Pilgrims in Enmity?
I had breakfast yesterday with a couple of friends, one of whom happens to be the interim editor of our denominational magazine, the Mennonite Brethren Herald. Not surprisingly, the conversation eventually touched on the January issue of the Herald which was devoted to the doctrine of creation. Perhaps less surprisingly, given the nature of the issue’s content, my editor friend has been getting a bit of heat—both directly, via email, and indirectly via the blogosphere—from those on the “young earth” end of the spectrum. Even less surprisingly, the rhetoric can (and does) quickly turn fairly nasty when it comes to topics like these (I’ve reflected on this before here). Apparently, we still have much work to do when it comes to learning how to disagree Christianly.
A good place for us to start might be an essay from Regent College professor Ross Hastings called “The How of Creation: Parameters and Nodes for Gracious and Fruitful Dialogue—The Foundations and the Forward Motion of Pilgrims in Unity” (h/t: Cosmos). It is a plea for Christians—wherever we come down on the issue of creation—to understand and treat one another as “pilgrims in unity” as one way of living lives “worthy of the calling you have received” (Eph. 4:1). Here’s an excerpt:
Whilst we may be convinced we have the best theory of origins at present, and whilst we may be convinced that we are the most intellectually honest or scientifically rigorous, or that we understand the genre and history and authorial intent of Genesis 1 most appropriately—important as these factors are—I venture that the level of certainty due to the nature of the science and the hermeneutics and the theology in this field, is a level of magnitude below that of the creedal assertion that God created and that he in his providence is sovereign over and at work creatively and redemptively in creation. We Protestants have enough divisions and schisms as it is—we don’t need another one based on the speculative matter of how God created.
Rather we must unite on the basis of the fact that the triune God is the Creator. There isn’t a viewpoint represented in the dialogue on origins that doesn’t have some problems associated with it, problems that need to be worked through. Acute curiosity, robust research and careful scholarship in these areas are consonant with the creational or cultural mandate and the command to love God with our minds.
Dialogue between persons of different persuasions is healthy and good—in fact necessary for advancement in the field. But it requires an irenic and peaceful spirit along with an inquiring mind.
I wonder what our conversations—whether face to face or online—around the question of how/when God created would look like if we consistently ran them through an Ephesians 4 grid?
It is a war.
In liberal Christianity, which is the part of Christianity I know best, I never hear a kind word spoken about young earth creationists. All I hear is ridicule and hate.
It is hard for liberals to see that their own ecumenical visions amount to asking their opponents to become liberal, as in the excerpt you quoted.
I don’t think that the excerpt I quoted (or the essay in its totality) is asking “opponents” to become liberal. Indeed, if I’m reading Hastings correctly, one of the main points of the essay is that usage of the word “opponent” is precisely what we, as Christians, need to move beyond. Hastings explicitly acknowledges that there are problems with every position on the continuum (although, I suspect, he would say that the nature of these problems varies significantly).
More importantly, though, he is affirming the possibility (even necessity) of unity with people who don’t agree with him on this issue. I don’t always get this sense from folks on the other end of the spectrum.
Each side envisions unity, but the visions of unity are different.
Each side talks about being nice, even while continuing to fight.
For the most part, liberals don’t really understand themselves and don’t understand how their language offends others. They imagine they are being civilized while they are yet attacking. They admire their own virtue so much that it makes them blind.
As for myself, liberal theology is the only one in which I know well enough to say that it is mine. I admire some of its virtues, even while I see its problems. It seems like reality to me. I can yet see the virtue of young earth creationism, even while that is not my way of seeing creation or the cosmos or the Bible. It is a high view of scripture and of creation and of the the sovereignty of God. For that, it is to be admired.
Your first two sentences are, unfortunately, all too recognizable. Your last paragraph gives me hope that unity among people of differing views is possible.
This is sad but not surprising. I bear my own battle scars over this issue. The wounds are long past healed, but the scars remain visible if we engage in person over this topic. I have come to the conclusion that it the enemy’s clever tactic to get the people of God to fixate on beginnings or endings. True, we must unite on the basis of the fact that the triune God is the Creator. After that we must examine the Scriptures and our lives in an honest effort to bring them into compliance. May God help us.
I’m sorry to hear of your (tragically common) experience, Ian.
It truly is ironic that some of the most vicious battles in Christian circles have to do with the events and processes most fantastically remote from present experience. Of course, I’m not suggesting that how we understand endings and beginnings isn’t important or that our understandings don’t have effects on the present, but sometimes our confident and precise pronouncements on the specifics of what has happened or will happen at the far reaches of cosmic time seem laughable from our vantage point as profoundly limited creatures running around the place for three quarters of one (!) century…
May God help us, indeed.
I would imagine that there are as many diverse opinions regarding creation within our catholic community as their are within protestant ones, but if there is a big battle among us over the issue I am unaware. I suspect that has to do with our priorities. A sacramental apostolic tradition directly engaging with the Holy Spirit mediated by church will always trump relative non essentials like the means and methods by which God created.
