Saturday, April 7, 2007

The Rise of Theological Correctness

For years, conservatives have had great fun over liberals' alleged insistence on a careful use of language to describe sensitive subjects such as race, gender, or disability. It seems to me, however, that at least within the Episcopal Church, the roles are reversed. I would submit that the more conservative, orthodox or reasserter among us (you choose the label), are now guilty of a new form of theological correctness.

Some examples? Well, almost as soon as the Presiding Bishop began giving interviews, she has been asked the question that all religious leaders get asked by journalists: while always asked less starkly, the question is essentially, "so do you guys believe that the rest of us are going to hell?" Apparently understanding the nature of her audience, the Presiding Bishop gave a theologically imprecise answer, but one that seemed grounded in traditional doctrines of salvation, while still trying to appeal to the non-believers in the audience. In doing so, however, she apparently left room for an interpretation that Christ was not the sole road to salvation. She has been repeatedly denounced as a heretic ever since. This op-ed is only one example. The examples on conservative websites such as this one are legion. And even after she clarified at the House of Bishops meeting that her views were indeed orthodox, she is still being hounded for alleged in-precision in he language about the issue.

A more recent example, that I wrote about in this post and this one, was the immediate rush to condemn Dean Jeffrey Johns for his BBC Radio 4 broadcast for his questioning of the penal substitution theory of atonement. As more objective commentators, such as Father Dan observed, however, the penal substitution theory is merely one theory of the atonement, and Johns certainly did not deny that Jesus died for our sins.

Now I have no objection to anyone taking issue with theological views of any priest, bishop or theologian. Indeed, I thought that Father Dan's comments about Jeffrey Johns were entirely appropriate and useful to the debate. I do object, however, when it appears that a game of "gotcha" is being played, and when the lack of precise doctrinal language is used to score points in the debate de jour.

And that was the case with both of my examples. Do you really think that our Presiding Bishop's statements on salvation would be parsed so carefully had she voted against Gene Robinson? And would Jeffrey Johns' commentary been so roundly attacked (even before he made them!) if he were not gay? I think not.

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