I like writing and thinking about religion, but I really hate talking about it. You know how it is–you’re talking with a friend or a stranger about some random, innocuous subject, and all of a sudden Jesus joins the conversation. And it isn’t even Jesus, really, it’s your version or her version of Jesus, and maybe those versions don’t match up. All of a sudden, instead of being able to listen to one another and continue your formerly give-and-take conversation, you’re caught up in a battle of right and wrong (your opinion invariably representing the side of Right and your interlocutor’s opinion invariably representing the side of Wrong). Ugh–I hate it!
I so hate talking about religion with people whom I do not yet trust to control that oh-so-human instinct to do religious battle at the drop of a hat, that I often hide my participation with my church until it seems safe to give it a casual mention. After a year of knowing someone, if the topic of music comes up, I might mention that I sing in my church’s choir. If a conversation happens to veer towards leadership or service, I might mention that I serve on my church’s vestry (as an aside, I didn’t know what a vestry was until I joined mine, so this mention tends to be safe due to general obscurity). For the most part, however, I hold to a scrupulous silence about everything even remotely connected to religion.
Why? Well, the fault is mine, really. Religion tends to be viewed as a Serious Subject about which one should not joke, and I just can’t help but find parts of it funny, even while I believe in it. I have offended more than a few people with my manner, an odd mix of irreverence and sincerity. When I am glib about Serious Subjects (like the Eucharist, the Bible, God the Father, the Apostles, the Holy Ghost, etc.), folks who feel strongly about those subjects tend to reason, unsurprisingly, that my mortal soul might be in peril. I don’t particularly like it when other people try to save my soul, so I tend to get even more snarky and glib, and it may be that I hold grudges.
This year, though, I have challenged myself to stop doing things just because I’ve always done them. So I’ve had a problem in the past with people misunderstanding me… Since when do I have the right to control how other people view me? Why in the world should I allow the potential for misunderstanding to justify my not being myself at all times? Do I really have to be so damn neurotic all the time? (Answer key: since never; I shouldn’t; no, ideally.)
On Saturday, I attended the Diocesan Ministry Fair for the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, along with a host of clergy and old people. (Seriously, out of a few hundred, there were probably fewer than 20 under the age of 35.) It isn’t exactly accurate to say that I learned a lot–most of the plenary session seemed to be pitched towards the clergy and other folk who keep up on their modern theology (I don’t), so I spent at least the first half hour trying to figure out what the speaker’s topic was, what she meant by “Emergence Christianity” or “The Great Emergence”. She seemed to presuppose that we would have a passing understanding of those terms, and it was my first time hearing them.
Once I caught on, I learned that we are on the cusp of a great cultural shift between the before and the after. Advances in science and information technology have created a new world and a new culture, and people who are 45 and younger tend to accept these changes as a fact of life, while people who are 46 and older view them as scary change that is best resisted. Quite aside from (or perhaps in concert with) these cultural changes, Christianity is changing as well. The Emerging Church (which is apparently not the same thing as the Emergent Church, but hell if I know what the difference is) focuses on narrative and the power of story and will not be content with the simple sales pitch of traditional Christianity (believe in Christ or go to hell). The Emerging Church wants to know about the Holy Spirit. The Emerging Church believes in many paths to God. The Emerging Church believes in mission, outreach, social justice, doing good in the world, and serving the Kingdom of God in all its many forms. That last is, perhaps, the most important point about the Emerging Church: rather than believe that the Kingdom of God is encapsulated in the universal Church (the small-c catholic church), the Emerging Christians believe that all churches (all religions, perhaps?) are encapsulated within the overarching and universal Kingdom of God.
These are big thoughts, and I would never have expected to encounter them at a Diocese-wide event for an established Church. Honestly, it was amazing (awesome, almost, in the real sense of the word… not awesome like hot dogs) sitting there hearing my secret thoughts about religion amplified around the room by a voice with a charming Tennessee accent (Phyllis Tickle. You can look her up here: http://www.phyllistickle.com/index.html).
I have always felt vaguely heretical for believing that there are many ways to reach and serve God, for refusing to believe that I have magically stumbled across the right answer to the big questions of life. What are we doing here? What’s the point? Those are big questions, and I really don’t believe that any human being has the ability to even comprehend the answers. Maybe we aren’t even asking the right questions. So it turns out that I’m a quasi-Emerging Christian–decidedly un-evangelical–and that there are millions worldwide who entertain similar thoughts about religion. Goodness!
As an aside: for a blog about reading, I haven’t talked about books in a while. I’ll have to fix that.