Monday, April 26, 2010

Which Way Forward?

Over the past month or so, I have tried to express theologically why the movement toward full, visible unity is imperative for the Christian, and particularly for the Protestant. We cannot claim to worship a God who embraces the physical and remain satisfied with the spiritual. We cannot expect the world to believe in God's reconciliation if we are content to remain unreconciled to our sisters and brothers.

In spite of common blood and name, the Church is like a feuding family that is unwilling to forgive or forget, paralyzed by its past and unable to embrace a future together.

Now, I was a history major, so I'll be the first to say that the past matters. Some of the Church's divisions were born out of good reasons, perhaps even necessity. Most Catholics today will concede that Luther raised some valid grievances - points that were later addressed in the Council of Trent - but that the Church would have done well to keep him within the fold instead of forcing him out. My own tradition, though originally a renewal movement, was institutionalized when English bishops vindictively refused to ordain and send priests to American Methodists hungry for the sacraments. Today, many Anglicans and Methodists recognize this split as regrettable and steps have been taken - most strikingly in India - to restore their broken unity.

For those of us who "share in one Spirit," might we trust that God's grace is greater than our brokenness and imagine the original reasons for our schism (whether valid or invalid) being swallowed up by love and reconciliation in the present? Might we envision a reunited family, the past forgotten and a common identity embraced?

OK, you might be thinking, but what would this family reunion look like? What is the way forward?

First of all, it requires everyone to come to the table for conversation - even the uncle that you hate. The first step toward unity is the ability to listen in humility, to hear what someone else is saying. This, of course, doesn't mean you will necessarily agree with them, but there can be no possibility of reconciliation if the differing parties don't even know each other.

This is the great achievement of 20th century ecumenism - somehow, they were able to bring Christians from all stripes into the same room where they could get to know each other. In this room, many stereotypes and semantics were ironed out. Not all Catholics think they can save themselves! Not all Protestants think good works don't matter! Particular differences were clarified - but it became much harder to dismiss entire traditions when you looked in someone's eyes and saw the spirit of Jesus there.

In the wake of these conversations, three main strategies for unity have emerged among Christians:

1) Lowest Common Denominator - what are the things we hold in common? This "core" becomes the basis for unity and all other differences are either thrown out completely or judged to be non-essentials. This has been the approach adopted by "uniting" church movements among Protestants in Canada, Australia, India, and some other parts of Africa, Asia, and Europe.

2) Assimilation - one church is right (or the closest to right) and the rest are wrong or misguided (at least in regard to the things that keep them separate). All of the "wrong churches" must conform to the beliefs of the "right church", thus restoring unity. This has been the approach adopted by most Catholics, Orthodox, and various fundamentalist Protestant groups.

3) Non-denominational - local assemblies of believers are united by their common faith. This group agrees with #1 that there is a "core" that all Christians hold in common, but rejects the need for a single overarching structure in favor of a federation of local, independent churches. This approach is rapidly gaining prominence among young, postmodern Protestants in the United States.

In the next three weeks, I'll address each one of these options in more detail. Obviously, none of these models has yet led to full, visible unity among the churches, which is why I'll then offer my own vision for what a Christian family reunion might look like in the future.

The way forward seems uncertain. How might you imagine a reunited Christian family?

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Disunity on Display

It was a beautiful, late summer morning, and I was driving a car full of groomsmen to my old roommate’s wedding ceremony. As we meandered through the tranquil countryside of upstate New York on the way to the church, the conversation turned to religion. The best man, sitting next to me in the passenger seat, asked about my studies in divinity school and we began talking about the differences between various Christian denominations. About halfway through our discussion, we followed Route 21 into the tiny village of Palmyra. There, at the intersection of Main and Canandaigua Streets, our eyes could not help but drift up to notice four soaring church spires that pierced the sky. On each corner of the intersection stood a different church – Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Episcopal. The best man, who attended a suburban nondenominational congregation, remarked how he had never really thought about Christian disunity until he saw it dramatically displayed on that street corner.

