Theology is a wonderful speculative art. Some — like myself — take delight in discussing realms of possibility that lie beyond the full apprehension of the physical senses. Since theology, ultimately, must rest (at least in part) on surmises, hopes, and faith claims, it lends itself — in the hands of some — to unresolvable bickering. As committed as I am to theological contemplation (I am a sometimes seminary professor, after all), I think hoping too much for earthly concord on theological topics is bound to prove folly.
Like my pietistic forebears in the faith, I find great hope (perhaps the greatest hope) for genuine Christian unity and faithful interreligious relationships in shared commitments to working to meet the needs of people in our communities. I have seen it happen so many times . . . people from different religious traditions brought close to one another as they worked to help others.
A great example of this was in a small town in Michigan over ten years ago. I went there to conduct a two-week-long research project for my doctoral studies. I worked with a friend of mine who was the local United Methodist pastor. He did months of preparatory work. When he arrived there, the community had a couple hundred young people living in an economically depressed area. There were few prospects for jobs. Community morale was low. And concern for the future of the children and youth was very high.
For about a hundred and fifty years, however, the town had been divided among half a dozen or so churches. Most people had few — if any — deep connections with people who belonged to different churches than they themselves belonged to . . . even if they were living on the same block of the street.
The churches came together under the courageous leadership of a couple pastors in town. They held a revival in the city park to raise awareness of the situation faced by the young people. They raised money for a skateboard park. They attended worship at each other’s churches. And they planned a common youth ministry together.
I was there to take pictures, to talk with people, and to observe. What I saw was remarkable. Several of the youth looked deeply moved that hundreds of people in the town were coming together to try to help them during those hard economic times. They were trying to offer them more than despair. What they offered was love and practical help.
In coming together for the youth, the members of the different churches came to explore differences and similarities among them. Two women living on opposite sides of the same block for sixty years met one another for the first time and became friends.
Then, at the end of my time there, I saw the community come together as it never had before. The twin towers fell on 911 and Christians of different denominations came together under one roof to pray and weep with one another.
Imagination and courage opened new possibilities in that town. Christians of different traditions came together and discovered new love for one another.
It makes me wonder, now, why we fixate on differences as cause for division at all. When we look at the needs of our communities, we see invitations from God to join together in meaningful ways; ways that are themselves invitations to discover and love one another.
What are the needs in your community? Who might you invite to work with you to meet those needs?