by Eric Elnes
Note: This reflection, which engages last Sunday’s Darkwood Brew episode on the “Most High God,” was also offered this morning at Countryside Community Church (UCC) where we “graduated” 20 high school seniors. While you will come across certain references that apply just to Countryside and our seniors, the whole reflection is about you, me, and something I call “Convergence Christianity.”
It all starts with this 30 second video clip.
I. The Wide Open Road
This morning we’re celebrating our high school seniors at Countryside Church. Some were baptized here as infants. Now, all twenty are leaving the nest to attend college this fall. Some are staying close – attending UNO and Creighton. Others are flying off to more exotic locations. Like Kansas. Whatever the physical distance, the inner distance between high school and college could hardly be greater. If you’ve “been there, done that,” you know what I mean.
In high school, your world seems infinite in all directions, bounded only by your imagination … and certain parental controls over car keys and curfews. In college, you discover that the world you inhabited was really a bit small. More of a parking lot than wide open country.
Every thought you had has not only been thought before, but others have taken them much further down the road than you have. They have built whole cities and cultures upon such ideas, with different belief systems and philosophies that never even occurred to you.
In college, it’s like you’re given the keys to a fast car with a big engine. You peel out of the parking lot and explore the world that awaits you. I hope our seniors drive cars with airbags, and buckle up. You’re in for quite a ride! The road ahead is great fun, but full potholes, twists and turns. Sometimes you run into dead ends. And since there are lots of drivers on the road – your classmates and professors, among others – sometimes you run into each other. I hope you’ve got good insurance.
Of course, college isn’t only about being on the open road. The Philosophy Department will flash its neon sign, inviting you to stop for a meal at its roadside diner. There you may share a meal or two with the likes of Friedrich Nietzsche and Karl Marx, Albert Camus and Jacques Derrida, and so on. If you give them a chance, you’ll find them to be engaging company who ask challenging questions and offer illuminating insights. But eventually some will tell you that the faith you’ve developed here at Countryside is grand fiction, carefully constructed to keep your deepest fears at bay and woo you into complacency so that you’ll accept the great injustices of life without fighting against them. If you show promise, they may invite you to live with them in a great city they’ve constructed behind the diner where no gods exist but pure Reason and Logic; where true happiness, they say, can be achieved solely by force of will and enlightened intellect. You may want to bring a couple of antacids with you.
Further down the road, a roadside stand awaits. The Economics Department is selling organic produce grown only in the natural compost of the purest micro- and macro-economic theory. If you choose your produce carefully, it will be satisfying and fill you with healthy nutrients. As an Economics major, I myself feasted on much of this produce during college. If you enjoy the fruits of their labors enough, they may invite you to work on their farm. There, they show you how to raise crops free of the “artificial additives” of religion and faith. They’ll teach you how to minimize your beliefs and maximize your marginal utility, which, they say, is the key to true happiness.
Further down the road you’ll find all kinds of other roadside attractions, each with its different foods, ideas, and competing truth claims. Many will have signs clearly posted: “Leave your faith at the door,” and “No Skepticism, No Disbelief, No Service.”
Now, you may be thinking that I’m working up to a rant against “godless college.” Quite the opposite. College is hardly godless. And leaving your faith at the entrance to some of these roadside attractions in order to enter their realm on their own terms and learn from them can be tremendously beneficial, particularly if you remember to pick your faith back up on the way out.
The problem is, many college students get so excited by what they learn at these roadside attractions that they forget to pick their faith back up on the way out. Or, they realize that the faith they’d been consuming was immature and didn’t taste all that good, so they leave it behind. What they fail to realize is that the faith they checked at the door has been ripening in the sun. Faith matures at the same rate you do, even when you’re not actively tending it. Its flavors become more intense, satisfying, and nutritious.
So I encourage you to stop at every roadside attraction that interests you. Some of these roadside attractions will actually let you bring your faith inside. But many will not, and that’s okay. All you have to remember is that college is not meant for settling in at any of these places. It’s meant for exploration. And remember to pick your faith back up as you travel on. By the end of college, your faith will have grown from a single fruit into a formidable Tree of Life.
What makes me crazy about college is not “godless professors,” but the lack of opportunity for much of any kind of meaningful engagement with a mature, progressive Christian faith. Where are the roadside stands operated by people who believe strongly and passionately in God’s love and grace? In their place, you find roadside stands operated by Christians who set signs out like, “Come Inside or Go to Hell.”
Where is the mainline, progressive church on college campuses? We proclaim a God who loves us beyond our wildest imagination, and speak of the privilege and responsibility of working for a better world, yet we have no trouble abandoning our college students just as they are experiencing the collision of competing philosophies and world-views, the shedding of old ways and the adopting of new ones. This is a time when students are struggling with their faith, and wrestling with deep existential questions regarding who they are, why they’re here, and what they’re to do with their time and talent.
