I’ve spent this week in Waco, Texas, with a group of leaders and scholars from both Baptist and Catholic churches, commissioned to dialogue together for 5 years on the theme of ‘a common witness’. It has been a surprising and wonderful time.
Whereas in previous rounds of these conversations much attention was given to careful listening to one another in order to identify and understand differences, as well as commonalities, this week we’ve moved on to discovering many shared convictions and desires for change and development. The careful listening and mutual respect are of course still a vital part of it all.
We have agreed to do ‘constructive theology’ rather than ‘comparative theology’, each group saying how we are different from the other. We’ve done that. We have also found that many of the things thought to typify particular groups of people arise not so much from their theology or faith convictions as from the cultural context which shapes and sometimes even dictates those elements. Meeting in Texas, a strong-hold of Baptist churches, makes this very clear. Much that is thought to be ‘Baptist’ here is virtually inseparable from being ‘Texan’. It is likely that this is true in many other forms of church, both Catholic and Baptist. We will discover this, more and more, I believe, as we meet in other places and learn about the home contexts of the delegates—Britain, Lithuania, Poland, USA, India, France, Jamaica, Cuba, Italy, Argentina, Australia. It is not only in Texas that we encounter a culture-Christianity!
As what might appear as an aside, then, I thought to offer a few observations on this cultural context. I mean, not unkindly I hope, to say how I see it. This is not my first visit to Texas, though it is my longest such visit and has afforded me a lot more direct engagement with the people and several places. It is of course a very large state and has many sub-cultures within it. And I have to say the local people are always friendly, welcoming; they are polite, and they drive very carefully!
First, there are very few mountains here. It is very flat. As you fly in, it is clear that it is an agricultural state, with many farms or ‘ranches’, and then also many large and extremely spread out cities. (There is apparently a distinction between farming and ranching, the former is about growing things in the earth and the latter about raising animals on the earth. So no-one would say ‘sheep farming’.)
Walking around a city, there is the constant hum or usually much louder sound of traffic. The road system is immense, and often very complex.One Uber driver in Dallas said that it takes a good year to get to know the road system, with its ‘spaghetti’ intersections of numerous highways and motorways.
It is a totally car-dependent culture. You can get your driver’s licence where younger than in my home context (two years younger) and petrol is very cheap by comparison, and cars cheaper too.
In most places there is virtually no public transport. Commuter trains are almost non existent. I was informed that there is a plan to have one to the airport in Dallas, but no one seemed to know when … (Still, they might yet beat Melbourne to one!)
So it you are too young or old to drive, don’t have a licence, or don’t have much money, you are stuck.Or deeply dependent on those who do drive.
I’ve found too that is seems to be a very wasteful society. The amount of throw-away cups, plates, cutlery (all plastic or plastic-coated cups) is simply astonishing. Even in seemingly genteel contexts we were served food on plastic plates with plastic cutlery. On the final day of our conference, I gathered up spare papers and other left-behind newspapers etc, intending to recycle them. I walked around many corridors of this college before I found one solitary recycling bin.
Concern for the environment did not seem to be evident at all.
These are perhaps unfair remarks, but they are the impressions of my week. Local people with whom I discussed these matters shared these observations, but with a sense of despair. There is little hope of making any change. (Perhaps in the current political context here other issues are more immediate. I do not judge them.)
What then has all this to do with the week of dialogue and its themes? Well, not a lot directly, one might think.
It is of course a challenge to any group, but especially those who say they are committed to a vision of life that is more than the material, a life of becoming whole together, a life of human flourishing, that we do not sit in comfort ignoring first of all the struggles of the people around us, in the very city where we are meeting.
Nor does our conversation have any credibility if we ignore the plight of the earth, indeed contribute to its pollution and abuse through our wastefulness, over-eating, unthinking use of heating and cooling (in buildings with no openable windows, for example).
If our common witness is to a quality of life we call ‘new creation’, but we ignore the life of ‘the creation’ and the mandates of the Creator to care for and nurture the earth (as indicated in Genesis 1. 26 – 28, where the humans are created to care for and be stewards of the earth; here ‘dominion’ does not mean dominate, but rather care for in the way that our ‘dominus’, provider-God, has and continually does care for us)—then our ‘witness’ has no credibility, no truth in it at all.
Put positively, our common witness to ‘good news’ about life from and with God has to relate to these dimensions of lived experience, and not only some interior aspects we might call ‘spirituality’. We are talking about justice, peace and the well-being of all life, now and in the future—not our future only, but the future of the whole creation.
In the future meetings of this group, we are going to consider some of the many elements in our regional contexts that provide challenges as well as determining aspects of our life as churches: poverty and corruption in Latin America, secularisation and immigration pressures in Europe and USA, encounter and dialogue with other religions in Asia, and issues of enculturation, including engagement with Islam, in Africa.
I expect we will see that these issues are all world-wide, even if shown in specific ways in particular contexts. And of course they the concerns of the whole human family, of which the church is only a part.
We will learn much, perhaps even more if we can also go out of the conference rooms, open the windows as it were, and let the spirit of the place(s) shape our meeting and thinking. How exciting!