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DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

It Might Be Time For a New Interpretation

Written by: on January 18, 2018

I am a secularized Christian captivated by mystery. My ‘thin spaces’ are found in art, incense, bread and wine, and cement floors dappled with the light through stained glass windows. On the other hand, I feel like there can be no transcendent without exploring they ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ of human thought and motivation. The 70s and 80s were my formative years, where I learned that individualism is king and both obedience and rebellion were all about what’s best for me.

In my education I have read thousands of pages of philosophy, drinking in the explanations of why we are who we are and why we do what we do. Having said that, Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age has to be in the top three philosophy reads of my life. It will probably take me a decade to digest his response to the question, “Why is it so hard to believe in God in (many milieux of) the modern West, while in 1500 it was virtually impossible not to?”[1] For over 700 pages, Taylor explores how we in the West have moved from a society where the existence of God was rarely doubted, to a society where the existence of God is rarely believed. The way he weaves how the church and theologians took part in this transition fascinated me. How often do we think we are ‘standing up’ for the gospel, when in fact we are ripping tiny tears in its validity?

I think the most uncomfortable thing about Taylor is that his exploration reflected back to me the way religion has slowly been released from my life. It’s not the release of religion that unsettles me – my faith is firmly intact – but rather the ease with which it happened. There were no societal check points or pressures to keep me in community with the religion of my youth. I went from not being able to skip church on Wednesday or Sunday (morning AND evening) unless I was bleeding from my eyeballs (thanks mom and dad) to walking out of the doors of my home church without looking back and wandering in and out of others in some vain attempt to see if God still inhabited a building. Even as I write that I can feel my grandmothers bristle from the grave. Faith without community is selfish, they would say – and they would be right – but it’s just so easy for each of us to do our own thing. Taylor tells me why, but what I really wanted from him was the answer to “what now?”

Last week, I mentioned that I had a sneaking suspicion that love lays at the heart of the remedy. The nagging question of what do we do to introduce our secular society to the majesty and mystery of God has its teeth firmly imbedded in the back of my mind. Taylor’s remark, “The immanent order can thus slough off the transcendent. But it isn’t necessary to do so,” has stuck with me this week.[2] I can’t imagine life without the deep love of God drawing me and healing me and sustaining me, but how can I share that with a society of people who see God as an optional belief?

I think the answer to the question is that neither I nor you can really do or say anything to convince others that God exists and is essential. Reading Taylor’s stories about “conversions” in chapter 20, I noticed that the people people who were converted experienced something supernatural that no human could manufacture or really even explain. Taylor mentions John Wesley, someone who I readily identify with. He did everything “right” theologically (well, except when he was kind of a jerk, but I digress), but it wasn’t until his heart was ‘strangely warmed’ that he was transformed. It was the same with St. Francis of Assisi, St. Teresa of Avila, and Terese of Liseaux.[3] It wasn’t theology or preaching or study that changed them, but the supernatural work of the Spirit. For that matter, the people I know who have experienced conversion (including my own husband) were not drawn to Jesus by sermons or lessons, but by a deep work of the Spirit in the midst of people of faith who loved them and held space for them.

I know this is all sort of simplistic in light of the epic depth of Taylor’s tome, but I’m starting to think that, for this age, we need to take a new look at what Jesus meant by “making disciples.”[4] In the age of the early church, it made sense to approach making disciples the way Paul and Peter and the others did it. In the 1500s, it made sense to explain the God that everyone knew existed, baptize babies born into a world where no one even considered a need for conversion, and teach people to teach people to teach people. Now, though, I think we need to pay close attention to whether we are living transformed lives and whether we are loving and making space for people to encounter the Spirit. We need to follow the Spirit around like hungry puppies looking to be filled, and to watch carefully where the Spirit is moving to introduce the transcendent, loving, and all-encompassing God to people who, until they have the Spirit encounter, really could not care less. Once the Spirit makes the introduction, we need to be ready to feed the wonder – to make disciples – and engage their minds with visions of God’s shalom that brings wholeness to their lives and to all of creation. When they come to be baptized, it should not be about the sinners prayer but about one of the Bride of Christ approaching her Groom with the joy, anticipation, and realization that this is a commitment to a transformed life.

                  [1]. Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 539.

                  [2]. Taylor, 543.

                  [3]. Taylor, 729-730.

                  [4]. Matthew 28:18-20 (NRSV).

