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A Rant of Sorts: Grappling with Religious Belief, Belonging, Exclusion and Community

Recently I’ve been having some pretty fascinating conversations about what it means to belong to community. In fact, just this week I sat in room full of colleagues and debated whether or not someone needed to become a member of a local church in order to be considered a full participant. The whole conversation left me feeling a little annoyed, but at least I am aware of that.

What has only become clear to me today, is the degree to which this annoyance was a part of something much deeper and much more significant than belonging. Inevitably, I guess I am coming to realize that at its core, I really feel like the conversation about membership and belonging is really about belief.

I say that the debate is about belief for a couple of key reasons. 1. What we authorize as most essential to our belief systems inevitably drives how we will seek to include or exclude others. 2. Beliefs, particularly religious ones, are most often so culturally conditioned that it is hard to decipher whether something is true or cultural. Thus religious beliefs, above all, should be considered to possess guiding while fragile authority over how we relate to others.

Let me try to text these out a little more fully:
1. What we authorize as most essential to our belief systems inevitably drives how we will seek to include or exclude others.

We live in an era of statements of faith. In a day and age when quite often people fear the other more than they seek to understand them, non-profits and churches alike have decided that the way to make sure that people are on the same page is by presenting a common notion that all can sign up to. Although there have always been these kind of statements within the history of the Christian church (lets just say dating back to the Didache [maybe earlier]), the tenor of modern day statements seems to have shifted from that of an organizing center-set of ideas to a more bounded-set of beliefs. As such, these statements now include not simply center-set things (God, Jesus, Holy Spirit, One Church, resurrection of the body), but also beliefs which draw huge boundaries around what is newly/culturally appropriate to believe and what isn’t (infallibility (purity) of Bible, how God will act in judgment, what the work of the Spirit ought to be like). The question for me is, is this what the Church intended to authorize with its formation of common notions?

(Please note: for a great historical dialogue on this, check out the differences between how Adolf von Harnack and Ernst Troeltsch tackle the idea of the Kingdom of God contextualized. Or as David Pacini paraphrased it: “a debate over whether you can have a kernel without the husk from which it came, or whether the kernel is always connected to the husk.”)

I want to say NO. Why? How? Simply put, and as paraphrasing Luke Timothy Johnson, I want to say no because in genre, authorship, and perspective the Bible has canonized diversity as central to its understanding of God and the Church. Therefore, rather than attempting to undertake some elaborate exercise in boiling down the canon to a few throw away statements on how God really is, or what it really means to be a follower of God, one ought to engage the canon with a sense of reverence for the the plurality of voices and narrative understandings that it has authorized. I mean really, the Christian canon also includes the sacred text of another religion with entirely other set of assumptions.

Similarly, the church in culture should recognize that statements of belief and/or faith ought not to attempt an exclusion of people simply on the basis of difference. Rather the communities of faith ought undertake the hard work of understanding how the different perspective lives out its role in the conversation; particularly, when the person is of the same tradition and simply addressing matters from a different social, gender, intellectual, or economic location. Otherwise, Paul’s statement about there being “neither Hebrew or Greek, slave nor free, male nor female” in the ecclesia means nothing (Galatians 3:28).

2. Beliefs, particularly religious ones, are most often so culturally conditioned that it is hard to decipher whether something is simply true for all (of that belief system) or cultural. Thus religious beliefs, above all, should be considered to possess guiding while fragile authority over how we relate to others.

I’m a big believer in pluralism. My sense is that if we can just get to know the narratives that we have in common with people of other religious traditions, then it is possible that we can all work for the tikkun olam (healing of the world). But what I also understand, is that bound up within all of our sacred texts and narratives are certain implicit story lines that form and shape us to treat the other (of other traditions or our own) in certain ways. Sometimes these ways are good, and sometimes, these ways are bad.

Take for example the difficult yet subtle message found throughout most of the Christian Old Testament (and New). You know, the sneaky little narrative that says, “women are bad, not to be trusted; especially, if they are beautiful.” Believe me, its there. And what is more, it has deeply influenced the way the church has treated women and chosen to vest them with authority or leadership. I think we can agree this is bad sneaky.

But there are also good sneaky messages. You know, like the ones found in the poetry of the psalmist that attempt at describing God’s creative energy among us as in the stars, in the patterns of life, and in the often fragile and failing relationships with others. The one that says “chaos and suffering are the way to life.”

In both of these cases, there is stuff being authorized by the text whether we like it or not. Stuff, that will lead us to think about the other and creation and God in good and bad ways. Stuff, that needs to be questioned, critiqued, and evaluated through all the sources of moral reasoning available to us (like: Scripture, Tradition, Reason, Experience).

At the end of the day, I guess the struggle at hand really is: what do we believe about how we belong to one another in creation (as bearing the image of God), really?

Problematically, as Mirosaf Volf notes, it is primarily the human tendency to exclude, and to suggest that we do not all belong to one another, despite the fact that many would acknowledge God’s image in all. However, my intuition, one shaped by the web of connections I experience every day, or in the way the Bible and my community forms me, compel me to say Yes!, we really all do belong to one another.

