Sunday, November 14, 2004

Faithful Correspondence

I got this e-mail from a friend, and, with his permission, I'm posting his message and my response:
You know, it occurs to me (although you would have no way of knowing it) that our respective journeys of faith have taken us in decidedly opposite directions. If you'll forgive me for saying so, I distinctly remember a time when you were rather dismissive of religion in general and seemed to be questioning the whole notion of God. I, on the other hand, hadn't given my own faith a whole lot of thought, but took it on...well, faith...that God existed, that I was a Christian, and that religion was generally a force for good in this world. Now, 15+ years later, I find you doing the Lord's work in an official capacity and speaking freely in the language of faith, whereas I have had what I'm sure my mother (if she knew about it) would call "a crisis of faith." The thing is, it wasn't sudden, and it doesn't feel like a crisis to me. In fact, my dirty little secret is that it's been a rather liberating experience. It's not one that I will ever share with my own mother -- it would break her heart -- but it feels right to me, and I guess I can fess up to the right Rev. Ensign.
Anyway, while you've been making your way back toward the church and right up into the pulpit, I've been heading out the door, and I doubt seriously that I'll ever go back. For me, it's been a series of small steps motivated by a mixture of personal experiences, independent thoughts, insights gleaned from others and my own observations about the world around us. The sense of liberation comes from being more open than I once was to other perspectives about religion and faith (which I've never taken to be the same thing), but that willingness to question my own assumptions has made me extremely leery of those who don't. Adherence to the Holy Gospel of the Easy Answer, in whatever form, and from whatever religious tradition, baffles me, and I've just about concluded in my own life that the subordination of reason to faith that most religions require is a bad deal. I also find the injustices perpetrated in the name of religion and the intolerance bred by even the most moderate of protestant traditions to be deeply disturbing (as I'm sure you do). It's amazing to me, for example, that in our post 9/11 world so many Americans can so easily look down their Judao-Christian noses at the "backward" ways of Arab Muslims when what we so desperately need is more tolerance and more understanding. And then when I consider the alarming ascendancy of the fundamentalist Christian right in this country and I listen to the pious rhetoric of our "God-fearing" national leaders, I find that I can scarcely tell the difference between an Arab jihad and our own. I haven't given up on God, but I've just about thrown in the towel on religion (again, not the same thing). My journey has taken me from cocksure ignorance to what feels like an uncertain but freer place. On the other hand, given my upbringing in the Methodist church and my firm grounding in protestant Christian traditions, there's an unmistakable sense of loss too. I would really like to know, if you ever care to share it with me, how it was that your path took you in the opposite direction and how it is that your faith survives.
How's that for a conversation starter?
The questions you raise -- and with way more eloquence and poignancy than most e-mails, by the way -- are so profoundly important for the church today -- at least for the progressive part of it. Indeed, if we cannot respond to them well we don't deserve to be called church, nor do we deserve to live into the next generation.
It's funny, you describe a gradual series of small steps motivated by experience, encounters, thoughts and observations. I would describe my journey back to the church in almost the exact same way. Certainly there are some experiences, encounters, thoughts and observations that stand out as particularly significant, but mostly in retrospect as I try to figure out the answer to the Talking Heads question: how did I get here?!?
I had a fairly strong but inchoate sense of "call" to ministry from the time I was in high school, but I have had and still do have more than my fair share of deep doubts and serious questions about the church, about God, about the whole "Jesus" thing, about other paths and religions, and about my own gifts -- and my own desires to do other things with my life. At any given moment, I can be found in the midst of the same struggles and questions, but I have decided, for now, to carry on these struggles within the community of faith. In the midst of all that I do not know, there are a couple of things I am convinced of: first, we are created for community (that's one of those insights of Trinitarian theology, if we're created in the image of a God who is inherently communal, then we must share that essential trait); the flip side of that is that we cannot find our way to God -- whoever God is and however we conceive of God -- very well on our own; second, we share a common longing for meaning and connection with something larger than ourselves; third, the experiences I have had, while peculiar to my life, are not unique -- that a sense of connection to that which is of ultimate concern, a sense of being called in that connection out into the world in service, a sense that the figure of Jesus is decisive for me (although not exclusively so for everyone), that these things are infinitely repeatable.
There is much more to my wrestling with God, but those convictions keep me coming back to the mat, as it were. I suppose they all rest on a foundational trust that at the center of the cosmos there is a heart that beats for love of me and you. That simple affirmation -- that God is love -- is both enough theology to begin with, and also, I think, the single most important gift the church has to offer to a world that does not know itself to be beloved and does not understand at all how to live out of that truth.
Of course, as you so powerfully point out, the church has done a lousy job of fulfilling this singular calling. At its worst, the church has been a collection of ordinary people confusing doubt and heresy, faith and certainty, while disastrously pursuing their own imperial designs and masking them with pious liturgical blessings. At its best, the church has been a collection of ordinary people deeply engaged in the practice of faith seeking understanding while gathering around a common table tasting a profound joy in the shared experience of simple grace, of simply being beloved. There's not that much difference between the two, and, if we are honest, we'll confess that both the impulse to domination and the drive to connection are present in the same community.
In the past ten years I have seen both extremes of the church, been upheld by it and victimized by it. But the best of it keeps calling me back because there is something profoundly wonderful about a community gathering to pursue something as radical as reconciliation and peacemaking, something as simple as supporting one another in the struggles of everyday, something as challenging as justice, something as foundational as love. Besides, where else can I find a group of people who actually let me inflict my guitar playing, singing and song-writing on them? And still, I get paid.
How's that serve as an initial response? I really appreciate the depth of your questions and the way you've expressed them. I think you've touched on something shared by many of our generation and, even more so, by Gen X, and you put it all both clearly and personally. If any thing I've jotted down here strikes a chord, come back at me with more conversation.