I will continue on with my growing project on authority tomorrow, but since I haven’t completed the next post in that series I’m going to do something different today. The question of authority is a very live question, and it is very present in our popular culture-not surprisingly my first listen Linkin Park’s new album Living Things has several of its songs seem to deal with authority (it was just released yesterday so I’ve only listened through once)…but today let’s talk about boundaries.
In Kendra Creasy Dean’s book, Almost Christian: What the Faith of our Teenagers is Telling the American Church (which is an interesting book in its own right) she includes this story from an African Christian:
You Americans think of Christianity as a farm with a fence. Your question is, ‘Are you inside the fence or outside of it?’ We Africans think differently. We think of Christianity as a farm with no fence. Our question is, ‘Are you heading towards the farm or away from it?’ “The church’s identity is not defined primarily by its edges, but by its center: focused on Christ, the sole source of our identity, no intruder poses a threat. No alien hops the fence, because there is no fence.
I would give a page for the above quote, but since I am reading this on an e-reader this is one of those books not set up with page numbers.
I think there is something very revealing about this change in perspective. One of the gifts of modern thought was the increase in specializations, but that was also one of its greatest challenges. Let me explain what I mean by this with a medical illustration: if I need to have a surgeon do a bypass of the arteries around my heart or do brain surgery after an accident I really don’t want this to be the only time they will do heart or brain surgery this year—I want someone who has experience in this and knows what they are doing, hence if the problem is with my heart I go to a cardiologist. Yet I am around hospitals a lot, and while this is improving there are still times where you have a whole team of doctors caring for a patient and the patient feels a little like a chemistry set or a lab rat. The cardiologist may do one thing, and yet that may require something else from a doctor who knows about kidneys, something else from physical therapists, and as a problem becomes more complex each person may know their part but no one can integrate all the parts together.
For the church, in the enlightenment and following eras there was a movement towards a precision of thought who God was and how God acted that may seem strange to us now. Boundaries were drawn between Lutherans and Reformed, Catholic and Anglican, Baptist and Presbyterian and as things progressed it got a little out of hand as the differences became more and more trivial. I am not saying that the histories of each of these groups are not important, but it is too easy to become focused towards the fences the boundaries that separate one from another. Certainly this has been an age of walls lowering between the older faiths and the discussion has been fruitful…but are we missing the point? I’m not saying that myself as a fairly liberal (at least in some aspects) Lutheran minister and a conservative Southern Baptist are going in the same direction (to be honest there are times when I wonder if we are even talking about the same God or Jesus) but can I and others give up my need to say this is authentic and this is not…or to go a step further this person is on the inside of the church or salvation (whatever one means by that term) by putting up walls of saying who is in and who is out (as if we get to make that decision).
Maybe rather than focusing on the boundaries/fences and differentiating ourselves from that which is outside the boundaries (to use a mathematic term-rather than trying to be a bounded set) what would it mean to focus in on the center and to invite the intruder and the alien to walk into our territory and join us at the table (being a centered set in mathematics).
One final note: David Lose, who teaches at Luther Seminary, had an interesting post coming at this from a very different direction which is worth some thought and caused a lot of discussion in a group I am a part of. For those who want to read it, it was re-published here in a more refined form : Do Christian Denominations Have A Future.