With us or without us your teams need to get more catholic. Particularly the ones that obsess over reductionist historical contexts….”what they really said and who they really said it to”. If scriptures all you got, it’s not enough. Jesus, in His own words bequeathed you the Holy Spirit and an Apostolic tradition and the very person of himself within the Eucharistic celebration. Take them they are free gifts of love and they are yours.
Now get busy. 🙂
Any ideas about how, specifically, we ought to get busy (aside from returning en masse to Rome)? It sounds like you’re saying that the way to “get more catholic” is to get more Catholic…
Fair question, Ryan thank you for asking. Though I think I am better suited to identifying issues as opposed to offering solutions, I owe you my best effort. Here goes…
Like any culture, Christianity requires more than just an idea of itself for it to be sustained. While doxologies are essential to our understanding, in of themselves they offer only potentials, not outcomes. Praxis,the physical expression of our ideas will ultimately determine their legitimacy, or lack there of.
In my opinion praxis is better nurtured within big C :), catholic culture. It is not enough for us to meet once a week in non discript physical environments, talk about God and then hope for Christian outcomes. We need a whole culture with all the history, art, music, architecture and it’s collected wisdoms to sustain us. We need the steadying rhythms of lectionary, calender feast days and customs. We need common oath, communal prayer, sacramental rites of passage, school systems that allow for the teaching of our faith. We need to surround ourselves, like any other viable culture, with the physical expressions of ourselves in order to sustain our way of life.
Our ancestors engaged in what was simply known as the “way”; a lifestyle. We talk a lot but for the most part we embrace and revel in a very unholy culture. We are not what we say we are, we don’t live it. We are hypocrites, we are weak, we are human…we need the positive reinforcement that a wholly defined culture can give us. We need a culture that addresses the whole of our selves, the whole of our lives. In spite of it’s egregious sins, big C catholicism offers us this.
If we are to be a people of better praxis we need to immerse ourselves into a more fully defined and experienced Christian lifestyle.
Thanks for your response, Paul. I appreciate hearing a bit more of your perspective.
While I certainly admire your vision here of a strong connection between belief and practice and a culture to sustain it, I think you’re caricaturing non-Catholic spirituality a bit here (“meet once a week in non discript physical environments, talk about God and then hope for Christian outcomes”). I don’t doubt that this describes some churches, but there are also many vibrant Christian communities who meet in humble—yes, even “non-descript”—settings, where ordinary (maybe even mostly culturally unsophisticated) people are emboldened and strengthened and enlivened by the Spirit of the risen Christ to live lives worthy of the gospel.
In addition, the culture you describe is certainly no guarantor of the “more fully defined and experienced Christian lifestyle” you and I would both advocate. I come across a fair number of people who were “raised Catholic” but who want nothing to do with in anymore because they associate it with lifeless ritual and oppressive guilt. Where you see a comprehensive and beautiful and supportive structure of meaning and strength, they see a hierarchical system to flee from. This may or not be a fair assessment, but the lesson seems to be that there is no “system” or culture that saves us, in and of itself. Thank God.
Of course, Paul, we Anabaptists think we should become pre-Catholic 🙂
Hi James, lol…point well taken. I think we catholics need a healthy dose of pre-catholic understanding as well.
The one consolation is that every letter assures that the magazine is being read, and probably stands in for many readers. (Editors do love letters, even if they’re contentious!) The disconsolation is that, as someone has said (though how this can be known beats me), everyone who writes in represents a thousand who think the same way — hmmm, on the nasty ones, not good news.
Yes, much better to have contentious letters than no letters, isn’t it? It also means that editors are picking topics that matter to people!
My main concern in this area is the matter of how we disagree as Christians. In my view, the world of online communication can (and frequently does) bring out the worst in us. I suppose nasty letters have been around since long before the internet, but there seems to be a qualitative difference in what we see online. Or, maybe I’m just looking in all the wrong places :).
Ryan, thanks for highlighting the MB Herald issue. It’s my hope that we would agree that our interpretations/positions are all flawed and are subject to revision. And in terms of online blogs perhaps we should have an “empty chair” like the empty chair for Jesus at the table (something from my fundy roots meant to keep table talk civil) as the unseen moderator of every online thread. Of course the rub comes when not only do I believe my position best deals with the data but I elevate my position to TRUTH (i.e. my understanding of the word “day” or how best to understand “deep time”).
I like the idea of the empty chair, Larry (although I have to say, it bears an uncomfortable resemblance to creepy “leave room for Jesus” exhortations from youth group leaders to lovestruck teenagers… :)).
Re: TRUTH, I can’t help but think that in many online conversations between Christians, we seem implicitly to be communicating that whatever we might say about the whole “saved by grace” thing in other contexts,we really think that salvation is the prize for the one who manages to achieve the most correct theology (whether on the question of origins, or anything else).
