This is the tenth stop along the Prodigal Christianity Blog Tour. The book comes to us from David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw. If you haven’t read the rest of the posts, I suggest you do either as a refresher or as a summation of where we’re at. Here is a break down:
Signpost 1: Post-Christendom
Signpost 2: Missio Dei
Signpost 3: Incarnation
Signpost 4: Witness
Signpost 5: Scripture
Signpost 6: Gospel
Signpost 7: Church
Signpost 8: Prodigal Relationships
Signpost 9: Prodigal Justice
And now we are at Signpost 10: Prodigal Openness. Let us begin with an overview.
Where are we?
A common thread weaved throughout the whole of this work is that of our present circumstances. It does us no good to point a way forward if we are unaware of the ground we stand on. Where are we? is a good question to begin with as we get our bearings.
The answer to that question is that we are in the infant stages of post-Christendom in general and immersed in pluralism in particular. As Fitch and Holsclaw state,
This is the far country of the new post-Christendom cultures of North America, a place our parents and grandparents never knew. How are we to cross into these places where the grand story of God sending the Son has been forgotten? Where the language of salvation has been lost? Where the prejudice is now against Christianity because of past and present abuses? How do we witness to what God has done in Christ when people hear the uniqueness of Christ as intolerant? How can we be present among the many religions and cultures without losing who we are: the people of God, followers of the Son, and witnesses in the far country? (p. 149)
We are no longer in the days of a common story, practices, and overall understandings of the biblical narrative. Names of people and places that once pervaded the North American landscape have either vanished or have been hollowed out of our collective memory. Where there was once an overwhelming affiliation to all things Christian, there now stands a variety of all strands spiritual.
In the midst of this plurality it has seemingly become more and more confusing and complicated. How do we proclaim the uniqueness of Jesus while not being shunned or shunning others? Is there a way to move into the neighborhood without angering everyone we come into contact with? Furthermore, how do we remain open to the movement of God amidst this pluralism?
Fitch and Holsclaw beckon us to move deeper by “extending the incarnation and becoming an embodied witness.“
Stuck In the Middle With You
The other thread that runs straight through this book regards method. The authors have taken on conversation partners: the Neo-Reformed camp on the one hand and the Emergent church on the other. Through engagement with both groups, Fitch and Holsclaw seek a middle way which holds the tension between the two. In this Signpost, John Piper, Justin Taylor, and Tim Challies represent the Neo-Reformed; Tony Jones and Brian McLaren, the Emergent church.
Within Prodigal Openness, Fitch and Holsclaw describe the Emergent mentality via McLaren and Jones as one that “seeks the common good” through listening and conversing.
McLaren calls us into the humble way of following Jesus by walking beside other religions in search of a common good. In these ways, McLaren helps us see something wonderful: God is at work in the world, outside the church, even (dare we say it?) in other religions. We cannot predetermine where God is working. It therefore behooves us to be present among all people, listening, allowing God to work, and responding appropriately. (p. 151)
Unlike many before them, McLaren and Jones have not only been willing to participate in dialogue with members of other religions, in many cases they instigated it.
Nonetheless, is there not more to a Christian’s engagement with other religions than a posture of listening and mutual respect? Is not the mission of God more than working together for “the common good” as McLaren describes it? What would it look like to envision the place where we engage in mutual dialogue with people of other religions and cultures as the very site of the in-breaking kingdom?
Sitting and talking is essential to this in-breaking reign. But such a dialogue fails to follow the prodigality of the Son if it does not also bear witness to the power and authority of Christ, the Son of God, at work overcoming the powers of sin and death among us. (p. 151)
For Fitch and Holsclaw, the need to move beyond the McLaren and Jones’ dialogue is needed due its lack of “bringing a particular work of forgiveness, reconciliation, resurrection, and renewal” (p. 151).
In a similar manner, we are called to move beyond the practices often typified by the Neo-Reformed. Using the Rob Bell fiasco from a few years ago, the authors tell of the reactionary attitude that overwhelmed blogs, tweets, and counterpoint books due to Bell’s Love Wins. People like Piper, Taylor, and Challies were some of the main proponents of this. The theological arguments which came out of that event – and, again, much of it came prior to the book’s release – exposed both the posture and the resulting practice at the center of their coalition: truth.
In response to this kind of relativism, the Neo-Reformed camp champions truth. We need “objective truth” they say—truth that stands on its own, truth in propositions. In the face of such ubiquitous pluralism, they believe we must assert the uniqueness, supremacy, and divinity of Christ as absolute truth. We must declare with all our might that “Jesus is Lord” and then vigorously defend him. (p. 153)
Again, as with the Emergent side, there are things to be commended and appropriated. Truth is vital. “There is something to be listened to in the Neo-Reformed response to Bell. Pluralism, heaven, hell, and the uniqueness of Christ are all matters of life and death, justice, and eternity.” (p. 153) And yet, these insider disputes are unfortunately often marked by vitriolic remarks along with, what seems to be, “an almost twisted pleasure in accusing Bell of heresy. There was a win-at-all- costs theo-blogical war.” (p. 153) This fight over truth found in propositions needs to be reflected upon. How is the outside world, already infused with a bent towards “tolerance” and pluralism, to take these spats? What does this say of the Jesus we believe is Lord?
