My ship of faith has many sails

What it means to live into particular religious identity in the midst of spiritual plurality

by Ken Sehested

        Near the end of seminary training, I made a listing of what had been the most important books in my theological education. As one reared in deep-water Baptist tradition, I was shocked to recognize that more than two-thirds of my “most important” guides were Roman Catholic authors.

        I now say that while my ship of faith has many sails, its mainsail is that legacy flowing from the anabaptist outburst of the 16th century (though that movement’s precursors stretch back to 14th century figures like the Czech priest Jan Hus and the Oxford theologian John Wycliffe—and even 13th century figures like St. Francis in Italy and the Beguine communities, a lay, semi-monastic order of single women (later repressed) in the Low Countries of Europe, all of whom dissented from  the church’s wealth and privilege.

        Long story short, my anchorage among the Radicals stems from two reasons: First, because of their thoroughgoing affirmation of what I call the “democratizing of access to the holy” and, correspondingly, their undermining of all notions of political sovereignty. Second, the anabaptist majority’s (there were dissenters on this score) refusal, on theological grounds, to wield the sword in defense of the state. (For more on this, see “Public reasoning and ekklesial reckoning: Commentary on the Vatican conference calling for ‘spirituality and practice of active nonviolence’ to displace church focus on just war” and "Enough of this! Toward a theology of nonviolence: Why I don’t often use the language of ‘pacifism’.”)

        The unfortunate unintended consequence in our day of emphasizing equal access to the holy is thinking that if it’s equal, it’s easy—requiring no struggle, no training, no effort or discipline. And if the sovereign claims of political institutions (including ecclesial ones) are overturned, then the solitary soul becomes sovereign.

        This form of sovereignty is in fact the worst form of bondage in that it ignores the need and purpose for making promises, of honoring vows, of establishing covenants, of participating in any form of community—or experiencing simple empathy—whatsoever. This, I would say, is hell itself.

        Back to the many sails: I believe that every denominational tradition (well . . . maybe there are a few stinkers) represents a gift from the Holy Spirit meant for the whole church. The vocation of those whose vision is especially shaped by one of these gifts is to be a steward and advocate of its insights within the larger body. Sometimes, though, the whole body simply squashes the newcomers. Other times, the newcomers vainly assume their access to the holy is privileged above all others, as if we knew God's one and only Presence.

        None of us live in a constant state of levitation, hovering above history, devoid of parochial bents and peculiar accents, free of the limitations imposed by ethnicity, culture, nationality, gender-orientation-race-class and on and on. At our best we discover that such limitations are malleable. Our job is to discover these given contours, for each is a gift; and then to explore such limits in fruitful ways where they come up against the "other," not as imperialists or for conquest but as friends and companions.

        This is what it means to live into particular religious identity in the midst of spiritual plurality.

        Ironically, those with the most clarity about the center of identity are better equipped to explore its porous boundaries.

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