One of the enduring tendencies in human life is reaction. Unhappy with the prevailing tendencies of a person or group we oppose, especially in situations of sharp conflict, we swing sharply in the other direction. Oftentimes when we do so we end up reacting more than really necessary, rejecting everything about the “other.” These are the kinds of situations for which the phrase “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” was invented.
I first saw this growing up as a Roman Catholic boy in northern Virginia. Liberalizing trends in post-Vatican II Catholicism were deeply and fully apparent in my own early religious education. My church school teachers taught me little about the Catholic tradition, from which they seemed to be fleeing as rapidly as possible. And so when my group of 13-year-olds was to be initiated into the Catholic tradition via the confirmation process, we learned very little about the tradition into which we were inducted. I remember, instead, a whole lot of vaguely American self-esteem and self-actualization stuff: “I'm OK, you're OK.” It's good to know we are all OK, but that is not really what needs to happen in a confirmation class.
It should not come as a surprise that shortly after I was confirmed as a Catholic, I left the Catholic Church. I remember telling my mother that if this was all there was to Catholicism, I wanted no part of it.
By now I have a much deeper appreciation of the faith tradition in which I was raised. But I didn't gain that appreciation from the people who were responsible for imparting it to me. And I was lost to the Catholics forever. When I tell this story to Catholic leaders today, they tell me I was just one of millions of young Catholics similarly lost to the Catholic Church at that time.
At 16, I was led to a personally meaningful Christian faith through the loving mediation of a Southern Baptist church in Vienna, Va. Since then, it has been in the Southern/Southern Baptist context that I have personally witnessed the ebb and flow of religious conflict and reaction. Maybe it has been my role as a grafted-in outsider to this tradition that has helped me recognize and at least partially avoid some of the dynamics that have so troubled our faith community.
Ever since I started studies at Southern Seminary in 1984, I have encountered Baptist brothers and sisters who were kicking hard against the inherited religious patterns of traditionalist/conservative/fundamentalist Southern Baptist Christianity. Some seemed to define their personal and Christian identity by their very resistance to those patterns. If Southern Baptists were X, these folks were going to be not-X. Undoubtedly this was profoundly affected by the deepening conflict in the SBC at the time and the imminence of the victory of the conservative bloc.
And so (at the risk of overgeneralization):
• Where conservative Southern Baptists were legalistic, their opponents would emphasize personal freedom.
• Where conservative Southern Baptists made moral judgments of others, their opponents would stress toleration and not imposing your beliefs on people.
• Where conservative Southern Baptists were loud and passionate, their opponents would be cool and cerebral.
• Where conservative Southern Baptists proselytized, their opponents would focus on living out their faith.
• Where conservative Southern Baptists emphasized communally defined doctrinal purity, their opponents would highlight individual accountability before God alone.
• Where conservative Southern Baptists engaged in “God and country” politics, their opponents would emphasize strict disestablishment.
• Where conservative Southern Baptists were quite openly pious in their personal practices, their opponents would hold back a bit from such expressions.
• Where conservative Southern Baptists looked to fundamentalist and conservative evangelicals for partners, the disaffected would gravitate toward mainline Protestants.
Eventually, of course, the Southern Baptists and their opponents got divorced. It was an ugly divorce. The effects of the divorce are still felt today — in the lives of those who went through that trauma and in the culture of the institutions that evolved on both sides.
But now, at least in some quarters, fresh breezes are blowing.
At a place like my own McAfee School of Theology, where most students weren't even born when the fighting started, and where 30 percent of the student body consists of African-Americans who are for the most part conservative theologically and progressive politically, the old dichotomies are being transcended every day. It is clear here that the Baptist future will not look like the past and will not be defined by its battles and wounds. With vision unclouded by grief, reaction, anger or defensiveness, we can think in new (sometimes ancient) ways about the basic question of what it means to follow Jesus.
The new Baptist future will be kingdom-focused, centered on Jesus Christ, confident in the inspired Scriptures, passionate in sharing and demonstrating a winsome Christian witness while respectful of religious liberty, committed to the local church while gladly a part of the church universal, concrete and holistic in its moral convictions, racially and ethnically inclusive, eager to use the gifts of all God's people, loving and warm-hearted, thoughtful and well-informed, and constructively engaged with culture and public justice concerns.
That's a Baptist future worth getting excited about.
David Gushee is Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University.