Yes, we may believe different things, but as neighbor or enemy, in this time, and in this temporal place, we share a common space even greater than our uncommon notions. A space, held not by our ability to agree entirely, but strengthened by our mutual difference. A space, as Sallie McFague powerfully imagined, that is something like “the body of God.”

In a sense, I guess that this is what has annoyed me about the conversations I’ve been having; namely, the fundamental movement towards exclusion has been an affront to my belief that we really do all belong to one another.

What do you think? Exclusion or embrace?

Plotting goodness…

Joshua

Discussion

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  1. I never know what is going to pop up under the above “Related ways to take action.” These are brilliant for this post;)!

    Enjoy…
    Joshua

    Posted by joshuacase | March 2, 2010, 8:04 pm
  2. Surprisingly (or not so much) you really had me on board here. I even echo McFague’s concept of the body of Christ. I don’t agree with much of her stuff but that is one image I really, really liked.

    Here’s my only question: While we can’t EVER exclude people in the life of the Church shouldn’t we seek to define ideals that exclude “wrong belief?” That is, shouldn’t the Church define itself around an orthodox-even if it’s one that gets revised and tweaked as time goes by?

    Posted by Ben Gosden | March 2, 2010, 8:47 pm
  3. Three things.
    A) “… in genre, authorship, and perspective the Bible has canonized diversity as central to its understanding of God and the Church.” LTJ said that? God, I miss him. Disagreed with him on every point at every turn, but really miss him like mad. If you see him, tell him that.
    B) Your point #2 is so powerful that I am stealing it for my FB status.
    C) It’s weird hearing me say this, but I’m with Ben, in a way. It sounds like you really want to come down in a place that includes everyone and everything (all of creation, as the image of God, maybe). I like that, and we UUs do that, but that is a big part of why we are NOT Christian.
    I don’t think you can do that, i.e. include/allow all well-intentioned people and ideas, IF you have a canon of scripture that has authority. (This is easy for me to say, because where I come from, we don’t have a canon, scripture, or authority). One thing that troubles me about progressive Christians is, how much of Scripture is up for grabs, or debatable, or subject to rewrite? Progressive Christians on the whole cling to “image of God” language from a tiny snippet of a beautiful but very ancient and figurative creation myth while gleefully discarding more recent and more precise language from Jesus.
    I love the “image of God” language, and I use it. Still, it’s not Jesus, is it? And the admonition that remarriage equals adultery, that IS Jesus.
    And can we quote “neither Jew nor Greek” Paul without doing something with “women shall remain silent” Paul?
    No conclusion here. Still processing… but I do love the way your mind works!

    Posted by Lynn Hopkins | March 2, 2010, 9:46 pm
  4. Ha ha! Be careful Lynn. You and I get together on a position of religion and doctrine and the world may not know what hit it! Awesome!

    Posted by Ben Gosden | March 2, 2010, 10:04 pm
  5. Ben & Lynn-

    Thanks for your thoughts and responses.

    You both pose an interesting question with regards to the nature of exclusion. It’s a place that I struggle with. I mean honestly, if people can not allow themselves to be in dialogue with others and constantly put others down, should they be allowed in the room?

    And what of those troubling remembrances of Jesus and Paul? How are we to account for them with out picking and choosing that which suits our fancy?

    Briefly, my response is two fold (with more to come later, I’m sure):
    1. Ideals shouldn’t exclude belief (even dissent ones), they ought to inspire them to become something more. If, therefore, something doesn’t inspire towards the Good, then maybe it shouldn’t be held up as essential for belief.

    2. Troubling passages are like well developed family characters in a good William Faulkner novel. You can’t ignore them or they’ll bite you. They have some role to play in revealing what’s really going on. And, the story just wouldn’t be the same with out them. Not to mention that like Jason Compson, Jesus and Paul were social beings in a time and a space often written about years later.

    With regards to the “women shall remain silent,” I’ll again paraphrase my friend LTJ: this is an example of where the idealistic Christian non-hierarchical view of the early church gets challenged. Why? Because in the context of household ethics in particular societies, Christians both witnessed to the culture around them in the observance of cultural order and in challeging it in other ways. Again, a paraphrase, but you get what I’m saying? Paul has too often been mistakes as a prescription, when it was really was a description for a how during a when.

    Looking forward to more banter. And yes, the two of you agreeing..awesome!

    Joshua

    Posted by joshuacase | March 2, 2010, 10:30 pm
  6. Very well done, indeed! As much as it pains some of my colleagues, I believe Marcus Borg is particularly instructive here. I think that you are correct in that much of the division in Christianity comes from the Bible. Borg suggests that the flawed assumption that “liberals” toss the Bible out the window! On the other hand, progressive religious … See Morefolks have to do a better job representing their theology of scripture…

    For me, at least for my struggle to reconcile my progressive theology of scripture with my family’s fundamentalist worldview, the difference lays in the fact that scripture is a place to wrestle and to encounter God. Shayanna’s favorite part of the Bible is the story of where God and Jacob wrestle… I think there’s something deeply meaningful in acknowledging that the God we pray to is a God with whom we can be honest. A theology of scripture that treats the Bible as if it were the final word on any given subject misses the mark…

    Posted by Marshall | March 3, 2010, 3:21 pm
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