Let us now all thank God for pressure valves, which regulate highly combustible containers and thus save us all from death by shrapnel. We do not reflect on the value of these handy devices for our world enough. When functioning properly, we never notice them—but when they fail, well, we learn their use all too well.
They are also an apt metaphor for the current state of the world. The pop-image of the Amish ‘rumpsringa’ is one place where they might be helpful. The adolescent is allowed to experience new phenomena (ideally in a controlled way), so that they are not overwhelmed when they leave home. We need a pressure valve, to help us avoid allowing the energy beneath our vices to build until we can no longer control it. I don’t mean—at all—that we should allow people to sin. But in an environment where sins are not carefully distinguished, pressure will build—and sin will occur, where it might not have otherwise. Sometimes we should forbear with our minor vices (since God seems to!), so that worse ones don’t take root. Someone who smokes cigarettes might be more humble and devout than someone who doesn’t. In fact, given the superiority we non-smokers often demonstrate toward that out-class, I would wager they usually are!
Something like this is true, I think, about societies as well. The conservative perfectionism of the 1950s gave way to the radicalization of the 1960s—a similar trajectory that the evangelical world between the 1990s and the 2000s followed. The radicalization that is currently afoot among both the left and the right might—might—be understood as a response to a world which never released the right kinds of pressure by acknowledging certain uncomfortable facts or features of the world. For instance, a society that does not soberly address its own racial history might see people radicalize in response to it. (Strictly as a hypothetical, of course.)
I find the concept of ‘regulating pressure’ helpful for understanding even my own attempt to make sense of the world. I have realized over the past year that I am fully a conservative, in the sense that I think a deference to our forbearers is the right stance to have. Yet I am not a reactionary. I’ve always sought to make the first question I’ve been concerned about that of whether a stance or position is true. But these days, that question seems to matter less for evangelicals than the question of what effect a stance might have upon our communities. There are large swaths of people who start from the standpoint that the world is moving in a particular trajectory, and as such any point of agreement or concurrence is an indicator that we are moving in the same direction. The net effect of such a reactionary stance is the build-up of an intense pressure within evangelicalism, as everyone is scrutinized for their fidelity not to the truth, but to an increasingly narrow construal of orthodoxy—namely, one that has (literally) nothing in common with the world around us.
An example, perhaps, will help: the language of ‘social justice.’ The idea of justice being social is entirely innocuous. Indeed, it’s hard to think of a non-social justice. But tie together “social” with “justice” and, well, a certain loud segment of evangelicalism starts to get sweaty palms. And perhaps for good reasons. After all, there’s lots in the broader cultural content of ‘social justice’ to which I’d say “No” in a hot minute. And surely that means we shouldn’t use the term, right? We’d cause confusion if we do!
Only: what if young people need the language of ‘social justice’ as a pressure-valve to release some of the deep-seated, very real impulses to improve the world—so that they don’t discover it later, and get drunk from it as a result? Or to switch the metaphor, young people might only be thoroughly inoculated against bad forms of social justice when they are free to practice healthy forms of seeking social justice—and to do so free of the anxious fears about capitulation that currently animate so much of conservative evangelicalism. Using the language of ‘social justice’ might not be capitulation, so much as a way of modulating the pressure within our communities so that we don’t unwittingly radicalize our young people in ways that will prove destructive.
It is a strange world where someone would confuse me for a progressive—but it has happened recently, and I think the reasons for it tie in to this theme. I don’t think I’ve ever said or written anything that might give an inch of quarter to anyone who would overturn Scripture’s teachings about the moral impermissibility of same-sex unions, or the wrongness of desires for those unions in any form or degree. But I have articulated, at nauseating length, a way of understanding how ‘gay Christians’ might have a home within our church communities. I have made this argument wholly because I think my position is true: I think it is the best articulation of Scripture’s teaching about these questions I can manage. But pastorally, I also think it the wisest course of action for our church communities, for reasons similar to those above. Excising gay Christians from our midst by demanding rigid perfection about the names and labels they use places an enormous out of pressure on them, as it requires scrutinizing everything they do to a ludicrous degree. (The scope of this scrutiny is rarely applied to non-gay Christians, which should be perhaps a sign that something has gone wrong in our standard of judgment.) Raising the pressure that way—well, some of them won’t be able to take it. Like everyone in the church, they will need release valves—ways they can faithfully be themselves without anxious fretfulness over whether every step within the church is absolutely the correct one.
But again: none of this is any permission for sin of any kind. Indeed, it can only be enacted responsibly within close communities where pastoral authority has real purchase on people’s lives—and where it is very clearly undertaken in order to flee from sin. The tree will be known by its fruits, as it ever was.