Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Validating Another's Faith Journey

A few days ago, a friend wrote an interesting blog article about the need, from time to time, to deconstruct our thinking to ensure we're being critical enough of who we are and who we are becoming. I wrote a reply to his post. Afterwards, I haven't been able to get his words out of my head as I have been mulling over how deconstruction is such a vital exercise in a maturing faith.

And then, while still thinking of the need for deconstruction, I began to read Gnosticism and Other Vanished Christianities. Richard Valantasis, the professor of New Testament and Christian Origins as the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, CO, writes an interesting and easy to read book about the history of Gnosticism and the various theologies it represented. He also writes about certain Christian sects that were ultimately silenced by the 4th Century Church for ideas and teachings considered inconsistent with Christian theology. What makes Valantasis' book so interesting to me is how his enthusiasm and keen readability offers the reader a different perspective on Christianity than has been written in other Gnostic textbooks.

In this work, he shows how the early Christian church actually wasn't as single-minded as one might imagine. It was full of different ideas and different faith journeys that were at one time allowed to co-exist with other ideas. It wasn't until Constantine and the Council of Nicea in 325 C.E. that ultimately invalidated expressions of the faith that those in attendance found either too threatening or very much unlike their own faith journeys. Similar to Irenaeus' assault on Gnosticism in the Second Century, the Council of Nicea took anti-gnostic sentiment a step further and those different ideas were silenced and adherents to the invalidated faith journeys were excommunited and branded heretics. Valantasis expresses some sorrow that so many expressions of the faith journey have been silenced.

Marcus Borg writes a brilliant introduction to the book and explains his own consternation with the vanished Christianities. Summing up the reality that there have been many ways to be a Christian from the earliest times of Christianity, he implies the need to engage in deconstruction in order to examine the motives of those with the religious power to silence those without it.

But he also asks some very intriguing questions. "Are there some ways of being a Christian that aren't really Christian? To put that differently," he asks, "is every group that claims the name 'Christian' authentically Christian?"

Borg makes a good point: Just because someone is on a faith journey doesn't necessarily mean that journey is Christian. And more to the point, within our own Christianity, how much Jesus is too little, not enough, or too much (if there is such a position). When it comes to feretting out the differences, many progressive religious thinkers use the Augustinian addage, "In essentials unity, in non-essentials, liberty, in all things charity."

But what exactly are the essentials in our faith tradition and journey that must be adhered to and what is our responsibility in validating another person's faith journey? I face this question in my pastorate when internally I think that within a particular faith community, there is an expectation that we agree on certain issues. But outside of my faith community, how am I empowered to validate or invalidate another person's faith journey?

Last night, I met with my Christian Education Committee as we are scheduling the Fall season of religious education, faith studies, social engagements, and church growth (yes, it is a committee with many responsibilities). One person had asked how it is we can be like the church in the next town that grew from 100 to 500 people in just a year? I responded that in order to become a church like that, we would have to change some of our expectations of our members. Being congregationalists, such a move might be an anethema to our faith tradition of personal and spiritual direction. I also explained that, if we want to 'require certain things of our members' (like outreach, specific monetary contributions, and accountability) we will have to engage our members in a way that at times leads with greater certainty than what we now engage with. To be successful in this pursuit, we would have to begin the arduous task of deconstructing why we do the things we do; but we must be cautious with the results of our deconstruction. And we must think carefully about our visions and re-envisonings.

And, as I told the Christian Ed Committee, many in the church have begun the task of beginning that very conversation. Our Good News Team is already in the process of such a deconstruction. I believe we are in the processes of rethinking and understanding why we do what we do. And, we hope to find some consensus along the way. How can we reach out to others if we haven't come to a concensus of who we all are.

All of these incidents, my book reading, the conversation with a friend, and the meeting with the Religious Education Committee are directing my thoughts about 'becoming' as well as 'who we already are' in terms of faith, faith journeys, and expectation. It is amazing to me how such conversations lend themselves to other ones--and how God's Spirit seems to be awakening in each of us the desire to construct and deconstruct our faith journeys. Honestly, it is a bit scary but certainly necessary if we are to discover within ourselves if and how we can be the children of God that God has created us to become.

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