a powerful positive witness…without exclusions

At what point did sharing a personal testimony get caught up in sticky traps of “who’s right and who’s wrong?” Why can’t I share my search for God or love of church without fear that I sound like some close-minded religious fanatic? When did sharing my discovery of the Gospel become so complicated…complicated by those who would spin my story into some lecture about my religion or my church or my God at the exclusion others? And…what about those who don’t care, who share their faith and testimonies without grace and reinforce religious stereotypes? Today, the atmosphere around sharing a personal testimony or religious conviction has become a barrier for the church, corporately and for individuals. When did talking about faith became such a minefield?

If we look deep into the fabric of our world, we could go back to the Enlightenment for an answer. That was the period centuries ago in which the measure of truth in our Western world became fundamentally different. The Enlightenment was a turning point in the scientific revolution.  It marked a seismic shift in the authority of religious truth. Today’s politics of truth are shaped by this shift, especially the politics between religion and science. The Enlightenment opened the door to the idea that each mind, equipped with the power of observation and reason, could question and apprehend the truth and reality.  Truth, in this way, became distinct from its foundation in the church, revelation, theologians, and traditional authorities. The politics of truth between religion and science shape how religion and religious people are perceived today. It shapes our stereotypes about religious fanatics and their fanaticism. But, this doesn’t provide the whole answer.

The tension we feel about sharing our personal testimonies of God and religious convictions today are also shaped by the culture of the previous generation.   The 21st century is deeply shaped by end of the 20th.  While the Enlightenment raised the ongoing problem of “What is the truth?” and “How do we know it?”    The tension today around sharing our faith with others is less about how we know the truth and more about the question, “Who’s truth?”   It’s a question of religion and individualism. A generation of Babyboomers, born after WWII, struggled against nearly all external forms of authority – the authority of their parents, society, its institutions, even the past.   We live in the wake of that culture struggle. It shapes our world’s strong sense of individualism.  Today, the individual holds sway over all matters of religion, spirituality, morality, and society.  Individualism is a conviction that shapes both the Right and Left politically, our views of government, as well as most popular churches and forms of spirituality.

This is the reach of individualism.  After the Babyboom, personal testimonies, if they are more than personal stories, are subject to politics, i.e. the politics of religion and individual authority.   Individualism assumes religious testimonies and convictions belong to personal experience.  The truth of our faith and testimonies raise the question of “who’s truth?”   The politics of individualism are inherently defensive. Religious passion and conviction elicit this cultural clash between religious authority and personal experience or opinion. To guard ourselves against outside authority – whether other individuals, society, religion, traditions, institutions, or government – individualism tells us that personal experience and perspective shape reality. The politics of individualism puts tension between us and others because others are external authorities.  They are part of the world outside. Such individualism and its defensive politics muck up almost all possibility for any open exchange or trusting environment for people to talk about their life-changing experiences, faith, love of church, even God.   Being positive is good; too much religion is bad.

The problem is that personal testimonies cannot be more than personal under the sway of individualism, no matter how transforming, how convincing, how important, how deeply felt or how certain. If we push our faith or spiritual experiences off on others, it causes problems. If we share a personal testimony about God, church, or the Gospel, and generalize the certainty or power of our experience onto others, we simply do what many people – inside and outside the church – expect.  Religious people tend to be fanatical, self-righteous, and  judgmental.  Religion leads to close-mindedness and unilateral politics and truth-claims.  It’s inherently antagonistic to dialog and mutuality.  There is no room for differences.  Organized religion, especially, lacks integrity and limits individuality.

The challenge, of course, is that sharing our testimony is the heart of evangelism!   On the one hand, many of us who have experienced God, rapturous love, formerly evasive self-acceptance, or saving grace overflow ourselves.  The desire to reach out can bubble up.  On the other hand, we are also called to invite others into life with God’s hope and affection.   But, the difficulties individualism, defensiveness, and our politics of truth live in our skin.   Also, many of these barriers are our own making as Christians. How do we start all over? How do we take our testimonies beyond the church and its internal dialog? How do our message, mission, and identity reach beyond our community of the like-minded? Why has sharing our faith or witness with others become so offensive?

