That which is different

My brother Don and I were chatting this morning, and I mentioned an evangelical friend of mine who has a “secret” interest in Catholic mysticism. Don, who describes himself as an “agnostic hedonist,” made the following fascinating observation:

You know, the evangelical movement could do so much good, but people’s fear of that which is different just screws things up.

Now, in their defense, the fear of “that which is different” is not unique to evangelicals (or to Christians in general). In fact, it’s a fairly normal characteristic of a tribal or “mythic-membership” value system, where one’s identity is shaped by membership in a community, and such membership, in turn, is defined by sacrificial submission to the community’s authority structure (in the case of Christians, to God — and the Bible and/or the Church) and a strict compliance with the community’s defined boundaries. In other words, the boundaries are there for the purpose of not being crossed. This is where the fear of the different kicks in: if that which is outside the boundaries somehow makes a claim on us, it throws our entire identity as members-of-the-tribe into jeopardy. You don’t have to get too far involved in Christian community before you start running into these kinds of comments: “He can’t be a real Catholic, he voted for Obama.” “She says she’s a Christian, but she’s having sex with her boyfriend.” “People who practice centering prayer aren’t really believers — in fact, most of them are more interested in eastern mysticism than in the gospel.” And on and on it goes. I don’t mean to judge the judgmental, although clearly, there’s a judgmental quality inherent in these kinds of boundary-enforcing statements. I’m just pointing out that, inherent in any kind of mythic-membership system, is the tendency to uphold the line that separates the insiders from the outsiders, even if this means looking down our collective noses at those few folks who have a tendency to color outside the lines.

My point in writing this is not to say that Christians (evangelical or otherwise) should just get rid of boundaries; on the contrary, I tend to be fairly conservative myself in terms of what I regard as orthodox theology. But neither do I believe that boundaries are just a good in themselves. In fact, I think Christians need to be troubled by the ambiguity of boundaries, and the reason I believe this is because Jesus himself tended to cross boundaries. Just look at the trouble he kept getting into because he healed on the sabbath, or his followers gathered food on the sabbath, or then there was that little incident with the money changers in the temple…

Back to my brother’s comment: believers “could do so much good” but for the “fear of that which is different” which “just screws things up.” A pretty bold statement from a crusty old non-believer. I think the challenge in here, for me at least, is to learn how to honor the boundaries of my faith while not fearing that which is beyond the boundaries. Of course, once we get rid of fear, what are we left with? Not indifference, because indifference tends toward fear. Christianity is all about love: love of God, and love of neighbors as we love ourselves. My brother’s comment is a reminder that, while there may be boundaries that separate believer from non-believer, love — true love, the love that comes from God — knows no boundaries. So we who live inside the boundaries have to learn how to love through the boundaries. I’m not sure what that looks like, because it sounds like something that could easily be condescending or “second rate.” But I don’t think love operates according to a caste system. Jesus didn’t say, “Love your Christian neighbors as yourself,” nor did he say “love your neighbors as yourself, and of course this means different things depending on whether your neighbor is a believer or not.” So here’s the paradox: the boundaries of Christianity remind us who we are: a people who have given our lives over to love. Remove the boundaries, and our identity is in jeopardy. But it is that very identity that calls us to cross the boundaries with the lavish, prodigal love of God.

Okay, grasshopper. Figure that one out.

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  • phil foster

    The part of us that “fears the different” is a hard wired into the brain. Which only begs the question of how we co-create reality, advance our own evolution, and/or become the Body of Christ. Take your pick.

    Also, there’s a thin line between being judgmental and being discerning.

  • Jack

    To quote one of my favorite Celtic Saints — St Columbanus — ‘Love has nothing to do with order.’

    In the Grace of the Three in One,


  • Leslie

    Carl, you have an uncanny knack for putting into words many things that I “know” but for which I have not yet found my own words. That’s a good thing indeed.

    I’ll take this a bit further, if I may, because it’s been my own experience. I’ve more or less left the evangelical tradition, having left the Catholic tradition before that, exactly for these reasons. The deeper I go into the love of Christ (thanks to HIS renewing of my life), the less and less I have found myself able to identify with the tribes I have aligned myself with. Some people would say I am learning to live outside the box, but my question is becoming: “There’s a box?” (Thanks to Rob Bell from Mars Hill for illuminating that particular concept in my mind.)

    It’s exquisitely freeing to live in this wild abundance of love that knows no boundaries and there are days when my whole being is caught up in the ecstasy of it. But I want to be clear that forgetting the box and all its addictions is an exquisitely painful process. It’s a long story but the way it looks right now is that I’ve been stripped of almost everything that belongs in the box: my home, my livelihood and work, my financial security, my identity with my tribes (church, family, community), and my priorities. A clean sheet as it were, like the newly fallen snow under a brilliant sun. Beautiful to behold if you can bear the blinding glare long enough to actually behold it! (Does anyone else appreciate the capricious irony of our God as I do?)

    I’m on Mr. Toad’s wild ride as it were, only Jesus is the driver and even in the midst of relishing the adventure, I find myself pleading with him to turn around, to go back to what I knew and where I belonged. I’m craving some boundaries, another box, all the while knowing that box can also kill my love without my even knowing it.

    So what’s a grasshopper to do? The only thing I can think is that we have to live in that tension of exquisite joy and exquisite pain, and probably for our entire lives. It’s the place we pick up our cross and follow Jesus, who then makes the burden light, IF we let him. And, of course, therein lies the rub. IF I let him, Jesus will make my burden light. He’ll bring me into his vision for my life where I belong to his tribe, do his work, find security in him, and forget about boxes altogether.

    I always preferred circles anyway.

  • Infinite Warrior

    You see, people see something Different, something Strange and they become afraid. Teach them the beauty of that strange thing and they are no longer afraid because they have become one with it.” ~ Bruce Lee

    Or they simply realize they’ve been one with “It” all along. Many people have given their lives over to Love. It doesn’t seem a particularly Christian thing to do.

    The single thread that runs through it All is not the Bible or the “Church”, but Life itself in all its glorious manifestations. Love is one. Light, Truth, Faith, Peace, Spirit are all other facets of the same jewel. Its beauty may be expressed in many different ways and forms, but it’s still all the same One. Where, then, are the boundaries? And who determines what they are?

    Remove the boundaries, and our identity is in jeopardy.

    Why would this be so? Are they not self-imposed? We establish the boundaries that differentiate us from one another, but are not these boundaries all arbitrary?

  • http://thewebsiteofunknowing Barbara Tracy

    I feel that Jesus calls us to the margins,providing Himself as the center, and that letting a group decide what it means to be Christ centered is to take an easy way out, a way out of the lack of orientation of walking in the dark of faith.But, we are also social creatures, it is as God made us, and there is the paradox. Christians learn from each other, especially it seems those from long ago, and although I define myself as orthodox (believe in the physical resurrection of Christ, equate Him with God, believe that is Him and by His grace that we are transformed from ego to authentic Self, well, basically the Nicene Creed), I learn from people who don’t believe much of the above.I really believe it is imperative that we are not bound up in the needs of our particular tribes, that we serve through them,let them nurture us, treasure the friendships in them, and let Christ show us when and how to let them all go.
    Leslie, what you are doing is hard, and I will pray for you.