The Future of Christian Spirituality: Part 4 | A More Welcoming Stance from a Rooted Depth

“I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” —Jesus


As I journeyed with my desire and with a good spiritual director, something else was happening, too. Wrestling with my tradition while at the same time going deeper into that tradition and finding practices there that I had not known about opened me to the transforming work of God beyond all the human striving that had characterized my early religious life. Moving beyond mere dabbling in solitude and silence into a substantive commitment to these practices changed not only the landscape of my inner life, but the contours of my outer life as well.

Finding myself to be so deeply and unconditionally loved by God in all my unfinished-ness, my rawness, and my lack of performance and productivity began to form within me a different kind of love for others. Something significant was happening inside me that was changing me outwardly.

Slowly and imperceptibly, I was becoming a more open, a more welcoming, a more faith-filled and less judgmental person. This was rather unexpected, given that up to that point, my Christianity had functioned in large part to delineate who was “in” and who was “out,” who was right and who was wrong. I could not deny that coming closer to God at the center of my being drew me into a deeper kind of unity with others who were journeying towards that very same Center.

They Will Know We are Christians by Our…What?

There is simply no way to sugar-coat the kind of arrogant, judgmental, self-righteous attitudes certain aspects of my tradition had formed within me early on. It is hard to admit that we Protestants are not exactly known by our love; we are more known by what we protest. We are known by the fact that we think we are right and believe everyone else is going to hell—literally—unless they believe exactly as we do. Those from other traditions may have similar confessions to make, but I will only speak for myself.

So that’s the bad news. The good news, however, is that in order to be on an authentic spiritual journey, we actually need to have clearly articulated grounding in a particular tradition. Just as the caterpillar must fight and struggle to get out of the cocoon, we too must struggle and fight with our traditions to find our way into a more open space. Turns out that being grounded in a particular tradition gives us access to what Thomas Hart calls “a complete spirituality” which, he writes, “is more than an amalgam of practice. It is a master story, a theological integrity, and a community of practice that gives an orientation in life, a set of values to live by, a sense of direction, and a basis for hope, a relationship with Mystery, and a challenge to personal transformation.”

We as Christians have that, and eventually the authentic struggles we experience in relation to our various traditions really do pay off spiritually if we can stop short of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Authentically Wide and Welcoming

In her book, Sacred is the Call, spiritual director Sandra Lommasson writes, “growth in the spiritual life requires the sort of wrestling provoked and supported by a particularity of theological commitment and community. From this rooted depth, it is possible to become authentically wide and welcoming, to discerningly incorporate other perspectives and practices, and to work with those of other traditions in a manner truly open to the Spirit.”

Bede Griffith goes on to say, “Our aim is the deepening of our own faith which then becomes more open to others. This is not easy, for each tradition has its own position. If you try and mix them, taking a bit of Hinduism or Buddhism and you try and add Christianity to it, that is syncretism. But if you go deeply into one tradition you converge on the center, and there you see how we all come forth from a common root.”

Rooted depth, indeed! This is certainly my experience, and it brings me to a fourth observation: that from a rooted depth, the future of Christian spirituality will see us become more welcoming and inclusive. It is happening already. The emerging generations of young adult Christians simply cannot comprehend a God who does not love all God’s children equally, and who does not hold within God’s self an equal desire and an equally good plan for all to flourish. Just as good human parents do not play favorites, the God they know does not play favorites either.

Varieties of Faithfulness

Theology professor Brian Bantum (Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary) describes his journey out of a narrower and more exclusive upbringing towards a more welcoming and inclusive faith stance in this way: “There was no singular trauma or betrayal that led me away from the evangelical nest. Instead, it was the small ways I tried to bring the rest of me and my world into the sanctuary with me—and the ways I saw beautiful people cut out and ignored. I began to see histories and varieties of faithfulness. There was so much of God’s difference in the world that seemed to be held at bay in the theology of my youth. That theology swaddled us in certainty, hope, and a sense of purpose—and as it held me in, it also kept much out.”

I am particularly drawn to Bantum’s phrase “varieties of faithfulness.” What a lovely way to talk about diversity and difference. We are so quick to exclude people from our circles of influence, fellowship, and care based on our differences that we fail to recognize our differences as varieties of faithfulness—ways in which other serious and devoted Christians live out their faithfulness to God, themselves, and others differently than we do. Rather than approaching our siblings in the family of God with compassion, curiosity, and respect, we are intent on pronouncing them right or wrong and then making a “position” out of our own views—a position that often becomes a litmus test for whether we can be together or stay together.