Theologians often intervene here, too.  They reshape the problem of individualism in a different way.  Theologians remind us that the authority of religious tradition, scripture, and church leaders endure.  We are often unaware of their deep roots and history, and are important.   Scripture, tradition, and the church’s collective life put our individual convictions and personal experiences in perspective. Individuals, by themselves, don’t speak for the church or all faith. But, this often ends up being a theologian’s argument. In our everyday world, we are called to share our testimony and invite others to Christ in a culture where the individual reigns and is held in utmost importance.  Even those of us in the church reflect this cultural conviction. Backed in a corner or disagreement, most of us aren’t afraid to assert our own authority. Most of us defend our personal convictions and spiritual experiences as individuals. We react strongly to anyone that seems to limit us – whether it’s church leaders, liberal or conservative Christians, atheists, or anybody else. In this way, even the church is shaped by individualism and its politics. The politics of truth are inside and out.

Individualism keeps us all safe from religion and outside authority by keeping faith personal.   Church leaders, as well as individuals in the pew, aren’t afraid to argue that personal testimonies and convictions don’t escape our experience and opinion. These are the very dynamics that make it difficult to share our personal testimonies, whether in the church or without.  If I share my testimony with too much passion or too much certainty, with too much conviction and push it off on others, it creates problems.   It gets in the way of anyone actually hearing my testimony. Defensiveness against authority colors everything.  Moreover, bold and forceful Christians reinforce the stereotypes. They are ambassadors of the truth – a truth that is self-righteous and exclusive.  Those who don’t want to be this kind of Christian let others define evangelism. We stay in our communities with like-minded people talking about outreach, but struggling to practice what we preach. We share our faith amongst ourselves. What about sharing it with others?

It’s been months since I’ve last posted. Life’s been full of busyness, changes in large and small proportion. But, the challenge to increase my witness has been brewing in me for some time.   It’s occupied my soul and mind as I’ve spent time alone with God, gone to meetings with church leaders, preached at services, and listened to the Spirit stirring beneath the surface. I’m in a period of transition in my life and I feel the challenge to focus my life and respond more fully with a greater sense of witness. There isn’t a better time than Easter morning to share the simple invitation again:

Share a positive witness of God’s boundless Love in Christ.  Share it honestly and vulnerable, in love and without exclusions.  Hazard your testimony.  Venture your witness.  Learn to tell your story in act and word – in public, with a friend, an acquaintance, online, at work, or in a moment when the Spirit leads you. Pray for that moment.

The way we share our testimony says as much as what we say. We can shape a new politics of love in Christianity, one that shatters the culture of individualism and old politics of truth. Let the church let go of forced choices – who’s right and who’s wrong, us versus them, my truth versus yours.  This is not God’s power struggle.   God is a God of new beginnings, spontaneous interactions, uncommon relationships, vulnerable opportunities, and new expressions.   Christ is our example of this vulnerability, risk, love and its mission. Welcome others’ reactions, their objections, different experiences and perspective. If others object or suspect us of forcing ourselves on others or begging a debate, share honestly. Deny the false choice. Our testimony just is, in all its vulnerably.  It bears no burden of proof other than its effect on us, so we don’t need to become defensive. There is nothing to defend.

Resurrection, itself, is a symbol of powerful positive witness…shared honestly and vulnerably in Christ, with love and without exclusions. Individualism and its politics of truth present us with a problem, but a new politics of love in the church doesn’t have to.  It can overcome.

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7 responses to “a powerful positive witness…without exclusions

  1. Matt, I have missed reading your posts. They reflect a place of genuineness and courage that I deeply appreciate. Thank you. Though I didn’t read this explicitly from your post, I think it’s implied that we all have a different way of confessing our testimonies. You’re accurate in explaining how complicated our thoughts and emotions are concerning our sharing. This head-game can be so defeating, so we share within our faith community instead of reaching out. Our ability/inability to share open and honestly the things that matter most to us, at least within Community of Christ, is going to be a deal breaker. The way I read your blog indicates to me that both
    1) education/self-awareness and
    2) courage/self-determination/group-confidence
    are required to get there. I wonder though if We will answer with what we are good at – talk – or by once again embracing the newness and wonder of a god/goddess who shows us not just how to look for light in dark places, but that We are also light to the world. Easter is indeed an appropriate day to start talking about this.

  2. Matt I long for the day spoken of in the D&C when each man will speak for ‘God himself. I also long for a time when each of us will reject the need for a king but make God our king, but then that would require a total surrender to the mind and will of Christ and we are too afraid of our own egos to trust Christ to lead us.

    I was raised and trained as a scientist, first mathematics and physics, then sociology and psychology. Finally my own study of religious anthropology, and I can tell you that the purely theoretical physicist is more likely to accept a testimony than a D.Div. (my doctoral thesis). Why? They are not afraid of appearing politically or spiritually or even scientifically incorrect. As religion is really a matter of relationship and faith in that relationship not appearances or hope for position or authority.

