco Saavedra, Naomi Washington and Sarah Bessey talked about who is included at the table, and how the table breaks down walls to bring nourishment for all.
The whole thing is a table
For 2,000 years, no matter how Christianity has evolved, one of our primary clashes has been over how to understand the material and spiritual nature of Jesus, and how Christians can participate in that reality through the material and spiritual nature of the Table.
“What we thought was love was actually mutually agreed upon like-mindedness.”
According to Jesus, our primary task is to love. But as Sarah Bessey said in her closing remarks, “What we thought was love was actually mutually agreed upon like-mindedness.”
Every exile is ultimately an “othering.” It is defining reality as separation — the separation of God and human, of human and cosmos, of tribe from tribe. And too often, deconstruction can be a flipping of the script.
But regarding her vision for Evolving Faith, Bessey said: “We are not going to give you a new script. … If all you have done is trade one script for a new one, you have missed the whole improvisation of the Spirit because you will lose your script again and again. … You will run out of your nice, tidy, carefully crafted new answers for everything from life to religion to atonement theories, and God knows what else we’re keeping ourselves busy with these days.”
In the Eden story of Genesis, there was no separation between the material and the spiritual. Home was where the material and the spiritual flowed as one. So perhaps the current great awakening we are experiencing is an awakening out of our exiles within and amongst ourselves to who we are and to who we are becoming.
As Bessey said: “We have always had kind of a rather simple vision for what we’re trying to do here. … It was just this table in the wilderness for all the questioners and the castoffs and the don’t-fit-anymores and the never-did-fit-to-begin-withs. And just a place where we could set up camp and have a feast and remember that shared language. But it’s not just part of what we’re doing here. It’s kind of a whole thing. The whole thing has been table, and you’re already there.”
Rick Pidcock is a 2004 graduate of Bob Jones University, with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Bible. He’s a freelance writer based in South Carolina and a former Clemons Fellow with BNG. He recently completed a Master of Arts degree in worship from Northern Seminary. He is a stay-at-home father of five children and produces music under the artist name Provoke Wonder. Follow his blog at www.rickpidcock.com.
What I’ve learned from Evolving Faith | Opinion by Tambi Brown Swiney