The greatest challenge facing the church today is keeping God at its center, Yale Divinity School Professor Miroslav Volf told a national gathering of Episcopal bishops here.
"Our experiences with God and the attitudes toward religion of the broader culture we inhabit have made some of us hesitate to place God in the center of our efforts," Volf told about 132 bishops assembled to focus on themes of reconciliation and collaboration.
Volf, a Croatian-born theologian who has taught largely in evangelical seminaries, reminded the bishops of their role as theologians in local and wider contexts.
The House of Bishops, which convenes twice annually, as well as every three years at the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, was expected to address ways of deepening collegiality. A vote of General Convention last summer affirmed an openly gay bishop whose ministry is opposed by nine dioceses aligned in a six-month-old network of affiliation.
"More 'conservative' ones among us have retreated into the fortresses built with the hard stone of rigid orthodoxy," said Volf, a parishioner at Christ Episcopal Church in Guilford, Connecticut. "Fundamentalist parrots that we sometimes are, we act as if just repeating old formulas will make them true and somehow alive. More 'liberal' ones among us have tied their fortunes to what is fashionable in the wider culture."
His remarks kicked off the five-day meeting, during which the bishops will also hear from author Richard Rodriguez, a Pacific News Service editor in San Francisco.
"We have become ersatz philosophers, ersatz cultural critics, ersatz sociologists, ersatz psychologists, ersatz social workers, ersatz politicians, ersatz whatever, hoping that giving a bit of religious garnish to the dishes prepared perfectly well with non-Christian ingredients will somehow make our work relevant," Volf said. "We have kept at arms' length the unpredictable and sometimes terrifying living God who alone is the source of all good-and made ourselves as theologians pretty much inconsequential," Volf said.
"These strategies are self-destructive: as dogmatic parrots we are agents of our faith's self-banalization; as ersatz intellectuals, we are agents of its self-secularization. In either case, we have robbed the Christian faith of its power and relevance."
Learning with the mind of Christ
Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold said such observations are "grist for the mill" in the ongoing work of reconciliation in the church and the world. "Through it we discover that in some sense we are all part of the cosmic Christ who embraces all," he said. "We learn to look at our various concerns with the mind of Christ."
During the daylong conversation, Volf returned to his experiences coming of age in communist Yugoslavia. The son of a Pentecostal minister, he witnessed the ethnic tensions between the Croats and Serbs. At Yale, he is the Henry B. Wright Professor of Theology, and has been a visiting professor at Evangelical Theological Faculty in Osijek, Croatia. Among his books are: Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness and Reconciliation (Abingdon, 1996) and After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity (Eerdmans, 1998).
Embracing differences enriches our lives, he said.
"We are intertwined by the bonds of economy, culture, and family. Severing these bonds can be worse than trying to live together, as the example of the war in Bosnia shows," he said. "But the more important reason is that living with the other in peace is an expression of our God-given humanity.
"We are created not to isolate ourselves from others but to engage them, to contribute to their flourishing, as we nurture our own identity and attend to our own well-being. For Christians, the most important reason for being willing not only to live with others but positively to embrace them is the character of God's love as displayed in Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ died for all human beings because he loved them all."
Embracing the other demands that Christians love, not only the other, but also the enemy. This can be accomplished by "inverting perspectives" or seeing the other through their own eyes, and by seeing ourselves through their eyes, as well.
"There are moral reasons for this inverting of perspectives-commitments to truth, to justice, to life in peace with others-all require it," Volf said. "We cannot live truthful, just, and peaceful lives with others in a complex world if the only perspective we are willing to entertain is our own.
"It takes a willingness to entertain the possibility that we may be wrong and others right in their assessment of themselves, a leap of imagination to place ourselves in their position, a temporary bracketing of our own understanding of them, and receptive attention to their own story about who they see themselves to be."
He cited the debate over stereotypes between the Christian West and the Muslim East as an example.
"Where the West may see itself as prosperous, the East may see it as decadent. Where the West may see itself as freedom-loving, the East may see it as oppressive. Where the West may see itself as rational, the East may see it as calculating. It is important for the West to see itself from the perspective of the East, and to inquire seriously as to the adequacy of its own self-perception in light of the way it is perceived. The same, of course, holds true for the East."
Inverting perspectives leaves room for disagreement, but doesn't dictate war or separation.
"This is what citizens in well-functioning democracies do: they argue, they vote, and then, if some of them don't like the result, they argue and vote again. They live in peace and cooperate, their fundamental disagreements notwithstanding, and they can do so out of their own properly religious resources," Volf said. "Everything in the Christian faith itself speaks in favor of this, from the simple and explicit injunction to live in peace with all people to the character of God as triune love."
Making space for others enriches the texture of our own identities and places God at the center of our relationships, rather misplaced faith in power and possessions.
"Most of our society's problems-from economy and politics to academe, from religion and family to friendship and courtship-are traceable to misplaced faith and misplaced love. So many of the problems that trouble us as persons, communities, and nations stem from our trusting power and desiring either to acquire or to give ourselves to finite things."
Revolution of Trust, Love
Trusting God, however, brings about a "revolution" of both trust and love.
"It should matter to us more than anything else what God might think of our work," Volf said. "And yet, more often than not as we speak or write we think to ourselves: "What will our colleagues say? How will this or that interest group react? How spirited or how long will the applause be? How will our book do on the amazon.com rankings list? Will it get this or that award? We speak and write to get approval from an audience, to impress reviewers, to satisfy customers. If we continue down this path, we'll soon be theologizing the way some elected officials govern in western democracies: by polling religious preferences of our constituencies."
When God is at the center of our lives, "Power services justice, rather than justice being sacrificed to power," Volf said. "When we love God rather than possessions, we will place possession of goods in proper relation to love of neighbor."
Such trust is possible because ultimately, Christians are pilgrims, defined not by the journey, but by the destination.
"Because Christ defines our identity in the primary way, Christians can confidently ... engage without fear in the give and take of the relationship with others that marks an inclusive identity.
"What will be the result of this engagement? Like Abraham's, it will be a journey of faith and hope toward the land which one has not yet seen."