It’s a bit counter-intuitive, but spiritual liberals and spiritual progressives can both be among the most intolerant people around. The irony is that conservatives tend to be very in touch with their intolerance and wear it as a badge of honor while progressives are often in complete denial about their intolerance.
Let me be clear, there are some things that even the most inclusive group of people have to draw a line about. The obvious one is that none of us would seriously advocate allowing pedophiles to do ministry with children, nor would it be a very good idea to put a convicted arsonist in charge of grilling at the church picnic. There are subtler issues as well. Some years ago a man approached me who was seeking ordination in The Universal Anglican Church. The problem was that this man was opposed to the ordination of women and made it clear that he would not receive communion from a woman, nor would he receive it from a man if a woman had consecrated it. Because his understanding of the role of women in society and the church was so opposed to our understanding, and because in order to be true to his beliefs he would have had to insult our female clergy, I decided that I could not in good conscience ordain him within our body. That having been said, he could have become a member of one of our communities and chosen not to receive communion from a woman without any issue – he just would not have been appropriate as a member of our clergy. Excluding someone from ordination is not tantamount to excluding them from participation.
Most often, progressive intolerance arises in a similar situation to the one I have describe with our ordination candidate. I see it manifested in ecumenical worship settings all the time. Whenever a number of faith communities gather together for a special public worship, it almost never fails that one of the more progressive congregations will complain that everything wasn’t done as it is in their worship services. Quite often the complaint is around the language or music not being inclusive enough. A pastor from another tradition will make the mistake – no, not make a mistake, rather be true to their tradition and understanding – of using the masculine pronoun for God and the next thing you know poison pen letters are being written. Never mind that the whole point of such services are to gather people together from different traditions and perspectives so that they might share the experience of common worship. Never mind that the goal is to hopefully give everyone gathered something they are familiar with during the course of the service. The progressive complainers want things their way and don’t really care about the needs of anyone else, largely because they assume everyone else is just like them.
Rather narcissistic, don’t you think?
Don’t misunderstand, I am as much in favor of inclusive language as anyone else. That having been said, I have served congregations wherein language became a kind of idol in that it became a barrier to encounter with the Divine. If we read something that was written before inclusive language became part of the spiritual landscape, these folks couldn’t hear what the author had written – no matter how insightful – because they had used language appropriate to their time in history! Whether we like it or not, there are traditions wherein God is routinely referred to as “Father God,” and they have every right to continue to do so as long as it serves them – and any notion that they need to be “educated” is arrogant nonsense. In fact, it’s the kind of arrogant nonsense that has characterized imperialist ventures – spiritual and otherwise – throughout history.
If we are going to create a world in which people from different spiritual traditions can live and work together then both progressive and conservative people from every tradition are going to have to learn to allow people to move along their path in their own way. In fact, my use of the word “allow” is a bit of a misnomer, because the only journey we are in charge of is our own, and we no more allow anyone else to follow their path than we allow the sun to rise in the morning. We need to abandon our belief that our path, no matter how right it is for us, is right for anyone else. This is the call to true humility. It’s also the call to true spirituality and a call to abandon the nonsensical superiority games that pass for spirituality in the lives of most contemporary westerners.
In other words, it’s time to get over ourselves.