About the Author

Kristin Hamilton

17 responses to “It Might Be Time For a New Interpretation”

  1. Mary says:

    Kristin this is so thoughtful and I hope your eyes are feeling better!
    You touch on several points that were important to me too. There was SO MUCH in Taylor’s book and he sometimes said that he didn’t have the final answer. He posed the two key “mysteries” of the Christian faith as he sees them – 1. why we are in the grip of evil and how are we to get ourselves out of it and 2. the atonement.
    However, you said that you thought “love” came into this. Well, what better a demonstration of love than Jesus taking our place on the cross and Taylor emphasizes this “the sacrifice of Christ broke through this helplessness, and opened a way out.” (p. 651)
    Your application – “Once the Spirit makes the introduction, we need to be ready to feed the wonder – to make disciples – and engage their minds with visions of God’s shalom that brings wholeness to their lives and to all of creation.”
    Taylor also talks about service and I think says something that you intuitively got at – it only succeeds “where a bond of love arises.” (p.702)

    • Kristin Hamilton says:

      Absolutely, Mary! I think the Incarnation and Atonement are the most beautiful mysteries and acts of love ever given. The problem is that the general secular population says, “It’s nice that you think that.” God means nothing to so many. Even those who claim to believe in and follow God often act as if God means nothing in their day-to-day lives – and no one cares (except maybe to label them as hypocrites). What I am beginning to notice is that I have to love people – not to “win them to Christ” or to “evangelize,” but simply love them and make space for them. I have to trust that loving them as Christ loves them is enough, and that the Spirit is powerful enough to woo and draw them. If they come to the point of recognition THEN I must be ready to “make disciples” of them. That doesn’t mean I don’t talk about Jesus or about my faith in the meantime, but it also doesn’t mean I keep giving them some form of the Roman Road to Salvation in hopes that “another saint is added to the rolls.”

  2. Jim Sabella says:

    Kristin, your transparency is both powerful and healing. I agree, no one can do or say anything to convince anyone that God is real. It is a step of faith. I’m reading Dominic’s Soul of Doubt now. In many ways you are making some of the same points i.e historically, Christian theology, thought and yes, Christians have not been very nice to people. Why then, would anyone looking through the window of the church want to enter a building where they are not treated well. It’s not so much that they don’t believe in God, or his existence, it’s the actions/activities of the community of faith that sometimes gets in the way. That is very painful to hear for those who, like me, have given their lives to serve God in the church. BUT, it is also welcome and necessary medicine in a time of great change for those who need to hear clearly from God how we should live. Thank you!

    • Kristin Hamilton says:

      Thank you Jim. I do think it’s a both/and rather than an either or situation, though. As secularism has taken hold, people who, as you said, look in the windows, see no compelling reason to push back against the prevailing notion that either God doesn’t exist or God doesn’t care. Where I live it’s hard work to believe in a God who cares, made tougher by certain Christian groups/churches who would rather be gatekeepers than lovers of humanity. I’m so grateful that I was surrounded by God’s love in my family so I never felt the temptation to abandon my faith. Now I want to be the one who surrounds.

  3. Lynda Gittens says:

    Kristen your statement, “Taylor explores how we in the West have moved from a society where the existence of God was rarely doubted, to a society where the existence of God is rarely believed.”

    This statement has some truth in it. When I grew up, God was everything. If your love was good, God loved you. If you were having troubles, God was punishing you. People are more educated and less gullible or are they? Our education has at times placed a gap in our relationship with God. We take credit for things he provided. We don’t need to communicate with him daily but whenever we feel like it. We do see the need to associate with the heathens in the church because they are not perfect.
    We feel ourselves with others philosophy rather than depend on God’s communication with us (my sheep knows my voice). Its okay to studied views but be must be strong in our foundation so that we down bounce around.
    As you may have noticed, I’m not a fan of philosophers but I emjoy some of their qoutes. 😉

    • Kristin Hamilton says:

      “When I grew up, God was everything. If your love was good, God loved you. If you were having troubles, God was punishing you.” Ouch! I can’t imagine why it’s easier just not to believe in God [sarcasm, lol]. Seriously though, I think it’s some of these ideas that have made people decide it’s not worth it to sort through the competing messages.

  4. Stu Cocanougher says:

    Thank you for bringing up the HOLY SPIRIT. That is one of the issues that I have with some Catholic and Mainline authors. The work of the Holy Spirit cannot be explained or easily evaluated. The Spirit is that “X” factor – the thing that cannot be rationalized or examined except through personal experience.

    Any view of the future of The Church is dreary without a dependence on the Holy Spirit.

    • mm Katy Drage Lines says:

      I would counter, Stu, that many of my favorite mainline and Catholic authors do emphasize the Holy Spirit– I think of Frederick Buechner, Eugene Peterson, right off hand, although I know there are others as well. What they do right, I believe, is recognize 1) the mysteriousness of the ways of the Holy Spirit, and 2) the presence of the Holy Spirit through us (plural), the Church, as the manifestation of the work of Jesus today (I’m thinking specifically of Peterson’s Practice Resurrection book on Ephesians, which I’m reading in my “spare” time).

