Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Paradox of the Evangelical Ecumenist: Panel Remarks on Oberlin II, Regional AAR 2008

Here are my remarks for an upcoming panel assessing Oberlin II at the regional AAR meeting:

An American evangelical at a meeting of the National Council of Churches of Christ is like a fish out of water. Or, for some participants, the more apt metaphor would be a bull in a china shop. Either way, the evangelical experience at Oberlin II was ripe with paradox. This apparent contradiction flows not only from the polarized history between American evangelical communities and American ecumenical organizations, but also from the complex shifts within recent American evangelicalism. The younger evangelical emerges both out of and away from her received evangelical identity. Situated within this web of conflicting identities, a number of tensions significantly condition the role of the younger evangelical participant at Oberlin II. In this essay, I will identify six such tensions and then consider some means for constructively navigating these tensions. My hope is that by careful and creative reflection, the paradox of an “evangelical ecumenist” will be shown to be a genuine paradox: that is, an apparent rather than real contradiction.


The six tensions I want to identify can be categorized into three groups: the historical, the representational, and the methodological. The historical category concerns how an evangelical ecumenist narrates his or her identity vis-à-vis the ecumenical movement. Two such tensions were evident at Oberlin II. The first is the tension between “left out” and “opt out” narratives. Do we understand ourselves as those who were left out of the ecumenical conversation? Or do we understand ourselves as those who opted out of it? For some evangelicals, an analysis of the documents of the first Oberlin meeting betrays an ignorance concerning the dynamic variety of American evangelicalism. It is reasonable to suggest that, at least in this early stage, the ecumenical movement was less than hospitable to certain forms of evangelicalism. An evangelical ecumenist can appeal to this “left out” narrative in order to explain the shift from non-involvement to involvement.

However, evangelicals must also acknowledge the extent to which they opted out of ecumenical dialogue. Both the separatist streams of fundamentalism and the sectarian forms of revivalism have a long history of principled non-participation. Coming to terms with this “opt out” past is part of the process of understanding one’s move towards involvement. Although one must necessarily move beyond this stance in order to participate, the logic of opting out must be understood in order to properly represent these kinds of communities.
And so the evangelical ecumenist operates within this tension between a “left out” narrative and an “opt out” narrative. It was not uncommon to hear at Oberlin both of these narratives from the mouths of younger evangelicals – sometimes both from the same mouth. Clearly the two narratives are not mutually exclusive. But strategically negotiating this tension is a challenge for the evangelical ecumenist.

The second historical tension is between conservative and liberal readings of evangelicalism. Do we understand ourselves as those who conserve a traditional faith? Or do we understand ourselves as those who freely break from tradition? The conservative reading is of course the more public and popular reading, especially as it dominates political coverage in the media. And there is genuine evidence in its favor. Obviously, the early 20th century fundamentalist movement fashioned itself as the bearers of orthodoxy. But 19th century revivalism in its own way perceived its mission as the spread of “old time religion,” albeit in a radically restorationist and therefore anti-traditionalist way.

But there is also much to be said for a more liberal reading of evangelicalism. Evangelicals in the 19th century consistently came down on the “left” side of the doctrinal, liturgical and political debates of their time. Some younger evangelicals are quick to appeal to this historical data when constructing a narrative that makes sense of their shifting identity. This is particularly true of evangelical ecumenists, who find it increasingly difficult to style themselves as conservative when sitting across the table from Orthodox and Catholic magisterial representatives. Yet the conservative role of evangelicalism in American cannot be ignored. And so evangelical ecumenists operate within this tension of conservative and liberal readings of their history.


The second category consists of tensions surrounding representation. Who or what does the evangelical ecumenist represent? The first within this category is the tension between mainstream and marginal voices within evangelicalism. Do we represent the mainstream of contemporary American evangelicalism? Or do we represent the more marginal voices within evangelicalism that we perhaps align ourselves with? Of course, this tension is not the exclusive property of evangelical ecumenists. A Lutheran participant is also aware of the delicate balance between official Lutheran positions and their own idiosyncratic interpretation the Lutheran theology.

