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

Russian Ramblings

Written by: on February 19, 2015

(I am typing this blog on my iPhone with two thumbs, as I know we will not be to a wireless signal anytime soon. Please forgive my abrupt thoughts or crazy assumptions. I’m also typing this while on a 26-hour train ride from Moscow to Ekaterinburg! Don’t you want to travel with me??)

The past few weeks we’ve been reading about context theology, public theology, practical theology and hope. Now, I find myself in the midst of the Russian Federation reading A Secular Age by Charles Taylor. Not only is it a little mind boggling and challenging, to say the least, but my context while reading this book is enormously skewed.

First, I found this to be a terribly dense read. A Secular Age is a philosophical history of the past, present and future of Western Christianity. As such, it begins with a not-so-simple question: How did it become possible for anyone to not believe in God? Taylor weaves what appears to be several essays on history, sociology, philosophy, and theology to recount the history of an idea, to shatter the sameness and the apparent inevitability of the present. As a history Taylor attempts to clarify intellectual and theological divisions that continue to structure debates about divinity, but with the aim of reforming the way we think about them, “to show the play of destabilization and recomposition.” (Loc. 1452)

A Secular Age carries the story further, into the question of the role of religion in constituting a person’s identity. Taylor wants to lay out what it takes to go on believing in God, in the absence of any intellectual, cultural and imaginative surroundings in which pre-modern religion was intermingled. This is what he calls our ‘social imaginary’, or how we collectively sense what is normal and appropriate in our dealings with one another and with the world around us. Then it hit me… This is the guy who wrote Social Imaginaries! (Yes, I can be very dense sometimes.)

With this overview and a few chapters in mind, I thought, “Now what? What do I do with this?” And this led me to a story… I remember the first time I told my testimony to my new friends in Ekaterinburg, Russia. I began with, “My story is rather boring. I grew up in a Christian home. My parents were Christians. My grandparents were Christians. We can trace our Quaker heritage back seven generations to a small town in England. I cannot remember a time when I did not know at least who God was, nor do I remember not having an active relationship with Him. Though our relationship has evolved over time, God has been the one constant figure in my life.” My friends, 20-something women Olga and Marta, were shocked, but I could not understand that. Here I was in a country that proclaimed Christianity as its official state religion in the 10th or 11th century (I can’t remember which), and the streets and squares are ornately decorated with cathedrals and monasteries, yet my friends Olga and Marta declared they did not know God until two years ago. Here I was in a supposedly non-secular country, but the people, the attitudes, the activities, the high divorce and alcoholism rates suggested it was a people all but emptied of God. Could that be right?

Russia has imposed secularity, but the Nationals are highly encouraged to belong to the Russian Orthodox Church. So it imposes secularity while imposing religion. In fact, if you do join another church – a Methodist or other denomination – and you tithe there instead of giving to the Orthodox church, you may end up kidnapped in the night!

As I probed further into Olga and Marta’s history with the Orthodox Church, I listened to their histories of belief versus practice. They believed because they were told to believe. They believed because it was the end game — belief was not about this life, but about the eternal life. In short, they believed but had no practice. There was no faith in action. It was simply a checked box – and a personal relationship, personal connection to God was non-existent nor seen as necessary.

When they did convert to Methodism, they discovered a world of change. The fire within them burned hot, but then after time, it cooled. I likened it to a mission trip – participants feel so close to God while on a trip and doing good works and serving alongside other members of the faith community — but when they return, the feelings fade and life goes on as usual. They continue attending worship services and Bible study, but that passion is subdued. Is this the middle ground Taylor is speaking of? The place between red-hot burning for God and an absence of any connection?

In the end, I am left with many more questions than which I started. Perhaps the second half of the book will bring more clarity. Perhaps it won’t! A major question I had was Taylor using the term “embattled” to describe Christianity in America? Is this, like in Russia, where so many just call themselves Christians but do not live the life of love and service? Taylor seems to define spirituality as gratitude or joy or inspiration or insight, when reality is abolished and the foreign breaks through. To fully experience God is to connect and share the experience with others, perhaps through prayer, devotion, serving and giving. Maybe that is the “battle”, as we strive to live this life while living in a secular world.

