21 July 2010


I found out this morning that a friend of mine died last week, apparently of natural causes. He was my age. We had fallen out of touch in recent years, despite that we lived near each other, because we had become frustrated with one another, and I was all too willing to comply with his stated desire to be left alone. In the years since then, I've thought about reaching out to him, but I never did. He could have done the same, of course, but might very well have refrained from doing so for no other reason than that he thought I was still mad at him. (I wasn't.) For my part, the reason I didn't reach out was simply that I sometimes found him frustrating, and therefore I didn't really want to.

"There will always be time for reconciliation later" is one of those lies that we tell ourselves, which I think we know very well are lies, even as we are comforted by them. I wish I had not been so hard-hearted and lazy, but there's fuckall I can do about it now.

12 July 2010

On relationship and belief

There's currently quite a bit of discussion around my church, the Common Table, regarding issues of belief and unbelief. These are exactly the sorts of things that churches ought to be discussing (as opposed to not discussing them in a quietly unhappy manner), so this is a healthy thing, I suppose.

"Beliefs" have never been something that Common Table (CT) has particularly emphasized. There's a paragraph on the topic in our Heart Document, which is just about the only written constitutional document for our community. Here's what it says:

Beliefs: We believe our doctrine is adequately encompassed in the Nicene Creed. This is the guiding compass we will follow as a church, while still providing the freedom for members of the church to question and explore matters of faith openly.

The reason for adopting the Nicene Creed, as I understand it, was due to the fact that the majority of CT's members, at the time the Heart Document was formed, came from a post-evangelical background. That is, they came from a world in which churches would commonly post a very detailed doctrinal statement on their web site - a statement including doctrines regarding salvation, predestination, heaven and hell, the Atonement, the Bible, etc. Many in CT at the time felt that these sorts of statements served to build walls between a given church and other churches where folks might disagree on some of those doctrinal points. Instead, CT adopted a statement of belief which (despite its checkered formation history) has been affirmed by the vast majority of the worldwide Church (Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant) for the vast majority of the Church's history. The idea was to unite us with the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church - not to cut us off from it.

Some things to note about the Nicene Creed: We have a Father God who is a mighty Creator, but mostly left to mystery. We have Jesus the Son who undergoes an Incarnation, suffering and death, Resurrection, Ascension, and Second Coming - but the hows and whys of those are mostly left unspecified. (Though if you happen to be schooled in ancient Greek philosophical categories, it does tell you precisely the manner in which He was begotten. FWIW.) And we have a Holy Spirit, a Church, a sacrament of forgiveness, and a hope of resurrection and a new world - all of which are described in the briefest terms. There's nothing there about the nature of the Bible, or what exactly happened in the Atonement, or who gets salvation and why, or any of a number of other doctrinal points upon which folks might have strong (and divergent) opinions.

This brief and somewhat enigmatic statement of belief has been a part of our community culture for years, but it's never been the most prominent thing. We mention it in our Heart Document, post it on our web site, and use it in worship - some times more frequently, some times less. In our Heart Document, we call it "adequate". Some folks have felt it was too much, some too little - so "adequate" is perhaps about right.

Also notable is the second sentence in the "Beliefs" paragraph: "This is the guiding compass we will follow as a church, while still providing the freedom for members of the church to question and explore matters of faith openly." The Creed sets some direction for the community as a whole, but in no way seeks to put boundaries around the community - or the intellectual and spiritual journey of individual members.

Finally, the paragraph on "Beliefs" has been very much held in tension with the next paragraph in our Heart Document:

Mystery: God is big and we will never be able to fully understand Him. We are not afraid of unanswerable questions. We also believe that God can be experienced through the sacraments and that He works to reveal himself through the arts.

* * *

So why am I inviting you to care about this? Because lately, some folks have (if I'm hearing them well) been wanting a more central place for a belief statement in our community, and/or a belief statement that goes well beyond the Nicene Creed in the ground it covers.

A good friend of mine recently asked an excellent question: why would anyone want to join an organization if they don't subscribe to all of the beliefs that the organization is centered on?

It's an excellent question, and there could be a variety of answers to it, but I want to suggest that one possible answer is: some organizations aren't centered on a set of beliefs.

I would further suggest that, as I personally understand it, Common Table is one such organization.

I don't mean to suggest that belief isn't one vital aspect of our life as a community. I just don't think it's our center.

As an example, my friend mentioned Greenpeace. Why would someone join Greenpeace if they didn't believe in protecting the environment?

But I think Greenpeace is actually an example of an organization that's not centered around belief, but action. The point of Greenpeace is to protect the environment - that's why people join. It's not because they share certain beliefs. Sure, maybe there's one big belief that spawns all the action: "The earth is worth saving." But there are lots of smaller beliefs that many Greenpeace activists might believe are central to their work, such as, "Veganism is a necessary part of caring for the environment." Many Greenpeace activists believe this. Many do not. They set those differences aside because in the end it's all about the action.

