By Matt Johnson
Is your church liberal or conservative? The question is a land mine, often meant to act as a test of fellowship. Christians who wish to honor God with their hearts as well as their minds see this question as a false choice. For this audience, Adam Hamilton has written Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White: Thoughts on Religion, Morality, and Politics (Abington Press, 2008).
Hamilton divides his book into three parts. First he lays a foundation for what he calls the “radical center.” His goal is not to arrive at tepid, middle-of-the-road answers to hard questions; instead, he takes seriously Jesus’ call to humility, specifically as we put into practice his teaching about sawdust vs. planks. Hamilton works the hard soil of our dogmatically right- or left-leaning hearts with practical tips on having a bias toward grace and listening in order to understand the other side.
Though Hamilton was converted in a charismatic tradition and trained at a United Methodist seminary, this book is relevant to those familiar with Restoration Movement principles. Our movement has always felt an antagonism between unity and truth—at our best moments truth and unity complement each other, and at our worst truth means toeing a party line with unity fading into memory. Hamilton cites a version of one of our own cherished sayings: “In essentials, unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; in all things, charity.” This principle is undermined when the other side is demonized.
The second part of the book addresses a number of biblical issues, with nine chapters addressing such topics as the authority of Scripture, evolution vs. Genesis 1 and 2, and the doctrine of Hell.
Nearly every chapter begins with a caveat that it is not a comprehensive look at the topic. This is inevitable in a book that discusses more than a dozen biblical and cultural issues. Hamilton’s strength is his ability to represent each side without turning it into a caricature. Even when I disagreed with his conclusions, I felt he understood my position.
There is a specific audience for this book. Hamilton does not assume the reader has a great deal of biblical training, but he does assume the reader is thoughtful. Anyone reading this book like a treatise on theology will be disappointed. He is not trying to convince so much as cultivate.
The third and final part of the book addresses hot topics like abortion, homosexuality, and war. Generally each chapter summarizes two extreme positions and seeks the common ground between the two.
I found this approach both disturbing and refreshing: disturbing because occasionally ideology must be marginalized in order to find common ground, and refreshing because common ground is a practical way to move forward on gridlocked issues.
This book is valuable because it is challenging. At times I was uncomfortable with Hamilton’s conclusions. Other times I was concerned with his lack of conclusions. Those chapters forced me to question the lines I’ve drawn concerning what is essential and whom I have demonized. Was I troubled because the author was being inconsistent, or was I upset because he didn’t agree with me? I suspect a little of both is true.
So, are you a liberal or a conservative? Do you lean left or right? Seeing Gray encourages us to respond, “Come now, let us reason together,” and then seek neither to turn right nor left, but instead to go deeper.
Matt Johnson serves as pastor with Levittown (Pennsylvania) Christian Church.