About the Author

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Ashley Goad

Ashley is the Global Missions Pastor at First United Methodist Church in Shreveport, Louisiana. She's a UNC fanatic, Haiti Enthusiast, Clean Water Activist, Solar Power Supporter... www.firstserves.org www.solarunderthesun.org www.livingwatersfortheworld.org

5 responses to “Russian Ramblings”

  1. Ashley…
    Straightaway I just “gotta” say you are an amazing two thumb typist! 🙂 Your present experience adds so much to Taylor, as in clarifying and providing “life” context which broadens understanding. Sharing the story of your Russian friends and the probing, seeking questions: “They continue attending worship services and Bible study, but that passion is subdued. Is this the middle ground Taylor is speaking of? The place between red-hot burning for God and an absence of any connection?” Taylor writes about our focus on human flourishing, it is the end game. I wonder in light of your questions if this flourishing dulls us. Is the mundane part of life that we are unequipped for?

  2. mm Deve Persad says:

    Ashley, I really like these questions from your two thumbs: “Is this the middle ground Taylor is speaking of? The place between red-hot burning for God and an absence of any connection?” It challenges me, as one who serves in leadership in a church to consider whether we are stoking the fires of people’s desire to serve God or whether we are quenching those fires. I don’t think very many, I could be wrong, would say they intentionally set out to quench fires. However, if we only lead that which we can control then perhaps, unintentionally we are no different than a state religion. I’m interested in the second half of the book, but probably more interested in hearing the Russian response to these questions.

  3. mm John Woodward says:

    Ashley, thank you for allowing me to vicariously travel across Russia (been on that train from Moscow…I went as far as Orenburg). But I find the Orthodox Church a prime example of what you are talking about. The rich history of spirituality and sense of deification that should provide a tremendously deep spiritual life and a life of service and love, seems to not exist among the common people. God is out there and the priests deal with Him, and we stand back and use His saints as intermediaries. Something isn’t connecting here. Might this be a tremendous example of the enchanted world Taylor talks about where one can’t leave the church because it alone has power to deal with the forces we can’t explain. In a land where the people have known so much fear (religious, political, social, personal), the Church seems to provide a monopoly on control and authority because it alone can deal with those things we are frightened of? This monopoly keeps people loyal…but sadly, it doesn’t lead to service, love or connection with others. This same issues is why we see so little help from Orthodox believers in the work in orphanages and mental institutions.

    This is what I love about Taylor’s book. It makes sense in history and gives insights today. But, I am anxious to find out his answers to our modern secular situation! Great post Ashley — safe travels!

  4. Ashley,

    Yes, I do wish I were traveling with you — sounds more exciting than my mundane life at the moment.

    I love your honesty about Taylor. Yes, this is a very hard read. It takes all I can do to stay awake while I am trying to figure out what he is talking about. However, once in a while I connect with him. I, too, am hoping to get more out of the next 400 pages (it’s going to be a long week!)

    Olga and Marta’s story is a sad one. I feel like that myself much of the time. So why does the fire cool? How do we relight the fire? I wonder how we would be doing if we were in their place? Would love to know your thoughts.

  5. mm Julie Dodge says:

    So you type two thumbed and you still engage. I have been buried in work and have not yet read this week’s chapters. Eek! But as I read yours and others thoughts, I find myself challenged and eager to somehow catch up. That said, in our secular society, and even in the Christian thought, it seems to be that the person who questions, who doubts, who struggles, is more highly esteemed than the one who sits still before God and simply knows that HE IS. Is this a result of postmodernism? I don’t know. Perhaps in losing our sense of God’s presence we have clung to what we know – ourselves and our struggles.

    My students just wrote papers about their personal spiritual journeys. Those with secure Christian homes had more solid, secure faith in God. Those without? Well, much harder. Many have no sense of faith. Erik Erickson once wrote that in a pluralistic society it is harder to form a sense of self and secure identity. A secular age, a secular identity.

    Food for thought.

    Praying for you on your journey.

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