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A few short months after the untimely and tragic and death of Rachel Held Evans,1 founder and co-creator of the Evolving Faith Conference, almost 3,000 spiritual seekers gathered in Denver for the annual conference. In Evans’s stead, Sarah Bessey 2 and Jeff Chu3 guided the assembly through the continued deconstruction of orthodox Christian faith and into the initial stages of its radical reconstruction. More than 20 theologically progressive leaders spoke, sang, and led workshops. The familiar voices of Barbara Brown Taylor, Nadia Bolz-Weber,4 and Jen Hatmaker5 rang out alongside the movement’s up and coming generation — Kaitlin Curtice, Austen Hartke, Amena Brown, Cece Jones-Davis, and many others. Woven throughout the conference were themes of wilderness and inclusion. Healing was a thread of “co-creation.”
A conference so dedicated to naming the pain of deconstructing one’s faith might be cathartic, but during a “family meeting” discussing the future of Evolving Faith near the close of day two, Bessey and Chu insisted that is not enough. “We want to be a community that names what we are for, not simply what we are against,” said Bessey. “We see this as equipping and empowering folks to go home to their congregations and bring this,” Chu told Religion News Service. “To go home with hope — not just hope for you, but to share. We have to shift mindsets from being spiritual consumers to spiritual co-creators.”6
Unsurprisingly, however, the new creation to which they refer is not an eternal saving faith in Jesus Christ grounded in Scripture. It is a “faith” built on new and inclusive sexual and gender ideologies, doubt, and contemporary legalism.
Deconstructing and Reconstructing Christianity
The deconstruction of the gendered self that is rippling throughout Western culture was central at the Evolving Faith Conference. Austen Hartke (@AustenLionheart), author of Transforming: The Bible and the Lives of Transgender Christians (Westminster John Knox Press, 2018), tweeted, “I freaking LOVE that @ericbarreto is using they/them pronouns for the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8. This story about boundaries for belonging (or lack thereof) never gets old for me. #EvolvingFaith19.”7Another attendee, Laura Jean Turner, tweeted, “We are invited into the creative process WITH God — ‘Being co-creators with God as we understand our gender…what does it mean to be responsible co-creators in the world’ in the co-creation of our gender and bodies? @AustenLionheart #EvolvingFaith19” (emphasis in original).8 Rachel Dawson, in her blog recap, wrote, “I’m committed to changing the way I use pronouns for God and Holy Spirit — neither have a gender, and neither should be referred to with he/his. Jesus, as a man, does, but I am working to tweak my thinking/wording for God and Spirit.”9 Humanity, in other words, is invited into a creative equality with God. God’s own creative work, especially of “male and female,” is not definitive or limiting. Human “co-creation” includes an unfettered reinterpretation of not just the Bible but also the human person.10
This assertion may seem harmless, but the theological implications are astonishing. God’s creative work is inadequate, insufficient, and must be recreated. Moreover, this kind of thinking asserts that God apparently invites and sanctions this recreation and is willing to have His “failures” corrected by His creation. The pot is welcome to say to the potter, “This is not good, I will make it better.” God, then, is just as limited as we are. He is not sovereign. He is neither omniscient nor omnipotent. Rather, God is improvident and insufficient before His own creation. He needs humanity to make up a new story for itself. The one He wrote has not fulfilled the most basic requirements of establishing the human person in its gendered nature.
A New Story
The Evolving Faith Conference Website invites those “sorting through faith”; those who feel like they are “in the wilderness, unable to go forward”; those who have had their “safe tidy answers upended by life”; those who are searching for answers “at the intersection of faith and spirituality, justice, scripture, church”; and those attempting to “reimagine, rebuild, resurrect a faith worth living” to join together.11 Their invitation speaks to the restless dissatisfaction of the so-called deconverted “exvangelicals”12 who grew up within mainstream Evangelical Christianity, whose spiritual teeth were cut on a simplistic, moralistic, malnourishing, behavior-oriented “gospel.”
