A new “trinity”

One of the authors in the first issue of Dialogue reflects on the past in light of the present and asks, “Have I also come of age in the intervening 25 years? Has my own faith matured in step with my own life experience?”

Many congratulations to Dialogue on its silver anniversary! And many thanks to the editors and contributors who over many editions have done so much to produce a journal which supports the life of faith of so many students. At university, you can find yours in intellectual and social environments that are hostile to the flourishing of faith, and may struggle with a particular kind of loneliness. Dialogue has always offered an important type of companionship.

When I was asked to contribute an article in 1989, I gladly agreed to share my own experience. But I was a little nervous, as contributors to any “Volume 1, Number 1” often are. Would this publication go the way of other similar publications, ambitious but unrealistic about the demands of regular production? Well, such reservations were clearly unfounded. Dialogue has come of age. My questions then to myself must be: Have I also come of age in the intervening 25 years? Has my own faith matured in step with my own life experience?

Some things that sustain us in the “morning” of life may prove unfit for purpose as “evening” approaches. In the intervening years, I have been a father to teenage and now adult children, become a grandfather, suffered the loss of a number of family and friends, and experienced other kinds of loss too. I have also experienced joys unimagined 25 years ago. Beyond my small world, the Berlin Wall has fallen, technology drives our lives in ways unimaginable in 1989, and our planet is more fragile than we ever thought. How has my faith responded?

The first article: Faith, reason and vulnerability

I have just reread my first article, titled “Faith, reason and vulnerability.” “Faith” and “reason” are common enough twins. “Vulnerability” was the unexpected member of this trinity. My concern was that my faith would – like the ice on a frozen lake – be unable to sustain the weight of my demanding everyday life. My faith needed to be accountable, intelligent though not merely rational. I could not simply ignore difficult questions. My faith needed to respond to the serious insights of many disciplines, without being intimidated by them.

It also needed to embrace different types of intelligence. A life of faith is not merely a cerebral matter, but draws on the emotions, the will, intuitions, our social being, and our aesthetic sense. One of the great gifts that Adventist teaching has offered me is the understanding that life is multi-faceted, that we are indeed whole persons.

Faith and uncertainty

My concerns have not changed. I want to affirm that we have nothing to fear from being open to the wider world. I want to affirm that having faith may not always give us certainty. Indeed, the idea that having faith relieves us of all uncertainty is deeply false. We have to make crucial judgments and commitments. We all have to live with unanswered questions, and some of them are troubling. I want to affirm that it is important to seek the right question, even if you do not currently have the right answer.

Therein lies the vulnerability of which I speak. Sometimes your faith lies uncomfortably with advances in the world that you are studying. These can be disturbing. Some abandon faith as not sustainable in the world of modern academia or abandon the community of faith as inadequate. I have sympathy with many who lose hold of faith or leave the church, even though I regret their choice. Many give up, somehow sad that they have not been able to marry their faith with their everyday life, and that the community of faith did not recognize their struggle. I want to say that such dissonance need not be the occasion for giving up.

A new “trinity”

So here I offer a “trinity” for 2013. It has one member in common with the 1989 version. The “vulnerability” described above provides the enduring thread. David Ford says in his book The Shape of Living that as we live the Christian life in the modern world, we must expect to be repeatedly overwhelmed. Baptism by immersion is, after all, the rite of passage that symbolizes such overwhelming. The fact that we are daily overwhelmed by the world we live in – by technological advances, by the horrors of war, by natural catastrophes, by suffering, by personal failure, by disappointment – is only made livable by the fact that we are overwhelmed too by the great goodness and providence of God.

And so to the new trinity: hospitality, joy, and vulnerability. These are, in my view, three important hallmarks of the sort of life of faith I wish to lead, the sort of church to which I wish to belong.

Hospitality

First, my idea of hospitality includes, but is by no means limited to, the generous provision of food and shelter to others in one’s own home. “Hospitality,” “hospital,” “hospice” – all derive from a Latin word for “guest” or “host.” All involve extending welcome to those in varying kinds of need. For example, listening attentively in a conversation is a form of hospitality, a type of welcome all too rare today. We are too often waiting for an opportunity to deliver our own speech, too often seeing how we can move on to another conversation perhaps more to our liking. Truly being present to another person, their needs, interests, joys, and sorrows is a form of hospitality.

Hospitality includes welcoming those who may be different from ourselves in culture, background, or personality. This may not be at all easy. We may be afraid that they are not natural Facebook friends. They may be all the things that we are not. We may be afraid of the demands others may make.

