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.