Tuesday 4 July 2017

"Defending" Christian Faith in "A Secular Age"

This week I will be wrapping up a series of conversations I have been hosting in KPU Multi-Faith Centre focused on a massive book entitled A Secular Age by Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor. The book is basically telling a story, a story which answers the question: how did we get from the year 1500, in which almost everyone believed in God, to the year 2000, in which it is not only easy to not believe in God but it is almost the assumed default position?

The conversation group has been an interesting mix of Christian staff and students, and a whole range of atheist/unbelieving voices, including two of the humanist chaplains who work alongside me in the Multi-Faith Centre. Having such a mix was definitely a challenge at some points – often one or another of us would make a comment from our own perspective which simply couldn’t connect with some others in the room – but for the most part the dialogue was fruitful and mutually respectful. It’s important for neither believers nor unbelievers to shy away from discussing together the things that matter most. What is the meaning of human life and existence? What is the good life supposed to be? How can we live and work together despite crucially important differences between us?

A Secular Age is an excellent way into these discussions because, though Taylor is a Catholic Christian and does not hide his faith, he is not attempting here to say what someone should or shouldn’t believe. Rather, he is trying to describe the history of the age we live in and also to describe how it feels to live in such an age.

Which isn’t to say that there is nothing to disagree with. One of Taylor’s important points is that contemporary atheism isn’t simply a natural progression, it isn’t an obvious position to arrive it. In fact, it depends on a whole host of factors, many of which arose in a distinctly Christian culture and society. We wouldn’t have our contemporary world, even contemporary atheism, without Christianity. This is a challenge to those who think that unbelief and our contemporary society of law and order are natural conclusions to come to.

Even though I do affirm the importance of dialogue between these different positions, at the end of this book study I am partially discouraged. Even though Charles Taylor and I aren’t trying to convert unbelievers, I still was hoping for some shift or change in my relationship with my atheist friends. But there hasn’t been much in that regard. I often felt as if they weren’t understanding Taylor’s argument and were simply taking him on as if he were a standard defender of Christian faith.

Instead, what Taylor was actually trying to do was muddy the waters. Things are not so obvious and clear for the contemporary unbeliever. Both historically and ethically there are lots of complicating factors to show how unbelief is not obvious. And that is basically the gist of Taylor’s strategy: not to show why Christianity is necessarily true, but to show that atheism isn’t in any better of a position; it's not the obvious default that many of it's defenders take it to be.

And after that has been done, the rest of up to the life of the Holy Spirit in Christian faith and community. Rational arguments, while important, can only get us so far. People have to be moved by what they see in the Christian life. And that is precisely what we are trying to accomplish here, ever so slowly, at KPU, and also in the Church in general. We need to live out the life of love, forgiveness, and grace that we are called to as followers of Jesus. That is certainly the most powerful apologetic “argument.” For the work of Christian witness, both in our communities and in the lives of those who are drawn to them, is not our work, but the work of the Holy Spirit. 

Thursday 25 May 2017

The Weakness of Christian Leadership

This summer three students and I will be reading through a book by Henri Nouwen, In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership. Kwantlen Christian Fellowship, the club I help support, has three executive team members, and we decided to do some reading on Christian leadership over the summer months. I suggested this book.

Henri Nouwen was a professor of pastoral theology, psychology, and Christian spirituality for many years at prestigious schools in America: Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard. However, he felt a spiritual calling away from a life of the educated elites and towards a more exclusive focus on simplicity, love, and community. He joined the L’Arche Community in Toronto, a global network of people living together and sharing Christian life. Many of the community members are people with disabilities.

In his new community, Henri found that his relationships to the community members with disabilities was on a completely different level from his relationships in his previous life. They were not impressed with his academic credentials, his many books, and all the ‘useful’ things he was able to do. This set him on a new footing and reminded him that the deepest form of relationship is not built on successes and accomplishments, but on God’s intimate relationship with his people in Jesus.
And that is what is important about Christian leadership, and Christian life more generally, too. Nouwen writes,

“I am deeply convinced that the Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self. That is the way Jesus came to reveal God’s love. The great message that we have to carry, as ministers of God’s Word and followers of Jesus, is that God loves us not because of what we do or accomplish, but because God has created and redeemed us in love and has chosen us to proclaim that love as the true source of all human life.”

