Over the course of 12 months, the Forum for Theological Exploration (FTE) is spotlighting 12 leaders, their stories, and how their passion and call to shape a more hopeful future through Christian ministry guides the impact they are making in their communities, institutions and universities. You can find the full series, here.
By Aaron Coyle-Carr
When I was a teenager, and still proudly an evangelical, I went on a mission trip to South Africa. As it happened, our flight was routed through Paris, and the layover was long enough to provide us the opportunity to do some sight-seeing. We didn’t have time to see the Louvre, but we did have time to visit Notre-Dame de Paris, the medieval gothic cathedral at the heart of the city.
I never did figure out who thought it would be a good idea to send four dozen evangelical teenagers to tour a cathedral, but while some of my peers muttered about “papists” and others treated the nave more like an art gallery, I was utterly enthralled. For the first time in my life I was experiencing a form of Christianity that cared about things like matter and aesthetics. The cathedral was built not just to function as a meeting place, but to be beautiful and to convey meaning in tangible ways – through stone and glass and wood. Even when it was crammed full of tourists, the cathedral remained something sacred, and something in me stirred in response.
Years later, my wife would finally name that feeling for me when she said, “Sometimes I have to hold a truth in my hands before I can know it in my head.” Notre-Dame taught me – and still teaches me – that the physical, tangible things of this good earth have the power to mediate something transcendent. More importantly, it taught me that sometimes we have to experience the power of that transcendence in matter before we can ever talk about the transcendent in abstract ideas or principles. The poet William Carlos Williams says it another, simpler way: “No ideas but in things.”
This was a hard lesson for me as a young Baptist to learn. In my experience, Baptists are famously opposed to the power of things to mediate the transcendent. What most of our brothers and sisters call sacraments we call ordinances, and that language is telling. We do not typically practice communion or baptism because they are beautiful and meaningful and transformative. We do these things because we believe Jesus has commanded us to do them. And because we are all still vaguely aware of the concerns of the Reformers we exercise constant vigilance in ensuring that following Jesus’ orders doesn’t look like what we would perceive as “too Catholic.” We guard carefully against “rituals” because we believe they are lifeless and performed by rote. A traditional Baptist might edit Williams’ words to read, “Ideas are not in things.”
And I might have agreed with that edit if it weren’t for seminary. My first year was a rough time for me, both personally and academically. But every Wednesday night I would share communion with members of the small Episcopal church where I interned. And every Thursday we would gather as a school to celebrate the holy meal. And every Friday a few faithful students would offer a quiet and contemplative Eucharist to close out another long week. It didn’t matter what was going on in my life, the meal was there. On good days, it was celebration. On hard days, it was sustenance. And on days where I felt I could not hold on to anything, it was the thing which I could physically hold in my hand. Bread and wine became things by which I came to know even more deeply the presence of God. As one of my professors told me, “When the world is completely upside down, the Eucharist is always the same. That’s the power of ritual.”
What began in Paris and matured in Atlanta continues even now as I pastor a small Baptist congregation on the edge of Greensboro, North Carolina. They try to be faithful to the traditional Baptist party line, but even they have experienced the power of ideas in things. The communion table, for example, is not to be messed with. Hundreds of lovingly made Chrismons adorn the tree and tell the story during Advent. And people reflexively reach for ancient and powerful rituals even when they cannot articulate why. Breaking down stigma and stereotypes about rituals helps us all to see them more clearly. They are not magical, but they are powerful. They represent, at their heart, the power of ideas communicated through things. A ritual is a truth you can touch, a thought you can hold, an idea in which you can swim for a while.
Which should not, fundamentally, surprise us. Even Baptists typically believe that God was revealed to us in the tangible flesh and matter of Jesus Christ. Williams’ insight is perhaps crudely applied to Jesus, but it is still true. The incarnation is an idea contained in a thing. And if God communicated that way once, I believe God continues to communicate that way. No ideas but in things. No grace but in things, either.
Rev. Aaron Coyle-Carr is an FTE alum, a recent graduate of Candler School of Theology, and the pastor of New Bessemer Baptist Church in Greensboro, North Carolina. He loves absorbing good stories (especially in the form of comic books) and equipping God’s people for the work of laboring in the kingdom of Heaven.