I wonder whatever happened to Romans 14:1-4 where Paul asks this question: “Who are you to judge the servant of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And stand they will, for the Lord is able to make them stand.”

I wonder, what if Christian communities could be known as communities that hold difference, rather than splinter because they can’t?

Humbled in the Presence of Reality

Here is a hard truth: we (the older generation) are on our way out. Whether we agree with the upcoming generations of spiritual seekers and leaders or not, they will trust what they know about God deep inside more than they will trust “what the Bible says” according to our white, patriarchal, hetero-normative reading of everything. As heretical as it may sound, they do not always care “what the Bible says” if it contradicts what they know experientially about a loving God. To be more accurate, they are really saying, “We don’t care about what the Bible says the way you have interpreted it.”

Again, you do not have to agree with them, but this is real. If you don’t believe me, go have a series of true listening conversations with thoughtful, spiritually sensitive 30- and 40-something Christians. AND, if you are brave, reflect back on your own youthful self—the self who knew things on a level that contradicted some of the traditional interpretations that were taken for granted by the older generation of your time. Think Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Dietrich Bonhoeffer who challenged the Church and the world with fresh perspectives on spiritual truth before their deaths at thirty-nine years old!

Then as now, current and future leaders of the church know God, too, and they will lead us deeper into the heart of our loving God if we will make way and let them.

The True Meaning of Catholic

In his book Sacred Fire, Fr. Ron Rolheiser observes that “Some of this truth is expressed in the wonderful truth of the word catholic. The opposite of a Catholic is not a Protestant, an Evangelical, or even a non-Christian. The opposite of Catholic is a fundamentalist. The word catholic means universal, wide, embracing everyone. Jesus defines the word in this way: In my father’s house are many rooms! In saying this, he is not describing a celestial mansion, but rather the scope of God’s heart. God’s heart is not a house with one room. God has a catholic heart (lower case c), a nonfundamentalist heart. In a fundamentalist’s house there is only one room, it might even be a good room, but it is a single room with no place for anyone not of its own kind. A true catholic heart has a room for everyone.”

I hope that makes us all want to be catholic (lower case c) because the future of Christian spirituality must and will be catholic in this sense—welcoming and embracing with room for all in the conversation, at the table, and in God’s house. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we as Christians were known for that?

Welcoming the Stranger

What we’re really talking about here is nothing more and nothing less than growing in the Christian practice of welcoming the stranger—that is, the one who is strange to you. The person who is different in personality or in the way they present themselves in the world. The one who has been shaped by different life experiences and cultural realities than you. The one whose experience in their body is different than yours. The one who holds a different opinion or “position” on a theological, social, or political issue than you. The one whose ethnicity or citizenship has shaped them differently than you have been shaped. Do we dare to welcome them and listen to them with openness and inner hospitality rather than dismissing them, marginalizing them, closing our hearts and minds to them, or (God-forbid!) walking away?

Are we willing to welcome the one who is strange to us in one of those ways, thus welcoming Jesus like the disciples did on the Emmaus Road? Think about it: if those two disillusioned and dejected disciples had refused to welcome the stranger, they would have missed the entire transformative encounter that came after (See Luke 24:13 f). Might this more welcoming and inclusive stance be a more “Christian” and a more Christ-like stance than what we are doing right now?

Christine Pohl, in her book Making Room, describes hospitality to strangers as a way of life that is fundamental to Christian identity and as a fundamental expression of the Gospel. From what I can see in Scripture, there aren’t a lot of spiritual brownie points given out for welcoming friends, family, the people we like and those with whom we find easy agreement, as lovely as that can be. It is welcoming the stranger—the one who is strange to you—that holds the most promise for welcoming the Divine Presence.

Imagining a Different Kind of Future

One of my favorite things about the way we gather in the Transforming Center is the fact that we intentionally create space for people who are strange to each other in a myriad of ways to welcome each other on their own journey between the now and the not-yet. For us, this is a spiritual practice. Rather than taking hard and fast positions on things, we trust that being together in this welcoming and inclusive way will be more transformative than rejecting people (or having them reject us) because of our positions on some of the controversial issues on which faithful Christians disagree. We welcome and celebrate the diversity that characterizes the body of Christ, and in doing so we find ourselves changed.

It is not always easy to hold steady in this place of creative tension, but time and again we witness transformations that could only take place as people who are strange to each other welcome each other and commit themselves to journey together. We are convinced this is one of the most significant things we can practice, model, and create space for in the body of Christ at this time—for ourselves and our own transformation—and also for the sake of others.