After a personal story in which truth was being used to pick apart a Muslim neighbor, Fitch states
The posture of wielding truth against an opposing religion is over. It separates us from those outside the Christian faith and prevents us from crossing boundaries. It does not allow for the listening to or the being with through which the kingdom breaks in. Instead God calls us to stand with while witnessing to the Lordship of Christ in our lives. And so as much as Don Carson, Justin Taylor, and others help us see the importance of the exclusive claims of Christ amid the worlds of pluralism, they are not radical enough. We need a signpost that will lead us into the far country of pluralism. (p. 154-155)
The Journey into Diversity
So, how do we move beyond the dialogue/common good approach on one side and the championing of truth to the detriment of relationship on the other? As mentioned above, Fitch and Holsclaw admonish us to enter pluralism incarnationally and to enter pluralism as witnesses.
Enter Pluralism Incarnationally
In order for us to enter our specific locales, “we must create space to be with people of other religions or spiritualities.” (p. 156) Leaving coercive mentalities at the door, we enter into the lives of our neighbors, coworkers, and friends as humble listeners. Listening allows us to learn the language of those we live with, which opens our ears and hearts to their questions, fears, and identities.
Stability and rootedness are necessities for this to happen. If we seek to live as witnesses, we must live incarnationally. Allowing the Spirit to act as judge, we can then engage as ones who need to learn, not just teach. This movement from the bottom-up is one steeped in vulnerability; it is the opposite of seeking to manipulate via power.
Enter Pluralism as Witnesses
As spaces for conversation form in the neighborhoods, we must live daily knowing that Jesus is Lord. In terms of God’s mission, God has made Jesus Christ Lord over the world. We can now come to our friends of other religions and share life with them already knowing the Triune God is at work making all things right in the world. This is all encapsulated in the affirmation that Jesus is Lord. Prodigal Christianity lives this one affirmation as the basis for our engagement with all other religions. (p. 158)
As witnesses, we give credence to Jesus as Lord. This undergirds our belief and our praxis. Rather than prohibiting conversation, this affirmation “frees us from coercion and control.” (p. 158) Under Jesus as Lord, we enter humbly as learners and trusting that God is already at work in ways we aren’t cognizant of. As ones rooted in place, we can patiently bear with others and ourselves, listening to the Spirit’s prompting, all while prayerfully attending to the kingdom’s movements.
In light of all this, the Christian conviction that Jesus is Lord makes possible the open, gentle, discerning dialogue that we describe as prodigal. As opposed to those who uphold the rules of “tolerance” for inter- religious dialogue, we enter incarnationally, under the reign of Christ, believing that God works in these places to clarify and purify our knowledge of God through others and bring others to himself. This is our witness within pluralism. (p. 159)
Lastly, Fitch and Holsclaw encourage us to embrace pluralism. Following the events at Babel,
Pluralism then is not a bad thing for the church. In fact, it is something we cannot do without. Through the loss of one singular language at Babel, God has enabled us to see the gospel (God at work) in many and various ways through encounters with other religions. It forces us as God’s people to be an open community, vulnerable and dependent on other communities for discerning God in the world. Pluralism is the non-violent condition for God to work out the truth of the gospel in each of us, slowly over time and in relation to others (even other religions)…Because we now live under the Lordship of Christ and are confident in God’s mission, because we know pluralism has been given to us as the way we must engage the world through incarnation, we can enter pluralist situations with the anticipation that God is working there. Yet it requires participation in Christ’s work as opposed to being in control of it ourselves. There should be no defensiveness. There should be little reason to hide behind bland tolerance. We are called to a prodigal Christianity that recklessly risks itself deep into the places of pluralism. (p. 160)
There is no getting around it or reverting back to the days where pluralism wasn’t as prevalent.
I have worked in a public school for the past 8 years. It has been an eye-opening experience to say the least. As one who was groomed in the Evangelical, conservative church world and now with a Bachelors degree in Biblical Studies and a Masters in Theological Studies, working in a public school has been somewhat of an existential earthquake. Couple that with the post-Christendom realities of living in Syracuse, NY – one of the most post-Christendom regions in North America – and the content of this chapter rings especially true.
The description of pluralism and its manifestations given by Fitch and Holsclaw are spot-on in my opinion. Tolerance, acceptance, and an overall ethos of being “spiritual but not religious” pervades our locale. These are not necessarily “bad” things; they are just true for our context. However, many people – including Christians – have turned a blind eye to these realities resulting in a lifestyle of either fearful retreat from the world or flat out condemnation of it. For their generous description and way forward into the pluralism, I am grateful.
The movement into the neighborhood as incarnational witnesses also needs applauding. One of the constant struggles I have seen is our propensity to preach at people from the outside looking in. We Christians love to pinpoint things from a distance yet still have troubles with being among. Attempting to “convert” through propositional truth has left us bereft of how to be “right” with relationships still left intact. We would all do well to take to heart the approach given here.
However, I would have liked to see a bit more nuance between their approach and that of McLaren and Jones. I know full well that the format of a book doesn’t allow for the fleshing out of every point. Perhaps, in light of the push back against Emergent leanings, there could be some form of dialogue between the parties mentioned.
Overall, I heartily recommend this book as a rooted, stable, centrist take on how to live as incarnational witnesses in our pluralistic world. Go and buy this, read it, pray through it, give your friends a copy or two. As do this, listen: listen to God, listen to your neighbor.
May the kingdom come.