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Have I Picked and Choosed from Church Traditions Like They Were a Buffet?

by Carson T. Clark on November 8, 2012

Though committed to the Anglican tradition, I openly acknowledge having deep resonance with my generation’s postdenominational impulse. The plain truth is that I’m a mutt of Christendom. Over the years a number of more systematically-inclined pastors and friends have disapproved of this. They’ve criticized the manner in which I approach christian traditions, especially the corresponding theological affirmations and practices. It’s said I’m inconsistent and far too individualistic.11.Years ago one well-intentioned mentor chided, “You’ve too much confidence in your ability to sort through it all. You need to be formed by a particular tradition. Join a community and allow yourself to submit to others instead of being judge and jury.” Touching upon the same sentiment but from a slightly different angle, a peer recently suggested, “I look at it as almost arrogant to craft my own spirituality from a buffet of beliefs… Picking and choosing from different traditions is a quick way to foolish inconsistency and contradiction.”

Two thoughts immediately come to mind. First, this chiefly highlights personality differences. I don’t think it any coincidence that the persons leveling such criticisms are consistently Js on the Myers-Briggs whereas I’m a P. Second, it has long seemed to me such assumptions fail to do justice to, or perhaps to simply accurately represent, my life’s narrative. They’re seeing my theological beliefs as a puzzle rather than a story, and in doing so misattribute negative motives.

After having been born and raised in Pentecostalism, I spent about a decade within, or exploring from without, 17 distinct traditions.22.In approximate order: Lutheran, Baptist, house churches, Free, Covenant, Reformed, Bible-churches, Presbyterian, Catholic, Orthodox, Methodist, Restoration, Holiness, Vineyard, Emerging, Anabaptist, and Anglican. Yet rather than becoming one of these embittered people who’s one-sided in his criticism of every tradition he or she perceives isn’t the one, true church, I long ago recognized that every tradition has areas of profound insight and sheer blind spots. So I’ve intentioned to humbly learn from each.

Hopefully my faith has evolved, matured, and deepened as I’ve sought to glean and synthesize their apparent strengths while mitigating their weaknesses.33.To give just a handful examples, my…
– Openness to the supernatural comes from Pentecostals.
– View of Scripture’s centrality comes from Baptists.
– Appreciation of tradition comes from Catholics.
– Ecclesiology is essentially Anglican.
– Evangelistic paradigm comes from Methodists.
– Local church polity is significantly Presbyterian.
– Sacramentality is largely Reformed.
– Ethics are mostly Anabaptist.
– Views of heaven/hell resemble those of Orthodoxy.
– Missional outlook is drawn from the Emerging Church.
– Ecumenism comes from Bible churches.
– Non-competitive spiritual ethos comes from Free churches.
– Church-state perspective most closely fits a Lutheran conception.
No doubt many others will disagree, but from my perspective this isn’t haphazard picking and choosing like some sort of church traditions buffet. Rather, it’s my life’s story of imperfectly seeking truth, beauty, and goodness wherever it’s found. It’s not arrogant, passive cynicism but rather discerning, active hope.

Has this approach been uniformly positive? Of course not! Quite to the contrary, it has been consistently difficult. I’ve made mistakes, and my principle refusal to acquiesce and conform has resulted in much heartache and turmoil. It’s painful and it sucks. I’ve snotted all over many shirts. To this day I often feel overwhelmed, misunderstood, and lonely. But at the end of the day I’ve never sacrificed my conscience, intellectual honesty, or principles. To me that’s more than worth it.

Returning full circle to the Anglican tradition, on this front I’ve simultaneously faced the polar opposite criticism from the postdenominational crowd.44.Isn’t it ironic… don’t cha think? That is, by committing to one tradition I’ve sacrificed my integrity and openness to reconsidering my beliefs, opinions, and perspectives. On that point, they’re wrong. I’m an Anglican not despite my tradition but because of it. To the chagrin of many, I dare say there’s no christian tradition more flexible on adiaphora.55.Adiaphora literally meaning “things indifferent,” but in practice meaning those doctrines that are important but non-essential. For example, I know Anglicans who are Arminians, Calvinists, Open Theists, and Don’t-give-a-damn-ists.