But this tension is multiplied for evangelical ecumenists for two reasons. First, because of the aforementioned history of non-participation, evangelical ecumenists are almost always marginal figures within their own communities. Just showing up is often a sign of estrangement. And so the tension between the mainstream and their own marginal voice is heightened. Second, it is not clear what constitutes the mainstream of evangelicalism. There is no central office, no book of documents, no recognized magisterium – none of the traditional elements that might function as an authority on evangelical identity. So the tension between mainstream and marginal voices is a multi-layered phenomenon.

The reference to the lack of a centralized organization brings us to the second representational tension, that between the interchurch evangelical movement and one’s own denomination. This tension is perhaps less difficult to navigate for those who hail from explicitly evangelical denominations. Yet even in this case, one must come to terms with the reality that evangelical themes are often, if not always, refracted through particular theological categories. The differences between a Wesleyan evangelical and a Reformed evangelical are still significant. Even non-denominational evangelicals have been shaped by particular theological traditions. This tension was particularly heightened for younger evangelical participants at Oberlin II, many of who were sponsored by NCCC scholarships rather than officially sent by their denomination or evangelical organization. So there is not a paper trail to follow that might determine one’s loyalties. But even a paper trail does not solve the matter conclusively. Thus the evangelical ecumenist operates within these unique representational tensions.


The third and last category of tensions is methodological. The first of these is the tension between evangelical models of unity and the models of unity operative within the ecumenical movement. The flowering of American evangelicalism in the 19th and 20th century both occasioned church-division and exhibited an unprecedented capacity for interchurch cooperation. This cooperation was often facilitated by freedom from forms. Different forms of church government, worship, and even creedal expression of belief are not necessarily viewed as precluding common work in ministry. This free-form approach to unity comes into conflict with models of unity operative in the ecumenical movement that ask after the institutional conditions for the possibility of visible unity. The questions surrounding formal agreement and institutional compatibility are foreign to evangelical styles of cooperation. The irony of this conflict is that the very free-form approach that has served unity within American evangelicalism is often the very thing that perpetuates division with other communions. Some evangelical ecumenists are aware of the shortcomings of the free-form approach to unity, hence their involvement in the ecumenical dialogues. But tension remains between adapting to the ecumenical movement’s dialogical methods and offering an alternative evangelical approach.

The second methodological tension is between gift-exchange and cherry-picking. It has become a commonplace to describe ecumenical dialogue as a gift-exchange. We come to the table and share what unique gift each tradition has to offer the church universal. Cardinal Dulles made much of this metaphor in his lecture at Oberlin II. Some people find that they learn more about the unique gift of their own tradition through the very process of exchange.

Many younger evangelicals experience ecumenism differently. For them, ecumenical dialogue is already going on in their own heads. When asked about their tradition, many younger evangelical ecumenists answer along these lines: “Well, I grew up Methodist, became a fundamentalist Baptist, then went to a liberal Presbyterian seminary, and now I am a catechumen in the Russian Orthodox Church.” It will not do to identify such a person with their most recent instantiation, for many such persons intentionally cherry-pick from these many traditions into a conglomerate identity. Even those who have a more consistent ecclesial identity often draw from a wide range of theological resources, signaled by strange monikers like “high-church Mennonite” or “Holiness Barthian.” Diversity is no longer just about living with others, but living with ourselves.

On the one hand, this internal diversity makes the younger evangelical specially equipped for ecumenical engagement. On the other hand, it also creates a tension with the gift-exchange model. This tendency to cherry-pick the ideas and practices one likes from other traditions often blinds one to the complex logic under-girding them. To cite just one example, some low-church Protestants make use of Roman Catholic liturgical practices while rejecting or even ignoring the account of authority that underlies them. Now such cherry-picking may be entirely legitimate, but it renders difficult ecumenical dialogue because what the Roman Catholic wants to offer as a gift (let’s say, Roman primacy) is overlooked while the dialogue-partner simply takes what they want. The resulting tension is that the younger evangelical ecumenist is able to cross boundaries and learn a great deal from others, yet at the same time may not get around to dealing with the knotty issues that divide us. And so dialogue is both enhanced and entrenched by the tension between gift-exchange and cherry-picking.