    • Kristin Hamilton says:

      You know, Stu, the saddest thing for me has been the way so many Evangelical traditions have left the Holy Spirit behind. Churches that claim holiness and sanctification as key tenets are really now just about following rules through their own strength (secularism much?) rather than relying on the Spirit for transformation.

      • Christal Jenkins Tanks says:

        Yes Kristin I couldn’t agree more. Transformation becomes something we do for others on God’s behalf instead of allowing God’s will and purpose to be manifested in their lives through the Holy Spirit in the manner He so chooses.

  5. mm Jennifer Dean-Hill says:

    This resonates deeply with me too: “I can’t imagine life without the deep love of God drawing me and healing me and sustaining me, but how can I share that with a society of people who see God as an optional belief?”

    It’s not uncommon for my clients to put more faith and interest in psychological concepts than in developing a faith and understanding of a loving God. In contrast, it is inspiring to see clients get a new understanding of a loving, relational God, and use faith combined with psychological concepts to heal. This frees the Holy Spirit up to move that always accelerates the healing and gives longevity to the healing. I just wish I could package this and give it to everyone. That darn free-will that messes everything up. Great post, thanks!

    • Kristin Hamilton says:

      Great point, Jen. I was one of those people who trusted psychology more than religion to affect change until I started meeting with a Spiritual Director and began to seriously work on my spiritual formation with the tools and practices she gave me. I still believe in therapy, of course, and in things like good medicine, but I think we have lived in dualism for too long. It’s time that the physical, mental, and spiritual work together for wholeness. I’m really glad there are therapists like you who see the validity of the whole!

  6. Kristen,
    I really liked this post and it wrestled with some of the same things I was trying to work through.
    You highlight Taylor’s quote: “The immanent order can thus slough off the transcendent. But it isn’t necessary to do so,” – it has stuck with me as well.
    One way I thought about phrasing or re-phrasing the question Taylor is asking is – ‘how do you share something essential without making it compulsory? The opportunity of our secularized world is that people don’t pretend to have to have faith because of societal expectations… In some real ways – especially as a pastor – I think there are some real advantages to knowing that the people coming to church, by in large are there because they want to be (not because it is what you are supposed to do).

    As for conversions – I preached last week about our call to share the invitation of Christ with others (using the lectionary passage of Philip coming tot tell Nathaniel about Jesus)…. Nathaniel responds with ‘Can anything good come out of Narzareth?’ While it was an interesting commentary on the week’s news – and we did touch on that – the main focus was on Philip’s response: not an argument, an apologetic or anything like that, just a simple invitation: ‘Come and see’. Our role in this process is to share what God has done for us – to spread the good news, and trust in God to do the rest

    • Kristin Hamilton says:

      ‘how do you share something essential without making it compulsory?’
      This is a pretty brilliant way of posing the question, Chip. When asked why I believe, I always think of the Samaritan woman in John 4:29 who said, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” She didn’t claim to have it all figured out but she knew she had encountered someone special and invited people to explore with her.

  7. mm Katy Drage Lines says:

    Ha– hungry puppies like to chew A LOT! Love the puppy pic. 🙂

    Our lectionary text this week was on Jesus clearing the temple. During our sermon and the formal conversation afterward, we discussed the big religious apparatus that Jesus was reacting against, the institutional structures that perpetuated the status quo and, for their own personal gain, took advantage of people’s desires to relate to God. (For us, “Christendom” has encouraged churches to market themselves as merchants of religious goods and services). We saw this juxtaposed against Jesus’ response to the leaders: it wasn’t so much the redistribution of “stuff” that upset them, but his very presence and claim of authority.

    You’ve hit on such an important nuance of Taylor’s observation– that we can’t introduce people to the mechanisms of religion, but allow the presence of Jesus among us to be what draws (or disarms or distances) them.

    • Kristin Hamilton says:

      I think you are spot on about the structures and mechanisms, Katy. It seems that since the very beginning people have been using God and religion to manipulate and control others. Yet, to me, there is no concept more beautiful than the church as it should be – a community of faith that cares for each other and all of creation as an act of worship.

  8. Christal Jenkins Tanks says:

    “Once the Spirit makes the introduction, we need to be ready to feed the wonder – to make disciples – and engage their minds with visions of God’s shalom that brings wholeness to their lives and to all of creation. When they come to be baptized, it should not be about the sinners prayer but about one of the Bride of Christ approaching her Groom with the joy, anticipation, and realization that this is a commitment to a transformed life.”

    WOW!!! nothing else needs to be said! Like we saybin my tradition ” Let the church say Amen!” I just want to post this on Facebook!!!

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