I'm teaching a college seminar called "Ideas of God in Scripture and Literature" in which an important discipline for me is to try to get some distance and come fresh to the texts of Hebrew Scripture, the New Testament and Qu'ran before we launch into analysis of some literary works. Today we did a class exercise giving an overview of monotheistic traditions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and students were asked to report on a tradition unfamiliar to them, based on some readings, and say what they learned. It was interesting to me (because it was in the reading, but students didn't pick up on it) that the thing that was left off the list of important things to know about Christianity was the centrality of Jesus for Christians, and the identification of Jesus's message with God's love for all humanity.
What stood out for them instead were the various conflicts -- the Council of Nicaea, the different ways of understanding atonement, the branches of Christianity -orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, Protestantism and the sectarian groups within Protestantism. There's a lot to explore in our tradition, a lot of conversation with the mystery. But it is distressing that we are known mainly for our controversies (The other question that came up was "concupiscience" and the whole idea, starting with St. Augustine, that original sin is connected to the sexual act - that sex is bad (therefore Mary had to be a virgin so Jesus could be born of someone pure) -- an idea that just makes no sense to me given Scripture's affirmation of the goodness of creation and bodily life. It's pretty sad that this is what we're known for. (I won't even go into the fights in my own denomination about whether we can stay together while disagreeing about human sexuality).
Judaism and Islam, on the other hand, were identified largely according to their practices, in student reporting-back. It makes me think: what practices identify us, as Christians? how clear it is it that we live in a certain way, or engage in certain practices, because we are followers of Jesus and we are responding in joy to his call? Doctrine is interesting and endlessly discussable and debatable. I love that debate and discussion. But what this post-Christendom world mainly knows about practicing Christians is that they're the ones who say, "Believe what I believe or you're going to hell - I have the truth and you don't." And that we fight a lot over whose beliefs are right, who's in and who's out. ( In contrast to the New Testament's focus on who's in, especially in Paul's letters (See Galatians 3:28). What practices come out of, and demonstrate, our living faith in a Risen Lord? What do we do because we are followers of Jesus, and how does that reflect the joy we find in responding to His call? Who is Jesus for us? How is all this good news?
These are real questions that the world has about us, as Christians. The early Church father Tertullian wrote of those who saw the early Christian communities as practicing a countercultural way of life and exclaimed, "See how they love one another!" Does anyone say that about us now, distinguishing us from the world around us?
Something to ponder.
- Kathleen Henderson Staudt
- I work as a teacher, poet and spiritual director at a number of institutions in the DC area. My teaching focuses in various ways on writing, poetry, Spirituality and Christian vocation and ministry - especially from the point of view of the laity. I also offer classes and retreats encouraging people to explore their inner lives, engage their creativity and reflect on their beliefs about God, vocation, and how we can discern and pursue new ways to transform our broken world. I enjoy speaking of faith in the secular academy as well as reminding those preparing for ministry in the Church that our primary purpose is to love and serve the world beyond the church's doors. I love helping people to grow in faith and to find their own voices, and I also love encouraging them to use their minds. I see no contradiction between these impulses, believing as I do that faith, reason and creativity work together.