Modern Christianity was a faith marked as much by conflict and issues of control/dominance as it was of revolution and reformation. While early Christianity was not with out its own issues it was dominated, mainly, by monolithic structures in it’s regional Catholic or Orthodox forms. Reformation Christianity was represented by argument and doctrinal dispute and plurality of expression on the local level. Even areas with state Lutheran or Evangelical churches had competition from other local groups, sometimes referred to as Free or Evangelical Free churches.
In the midst of this erupted doctrinal disputes. These disputes, more about groups competing in a market of religious identity claiming space for themselves and their existence, more often than not took the form of ideology and theology. On this side of a history of faith shaped by those conversations we can see the legacy of exclusive claims of faith and belief: The bible is more often than not viewed as a constitution or encyclopedia where faith, morality and right thinking can be looked up, indexed and applied. Often it is assumed that once we have the verse in hand right believing and action will be soon to follow.
This is what Brian McLaren calls the constitutional reading of the Bible. In this view scripture – and the faith it informs – is assumed to have a perfect, finished form that we are either conforming to or failing to conform to. A life informed by the text is one in search of perfection and perfect faith – which is, more often than not in an era informed by constitutional thinking, usually described as agreeing to certain positions.
The problem with Sola Scriptoria is that the faithful reader is required to harmonize the text into a consistent narrative devoid of inconsistencies. We either do this by ignoring parts, harmonizing the text or importing a theological lens from our side/context of scripture back into the narrative. Text in this model tends to be devoid of context, either of the original communities who presented them or of our own time.
Problems emerge on the congregational level in light of the constitutional reading. Growing up as I did in the Evangelical church – and having done my time at Jerry Farwell’s Liberty University – I witnessed first hand the shadows of faith formation as informed by constitutional reading. Faith was salvation and salvation was achieved by agreeing to a strict formula of faith. Questions and doubts were encouraged but only to the extent that you did not question anything considered foundational and fundamental to faith. One could, for instance, question the assumed biblical stance on women in ministry or homosexuality, but only to the extent that you studied and agreed to the prevailing theology. One could not have come to faith, confessed to being on the journey of growth and discovery, and come to positions that differ from the prevailing theology and be welcomed as a conversation partner. If these sorts of Churches existed in the Evangelical world in my formative years they were not present in the circles I was moving in.
Participation in the worshipping community required us to come into line with a ruling, constitutional document. Deviation from the rule of law – so to speak – was considered to be a form of theological treason. Even though we confessed that God contained plurality in His being (always ‘His’ in these communities) there was no tolerance for plurality of belief among the congregation gathered. Echoes can be felt of ancient Eucharist practices where only church members or those approved by the elders for their right belivefes were allowed to the Eucharist.
Of course scripture is not a constitution and it does not contain or rely on a single narrative flow. Scripture is a library as dependent on plurality of expression as God is in her expression in Christian experience. Or, just as Christians can express a perspective on God that relies on multiplicity and plurality (Trinity) so can we express an understanding of scripture that is multiple, plural and more library than constitution.
In this view Christian religious scripture is seen more as an assembly of conversation partners gathered together for the task at hand and in which we are invited to participate. Here the old Wesley quadrangle is evoked: Scripture comes to us in its plurality of expression and invites us to bring our reason, tradition and experience. The spirituality, life story, doubts, questions and push-backs against our religious understanding that the individual believer brings – and which the community as a whole contains – is not seen as an enemy of faith to be thwarted but as a part of the library of human experience which enriches the whole.
Christian faith and community now is less of a nation governed by a constitution but an community assembled not against but FOR their plurality and multiplicity in order to continue the project of scripture in our midst – to encounter its multiple conversations and to continue the seeking, conversing and dialogue. We, with our doubts and fears and hesitations, are an essential part of the story of scripture unfolding and being read in our midst. In this view worship and Eucharist is where God welcomes us with all our questions and asks us to see our conversation partners/fellow travelers as being blessed by the same grace of God.
Christian community can now be said to be what it’s always been: an intentional community of diversity. While some forms of faith have sought to erase or remove such ways of being – or outright deny their validity – they have been what the church has always been. Individual members are not asked to abandon their own journeys, theologies and conclusions but to contribute them back into the whole. Faith is a library, or better yet, it is a Facebook.
