Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Spirit'ed Dialogue

A common adage in our culture is that when you have a conversation with someone, you should stay away from two things: religion and politics. I think this is a reaction to how polarized these two issues have become—and perhaps always have been. In a way, though, it’s unfortunate that religion and politics have become such divisive issues, because if we come at things from the right perspective, conversations about these “controversial” topics can be quite interesting and informative. Sometimes, these conversations can actually bring people closer together, rather than drive them further apart.

Taking the risk and engaging conversations about such controversial topics—as opposed to avoiding them like the plague—might give us all some much-needed perspective on many of the issues that so often polarize and divide our secular and spiritual communities.

When we surround ourselves with like-minded friends, and never really associate with anyone who holds religious or political views different than our own, we tend to “paint” pictures of “the other side” using broad brush strokes and become convinced that our crude pictures are accurate representations of reality—i.e., it’s much easier to demonize someone when you don’t know them personally.

As long as things remain impersonal, the divisions between us and them can remain clear-cut—there is white and there is black and never the two shall mix … We are thus free to cast judgment on these faceless others; we can devote all of our time and energy to defending our ideology at all cost, winning arguments with our opponents, and clinging relentlessly to our version of the truth on a given issue—no matter what.

But the minute we start to get to know the living, breathing human beings on “the other side” it complicates everything—in short, it makes life messier! All of a sudden the boundary between us and them blurs considerably. We begin to see all kinds of nuances of gray that we never saw before when we were so consumed with defending the gospel according to us. We realize the people that we previously rather callously classified as them are actually honest, hard-working, intelligent, and sincere people a whole lot like us—their only “crime” is that they happen to see a particular religious or political issue differently than we do. In this new context, winning an argument doesn’t seem nearly as important as it used to; now searching for common ground with our new friends seems far more important.

Engaging in this kind of honest and transparent dialogue with others is not always easy, but doing so helps us realize that someone is not inferior to you simply because they don’t share your specific views on a particular religious or political issue.

In a specifically Christian context we might call this kind of dialogue Holy-Spirit-led debate—or if you like, Spirit’ed dialogue. (We United Methodists actually refer to it as holy conferencing.) Sometimes through this kind of inclusive conversation, we come to realize that the differences we thought were so irreconcilable aren’t nearly as big as we made them out to be. But many times, even after such Spirit’ed dialogue we still end up divided at the end of the day. Hopefully, however, even when we can’t reach an agreement on the issues that divide us, we can agree to disagree while at the same time maintaining civility, dignity, and respect for our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ on the “other side” of the argument[1].

This kind of Spirit’ed dialogue or conversation seems to be a hallmark of the so-called “emerging” Church. The emerging Church is really more about a conversation than it is about forming a new denomination[2]. As the word emerging suggests, it represents something that is not yet fully born—it seeks to give expression to a new form of Christianity that has been emerging in the late 20th and early 21st century.

There is recognition from most Christians today that the world is rapidly changing and the church must also change in response[3]. The question we don’t all agree on is: How do we do it? The emerging Church invites everyone who calls upon the name of Jesus around the world—be they Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, or “other”—to come together and wrestle with this very complex question. We don’t have to sacrifice our individual denominational identity to join this emerging conversation (in fact, we as we interact with people from other faith traditions we may actually find that we appreciate what makes us unique all the more) but as we get to know people whose beliefs and practices are different than our own, we discover something interesting. We find that the denominational labels that used to rigidly define us and thus divide us in the past aren’t nearly as important as what we all have in common—our core identity as followers of the way of Jesus.

Some accuse the emerging Church of rejecting all that has gone on before and trying to start over from scratch—throwing the baby out with the bath water if you will. They argue that the emerging Church goes too far to try and accommodate our post-Christian world. But as someone who considers themselves to be emergent[4], I don’t find that to be an accurate characterization. I think that often times the people that make these accusations never actually take time to find out what the emerging Church is all about. As mentioned earlier, when we don’t have personal experience with someone—or in this case, something—we tend to “paint” a picture of them using a broad brush. And as is often the case, a picture “painted” with such broad strokes may be insufficient to provide an accurate representation of the emerging Church.

I would argue that the emerging Church is simply doing what followers of Christ have done since the very beginning. They seek to learn from the Christian traditions and rituals of the past and apply them in new and innovative ways that are relevant to the context of the present.

I believe that the Spirit’ed dialogue that the emerging Church has begun has the potential to infuse new life and vitality into the Church universal. The wind of the Spirit is blowing—the world is changing around us. The question is: How will the Church respond? Will we open the windows and allow the Spirit’s freshening breeze to blow through our midst, or close up the shudders tightly continuing to breathe the same stale, stagnant air we’ve breathed for decades? One choice focuses on securing a future with hope for future generations; the other seeks only to preserve the status quo.

I believe that it is through engaging in this kind of inclusive dialogue with other Christians—some of whom may at first glance seem very different than us—that we become more well-rounded followers of Christ who are better equipped to follow the way of Jesus in our rapidly changing post-Christian world. My personal experience suggests that as we expose ourselves to the beliefs and practices of other Christians, we stand a better chance of becoming the kind of people who actually do the things that Jesus did on a regular basis, as opposed to simply learning about those kinds of people on Sunday morning. We become people who more naturally live as Jesus would if he were living in our time and place, and who are ready to be sent forth to live out the Great Commission [Matthew 28:18-20] today—baptizing others and teaching them to obey Jesus. We can then invite these people to add their voice to the Spirit’ed dialogue that has been going on among followers of Jesus for over 2000 years, and by God’s grace will continue for many years to come.


[1] For a good discussion of finding common ground on a number of these divisive religious (moral) and political issues see the book Seeing Gray in a Black and White World by Adam Hamilton.

[2] Many movements that eventually became denominations actually started out as conversations within the existing church of their day. For example, the Methodist movement in England began as a conversation within the Anglican Church. It remains to be seen whether the emerging Church can successfully plot a different course.

[3] Christians believe that the message of the Gospel transcends time, but that we must constantly adapt how we deliver the unchanging message of Jesus in a world that is constantly evolving and changing.

[4] Being emergent is less about the church you attend on Sunday and more about your mindset all week long. There could be emerging Christians in every local church—emerging Methodists, emerging Catholics, emerging Presbyterians, etc. On the other hand, some emergents wouldn’t identify themselves with any denomination.

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