Friday, July 17, 2009

Holistic Heterodoxy

I’m in the process of finishing two posts (The Myth of Cassandra/Paradise and the Road to Hell), but in the meantime, since I have not posted in a while, I wanted to make a shorter, more informal post. The spark for the post concerns something that recently occurred - the Episcopal church voted this week to end the moratorium on gay clergy/bishops. It was heartening to see decisive and compassionate action from the church. While many injustices remain (the Episcopal church is only one of few churches that accept gay clergy, and even beyond that, I have to confess that theoretical acceptance does not always imply practical, local acceptance), hope lives on in decisions like this. With this vote in mind, I wanted to reflect a little on the church itself.

One of the popular buzz-words in church theology these days is “orthodoxy” which is commonly attached to all sorts of suffixes and prefixes. In a time where we become increasingly aware of our global differences, identity has become an increasing concern. The question of orthodoxy, at first glance, is the question of who we are. What are the positive qualities that bring us together? What can we unite toward? Even within the tradition, with thousands of denominations, Christianity is having an identity crisis. What does it mean to be Christian? For those of us that identify as Christian, personal identity and Christian identity are similar - we cannot answer the question “Who am I?” without answering “What does it mean to be Christian?” as well.

Of course, as I have written about before, identity is really a matter of values - “What do you want?” and “Who are you?” are equivalent questions. As such, questions of Christian identity really concern values - “What should a Christian value?” Answers to that question are diverse, to say the least, and no matter how much we may like to pretend, hold little coherence or unity. Christianity is just as diverse and contradictory as most individuals are.

That dissimilarity within the tradition(s) of Christianity have created a problem - desires for safety and peace typically do not coexist well with identity crises. One of the things we are always searching for is stability. Ground to stand upon, so to speak. Differences in other self-proclaimed Christians undermine our footing - our constructed identity becomes unstable. We often perceive other, different Christians as threats to what we value. In other words, consider the claim that person x values y because she believes Christians should value y. If x encounters a Christian that does not value y, their justification for y is undermined. And so the disagreements over Christian identity begin.

One might claim that tolerance solves the identity problem. Perhaps one can have a stable position on one’s Christianity, and still “tolerate” other viewpoints within the tradition. While this might soften the disagreement, the crisis of Christian identity remains. Consider the debates within the church over homosexuality. I know of several individuals that claim they “tolerate” homosexuality without approving of it. Tolerance holds no warmth. Gatherings are warm affairs. Typically, identity can allow for no difference - one identifies by noting similarities. Tolerance is an improvement over active hate, but in the end, tolerance does not solve our search for identity. Differences remains and our shields of tolerance cannot protect us from reality. If identity concerns gathering, tolerance does not allow for different individuals to join in the gathering. Rather it merely provides the (disingenuous) “invitation” for the different others to create their own gathering, their own fire. Tolerance is still a matter of exclusion.

One of the several problems that post-liberal, neo-orthodox and neo-Calvinist theologies suffer from is that they accept the postmodern crisis of identity and isolation and yet step beyond it without truly solving it. Difference exists. Searching for all those that can gather under the same banner (generally a rather colorless, bland banner at that), does not remove those excluded from existence. Drawing harsher and sharper identity border lines over and over again only serves to isolate and exclude further. If such a thing as Christian identity can exist, it is not a matter of self-illusion, self-delusion. We cannot escape our crisis of isolation. Instead, we must discover how to live within it. Together. With our differences.

The question remains - can we speak meaningfully of Christian identity without exclusion? For starters, we would do well to realize that the search for Christian orthodoxy is not simply a post/modern quest. Christianity has always been about difference not just similarity, has always been traditions not just tradition, has always been plurality not just monolithic orthodoxy. The choice has always been there - one can paint a symbol and call it Christianity even meanwhile ignoring/excluding the landscape, or rather, one can embrace the landscape for what it is. The history of Christianity is holistic heterodoxy - unity in difference. The “unity” has been affirmed again and again. The different have been trampled under that unity again and again. And yet, difference remains. We cannot fully exorcise our ghosts. And if anything, Christianity has always been haunted traditions, traditions of the ghost(s). We praise our ghosts as holy. And our ghosts lead us on. With our differences.

Christianity is always before us. Christ is always to come. Christ once asked his disciples to treat the oppressed, to treat the other, to treat the different as though they were Christ. Orthodoxy, in a shallow, illusionary gathering, will leave us closed to Christ’s kiss. We will not hear our silent ghosts. The other will be excluded. Instead, Christian identity must be self-emptying - to become Christian is to live with open arms, open ears, open lips. We become Christian by giving up the quest to be Christian. Christianity is not a matter of gathering and line-drawing. We already live, already hope, already suffer together. To be Christian is to give up “being Christian.” With our ghost(s) behind us and Christ before us. Or, with Christ behind us and our ghost(s) before us. That is how we become Christian.