“Would it be ok if I came to your church on Sunday?” she asked. “I’m not even sure what I believe.”
For the past 400 years or so, when Western Christianity split into Protestants and Catholics, faith has been ordered in a particular way. So writes Diana Butler Bass, a scholar of the history, culture, and politics of religion, in her book, Christianity after Religion. That order of faith was first, belief–you had to figure out what you believed, which typically followed along the lines of the creeds and confessions of the church. Then you learned the practices of that belief–how to pray, to worship, to give alms, to order your life. And only then, if you had passed the first two steps correctly, you belonged. (P. 201) This was the Age of Belief, as Harvey Cox calls it. Believing, behaving, belonging. That was the order of things.
It wasn’t always so. Before then, Butler Bass writes, “Christians understood that faith was a matter of community first, practices second, and belief as a result of the first two.” (203)
In the reading from the first chapter of the gospel of John, which Ernie read for us, Jesus notices that two of John the Baptist’s disciples are following him, so Jesus asked them, “What are you looking for?” They, in turn, asked Jesus, “Teacher, where are you staying?” Kind of an odd question, asking for his address. But Jesus responds, “Come and see.”
“Come and see.” That’s essentially what I said to the woman who had asked me if she could come to “my” church on Sunday. “Come and see. You’ll be in good company,” I told her, the company of people who are in the process of figuring out what they believe, not always coming up with the same answers, and yet we live in community together, caring for one another, caring for others. Come and see.
In the last 20 years, Diana Butler Bass notes, people are expressing a longing for an experience of God, rather than a statement about God. They are longing for an experience that connects them with a deeper sense of themselves and the Divine, a sense of belonging to something greater than themselves. This, suggests Harvey Cox, is the beginning of the Age of the Spirit, where the order of faith is reversed–belonging, behaving, believing.
Now, we know that New Englanders are skeptical about “deep spiritual experiences.” Vermont is the least religious of all the 50 states, and Butler Bass points out that the decline of religious institutions is greatest in those quadrants, like New England, which are most resistant to deep, personal experiences.
But we do value neighborliness. People may not want to “join,” to become members, but they are willing to join in. We do value working together to help those in need, as evidenced most publicly after Tropical Storm Irene or in any number of other community efforts. “Who is my neighbor?” is a great starting point with deep roots in our Christian tradition. “Come and see. Come join us in what we are doing.” Come join me in this project we’ve got going to simplify our lives, to care for the earth, to advocate for more sustainable development and policies. Or come join us in making dinner for our community. Or come join our family group that’s collecting toys and books for homeless families. Or come join in our efforts to live out the Beloved community that Martin Luther King Jr. talked about. That’s what we hope our new “structure” will encourage us to do. Wouldn’t it be great if every one of us heard ourselves saying to somebody, “Come and see”?!
And as we are in community with one another, the disciples’ question, “Where are you staying?” gets translated, “How do you live together? How do you treat people? How do you shape your lives? How do you practice doing what you’re doing? How resilient are those practices? How do you behave?
And finally, in the midst of those relationships and as we practice those practices, the question arises, Who is God in our midst? How do we understand our experiences of the Divine? What are our convictions? That’s when we might have conversations around a dinner table that include sharing some of those convictions–”I am of the conviction that God is love, that all are welcome, that children shouldn’t go to bed hungry, that the earth is a sacred trust, that… who knows what else?” “We’ve never written theology with Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, and Hindus as neighbors,” Butler Bass says (Conference, 4/13/13) “We’ve never written theology in a technologically-connected world, with climate change pressing in upon us…. We’re the opening act [she says] of another couple hundred years to come, so let’s start well…”
“Come and see,” Jesus said to John’s disciples. He didn’t sit them down and go over the fine points of difference between his theology and John’s. He simply invited them to come and see, see where and how I live.
We really are at the beginning…which of course also feels to some of us, maybe all of us some of the time, that we’re at the end of something else–a familiar way of doing things, perhaps, a safe harbor in the midst of changing seas. But the fact of the matter is, as the seas change, so do the harbors. It is, finally, only the One who invites us to “Come and see” who is confident that even the wind and the waves are not to be feared, that none of us will be lost, that the horizon is God’s as surely as the harbor was. “Come and see.”
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark