My trip to Ciudad Victoria and Mexico City for Earlham School of Religion’s Theology in Context course has proved extremely challenging for me on a personal level. It was not a difficult trip, not a hard experience at the time. I did not feel unduly challenged while I was in Mexico, beyond getting fatigued at interpreting at one point and getting a little sick in Mexico City. The truth is that this excursion felt closer in flavor to a ministry trip rather than a theology course. It felt almost like an extension of my supervised ministry, which involves a great deal of traveling ministry among Friends. I enjoyed very much our time with Friends in Ciudad Victoria, as well as our few days of adventure in Mexico City, and it was not this experience per se which was difficult. Instead, it was the ramifications for me, as one who feels called to evangelism, of the required reading for the course, Models of Contextual Theology, by Stephen Bevans and the reflection that this book demanded of me in order to attempt an answer to the question, “what is the kernel of the Gospel?” My wrestling with this question, along with at the same time observing various strains of Christianity in Mexico and interacting with an American Buddhist friend (via internet), has deeply challenged my own sense of what the core of my faith is, what is essential in my own life of faith and what is merely cultural, and what it is that I am called to communicate.
Before arriving in Ciudad Victoria, as I read Bevans’ book, I felt fairly confident that I had a basic idea of what the gospel kernel was: An essential Quaker vision of a loving and just God that speaks to us today in our hearts and who revealed Godself in the person of Jesus Christ. It was from this kernel that I felt any culture – religious or otherwise – could be judged helpful or harmful, correct or incorrect, true or false – or somewhere in between. In my interactions with Friends in Ciudad Victoria, I got to think a great deal about the interaction between “essential Quakerism” and the culture in which that Quakerism is expressed. Leaving Ciudad Victoria, I wondered very much, “is Quakerism a cultural phenomenon without any ultimate, universal value for all of humanity?”
As we arrived in Mexico City, I was very much struggling with the question of what the core of Quakerism was and whether that Quaker core was the same as the gospel kernel. At first, I believed that I had found both, and that they were one and the same. I wrote in my journal on 11, 1st month, 2008: “For me the most interesting and fecund part of our conversation [that afternoon, in ChapultepecPark] was discussing whether the Quaker expression of Christianity was universal, or whether it was not essential. That is to say, is the Quaker bare minimum (in my mind, sense-of-the-meeting decision-making, waiting worship, and a witness to the presence of Christ guiding and teaching us today) the universal Gospel, or is it a cultural “husk” that is not essentially true for all peoples, times and places? If it’s not core, then I as evangelist need to let go of proclaiming a Quaker vision and instead ‘know nothing but Christ and him crucified.’ If, however, the core of Quaker experience and testimony and practice is the everlasting Gospel – if Quakers’ experience of how God relates to communities is true for all people at all times – then I have a responsibility as evangelist to proclaim those core Quaker experiences and practices.
Of course, these core experiential-practices might look extremely different in different cultural contexts. For example, in an African cultural setting waiting worship might take place in a drum circle with those moved to give ministry shouting or singing out of the drumbeat, instead of out of the silence. Meeting for business might look much the same way. And Christ might be understood in ways that would seem very foreign to North American Friends. But those cores, the way the Friends experience God’s covenant with humanity, would be an essential reality of the Gospel: sense-of-the-meeting decision-making, waiting (not necessarily ‘silent’) worship, and the testimony that Christ has come to teach his people himself.” This very basic mix of orthodoxy (or “ortho-testimony”) and orthopraxy seemed to be the core not only of the Quaker faith, but also of the Christian Gospel, more broadly conceived. But this was not to be the end of the story. Though it was not a part of the course, I was not going to stay within the Christian, or even a theistic conception of Truth. With all of these questions still percolating inside of me, my engagement with my Buddhist friend from Boston was heating up.
The fact that the Light is shining in my non-theistic Buddhist friend in Boston made it impossible for me to restrict my search for the gospel kernel to the monotheistic faith tradition. It was the certainty with which I felt that I perceived in my friend the Seed of Christ – not as imprisoned Truth crying out for liberation, but as a sprouting branch of God testifying to Truth – which forced me to engage non-theistic Buddhism as a place where Christ is alive, at work, and proclaiming the Gospel even in the absence of any mention of God or Divine Intention. As I returned from Mexico City to Kansas and prepared to make a ministry trip to visit Friends at Hominy Friends Meeting in Osage country, I experienced a crisis of faith. I was unable to justify why Jesus – or even a conception of a God with intention – was essential to the universal Gospel. Any assertion I would make about the centrality of Christ or the importance of God as Lord and not as “emptiness,” would be easily dismissed by my friend, who seemed to be speaking from Truth, but simply had no use for the words I was using, nor for the concepts I was employing.
I am still wrestling with the question: What is the kernel of the everlasting and universal Gospel if even the concept of a God with intention is unnecessary for salvation/enlightenment/liberation? I feel deep inside of me that there is a DivineCenter that is beyond words and forms and theologies. Is there nothing that can be uttered that can be universal for all humans? While the Gospel is universal, are all words ultimately limited and, to some extent, futile? What does the Religious Society of Friends have to say to the world if the Gospel is beyond all words? More specifically, what is my mission as evangelist if the evangel is beyond any human expression or conception? Is there any meaning to proclamation of the gospel if the gospel is unutterable?