Over the years, we’ve pulled funding – and quite frankly, interest – from most college ministries on nearly every campus in the nation. Even when a Mainline church is located right next to campus, few churches consider “outreach” to be anything more than putting an ad in the campus newspaper, then completely ignoring any college student who responds to it.
III. Convergence Christianity
Now, lest you think that I’m completely fixed on ruining Baccalaureate Sunday … I can tell you the news is better than it appears.
First off, there are exceptions to the rule. Some colleges do offer robust campus ministries, and some churches do an outstanding job of reaching out to students. Second, Countryside itself is an exception. While we’re far from perfect, we do make an effort to stay in touch with our college students, particularly through our Faith Singers and COYO ministries. Presently, our Pastoral Care Coordinator, Margie Bolte, is assembling a group of folks who are interested specifically in strengthening our connection and support. We’re in the fray with college students.
Recently Frank Schaeffer, the former fundamentalist leader who spoke last fall at a Center for Faith Studies event, wrote an article about college life in the Huffington Post. He spoke of the waves and waves of young Christian evangelicals who are leaving the Christianity of their youth behind and searching for form of faith and practice that is more inclusive, intellectually honest, and generous-spirited. He openly wondered why more Mainline, progressive churches haven’t stepped in, since, according to Frank, this is exactly what they’re hungering for. Frank should know. He used to promote the very ideology he’s now trying to unravel and has become progressive theologically himself.
Having explored the landscape extensively, Schaeffer says he can find only three organized, progressive outreach efforts that hold any promise on college campuses across the country. First on his list was Darkwood Brew
As much as Frank Schaeffer may think that Darkwood Brew represents the leading edge for college outreach and support, Darkwood Brew is not the leading edge of Countryside Community Church. Countryside Church is the leading edge of Darkwood Brew. Darkwood Brew is doing nothing that isn’t directly informed by our everyday life and practice at Countryside. Darkwood Brew simply presents it differently. It’s not a church, but a roadside stand selling fruit that has been planted, grown, harvested and offered freely.
What is so cutting-edge about Countryside? Again, we’re far from perfect, but I believe that Countryside is actively living out a form of Christian faith that is key to the future of Christianity in America. I would call this form Convergence Christianity. In essence, Convergence Christianity is Christian faith that is being lived by post-liberals and post-evangelicals who are looking for something that their native faith has not provided. Post-evangelicals have found their tradition too theologically rigid and doctrinaire. As Schaeffer observes, they are looking for a more generous-spirited, open and inclusive expression of Christian faith. Post-liberals have found their tradition to be too politically rigid and doctrinaire, and are looking for a faith that more fully claims Jesus, the Bible, prayer, and personal faith development as high values without drifting into pious platitudes or rigid dogma.
Convergence Christianity is what emerges when post-liberals and post-evangelicals take off in their cars, hit a few potholes, spin out of control, and collide with each other. They get out of their cars ready for a fight, each blaming the other for the accident. But when they whip out their insurance cards, they discover they have something in common – the same “insurance agent.” Perhaps they also discover that they were both headed to the same movie, just by different routes that happened to intersect at the collision point. As they walk together on the way to the movie, they discover other reasons for attraction – not just their commonalities, but their differences. Each person is in touch with an awareness that the other has longed for. Convergence happens! A new expression of faith develops that is greater than the sum of its parts.
IV. The Most High God
The ancient Hebrew faith was created through just such a series of collisions and convergences. You may have noticed something curious about the passage we read from this morning, which is one of the oldest in the Hebrew Bible. Deuteronomy 32:8 reads,
When the Most High apportioned the nations, when he divided humankind, he fixed the boundaries of the peoples according to the number of the gods. [Deut 32:8]
Does it strike you as strange for the Bible to contain references to existence of other gods? It might be, but the early faith of Israel was not monotheistic. Like their neighbors, early Israel believed not in one God, but many. Only, in contrast to their neighbors, Israel believed that the only power and authority these other gods had was given to them by the Most High God. For Israel, this God was Yahweh. A number of passages from the Bible confirm this view: passages from Genesis to Judges, from Deuteronomy to the Psalms [E.g., Deuteronomy 4:19, 29:26; Genesis 1:26; Judges 11:24; Psalm 82]
Strictly speaking, this form of belief is called monolatry. It is polytheistic in so far as it acknowledges the existence of other gods, but it is mono-theistic in the sense that believes that only one God holds any true power.
The purpose of this sermon is not to trace how Israel moved from monolatry to classic monotheism – which happened surprisingly late in Israel’s history. But it is interesting to speculate about how Israel developed a monolatric faith – interesting especially because it has important implications for Convergence Christianity.
