So far in these posts about Christian Spirituality, we've covered some baseline definitions of what constitutes the faith, including ideas of the Divine as the Christ and the Trinity. One of my hopes in this has been to shed light on some core tenets that unite – or could unite – believers in and followers of Christianity. I've also hoped these perspectives might resonate with non-Christians too, thereby shedding light on possibilities for unity among people of all spiritualities.
Humankind will need more of this unity to survive and thrive in the 21st century. And as ambassadors of the world's most widespread version of spirituality, Christians will be called upon to play a major role in that. I hope we can answer that call with humility, maturity, and openness. And I hope all of us, no matter our spirituality, can start asking ourselves:
How can we reclaim our role as exemplars of faith, hope, and love?
How can people of all spiritualities come to embrace a new era of unity?
How can we save ourselves and our world, this great Family of Creation, from catastrophe?
These are the weighty questions we'll tackle in these final posts in the Articles of Faith series. Let's all take a deep breath together, before plunging in...
CREATION IN CRISIS
We should begin with a broad, sober assessment of our modern society. Rather than an evolution toward unity, the story of humanity these days often seems like a devolution into ever-greater division, polarization, fission, fracture. And the story of Christianity seems to have followed this same trajectory: a history rife with schisms in the Church, and a too-frequent habit of aiding and abetting even larger social schisms – between races, classes, genders, sexualities, the "saved" and the "damned," Left and Right. It's gotten to the point now where more and more people are schism-ing away from Christianity altogether, and from all other kinds of community life. This is an era of isolationism and community degeneration, of breakup and breakdown, of dissolution and disillusionment, of broken trust and bad faith. Our society is at war with itself; we are at war with each other. And as politics has become the new religion, combatants seem to be taking one of two sides: Conservative or Progressive. The timing couldn't be worse – the stakes have never been higher. Runaway technology, militarism, and ecological collapse loom on the horizon, the prevention of which require cooperation on an unprecedented scale.
Whew. Sober indeed – our world is a heavy place to be right now. And we need to practice bearing this heavy stuff. Please bear with me for one more paragraph... Rather than banding together to stop the world from spinning off its axis, many of us are spinning farther down the vicious cycle and opting out of unity. This might look like digging ourselves deeper into ideological bunkers. It might also look like burying our heads in the sand, pretending the war and the threats don't exist or don't concern us, imagining we can find peace for ourselves off the political grid – at least until the sand turns to ash, or is drowned in a record-high tide. It might even look like fantasizing about ending things before the end-times fully arrive.
Personally, I understand these temptations – I've considered all of them – and yet I've lived to tell you: I've found a radical optimism that renders these options not just undesirable, but unnecessary. In fact I'm getting more optimistic all the time, the more I learn and talk with people (even when I read the news and social media!). We need not succumb to any version of despair – there are many realistic reasons for hope and readily-available outlets for meaningful action.
However, too often nowadays, many Christians endorse the cynical orientations above as much as anyone else, proclaiming Creation to be broken beyond repair or redemption. But this has never been the true or traditional Christian perspective, and any attempts to construe the words of Jesus as misanthropic in any way are missing the real message. The reality of the Christ – the Creator-in-Creation – affirms that the Created world is not, has never been, and can never be so wholly doomed. The surface appearance of “fallen-ness” is merely an indication of latent potential for salvation deep within. And as we've touched on in previous posts, there is no “outside” the Circle of Christ, no Cross “too heavy,” and no “final” death in the Cycle of Divine regeneration. In other words, we can save our world, and to do so, we must work with the society we have.
"The society we have?!" you may be sputtering. "That's exactly what's preventing us from saving the world, and why it's time to take up arms / why everything is so hopeless!" For Progressives the obstacle is the way things have been, while for Conservatives it's the way things are headed, and for pessimists it's both; everyone hates the current state of affairs. From any point of view, how can we possibly work with this dysfunctional mess of a society?