    I shared a testimony in my book The Changing Winds where I was trapped in a world of blindness. When one person saw the sun and described the sun, the description soon mutated into a thousand interpretations of religious thought. This soon led to war. The person who had actually had seen was powerless to stop the mutation or the war. He could not be comforted until meeting one other person who also had had a moment of seeing. A lifelong friendship ensued and a new commitment to not explain the mysteries of the kingdom to the people but only to teach them how to see!

    I have always loved your beautiful mind Matt. Don’t hold back. Doug

  3. Greetings, brother. I trust you and your family had a great resurrection day!

    I can argue some with your premises, but not with your conclusions. One other thing to consider:

    Although the discussion of “What is truth?” certainly predates Pilate, one could argue that the granting of the right of self-determination that has grown over the past several hundred years was as a big a factor as the principles of the Enlightenment. Considering the spread of religions and their associated beliefs, one could argue that most of history has witnessed these spreads as a result of force – either physical force, tribal influence, or more recently social influence. The results have certainly not been the exalted communities promised by any of these faiths.

    If we believe that it is our responsibility to witness, and that it is the Holy Spirit that convicts, then it is the response of the individual and their decision that we seek. This democratic conversion process has deep roots in our faith movement, and allows the Holy Spirit to bring people to Christ instead of the sword (whether literal or not). While the numbers are certainly smaller, I look to the example of Gideon and trust that God uses those who willingly respond to fulfill the plan for building the kingdom. Sometimes, perhaps we just need to relax and not assume so much responsibility in this process, allowing the Holy Spirit to fulfill its role in the sharing of our testimonies.

  4. Matt, As always, I appreciate your comments. I’m reminded of Lesslie Newbigin’s comments that no one person can claim their position or testimony as absolutely certain. At the root of all statements. whether science or religion, is faith. In our testimonies we share what we believe to be true. We should not shy away from sharing our testimony nor our passion related to it. Even when we come to the table with other faiths we can share our testimony of faith as that which we believe to be true. Other faiths must be allowed to do the same, without defense on our part. Newbigin feels this can be done when we share our testimony as just that – a testimony – and not as judgment.

  5. Matt:

    I think an important consideration here is the role of external authorities in LOSING their authority through repeated behavior that undermines the claimed basis for that authority.

    The Enlightenment occurred in an environment where the Catholic church had violated every expectation of followers of Christ. Luther’s theses are obvious examples, but even Gallileo’s “objective” observations of the behavior of the planets only became problematic when he rubbed the pride of the wrong churchman.

    Similarly, Europe in the 20th Century became increasingly anti-religious only after the Christian Establishment was seen as more Establishment than Christian, and the Establishment delivered a half-century of war, destruction, starvation, depression, and genocide. Note that Islam in Europe is NON-establishment, and its adherents are not reluctant to bow to its authority.

    There is also a different interpretation for the attitudes of baby boomers in America than individualism vs. external authority, IMO. The conflict between the baby boomers during the Viet Nam era has never been resolved, I suspect. The left bows to the external authority of the left; the right bows to the external authority of the right. Neither trusts the authority that is trusted by the other side because neither side’s authority figures obey the bases for authority that their opponents require.

    If you proclaim concern for the poor, yet make yourself rich from the redistribution of wealth, you lose your credibility. If you claim fidelity to “traditional” sexual values, but have affairs, you lose credibility. Eventually, there is no one left to trust except the individual, and no one wants to trust ANY external authority.

  6. We live in a time when it is difficult to share an effective testimony. People don’t seem to care. I think we’ve entered into a new time when words will not cut it. Dinner’s at church will not entice people to come. We have to walk the talk and be genuine. The rest is simply crap.

  7. I’ve read each response with interest. Thank you. I have several replies, but I prefer to simply let the tensions rest where they are.

    My account of the Enlightenment and internal/external authority obviously stirs some provocation. The way I see it, I live in a world in which those who have the privilege of being an individual function and think as individuals, yet have a mixed conscience about the world individualism granted them. Such is the nature of judgement and authority under individualism.

    We all agree, it seems, that the witness and testimony – however – is not that you, me, or any one person is the center of the universe. Perhaps, Christ is that center.

    It is a grand irony that amidst endless disagreement on reality, on faith and testimony there can still be agreement.

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