The Challenge of Proximity: Guidelines for the Global Church

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I teach a class called "Making Sense of the American Spiritual Landscape"—which my colleagues have described as a neat trick if you can do it. In it we discuss the trends at work in our culture that shape spiritual understanding and practice.

One of the obvious features of that landscape is pluralism. This phenomenon is not as new as some argue. Nor is the pluralism we experience quite the shape that some suggest. Harvard's Diana Eck is a case in point. To read Eck, one would think that the pluralism we encounter today marks the rise of a polyglot culture that will be dramatically and decisively less Christian than in the past.

Factually speaking, that simply isn't true. And Baylor University's Philip Jenkins makes that clear. The country (and the world, for that matter) is becoming increasingly Christian. In the United States the church will be largely non-white, Catholic, Pentecostal, Pentecostal-Catholic, and fundamentalist. Around the world the church will be larger below the equator. Globally it will be less European in its character and heritage.

What neither Eck nor Jenkins grapple with at length is the issue of proximity—the non-stop, transparency of global differences—the phenomenon Thomas Friedman describes as the "flat earth" effect. Though in all fairness, it lingers and looms behind their work and explains why we are talking about these issues at all.

The earth has always been a diverse place. What has buffered that experience and rendered it less significant and urgent has been the way in which we have been insulated from one another by distance and limitations in our ability to communicate.

That's no longer the case. Decisions made here today are heard around the world moments later. And the reverse is true as well. Having occupied separate countries and sometimes separate continents, we suddenly find ourselves drawn into a common space where we can't avoid noticing and reacting to what others are thinking, saying, and doing.

It is that proximity that will try our capacity for patience and tolerance as Christians. The Anglican Communion has been testing its capacity for patience and tolerance in the last decade and now the United Methodist Church is beginning to test its limits.

It turns out that progressives are no more tolerant than their conservative counterparts. Bishops in The Episcopal Church have berated African church leaders, arguing that they need to experience something akin to the European Enlightenment. And now Methodist bishops are suggesting that a global church may be untenable. How this is different from any other kind of "imperialism" or "hegemonic thinking" is difficult to discern and harder to defend.

The question facing Christian leaders is whether they will find a way to witness to the Gospel's reconciling power and a way to hold the church together—not just in the face of pluralism, but proximity as well. If we don't find a way to live at peace with one another as a church, it will not discredit the Gospel nearly as much as it will discredit the church's leadership.

An outline of principles that might guide that search could well include these items:

1)   The global church should commit itself to sympathetic and empathetic listening. No community completely and faithfully captures the demands of the Gospel. To claim otherwise is hubris.

2)   The practice of the faith and its faithful observance is always lived out in the particular. For that reason, no single practice of the faith can or should be imposed on the whole of the church. What is most urgent as a matter of moral and spiritual concern varies from community to community, just as surely as it does from individual to individual.

3)   The church's quest to be faithful is one that has always required space and time for listening. In a world in which the Gospel finds multiple expressions (as it always has), the church today needs to deal with the proximity in which we live by giving one another both the time and space that was once ours passively, by virtue of geography.