Thursday, October 29, 2009

Against the "Community of Faith," For the Church: On Neutering Language and Truthfulness in Speech

Language is a nasty thing. As living as its speakers, it is perpetually evolving and revolving. The particular words of any particular language acquire and gather and hold together diverse meanings, thick baggage, unintended implications. And so languages shift over time in myriad ways, introducing new words and losing old words. It's simply a part of human life in time.

Christianity has historically affirmed both the centrality of language in the life of God's people and the subordination of particular linguistic constructions to the meaning communicated between human persons. Thus there are no intrinsically "holy" or "sacred" words: shalom is eirene is pax is Friede is peace. If in the same language one word falls out of usage (say, "charity"), we embrace the new word ("love"). This seems not only true to the church's mission, but internally coherent.

An excellent example of a current discussion concerning language in the church is that of using gendered pronouns for God. This discussion, however strained or caught up into ideological politics on both sides, is necessary and worthy for serious consideration because there are substantial issues in play: gender, power, tradition, Scripture, theological worldview, egalitarianism, secular ideology, and so on. Each side ought to respect the other and continue to dialogue because the question is such an important one.

A decidedly unhelpful and unserious pattern of linguistic concern is the practice of neutering words or phrases deemed scandalous, controversial, exclusive, or too weighed down with baggage to be effective. If conservative groups make the culturally capitulating mistake of baptizing archaic or outdated language like "Man" (for humanity) or "propitiation" or "proclamation," the tired temptation of liberals is to ensure that the church's distinctive language is watered down to the point of losing all meaning, and particularly so for public discourse.

Jim Wallis is the premier example of this bizarre tendency. I have great respect for Wallis, particularly for the witness of his life in longstanding solidarity with the poor, as well as for the relentless crying out in the wilderness before anyone decided to listen to him. But increasingly over the last decade -- and more magnified than ever after the extraordinary popularity of 2004's God's Politics -- Wallis' language (if not his actual faith or life) has betrayed a disastrous loss of all distinctiveness either for the Christian church or the kingdom of God. Instead, there is in place a single genus to which the church belongs: the all-pervasive, endlessly generating, religiously inclusive "community of faith."

A local church is a "community of faith." The church universal is a "community of faith." A synagogue is a "community of faith." A mosque is a "community of faith." The vast and various churches, synagogues, mosques, and all other religious gatherings in America and across the world may be summed up together as "communities of faith."

I searched "'community of faith' AND 'Jim Wallis'" on Google and got more than 66,000 results. Astounding! But this sort of idiom is not limited to Wallis. In American public and religious discourse, "religions" are "faiths," and groups belonging to those religions are therefore "communities of faith." Just this week in a class I suggested to a professor that "the church community" was one example of a "sign" in the life of the early Christians in the first century -- but what he wrote on the board was "community of faith," explaining that it was not only limited to "the church" but to "people of faith." I still have no idea what that means.

Clearly this linguistic shift is both damaging to the church's witness and insulting to other religious traditions. It is important to recall that "faith" (pistis) as a term marking out the Christian community was an original and internal identifier in the early church's life, particularly as coined and infused with new meaning by Paul. In other words, it belongs to a particular theological discourse. And according to that discourse, it has a particular meaning in a particular context.

In the New Testament, faith is an apocalyptic and utterly new reality inaugurated in the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth and enacted in the community of men and women who believe on his name for salvation. To “believe” or to “have faith” names numerous intertwined realities, none of which is “religion” in general. It identifies trust in the God of Israel in life and death. It marks out that group of people whose allegiance, identity, and peoplehood are wholly and unequivocally devoted to and bound up with that very same God. It is belief (and a willingness to stake one’s life on the fact) that Israel’s God has acted in history for the deliverance of all creation in Israel and in Jesus by his Spirit. It is the great sign of having repented from the ways of violence, falsehood, despair, and darkness and been gathered into the coming kingdom of peace, truth, love, and light. It is nothing less than God's work of new creation wrought in the cross of Jesus Christ.

Faith, then, is not "a religion" or "religious belief," much less a generic religious term before which one may place a properly identifying adjective in order to specific "which" religion we are talking about (i.e., "Jewish faith," "Muslim faith," etc.). No, this latter practice is in fact the proud, ignorant, magnanimous colonialism of modernity benevolently renaming the time after Christ's birth the "Common Era" in order to be more inclusive. This is the ruins of Western Christendom graciously employing its own distinctive term for its own distinctive religion and, having realized the perils of baptizing the social order as a uniformity of religious identity, paternalistically pluralizing the pluralistic world's religions with the supposedly pluralistic term "faith." How grateful must Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, and Hindus be! Such an extravagant act of generosity.

No, "faith" is not "religious tradition" and the church is not "community of faith." Let the church be the church! (And, with legitimate respect, let other religious traditions be what they claim themselves to be as well.) Yes, the church is community, and yes, it is marked out by faith. And indeed, there is nothing intrinsically sacred about the English word "c-h-u-r-c-h," nor the Greek ekklesia. But whatever word we use, let it name the reality, the fact, the miraculous creation of God's peaceable people, gathered together by the work of the Holy Spirit through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah, called to worship the triune God and sent among the nations to share good news.

And let us be unflaggingly clear: there is no safe language to identify that.

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