Listen to a special Christmas message from Dr. Dan Allender:
The Seattle School blog, featuring the writing of students, faculty, and alumni.
Listen to a special Christmas message from Dr. Dan Allender:
Writing in the margins of books (that I own) has not only upped the ante of how deeply I’m willing to engage a text, but as I return to old favorites, I also encounter the thoughts I had during my previous reads. My copy of Walking on Water isn’t just Madeleine L’Engle’s reflections on faith and art, it’s also my own story of reading it for over ten years. All my questions, arguments and exuberant under-linings are right there in the margins, annotating the published text. My books aren’t just books anymore, they’re dialogue transcripts.
Likewise, watching movies at my house is more panel discussion than passive entertainment. We never talk over the film (a punishable crime) but instead hit the pause button at moments where we find ourselves questioning or realizing something significant about the character or story. Sound obnoxious? Maybe to some, but I’ve learned things from dialogical movie-watching with my friends that a textbook could never teach me. With our watching, pausing and talking, we draw each other deeper into the guts of the narrative and the human heart of the characters.
In the same way that pens and remote controls have revolutionized my reading and viewing practices, so blogging has changed the way I go about my daily life. Unlike keeping a personal diary, blogging on the internet is more about meaning-making than event recording. In a manner unprecedented in any time of human history, millions of people have the ability to reflect on, write about and respond to their culture and to have those thoughts made accessible to a near-universal degree. Further, as a blogging population we’re not just saying how nice the recital was or how tragic the crime was, we’re drawing conclusions, making comparisons, theorizing, advising and making claims. Suffice to say, when we blog, we are writing and dialoguing in the margins of our newspapers and artwork frames. When we blog, we’re integrating our experiences and observations into the very culture we are responding to.
What this means to me as a blogger is that as I ride the bus, do homework, eat dinner with my friends, chat with my boss or serve Communion, the cursor is always blinking. Not in a demanding or distracting way- but rather as a reminder to look closely, listen well and make connections. Through blogging, I’m able to wonder about and wrestle within the space between pop culture and liturgy, food and storytelling, heartbreak and the Incarnation. In maintaining my tiny corner of the internet, I’m trying to work out the meaning of what I see, what I hear, what I have lived and what I hope for. While I do this with friends, family and mentors as well, the discipline of blogging creates space for reflection and integration that is uniquely challenging and inspiring. It’s no longer just my margin notes, but your comments and commentaries that reframe the way I try to live faithfully and love well. When we blog, we are reading, watching and interpreting together, and the text is the world we live in. I’d love to see what you’re writing on it.
Kj Swanson is currently in her 3rd year at Mars Hill Graduate School in the Masters of Divinity program. You can read more of Kj’s writings on theology, culture, and scarf-making on her personal blog.
A cursory scan over Amazon.com’s best selling books list over the past few years is telling of the rise of critical assessment of religion. Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris have become popular figures, each publishing bestselling and scathing accounts of what religion has cost humanity. Ironically what they assert is that religion blocks humanity from its humanity, that it stokes the fires of violence, isolation, and impoverishment of mind and soul. While thinkers like Dawkins and Harris have justifiably attacked religious belief for its intellectually stifling nature, we would like to extend their critique beyond the intellectual capping of wonder to a relational suffocation that the world has been suffering under for too long. The weight of humanity is too great, the problems we face too immediate, and our thirsts for beauty and truth too real to continue on this road of imagined self-importance that states that bitter line: “our truth is greater than your truth”. Instead, religion should, at the very least, connect us to our human experience instead of having our nature alienated from us.
The inescapable reality of history is that religion and specifically Christianity has at times caused great harm. The reasons for such acidic attacks of religion are, the rational believer must admit, honestly understandable. Christopher Hitchens, journalist and public intellectual, surmises that there is simply too much at stake to continue under the bondage of a religious master, that he argues, poisons everything. He exclaims that religion forms a concoction of piety and fanaticism that has impeded the forward motion of civilization. Noted atheist Daniel Dennet discusses how religion propels humans toward such a destructive dynamic that it has become imperative to study religion with the same ardor that we use for the natural and social sciences. Dennet writes:
It is high time we subject religion as a global phenomenon to the most intensive multidisciplinary research we can muster, calling on the best minds on the planet. Why? Because religion is too important for us to remain ignorant about. It affects not just our social, political, and economic conflicts, but the very meanings we find in our lives. For many people, probably a majority of the people on Earth, nothing matters more than religion.
Does this mean all is lost? Has the harm of religion truly eclipsed the beauty and goodness of religion? Is it only a force that stifles the wonder inherent to the human mind and heart? Our hope is that not all is lost but we must acknowledge that perhaps now more than ever, we are bound to each other’s humanity. Religion can become the force that drives us to free ourselves from sectarianism and the fear of tainting our groups with the presence of the “other”. If there is anything that the broken state of the world has begun to teach us is that none of us are invulnerable to the strokes of tragedy and the perils of chance in this world. Religion can inform us of our dependence on each other and help us foster both a local and global identity that builds solidarity based on common humanity. Yet what does this look like? Is reconciliation within religion even possible?
