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?