Fear, Zen Neighbours, and the Nature of Faith
I’ve been thinking a lot about fear over the last couple of days. A couple of conversations and an article contribute to what follows. First, I had a discussion last night with someone who is struggling to navigate the tension that is arising in a church which is becoming polarized over the issue of whether or not the “Emergent Church” is a phenomenon that ought to be embraced or rejected. Not surprisingly, there are strong feelings on both sides of this issue, but at least as troubling as the division this is causing is the role that fear is playing in the discussion. I am certainly no cheerleader for the Emergent Church (in fact, I wish whatever it is that this term designates would just emerge already…), but I am troubled by the attempts of some to convince others that the ideas of this movement are “dangerous” and that we have to be “careful” that they don’t lead our children woefully astray. This seems to be nothing more than fear-mongering to me, and it does not portray the beliefs one is attempting to “protect” in a very positive light.
Second, I had an interesting discussion with a neighbour of mine this morning as I was walking the kids home from kindergarten. They usually like to stop and pet this gentleman’s dog, and today he happened to be out in his yard so I stopped to say hello. Small-talk led to the typical question of “so, what do you do?”—a moment that has always been one of mild anxiety for me ever since I began my academic career. Declaring that one is studying philosophy or theology is often a precursor to an awkward pause or a hasty change of subject; rarely is it the doorway into new vistas of fruitful and stimulating conversation.
Well, today it was. The man invited me into his house, and we had a long chat about his own religious views (raised Roman Catholic, currently into Zen Buddhism), the state of the world, and the place of human beings within it. I think that, more than anything, he was just a lonely guy who wanted someone to talk to. I tried to push him a little bit on how he saw his Zen beliefs as offering humanity a hopeful future or how he considered it to adequately account for the existence of evil in the world, but he usually just moved on to another topic.
He talked to me about his love of art, photography, and gardening, and the delight that seeing passers-by enjoying his yard and his dog provided him. He talked about the smile that seeing our kids running up to his fence to play with his dog brings to his face. For him, the good that human beings do, and the legacy that we pass on to our children is “heaven” and the hate and intolerance that we transmit is “hell.” Again, I tried to question him a little on this, but he said that he just does what he can to make people happy, and doesn’t worry about the rest.
Finally, I came across John Stackhouse‘s most recent article in Books and Culture this afternoon. In it, he argues that the goal of Christian mission should be to preach the gospel, certainly, but also to affirm the good that has been, and is being done throughout all cultures and motivated by all creeds. God’s project of shalom is a grand one—far bigger than any one take on Christianity, or even the Christian religion itself. God is less concerned with people coming to accept a fixed compendium of propositions about himself, than with people participating in what they were created to be and do:
The Christian gospel therefore is not a narrowly spiritual one, but literally embraces everything, everywhere, at every moment. Every action that brings shalom—that preserves or enhances the flourishing of things, people, and relationships—is the primary will of God for humanity. Christians ought therefore to recognize and affirm anything our neighbors do to make peace, whether those neighbors intend to honor God or not. Indeed, we can cooperate with them in those ventures, since we see in them the divine agenda of shalom.
The one thing that I noticed in Stackhouse’s article (with last night’s discussion still banging around in my brain) was the absence of fear. For most of my childhood I was afraid of the worldviews of others. Believing the right things was of primary importance, I thought, as was not believing (or even considering!) the “wrong” things. What God was after was for every person on the planet to accept the correct set of saving propositions which would secure for them the avoidance of hell. God’s plan for the world was, quite literally, to get as many people as possible to believe the right things before they died.
I no longer have such a low view of God or of human beings.
But some still do, as last night’s conversation reminded me. Some still consider their specific understanding of faith as something to be militantly guarded against malicious and destructive ideas, whether those ideas masquerade as Christian ones or come in more obvious dress. It matters not, for example, that Brian McLaren has helped many people rediscover a more culturally-engaged, living faith in God as a direct result of his love for Jesus Christ. It matters not that many of those who would consider themselves to be a part of the “Emergent Church” have had a massive impact on steering the evangelical community toward a more socially active, globally conscious expression of Christian faith.
No, what matters is that “they” (always a monolithic “they”) don’t believe the right things about, say, the book of Genesis. Or about the nature of hell. Or about… pick your issue. And because they don’t believe the right things about the right issues, we need to be afraid of them. We need to protect our children from them. Our faith isn’t big enough or strong enough or broad enough to accommodate the possibility that good things can be done to advance God’s kingdom, even by people who don’t believe things in exactly the same way that we do.
I was reminded of that in my discussion with my newly discovered Zen neighbour today. I don’t think that the worldview he has adopted is right—in fact, I don’t even know how well he understands his own beliefs and practices (when I asked him about Zen’s understanding of the role of meditation, he mumbled something about not really knowing because discipline wasn’t “his thing”). I think that he stands in need of the saving work of Jesus Christ just like every other person on this planet.
But I also see that he is doing God’s work, whether he realizes it or not. He is promoting shalom, preserving or enhancing “the flourishing of things, people, and relationships.” Hopefully one day he will come to attribute what he is doing to its proper source. Perhaps I can play a role in this. I sincerely hope so, and I pray that I will be faithful to God in whatever capacity he has called me toward this end. But however God ends up working in this man’s life, I was reminded again today how sub-Christian and counter-productive fear is as a response when confronted by those who do not share our beliefs.
Much better to confidently, and fearlessly, affirm the good that is being done in the world, and do our best to make the source of that goodness known.