I was talking with a small group of young adults about the potential of the church to transform the world. My argument was simple: if we would strive to find a meaningful way to engage 7 million plus United Methodists in the United States in some form of life-affirming missional service, we could impact the very roots of a wide variety of social ills. Snorting coffee, one young woman barked derisively, “Are you serious?” I confirmed that I was, and she replied, “The churches I have been to are some of the most inward-focused, uninvolved, cautious, conservative, and apathetic groups I have ever known. Sure, there are a few individuals in the churches who get their hands dirty, but very few.
This called to mind a story a colleague of mine shared not too long ago where she was teaching a class on resurrection and eternal life. A middle-aged woman in her group laughed out loud and asked, “You’re kidding, right? Do you expect us to believe such an outrageous fairy tale? We don’t live in the stone age. If this is the best you can do, you’ve lost me.” My pastor-friend was flummoxed and annoyed that she stuttered and stumbled around without a clear comeback.
A third “are you serious” story comes from a discussion I had with a young pastor who flatly stated, “I don’t ever talk about heaven, hell or life after death. It’s irrelevant, and no one takes it seriously anyway.” Questions about how this person got through seminary, the ordination process, and what he talks about on Easter flashed through my mind. For a faith-based on a resurrection event, life/death, heaven/hell, grave/afterlife seem like issues that should come up and be engaged in a thoughtful way — not simply avoided.
Spirit, super-nature, salvation, incarnation, and eternity seem to have as much to do with our faith as mercy, justice, compassion, sacrifice and community, yet to engage in the metaphysical side of religion is to tempt derision and contempt. But… are we serious? Are we prepared to walk through the valley of the shadow of uncertainty to plumb the depths of our faith? Are we willing to navigate uncertainties and engage in conversations with people representing the whole spectrum of the mythic-magic to the transcendent and trans-rational? Will we reduce reality to only those things that make sense, can be empirically proven, and satisfy at only the most superficial of depths? Will we dismiss as irrational and immature that which we find embarrassing or simplistic?
Philosophical inquiry used to be at the heart of our faith. When science and reason revealed a new depth of understanding, we didn’t immediately ditch long-held beliefs, we revisited, revised, renewed, and redeemed them. We acknowledged that what we took as truth at one level of innocence no longer made sense at a new level of awareness — so we got busy making sense of the new reality. Meta-physics used to enjoy the same scrutiny as natural physics. It used to be the best and brightest brought their most rigorous and sceptical thinking to the things of faith. This was not always welcome or well-received, but it was the norm. People of faith were not so ready to set aside core beliefs just because they were challenged. The mockery of a disbelieving world used to be incentive to improve our faith base and our ability to share good news in a constantly learning and evolving world. Now, we simply don’t talk about the things we don’t understand — or even believe in anymore.
Ironically, science is raising the questions about what happens to “us” when we die? What constitutes “the person” is being redefined biologically, psychologically, chemically, cognitively and synaptically every day — but the metaphysicians have left the building. Creationism/evolution smackdowns displaced serious dialogue between representatives of the different disciplines of science and theology, so that questions of initial causes, meaning, purpose, and destiny ceased to be discussed seriously. Faith, and the essence of beliefs, grounded in values, shaping behaviors, as a model of becoming, has been relegated to the unenlightened. Science, academia, commerce and conquest are the four horsemen of our new apocalypse, and the church simply circles the wagons.
Open religious discourse cannot be a solitary or incestuous affair. Only talking with people who agree with you is a loser’s game. We need to be engaged in the deepest, most challenging, most provocative and compelling discussions and debates available — and we must bring our best brains to the table and leave the biggest egos and the most defensive voices at home. There is a great need for philosophy and religion to partner with the best thinking in biology, brain research, physics, and other natural sciences to produce a relevant metaphysics for the 21st century. We have fallen behind, and we are getting further behind every day. It is imperative that as more and more people challenge the church with the question, “are you serious?, we not only say “yes,” but have something substantive and viable to back it up.