Tuesday, April 27, 2010

A Confession, Eccumenicism and Proximity

I have a confession. Talking to other Christians about faith, can at times, is more stressful than talking to other people from different religions. Perhaps it is because I have more at stakes – since the conservative, evangelical, substitution-atonement, Biblical literalist Christians will affect how my progressive, pluralist, liberation theology, historical-critical definition of Christianity at the very least for making the word Christian unintelligible. Or perhaps the reason discussion among Christians is so uncomfortable, is because while other faiths are strictly off limits to proselytize to, convincing other Christians of the truth of progressive Christianity seems to be allowed. At the heart of these conflicts and discomfort is the idea that I am right, and that when other people understand/believe/practice Christianity differently, they are wrong.

John Caputo, in What Would Jesus Deconstruct talks about “proximity.” It is understanding:
that the other person is a relation ‘without relation’ in a the sense that the other person is constituted by an interiority or an interior secret that we can never access, a secret inner self that we can never really reach or know. (Only God knows what is in the heart of each of us.)
While, another is deeply important for who we are and how we understand ourselves, our ability to every fully and completely understand the other is imperfect. While we can be close to other individuals, what goes on in the heart’s of another can never be fully communicated, just as what we say can never be fully understood.

Yet for Caputo, this is not a hardship, but a blessing. He explains that:
The relation with the other person is therefore a journey we never complete, where that incompleteness is not imperfection, but testimony to the perfect excess of the other, it is not a loss, but a source of endless novelty and discovery.
Knowing the other with absolute certainty would be boring, because you would be able to predict everything this other person does. It would not lead to any change for either of you, because there would be nothing that would challenge you enough to change. It’s like the computer at the end of War Games, running through each variable possibility for Thermonuclear War, and seeing that there are no winnable outcomes, and so the computer does nothing. Not seeing the future, not knowing completely what the other person will do gives that person the chance to surprise you, to engage you, and to help you grow.

This unknowingness is an invitation for engaging with that person and traveling on a path of relationship together. In exchange for understanding the person completely, we are given the opportunity to be affected by the other. Our relationship need not be a quick moment of perfectly boring understanding, but a life-long path of wonder and discovery.

While this works wonderfully for individuals, this creates problems for me when I start thinking of those individuals in terms of their Christian context, because it challenges me to change my understanding of how Christianity works for the other. You see, I think that I already know precisely how Christianity works and functions for a fundamentalist, and therefore I see their future in a blink of an eye and am bored (or frightened) by it. Yet this is not real knowledge, because I cannot fully understand what a fundamentalist thinks anymore than I can fully understand what a progressive Christian thinks (although I assume I know that too). I have closed off my own potential to engage that person because of my own false conviction that I know their heart. Through this, I refuse to let the other Christian teach me.

For Caputo, this journeying with another person is an act of risk. For me, there is a great deal of potential for being hurt by engaging with this other Christian voice, including the perception that my call is not to ordained ministry, because women cannot have authority over men. I know that this risk is relatively minor on the scale of how much people can hurt each other. Yet this journey is not just about risk, but also about love. The reason we are vulnerable to the risk, is because we do this with love. The reason that we are vulnerable to change, is because of how our love causes us to commit to that other person, both how we perceive them now and what they will grow to be, and how what they do to surprise us, will change us.

In proximity, what is “right” and “wrong” becomes less important. I stop claiming that I know what is “right” about Christianity, in order to learn about beauty, truth, and hope from the Christian Other. Ecumenicism then is not about uncomfortable, awkward moments when people start asking who’s allowed to bless and take communion/Eucharist/the sacrament, but instead a conversation about why remembering that in the past is important for Christians now. While I will never be able to fully understand what goes on in an evangelical’s mind, I will be able to recognize their journey as important to my own Christian path. It’s only when we stop assuming what is “right” about Christianity, but listen to the novelty from the pluralities of Christianities that Ecumenicism becomes possible.