Welcome and Open to God's Wide-World: Old First E-pistle 11.23.12

Welcome and Open to God's Wide-World: Old First E-pistle 11.23.12

Picking and choosing has a bad name in religious circles. Or at least a negative connotation. It’s short-hand for self-serving short-sightedness, usually expressing disapproval of individuals or denominations.

The accusation: that liberal people and churches pay attention selectively to certain parts of the Bible or inherited tradition… to ignore other aspects. This alleged lack of faithfulness is 1) following the beliefs one finds attractive, acceptable, comfortable or easy; and 2) restricting one’s responsibility so as to have to uphold only that abridged list (rather than accepting whole cloth or as non-negotiable the greater body of church doctrines).

It is true that one should always ask how and why certain aspects of one’s religious tradition are recognized as authoritative; and how and why other teachings are let go? For instance, few North American Christians worry the early church’s primitive communism (see Acts 2:42-47) is prescriptive. Why isn’t that practice of the early church normative for us? Why doesn’t the teaching against private property (so that the possessions the Christian community held in common could be distributed according to need alone) ‘so obviously and patently’ “not count?”

Any and all of us need to look for our blind-spots. How is our understanding and practice of faith self-serving? Do we allow the “strange and foreign” or uncomfortable challenges of Christian faith to call on us? Are we open to a demand to live differently than our neighbors?

Still people upset about others’ picking and choosing usually have doctrinal positions, such as the resurrection, the Virgin Birth or the afterlife they insist are not optional. Likewise, they raise hot button moral issues, such as abortion and homosexuality, into creedal “sina qua nons.” Sometimes the list gets longer, adding what seem like smaller details — dancing or Halloween or certain works of literature — to the list by which some are labeled “not really Christians”). Also known variously as “cafeteria Christianity,” and “cherry-picking theology” or “Christianity Lite” wherein individuals “shop” for the beliefs they like or approve of, and pass on what they don’t.

A less pejorative way of referring to the discernment needed for the passing on of tradition might to be to explain: every age has seen some people who can be described as “Christian individualists.” …Folks freer of the inherited interpretations of their day. They’ve often been our “spiritual geniuses:” mystics and prophets, reformers and visionaries.

Anyway, every contemporary (conservative, moderate or progressive) Christian’s understandings are “evolved.” No one today believes what Christians did 200 or 2000 years ago. The strictest traditionalist or clock-back-turning restorationist wouldn’t fit in the Puritan community of the Pilgrims, much less the understandings of Paul’s early church or with Jesus and his disciples.

The real question is not whether the tradition develops over time via changing interpretations, but who has the authority to interpret, and how much authority they have. How radical a reinterpretation can still be considered “Christian,”i.e. still within the canon, under the umbrella? Or what rate of change can Christians and their churches can stomach!

In some churches, for instance the Roman Catholic Church, the authority to interpret and countenance change is centralized in some teaching office. And the Pope, ultimately can claim to be the arbiter of God’s changing will (though few Popes would ever state it that way!) Other traditions, even without centralizing the function, can become very dogmatic– with clearly articulated, commonly-shared positions normative for the faith, for example, the so-called “Bible-believing Baptists.”

There are two more issues operating behind this first:

~ One question is what a church body believes is necessary for salvation. Is there some creedal “right belief” without which there is no hope? Is there some prescribed practice, ritual or social service or witnessing that is necessary? Or is redemption more dependent upon God and God’s grace and love for us than anything we could ever do?

~ The second question is how a church sees itself in relationship to the world. Some faith communities view the world as a hostile and inevitably dangerous place. The church than becomes a sanctuary where one can be safe. Other faith communities see less of a division between the church and the world, and believe that God’s presence can not only be perceived but can be counted on wherever we find ourselves.

In the UCC, we are noticeably at the far end on all of these spectrums:

~ The congregational side of the denomination, founded in dissent over what it experienced as high-handed and restrictive church authority, insisted on personal liberty or freedom of conscience for matters of faith. As the inheritors of that tradition, the UCC somehow shepherds a tradition (sort of like herding cats), but individuals are empowered to think and decide for themselves. We don’t worry about creeds. We understand the church as a big umbrella that can cover all sorts and conditions of people, beliefs and practices. Why? Because God’s grace and love are our only hope. Needing only God, and finding the church less of an indispensible means, UCCers tend to experience the world as a navigable place because God is with us there too.

I thought of all this recently when I was speaking with someone seeking many things. He is trying to put together an integrated faith, but worries that he is doing so with a wide-ranging set of sources. I suggested a personal freedom to pick and choose. Consider this your pastor’s permission-giving! In fact, I’d love to hear some of the diverse sources you draw insights.

Good boundaries and and articulated definitions are how we fashion a personal identity. They are unquestionably healthy for an individual. But, beloved, we don’t have to be that protective of our religious tradition! As individuals, we can give thanks for how it informs and colors and enriches our lives. But finding a nugget elsewhere is no betrayal. Thank heavens, the tradition isn’t that fragile or dependent on any one of us individuals!

Anyway, our tradition is open, almost syncretistic in its ability at assimilating new material and information, whether from science, world history or other religions. (It is said that this is the genius of Hinduism: it cannot be vanquished or taken over, because it so quickly can change shape and form that before any competing religious system makes significant inroads to a Hindu constituency, their “mother-faith” adopts much of what Hindus might find attractive.)

Isn’t access to and fluency in multiple cultural traditions characteristic of us modern’s overly-connected small world? We all function and move in more than one community. Family and neighborhood and work. Multi-cultural North American society of whatever various stripe, but also world culture. As well, rather than one tradition to which we must adhere closely, there are a number of different, sometimes competing narratives that move us or from which we can draw resources by which put together our lives.

Think about it: at Old First, we mean to be an open community. I can quote the Bhagavad Gita in a sermon. We can sing a transcendantalist hymn. Or try a practice that we have borrowed from some far flung corner of the church. Or from the Hopi Indians or an African people. We don’t too often hear complaints like “Protestants don’t do that!” I hope you don’t fear richness that comes to your from other sources, God’s beloved wide world.

One of you, a cradle UCCer, tells me “the Virgin Mary is really important to me: I pray to her, and she helps me.” A bunch of us have family connections or academic knowledge of other religions, and have found our faith or practice enriched thereby. I know Christians whose spirituality is formed by Buddhist meditation or yoga. A person said to me once: Therapy is really my confession. (I hope it might be her assurance too!) A retired colleague gets up early six days a week to go to an Ignatian prayer group. Not to mention those for whom literature is sacred.

Religiously speaking, we’re not folk who experience the world full of off-limit people, places, experiences or ideas. Our lives aren’t overwhelmed by “the other” that threatens to undo us. Rather, we believe in a God who came into the world, to be in that world, that we may not be alone.

Will Cather, in one of my favorite novels, My Antonia, has one of her characters say, “That is happiness, to be dissolved into something complete and great.” I believe that the world and God are much larger than even our most open-armed faith tradition, which afterall, is a symbolic way for taking in such glory…

See you in church,