I met a drummer at a wedding reception recently, a bespectacled white kid with dreadlocks and strangely sculpted facial hair. More importantly, he was a pretty good percussionist, which I suppose is to be expected since he's a grad student in percussion performance. We were both hired guns and didn't really know either of the the families involved, so we spent most of dinner at the musician's table, swapping stories and comparing interests until it was our time to play. When the conversation turned to my school work, and I explained I was studying 20th-century Christian radicalism (which inevitably involves trying to explain what that is), he told me he was a Christian and had just read an interesting book that seemed to describe the same thing.
The book was Shane Claiborne's Irresistible Revolution, and I hadn't heard of it so I looked it up. Claiborne is part of a neomonastic group in Philadelphia called The Simple Way and they look a lot like the early church in Acts 2 -- the bit about sharing, anyway; I'm not sure about the tongues of fire. In their desire to seek out "the abandoned places of empire", the neomonastics strike me as a contemporary version of the desert fathers (and mothers), though their arrangement includes married folk and families, and their context is decidedly and deliberately urban. In fact, they tend to self-identify with precisely that element of Christian history, in a jagged line from traditional monasticism, especially St. Francis, through Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King, Jr., with a healthy dose of .
I'm happy to find them because if I were to attempt a précis of what Christian radicalism might look like on the ground, I'd probably come up with something a lot like The Simple Way. This means that rather than speculate about some abstracted Platonic ideal, I can point to an actually existing Christian radicalism. Oh, there are all manner of manifestations, but this seems to be the real deal, and I feel a little like an anthropologist who's discovered a heretofore unknown indigenous tribe.
I also feel a little uncomfortable, because as much as I might be sympathetic to their vision, I'm not living it out like they do, and I'm not going to start anytime soon.
Claiborne's life has put him in contact with interesting people, from being part of the first run of ' Canticles of the Plains at Wheaton College, to doing an internship with Mother Theresa, to studying under at Eastern University. He's also had lunch with Dominic Crossan (now I'm really envious), and Crossan was excited that someone was actually living out the radical vision of Jesus that he writes about in his books. When pressed, however, as to whether he was ready to put his money where his word processor is, Crossan hedged -- as I would.
Like Crossan, I think the sociopolitical vision of the early Christians is an important one, especially in the face of imperial power (and when does that ever go away?), and I suspect a lot of their theology, or mythology, came out of that vision. For this reason, I'm okay latching on to their path, or elements of it, while playing fast and loose with the theology. I think that vision is important even if Jesus didn't literally rise from the dead, there is no conscious afterlife, and there isn't going to be any second coming. I can say that because I don't believe in a literal resurrection, a conscious afterlife, or a second coming, and I still find that vision important.
But here's the thing -- I probably wouldn't die for it. In fact, as important as I think it is, I'm not even willing to be terribly inconvenienced by it. To be sure, it informs my decisions and remains part of who I am, but there are limits, and I wonder if those limits aren't conditioned by the differences in the way I believe and the way I suspect someone like Claiborne believes. I wonder if people like Crossan and me hedge because we ultimately lack that kind of faith. It's easy, after all, to be tolerant (even with yourself) when you don't have much of a concept of eternal consequence. It's wholly possible that I've been given the gift of skepticism because without it I'd be a self-righteous asshole.
It's not that I think there's "one true path" -- at any level, really -- and I don't think there was ever only one manifestation of Jesus' teachings, or the Christ-spirit, or whatever you want to call it. I'm leery of binary thinking (only a Sith thinks in absolutes) and this kind of extremism, attractive for its consistency, can start to look a little cultish. And there's always the matter of what I call "congregation reception theory," which recognizes that religion on the ground looks a lot different than religion in holy writ, or religion from the pulpit. Religion is slippery, and ultimately we get what we need out of it -- comfort, self-justification, a raison d'etre for social action, an excuse to be a self-righteous asshole, and so forth. It can be noble or dastardly, and the whole spectrum can exist in the same religion and even the same person.
This isn't to suggest that beliefs are not important; they are. Beliefs that lead some to kill others, or beliefs that justify such killing, are important beliefs. Beliefs that embrace the Other and lead to a search for non-violent solutions are important beliefs. What really bakes our noodle is that sometimes these are the same beliefs, at least on the surface. This is why I have a deep sympathy for those who have given up the whole enterprise -- or who are at least content to hold on very, very loosely.
This is the story I tell myself, part of my own mythology. I know there are fault lines there, inconsistencies, mild hypocrisies. I know, by trial and error, that I cannot change what I believe by sheer force of will, or by association. I know how far my faith takes me, and it's far enough for me, for now. And I know that others go farther. I think a commitment to social justice is more important than the particulars of one's beliefs, but surely there's a sense in which the Simple Way's visceral, tangible sense of commitment trumps my lip service, and I wonder if that difference isn't found, somewhere, in the particulars of belief.