Mutuality, reciprocity, and authenticity are values that have been lost to much of our individualistic, rational society, especially with regard to difference. We find difference threatening and uncomfortable. As Christians, we often struggle to have life-affirming conversations across denominational lines let alone participate in dialogue that encounters different racial and religious identities. Most people, on all sides of the spectrum find conversations like these difficult to pursue.
In response to this antagonism and confusion, German theologian Jürgen Moltmann asks boldy, “Which god motivates Christian faith: the crucified God or the gods of religion, race and class?” Perhaps what is so painful about watching the Christian build walls of division between ethnic, religious, class, or other lines of human demarcation is the despicable irony of it all. Not only are ostracizing and marginalizing actions from Christians antithetical to Christian teaching, it shows, as Thomas Merton writes in Life and Holiness, “…contempt for the humanity for which Christ did not hesitate to die on the cross.” It is hard to read this and not be stunned at the terse truth Merton has made clear. Christ, on the cross, willfully chose to put to rest the viability of all human sin, degradation, and violation. Somehow the beauty of this Gospel message has been lost in the madness of establishing and defending so-called “Christian truths” often at the neglect of the marginalized, the poor, the imprisoned, and the environment, all of whom are God’s creation.
Christ, taking human form is not merely symbolic of God’s recognition of the plight of humanity, but Christ is the living, breathing, bleeding promise of God’s solidarity with humanity at its precise reality here and now. God through Christ initiates this incarnation, or “en-fleshment”, and the invitation is extended to those who would take on the title “follower of Christ”. To be Christian is to continue on as the body of Christ, living incarnationally as Christ had and has. Theologian Ray Anderson continues: “The kenotic community, therefore, cannot be distinguished from the world by splitting the solidarity of all humanity in Christ, and thus cannot take the form of one entity within humanity set against another.” In other words, it is the call of the Christian to counter all social strata and enter into the deep, dark, unknown streams of life and embrace the totality of humanity.
As Christians we believe humanity to be made in the image of the Trinitarian God, an all-embracing, all-encompassing, all-loving God who exists in perichoretic movement between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. What does it mean to see the intrinsic value of life, and the image of God in all the faces we encounter, no matter how different, broken or wounded? After all, as psychologist and spiritual writer Alan Jones writes:
We are what our brothers are. They and we stand and fall together. If they are contemptible so are we. If we are struggling after higher things so are they. One fate; one flesh and one blood; one story; one strife; one glory- this is the underlying secret of humanity.”
What does this encounter look like in practice? Yale Divinity School professor Miroslav Volf has outlined the seedbed of a third way in his work Exclusion and Embrace by demonstrating that we have competing justices between us, which is the cause of much human tension. Yet justice, by its very definition, should be for all peoples, for all time. So we must undertake the work of understanding the mindsets and perspectives of others in order to create a new understanding of what justice- or as Volf would say “God’s justice”, that we must utilize. He encourages us to welcome the voice of the other:
Let it suffice here to note that we enlarge our thinking by letting the voices and perspectives others, especially those with whom we may be in conflict, resonate within ourselves, by allowing them to help us see them, as well as ourselves, from their perspective, and if needed, readjust our perspectives as we take into account their perspectives.”
This means we must follow where Christ lead, in that both the oppressor and the oppressed must acknowledge a need for repentance. Volf’s work calls for the redemption of dignity from all camps of injustice, marginalization, and “otherness”. The oppressor needs to repent for what they have done to their victim, and the betrayal of their own inherent dignity that the act perpetrated. The oppressed need to consider the sin of withholding forgiveness from the oppressor. The notion of radical change being required from all lies at the heart of the Gospel. There are no camps, sides, or oppositions in the Kingdom of God. The crucified God’s arms stretch open like the father of the prodigal, welcoming home enemy and friend alike.
Christianity is not the only voice that shares such ideals and truths. We turn to the Eastern voice of Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, who published Living Buddha, Living Christ. In it he remarks on his peacemaking efforts both during and after the Vietnam War. He recounts the insanity of Christian killing Buddhist, North Vietnamese killing South Vietnamese. Using Psalm 46:10, Thich Nhat Hanh explores how similarly both Christianity and Buddhism are able to exegete the verse, and brings to us the idea of a settled “interbeing”. It is a state of concentration that allows the existence and comprehension of difference. “When we see the nature of interbeing, barriers between ourselves and others are dissolved, and peace, love, and understanding are possible. Whenever there is understanding, compassion is born.” Though it may seem to the more cynical or jaded reader that he speaks in abstract imagery, it shows us that a reasoned and human approach to interfaith dialogue can happen and the spirit the author possesses can move us beyond civility into fraternity.
