Friday, September 21, 2007

Gospel Friday & Public Discourse

Today we did our second "Name It" chapel. Last week our topic was "Are Catholics Christian?" Today we addressed alcohol and substance abuse. Many people might be confused why the first discussion was even necessary. It seems like a big fat "Duh?" to me personally. However, many of the students at Hope come from churches and schools (on the West side of the state) where they have very little exposure to Catholic believers, if any. I am very excited about these chapels because they allow us to open a dialogue. And even if the relationship between Catholics and Protestants is not an issue for some, the manner in which we table this discussion can serve as a model for how we approach other topics that might seem delicate to others.

The issue of public discourse is of particular importance to the church today. Those of us who hold strong convictions especially need to be careful with how we share our faith. It is painful to observe that it is Christians who are often the greatest hindrance to the Gospel. Fundamentalism is dangerous in its extreme forms and at least unattractive in its milder expressions.

You might be confused by the fact that while I criticize fundamentalism, I still remain a dogmatist. What is the difference? Dogma, or in the Greek, dokein, means "to seem." Holding to what I believe "to seem" to be true is a much softer understanding of belief than what is typically understood when thinking of a dogmatist, the stereotypical Bible-bashing bigot. How does one come to hold beliefs that "seem" to be true? The motivations are many. Personal spiritual experience ranks high among Evangelicals today who rely on emotions to dictate their faith. Family and community nurture is also a main driving force for others. Some come to belief through intellectual searching, but I base a large portion of my faith on history. Personal experience, family, along with reading and discussion have all been vital for my faith journey. But ultimately I don't want to rest my faith just on what "seems" right to either my own individual emotions, the parochial boundaries of my family and church community or the limitations of my intellect. If I am a dogmatist, I rest my faith on what has "seemed" to be true to the universal Church, Christians across the world, for centuries. The Nicene Creed specifically is nourishing and helpful in its thoroughness, simplicity and elegance.

Without going too far on a tangent, I'll simply say that this form of dogmatism is an attempt at a pre-modern notion of belief. It is Western empiricism that has confused many of us into holding a reductionist, white-knuckled notion of certainty. Such a notion of certainty forces ideas into a corner. Certainty stops a conversation, and it is charitable conversation that we as believers should be after.

Fundamentalist certainty is harmful to both believers and our neighbors as well. It is harmful to believers because it reduces faith so that it can fit a tiny box of final conclusions rather than a journey toward communion with a loving, transcendent being. We end up worshiping a list of certainties, a formula of postulates, rather than an all-loving, ever-present, yet completely Other fountain of creativity and life. On the other hand, it is harmful to our neighbors in the way we become lecturing and patriarchal. We use faith to to gain power over our neighbors. We hover over them as if to cast a spell of belief to manipulate them over to our side, when in fact we should be inviting them to a banquet table. Ours should be a posture of hospitality and service where we seek to understand before we seek to be understood as St. Francis's prayer so beautifully puts it. In this way we grow in Christ-likeness--to be like Jesus, who emptied himself of his status and power as God and made himself vulnerable to his creation. Through his example, we see that love is best expressed in the context of powerlessness, a type of Christianity that is rarely displayed in our Western tradition.

So, I found myself praying that this Friday would be a "Gospel Friday" because our topic on alcohol abuse could cut so closely to the bone of Christian community. Alcohol could be seen as such a typical topic for campus ministers to rail against. It is an example of how fundamentalist believers place drinking on the list of hard and fast taboos in a conversation-stopping kind of a way. My prayer was that we would be able to, instead, open the conversation with students about wisdom in alcohol consumption and to ultimately point to the hope of the Gospel in that conversation; there is forgiveness and healing. Again, the concern for us is discourse, and my contention is that under the surface of healthy discourse is a kind of charitable listening, a kind of sharing and communion. This is the love the Gospel introduces us to, not someday in heaven safe from the penalty of hell, but today here on this earth. If we as Christians can grow to posture our faith in this kind of a generous and vulnerable way, then we will be able to re-frame the Gospel. Our dogma will no longer be understood as rigid, irrelevant and heavy-handed, but welcoming, hopeful and healing.


Wen said...

"this form of dogmatism is an attempt at a pre-modern notion of belief. It is Western empiricism that has confused many of us into holding a reductionist, white-knuckled notion of certainty. "

so true! I think western empiricism (among other enlightenment based constructs) gives birth to the reductionistic tendency to understand dogmatics, ethics, christian morality, and even reality in general in a binary format, where we create these black and white extremes as the only two options available. There is no spectral understanding of reality that allows for a middle ground on issues or perspectives. We often outlaw the complicating of reality and move to a reductionistic perspective because, let's face it, it's easier to deal with. Two perspectives, good and evil, are much easier for us to deal with instead of a spectrum of answers. It's certainly easier, but not necessarily more truthful.

Emery Jo said...

I love this. And I love that you are opening up discussion like this to the students around you. What I wouldn't have given to have a safe place to discuss some of this stuff when I was in college!!

I LOVE the imagery of inviting our neighbors to a banquet table- food and neighbors always goes hand-in-hand if you ask me. This is such a good reminder of what I'm inviting people into.

Thank you. I look forward to reading along!

aem said... always, i enjoy reading your words, listening to your music, hearing your prayers, & feeling your terrific brother hugs. thanks for sharing your thoughts here. i look forward to reading more. they will have to suffice due to the miles btw. us. hugs to you! -- aem