Hey friends, before we turn to this week’s shift, I wanted to let you know that next Thursday, I’ll disclose one final super secret shift, and the following week I will wrap up this #GivingUp4Lent project with some closing thoughts.
That being said, I am excited to talk about the final shift in progressive Christian thought and praxis: the relational shift. It is a:
Social shift away from a tribalistic divisivism, and toward a mutualistic identity of benevolence.
The stimulus behind this shift is a social one. The kind of Christianity I am talking about here is not solely one that learns how to play nicely together (which by the way, I think is true, we need to grow up a bit here), but one whose core ethos is seen and experienced as interconnected. It is a shift away from thinking of Christian identity as a means to divide, separate, and disengage from a pluralistic world. Some forms of Christianity would say, “But we aren’t disengaged, we are out to conquest and convert the world, for Christ’s sake! Everyone needs to get in on this goodness!” And while this line of thinking may be well-intentioned, it is apparent that many of us simply do not understand what it means to love and bless the Other in their unique identity on behalf of our own tradition. This is a shift from seeing our religion as a means to compete and dominate other religions, to seeing our religion as a means to be in relationship with, love, and bless all the others.
What I am talking about here is a transition from owning our location as Christians as a means to set ourselves
or against, the rest of the world,
and rather to a full immersion into the interconnectedness and blessing of all things…which includes all people.
It is a transition toward understanding our Christian location within the global spectrum of religion as one that has a unique particularity to it, but it is also one that proclaims universal acceptance and charity not in opposition to the Christian gospel, but rather, directly on its behalf. We must allow our worldview to become unitive in the sense that we can now see our entire existence as relational at its core, and all of humanity as our sisters and brothers.
The past two shifts I have mentioned, both the theopoetic shift, and the embodied shift, are shifts which can be misinterpreted as shifts simply in terms of thinking, or of internal tweaks. However, they cannot remain solely cerebral. The thrust of this holistic internal transformation must have a teleology, or a direction to it. It also has to be a shift in praxis as it is an internalization that moves to outward action in love on behalf of the world.
I like Tom Oord’s (#supporttomoord) definition of love in his book, The Nature of Love: A Theology, and it will work for our purposes here:
“To love is to act intentionally, in sympathetic/empathetic response to God and others, to promote overall well-being.” p. 17
Check the beginning of this definition: “to love is to act.” To love is not merely to contemplate, reason, or speak, but it is an action. Notice also that it does not say, “to love is to evangelize,” nor does it say, “to love is to convert.” To love is not to Christianize the world. To love is not to make it uniform to some Christian formula for salvation. To love, rather, is to act intentionally to heal the world in the name of Christ. Or, in other words, to recognize that how we act in this world matters in a relational sense. How we live and what we do has real, actual effects on not only the people around us, but also those across the globe, and even the Earth itself.
Or on the flipside…how we have been acting is what is causing the poverty of both people and planet.
This is an issue of justice, which is always social…so we maybe don’t need to add it to the front of the term. This is an issue of how we listen to, consider, and integrate the cries and perspectives of others unlike ourselves and let them critique and transform our own experiences and worldviews. We have got to start seeing this global shift in heterogeneous experience and opinion as a gift that can open us up to even more beauty, rather than a threat to our Christian identity. Renowned theologian and ecologist John B. Cobb Jr. is famous for saying,
“To see the world with ecological relations at its core means never to see it in the same way again.”
This revision in our thinking is the necessary product of the thrust of Christian teaching. Ecology is not solely about the environment, although it absolutely includes creation care. It is about how organisms relate to one another, which includes person to person! And, the implications of this run all the way down. In uniquely Christian terms, the New Testament shift in thinking is one that sees the temple (the place imbued with the presence of the divine) changed from one specific physical location as an edifice, to the human life and the earth being locations that are full of divine presence. The earth is actually the sanctuary, and everything in it. We need not gloss over what this means for our advocacy for the protection of the environment (maybe I can address that more fully in some subsequent posts), but we must also not miss what this means for us as a human species. This “relational core” is what will cause us to change our attitudes and practices from ones that homogenize everything, to ones that become considerate of those not only in the other Great Traditions, but especially to those on the margins of them, and those outside their bounds as well.
This shift allows us to work together in mutuality for the betterment of the entire world. It is not a religion-contest. Neither is it a surfacey form of pluralism. It is rather what process theologians have called a “deep religious pluralism.” It is about owning our unique identities in a way that learns to exist in reciprocal philanthropic relationality with other traditions, and likewise those who self-identify as post-religious. Here is exactly what I mean by this:
Philip Clayton makes an important distinction in this Homebrewed podcast at about 20:35:
“Maybe it’s impossible to be religious pluralists. Maybe we are inherently tribal. Maybe it’s in our genes back to those thousands and thousands of generations that evolved on the African Sahara that we form groups of 100-150 people… the experts say that religion is about tribalism and tribalism is about division. Maybe we have to own the impossibility of this conversation… the impossibility of ‘a religion’ that actually claims to fuse over that distinction to reach out toward others… What if we own within ourselves that drive to draw distinction?
…Christology is what? It’s a tool to divide. You’re in or you’re out. You’re too high or too low. Wherever you are, there are micrometers, you’re a little too high or a little too low in your Christology. What if we owned the impossibility of this very discussion at the outset? The discussion of really branching out across.”