That moment remains etched in my mind whenever I consider the importance of Christian ecumenism. As it turns out, another young man – Joseph Smith – was troubled by that very same intersection over a hundred years earlier. Born and raised in Palmyra, Smith’s frustration with the competing denominations in town contributed to his disillusionment with traditional Christianity. Thus the scandal of Christian division – embodied on a remote corner in New York – gave birth to the new religious movement of Mormonism.

What about you? Do you worship across the street from another church? What keeps us divided? How does our disunity effect our credibility or "witness" to the world?

Monday, April 12, 2010

Is Unity Realistic?

My good friend Derek recently made the comment on Facebook regarding the blog phenomenon in general: "your blog: nobody cares." In spite of the irony of his criticism being posted on a public forum, I think he has a point. A blog that seeks to address large, important questions - but that nobody reads - may be therapeutic for the writer, but in the end is kind of, well, pathetic.

That being said, I want to thank those of you who have been offering feedback and asking questions. While I am grateful for the chance to organize my thoughts on this subject and be able to refer back to them, my main purpose in writing is to encourage conversation and dialogue on the subject. So keep your comments coming! I will continue to develop my posts in ways that correspond with your questions/interests (you can also check out two polls listed on the right side of the page to help me with this).

In the past two posts, I have sought to convey why I think unity is essential to the Christian gospel (incarnation, reconciliation, evangelism) and therefore to the Christian understanding of "Church". For Protestants in particular, who are responsible for much of the Church's current visible disunity, ambivalence toward division is inexcusable. While most seem willing to acknowledge that unity is important for the Church's integrity (at least in theory), three very important questions are commonly raised.

1) Given the current state of the Church, is unity even realistic?
2) If we are to strive after unity, how might we envision a way forward?
3) What qualifies as "essential" versus "opinion" for Christians who seek to be united?

Obviously, these three questions are interrelated. In future posts, I'll be focusing almost exclusively on the second and third questions. But in this post, I want to briefly address the first question: is Christian unity realistic?

For me, the answer to this question is deeply embedded in the Christian understanding of how we, as human beings, are reconciled to God. Led by the Holy Spirit, Christians should seek to be reconciled to each other in the same way that we have been reconciled to God (see 2 Corinthians 5). In Christian theological lingo, this involves two important steps: justification and sanctification.

JUSTIFICATION: For Christians, the biblical story of God’s redemption of humanity reaches its climax in the cross of Christ. Through Christ’s atoning work on the cross, humanity is justified before God and able to enter into a restored relationship of love by faith. Yet despite their status as justified sinners by the grace of God, Christians continue to wrestle with the ever-present reality of sin until Christ returns in final victory. The Christian, then, is simultaneously sinner and saint.

Lesslie Newbigin, a bishop in the Church of South India and a leading 20th century evangelist and ecumenist, contends that the doctrine of justification by faith through grace provides the theological underpinning for the Church’s quest for unity. Like the individual believer, the community of faith is both grace-filled and sinful. While the Church is meant to be a place where God’s love is experienced through the fellowship of believers, its communion is disrupted and discredited by countless denominational divisions. The Church is simultaneously the Body of Christ and a squabbling bunch of sinners.

: Here's where the Wesleyan side of me kicks in. Absolutely central to a Wesleyan understanding of salvation is the conviction that we should not remain content in our current sinful state. Rather, the same Spirit who draws us into a restored relationship with God also empowers us to become holy - to love and serve God as we were intended. The Holy One’s call for us to “be holy” takes us by surprise. Incredibly, we discover that God has written us into the divine plan to save the world. Though our sin is great, God’s grace is infinitely greater. To deny this call to holiness is to “reject not human authority, but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you” (1 Thessalonians 4:8).

Despite our present state of sin, God mercifully works within us, calling us forward to perfect love and participation in God’s Triune life. Likewise the Spirit empowers the Church to be the community of reconciliation and love that fulfills God’s eschatological purpose, where “all flesh will see the salvation of God” (Luke 3:6). For too long, Newbigin says the churches have spent time and energy arguing over “what the churches are – surely it is time for us to meet one another in penitent acknowledgement of our common failure to be what the Church ought to be” (if you're interested, see Newbigin's work on ecclesiology: "The Household of God"). Instead of remaining content in its sinful sectarian state, the Church is called to embody in our institutional life the same unity with one another that has been given to us in Christ.

