On Saturday April 24th I had the privilege of hearing Dr. Michael Kinnamon, Executive Director of the National Council of Churches, address Kansas Ecumenical Ministries at its annual gathering. My two seminary president colleagues, Dr. Ron Benefiel of Nazarene Theological Seminary and Dr. Myron McCoy of St. Paul School of Theology, and I had opportunity to offer a response to his address. (We have our own little ecumenical project going!) As you might imagine, Kinnamon spoke of the goals of ecumenical work and the promise of realizing the unity that is the gift of God—not our achievement. What struck me in the presentation was his analysis of how fearful American culture is in our day, which is a primary impediment to ecumenism.
American culture is anxious. Whether it be fear of immigration reform, the leadership of the first black president, the challenges of universal health care, the growing religious plurality, the rapid shifting of norms which leads to anomie (as Emile Durkheim put it), or ebbing WASP hegemony, Americans are raging against what frightens them. Kinnamon suggested that fundamentalism is the religious form of anxiety, and I surely agree. Fundamentalism is also idolatry, in my judgment. It presumes a certitude that transcends human knowing. It requires walking by sight, not by faith.
A fearful culture will do almost anything to avoid the pain of change. Yet, pain is often the voice of God prompting humans to find new ways of accepting finitude and a different kind of future. The prophetic voice arises out of pain, according to Ronald Rolheiser in Forgotten Among the Lilies. (This title is drawn from the final line in St. John of the Cross’ great poem The Dark Night of the Soul.) The voice of God through the prophet is not the angry voice of hatred that is so prevalent today. Rather, the groan of God expresses itself in our lament over estrangement from others—others whom we fear. When we are self-centered, curved in upon ourselves as Augustine put it, we remain fearful for we intuitively know that we were created for community with God and others.
The Psalm for the Fourth Sunday in Eastertide enjoins each of us to “fear no evil; for You are with me…” (23: 4). While the Psalmist writes of particular, intimate care experienced through the Lord’s companioning presence, there is no assumption that “dwelling in the house of the Lord” is reserved for only a few. One way to learn to live beyond our fears is to begin to regard others with the generosity of God. Another lectionary reading from Sunday, Revelation 7: 9, describes this expansive hospitality as it envisions the great multitude before the throne of God, “from all tribes and peoples and languages…” This is the unity offered by God, a unity that celebrates the great diversity of the earth’s people who are called to live beyond fear.
Molly T. Marshall
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