Culture at the Crossroads
I Believe in One Lord Jesus Christ
My new son spent the first eight and a half years of his life in a Chinese orphanage. Within a week of our meeting, just about a month ago, we were attending Mass at a small church in Guangzhou. It was likely his first encounter with Christians gathered in worship.
Last week a family friend was heard muttering that she could not believe we had him in a church within the first week of meeting him. On some level, I understand her concern that the visit to a church was something of a culture shock. I know something of postcolonial literature; I've frequently assigned Chinua Achebe's fine work Things Fall Apart to undergraduates as a commentary on globalization in the postcolonial era. I am aware of the status of religions in China, and the suspicion on the part of the country's leadership that academics come to China to subvert the Communist Party by means of Western religion. I live in a pluralist world and am fully cognizant of the fact that professing a religious faith is a political act, and that doing so unreflectively can be hostile to some—especially those who have been hurt by the practitioners of that tradition.
Yet it is impossible for a lover to deny the reality of the beloved, to acknowledge the difficult politics of the day as a reason to hide one's love. "Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm, for love is strong as death, jealousy is fierce as the grave" (Song of Songs 8:6). The paradigmatic Western love story, Romeo and Juliet, dramatizes this kind of love that cannot rest content with quiet anonymity. If love is love, it demands the light of day. The lover recognizes with sadness that there are political forces that militate against that love, yet one cannot therefore withdraw from giving one's heart fully.
In professing that I believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, I profess a love that is born in the innocence of beauty, yet spoken in a politicized world. I am therefore torn in this love: I move from the heights of encounter with a truth I find profound and life-creating, to the depths of sadness when that truth is shrunken to fit lesser ends.
One might assume that in a politicized world, the love of Christ amounts to a hatred of those who deny or even malign him. To be sure, many over my Church's history have made that connection, from those in early centuries who blamed the Jews, to those in later centuries who fought Muslims, to those in the modern era who have circled the wagons against the forces of modernity.
Yet I approach the problem in a rather irenic way: I marvel at people's yearning for truth and goodness and beauty, and am more willing to share that desire than to find the ways that our shared desires find different expression. I give thanks when people use reason for the sake of the good. I marvel when people with long and ancient traditions preserve a sense of the holy in the world. I love many of the stories and teachings of the Buddha and Confucius, and their culture-shaping praise of right living. I reverence the gift of Jewish faith even today: I am so compelled by the law given to Moses that I give thanks for those who preserve that law in practice. I have benefitted from my interactions with peace-loving and generous Muslims.
Still, my heart has been shaped by encounter with the risen Christ, and so I look at the world through that encounter. Just as the elder Capulet might have counseled his daughter never to have anything to do with the troublesome House of Montague, so might some perceive my introducing my son to Christian worship as a politically charged act. I see it rather as an invitation to share in that which holds our family together: a shared love for the kind of world that Jesus imagined. Jesus is the bond that holds together our marriage; the compass point by which we have made decisions; the source and goal of the desires we hope to cultivate in our children.
Of course I know that each of my children must ultimately decide how they choose to respond to Christ. My role as a father is simply to broker the introduction, so that they in their freedom can come to know him. During this season, when we recall and anticipate the coming of Christ into the world, it is important to remember that his guise was the most unimposing imaginable: he came as an infant, and only because a girl made a free decision to give birth. My prayer as a father is that he might come so gently into their lives.