I had recently the immense privilege to interview Roger Wolsey who is a fascinating man in many respects.
Hi Roger, thank you very much for having accepted my invitation. Could you please tell us what your background is?
Sure. It’s an honor. I’m a 46 year old “Gen X” American. I was born and raised in Minnesota. I’m a Christian and grew up in the United Methodist Church. I originally thought I’d pursue a career either in politics or in conflict resolution/mediation – yet felt a call from God to become a pastor 2 years after I graduated from college. I earned a Masters of Divinity degree from the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, CO and am an ordained United Methodist pastor. I currently serve as the director of the Wesley Foundation campus ministry at the University of Colorado in Boulder. I am an advocate for progressive Christianity and have written a book called “Kissing Fish: christianity for people who don’t like christianity” – which is an introduction to progressive Christianity. I also blog for Pathos, Elephant Journal, and The Huffington Post.
a typo up there, should be Patheos.
Alright! And you owe your own existence to this methodist congregation, am I correct? ;-)
Indeed. In fact, my parents met each other when they were grad students at the Wesley Foundation at the University of Kansas at Lawrence. : )
I was born in 1968, the year that the UMC became a new denomination – and was likely one of the first people baptized in that new denomination. (along with my twin sister)
That’s truly a cute tale :-) You obviously believe one can honor God by being a passionate trumpet player, don’t you?
Well, yes. For me, playing my trumpet is one of the ways that I pray and commune with God. Music inspires others in ways that spoken word can’t always do.
Do you identify yourself as a progressive or as an emergent Christian?
Progressive. I understand progressive Christianity as being the post-modern influenced evolution of mainline liberal Christianity.
What’s the main difference between progressive and liberal Christianity?
Well, there are several. Progressive Christianity is less colonial and less patriarchal. And, while progressive Christianity fully embraces the insights of contemporary science, including the theory of evolution, it is less overly enamored with science and less willing to cede everything to science. It’s less needing to find scientific explanations of various miracle stories in the Biblical text, and more willing to simply receive the text as it is – as story. Progressive Christianity is less modern and more post-modern – willing to accept that God’s fully at work in all other world religions. Finally, progressive Christianity has more consensus that homosexuality isn’t a sin.
Re: science, progressive Christianity is more willing to embrace paradox and mystery than liberal Christianity was.
Finally, it’s more passionate than liberal Christianity and more embracing of poetry and the arts. Oh, it’s also more eclectic and willing to draw insights, prayers, and practices from the entirety of the Christian – and even non-Christian- traditions.
I wholeheartedly agree with the bit about homosexuality. Theologian Roger Olson once defined liberal Christianity as the rejection of anything supernatural (at least in our world). Do you think it’s a good summary?
Answer: Perhaps. That certainly rings true for me. However, another progressive Christian writer, Roger Lee Ray, also fully rejects the supernatural. He and I disagree on that. That said, I embrace panentheism instead of supernatural theism. However, for me, there really is some portion of God that is transcendent and “relatable as a person.” I don’t pray to myself.
I pray to God.
That’s truly fascinating. Could you (shortly) explain what you mean by this panentheistic personhood?
It’s a bit hard to do justice to that question in a Skype interview. I describe that in full in the chapter about God in my book Kissing Fish. However, in the panentheist view, God is fully immanent within all of Creation – and – fully transcendent from the Created order. Both aspects are ways for various people to connect and relate to God. Some can commune with God simply by being in nature, others do so in a more private inner prayer life that can take place just as readily in an ornate gothic cathedral as in a plastic booth at McDonalds. That’s the more transcendent aspect IMO. Though — as with a circle, if you go far enough in either direction – you reach the same point. Paradox.
That said, as a Christian, I believe that the qualities and characteristics of God are well conveyed in the person of Jesus – including God’s passions and emotions. However, I don’t pray to Jesus, I pray to the God that Jesus prayed to.