We see this dialogue happening again through the work of Canadian journalist/advocate and practicing Muslim Irshad Manji. Manji, in the post September 11th era, made it her goal to report on the abundance of good news that came in the form of interfaith services, between Jewish clergy extending their support of marginalized Arabs. It was the Christian leadership in her native Toronto that contacted her directly, expressing concern for her safety and concern over the fear for her life. It is in this context that Manji writes, in her work The Trouble with Islam Today that love via praxis does not recognize a necessity to mark, analyze, study, or deconstruct the other before acting. It recognizes the human being staring back at itself.
The shared hope found in both of these voices, Buddhist and Muslim, shows how deeply seeded Gospel tendencies are set in hearts around the world, and that we are not as far away from each other as we so often assume. Take also the gentle words of the Dalai Lama who writes:
To reduce hatred and other destructive emotions, you must develop their opposites- compassion and kindness. If you have strong respect from others, then forgiveness much easier. Mainly for the reason that I do not want to harm another. Forgiveness allows you to be in touch with these positive emotions. This will help with spiritual development.
Consider also Jesus’ words for which we have all heard, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” and how they are far more complicated than they seem. The complexity of religion is in learning how to love when it means loving in difference. Love is most definitely not safe. Especially in areas that are most precious to you, namely your faith. It will shake you, maybe you will question what you thought before, and maybe you will change. And how can you not? As Moltmann proclaims:
The art of loving has to be learnt. We learn it through joy in each other, through forgiveness of guilt we experience, and through the continually astonishing miracle of the new beginning. In that ‘wide space where there is no cramping’ we accept one another, grow with one another and unfold from one another. Part of love is friendship, which knows how to combine affection with respect for the other person’s liberty. That means respect for the mystery of the other, and his or her still latent and unrealized potentialities. If love stops, we make a fixed image of each other. We judge and pin each other down. That is death. But love liberates us from these images and keeps the future open for the other person. We have hope for one another, so we wait for one another. That is life.
Any authentic relationship has the capacity to free us into spaces of mutual renewal. However, without a willingness to risk our dogmas, our comfort, and our individuality, true relationship is nearly impossible with those we love, much less with those who are strikingly different. Are we willing to risk all, as Christ did, even our faith itself in order to contemplate and hold the voice of the stranger?
Karen Bergquist, from Cincinnati folk-pop band Over the Rhine sings: “Except for this confession that is poised on my lips, I’m not letting go of God. I’m just losing my grip.” This speaks not of a request to give up God or religion, but to instead loosen our fearful fingers from around our idol of God in order to embrace the other. Spiritual writer and Catholic priest Henri Nouwen writes: “We can only perceive the stranger as an enemy as long as we have something to defend. But when we say, ‘Please enter-my house is your house, my joy is your joy, my sadness is your sadness and my life is your life,’ we have nothing to defend, since we have nothing to lose but all to give.”
One community in Manhattan, Faith House, has attempted to step into this complexity of religious difference by establishing an intentional community where people of different backgrounds and religious philosophies eat, work, and play together. In their mission statement they write:
We want to start a new kind of community in which we can discover The Other (individuals or groups other than those we belong to), deepen our personal and corporate journeys, and together participate in repairing the world. In this endeavor we will honor and learn from teachings, practices, and suffering of people from religions, philosophies, and worldviews, different from our own. Instead of isolating ourselves into like-minded groups or melting together into a single-minded organization, we will learn to live together with our differences and in a way that contributes to the wellbeing, peace, joy, and justice in the world. In this endeavor we will always be a courageous, hospitable and learning community.
The mission of Faith House demonstrates that the movement beyond civility and tolerance does not merely lie in the minds of naïve and starry-eyed peoples. It can lie in the minds, hands, and kitchens of ordinary life. May we continue to find glimpses of these subversive happenings of shared life that transcend the platitudes and niceties that block us from encountering the full humanity of our neighbors.
Religion does have the potential to free us to hear the many voices alive today and it can bring us to places of liberation, embrace, and community. We can no longer accept the violence we inflict on one another because of difference. It is imperative as Christians that we hear these voices and herald religion accordingly- as an agent of healing, welcome, and embrace.
Much of astronomer Carl Sagan’s work in the 1980s came to us as a warning of how so many of our endeavors have lead us not just down paths of folly, much of our doings have lead us, plainly, to death. So we conclude here in the beautiful spirit of that staunch agnostic: we are indeed one planet. Our religions must serve our solidarity and global identity so that we can live out communally in a way that transcends civility and tolerance. In a way that is utterly human. Is that not what Christ came to do? To free us to be ourselves under God? Let us remember, let us hope, and let us live, together.
Written by Stephanie Abram, Rachael Clinton, Tim Tetrault, and Sara Vander Woude
Sit in on a classroom as Professor Dwight Freisen teaches in Mission in a Global Context.