The clear message of the gospels is that such people are to be given welcome in any way that we are able. Giving such people welcoming space in our lives does not mean that they or their values take over our lives. But a clear teaching of the Bible is this: strangers often bring unexpected gifts. One of the gifts that strangers most commonly bring is new insight into ourselves and our world. Their presence demands that we revisit our own views of our complex world and renew them.

Joy

The second member of my trinity is joy. I have been a teacher of ethics for many years. Ethics is about answering the question: what is the right thing to do? And so we may consult some authority or law to discover our duty. Further, we will consider a course of action and seek to anticipate its probable outcomes and act accordingly. All of this is important if we are to live well. But it is not enough.

Ethics is about character; it is about what a virtuous person would do in given circumstances. And so the fundamental ethical question becomes: what sort of person should I be? A biblical response is that an important part of a believer’s life is joy. It is easy in our kind of religion to be so focused on duty that our joy becomes obscured.

Joy is not the same as happiness and certainly not the same as fun, though they may all be members of the same family. The differences do not translate easily into other languages. In English usage, joy goes very deep in our hearts. Joy can exist in the midst of suffering and sadness. The Bible uses childbirth as a metaphor for joy. Discomfort, inconvenience, pain, and increased responsibility may all accompany joy.

You cannot plan for joy. Joy when it comes will often take us unawares. The story of the conversion of the great Christian apologist C.S. Lewis is called Surprised by Joy. It is out of our control. You may find it in worship. Equally, you may encounter joy in an airport arrivals terminal. You may experience it when listening to or making music. You may find it in the arms of your lover. You may find it when climbing a mountain. But you may also find it at the death bed of a loved one or in moments of exhaustion.

Hospitality, joy, and vulnerability

The common thread is that both hospitality and joy take us out of our comfort zone, beyond the point where we are in control. The person we welcome into our presence may challenge us. There are many biblical examples of the stranger discomforting the host. Strangers often bring gifts, but not always ones on our list. An experience of joy may catch us unawares. Thus, both acts of hospitality and experiences of joy make us vulnerable.

Much of modern life is constructed so as to minimize risk and make us less vulnerable. The difficult truth about a life of faith is that it must by its nature be a life lived in a vulnerable way. Yet a life of faith is often described as being a life defended against vulnerability, immune to the worst pains of life. We follow the supremely vulnerable one. God was made man in Jesus. I can think of no greater story of the embrace of vulnerability than this.

University life

I believe that life at university is to be lived in this way. We have to welcome into our presence those whose view of the world is different from our own, whose way of life may be very different. To engage with them is not to agree or condone. The Christian life is a life of risk. Anyone who sees it as a life of safety is distorting the matter.

This magazine is called Dialogue. “Dialogue” means the sharing of different views with a view to seeking mutual understanding. This is never achieved if one participant believes that he or she is holding all the right answers. It calls for true engagement. And such true engagement may bring real joy.

The life of faith I recommend here is not easy. It means being in those places, at those times, when real exchanges about real issues are taking place. It means having the courage to voice your opinion that may be counter-cultural – the way of Jesus has always been counter-cultural. It may mean becoming the subject of others’ amusement if they find your view of life idealized, puritanical, irrational. It means developing confidence in your God: “I know whom I have believed.”

It is about each one of us becoming the sort of person where moral conviction, trustworthiness, friendliness, welcome, intelligence, empathy, practical concern, and real presence are all bound up together in a life which will make its own impact, without the need for any contrived witness. There are many people around in universities and colleges who will respond slowly, thoughtfully, gently, firmly, lastingly to the sort of witness given by a life that is centered in God in this way.

I regret that I did not understand this better when I was a student at university. I succumbed too often to the temptation to run for safety into the presence of like-minded people. There is, of course, an important place for fellowship with other believers. But the places where robust faith is really formed are in the lecture room, in the university cafeteria, in university residences, on social networking sites. It leads you to ask yourself the really important question: is this Adventist Christian faith of mine able to support the demands and complexities of my life in 2013?

If the faith of young and intelligent Seventh-day Adventists is to have any sort of credibility – if it is to be believable by fellow students – it must be tested on university campuses around the world on a daily basis. We must confront ideas that are threatening. We must deepen our own life in God. We must find new ways of coming before God – out of necessity, not just out of interest.

This can be overwhelming. But we are the children of One who overwhelms us with His grace.

Michael Pearson (D. Phil., University of Oxford) is principal lecturer in ethics, Department of Theological Studies, Newbold College, England. E-mail: mpearson@newbold.ac.uk.