It’s been just over a week since I’ve returned from Wild Goose, an outdoor festival dedicated to social justice, music and the arts, held in the rolling hills of central North Carolina. Since returning to my home in DC and reentering the world of beds with mattresses, warm showers, and restaurant meals, my mind has been racing furiously to try to pin down some take-aways, or key lessons from my short retreat.
It’s perhaps fitting to the title of the festival–the wild goose is a Celtic symbol for the untamable Holy Spirit–that though I keep circling around certain themes and ideas, my goal of putting them in to precise words strung together in neat sentences has thus far proven elusive. Even so, the contrast between my weekend at Wild Goose and my return to life inside the beltway has thrown a few things in to sharp relief:
1) The Christian narrative carries more substance than our political frameworks allow.
With my blackberry back in hand, and facebook and twitter only a click away, it didn’t take me long to discover the most recent volley in the ongoing culture wars, lobbed when Rep. Todd Akin declared “at the heart of liberalism, really, is a hatred for God.” The erroneous and destructive either/or mentality betrayed in Congressman Akin’s statement is one we are well familiar with: one can either be a liberal, or believe in God; either a Christian in the mold of the Religious Right, or a heretic, etcetera, etcetera. Wild Goose completely obliterated these paradigms.
Present at the festival were women, men, and children from all across the country, from a variety Christian backgrounds. There were 20-somethings exploring the emergent church and new monasticism, young families from evangelical and non-denominational congregations, and indomitable mainliners more than twice my age. Some were more conservative, others progressive.
The cohesive force that drew such a motley crew of disciples together wasn’t a desire to forge a single Christian identity, but an understanding that the Holy Spirit is moving within this moment in Christian history, and if we let it lead us, the result will be something none of us can anticipate. Wild Goose did not have a political agenda, but an overarching theme to emerge is that Christianity is far bigger than our politics allow it to be and it will not be pigeon holed into convenient left/right, liberal/conservative frameworks.
2) Politics matters
One of the sessions at Wild Goose that surprised me by how engaging I found it to be was with Frank Schaeffer, son of the influential conservative evangelist and theologian Francis Schaeffer. His parents, Francis and Edith, were intimately involved with the early rise of the Religious Right and in cementing its relationship with the Republican Party. Since that time, Frank has left the cause and no longer identifies with that movement. While his talk was largely about his own journey of faith, there was one compelling tangential argument that caught my attention. Schaeffer asserted that there is a direct connection between the tactics adopted decades ago by the Religious Right to demonize government and current pushes for deregulation and the dismantling of social programs like Medicare.
It bears repeating that Wild Goose was not born out of any political agenda and drew people from across ideological perspectives. The festival was about the future of the Church and how the Church engages our broader culture. But that conversation does have political implications. At the heart of current public discourse is the question of who we are fundamentally called to be as a people. That is a conversation the Church must engage.
This week in Washington, debates rage on about the debt ceiling, and some in Congress are threatening to force the country into default. The result would be an inability for us to pay our men and women fighting overseas, deep cuts to Social Security and Medicare when families are already struggling, and adding billions more in interest to the debt. Are we a country that promotes family? Are we caring for those who dedicate their lives to public service? Are we defending the cause of the widow and the orphan? The Church must never find itself in bed with any political party or structure, but our politics have moral implications. And, as Schaeffer testified, how the Church engages moral issues in the public sphere has political implications. As we discern the future of the Church in our specific American context, how the Church chooses to use its moral authority and act as the conscience of our political structures does matter.
3) Theology matters
This is where I might differ from some of my fellow festival attendees in our manner of speech, if not in actual substance. A lot of commentary has been made about how shifting trends in Christianity, especially among younger generations, is refocusing on praxis over dogma, how to act rather than what to believe. As such, not a few times at the festival theology was spoken of as something that is irrelevant, or can be divisive and harmful. But a closer listening to those making such claims revealed that what they were arguing against wasn’t theology, but bad theology.
Bad theology divorces belief from action; it breeds self righteousness and division because it isn’t tempered by humility and an understanding of sin; it establishes litmus tests for who’s in and who’s out. And at their heart, the arguments being made against bad theology were in fact theological.
It is a theological claim to say that God created us to be in relationship and community, that human beings are limited and cannot know as God knows, and that the scope of God’s love and grace is broader than our imaginations. And all of those theological claims have implications for how we live our lives. As the Spirit continues to move, having the theological language to express what is happening in the life of the Church will be critically important in connecting us with all that has come before and helping us forge a way forward.
The Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew stated in an address a few years ago
True progress is a balance between preserving the essence of a certain way of life and changing things that are not essential. Christianity was born a revolutionary faith – and we have preserved that. In other words, paradoxically, we have succeeded in not changing a faith that is itself dedicated to change.
That is the spirit I saw on the camp grounds of North Carolina.
Much is being made about this period in the history of Christianity; scholars are calling it a watershed moment that will shape the Church for the next several hundred years. Though there is a lot of renegotiating of our past, and reevaluating the role of our institutions and traditions, those committed to the work are committed first and foremost to preserving the faith.
As we struggle to discern where the Spirit is leading us, we know that it is not toward something radically new, but deeper in to that revolutionary, wild goose of a faith that has been at the heart of who we are all along.