As I often do, I close with a favorite poem. As you read it, notice what happens in your body. Notice what shifts or even protests within you. Be curious and wonder what it means to you to be “right” and by whose standards, and why it matters so much. Let yourself imagine a future in which it is less important to be right, and more important to participate in God’s unconditional love for all God’s children.

The Place Where We Are Right
Yehuda Amichai
(Trans. Stephen Mitchell)

From the place where you are right
Flowers will never grow
in the spring.

The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.

But doubts and loves
dig up the world
like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
where the ruined
house once stood.


© Ruth Haley Barton, 2024. Parts of this article were first presented at The Future of Christian Spirituality Conference in honor of Fr. Ron Rolheiser in 2019.


Read more from our ongoing series The Future of Christian Spirituality.

Ruth Haley Barton

Ruth (Doctor of Divinity, Northern Seminary) is founder and chief essence officer of the Transforming Center. A teacher, seasoned spiritual director (Shalem Institute), and retreat leader, Ruth is the author of numerous books and resources on the spiritual life including Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Sacred Rhythms, Life Together in Christ, Pursuing God’s Will Together, Invitation to Solitude and Silence, Invitation to Retreat, and Embracing Rhythms of Work and Rest.
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Thank you, Ruth, for this helpful word about inclusiveness in a season when Christ-followers are as divided as the American culture about us. It seems much of our division falls between those who claim Scripture, as they interpret it, is the final word on all things vs. those who want to make space for an experience of the Holy Spirit that would inform and even shape their response to the issues at hand. A case in point: in earlier times, many from my Southern Baptist tradition insisted that the Bible not only allowed for but advocated for the practice of slavery. And strictly speaking, they were correct. But others within the Christian tradition began to hear the Spirit declare that this evil practice needed to end, regardless of how the Bible had previously been interpreted. Who among us today would argue they were not hearing the Spirit correctly? This example seems to affirm the truth behind Jesus’ words in John 16:12-13: “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth….” In other words, the process of inspiration that gave birth to Scripture would not end with Jesus’ earthly ministry, or with other New Testament writings of the first century, but would continue on, even to the present day. Yes, there are “lines and limits” within the Christian tradition. But our job is not to so much to draw the lines and execute the limits (God will do that far better than we could in our imperfect wisdom) but to welcome, love, and winsomely engage those whose life experiences and theology may differ from ours. 

This is a really helpful perspective, David. I would be so curious to hear from those who have changed their interpretation of Scripture on the subject of slavery about how that same process might apply to other controversial topics they are taking a hard line on now…

Ruth, penetrating thoughts, as always. You make me think. It’s one aspect of your giftedness that has served me well for the many years I have learned from you. I appreciate the reference from Romans 14: “Who are you to judge the servant of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And stand they will, for the Lord is able to make them stand.” As I read your words I remembered the story of Jesus when he ministered to the blind man—twice. It took two healings to restore the fellow’s sight. After Jesus’ initial effort, the formerly blind fellow said he could see the forms of men, but they were vague and appeared to be as trees walking. His eyes fully opened with the second touch. Many of us who follow Jesus need additional illumination to get to the rooted depths of truth. I thank God that all our differences are a living testimony that we all depend upon the magnificent grace of God.

Last edited 27 days ago by Michael Fox

Such an encouraging comment, Michael. Thank you!

Hello!

I think this is a very good way of saying this, “We don’t care about what the Bible says the way you have interpreted it.” I’ve seen way too many “The Bible is our guide” arguments by people who apparently don’t know that THEY have an interpretation that isn’t the Bible itself. Alas.

LOVE the poem.

Ruth, thanks for all you do. You’re a breath of fresh air for this suffering-in-Baptistville believer.

M

Thank you…your “suffering-in-Baptistville” comment made me laugh out loud!! Many people are suffering in their own “villes” right now, that’s for sure!

“Dabbling in solitude and silence” (first paragraph) is what I’ve been doing for some years, Ruth, but without any other practices or rhythms. I wonder if the Lord is inviting me to a next step. That phrase got my attention and kept me reading.

Like some others who commented, I appreciate so much of what you have to say. But then I get tripped up on questions of your trajectory. What is meant, for example, by “hetero-normative”?

I love hearing that you might be receiving a new invitation from God! Doesn’t get any better than that!