Do we as Christians, do I as a chaplain here at KPU have the courage to be irrelevant? I confess, I fail at this all too often. Not that I ‘succeed’ at being relevant, but I worry about my lack of 'accomplishments.' But I think the deepest Christian fruit is borne when I find my own weakness to be a source of strength and befriend those who are also willing to share their weakness. For Christian life, Christian leadership, and Christian community is not built on the power of mutual exclusion or self-assuredness, but of utter weakness in our own sin and brokenness, depending wholly on God. As a small group of us read in the Psalms this morning:

“God alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall never be shaken” (Psalm 62:2). 

Wednesday 8 March 2017

The Beauty of the Gospel

What do we mean when we say that the Christian gospel is beautiful? Beauty, while escaping precise definition, is a name for what draws us in, attracts our attention, not in a superficial way of merely catching our eye, but of a deeper, more holistic yearning. Our whole being is drawn towards the beautiful by the beautiful. If the gospel is beautiful, then, it is because the person and story of Jesus captures us in this very way. We find every dimension of ourselves drawn to this person. Jesus did many things: he was born, he learned, he taught, he healed, he comforted, he challenged, he died, and he was raised again. And when we read this story and see it lived out in the lives of fellow Christians we are drawn into it not just because it is true, but also centrally because it is beautiful. In fact, the truth of the gospel is its beauty and its beauty is its truth.

This is not to say that the gospel only appears as alluring. When it addresses humanity in humanity’s sin, the gospel might be experienced as challenging and difficult. And this is nowhere more evident than with the cross. Such a shameful and torturous death does not seem beautiful. But here, most of all, beauty shines forth. Jesus Christ, crucified for love, compassion, and infinite generosity, surrounded by sinners, dying in the midst of sinful world, but for the sake of the world, and rising to resurrected life, victorious over sin and death. Creation is restored, all things are being made new by God’s act. Beautify shines forth in creation through God’s saving action in Christ.

And so this beauty is here at KPU, too. In a small group of students joined in prayer, the beauty of Christ is present. We are drawn to each other here on campus because of this person, this story. In it we see the beauty of creation and so see it, too, in the faces of each other. And in different ways, this Christian community bears witness to the beauty of the gospel. Love for others, commitment to community, prayer and engagement with scripture, contemplating the figure of Christ, being attentive to the beautiful moments of everyday existence – all these things we at Kwantlen Christian Fellowship endeavor to live into. And if the beauty of the gospel is made known, in however small a way, then the truth and goodness of Christ are surely present, too. 

Wednesday 4 January 2017

Christianity: Private or Public at KPU?

A new year at KPU! Today is the first day of classes, but a post-Christmas lull is still hanging over the campus. It feels as though the university isn’t quite ready to wake up and get back to work. I’ve been alone in my office most of the morning, plugging away at different emails, planning for the coming semester, and generally getting settled back into life at KPU. I’m looking forward to connecting with some students this afternoon before heading to a planning meeting for World Interfaith and Harmony Week coming up in February.

One new project that I will be undertaking with some students this semester is the implementation of an Alpha course. Alpha is a world-wide program that introduces the basic principles of Christian faith and life in a hospitable and generous way. Over the coming weeks we’ll be advertising for it around campus before having our first meeting on Jan. 25.

This is an evangelistic project. Though non-coercive, the aim is, truly, to spread the gospel, to grow the Church, to lead non-Christians to faith and hope in Jesus. And, as always on a campus like KPU, I am uncertain of the endeavour. Not that I doubt its importance or worth. But KPU represents an educational institution which displays in many aspects of its life a complete indifference to questions of religious faith and practice. It is highly pluralistic; students, staff, and faculty come from all different faith backgrounds. But in that pluralism there is a real privatizing of religion. Christian faith, or any faith, is then interpreted as just a “personal choice.” And in presenting a program like Alpha I worry that Christian faith is understood in just such a private, personal way.