In the earliest days, the Hebrew people were a hodge-podge of various peoples who occupied the hill country of ancient Palestine, each of whom had different values, customs and beliefs. About the only thing that held them together as a people was a belief in a similar High God, which they originally called “El” but who eventually became known as “Yahweh.”
Because their territory was small, they tended to collide with each other regularly. They collided over land usage, water rights, ownership of cattle, crops, women (!), and so on. When these collisions took place, both sides were ready for a fight. But, as in the Allstate commercial, something stopped them from fighting. In those days, when you were in dispute with someone, you called upon your high god for help. In effect, when they whipped out their “insurance cards,” they discovered that they were covered by the same “agent.” Their love and respect for this “agent,” who had freed many of them from bondage in Egypt, was greater than their anger at their opponent. So they would become friends and collaborators. They married their children to each other, and so on.
In so doing, these ancient Israelites discovered that it was not just their commonalities that attracted them to each other, but their differences – like in a marriage. Each understood Yahweh a little differently, and some of these differences were appealing. One knew Yahweh as a God of Justice. Another Yahweh as a God of Peace. Another knew Yahweh as a transcendent God who inhabits the highest heaven. Another knew Yahweh as an immanent God who walks among us. As more collisions took place over time, so did convergence. With every convergence, what resulted was higher understanding of God, and a closer relationship with God and each other.
When Israel speaks of its faith in the Most High God, its speaking from the standpoint of centuries of collisions and convergences, resulting in a very deep understanding of a God who could wrap God’s arms around all the peoples of the earth, despite their differences.
One important implication of Israel’s monolatric faith is that they did not feel the need to evangelize the Marduk worshipers of the Mesopotamia, or the Baal worshipers of Canaan or the Chemosh worshipers among the Amonites. To be sure, they wanted no part in worshipping these other gods themselves. But there were no ancient Hebrew equivalents of the Billy Graham Crusade going on outside Israel. Likely, Israel’s deep intuition was that, given enough collisions and convergences within these other faiths, the Most High God who would come into view would look a lot like Yahweh. So they trusted not in evangelism, but convergence, which had been their own path.
V. Another Roadside Attraction
When I look at faith that is being lived here at Countryside and in various places around the country, I see a process happening that is similar to that experienced in ancient Israel. Our world has grown smaller. Christians are colliding more and more. And when Christians learn not to fight with each other, but to understand one another, a greater faith emerges. Or converges.
I think that Countryside has essentially set up a roadside ice cream stand along Pacific Street, and on the internet. What we’re offering is chocolate/vanilla swirl ice cream (only with nutritional value). In a swirl cone, both flavors contribute to a greater effect, without becoming indistinguishable from each other. Countryside reflects classic “flavor” Christian liberalism through its commitments to social justice, inclusion, non-literal interpretations of the Bible, separation of church and state, appreciation of scientific ways of knowing. Countryside also reflects the “flavor” of classic evangelical commitments to prayer, Bible study, Jesus, developing a personal spiritual path, and an understanding that outreach to the spiritually homelessness is as important as outreach to the physically homeless. It’s not that any of these values were necessarily absent from the other tradition. It’s just that both traditions tended to emphasize one set of values at the expense of the other – and pile a whole lot of baggage on top. Convergence Christianity strives to drop the baggage and grasp the blessings.
Mark my word: Convergence is key to the future, not simply for Countryside Church, but for Christianity in America. It stands right the heart of the New Great Awakening. So Countysiders, may you COLLIDE all the more! Graduating seniors, may you also COLLIDE! And may convergence continue until all small understandings of God are left behind, and we come to know and worship the MOST HIGH GOD together.
For Further Exploration:
If you would like to explore this theme further, you may watch the 5/13/12 episode of Darkwood Brew, which was devoted to exploring Deuteronomy 32 and the “Most High God,” featuring Dr. Leong Seow, Professor of Old Testament Languages and Literature at Princeton Theological Seminary (www.darkwoodbrew.org). Small groups may wish to use the small group video resource from this episode. You may also wish to consider the following questions:
I. What was your faith experience during the years immediately following high school, whether you attended college or not? Were there significant challenges, shifts, advances, or setbacks? What of your high school faith has remained/changed?
II. What did you find helpful or unhelpful in your experience of Christianity after graduating from high school?
III. How could we do a better job at connecting with our graduating seniors and supporting them during their college years? How about after they return from college, if they find themselves at Countryside?
IV. Does Dr. Elnes’ description of “Convergence Christianity” resonate with you? How?/How not?
V. What do you make of the discovery that Israelite faith was not originally monotheistic? Can you find other “gods” we tend to worship today (wealth, career, family, etc)?
VI. What do you consider to be the primary “baggage” of liberal and evangelical Christianity? What are their primary gifts? How might combining these make for a more robust expression of Christian faith in America – and in your own life?