Viewed this way, the answer to the question - "is unity realistic" - is a resounding NO if the Church is relying on human strength alone. But if we are willing to humble ourselves and trust in the same Spirit who is able to graciously lead sinners toward holiness, we may begin to glimpse together what the Church "ought to be."

What are your thoughts? Can Christians hope for unity? Or is this hopelessly unrealistic?

Monday, April 5, 2010

Why is Unity Important?

Ideological disagreement appears to be an unavoidable part of the human experience. The bitter rhetoric in the US over health care reform is only the most recent high profile example of this truth. People look at the same thing, hear the same words - and come away with two completely different interpretations.

The centuries old hope (at least in the "West") that science, education, and technology would unite the world has collapsed in the wake of the unprecedented human strife throughout the twentieth century. Postmodern efforts to build unity center less around grand meta-narratives (science, religion) and focus more on respecting diversity and learning to live together without killing each other.

In light of these observations, I will offer two reasons why I think unity is important.

The first reason is functional and applies on a wider, sociological level. It is mutually beneficial for human beings to be united around particular principles that promote human dignity and life. People will continue to disagree with one another. But if people can agree on the fundamental need to protect human life/dignity, then all other disagreements no longer become a reason to kill one another. This is where I think interfaith and religious-nonreligious dialogue is so important. It is safe to assume both that the multitude of human religions are not going away tomorrow and that all nonreligious persons will not suddenly be convinced of the divine. In the meantime, then, it would be beneficial to work toward a set of agreed upon principles that promote and protect life.

The second reason is particular to the Christian narrative. The search for Christian unity is not an idealistic effort to sit around and sing Kumbaya. Neither is it an effort to throw away all the particulars of Christianity and settle on the lowest common denominator. I believe that unity is absolutely essential to the integrity of the Christian story - to the good news of Jesus Christ (incarnation and reconciliation) and the proclamation of that news to the world (evangelism). United by faith in the gospel, there is room for natural disagreements over what Wesley called "opinions" within the Church. We may not all think alike, but reconciled to God and to each other, we are called to love alike.

INCARNATION: "For just as the body is one and has many it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body" (1 Corinthians 12:12-14)

Christians believe that the defining moment in human history is when God became flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. God is not some invisible life force limited to the spiritual or intellectual realm. No, as Christians recite in the great Creeds of the Church, God became "truly human," embracing the messiness of physical human existence in order to restore our capacity to be in relationship with God. Christians celebrate this truth each year at Christmas and in the use of the physical elements of water, bread, and wine as a means of encountering God.

Why, then, is this central conviction suspended for Christians when it comes to the Church? The same loving God who entered into history and became truly human desires the Church to be the continuing embodiment of God’s love - "the Body of Christ" in the world. Christians' satisfaction with an "invisible" Church contradicts their belief in a God who became the visible Body of Christ.

RECONCILIATION: "All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation...entrusting the message of reconciliation to us" (2 Corinthians 5:18-19)

This gets to the central point of why God became human in the first place. Through Jesus' atoning work on the cross, humanity is reconciled to God and able to enter into a restored relationship of love by faith. The New Testament is clear that a loving relationship with God overflows with love for neighbor.

How, then, can the Church be faithful to the Scriptural witness of Christ’s reconciling work on the cross and yet remain unreconciled with one another? Instead of remaining content in its divided state, the Church is called to return to the foot of the cross and embody in its visible life the unity and reconciliation given to all people through Jesus.

EVANGELISM: "I ask on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me." (John 17:20-21)

Finally, Christians believe that God's Spirit empowers the Church to be the community of reconciliation and love that fulfills God's purpose for the world, where "all flesh will see the salvation of God" (Luke 3:6). Christians are called to be agents of God's reconciling love to people in every nation and on every continent.

But how can the world be expected to believe in God's reconciliation when the Church remains an unreconciled fellowship? Thus, when the Church is actively engaged in proclaiming its Gospel, it is able to see Christian divisions for what they are: an intolerable scandal that contradicts the Church’s witness to God’s reconciliation of all things in Jesus Christ.

What do you think? Is unity important to you? For similar or different reasons?
Can we agree on a common set of principles that promote human life? What qualifies as "opinion" within the Church?