Rather than recognize the failure of many Evangelical churches to preach a full-orbed gospel that seeks redemption from sin in the pure, biblical revelation of Jesus, the Evolving Faith movement imagines that exclusion and lack of sexual freedom are to blame for personal misery and societal breakdown.
It quickly became apparent from the speakers’ words and the crowd’s responses that Ron and I found ourselves among the walking wounded. These were people rejected by their church communities because they refuse to bow down to political idols or because they identify as LGBTQ+ or as allies. Or maybe they have become restless and started questioning certainties. Or maybe they’re just tired of empty routine, thin worship, inauthentic pieties. It felt very much as if this was a group gathered in the metaphorical wilderness.13
Part of the healing that the Evolving Faith movement espouses is the communal fellowship of pain, but more important is their effort of turning the task of deconstruction into reconstruction. The conference twitter feed explains it this way: “We value belonging — creating space for stories to be woven together in grace and in love. We value listening — to God, to one another, to the world. We value hope — hope in God, in resurrection, and hope for our individual and communal evolution to be a story that helps heal the world.”14
Most biblically faithful churches exhaust themselves trying to make those who walk through their doors feel that they can belong, to create space for people to share their lives. Churches, especially small ones, care deeply about listening to God and to others in the body of Christ, and to teach their congregations that hope in God is absolutely the bedrock of the Christian life. But each of these activities are centered not so much in the fact of human seeking, but in the desperate pursuit to see, know, and hear God as He is truth. Making a “story that helps heal the world” isn’t necessary because the story is there in the Bible. Scripture is and always has been the story of Jesus as He is revealed on the page. The seeker ultimately must accept Christ as the final, true, and complete source of hope, turning, however painfully, away from the self and sin, dying to the entrenched, intractable pride that leads to ultimate and eternal death. Acceptance of Christ cannot be joined to the acceptance of the self that is at the center of most contemporary spiritual seeking. The gospel is an old story and it needs to be faithfully told to a new and suffering generation.
The most troubling theological reconstruction of the Evolving Faith Conference, for me, was a single tweeted quote attributed to Barbara Brown Taylor. She is reported to have said, “Those who try to make their faith secure will lose it. But those who lose their faith will keep it.”15 This perversion of Jesus’ declaration in all four gospel accounts — “whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:24)16— belies a dire misunderstanding of the nature of Jesus’ work on the cross, Christianity itself, and the definition of faith in Christ.
“And you,” writes Paul, “who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister” (Col. 1:21–23). The very last thing the Christian should do is throw away “faith” for the very simple reason that “faith,” however small it may be, is the God-given instrument or means — mechanism or currency — through which God keeps the redeemed believer eternally safe in Himself.
A more emotionally accessible word might be trust. The believer trusts God in Jesus Christ. Trust is not increased by throwing it away, by remaking its object, by undermining the ways it is properly strengthened. On the contrary, trust is increased by direct contact with the One who is trustworthy. For the Christian who trusts in Christ, who has faith, God Himself increases that trust by drawing the believer to knowledge of Himself through His Word and the sacraments, prayer, study, fellowship, and suffering. Faith in Jesus is not a magical act. It is the only way to find true communion with God.
Work A Little Harder
Like all humanly devised religious systems, theologically progressive Christianity makes a way for salvation through hard work and adherence to a new set of laws, what I before called contemporary legalism. These new laws can be gleaned from a plethora of post-conference blogs and tweets. Rachel Dawson enumerates a comprehensive list. “White privilege is real,” she writes. “Use correct pronouns….Leave room for gratitude….How dare you call yourself woke when there is so much more waking to do….Proximity breaks down prejudice….It’s not flourishing if not everyone flourishes….Look to the Fruit.”17 She claims to have been encouraged, of course, but she has her work cut out for her. She must conform her attitudes and actions to the task of enacting justice on Earth. She must not rest on the gifts she’s been given. She must push forward to bring about those good things in the lives of others. Her blog post is particularly crushing as she herself testifies to suffering real trauma in her recent past.
