I saw this title (Living Questions in Community) in a book I’m reading, though I haven’t read that chapter yet. But I know a bit what he’s getting at. One of my book clubs read a book called “Love Wins” by Rob Bell. It’s supposed to be a controversial book in Western Christian circles because the pastor questions the doctrine of hell or the dominant interpretation of it. His questions and his current understanding of the answers to those questions have upset a lot of people. He’s being called a universalist (which Universalist/Unitarians like), a blasphemer, a heretic, etc. So I’ve been watching somewhat, and yet completely fascinated.
What’s fascinating is not that he’s saying anything new (he’s not), but many of the people in Western Christianity aren’t exposed to the wide diversity of Christian thought and perspectives because only certain dominant ones are presented. Most people who see the entire spectrum are professors or seminarians, but not lay people. So what’s fascinating is that there is a man who wrote a set of books called “The Chronicles of Narnia.” He was a friend of J.R. Tolkien and his name is C. S. Lewis. Now C. S. Lewis is rather interesting to me because he is quoted by a lot of people in mainstream Christianity or who promote the dominant versions of it. Because of this, I was never eager to read him because I pretty much knew what he would say (I’ve read fiction works by him). So I decided to read him last year, and I was glad I did. He’s very different than I thought, and he thinks a lot of unconventional things, one among them is his understanding of hell. Lewis’s understanding of hell is very similar to Bell’s but Lewis never received (and doesn’t receive) a backlash like Bell received. That’s fascinating to me. It’s fascinating to me that people quote Lewis in some passages but ignore other parts of the same work or other works in which he may something quite controversial (to dominant forms of Western Christianity).
Now I don’t believe you can only quote someone if you agree with everything they said. That’s not a good policy. But I do think you should only quote someone if you agree with everything they said that is central to who they were and if the centrality of her message births the passage you’re quoting. Let me give an example. There have been a few conservative news commentators who have quoted Martin Luther King Jr. or have said they support his dream; however, at the same time they supported the war in Iraq. Now this is complete conjecture, but I’m going to make an educated conjecture. I think it’s quite fair to say that Martin Luther King Jr. would have opposed the war in Iraq giving his writings, his speeches, even his opposition to the Vietnam War. In fact, the strange thing about supporting part of his message (like the “Dream” speech) is that the dream speech is completely connected to his views about going to war in Vietnam, and I posit, Iraq, as well. Martin Luther King Jr. was a peace man, and he was a man who practiced the way of love. It was from that sensibility, and even more, that way of life that the “I have a dream” speech flowed and from that same understanding that I believe he would have opposed the war in Iraq (and probably Afghanistan).
So those occurrences in the news reminded me that I left out one characteristic about a church I would create or found. I want a place that understands how to live questions in community, a church with questions. I have thought about what that looks like. At first I thought it would be nice to have a board of judges who would review cases in which understandings of God would be challenged and that would make decisions on doctrinal amendments or clarifications (like the constitution; this process happens clumsily and inadvertently in religious groups like the Mormons). Such a board reminds me of the Supreme Court, but with the potential for abuse it reminded me of the Spanish Inquisition.
The main point is that some people have said that I am against institutions. That’s not true. I have worked to institutionalize good movements. That’s our hope. You start or join a social movement that seeks to create change to old institutions. Then one day the social movement is institutionalized and becomes the new institution. The new institution is celebrated because it is an improvement to the old institution. The new institution corrects the wrongs of the previous institution. But then what happens? Well, the new institution hasn’t arrived itself. But it thinks it has. So gradually it becomes more and more resistant to change, to the change that it initially institutionalized; thus, it becomes like the very institution it replaced, not in content but in how it manages the content, allows thought, and decides rules and doctrine. I wonder if you see what I’m saying.
I’m deathly afraid of this happening to me, that I grow up and run some organization or group that I started or that corrected or solved a problem in society. Then one day people in my organization want to make it better but I resist it and then I become the very person I used to fight against, but now, in a new generation. I saw this when I was a teacher at my innovative school, and I hated it. I hated that process, and I didn’t understand why it happens. I wonder if it has to do with the increasing distance that happens with institutionalization. One loses one’s “feet on the ground.” The ground perspective is always crucial.
So my dream is a system in which social movements become institutions that continue to meld and mold according to corrective social movements that show where the institution is lacking. Instead new institution after new institution, I want an ever-changing, never-complacent institution that continually births, promotes, educates, and questions itself through social movements and then answers, incorporates, and grows with those social movements birthing a new stage for a higher point of awareness and consciousness. That’s my hope.
Sometimes people think they you remain conservative is to cling to the message (the content) of the social movement that became institutionalized. In reality, to be conservative in the truest sense of the word (conserving the spirit of the institutionalized social movement) you must be willing to make the resulting institution better and respectfully question the new place you are at. In other words, you conserve the spirit of the movement; you remain faithful by betraying it, questioning it. It’s the fidelity of betrayal all over again. That’s my hope.