The Adult Education Forum at my church has begun a journey through a video series entitled “Living the Questions.” My reaction to this morning’s video and discussion may hold out promise for a series of posts in the weeks to come, and I would hope to extend the conversation started in the Forum to an even larger group of people.
The video began with a fellow quoting both John Milbank and Alasdair MacIntyre. Naively, I got excited, thinking that this series might provoke some serious dialogue about faith and tradition. The fellow comfortably seated on a desert rock quoted to us MacIntyre’s definition of a tradition: a socially embodied and temporally extended argument.
But from that point forward, the argument was one sided, more of a monologue, really. Furthermore, it proceeded in a direction that neither Milbank nor MacIntyre would have relished introducing.
The first speaker after the introduction was John Shelby Spong, and after him Marcus Borg, followed by Matthew Fox—and a host of folks known for pushing the Christian faith to become… well… something else (or die, in Spong’s estimation). I do recognize some value in bringing these voices into the church—Christians are likely in their day-to-day lives to meet doubts and aberrations stranger than those presented by this cast of characters—we should at least be conversant with these lines of thought. But this video should not be presented as an argument!—at least, not in the sense of a conversation. The makers need not have turned to fire-breathing fundamentalists to balance the views on offer—where were Hauerwas, Wright, Hart, Marty, Williams? Balance, apparently, was not one of the goals of the series. Nor, it would seem, is speaking of the substance of Christian faith.
The metaphor of “The Journey” provided the thematic center for this morning’s episode. Faith is not a destination, we were told, but is exploration, questioning, wrestling, struggling. The one thing that remained certain throughout the presentation is that certainty is the enemy of authentic faith. We need to be willing to “not-know” more and to forsake the albatross of unpleasant beliefs. A few stanzas of the “poem” that came as supplementary material to the video will make this clear:
What would happen if I pursued God—
If I filled my pockets with openness,
Grabbed a thermos half full of fortitude,
And crawled into the cave of the Almighty
Nose first, eyes peeled, heart hesitantly following
Until I was face to face
With the raw, pulsing beat of Mystery?
What if I entered and it looked different
Than enyone ever described?
What if the cave was too large to be fully known,
Far too extensive to be comprehended by one person or group,
Too vast for one dogma or doctrine?
I risk taking the posture of moral indignation here, and I want to avoid it. But I left today’s Forum disheartened and sad—disappointed that our catechesis has come to giving a soapbox to figures who would like to kick out the pillars of the church’s historic faith. We are not in the fortunate position of being so literate in tradition that a few weeks spent teaching on the sacraments, or on the church’s teaching about wealth would come across as old-hat.
There is an oppressive insistence on journeying, and an oppressive privileging of “the journey” that robs people of the genuine hope that the tradition offers. Forcing everyone to reinvent the wheel and find the spiritual answers “for themselves” is not mercy, nor love—it’s modernism. The single mother of three children, who works two jobs to keep a family’s bodies and souls together is ill served by being cast out into the seas of uncertainty to begin her “spiritual journey”—she needs well-trained leaders who can teach her well, and aren’t afraid to do so.
When brothers and sisters are dying of cancer, are we being oppressively dogmatic in proclaiming Christ’s resurrection and the hope of wholeness in salvation? When our culture lacks a moral center, is it really all that doctrinaire for the church to point to discipleship as a coherent life?
How far can the church undermine its own proclamation and remain the church? I find the sort of faith that this video was promulgating to be self-centered, vacuous, and ultimately parasitic. Etymologically the word “tradition” is connected to the task of “handing down” what is received from one’s elders. If we are genuinely to conceive of faith as a great personal journey of exploration that may lead us, as it has led Spong, Borg, and Fox, to liberate ourselves of faith in Christ’s divinity, resurrection, and singularity, then what will be left to hand down? Are we, as Dawkins would suggest, abusing our children by teaching them about the faith? We are certainly robbing them of part of their “journey” if we teach them as a “certainty” what they could have discovered on their own some forty years later.
There is some value to be found in the video that we watched this morning. There is a pietistic element in the encouragement toward a journey that encourages personal appropriation and asking difficult questions. Being fully present at church entails a level of engagement that does not take everything for granted. Awe, worship, and wonder all rest on a holy curiosity that presses in toward what is unknown. If this were all that was being said, I would be content to be exhorted from the likes of the characters mentioned above.
Furthermore, I have argued before that the “we” of the creeds (as in “we believe) is not hegemonic but inclusive. Where you or I have doubts, the church may sustain us in its faith; just as we may help to sustain others in their darker times. We profess faith boldly to one another, sometimes beyond our own ken. There is indeed flexibility and room for “journey” within the church’s proclamation. Nevertheless, we continue to profess and proclaim. Faith does not exclude doubt, but it does ask doubt to listen peaceably.
“Living the questions,” however, all too quickly becomes a spiritual navel-gazing that neglects the people God loves. “Living the questions” can become a way to put faith in one’s own journey, rather than in Jesus Christ. Borg spoke metaphorically about walking the Labyrinth: “there is no way to get lost in the labyrinth, even though it is not a direct path.” Unfortunately, that is a difference between labyrinths and real life. Out here, it is possible to get terribly lost, and terribly confused, and to inflict terrible injury on others in the process. When my faith is placed in my own abilities, or in my own journey, then I am left terribly alone, and terribly unaccountable.
Honestly, if I genuinely thought that it was all about “my journey,” I wouldn’t be at church. The coffee is not that good. I can meet interesting and provocative people elsewhere. I can find a decent jello-casserole recipe online. This video only reinforces the message that the mainstream culture sends undulating in our direction with ceaseless pressure. “What do you want? How do you feel? Where do you feel good? Go there! Be that! Choose for yourself! Choose, choose, choose.” This isn’t Mystery; it’s capitalism. Nor is it the solution to the spiritual bankruptcy of fundamentalism; it’s merely the antithesis. Churches that want to prosper under the banner of this mantra are forced to pander to the culture’s whims. Frankly, Lutherans will never be that hip—and when I’ve seen them trying, it has been nothing short of painful.
Rather than searching for therapeutic value in the cross, we ought to return to our roots (maybe even deeper than Luther!), and teach the vibrant and dynamic tradition that we have allowed to turn stale while we blithely looked for something more interesting. Moreover, we should come again to Jesus, whose mystery stretches beyond any of our efforts to summarize, encapsulate, and formulate. Let us carry our questions to the cross, perhaps then we will discover which of them were worth asking in the first place.