I attended a seminar this week sponsored by the Trinity Institute. The topic was pluralism, a topic that I have wrestled with ever since I have been a part of the church. How do we, as followers of the Christ way, live faithfully in the world with so many competing systems of truth and values. Should we separate ourselves out, like monastics, in order to ensure purity, or do we blend in with the society? Or, do we, as H. Richard Niebuhr suggested in Christ and Culture, seek to transform our society to embody those Christ values?
When I was growing up, there was an assumption of a Christian ethos, especially where I lived, south of God. Most people went to church, and were familiar with the Biblical narrative, at least the basic story. And there was a base of assumed moral values. If you’re wondering what that felt like, re-listen to the country tune, Harper Valley P.T.A..
I remember in my south Atlanta neighborhood of Lakewood Heights, the moral outrage at a particular family, who cut their grass on Sunday, in front of the Almighty. So-called “blue laws” kept stores closed on Sunday, in an attempt to honor our version of the Sabbath. I remember my father, a graceful man, try to explain to me that Mr. Spraitlin cut his grass on Sunday because he was a Seventh Day Adventist, because they thought the Sabbath was on Saturday. Turns out, they had a point…..the beginning of the crack in my quick-set concrete.
Studies now show that the present generation assumes nothing in terms of a basic faith perspective, may have never been to a religious service, is unfamiliar with the Bible even in a basic way, and is seemingly comfortable in the vortex of relativity of values. What makes one belief better than another? Why should one decide that one system of truth is better than another? My generation’s tendency to “inherit” one’s faith seems to be faded, if not disappeared.
Even within the Christian community, there seems to be an astounding amount of diversity of belief and emphasis. A study by the Trinity Institute took pains to interview a wide variety of subjects, asking about beliefs, practices, values, and habits. As you can anticipate, there was a great diversity.
But there was a surprise, an important one, I think. Perhaps even profound.
When asked about the center piece of faith, a throughline emerged with a strong majority of respondents. At the core, at the heart of the matter, the people responded that the center of faith was this:
Love God and Love Neighbor.
Now, I am the last one to tolerate a soft, easy, Kum Ba Yah, let’s all hold hands in the warm glow of a firelight kind of faith.
In my work at the Center for Faith Development, we would hear many people say, somewhat casually, that we all worship the same God. There are really no major differences. But that is a simplification that denies the deep and significant differences that do exist.
When I lived in the world of ecumenical worship, nothing made me cringe as much as at a Thanksgiving community service where we gathered around the least common denominator of worship. We were trying to be friendly and “nice”, to avoid the embarrassing question of differences, and so we settled with smiles and warm feelings of community. That would suffice, “make do”, until we all got around our own family table and wonder aloud what the hell “those folks” were thinking.
The truth is that there are significant differences. In the faith development world, when we found someone waking up to the reality of the differences, we found that there was a move to choose, to take a position. And then, knowing there were other systems of truth, competing with one another, an effort was made to defend that choice over and against the other. As opposed to the back-slapping community where we are all in it together, in a casual, if careless way, the move was to a scrupulous assessment of other’s fallacies and breaks in logic, while glorying in one’s own correctness. What I just described is not a bad proposal for a sitcom on seminary, all without the laughs.
I am reminded engaging in a late night debate with a fellow seminary student, he of a more fundamentalist persuasion where the Bible trumps everything, especially his particular reading of it. At the end of the exhausting debate, my friend ended our exchange by proclaiming, “Well Galloway, you just go on believing your way, and I’ll keep on believing in God’s!” Now most folks will not be that honest, but it sort of boils down to that in final analysis, for a lot of what passes as discussion in church, a covenant of “niceness”.
Faith development suggests that many of us get stuck in those systems, building huge cathedrals of thinking that support our prejudices. And this happens in all forms of theology: liberal, conservative, sacramental, charismatic, social gospel, to name but a few. We take pains to build our structures, applying the leveler of logic to make sure it holds together. Simultaneously, we are painstakingly looking at our neighbor’s cathedral of thought to catch where they went wrong, just so we can point it out, lovingly of course.