But I also struggle with wondering whether there is not an advantage to faith being a private thing, or if not “advantage” at least a neutrality. Because KPU is, largely, a safe place. Perhaps, from my theological perspective, it is a rather uninteresting and boring place, but I don’t really know what would be gained from insisting on the public nature of Christian faith, especially when many faiths and worldviews seem to co-exist very peacefully. What would a public Christian faith even mean in a place like KPU?

However, I do trust that Jesus is lord of all creation, not just our private lives. And when the love of God in Jesus is not made public or when religion in general is privatized, there is usually someone else’s interests who are being served. I don't exactly know who that might be at KPU, but I attempt to remain vigilant and aware. So I’m moving forward with this Alpha program with some perplexity and uncertainty, but hopeful that the lordship of Christ over all creation will somehow, by the grace of God, be made known through a simple introduction to Christian belief. 

Thursday 8 December 2016

Exams, Trouble, and the Mystery of Advent

Exam season has already begun here at KPU as we make our way through Advent. Walking down the now quiet halls of the university, free from the busyness of regular classes, I glance through classroom doors at rooms full of students hunched over the set of questions or problems their professor has prepared for them. Exams are not enjoyable. The stress of cramming an enormous amount of information into your head coupled with the uncertainty of what is actually going to be on the exam does not make for a peaceful transition into the Advent and then Christmas seasons.

I’ve been a student my whole conscious life. For the past eight years I have been either in university or grad school, and every December brings the same mix of excitement and dread. I love Advent, it’s my favorite season of the Church year. The haunting Advent hymns of waiting and longing, both for the mystery of the Incarnation of God in Jesus of Nazareth and for the second coming, where all things will be brought to completion in Christ, inspire in me a curious mix of giddiness and peace. There is nothing quite like plugging in some indoor Christmas lights on a chilly December evening and listening to Loreena McKennitt’s “Snow” in that gentle, dull light. Utter peace in midst of the thrilling adventure of waiting for God.

But, alas, I so rarely get to enjoy that experience without the throb of anxiety in my chest over the sheer volume of school work that accompanies the end of the semester. It’s simply the burden of the pattern and timing of our education system, aligned to place on students the most burdens when the church calendar calls for the most quiet reflection.

However, there are of course moments in every day, in every hour, where the mystery of God among us calls us out of our frantic pace, whether we are a student or not. It seems like a luxury to even have the opportunity to reflect on this mystery when so many people both around the world and locally are struggling to make sense of their own lives, or maybe have even given up on that task all together. (Just this afternoon I was listening to Bob Marley, that quintessential summer musician, who spells it out plainly in a chorus: “so much trouble in the world”).

But, in fact, it is in the midst of that trouble that the mystery of the incarnation calls us to contemplate and reflect. In a world held captive by sin and suffering, whether for the university student or for the countless other troubles that burden humanity, God has mysteriously, beautifully, come to us proclaiming salvation.

So peace and rest in the Advent season might initially seem like a misuse of time in exam season. Or it might seems like a luxury we should forgo when so much suffering in the world calls for action (or at least guilt), not contemplation. But contemplation is an action, a “non-act act,” by which we connect ourselves with the source and fountain of all true love and hospitality: the transcendent, immanent, beautiful, and mysterious triune God. There is deep trouble in the world; but deeper still is infinite beauty. 

Monday 24 October 2016

It's been too long!

My last post was July 19th, 2016, which makes my absence in the blogosphere over three months! I won’t offer much by way of excuse. Hopefully those who are interested in the KPU Chaplaincy have found other ways of keeping up with what I’ve been experiencing and exploring.

The semester had a good beginning. Familiar faces have been showing up to the regular Thursday night community meals and though attendance has been sporadic at times, there has more often than not been a small group of friends gathering to share a meal, conversation, reflection on scripture, and just time to hang out. Ordered pizza has been the fare of choice; well, mostly my choice as Thursdays have become slightly busier days for me, transiting from Latin at UBC out to KPU for the afternoon/evening. Doesn’t leave me much time to throw together a pot of soup!