  • Rob K

    I am currently struggling with a similar problem. It seems to me (arrogant, maybe?) that the different traditions each have something unique and worthwhile to bring to the table, but I also firmly believe that we as Christians must operate in community, and so must pick some place to figuratively lay our head.

    My problem is that many of these traditions spend quite a bit of time manning the battlements against those that don’t believe what they believe, and create these weird dichotomies that make it hard to settle down.

    • http://twitter.com/carsontclark Carson T. Clark

      “I am currently struggling with a similar problem.”

      I think a lot of people are.

      “It seems to me (arrogant, maybe?) that the different traditions each have something unique and worthwhile to bring to the table,”

      *nods*

      “but I also firmly believe that we as Christians must operate in community, and so must pick some place to figuratively lay our head.”

      Indeed.

      “My problem is that many of these traditions spend quite a bit of time manning the battlements against those that don’t believe what they believe, and create these weird dichotomies that make it hard to settle down.”

      Couldn’t agree more.

  • http://www.craigladams.com/ Craig L. Adams

    I dunno. It seems like it should be “picked and chosen”… or something.

    • http://twitter.com/carsontclark Carson T. Clark

      Turn it around on ‘em. I love it!

  • http://www.facebook.com/chad.simmons.161 Chad Simmons

    Excellent post Carson. You are much farther along but this resonates with my story and my thoughts on the subject. Your posts have always been worth the time I take to read them.

    • http://twitter.com/carsontclark Carson T. Clark

      Thanks, Chad.

  • Ray Hooker

    I think that you certainly have company of many people who see value in a number of Christian traditions but also like the Anglican tradition as a place to camp. One of the thoughts I have about Anglican tradition is that the advantage is its richness. Also you can argue endlessly and debate in a church about how to do church. I think you need to start from a vision. So in the PEAR-USA group, I see people that are passionately missional yet committed the Anglican tradition. I don’t see it as a wooden commitment as you might see in more reactionary, traditional circles. I respect their choice, but I am much more excited about people who are more flexible/ missional (though they may see that as better fulfilling Christ mission). So at our church, we are probably medium on the low-high church scale, meaning the celebrants vest, process including the gospel process, and try to capture the heart of the liturgy. We are ancient/ future in our worship with a lot of contemporary music but are accessible to long-time Episcopalians or the elderly. We use Rite II with some slight mods. So the point is that you would never get this level of richness from simply selecting from various traditions.. it would devolve to the lowest common denominator.

    • http://twitter.com/carsontclark Carson T. Clark

      “I think that you certainly have company of many people who see value in a number of Christian traditions but also like the Anglican tradition as a place to camp.”

      Indeed. I think this potentially one of the Anglican Church in North America’s greatest strengths. Unfortunately (in my opinion), a great many life-long traditionalists don’t see it this way.

      “One of the thoughts I have about Anglican tradition is that the advantage is its richness.”

      Agreed.

      “Also you can argue endlessly and debate in a church about how to do church.”

      Yup.

      “I think you need to start from a vision.”

      Absolutelyl.

      “So in the PEAR-USA group, I see people that are passionately missional yet committed the Anglican tradition.”

      I’ve thoughts to nuance this, but will withhold them for another day. But, yes, I agree with the general sentiment.

      “I don’t see it as a wooden commitment as you might see in more reactionary, traditional circles.”

      Agreed.

      “I respect their choice, but I am much more excited about people who are more flexible/ missional (though they may see that as better fulfilling Christ mission).”

      I like the way you worded that. Respect their church but more excited about being missional. Comports well with my own perspective.

      “So at our church, we are probably medium on the low-high church scale, meaning the celebrants vest, process including the gospel process, and try to capture the heart of the liturgy. We are ancient/ future in our worship with a lot of contemporary music but are accessible to long-time Episcopalians or the elderly. We use Rite II with some slight mods. So the point is that you would never get this level of richness from simply selecting from various traditions.. it would devolve to the lowest common denominator.”

      Agreed. Brian McLaren noted that the worst thing we could do would be to stick all the traditions in an ecclesiastical blender and press liquify.

