Being immersed in a strong Christian community – as I was during both seminary and doctoral work in theology – is simultaneously challenging, gut-wrenching, transformative, and joy-filled. It was the training, discipline, stripping, and rebuilding of both mind and character that happens, when one commits to follow a particular vocational path as part of one’s life of faith. I was, and am, grateful for this experience. It truly is all one can really expect from a program that wants to rigorously train someone to proclaim the Gospel in a nation that does not know the triune God of our Scriptures.
Christian and other bubbles
But as with any immersive program, it can also form a type of experiential bubble. This is not a bubble that is exclusive to the Church. Most companies have their bubbles. These bubbles occur simply because people within a given organization develop an ethos or way of life that is different from other organizations. There are distinct expectations about how one uses one’s time, how one behaves, how relationships work and their formality or informality, the ‘textbook way’ to do things and the way that organization does things. It includes language, often terms, phrases, words, descriptions, short cuts, or ‘read between the lines’ types of comments that one must know in order to participate and to ‘do well.’ Every organization has a distinctive ‘way of life’ or ethos.
The difficulty arises when people become so formed and shaped by the ethos of their organization, that they become unable to empathize – to understand another’s perspective – with people outside their organization. This can be a particular problem for Christians and I would suggest that it’s one of reasons that Christians either a) tend to alienate people outside the Church when they speak to them about the faith; or b) tend to be afraid to share their faith with those outside the Church and so compartmentalize ‘church stuff’ apart from ‘life stuff.’
Learning from my sports bubbles
One of the best things I did during my seminary and doctoral training was to involve myself in communities where not only did I have an outlet from work and study, but I was also exposed to a diversity of belief frameworks. This pressed me to think constantly about how to communicate the faith to people who, for example, have no belief in the supernatural, or who had been harmed by the Church, either because of gossip, arrogance, envy, and so on, or by some form of abuse, or those who were frankly either indifferent to God, or who believe that while God might be great, his people are wicked, or actually potentially disprove God’s own words. These are all responses to the Christian faith that I have heard while being involved in university sports (rowing, rugby, cross country skiing) and sports throughout the City of Toronto (track and cycling).
These teams or clubs actually form the foundation of community that carries with it the same potential for exclusivity (terms, phrases, fitness levels, equipment, financial capacity, talent capacity), that the Church does, whether they realize it or not. However this community also carries with it the capacity to gather others in – if it is willing to engage others with charity, love, peace, kindness, gentleness, self-control, discipline, focus, building others up, loving neighbor, helping to nurture the other, shunning bitterness, envy, prolonged anger, arrogance, and hatred. – so they might learn the ways of the particular sport being done. I’ve watched people go from novice cyclists, who would walk most of the obstacles on our local trails, unsure of what equipment to bring, or wear, how to get on and off the bike before falling over, using incorrect ways of speaking about training or equipment or totally failing in training for an event, to holding their own, setting both personal and in some cases, community records. I have pointed out this analogy to team/clubmates who say that Christianity is exclusive and judgmental – demonstrating that all humans have the propensity to the sin (acting out of fear, anger, bitterness, envy, arrogance, or evil inclinations) that underlies exclusivity – and it presses them to reconsider their own judgment of the Church.
What my cycling clubs and other team sports have taught me is the need to truly hear their concerns, to consider the whole of life (values, ethics, morals) from their perspectives. I cannot live in the bubble of Church language, and of theological conceptions if I want to reach those who do not already know God and his body, the Church. At the same time, it also doesn’t work to try to use the culture’s particular (and current) definitions of ‘what is’ and ‘how it is’ and ‘why it is,’ to communicate the faith. We cannot, for example, explain the resurrection or a virgin birth, in scientific terms. And we don’t have to. Trying to do so is an error I believe comes from doubting God’s capacity to draw others to him and deifying our own intellectual capacities to bridge the gap between grace and nature.
What my cycling group taught me is that every aspect life belongs to God – whether in positive or negative witness to him – he takes all of it up. In having done this, he has set us free from the fear that God does not actually exist but is a figment of our collective anxiety, and the fear that we cannot accomplish our own salvation, or the salvation of others. And being set free from fear, we can actually step out of the ‘safety’ of the community in which we worship – the Church – into the world.
We can listen with the gifts of the Spirit that culminate in the concept of empathy (faith, hope and love). We can then find the common patterns of life, the common underpinning reasons – emotional, physical, experiential – that prevent people opening up to receive the grace of God there with them already, provident over all things. And having travelled with God throughout our own experiences, we can share these in response to the particular issues of another person’s life.
In this way we communicate the faith not in propositions to be memorized, or rules to be followed; but as a salve for suffering that is common to all, as an adventure of pursing the universal origin, truth and order of all things; as a pursuit of love in hope and faith that casts out the fear that prevents us from receiving the fullness of who we are.