(Though, for those Fleetwood CRC readers of my blog, I’m hoping to have congregation participation in making soup and passing it on for our regular meals. If that sounds interesting to you, please keep in touch! Frozen soup, I expect, would be most convenient. We’ll talk.)

I’ve also been privileged to reconnect with students from last year and get to know a number of new faces. Students from lots of different Christian traditions and viewpoints, all with something unique to offer KPU and to offer our little Christian community here. And so, as usual, much of my time is wonderfully spent over coffee with students (as well as staff and faculty) hearing about their studies, work, and life in general.

My first attempt at hosting a film series film was something of a failure; Friday nights, I now know, are not a good night for hosting events on campus. But, I am committed to it through the end of the semester, so we will see how the following two attempts go (the series is scheduled for the last Friday of each month: September, October, and November). The next film is “Noah,” a rather creative interpretation of the famous Biblical story. I simply hope it will draw people in and stimulate good discussion.

And this coming Sunday I am hosting an event on evangelism and KPU at Fleetwood CRC. What is evangelism? And how should it look on the KPU campus? My hunch is that there is more to evangelism than merely getting people to understand and accept Christian doctrine (though that is very likely an important part of it). So I am hopeful that the evening will be a time for spiritual and theological reflection as well as a chance to share about what's going on at KPU. 

Tuesday 19 July 2016

Recent Activities and Future Passivities

So what's been going on at the KPU Chaplaincy lately? Well, this summer we have begun weekly meetings with the on campus Christian Club, Kwantlen Christian Fellowship (KCF). We share a pot of soup and some bread, have a conversation, doing some dishes, and play games. It's been a fruitful time of getting to know one another and also exploring topics of Christian faith and practice.

The conversations have mostly been focussing on Christian practices: spiritual disciplines, prayer, and Christian community, especially. For two weeks we talked about the practice of living and working in community. The main theme that I took away from those conversations (also having learned this from Rowan Williams and the Desert Fathers) is that there simply is no such thing as life with God that excludes life with others. Though it is tempting to exclude such messy and uncomfortable matters as concrete people with disagreements, differences of opinion, and difficult personalities, there really is no other option: Christian life invites us to see our relationship with God and our relationship with our neighbours as mutually intertwined, not having one without the other.

That has been a helpful thing to keep in mind as we continue to work towards a fruitful and vibrant Christian community on campus. KPU has drawn together students from all different walks of life, and my hope is that KCF can be a place where we genuinely explore differences in personality, theology, and opinion while also remaining united in the common goal of following Jesus, understanding who he is, and how we can faithfully live a Christian calling on campus. It is not a simple or easy task. But these regular meetings with about 5 or 6 people have begun what I trust is a community in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Aside from these Christian club meetings, I have also continued to host a philosophy club which focusses broadly on philosophy of religion and cultural criticism. The discussions have been fruitful and sometimes very long. My main aim is to present a coherent critique of materialism and secularism. Since the rest of the participants in the club hold to those two positions with varying degrees of enthusiasm, the disagreements quickly arise! But they are generally quite hospitable and interesting disagreements, never degenerating into poor quality of conversation.

Finally, I have also been meeting with a Muslim student, fostering interreligious dialogue while reading through Miroslav Volf's book Allah: A Christian Response. This young man I'm meeting with is very knowledgeable about his own Muslim faith and heritage and so the discussions have been meaningful and interesting.

Pretty soon the summer semester will be winding to a close and the campus will empty out for a good chunk of August before classes resume in September. In August I'll be taking a three day spiritual retreat, which I am very much looking forward to. Working on establishing a Christian community is exciting but its important for the sake of that community that we take time in solitude. Heni Nouwen says that in solitude we come in contact with that which originally brought and sustains us in community at all. For community is not merely built on outward practices: "Solitude," he writes, "puts us in touch with a unity that precedes all unifying activities. In solitude we become aware that we were together before we came together and that life is not a creation of our will but rather an obedient response to the reality of our being united" (Clowning in Rome, 14).