The church of my youth was intent on salvation and that salvation looked and acted a very specific way, surprisingly like a Republican Party platform. To push back with other faith perspectives was to question the status quo, which was always at the heart of this model of faith. After all it was constructed by white Republicans in the midst of the suburbs. The reaction of white Evangelicals to the theology of Pres. Obama’s pastor and home congregation is telling of the lack of multiplicity among mainstream, conservative Evangelicals.
For many in my childhood church the conservative faith – and its narrow definitions – was neatly summed up and defended by CS Lewis. Ignoring his own shifts in view – neatly documented in Marcus Borg’s ‘Putting Away Childish Things’ – Lewis is the very definition of Evangelical: an intelligent, theologically informed and conservative layman neatly contesting with the issues and questions of his day. There is much a Christian of any generation or school of thought can learn from him, in method if not message.
As we consider the church as intentional community let us turn to the method of CS Lewis, and in that turning let us look at a specific practice, namely The Inklings. Well known among Evangelicals The Inklings were a group of writers that Lewis and his brother met with at a pub sometimes referred to as The Bird and The Baby. Among this group were JRR Tolkien of Lord of the Rings fame as well as author Charles Williams and lay-philosopher/solicitor Owen Barfield. Other members at times included Dorothy Sayers who was known for her detective novels, plays, poetry, advertising copywriting and the feminist essays contained in the collection Are Women Human?. (Debate ranges as to whether Sayers was actually an Inkling).
The method that becomes present is the gathering of diverse voices to share and workshop ideas. While the participants primarily shared from their fiction works many of the members where known for their theological, religious and philosophical writing and it can be assumed they shared from these works as well. Lewis, for instance, in addition to being known as the writer of the Narnia and Space Trilogy books was also known for his Mere Christianity which sought to articulate conservative theological perspectives to the layman. Charles Williams, who wrote supernatural thrillers, was also known for his book The Descent of the Dove, an unconventional history of the church. Barfield, a lay-philosopher, worked primarily in the realms of language and consciousness and produced books such as Poetic Diction: A Study In Meaning.
What becomes clear is that each member of the assembled group was able to present and workshop their ideas – and thus welcome feedback and critique – in a space where all were welcomed. When we pry deeper into the Inklings themselves we find people who do not all mirror Lewis’s theological convictions. Barfield was greatly influenced by mystic-philosopher/new Age hero Rudolph Steiner and Barfields work have had continued influence on that audience. Williams was as influenced by sorcery and secret societies as he was by Christian mysticism.
The Inklings then become a microcosmom of the bigger goal of Christianity as we enter the new century. Moving from positions of authority and doctrine to a position of narrative, mutuality and co-inquiry faith becomes about the intentional gathering of people touched by, sustained by and called out by the Jesus story. The community expects to gather and be shaped by ‘love God and love your neighbor’ while allowing for multiple conversations of what this means, how to do it and what it looks like for us as a community. The mission is not to convert the world to our right doctrine but to invite a conversation through which faith and spirituality can be nurtured and grown.
In other words the goal of the church in this method is less conquest, conversion and constitution – and more salt. A fitting metaphor as any if we consider the notion of the Bible that we are to be ‘salt of the earth’. Salt has as its task to flavor that which is not salt, not make everything into salt. Another model we can draw on is Gods command to Abraham to be a nation that blesses the nations of the world. Again, blessing is much different that conquest, control and constitution.
The intentional community is a community that thrives in its function as a library – the experiences of the individual enrich the whole and the whole enriches the individual. The church, then, becomes a community that forms at a certain historical moment in order to be a traveling partner for those assembled. The doctrines and theologies we create on this journey are all poetries constructed as resources and reflections for the journey. But as the reformers assert they a form of reformed but always reforming.
Like Lewis and his Inklings no member of the community is asked to give up or abandon dearly held or long-fought for beliefs. Instead a spirituality of ignorance is required. Like Martin Luther we say ‘Here I Stand’ – but unlike Martin and his critics we make an additional move and add ‘and I have so much to learn from you, even if we disagree. In the Eucharist/in worship all are welcome – let us go up together, clothed in ignorance and sure of what we belief and be open to the Holy Spirit’.