We Stumble Towards Love
We begin in Texas and end in heaven – as good a journey as any could hope for. But to tell you something about my theology and spirituality as a young person, I have to talk about late 20th-century immigration in America.
I’m in a high school classroom north of Dallas in 1994, making a theater set with my friend. We are freshmen. You know then that my friends are vitally important to me: I’m 14. And you know that it’s the Bible Belt.
This you might not know: The population of Collin County, TX, went from approximately 70,000 in 1970 to over 700,000 in 2010, and immigrants came to the republic of Texas from all over the world. My closest friends’ parents were born in Iran, China, and Russia and fled their respective political regimes but kept their faiths – Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish.
A perky blonde bounds up to the Russian Jew and me and says to my friend, “No offense, but you’re going to hell.” I tell this story not because it’s unique but because for people born in the 1970s and 1980s, it isn’t. And it shaped my theology.
Theology takes place in life. That’s sort of the point of theology. Many of my closest friendships have always been with non-Christians, which is to say that I have come to know and love God through non-Christians, which is to say that exclusive salvation claims are incongruous with how I experience the God of universal love.
The Story of Salvation
Doctrine around salvation has never been a settled matter. It has been in a state of change since the New Testament. Paul thought Christ was coming back in his lifetime. Then the letters to Ephesians and Colossians connected salvation to rightly ordered lives. The early martyrs made suffering a pivotal part of salvation. Ignatius of Antioch declared, “Suffer me to become food for the wild beasts, through whose instrumentality it will be granted me to attain to God.”
Augustine complicated things (still does). He was less sure who was saved and who was reprobate. “We cannot know,” he wrote, who among us is sinner or saint. The Reformers picked up on the not knowing, each in his own way. We cannot know, but we can all acknowledge our fallenness (Luther), work towards holiness (Wesley), attend to right learning and action (Calvin).
We cannot know. We’re alive on this side. We can, though, develop and deepen robust theologies of universal salvation that capture the energy of the pluralism of our times. Should we adopt “thinner theologies,” as Philip Quinn argues?1 Or is the answer found in Marilyn McCord Adams’s thick descriptions of universal judgment in which there is a public hearing of all one’s actions – good and bad for every person?2
Something. I’m not sure what, but something. We can do better than exclusion or tolerance or patronizing.
We can stumble towards love.
I can’t talk about theology without bringing up the march of American legal history. Children do children things on the playground behind the church I now serve just outside of Chicago. The littlest ones loft their legs unbelievably high to mount the steps of the slide to keep up. Old snow creeps into the tops of socks. Sticks transform from swords to spades to hopscotch borders in a moment.
Watching these kids, it’s not obvious which kids go with which parents even on a weekday afternoon in a neighborhood full of military families. The ethnic and gender mix is a dramatic contemporary fact. It’s fashioned by society’s slow acceptance of difference. It’s shaped by the sequence of congressional acts, legal cases, and constitutional amendments my ancestors passed – Brown v. Board, Loving v. Virginia, Fair Housing Act, Amendments 13, 14, 15, 19, 24, as well as the near-success of the Equal Rights Amendment and also that recent triumph of my peers, the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act.
The Long Battle of the Heart
Overt rights fights have been waged over many decades. Consciousness has been raised, if only enough to coin terms of political correctness. How do we fight that harder, longer battle of the heart? What is equal class opportunity? What does it look like to stand with oppressed persons today in a way that isn’t token? Living theologically after Gustavo Gutierrez and James Cone keeps forcing me to ask such questions.3
There’s something of economic and architectural history in my theology and spirituality too. I preach and celebrate in front of an ornate stone reredos (Middle English: “back behind”) that was built with robber baronish money a hundred-odd years ago. The congregation thought about trying to sell off the building or parts of it during the latest recession, but the local real estate market was so shook up that no one bit on the offer. I’m glad.
The carvings behind the altar are all saints of the British Isles. Among them are St. Hilda, teacher and political strategist; St. Aidan, who worked throughout his life with people on the margins, particularly children and slaves; St. Bridget of Kildare, an artist; St. Eanswith, the founder of the first women’s monastery in England; and St. Edward the Confessor, a monarch who instituted tax reform. They performed the miracle of living as best they could and transforming their societies as they were able. Bless them.
They preside over our congregational comings and goings. Would the church I serve make them gasp? The unbaptized young and old take communion. The cohabitating come forward for prayers for the betrothed, some for their third marriages. Only a statistical fraction of the babies here were made and born and cared for through their first few months without some sort of medical intervention. The parents are so tired that sometimes they don’t even take off the baby carrier straps before collapsing into a pew and handing an infant off to some proxy aunt or uncle.
I hope the saints of yore would adore us – us with our ardent efforts to be good employers and employees and job candidates and spouses and parents and singles who gather again and again to know and love and serve God better.
Augustine (Him again? Him again – he’s too much a part of the cultural lexicon to ignore) has that part where he talks about the two cities of God – the one on earth and the one in heaven of the saints. Maybe, though, there are three churches: One is the pristine church of collective imagination, where it always resides unadulterated and unmarred by sinful motivations or the society around it. Then there is the real-time church of the unwashed us. Third is the church in heaven, the place of all the saints who have gone before us, where they are rooting for the church on earth to keep on trucking, keep on trying to learn more and love more.
Jesus bids the working stiffs “follow me,” and, miracle of miracles, they did. We do. But none of us has wholly sure footing as we pad after the great I AM. My generation with impossibly long lives ahead of it will do church entirely differently and entirely the same and take our place in the river of saints who tried and tripped and tried again.
Kat Banakis ’03 B.A,’09 M.Div. is the author of Bubble Girl: An Irreverent Journey of Faith (Chalice, 2013), which focuses on intergenerational theological reflection. She works fulltime in data analytics and as a priest at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Evanston, IL.
1. Phillip Quinn, “Towards Thinner Theologies: Hick and Alston on Religious Diversity” in Essays in Philosophy of Religion, edited by Christian Miller (Oxford University Press, 2006).
2. Marilyn McCord Adams, Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God (Cornell Studies in the Philosophy of Religion, Cornell University Press, 2000).
3. Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation (Orbis, 1973); James Cone, Black Theology and Black Power (Harper & Row, 1969).