For most (albeit not all) Conservative Evangelicals, the Gospel might be summarized as follows:
1) God created Adam and Eve in a state of moral perfection
2) they ate the wrong fruit
3) consequently God cursed their billions of descendants with a sinful nature
4) everyone deserves an eternal stay in God’s torture chamber due to an imperfection the Almighty Himself made inevitable
5) Therefore people can only avoid this fate by believing in Jesus
6) All people dying as non-Christian will agonize during billions, billions and billions of years…
Can one call this a “good new”?
I suppose that view may work for some. But it’s clearly circular reasoning, clearly triumphalisitic and exlusiveistic, and clearly dysfunctional.
Those premises and ways of viewing the faith don’t work for many people today. Hence, the rise of progressive and emerging Christianity.
That view, to my mind, isn’t truly a robust faith in God, but instead, merely “fire insurance” — believing because you have to. : P
Would you be able to put your own view of the Gospel in a nutshell?
Hmm. Let me give a crack at it.
God created the world and the people in it. Life has the potential for real joy and beauty, but due to our free will, humans have a tendency to not act wisely or in our truest best interest. We abuse our free will and oppress and limit ourselves and others. Through the life, teachings, and example of Jesus, God has provided a way for humans to transform from a more reptilian – fear based – way of living, toward a more trusting, just, and compassionate way of relating to ourselves and others. To the extent that we follow the Way of Jesus, we can know and experience salvation/wholeness. And the good new is that we don’t do it all on our own. God’s grace provides when our efforts can’t — but again to the extent that we allow and receive it.
I’d also say that the good news is that each day is a new day, a fresh start, and we aren’t defined by or limited by our past.
Thanks :-) You obviously don’t believe in inerrancy. Is there a sense in which one can say that the Bible is inspired?
True, I don’t believe that the Bible is without fault. That said, I’d contend that everything that I just stated is amply supported by the Biblical texts. I’d say that everything that humans create is in some way inspired by God. Part of how we are created “in God’s image” is our creativity. We’re co-creators with God. I believe that some of our creations are more blessed and condoned by God than others, and that those things that are truly blessed and condoned by God are especially inspired. Many poets, artists, musicians, song-writers, etc. tap in to “the muse” – which is a metaphor for the Holy Spirit – and the people who wrote the texts in the Bible were especially seeking to tap into God’s inspiration and co-create with God. To the extent that they got it right – it’s notable. As are the glaring instances when they were off the mark.
Amen to that! What’s your take on how to approach social justice issues?
Well, again, I devote a chapter to that in my book. Here’s a link to a sermon that I wrote that explains it pretty well. “Band-aids aren’t enough” http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rogerwolsey/2012/08/band-aids-arent-enough-progressive-christian-social-justice
Essentially, I’d say that as a prophet, Jesus and his message were as political as they are spiritual. The top two subjects that Jesus spoke about were politics (proclaiming and describing the kingdom/empire of God which is subversive to worldly powers) and economics – money and our relationship to it.
Authentic Christianity comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. It soothes our souls and lights a fire under our butts to effect social change.
To your mind, why are so many American Christians convinced that they ought to be Republicans in order to follow Christ?
I think that’s less the case than it used to be. That notion arose in about 1980 with the wedding of the election of Ronald Reagan with the creation of the so-called “Moral Majority” – which essentially turned the Grand Old Party into “God’s Own Party.” That was the same time that the Southern Baptist Convention was hijacked by fundamentalists. Since they are the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S., that set the tone for popular American Christianity for many years. Thankfully, that era is waning and more and more younger American evangelicals are overtly seeking to distance themselves from the Republican party. Indeed, more and more Americans are “coming out” as Christian Liberals. Check out the massive growth of “The Christian Left” Facebook page!
Okay, thanks for this summary. What are you up to now?
I’m going to be taking a sabbatical the first half of 2015 in order to write a new book – and collaborate with two other writers on another book yet.
The working title for my upcoming book is “Orange Duct Tape Jesus.” Stay tuned for developments!
That will most likely be truly stunning! ;-) I thank you very much for all the time you granted me.