Posted by: Dan | June 8, 2007

Embracing Homelessness: Encountering Traditions along "The Way"

Ben Myers is currently going through a series called “Encounters with Tradition” on his blog (http://faith-theology.blogspot.com). Within this series he has had a number of guest bloggers speak of their transition from one tradition to another (“from Charismatic to Anglican?” or “from evangelical to post-evangelical” or “from Congregationalist to Reformed Baptist”). These posts have lead me to think a little about my own encounters (or lack thereof) with tradition, and so I thought that I would share a bit about that (pardon the introspection, I promise I will get back to writing about things more significant than myself some time soon).

Without going into too much detail about my younger years, I should emphasise that I grew up with a near total ignorance of the various Christian traditions. My parents were conservative, my mother a Christian, my father an agnostic who employed the rhetoric of Evangelicalism. I moved between four traditions while growing up — when I was very young my family attended a Mennonite church, then we moved to a Baptist church, which I continued to attend (for some reason, although I can't think of why) after my parents stopped going to church. Then, upon reaching high-school, I transferred to a Congregational church. However, I really wasn't aware of the differences between these traditions. As far as I was concerned the major differences were that the Mennonites had more farmers, the Baptists had more old people, and the Congregationalists had a kick-ass youth group.

Then, to complicate things further, after I hit my really rough years and was kicked-out by my parents, I ended up having my “road to Damascus” experience (Was it a call? Was it a conversion?) at a charismatic church. Not just any charismatic church, mind you. I had my life totally transformed at the church that birthed the “Toronto Blessing” — and my experience came in the mid-1990s, when things were going pretty crazy there (for example, I happened to be in attendance at that church when the whole “gold teeth/fillings” thing first happened — it was pretty hilarious, everybody staring into each others mouths to see if anything was happening. The whole idea seems totally nuts to me but, believe it or not, I actually did watch one person's fillings change colours). However, even after I got “jaded” off of the whole charismatic movement (a feeling I have since revisited and reevaluated in the last few years), I was still pretty blissfully unaware that there was any major difference between the Mennonite elder I knew who had experienced violent persecution in the Ukraine during the Russian revolution (and who had responded with nonviolent love and forgiveness), and the Baptist pastor who preached about moral issues in the news, and the Congregationalists who welcomed all sorts of people (including myself and some of my pretty messed-up and occasionally homeless friends), and the people at the Toronto Blessing who ran around playing “Holy Spirit paintball” (good fun, what what!).

So, still with a great deal of blissful ignorance, one thing led to another and I ended up applying to, and being accepted at, an evangelical bible college in Toronto (at the time, I didn't even know what “evangelical” meant). Whether by divine providence or by luck (I favour the former), it turned out that this bible college was viewed as something of a “black sheep” among evangelical colleges in Canada. It was considered by many to be “too ecumenical” and thus “too liberal.” However, if I had showed up to a number of other Canadian bible colleges, the way I showed up in Toronto, I learned later that I would have been turned away at the door (I was a bit of a punk rocker [I hadn't yet realised that the “punk movement” died years before], so I was wearing large torn boots, black nail polish, and I had my hair dyed and sculpted into large spikes)!

Anyway, my near total ignorance of the various Christian traditions certainly didn't prepare me for the debates that raged in dorm during my first year. Dutch Reformed kids were going on about this thing called “Calvinism,” Methodists were going on about “Arminianism,” the Baptists were attacking the one Roman Catholic guy about “infant baptism,” but he was being backed by the “high-church Anglicans,” whereas the Salvation Army folks were going at everybody about all the “sacraments,” plus they were throwing in this crazy talk about the poor, which was upsetting a lot of the Pentecostals, and so on and so forth.

