I think I just saw our future.
Last week I was attending an eight-week class on the eight major religions of the world. The group is studying Boston University professor, Stephen Prothero’s book God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter.
I missed the first week where the facilitators took time for each participant to introduce themselves and share a bit about what brought them to the class. I didn’t have to be there to discover what they shared. At this second class the subject was Prothero’s chapter on Christianity. The facilitator started the class by saying, “I am going to be interested to see how you all react to this class this week as it seemed that just about everyone here was either hurt by the Church or found Christianity wanting.” People chuckled in recognition.
As I listened to the participants I heard the usual stereotypical reasons for rejecting the Church,
- “I don’t want to be part of something that has been the source of so much evil and violence in the world.”
- “I appreciate the values of the Church, but I don’t see how anyone can believe in such things as virgin births and resurrections. It makes no rational sense.”
- “I like Jesus, but I have no use for all the doctrines and creeds.”
Coming from the Christian tradition I actually felt that the class presented a very fair treatment of the subject matter. Prothero seemed to have a pretty objective and fair view of Christianity as he gave a simple overview of everything from Eastern Orthodox to Catholicism to Protestantism to LDS to Pentecostalism, among many others.
I really appreciated the class. There was room for presenting the subject matter and room for individual participants to respond from their own experience. It had the effect of both educating one on the broader Christian tradition and allowing people to share their own experiences with regard to the tradition. But there definitely was a feisty spirit among the group as the subject matter elicited a number of negative reactions.
Then something happened. The facilitator decided to close the class with a short quote by St. Isaac the Syrian, a Christian mystic from the 7th century. He read this:
“Be at peace with your own soul;
Then heaven and earth will be at peace with you;
Eagerly enter into the treasure house that is within you;
And so will you see the things that are in heaven.
For there is one single door to enter both…
The ladder that leads to the kingdom
is hidden within your soul.”
And the room melted. One person said, “That sounds like my spirituality.” Another person spoke up and said, “If that is what it means to be Christian I probably would still be in the Church.”
Hold onto this blog. We spend a lot of time wringing our hands over how we are going to reach an increasingly secular age. Yet this experience tells us something. It tells us that people are still yearning for spiritual nourishment. And it tells us that hidden within our own tradition is that spiritual food people are yearning for.
Studying the Christian mystics may be a stretch for many of our congregations. But the Christian mystics may be just the bridge we are looking for to connect with our “spiritual but not religious” neighbors.
It’s worth pondering. This just might be our future.
By Rev. Brian Heron, Presbyter for Vision and Mission, Presbytery of the Cascades