Mac commented on my original post (Church of Ambiguity) about where I see the ecumenical and fundamentalist movements regarding where the Church is going in the future. His questions exposed the fact that my primary audience when I am writing is to the mainline church and the children and grandchildren who largely left the institution for more individually-crafted spiritual values and activities.
Althought this is a more specific audience I do have some very strong feelings about where we fit in the larger context of the movement and evolution of our religious traditions. In a word, I believe it comes down to how all of us individually and corporately make sense of the new global, pluralistic and multicultural world in which we live. I think this new reality has essentially forced us into a fork in the road choice where there isn’t much middle ground.
In the Christian tradition I have primarily heard people voice this dilemma by asking the question,“If Jesus said that no one comes to the Father except through me where does that leave people like Gandhi who followed the teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, but who remained a practicing Hindu throughout his life?” The question forces one to re-evaluate what truth is. One can either hold fast to the belief that “truth is truth” and despite Gandhi being a pretty good human being it doesn’t change the fact that the inerrant, infallible Word of God seems to reject Gandhi in the eternal book of life. One can also look at our pluralistic, richly diverse world and reject the claims of the Bible as being irrational, overly narrow and archaic in their worldview.
A third alternative is the one that I think that history will eventually ordain as the primary and accepted version of truth. That is that all cultures develop myths, stories, rituals and traditions to define who they are, establish boundaries of community identity, and develop a meaningful rhythm to the stages of life. This is the approach adopted by Joseph Campbell in “The Power of Myth” series where Campbell was interviewed by Bill Moyers in the late 80’s. Self-proclaimed atheist, David, posted that religions are basically a creation of humans to meet our needs rather than a creation by God. This agnostic Christian, namely me, subscribes to the same view. We are th source of religion even though our object is God or the divine or the sacred.
A good example of how our perception of truth is shifting might be to highlight the tradition of a family. A family could develop a tradition that they believe honors the best of what God wants for them. Every Thanksgiving the whole extended family meets in a cabin at Lake Tahoe. The family has been doing this now for three full generations. This annual ritual defines them as a family. It provides a connecting point that strengthens the bonds of the family every year. At the annual Thanksgiving retreat new family members are welcomed and those who have died are honored.
In a fundamentalist worldview, the family would assume, because they heard this voice from God, that they believe all families should also schedule annual retreats to Lake Tahoe. They might even go so far as to write up a schedule of activities and prayers that they believe will help other families carry out the intent of the retreat to deepen family bonds. The fundamentalist finds deep meaning in their tradition and assumes that all people should adopt and pattern their lives in the same way if they want to honor God appropriately.
The religious pluralist accepts that their family tradition is just that. It is THEIR family tradition. The pluralist makes the distinction between the forms of connection, love and identity and the underlying values. The pluralist does believe there are absolutes. People and cultures need ways to define who they are. They need stories and rituals that express their connection to each other and the world around them. Where the pluralist and the fundamentalist differ is that the pluralist will have no problem if another family chooses to accomplish the same need for connection and love by joining together for Sunday dinner every week.
Fundamentalism makes the form absolute rather than the underlying values absolute. I do think that fundamentalism will be shortlived. Unfortunately, in historical terms short-lived may still outlive our lives and our time. I also think, as we have seen, that the retrenchment of fundamentalism will lead to ongoing violence until it takes its last gasp of breath. This new global, pluralistic and multicultural world has had the effect of making religious fundamentalists feel like a trapped snake. I don’t mean to associate fundamentalists with snakes because I know many who are very sincere and are trying to make sense of this new world without losing the faith that has been the ground of their security and life. But, I do think the more our pluralistic world becomes our new reality, the more feisty those who represent fundamentalism will become. I don’t think fundamentalism can push back the floodtides of pluralistic thinking. It is where life is going. They can, however, make make the process rather uncomfortable until the water completely settles.
The reason I have directed my comments at mainline Protestant Christianity is 1) because that’s the community I am part of and serve, and 2) because I think the ongoing decline of our denomination and churches is directly tied to our unwillingness to make a decision. We have been frozen in our tracks at the post-modern fork in the road. The reason is actually a very practical one. Our churches have largely been made up of the moderate center of the community. Our members themselves are torn on whether to go to the left or the right at this fork. Either one represents a potential split in a community. Will we lean to the right and take a stand that “truth is truth” no matter how much the world changes? Or will we lean to the left and admit that our truth is just that–OUR truth and can’t be superimposed on another people or culture? What pastor is going to demand that a congregation choose one or the other if it means Mrs. Smith will quit pledging or the Newsom family is going to take their children someplace else? Pastors have to live too and what pastor is going to push an agenda that could very well risk his or her job?
And so we focus on keeping the people of our particular church happy by tip-toeing around the central question of our time: “How will you define truth in this postmodern, global, pluralistic, and multicultural world?” The problem is this. Tip-toeing may keep the people in the pews happy, but their children and grandchildren already know which way they have chosen at this fork in the road. It has become a litmus test of looking for a spiritual community. Do you stand for the unchanging truth of the Bible or do you understand truth in a new pluralistic world that honors many faces of the one truth? If you want to reach today’s people you have to know where you stand on that question. The bulk of our mainline congregations have largely tried to stand in the middle on this one in order to hold onto the people we still have. In the end it will be the death of us.
“The Church of Ambiguity” is an invitation to the church to choose the path to the left and recognize that we live in a world with many faces of truth. God is bigger than Presbyterians, bigger than Christians, bigger than religion itself. There is a fork in the road and our children and grandchildren knew well enough to make a choice. We mainliners got caught offguard like a deer in headlights and still don’t know what hit us. Paralyzed we stand at the postmodern fork in the road and are too scared to step in either direction.
Postmodernism is the question. Religious fundamentalism is one answer. Religious pluralism is another answer. I think history will prove that God is a pluralist. I am betting my pastor’s salary on it!