I get lots of related thoughts but have difficulty threading them into a cohesive whole…with regard to architecture and it’s pervasive influence I have always been confused by some Christians willingness to meet just about anywhere and call it church. I struggle to see a church as anything other than a physical home that we offer to the spiritual being of our God. It has to be a holy space, a sacred space. A space divorced of any other purpose or identity other than our being in total communion with God. Concepts of pure praise, pure worship, pure holiness remain distant from me at theology pubs, basement halls or even in grandiose but discreetly inoffensive “new age” style churches. Put me in a cathedral before a large cruciformed Christ, an altar, a Tabernacle; God becomes near, His presence is palpable.
I have had similar experiences, Paul. I have been overwhelmed by the beauty of cathedrals and have been in places that just felt sacred. I think that in a culture where churches can often resemble shopping malls more than anything like a holy place, we are in desperate need of sacred spaces.
At the same time, one of my deepest convictions is that the church is not a building—no matter how majestic—but a people. And people can meet in simple one room churches, community halls, pubs, under thatch roofs, and in the middle of fields. Does God love and speak through beauty? Absolutely. Does God require it in order to meet with his people? Absolutely not.
I think I need to backtrack a bit. I don’t mean to say that the church is just a building, I share your deep convictions, Ryan. We are a people. More importantly we are God’s people. The question then, for me at least, becomes where and how should God’s people worship.
We are a people shaped not only by interior reflection but as much or more by our experiences of the physical world and the relationships we have with one another. In some meaningful way we need to experience God in a physical space, within the context of both a communal and individual relationship. The places we choose to worship and the quality and character of the self we bring to worship, speak nothing of God, they speak volumes about us.
Perhaps it is unique to catholicism but within the physical space of that structure we call a church, we provide residence for the supernatural being of God. Yes God is transcendent. Yes God is present in all things, in all places at all times. No we cannot restrict His Being to gold gilded Tabernacles or Eucharistic Altars. Absolutely God does not need any of the trappings of catholic culture, ritual or belief to sustain Himself. The need is ours, not His.
We need to create special places, holy places, sacred places. We need to sense beauty and truth around us in order for our beauty and truth to be made more fully manifest. We need to honor God’s presence among us so that we may know that we are honorable. We need the security and comfort of ritual and culture so that we may survive and triumph over the sometimes overwhelming cultures of ungodliness. I believe God honors our needs. I believe when we sincerely and lovingly commit to rituals and lifestyles that reflect our best efforts to be holy, God honors those places and efforts with special graces. I am now and will always be a sacramentalist.
I’m sorry if I have inferred that the spaces we create have to be majestic or ornate, costing vast sums of money. They don’t. In all cases we must work with what we have but let what we create be our best effort, worthy of our Lord’s presence. We very often spend a great deal of time and effort to prepare our homes for visitors. How much more then should we invest in a visit from our Lord, in home we made for Him, that we say is His.
And what of our predisposition, do we prepare ourselves personally before our encounter with God. Yes, I believe it is true, He accepts us as we are but if we would meticulously groom and buy new clothing for a date or an important event, if we would prepare ourselves physically, emotionally and intellectually for an important business meeting, how then should we prepare ourselves for an encounter with the risen Christ? Do we ask ourselves if our “come as you are” disposition is acceptable to God? If it is something that honors Him; that he can reciprocate?
With regard to you other response, Ryan. You are right I have caricatured. I did not intend to be unkind but rather to suggest that we must do more than a little, if we are to survive. Likewise it is also true that many Protestants live abundant lives in Christ and many, many Catholics do not.
Ironically, many years ago, I was just like the disaffected Catholics you referenced in your earlier response. Surely adult hypocrisy and poor catechisis played their part but in the end, my attachment to ego, my determined rejection of any path that called me to freely submit myself to God, was the more truthful reason….”I got soul but I’m not a soldier”…
What in my younger days I would have referred to as a “guilt trip” did, quite conveniently in fact, allow me to avoid all questions of accountability. Youth, at least as I experienced it, can be pretty infatuated with itself. Self examination, acknowledging sin and determined efforts to repent are essentials to a mature faith. Youth, again as I experienced it, and most young people I’ve known or gotten to know, aren’t particularly comfortable with such concepts.
One of the great Scot’s prophets, 😉 I’m not sure who, once said…Ach! don’t worry, wait til they have two or three of their own little beggars runnin around the hoose makin’ a racket, that’ll fix ’em!!
I think our places of worship to some extent resemble God’s tabernacle in heaven. Recreating God’s tabernacle on earth (in various ways) is one way in which we connect with God or God with us. It works.
Thanks for your response, Paul. There is much wisdom in what you say.
Ken, I suspect that many of the natural environments you explore are “tabernacles” on earth.
Yes. God finds us and dwells there too, as he did in Eden.
I think we can see in natural environments the remnant of Eden.
I am also rather fond of architecture. For the most part I think Christian worship places (whether tents or cathedrals) have modeled the Tabernacle and Temple described in the Bible which were built to resemble God’s home in heaven according to plans God revealed. Everywhere we build such a space we are recreating something of heaven on earth, something of Jerusalem all over the world.