Speaking confidently, listening humbly
I was talking to a friend the other day who told me that his first impression of our community was that it was a little anxious about the idea of Christianity as a movement and a people and a force, but totally confident about how to apply the beliefs of our faith, especially as they express themselves in material circumstances. Put another way, it was hard for them to name themselves as Christians, I suppose due to whatever perception they think Christians have in the world, or maybe we bought the narrative that Jesus is white. But when it came to applying Christianity to the world, especially the social gospel, our people had no difficulty. They could name the evils of racism, sexism, environmental degradation with no issue whatsoever. And sometimes even with little nuance for disagreement. But the generous orthodoxy, to use a well-worn phrase, with which they spoke of Christianity allowed for so much nuance that it seems to give off an anxious vibe about publicly claiming Christ.
I was surprised at what he noticed because that hasn’t been my experience, and he admitted, researcher as he is, that his experience was largely anecdotal, so he took it with a grain of salt. But it made me think of how we say certain things loudly and certain things quietly and what that means for us as Christians.
On one hand, it might be OK to speak your truth and revelation as confidently as you can, and not worry so much about whether it is complete or not since we are part of a body, the Body of Christ, and we don’t have to play every role. But on the other, we may be missing out on an opportunity to share our truth because we so sheepishly communicate it. Alternatively, we may communicate our passionate truth too loudly without giving anyone a chance to hear or understand it. I think it’s a hard balance to play, to be able to speak confidently, while also listening humbly, but I think it matters as we seek to see God in the world and understand each other.
A lot of trouble over a cartoon mermaid
For example, Disney recently announced that Halle Bailey is cast as Ariel in the upcoming Disney live-action re-imagination of the classic cartoon movie Little Mermaid. I think Internet outrage might be fake half the time, but people were really upset online.
They didn’t think that a Dutch Mermaid (even though there are black Dutch people) could be anything other than a red-haired white girl. I was kind of surprised there was such a commitment to the race of a mermaid. “Why can’t they cast a real mermaid,” someone joked. I think part of the outrage is due to things like implicit bias, but I didn’t want to reduce it to racism alone. Or just say, “they’re being racist” and move on. There are other factors. Maybe they feel left behind. But I think the other part is about an understanding of explicitly how something is supposed to work, an inflexible commitment to what we think of as “right.” The Little Mermaid is a red-haired white girl forever and if you change that fact you change the whole story, and maybe someone’s life!
I’m sympathetic to that point of view because I know for a lot of us, we need some grounding and attachment for us to feel secure and known. We need parents that are there for us in consistent predictable ways, for example, and if they aren’t that changes a lot of us. We feel it and it is painful. So, understanding a commitment to how things are and always were and why can plague us.
But it’s peculiar to start projecting that onto the entire world so that nothing ever changes in order so you feel secure. It’s particularly evident when you start yelling to strangers on the Internet about a fictional representation of a mythical creature. Something’s up, and it’s not strictly prejudice.
People have different needs, so we should embrace diversity
I’m extending that to how people view their faith in Jesus and how God is working in the world. People have written volumes of books throughout time about the precise nature and being of God in the world, and have exact and formulaic understandings of how this is all supposed to work. And they focus down to the doctrinal minutia. I love it. I read it and I engage with it. And some people hold so tightly to that theology that they can’t dare to be disturbed in it. There’s room for that sort of understanding of the world and I have something to learn from it too, to be honest. I have close friends and family that need to have a view of God like that to cope with their lives. I remember speaking to my mother about how important it was for her to have a meticulously sovereign God who controlled everything, and how much disarray her life would be spun into if she started to change that. She might lose her faith if weren’t for that.
I wanted to listen with some empathy before jumping to judgment. I think that sort of posture is important for a lot of people at different stages of their lives and faiths, and I’m OK with that. In fact, it’s often a great starting point to faith. People need some concreteness to stand on, and the work of Christian theologians over centuries and the tradition that follows is comforting.
Of course, many of us know that such rigidity doesn’t lead to a lot of flexibility. For some, it may be what preserves their faith (like mom), and yet for others it doesn’t work at all. Especially mom’s children. And so as we grow, and if our faith doesn’t because it’s so contained, we can lose our faith in pursuit of something new. So I want to hold both in hand.
Our glass may be dark, but God’s love endures forever
I think we have a particular expression of our faith that can co-exist with other expressions of our faith too. In God, in Christ, there’s a universal truth that no one has a monopoly on, so we’re humble enough to keep listening to where the Spirit is going next, but we also have confidence to know that God has given us a particular vision for how to express this truth now. We tell our part of the story because it’s what we have, it’s what we are given. This universal truth is particular enough that it distinguishes itself from false narratives, or put another way, lies. But it’s also generous enough that I think we can tell our story with a sort of open posture. With what the Apostle Paul calls through a “glass darkly.”
For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.—1 Corinthians 13:12
We tell our part of in this collective artwork that we call the revelation of the Kingdom of God with humility, and with earnestness. The work we do can’t be hidden or its purpose is defeated. It must be broadcasted in ways that are receivable and knowable. As I said above, there a universality to it, and Paul makes that universality plain in this chapter, even.
[Love] bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. —1 Corinthians 13:7-8a
Of course, we see this evident all over the Bible. The theme of the whole Bible may very well be “God’s love endures forever.” So if love is the defining characteristic of this universal truth, and Christ embodies this love in his incarnation, manifestation, crucifixion, and resurrection, I think we have to be generous with both our contribution of collective revelation, but also with other people. There is a universal truth in Christ, in love, that binds us all together. But its intention is to hold us together and move us together.
Part of our collective revelation of what God is doing is knowing that it is continually revealed. It’s not static, it’s not forever. It’s not a red-haired white girl mermaid for eternity. We are called to move with what the Spirit is doing next. We keep listening and wanting to grow with where God is going in our world, where we see through a glass darkly.
We understand that people need concreteness, and we offer that in a practical community, made up of real people.
God reveals Godself in many ways and I want to keep opening my eyes to them, while being proud of how God has revealed Godself to me and to us. I think we generally err on being arrogant about our own experiences, or so self-effacing we can’t even say what’s going on in our lives without feeling like we’re oppressing someone. We could let our cynicism speak for us, or let our arrogance dominate others. Let’s hold to what God has given us, allow dialogue to bind us, listen to the cloud of witnesses across time and space, and move with where the Spirit is going next.