  • http://twitter.com/carsontclark Carson T. Clark

    As much as I disagree with the man on a great many things and despise the book’s title, the work that probably most impacted me on this front was Brian McLaren’s ‘A Generous Orthodoxy.’

    • Rob Scot

      I liked ‘A Generous Orthodoxy'; I was going to ask if you had read it before I saw this comment. I haven’t read any of McClaren’s other stuff, but I know he’s become increasingly controversial. I’m curious: why do you “despise the book’s title”?

    • http://twitter.com/carsontclark Carson T. Clark

      It reflects a fundamentally different understanding of orthodoxy. He means it as something like, “What we consider to be our non-negotiables.” In other words, let’s be generous in what we consider our orthodoxy to be. I totally don’t frame it what way. In my estimate, we need to carefully distinguish between orthodoxy (essential doctrine) and adiaphora (non-essential doctrine). The former being relatively small but immeasurably vital while the latter should be broad, important yet ultimately secondary. It seems to me orthodoxy should be held firmly while adiaphora should be held loosely. In other words, I think the title of the book should’ve been something like “It’s Not Orthodoxy If It’s Not Essential” or “A Generous Adiaphora.”

  • http://derekzrishmawy.com/ Derek Rishmawy

    First comment, I think you would really appreciate this article “When Biography Shapes Theology.”
    http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tgc/2012/11/07/when-biography-shapes-theology/

    Yeah, I’ve kinda stayed more within a certain range, but I’ve made a few shifts myself. I mean, I never would have guessed 5 years ago that I’d move from my semi-non-denominational, baptistic, Arminian, etc. generalized evangelicalism to a mainline, Presbyterian church and constantly quote Calvin on my blog with the word “Reformed” in the title. I will say reading Jaroslav Pelikan’s 5 Volumes on the history of doctrine in my year after my undergrad had a significant impact on the way I viewed the broadness of the Christian tradition. I’m probably guilty of some smorgasbording even as I find myself more deeply drawn into the Reformed tradition. Ironically enough, I am more likely to do that now when I’m more rooted in a tradition, than while I was leaning emergenty, anti-denominational. I dunno, blame Alasdair MacIntyre.

    In any case, I have an eye for the systematic, but an appreciation for the eclectic. That’s part of why I like you, Carson.

  • Lawrence Garcia

    Beautiful to enjoy the riches that the Christian tradition has to offer. Rather it is a sterile orthodoxy that remians content with its own form of life, thought, and worship. I think your journey should be model for all believers and is niether a sign of weak pluralism nor stale conservatism. These riches are ours in Christ to enjoy and are more like a sumptuous feast with all the tappings than a cheap buffet. Good work.

    • http://twitter.com/carsontclark Carson T. Clark

      Thanks, Lawrence. That means a great deal to me.

  • Evelyn

    Thanks for your post. A lot of what you describe above is exactly why I am now starting to formally discern a call to ordained ministry in the Church of England. It’s the only church broad enough to accommodate a mongrel like me. But it’s also where I feel intellectually and spiritually at home. Sure, it’s not perfect – but no denomination is. I do feel deeply enriched by having spent time in other denominations, and am glad that that is appreciated rather than feared in the Anglican communion. I feel they get the balance between koinonia and orthodoxy about right.

  • Maureen Kennedy

    My local church polity is significantly Presbyterian and my sacramentality is largely Reformed too! Yet, I attend a mega-church that is essentially Baptist without the Baptist label. I respect and applaud your efforts to understand the doctrines and theological similarities and differences across denominations. That is not “picking and choosing” your religion as some people erroneously say you are doing. It’s being wise and discerning and walking into a tradition that you feel most closely resembles how God instructs us to gather, worship, evangelize, and grow spiritually according to His Word. “Picking and choosing” your religion would be if you decided you just liked certain aspects of various religions and put them together in a hodge-podge religious mess that wasn’t a true religion at all. I’ve seen it. There are “Christian Atheists” and “Christian-Pagans” out there. I’ve met them. They’re extremely difficult to talk to, and almost impossible to reason with!

  • SamHamilton

    Thanks for this Carson. Your last couple sentences describes one of the things that drew me to Anglicanism as well.

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