What he is hitting at here is that it’s impossible to be merely a pluralist. It’s also possible to misuse the purpose of good things like having a Christology, or, having something to say about who Jesus is. Effective pluralism is not a relativizing and universalizing of all religions to be different ways to hit at the same core truth. It is also not a dismissal of all religions as “incorrect.” It is an affirmation of the human experience by which we make meaning of our lives through stories, symbols, and sacraments in all of their various forms. Each of them unique, and each beautiful, including the Christian one. In this pluralistic, or rather, multiplicitous, environment, we have the added benefit of getting to contribute to one another’s success, rather than compete with one another.
So, how do we get away from dismissing religions altogether? Or from thinking that they all lead up the same mountain and thus lead into relativizing them all, stripping them of their uniqueness? And what can we claim about Christ that has any sort of merit or specificity when there are so many other options?
Clayton responds to that question by answering:
“The easy thing would be to say, ‘all the religious people are wrong.’ All their doctrines are just their own cultural expressions, and they’re all pointing toward something they can’t grasp…The only trouble with that is you’ve just simply told every religious person in the world that they’re all full of it; they’re all basically completely deluded.”
Instead, he posits this idea:
“Deep religious pluralism. So, let’s be pluralists. Let’s admit that ‘I don’t have the full corner on the market,’ but let’s say that each person has a grasp of the truth in a different way. John Cobb made the radical claim that there are multiple religious Ultimates:
‘It’s really true that the Ultimate is personal.’ -Abrahamic traditions
‘It’s really true that the Ultimate is the ground of all things.’ -Hindu traditions
‘It’s really true that the Ultimate is the interconnection of all things.’ -Buddhist traditions
Now is that the answer? Or is that one more takeover bid disguised as humility?“
The goal is to learn to own our unique faith locations, and not allow them to be a means to take over the world, but rather a means toward interdependence and action for justice on behalf of and with one another. In many ways, this shift is a plea for peace. The easy thing to do is to participate in our Christianity in ways that make it all about us. It’s all about “me” and “my relationship” with Jesus. This type of thinking can cause us to believe that we’re in on something so personal that we come to believe that it has to be true for everyone else in the world, which, in turn, demonizes the rest of the options. This is why many Christians will say things like, “Muslims are evil,” or Hinduism is demonic,” or “Buddhism is of the devil!”
Ever heard anything like that before?
Ever know a Buddhist who is an O.K. dude? Whoops.
What I am advocating for is a turn towards the affirmation of humanity in all its plurality, not only for the sake of its own inherent worth, which is very true, but also if you self-identify as a Christian, in the very name of Christ! Especially imbedded within our own tradition of Christianity is a universal acceptance that all people are made in the image of God, which includes their own experiences and traditions. It starts right there in Genesis 1, and continues as an idee fixé throughout the rest of the Bible as well: all things are beloved by God. The gospel is actually a means to break down the ways in which we build up various forms of division. I am not the first to think this. Read some Paul.
Richard Rohr mentioned recently at a gathering I attended that:
“The Cosmic Christ is a positive declaration of the nature of the universe. In the Christ proclaimed in the hymns in John 1, Philippians 2, Colossians 1, Hebrews 1, and 1 John 1, we see that the Christ is the universal mystery of matter and spirit. It is a cosmic – human revelation. Christianity was never supposed to be a competing religion, but rather a universal message of love, nonviolence, and acceptance in the name of Christ that we all could learn from.”
Let’s recap where we’ve come here. The Christian relational shift is a shift:
1. Away from a religious identity that becomes a means to divide or conquest.
2. Toward actions of love on behalf of both others and the planet, exempt from exclusions.
3. Toward learning to embrace a unique and particular Christian identity that participates in a deep pluralism, building relationships with and learning from those who are not like us.
The last thing I’d like to mention here is that this perspective shift should cause us to learn to break down all barriers: racial, religious, class, or otherwise, for the sake of healing the world together. It may seem paradoxical at first to imbed oneself in a tradition that professes specific allegiance to Christ, but seeks to affirm a pluralistic world, even those who find themselves working for the common good from a post-theistic location. We too must learn to adapt, mature, and change for the sake of those on the fringe who desperately need inclusion. The rise over the past 100 years or so of feminist, liberation, queer, and eco, etc. theological critiques have done us the service of teaching us a valuable lesson:
We white guys don’t have this market cornered. Not even close.
And…exhale. It’s going to be O.K.
The more we as Christians can champion the voices of those who are excluded by the power structures we have participated in and continue to create, the more robust our collective faith will become. This is the way forward. This is the faith of the future. Get on the bus quickly, I pray you. We have got to do the work in-house of knocking down walls to ensure that together we might become better listeners and practitioners. We have also got to allow ourselves to be immersed in the humility and hospitality that comes from truly affirming and blessing others in the locations in which they have made their homes.
Besides, Christian identity is formed in part in its relationship to others within the salvific community anyways. I personally hope that salvation continues to lose the “personal” from its front-end. It is already inherently relational, inherently universal. If we hold to any kind of Trinitarianism at all, we understand that this whole dance is a correlative one anyways.
What if rather than “evangelize,” which is a word loaded with hidden agendas of conversion, we “witnessed,” or let our lives tell the Christian story of the relational and universal worth of all things? I for one, insist we move that direction.
I’ll leave you with this thought by Philip Clayton:
“Owning a deep place of religious location will inevitably have its hands mired in paradox. Pluralism, and I’m located? Christology, but I’m not using it to exclude, which means it’s not a single? And yet, I have to mean something when I say Jesus Christ…that it is a location. A location for prayer, action, justice. Can I find the courage to say that I am a follower of Jesus Christ, and I have something to learn from all those other traditions?
We can only live that. It’s not a mental location, it’s a way of being in the world.”
I tend to agree with Phil here…and, yes I’ve heard John 14:6 before!