In Common Table, we say the Nicene Creed is our guiding compass - but a compass is not a center. A compass provides direction. It's a tool. It's not the core.

What, then, is our center? To me, Common Table is centered on relationships. Here's our Heart Document again:

Community: The Common Table exists only in the relationships among its members. We desire to foster a community where people are both accepted completely and encouraged to become more like Christ. We recognize there is tension between those two concepts of acceptance and accountability.

This obviously speaks to the relationships among the community members, which are (I think) core to who we are. But it also speaks to the relationship which I would like to think is at the real center of our shared life: a discipleship relationship with Jesus. To me, we are a Christian church because we, as a community, seek to follow and be formed by Jesus - not because we (collectively or individually) subscribe to any particular set of beliefs. As with Greenpeace, there may be one or two big beliefs that spawn all these relationships - "Jesus is worth following" and "these people are pretty cool", perhaps. We may differ on all kinds of beliefs, but we set those differences aside, because it's all about the relationships - including, centrally, our community's commitment to a disciple relationship with Jesus.

(Admittedly, an authentic attempt at relationship with Jesus - as with anyone - both shapes and is shaped by certain beliefs. To engage authentically with the Jesus described in the Bible and yet believe he would support antisemitism requires amazing ignorance, yet lots of people do it. Similarly, an atheist engaged with a community that seeks to follow Jesus should be challenged, regularly, by the obvious fact of Jesus' theism. And no, I'm not equating atheism with antisemitism - just saying that a relationship requires openness to the other person: you notice things about them. It would be hard not to notice that Jesus was a theistic Jew.)

I recognize that for many folks, a church is, by definition and without exception, centered around beliefs - otherwise it's not a church. I acknowledge, honor, and respect that point of view, and still submit my personal opinion (nothing more than that) that Common Table Church is centered not around beliefs, but around relationships.

* * *

When I read Pete Rollins' recent post, "Oh death, where is thy sting?", it really knocked me on my ass, because it so completely nails exactly where I've been lately (as I've struggled with some depression, anxiety, and existential crisis). Pete says:

[Paul] Tillich writes of three anxieties (that are simply different ways in which nonbeing makes its absence felt). There is the anxiety of fate which, at its most extreme, is encountered in a despair that we face death. Then there is the anxiety of emptiness (where we experience our various projects as unfulfilling) that can degenerate into the despair of total meaninglessness. And finally there is the anxiety of guilt (where we feel that we fall short of our own being). An anxiety that, at its most all encompassing, is felt in the despair of condemnation.

Yep, that's me lately. Pete continues:

Tillich questions the idea that the way of Christ provides religious answers to our existential questions. Rather he attempts to show that Christ invites us to participate in a way of being that enables us to live beneath the shadow of these questions. Joyously embracing life while fully acknowledging their presence. Living in such a way that they are deprived of their weight and sting. In doing this he points to the possibility of a God arising from the ashes of the death of the religious God. A God that can be described as the source of our ability to live fully in the midst of our existential doubts.

This God, described by Tillich and Rollins as ultimately indescribable by religious answers - by statements of doctrine and belief - is the God I personally need, desperately, right now. This is the God of the "Mystery" paragraph in our Heart Document, and to a large extent also the God of the "Beliefs" paragraph, since the Creed leaves so much room for mystery and so many details - salvation, atonement, judgement, eschatology, etc. - unspecified. This indescribable God, beyond our understanding, is so much bigger than these anxieties of fate, emptiness, and guilt - and also bigger than our creeds and doctrines. This is the God I long for, and the God toward whom I see Christ pointing me.

* * *

So I, personally, need this kind of faith (centered on mystery, not certainty) and this kind of church (centered on relationships, not beliefs) for at least three reasons. In order of decreasing selfishness:

1) I need the kind of faith/church that welcomes heretics for those times when I am a heretic. I need a faith/church that welcomes agnostics for those times when I am an agnostic. I need a faith/church that welcomes atheists for those times when I am an atheist. I need a faith and a church that welcomes me.

2) Some of my dearest friends identify (for the moment, anyway) as heretics, agnostics, or atheists. I need a faith/church that welcomes them.

3) I believe (ha! - I said belief is an important aspect) that God is love, and God loves everyone. I need a faith/church that welcomes everyone.

In my experience, centering on beliefs builds divisions with those who (even temporarily) do not share those beliefs. Centering on relationships does the opposite - it brings people together despite their differences. This has been my experience of Common Table Church in the five years I've been connected with it.

And as long as the relationship that's at the core of our community is our relationship with Jesus - following after him, being formed by him - and as long as we in our relationships with each other are committed to maintaining that tension between acceptance and accountability - in short, as long as we are faithful to Christ and to one another - belief, to the extent that it is helpful, will follow. But in my opinion we must not put it first.

image by alicepopkorn (rights)