At some point, if one is open to the paradox of life and reality, we realize that our systems can never hold the fullness and mystery of God. If we are blessed, fortunate, or lucky, depending on one’s cosmology, we see the holes in our system of trying to tie God down in manageable bits where we can maintain the illusion that we have God under control.
We do not.
When that happens, some of us bag the whole enterprise, dismayed by the fact we can’t figure it out. Others, without a defendable system, fall into the vortex of relativity, swinging from one system to another, seeking to find a home, at least a shelter for the storm. And a few make the precarious move beyond our confusion to a new simplicity of a faith where there is an innocence of trust in God, a recognition of the many paths to God, and many ways to worship. And, in at least the persons I have listened to, there was a deep love for other people, not feeling a need to persuade and prove them wrong, or convince them you are right. There is a simple sense of connection. After one reaches that maturity of faith, it often results in maverick behavior and joyful playfulness. And on other occasions, I have witnessed a person radically freed to make a binding commitment to the dignity and worth of every human being. I’ve met a few, and they were gifts.
It takes me back to my first day in seminary, a required class called Baby Greek. You are thrown in the deep end of the pool, trying to learn to decipher the Greek New Testament, the original language of the writers, with the high notion of getting back to the real nouns, verbs, and prepositions of Jesus. Those were the special words in “red” in the Bible my mother gave to me.
They start you off in First John, a letter to a fellow follower of the Christ way, encouraging and calling them to the serious commitment of faith. The telling line for me that day, taught by Dr. David Garland, was so striking, I could not believe it was in the Bible, and that I was not familiar with it. I thought it must be prank played by a Methodist. Here it is:
If you say you love God, but you hate your brother, you are a liar.
I remember thinking to myself, I wish I had this kind of ammunition when those dastardly deacons in my home church fired my pastor and kept out the blacks. What the hell. And then I realized I had been hoist on my own petard. Love seems to be the key.
Funny thing, that’s exactly what the Trinity Institute discovered in their study. In interviewing a variety of folks, when they boiled it all down to the heart of the matter, it was about loving God and loving your neighbor.
One does not have to work too hard to convince people that we are living in a pluralistic society. There are so many different frames of reference, ways of looking at the landscape of reality. And yet, there seems to be this very practical core.
My sense is that this is what has made for the inflection point in our culture here in this country recently. When normal human beings were forced to watch, literally, to witness the overt taking of the life of George Floyd, it touched our soul. No need to position for red and blue politics. It was simply human. We were moved in a way that dove deeper, or transcended our petty political posturing. And it seems to be moving our culture, returning it to a more humane posture. Maybe it was Mr. Floyd’s cries for his mama that grabbed us. If it had been me, gasping for air, I would have been yelling out expletives that would not endear folks to my cause. “Mama”…..most of us had one. And if you are a mama, you realized, somatically, that could be your child calling out.
So can we find a common thread to hold onto in the middle of the swirling pluralism that surrounds us? Could we dive beneath the static and the noise of social media to rediscover some commonality? Even within a pluralistic Christian community, could we discover, or recover, a simple connection to basic command to love one another?
In my personal spiritual discipline, I re-mind myself of the basics that I find provided for me in my baptismal vows that we repeat in the Episcopal Church on occasions of baptisms, confirmations, or other special occasions. I rehearse the vows at the beginning of each week, to keep my commitments in front of me. Most importantly, it reminds me of my vow to respect the dignity of every human being.
That’s a tall order, I know. It applies to people different than me, who believe differently than I do. They may not love the Baby Jesus as much as me. They may cut their grass on Sunday. They may even fire their pastor. But I affirm that vow every Monday, and work like crazy to make it real in my dealings with others. Would you join me in this commitment?
To respect the dignity of every human being!