Needless to say, I initially felt like I was at a disadvantage because I was so ignorant of all these things but, after the first year passed, I actually came to see my initial ignorance as an advantage. It seemed to me that most people had been “indoctrinated” into one particular tradition, and had only learned about the other traditions as examples of heresies, apostasies, misguided good intentions, or just plain nonsense. Thus, I think my ignorance allowed me to more easily appreciate the unique gifts and strengths that the various traditions bring to the Church. However, although I saw many things that were good and beautiful about each tradition, I also saw many things that I questioned or saw as flaws in each tradition. Couple that with some concluding negative experiences I had with the Congregational church I had left to attend college (to make a long story short, they basically dissolved the youth group after the original youth pastor moved on, and this had tragic and lasting results for some of my friends, for whom that youth group was their only life-line), and I made the decision to not root myself in any particular tradition. In fact, I dove into the community that existed at that college (and, for some reason, I managed to attend that college when the community was very vibrant), and I saw that as my participation in “church.” The rest of my years in Toronto, both during my undergrad and after, were spent questioning the whole idea of the “traditional” or “institutional” church, and exploring other ways of being or doing “church” (first, in the college community, then in the community agency I worked at that journeyed alongside of street youth).

However, after a few years on focusing on Christian “social service” agencies as “church,” I began to question most of the ways Christians engage with those on the margins of society. At the same time I began to read Hauerwas (and some of his students like Cavanaugh, and Bell Jr.), and my world was rocked. I decided it was time to continue Christian studies, and so I moved to Vancouver and began a Master's at Regent college, where I became increasingly convinced that the transformation of the world lies in the Church being the Church (although it should be noted that a number of my profs at Regent would strenuously disagree with this “Hauerwasian” way of thinking). Add to this some serious study of the sacraments and the role of liturgies and, for the first time in years, I found myself eager to attend a local church (indeed, I felt that I desperately needed to attend a local church!). Unfortunately, attending a local church demands particularity, and I was confronted with having to choose between various traditions — a decision I still found exceedingly difficult to make. Indeed, for two years I struggled with the idea of joining the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox churches, but ended up being unable to do so — in part because of particular beliefs and practices found in those traditions, but mostly because choosing one tradition meant, to a certain extent, rejecting other traditions.

Consequently, the two main factors in deciding upon a local church ended up being: (1) a church that is actually a part of the community in which I live, a church within walking distance; and (2) a church that has some focus upon journeying alongside of those on the margins (the third factor I should mention would be a weekly celebration of the Eucharist). Consequently, I find myself attending an Alliance church that is very focused on being a church for those on the margins, and that also celebrates the Eucharist every week. However, I am not an official “member” of that church, nor would I ever describe myself as “Alliance.”

Therefore, I find myself to have undergone a transition from one form of ecclesial homelessness to another. Initially I was unrooted in any particular tradition because I was ignorant of the distinctions between the various traditions within Christianity. Now I find myself unrooted in any particular tradition because I am very aware of the distinctions between the various traditions within Christianity. Thus, the only title that I do apply to myself would be the title of “Christian,” and I would describe myself as a member of the “Church.” I know that the vague nature of this position aggravates some, just as I know how the trendiness of positions like this one aggravate others (myself included!), but I really cannot, with good conscience, get any more specific than that. Thus, I would not describe myself as “evangelical” (I am not evangelical), nor as “conservative” or “liberal” (I am neither), nor as “Alliance” (I am not Alliance), nor as any other denominational title.

In Acts (and, implicitly, in Mark's Gospel as well?), the Church is called “The Way.” I like this title because it reminds us that the Church has not yet arrived at her destination, she is not yet who she should be. It reminds us that being a Christian involves journeying from one place to another. Rather than being about simply affirming this or that doctrine or confession, the Church as “The Way” reminds us that our faith is about the active pursuit of a particular trajectory. Christianity is not about membership in any particular tradition, it is about being a member of the body of Christ and communally embodying the good news that has been shared with us.

Therefore, we must remember that all the various Christian traditions are but tracks along “The Way” of Jesus Christ. We must remember that we are never to become too comfortable or too “at home” within a particular tradition, for even our strongest, or oldest, or most appealing, traditions are themselves experiencing homelessness until the time when Christ returns, and God decides to make his home among us.

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