HOLDING TENSION IN THE KNOT
The true and traditional Christian orientation toward changing the world – exemplified in the Bible from Exodus to Exile to Pharisees, Pilate, and Persecution – has always entailed two sometimes contradictory approaches, held together in dynamic tension:
righteousness: working for the freedom of all, giving priority to those who've been denied it most and upending the status quo – as was exemplified in the life and teachings of Jesus
hospitality: faithful, hopeful, loving engagement and relationship with all, including with people and institutions we find flawed – as was exemplified in the life and teachings of Jesus
Progressives and Conservatives alike embrace both of these principles, just in different ways. A helpful exercise here might be to practice imagining what righteousness and hospitality mean for someone of the opposite persuasion as you...
But what is dynamic tension? We can illustrate what this means by referring back to the symbol of the Celtic Knot, which symbolizes the interrelatedness of all Creation: There are no loose ends in the Knot – every thread of reality is integral and must be treated with care. Nor can the Knotted-ness of our world be cut or straightened into something “perfect” – there will always be snarling. Our only sustainable option for improving things is to willingly entangle ourselves, unclench, loosen, and expand, using what we have to weave something better. As anyone who's dealt with decades of family conflict knows – this vulnerable approach to our Family of Creation offers us the most and best possible solutions.
Holding this tension means extending accommodation, curiosity, and mercy (hospitality) toward all that exists – all of it made from the same frayed threads – while also striving for a more just, sanctified ideal world (righteousness) – crafting and refining as needed. These twin principles rule out the reactivism, escapism, and fatalism detailed above. We literally cannot retreat to the elusive, illusive comfort and purity of a numb, on-only-our-terms “life" – and even if we try, we fail sooner or later. Our only real choice is to keep advancing into the risky, relational, electric territory of Life, where we encounter our “enemies” and the thorny problems of institutions, traditions, and civilization itself.
All this difficult work does not mean shirking responsibility for the wellbeing of ourselves and our loved ones – doing that would further fray our own personal thread. And it does not mean automatically building new things over preserving the old – or vice versa – nor automatically defending the status quo rather than disrupting with reform, agitation, and alternative systems – or vice versa. We shouldn't let righteousness or hospitality lapse into narrow-mindedness and sentimentality, nor pretend we can find some lukewarm truce between the two polarities in every situation.
Instead, we must navigate the tension with an awareness that the Knot of reality is dynamic, holistic, and complex. This means that if we can practice holding an overarching vision for social and spiritual unity, we will begin to notice many different pathways toward that vision. And if we practice traversing and envisioning our progress down those pathways, we will begin to notice the emergent best pathway in each situation and overall. In other words, if we can trust that the Creator designed Creation to create rather than destroy itself, trust that we are being guided toward a future of more and greater Creation, and participate accordingly, we will indeed create that future.
Yes, holding this trust and tension is hard – that’s partly how we know it’s a holy calling from Spirit. Fortunately, one of the great things about being a member in the Family of Creation is, well, you’re in the Family of Creation, so you don’t have to do it alone – in fact you can’t and shouldn’t try to! Billions of other people of every tradition are already using what we have to weave something better, saving the world every day. And with such grave challenges and everything at stake, we need more folks opting into that trust, tension, and unity. We simply can’t afford anybody wasting time standing on the sidelines, hunkering in the trenches, or trying to run for the nonexistent exits. If everyone opted in, wouldn’t that be enough save us? Yes, seeing people opt out makes opting in harder. But if you don’t opt in, how are others supposed to know they can?
But, we may ask, what makes this Knot so dang messy in the first place?!
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this post - the Ego and the Soul!
In the meantime, I offer you some reflection questions:
How have you been cultivating faith, hope and love in our struggling world? How have you been finding salvation deep within?
How have you been opting into the tension? How have you been advancing into the risky, relational, electric territory of Life?
Image credits: #1 - Rob Marshall; #2, #4 - Devin Bard