Indeed, that is the peculiar tragedy of this progressive expression of Christianity — those who once labored under an intolerable tablet of conservative, moralistic Christian laws are invited to exchange them for a new, more culturally acceptable and yet more onerous tablet with the promise that these new man-made laws will actually produce life. “When God tells Ezekiel to call the dry bones to reconstruction and to breathe, God doesn’t actually need his help. But God gave Ezekiel the blessing of letting him participate in the resuscitation of his friends and family. —@jeffchu #EvolvingFaith19 WOW,” tweets Austen Hartke18 The addition of the word “reconstruction” is telling for the kind of work Jeff Chu thinks is humanly possible. The prophet Ezekiel was called to speak to the bones and then to watch. Ezekiel did not resuscitate the bones. The bones did not bring themselves to life. Nor did they “reconstruct” themselves. They were dead. The work of making dead bones into living flesh and blood was God’s, which He wrought through His word (Ezek. 37). This vision points typologically forward to the work of Christ on the cross.
Here is Laura Witowski listing the laws for Gender Equality: “How to achieve #GenderEquity 1 Get women in the room 2 Men be quiet. You will get your chance to talk 3 Make sure women get credit for work they have done 4 Hire mothers with young children 5 Men don’t give women more power give them YOUR power @paulaswilliams2 #EvolvingFaith19.”19 Upon these laws hang all the happiness of people who aren’t happy now. Upon these laws hang the flourishing of minorities and marginalized people everywhere. If one doesn’t keep the law it won’t only be to the injury of the isolated self, it will be for the destruction the entire expectation of human flourishing. In fact, human flourishing is the capstone of contemporary legalism. It is the fruit called forth from the good tree. If a person is happy now, has discovered a gendered identity now, is equal now, then the good tree will be revealed for its good fruit. Co-creation is the foundation of this flourishing, the co-creation even of bringing life out of death.
Is Evolving Faith a “Christian” Conference?
This question is asked in the FAQ section of Evolving Faith’s website. They answer it this way:
“Short answer: yes. Longer answer: All of the organizers at Evolving Faith are rooted within the Christian tradition and almost all of the speakers are as well. We are focused on the evolution of faith for people who follow Jesus. However, even though this event is focused on those within the Christian tradition, we recognize and honor that not everyone who attends can or will claim the same label or affiliation or connection. Everyone is welcome. We also recognize that some may experience trauma or post-traumatic stress in distinctly Christian environments, too, so please be prepared for some traditional Christian practices, such as communion, worship, and prayer, as part of the Evolving Faith experience (though they may look and feel different than how you may have experienced them before). Everyone is welcome to participate as fully or as little as they like, according to their own preference.”20
Unfortunately, merely saying it doesn’t make it so. Subverting the central hope of the gospel — that each person is a sinner in need of a savior, that Jesus died for such a one, that trust in Him is the only path to eternal life — may seem sophisticated, nuanced, and loving, but the thing that grows in its place will be substantially the same as every other invented human religion. The adherent will have to work hard to earn God’s favor. There will always be more he or she should have done.
“‘God help us for becoming progressive fundamentalists, with different ideas but the same requirements for perfectionism and purity’ —@sarahbessey #EvolvingFaith19” Jeff Chu tweeted.21 I fear it is already too late. Without the tether of faith to the Jesus revealed in the pages of Scripture, without the death of human work and pride, and without the true hope of the resurrection, the work to bring about peace on Earth will be too burdensome for those in the Evolving Faith community to bear.
Anne Kennedy, MDiv, is the author of Nailed It: 365 Sarcastic Devotions for Angry and Worn-Out People (Kalos Press, 2016) and blogs about current events and theological trends at Preventing Grace, a blog on Patheos.com (https://www.patheos.com/blogs/preventingrace/).
