It has been about a month now since the presentation of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s Illumination Project report, and the conversation in response to it has continued, as it should.
People and entities have pondered and even acted upon affiliation and support of the CBF because of the adjustment to the hiring policy, while others have expressed dismay and disappointment at the continued assumptions and language of disenfranchisement that have remained.
The welcome mat has been enlarged (which has clearly bothered some), but there is still a little sign inside the door that says, “There are parts of the house where some are not welcome” (which those with a history of rejection cannot fail to see).
It is much too early to tell what the long-range outcome of that conversation will be, but there seems to be a general feeling among participants that it is better to have the conversation than not to have it.
I have spent some time listening to what has been shared by people across the spectrum of CBF life (and by a few from outside it), and one thing has begun to emerge in my thinking about the ethical process of responding to this (and perhaps other issues as well). It has to do with the nature of ethics itself.
Ethical issues arise when values of one kind or another find themselves in conflict with each other.
The issue of capital punishment, for example, involves the value of the sanctity of life and the value of accountability for its violation.
The issue of abortion arises in the meeting place of the sanctity of life of a fetus and the freedom and responsibility of a person to make decisions relating to her own life.
In the present case, two powerful and profound dimensions of human experience – sexuality and love – are being considered; how a diverse community responds to it reflects an interesting difference in the way their interplay can be seen.
Observing the responses to the Illumination Project report and listening to the conversations about it has left me wondering if a part of the divisive difference may result from which of these two powerful dimensions of human experience is seen in terms of the other.
If one sees and understands love based on experience and beliefs about sexuality, then those often “deeply held beliefs” will have an effect on one’s understanding of love and how it is faithfully expressed.
If, on the other hand, one sees and understands sexuality based on experience and beliefs about love, then this might lead to a different understanding of the relation between the two.
It may seem a bit simplistic to put it this way, but the ethical question seems to be this: Do our understandings of, and beliefs about, sexuality shape our understanding of love, or is it the other way around? This is a question worth pondering further.
I also couldn’t help being drawn to the experience of our fellow pilgrim Saul/Paul, as we can glean features of his journey from his letters and the book of Acts.
On his way to Damascus, fueled by his “deeply held religious beliefs” about the contaminating effect of the emerging “Jesus way,” he had an encounter with a blinding light that left him stunned and without sight.
Cared for by the grace and mercy of some of those he had intended to persecute, he recovered his sight to begin a new direction to his pilgrimage.
Luke’s account in Acts 9:20 suggests that he “immediately” began to proclaim the gospel.
Yet, Paul’s own earlier account in Galatians 1:17 offers the intriguing point that he “took some time” – in “Arabia” – presumably for the impact of what had happened to him to find its foundation in his life and be a basis for what he would soon proclaim as good news to the Gentiles.
I don’t think it’s too farfetched to suggest that Saul/Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus can be a paradigm for the kind of “illumination” that is often traumatic when “deeply held religious beliefs” are confronted by a new level of truth beyond what their boundary has been.
It can be like coming out of a darkened theater into the bright afternoon sunshine – it is not comfortable, at least for a while.
For Paul, that illumination was only the beginning point – a threshold, actually – for a much longer process of maturing in his pilgrimage that led him to become a passionate apostle of boundary crossing and our foundational Christian theologian.
I find it helpful to remember that Paul did not change from being a bad man to a good man; he was a devout and faithful person all along.
The illumination that stunned and blinded him at first enabled him to discover that when he opened the aperture of his mind and heart, the lens of his long-held covenant faith enabled him to see an arena of God’s inclusive grace that his deeply held religious beliefs had kept him from seeing before.
I continue to hope that my branch of God’s family that goes by the name of CBF (perhaps a kind of “collective Paul”) will experience a similar long-range process of illumination.
Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia.
Editor’s note: Other columns and an editorial on the CBF Illumination Project can be read here:
Illumination Refraction: Bending Light Toward Good by Mitch Randall
Illuminations: Room for All of Us at God’s Table by Bojangles Blanchard
Illuminations: Seeking Guidance of God’s Spirit by Sara Powell
Illuminations: Dealing with a Messy Smudge of Ash by Mary Elizabeth Hill Hanchey
Illuminations: Spiritual Equality of All Christians by George Mason
Illuminations: The Long Struggle Against Discrimination by Colin Harris
Illuminations: Agree to Disagree – Agreeably by Steve Wells
Professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University, a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and the author of Keys for Everyday Theologians (Nurturing Faith Books, 2022).