It may be difficult to imagine a religious phenomenon more diverse than modern-day Christianity. There are Roman Catholic missionaries in developing countries who devote themselves to voluntary poverty for the sake of others, and evangelical televangelists who run twelve-step programs to ensure financial success. There are New England Presbyterians and Appalachian snake handlers. There are Greek Orthodox priests committed to the liturgical service of God, replete with set prayers, incantations, and incense, and fundamentalist preachers who view high-church liturgy as a demonic invention. There are liberal Methodist political activists intent of transforming society, and Pentecostals who think that society will soon come to a crashing halt with the return of Jesus. And there are followers of David Koresh – still today – who think the world has already started to end, beginning with the events at Waco, a fulfillment of prophecies from Revelation. Many of these Christian groups, of course, refuse to consider other such groups Christian.
All of this diversity of belief and practice, the intolerance that occasionally results, makes it difficult to know whether we should think of Christianity as one thing or lots of things, whether we should speak of Christianity or Christianities.
What could be more diverse than this variegated phenomenon, Christianity in the modern world? In fact there may be an answer: Christianity in the ancient world. As historians have come to realize, during the first three Christian centuries, the practices and beliefs found among people who called themselves Christian were so varied that the differences between Roman Catholics, Primitive Baptists, and Seventh-Day Adventists pale by comparison.
Reading these opening words from Ehrman’s Lost Christianities one day I was then met by this contemplation from Richard Rohr the next:
At this time in history, the contemporary choice offered most Americans is between unstable correctness (liberals) and stable illusion (conservatives)! What a choice! It has little to do with real transformation in either case. How different from the radical traditionalism of T.S. Eliot: “You are not here to verify, instruct yourself, or inform curiosity or carry report. You are here to kneel . . . ” (Little Gidding)
There is a third way, and it probably is a way of “kneeling.” Most people would just call it “wisdom.” It demands a transformation of consciousness and a move beyond the dualistic win/lose mind of both liberals and conservatives. An authentic God encounter is the quickest and truest path to such wisdom, which is non-dual consciousness.
Neither expelling nor excluding (conservative temptation), nor perfect explaining (liberal temptation) is our task. True participation in God liberates us each from our control towers and for the compelling and overarching vision of the Reign of God—where there are no liberals or conservatives. Here, the paradoxes—life and death, success and failure, loyalty to what is and risk for what needs to be—do not fight with one another, but lie in an endless embrace. We must penetrate behind them both—into the Mystery that bears them both. This is contemplation in action.
Between them came the reading of a current skirmish (one of many!) in the blogosphere involving Tony Jones and a recent post of his about declaring a clear schism in the body of Christ over the issue of women in ministry (if interested see here and here).
So much heat generated by words! Which is the way it has always been, and the way it will always be – at least as long as we are human beings. It does little good to lament or wring our hands and heart over verbal skirmishing and tussling. It’s what we have done whether Christian or not. It’s what we do. It’s a human being thing.
Right or left or wherever in between we are people obsessed with being right.
We are all the “Strict Sect” man (traditionally called “Pharisee”) “confident in himself and despising all others.” Embrace one brief moment of complete honesty and admit it. It’s why the story Jesus tells there still works. It’s another pivotal reality check.
Christianity (Christianities!) unfortunately just channels that human energy in many new directions to many new religious outlets and expressions and gives us fresh ways and reasons to fight (oh goody!).
Reading Rohr’s diagnosis and prescription, I am reminded that Jesus didn’t come to make us all one species, one homogeneous society, any more than the Doctor wants all to be alternately upgraded or deleted.
He came to teach us to kneel.