A lot of rather depressing factors will no doubt shape various sectors of the Christian faith in North America in the coming decades: polarization, politicization, constriction, division, numerical decline, closure, loss of identity, and aging, to name a few. But there will be other more hopeful forces at work too, youthful energies of expansion and aperture, and among them, I believe one has special transformative power. For that hopeful power to be unleashed, we Christians need to turn our primary gaze from rear-view mirror to the road ahead, from the past to the future.
It is the past around which many faith communities orient themselves - faithfully preserving a deposit or rule or articulation of faith that they inherited from their ancestors. That orientation engenders a sense of dignity and strength, along with an inherently conservative bias. In this past-orientation, most or all of the important questions are already answered once and for all. Our job, should we choose to accept it, is to learn and accept those answers, and make sure our children and grandchildren do the same.
Of course I agree that we must preserve and conserve what is precious and good from our past, and even our embarrassments and mistakes must be remembered so we can learn from and be humbled by them. But there's another way to conceive of our faith communities, an identity that includes but is not limited to a conservative orientation. We can see ourselves at heart as creative, prophetic, progressive, emergent, missional, and forward-looking people on a quest. A quest orientation challenges us to retain all our memories from the past, but then turns our focus towards the future, a future we hope not merely to endure, but by God's grace, to help create.
A quest orientation unleashes for us the transformative power of questions. Instead of seeing ourselves as a community bound together exclusively by age-old answers, we see ourselves as a community animated by what humorist-philosopher Garrison Keillor calls (with a wink) "life's persistent questions" - the questions that each generation struggles with and then passes on to the next generation to become their own. On the macro scale, those questions are few and deep: Who are we? How and why are we here? What is the good life? What matters most? What dangers, toils, and snares must we be careful to avoid? What is sacred, and why? I think all of us know that simply memorizing rote answers to these kinds of questions, while it has some real value, shapes a life far less radically than spending a lifetime asking, re-asking, struggling, and grappling with them does.
Catholic missionary and Spiritan priest Fr. Vincent Donovan knew the power of questions. He said,
Never accept and be content with unanalyzed assumptions, assumptions about the work, about the people, about the church or Christianity. Never be afraid to ask questions about the work we have inherited or the work we are doing. There is no question that should not be asked or that is outlawed. The day we are completely satisfied with what we have been doing; the day we have found the perfect, unchangeable system of work, the perfect answer, never in need of being corrected again, on that day we will know that we are wrong, that we have made the greatest mistake of all.
So it is my hope that the future of the Christian faith of which I am part will be shaped by a quest and questions - in some sectors at least, acknowledging that many will prefer to uphold the primarily conservative focus they inherited. In A New Kind of Christianity, I try to identify 10 particularly important and animating questions for us to grapple with in the next decade or two. Here are brief introductions to each question.
1. The Narrative Question: What is the shape - or storyline or plotline - of the biblical narrative? What is the Bible about? What problem is it trying to solve? What are the essential conflicts and projects that move the story along?
2. The Authority Question: What does it mean to say the Bible has authority? How is its authority expressed? How has the Bible's authority been misused in the past? How can we more wisely understand and apply the Bible's authority in the future?
3. The God Question: Is God violent? Does God make innocent people suffer? Or is God purely just, kind, and compassionate? If so, how do we deal with the passages in the Bible where God sanctions mass slaughter?
4. The Jesus Question: Who is Jesus and why is he so important? Why do Christians present such different visions or versions of Jesus? How do we sort through the different versions to get a more balanced and accurate understanding of Jesus?
5. The Gospel Question: What is the core message of the Christian faith? Is it exclusively about heaven and hell after death, or primarily about justice, peace, and joy on earth? Are the gospels of Jesus and Paul the same, or opposed to one another? Is the gospel good news for a few, or for all people?
6. The Church Question: What do we do about the church? What future should our local congregations, our denominations, and the Christian community at large pursue? What are our primary, essential functions? How will we cope with the many changes we face?
7. The Sex Question: Why has homosexuality become such a divisive issue? How can we engage with sexual orientation - and many other issues of human sexuality - without continuing to fight angrily and divide bitterly? Can we move beyond paralyzing polarization to constructive dialogue?
8. The Future Question: What is our vision of the future? The world getting worse and worse until God destroys and replaces it? Better and better until it's perfect? How do our views of the future affect our behavior in the present? Are there fresh and better options for Christian eschatology?
9. The Pluralism Question: How should followers of Jesus relate to people of other religions? Is Jesus the only way - and the only way to what? Can we have both a strong sense of Christian identity - and a strong sense of hospitality and love toward people of other faiths?
10. The What-Do-We-Do-Now Question: How can we open these questions without creating needless controversy and division? How can we move forward in our quest without being intimidated by the resistance that will no doubt arise? What attitudes and understandings can help us move forward in a creative, loving way?
As you can see, these aren't just esoteric questions for seminary classrooms. Depending on our answers to these questions, we will continue killing each other or work more passionately for peace; condemn and divide or dialogue and understand; care for the earth or exploit and abandon it; clench our fists or open our hands; walk in the way of love or run in the way of fear. There may be a need for a new kind of Islam, a new kind of Judaism, and even a new kind of atheism (newer than the so-called "new atheism"), but that will primarily be the task of people working within each of those traditions. My calling - and the quest that growing numbers of us are pursuing together - is a new kind of Christianity, a faith shaped by powerful questions that awaken our thirst for truth and that beckon us forward as followers of Jesus with a lot to learn, explore, and discover. Perhaps this quest will win your heart as well.