A Fortress or a Beacon?

Is Christianity a fortress or a beacon?

In other words, is the primary function of Christianity to defend the good guys from the bad guys, or is its primary function to shine a light that will illuminate everyone, the good and the bad alike?

It’s a good question. But maybe this question poses a false dichotomy. We could just as easily say that Christianity is meant to be both “a mighty fortress” and the “light of the world.” I agree, let’s not get dualistic here. Nevertheless, where should we put our own focus: on shining the light, or manning the defenses?

Obviously, different members of the body of Christ will answer this question in different ways. Some Christians will be enforcing the boundaries while others will be seeking to unleash the luminosity. Perhaps it is important for the light-shiners and the bulwark-strengtheners to refrain from judging each other. In fact, there’s no perhaps about it. “Judge not” means more than just Christians need to be kind and loving toward atheists — it means that we have to be kind and loving toward each other, sometimes the hardest task of all.

Contemplatives are, in my experience, generally much more drawn to the beacon than to the fortress. We often play fast and loose with the boundaries, not worrying too much about such things as dogma, or theological precision, or having a clear understanding about just what we do or don’t believe. And then, we get annoyed when we discover that for other Christians, the dogma and the theological boundaries are what matters most. We think there’s something wrong with them, and when they suggest that there might be something wrong with us, we get defensive.

I think the Body of Christ needs both the ramparts and the radiance. It’s good to have a clear understanding of the difference between Christianity and Buddhism, or Christianity and Islam, or Christianity and Gnosticism. But it’s also good to let those boundaries be permeable enough that we can be in dialog with, and form relationships with, those whose faith is different from ours. That’s where the light shining comes into play.

Be who you are called to be. And try as best you can to love, rather than judge, those whose path diverges from your own.

Five Things Christian Contemplatives can learn from Buddhists
Five Approaches to InterSpirituality
Catholic Meditation and Contemplative Prayer: What's the Difference?
In Memoriam: Kenneth Leech
About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • http://www.philfosterlpc.com phil foster

    “Bear one another in love.”

  • http://www.janblencowe.com Jan

    This is a wonderful, wise post. I used to defend the bulwarks, because that’s what I was taught and what was modeled when I was as a young Christian 25+ years ago. But it’s not who I really am and I am sad to say that for a long while I was pretty judgemental. The Holy Spirit has ever so gently corrected me over the years and for the last 10 or so years I have discovereed my true self, the contemplative.

    I am often surprised at myself, how much more accepting I am and willing to listen and consider other ideas to allow the dialog to take place and the light to gently shine.

    I reralize my job is to prepare the soil, tilling hearts.

    I had to do a lot of maturing in Christ to get to this point. I often check myself to make sure I stay true to the gospel and don’t wander off into semi-truths.

    I am thankful for those on the bulwarks, I never underestimate the importance of their calling. In many ways what they do allows me to do what I do. The body of Christ, each part with its own function and each part necessary. Beautiful!

  • http://www.philfosterlpc.com phil foster

    Jan – a most beautiful and Spirit driven post. In all spiritual development models I know of – be they from the monastic or social science traditions – the surest signs of spiritual maturity are the capacities for paradox and mystery.

  • http://web.me.com/lstrovas/All_Things_New:_A_Christian_Conversation_on_Food/Welcome.html Leslie

    Hmm, how about an illuminated fortress with light shining from every window, door, knook and cranny that beckons, invites and welcomes all who seek and knock? The story (call it dogma if you like ) of Jesus is the truest thing I’ve ever found and it is indeed a fortress from the raging storms of this world, but Jesus is also the Light of the World. Welcome weary traveler….

  • Clifford Post

    A good post, Carl. You got me thinking about the hymn….

    Since God is the fortress, and God is wherever we are, our fortress is movable, and therefore missional. When I look at the words of the hymn, the point (to me, anyway) is that wherever we are, whatever we do, God will triumph through us. I don’t think the hymn contemplates passivity as much as a sense of complete trust. It definitely does not encourage a sense of defensiveness.

    The challenge comes when we start to trust institutions, rather than God, but Martin Luther had a few more explicit things to say about that as well.

  • ta

    It’s like a lighthouse. We have to shine a light so people can find the fortress even in darkness.