Heteronormative is simply making our own experience (in this case of being heterosexual) the norm. We can do the same thing with maleness/femaleness, with whiteness, with being American/whatever nationality we are, etc. –making them the norm by which everything else gets measured. The process of making our own experience the measure of all things is unconscious until God, by God’s grace, brings it to consciousness. The lack of awareness that we do this quite naturally can cause us to dismiss or diminish others’ experiences that are different than our own, AND can cause us to overlook the fact that these different experiences are worthy of being acknowledged and considered. I think Paul’s statement in I Corinthians 12 applies here–that in the body of Christ none of us have the right to say to another part, “we have no need of you.” (Try to not to worry about my trajectory…I am still grounding everything I write about in Scripture, as you can see. 🙂

So many lines throughout this resonate deeply in me. “Rooted depth!” for one. We don’t lose our rooted foundation when we open to wide, more spacious places within us. As you have said, Ruth, “We find our way into a more open space”. This not only resonates in my personal experience of evolvement over the years in my own spiritual journey, but it speaks to how the Spirit is guiding me through a more thorough lens of Scripture. (Such as some of the passages you mention here and more.) I too wonder what it could be like for Christian communities to “hold difference rather than splinter” and I might add “rather than remain stagnant”. The future leaders of spirituality are not likely to wade in stagnant waters that we leave behind because we were too afraid to grow and evolve. Too afraid to be open to more wide and inclusive spaces. Too afraid to touch that which is strange to us. Lord, have mercy and help me, I pray.

Your overall point, which is well taken and much needed, is muddied by this: “As heretical as it may sound, they do not always care “what the Bible says” if it contradicts what they know experientially about a loving God.” I think you are right – the next generation does not care about that; they do put their own experience above the truth of the Bible, and they perform amazing hermeneutical gymnastics to make the Bible say something other than what it does. Years ago, William James demonstrated why our experience cannot be the foundation on which we build our lives, because the Varieties of Religious Experience are manifold. If we grant equal truth-weight to every experience, then “truth” has lost all meaning.

I can’t tell if you approve the next generation’s reliance on experience over Scripture, but your use of the Bede Griffith quote to the effect that Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism all “come forth from a common root” makes me wonder. Seriously, Ruth, are there no limits, no lines? I heartily endorse your emphasis that we (especially we who come from more narrow fundamentalist/ evangelical traditions) learn to love everyone, like God does. But the fact remains that while He loves all, some, “follow the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient,” and therefore are, “by nature objects of wrath.” Ephesians 2:2-3 We may not know who is “in or out” of the kingdom, but surely God does, which is why He sends us to them as ambassadors, making His appeal to them through us to come “in.”

I guess this post of yours has made me wonder if you now hold a position of universalism?

I have the same question as john murphy. Are you where rohrer is.. more of a universal christ?

I am not a universalist. In fact, that is why I took such care to ground my journey and the first half of this article in our orthodox Christian faith and going to the center of our faith. I also included the Bede Griffith quote specifically to eschew syncretism. What I am trying to say here is that regardless of our differences, we are all God’s children and we need to welcome and include each other as such. This is a biblical and spiritual practice. By way of example… my children will always be my children and carry my DNA no matter what path they take. This means I will always love them, welcome them and include them–that’s what it means to be a loving parent and I think God is at least as good parent as I am! 🙂 We are all created in God’s image and carry the Imago Dei, and it is incumbent upon us to treat each other that way. I am also drawing particular attention to how we welcome (or not) our siblings in Christ –those who are seeking to live out their Christianity faithfully…it is my job to respect that, not judge it, to stay in the conversation with them, not cut off fellowship with them. This is a very challenging aspect of our Christianity.

A Deep, Transformative, Transcendent piece. Filled with pearls of Truth and Wisdom!💯

Lots to ponder, to acknowledge, to reflect upon!

“We welcome and celebrate the diversity that characterizes the body of Christ, and in doing so we find ourselves changed.” I am reminded of Peter, in Acts, who was changed by his vision of unclean animals.

Thank you! Be Blessed and Inspired!

Thank you so much for this gracious encouragement, Rodney! I love the attention you are drawing the Peter’s vision of the unclean animals…it reminds me that to be in Christ is to be open to the continual unfolding of God’s will and purposes.

Thank you, Ruth, for sharing these thoughts which resonate with me about my personal journey. I especially appreciate the quote from Brian Bantum which offers a freshness of perspective on others. May this article help move others forward the way it has for me.

You’re welome…grateful for your journey, Tim!

The piece is very deep and reflective and one needs to spend time reading slowly and going into your sacred space and lsiten to what God is saying. I particularly like the synodal concept of inclusivenese and Welcoming the stranger. This is so very important to witness to the person of Jesus. Thank you so very much for leading us through this reflection.

Thank you. I am grateful for your emphasis on spending time and reading slowly, going into your sacred space with God. I really hope people do this because I can tell you that it took a lot of that over many years for me to even write this.

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