- Anne Kennedy, “The Theological Legacy of Rachel Held Evans,” Christian Research Journal, May 28, 2019, https://www.equip.org/article/the-theological-legacy-of-rachel-held-evans/.
- Speaker Bios, 2019 Evolving Faith Conference, https://www.evolvingfaithconference.com/bios.
- Speaker Bios, 2019 Evolving Faith Conference, https://www.evolvingfaithconference.com/bios.
- Douglas Groothuis, “Shamelessly Wrong: Book Review of Shameless: A Sexual Reformation by Nadia Bolz-Weber,” Christian Research Journal, May 9, 2019, https://www.equip.org/article/shamelessly-wrong-book-review-of-shameless-a-sexual-reformation-nadia-bolz-weber/.
- Melanie Cogdill, Anne Kennedy, Postmodern Realities podcast, “Episode 140 The Theological ‘Mess’ in the ‘Moxie’ of Jen Hatmaker,” Christian Research Institute, September 12, 2019, https://www.equip.org/pmr-podcast/episode-140-the-theological-mess-in-the-moxie-of-jen-hatmaker/.
- Roxanne Stone, “Evolving Faith Conference Offers Evangelical ‘Refugees’ Shelter,” Religion News Service, https://religionnews.com/2019/10/07/evolving-faith-conference-offers-evangelical-refugees-shelter/.
- Austen Hartke, Twitter post, October 4, 2019, 11:56 A.M., https://mobile.twitter.com/austenlionheart/status/1180149815893794817.
- Laura Jean Truman, Twitter post, October 5, 2019, 11:32 A.M., https://mobile.twitter.com/laurajeantruman/status/1180506089537695744.
- Rachel Dawson, “14 Takeaways from Evolving Faith 2019,” Rachel A. Dawson, http://www.racheladawson.com/blog/2019/10/7/-takeaways-from-evolving-faith-2019.
- 10 Michael Bauman, “The Fatherhood of God: Christian Feminists versus Christ and the Creed,” Christian Research Journal 23, no. 2, https://www.equip.org/article/god-as-father/.
- Evolving Faith Conference Website, https://www.evolvingfaithconference.com/home.
- Kyle Keating, “Am I Just Not Chosen? The Disorientation of Deconversion,” Christian Research Journal, July 25, 2019, https://www.equip.org/article/am-i-just-not-chosen-the-disorientation-of-deconversion/.
- Debra Rienstra, “Water in the Wilderness: The Evolving Faith Conference,” Reformed Journal: The Twelve, October 12, 2019, https://blog.reformedjournal.com/2019/10/12/water-in-the-wilderness-the-evolving-faith-conference/.
- Evolving Faith Conference, Twitter post, October 5, 2019, 6:49 P.M., https://mobile.twitter.com/evolvfaith/status/1180615959037366272.
- Micah Murray, Twitter post, October 4, 2019, 12:23 P.M., https://mobile.twitter.com/micahjmurray/status/1180156413487669248.
- Bible quotations are taken from the English Standard Version.
- Rachel Dawson, “14 Takeaways from Evolving Faith 2019,” Rachel A Dawson, http://www.racheladawson.com/blog/2019/10/7/-takeaways-from-evolving-faith-2019
- Austen Hartke, Twitter post, October 5, 2019, 5:43 P.M., https://twitter.com/austenlionheart/status/1180599314587901953?s=21.
- Laura Witowski, Twitter post, October 3, 2019, 5:19 P.M., https://mobile.twitter.com/lbwitkowski/status/1179868717464915976.
- “FAQ,” Evolving Faith Conference Website, https://www.evolvingfaithconference.com/home/#faq.
- Jeff Chu, Twitter post, October, 4, 11:45 A.M., https://mobile.twitter.com/jeffchu/status/1180146921194700808.