“Beloved Children, I am dedicating this book, which I intend to be my last, to you. To my own astonishment, I have become an old man; and like most grandparents I spend a good deal of my time these days wondering about the future – your future – which I shall not see.”
This is how theologian, Douglas John Hall, introduces his book, What Christianity is Not – at once sad, inspiring, realistic, loving, and therefore also hopeful.
He goes on, “If I have learned anything in my long life, it is that everything – everything: God, the Creation, the myriad creatures and processes of life, indeed life as such, and we humans who have been given the wherewithal to contemplate it all, – everything is steeped in ineffable mystery. And if I were asked to say, in a word, what Christianity has contributed to this awareness of mystery, which has been felt by all great philosophies and religions and sciences, I would answer that Christianity professes and confesses that at the center of this universal mystery there is … love. Eternal, forgiving, expectant, suffering love.”
Hall is one of those Christian writers who is always worth listening to. I’m a better person when I’ve heard him, and it makes me sad to think that his career has come to an end. As it ends, however, I’m thankful that he’s put his mind to thinking about that which our faith is not. It strikes me that this is a thoughtful way of guiding us into a particular faith that holds at its core the mystery that matters most.
Hall’s concern for the future of the faith has little to do with secularization and societal trends away from organized religion. Rather, he worries about what Christians are doing, and have done, to their own faith. Christianity is not a number of the identities that we are tempted to give it.
Interestingly, I recently read an article by M. Craig Barnes, president of Princeton Theological Seminary, who shares some similar thoughts. As a leader of a school that trains future church leaders he is often asked about denominational decline and the next face of mainline Christianity. His response is refreshing. “The mainline Protestant church has to stop fretting about its future.”
It is hard to imagine denominational officials not fretting about the future. If not to fret about it, they certainly get paid to think about it and strategize accordingly. Much of what I’ve heard from the UCC about the future includes the conviction that Church’s new identity will be revealed on the front lines of social issues. Our impact will be felt and our identity will emerge as we battle injustice and change the circumstances that lead to suffering. My impression is that while fear may play a role in our clinging to this priority, UCC officials have also discerned that our ministries need to be outward looking because Jesus’ ministries were outward looking. While I agree, there’s something that concerns me. What happens when action is our primary agenda and source of identity?
Barnes writes, “We have liturgies of the early church that date back to the second century. In essence they were funerals. Those who were about to enter the church would take off their old clothes as a means of putting off the old, anxiety-ridden life and walk down into the water. The waiting priest would place them under the water saying, ‘Buried with him in baptism.’ As they rose the priest continued, ‘Risen to new life in Christ.’ They put on new clothes as a symbol of putting on Christ. The rationale for this burial form of baptism was to make the members of the church go through ‘dying’ and get it over with. Once they were no longer anxious about Caesar’s persecutions of the church, they were free to boldly proclaim the gospel. You can’t scare dead people.”
In essence, Barnes tells us that our primary theological task is not to worry or even to strategize; rather, it is to take seriously the task of dying to self and rising with Christ. That is our one calling and mission – to be people in whom and through whom the light of Christ lives and shines. Christ teaches us that “at the center of this universal mystery is love.” We know that something of the name “Christian” identifies us when that great love grounds us with joy and moves us with compassion. It may very well take us to the front lines of injustice, but it will likely not take us anywhere unless we’ve been willing to engage in the more difficult work of receiving grace at the expense of our “old selves.”
Whatever the church looks like down the road, it will only be “Church” when it helps us to die so that we might truly live.