Although identifying these tensions is in itself fruitful as a description of the paradox of the evangelical ecumenism, some prescriptive suggestions are in order. I have neither the intention nor the desire to resolve any of the above tensions. They must remain. But in order to move forward we must think creatively about how to constructively navigate these tensions in the context of ecumenical dialogue. There are three constructive suggestions that I would like to make. These three correspond roughly but not exclusively to the three categories of tension already discussed.

My first suggestion is that we should discover alternative narratives of evangelicalism and ecumenism in America. We need to find ways of telling the story of both that does not set them in conflict from the outset. In particular, we need to avoid reading back into earlier history the polarities of the present and recent past. In order to do so, we may need to place a moratorium on the language of “conservative” and “liberal.” It may be that such language is ultimately unhelpful for making sense of the complexities of American religious life. Now it must be acknowledged that platitudinous speech of overcoming polarities will not suffice in seeking unity. But this is not what I am suggesting. Rather, we need to engage in a thick description of historical movements that may in fact complexify our understanding and increase the tensions. The unique history of Oberlin College itself stands as an excellent case study for this kind of alternative historiography and the new narratives that can emerge from it. This re-narration of our identities will not resolve the tensions of the evangelical ecumenist, but it is a project that we can engage in alongside others as we seek unity together.

My second suggestion for navigating the tensions operative for evangelical ecumenists is to work toward new notions of representation. In particular, I recommend thinking of representation to ecumenical meetings in prophetic terms. The evangelical ecumenist speaks not as a mediator between one church body and another, but as one with a divine calling to speak prophetically both to the ecumenical conversation from their tradition and to their tradition from the ecumenical conversation. Those of us who come from previously or presently non-participating communities must embrace the prophetic potential of the liminal space between our churches and the churches represented at ecumenical gatherings. Such a notion of prophetic representation is implicit within the work Assemblies of God ecumenist Mel Robeck, whose paper and testimony at Oberlin II was greeted by a standing ovation. Such prophetic categories may be more inviting to the holiness and pentecostal wing of evangelicalism. If other evangelicals would like to offer a different notion, I invite them to do so. The general point is to think together toward new notions of representation that draw from the insights of our evangelical heritage and enables open yet critical engagement with the ecumenical movement.

Finally, I would suggest that evangelical ecumenists begin to develop new visions of unity. These visions need to be innovative in a way that brings on board the best insights of past evangelical and ecumenical models. These visions also need to take into account the younger evangelical inclination toward ecumenical cherry-picking in a way that does not undermine the logic of the ecumenical gift-exchange. I think a fruitful trajectory for developing such a new vision of unity can be found in the current missional conversation. There is a tendency in many models of unity either to instrumentalize unity or to make unity an end in itself. The alternative that may be emerging from the missional conversation is to conceive of unity as logically internal to mission. In this vision, the process of unification is a form of the church’s missionary existence. The church is missionary by her very nature, which means concretely that she participates in God’s reconciliation of the world to himself, announcing the message of reconciliation in Christ and practicing the ministry of reconciliation (cf. II Cor. 5:18-19). This missionary existence includes the reconciliation of humans to each other, both within the church and outside of it. Acts of Christian unity are parables of God’s reconciling work and as such participate in God’s mission. Therefore, movements toward Christian unity do not just instrumentally serve mission but inherently participate in mission. Now, although I think it to be on the right track, this missional understanding is just one way of re-visioning unity. The point is to work together toward the development of new visions of unity that help to navigate the tensions of evangelical ecumenism.

Any thoughts?


David Drury said...


Keith Drury said...

Thoughtful remarks!

Gwen said...

Hi John,

My comments are not about the paradox, but about your post on Easter reflections. Wow, thanks for your thoughts. I really appreciated them. So glad I checked it out.

I thought of the angels message, "I know you are looking for Jesus..." - how many people are searching, but not even knowing it is Jesus that they need?

Yesterday we had amazing services celebrating changed lives through baptism. Many shared of unsettled hearts, guilt, destructive lifestyles, damaged relationships... until they found Jesus. He does make himself known!

It is good news.

Jesus is on the move.

And he does reveal himself to the hearts of men and women!

Yes, the message is a gift to the church! It it wasn't for this gift, there would be no church!