Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Wild Space of Christian Community

At the beginning of the twentieth century theologian Karl Barth raised the question of a domesticated God: a God tamed, confined, and muted by humanity’s drive to control and domination.  Only a few years later Europe saw that the progressive domestication of God did not lead to freedom but to the furnace and the gulag – not to the heavenly city of the eighteenth century Enlightenment philosophers, but to the hell of the twentieth century totalitarians.

The church has been just as afraid of an undomesticated, wild God as the world has been. When Moses heard the voice of the Lord in the desert at Sinai and asked for a name he was told, “I will be who I will be” – deal with it!  When Jesus tried to talk about the basileos of God he had to reach for verbal and enacted parables because this movement’s exact outlines could never be fully anticipated.  When the Holy Spirit came on Pentecost the early church began an unpredictable “wild goose” chase, starting new Jesus-communities everywhere they were led.

Through its institutions, its theology, and its political compromises the church has continually attempted to domesticate this untamable deity.  But every once in awhile the gospel escapes into the streets as with the Pentecostal movement at Azusa Street in 1906, the Catholic Workers in depression era New York City, or the civil rights movement in Montgomery When this happens the gospel always takes at least part of the church with it, and plants new seedlings of the Spirit everywhere it goes.

Despite the multiple challenges facing our planet it is becoming harder and harder to dream an alternative future for our world.  Political polarizations, economic integrations, and social fragmentations increase our sense of futility and despair.  There seems to be less and less room to maneuver, fewer and fewer opportunities to experiment with new ways of living and being. Those who might initiate unilateral actions such as Dr. King or Dorothy Day did in their day must struggle against excessive government regulation, oversight, and surveillance. Economic overshoot and environmental blowback are closing windows of social change that once appeared permanently open. Any community seeking to address our enmeshment and addiction to the global economy soon discovers not only our own internal dependencies but also the demanding external inducements to remain inside the system.

We are all born into a circle of community.  That first circle may be as small as a mother and child. We soon enter into other circles: extended family, school, church, work, nation.  All of these circles shape and misshape us.  They teach us about friendship, loyalty, and love.  They teach us about estrangement, betrayal, and anger.  As a result we all suffer from “affection deficit disorder” and have trouble forming and maintaining loving commitments.  Our affections drift and fade.  Our loves are often more compulsive than intentional, more obsessional than faithful. 

Christian community should be an alternative community where we learn new ways of living and loving – ways that reshape our selves into the “abundant lifers” that God intended.  But rather than bringing us freedom many of our churches and communities only provide alternative forms of domestication.  They are not about freeing God’s Spirit within us; but binding, taming, and stifling that Spirit so that the institutional structures will remain settled and unchanged. The current struggle of women and homosexuals for equal recognition and standing with the male heterosexual establishment is only the most notable example.

Sallie McFague  originally and Emmanuel Katongole  more recently have talked about the importance of “wild spaces”.  Rather than focusing on participation in the halls of political power (be it governmental or denominational), or evangelism among the corporate and academic elite, the church should focus on becoming a “wild space” on the margins of the dominant culture.   In these wild spaces we could develop the skills to live lives that don’t fit societal stereotypes or conventions.  A wild space is the place where we can question social norms and imagine new alternatives.  The church must find the “rifts” in contemporary culture where we can reinhabit a new way of being human on this earth.

Hiking in Wyoming a few years ago I was amazed and awed at it’s natural beauty.  It was a wild beauty - most beautiful where it was most untouched by human hands.  A wild space is not a disorderly space, but a differently ordered space. It is an order that looks like disorder only to those who are overly domesticated and tamed. Wild spaces encourage, allow, and empower us to imagine alternative ways of living.  Without wild spaces we are doomed to a deeper domestication, perpetually constrained by the circles that misshaped us in the first place.  Wild spaces are where we are free to be different, to experiment, to imagine, to risk, to dare, to dream, to play.

When the Christian church first emerged inside the shell of imperial Rome it created a wild space. The early Christians acknowledged their Hebrew faith and Hellenistic thought but exhibited a cavalier disregard for many of the boundaries set by both. What we see today as "our tradition" was once an expression of social trajectories that took people outside of “their tradition”. For example, the apostle Paul today seems conservative, yet in his day he was a social innovator, creating and discovering new church practices as he went along. Those who create wild spaces today may not stay in step with Paul, but they can use Paul to stay in step with the improvisatory Spirit that inspired him.

If we are to have any hope of faithful witness in the world today Christian community must become a wild space for the Spirit.   Christian community must become a place where we can resist and reshape our lives according to the freedom we have in Christ (Galatians 2:4) – a place where we are being reshaped into the transformed nonconformists and creative extremists that Dr. Martin Luther King used to preach about.

This will primarily be a work of the Christian imagination; however,  our imaginations have also been shaped and misshaped.  They have been domesticated, tamed, and disordered.  The proliferation of science fiction books and movies indicate that we find it easier to imagine an alternative universe on a planet millions of light years away than we do to imagine a different world right here on planet earth.  

If we are to reorder that domesticated imagination then the practice of worship may be the place for us to start. John D Roth wrote that “How we live is always an expression of what we worship.  Ethics is an extension of worship.”   If that is true (and I think that it is) then worship becomes a foundational practice for establishing a wild space in which the Christian imagination can root and flourish. In Christian worship we reorder our imaginations in accordance with the alternative future of Jesus through the telling of foundational stories about an alternative community no longer living according to the domestication of the world, the flesh, and the devil, but “being transformed by the renewal of our minds” (Romans 12:2).

Christian communities should be wild spaces where we are free to imagine new undomesticated ways of living out our faith: worshiping, singing, dancing, playing, working, loving in ways that to the world may look "uncivilized" and perhaps even "wild”; and yet are true expressions of our freedom in Christ and our liberation in the Holy Spirit.  We will need to take seriously the conforming forces of the global economy that capitalize on everything we do. We will need to address our historic failures around gender, class and race. We will need  to acknowledge that a theological inheritance that divorced us from the natural world and our physical bodies may not be able to lead us back into a reconciled relationship with either one. 

Living into a wild space is not an invitation to certainty or safety, but to uncertainty, insecurity and (if we have the heart and head for it) adventure.

[This was first a talk at the Monday Night Seminar for Reba Place Fellowship in January, 2011. Then a longer version was posted on Jesus Radicals in February, 2011. An edited and adapted shorter version under a different title will appear in Geez Magazine (Number 28), Winter 2012 on the theme of "Worship and Anarchy".]