This book is written as an aid to discernment for Christ’s disciples in this present moment of time; in our world and context. It is also written as an aid to those who wish to understand Christians and the things with which they wrestle as they do their best to live faithfully in the world. It is not a book that gives answers. Indeed, it is a book that challenges answers formulated previously by other faithful Christians in different moments and different contexts. It is not a repudiation of what came before; but a reminder that the practice of courage in people of faith necessitates the testing of previous worldviews and the formulation of new best attempts to incarnate the love of God in us and around us. This book is not written for experts. There is no assumption that the reader is familiar with the topic, the history, the theological arguments, etc. At the end of many chapters there are notes and suggestions for further reading so that those who wish to do so may dig deeper. I have intentionally tried to write a book that is a first step for people who have interest. At the same time, however, this book is also addressed to those for whom the topics are very familiar. My aim is to help those who have engaged this subject-matter for years to step back and look at it afresh; to ask questions that go to the root of understanding so that what is now can be made better and what has yet to be brought into being may be imagined anew and nurtured to fruition — in a partnership between the Spirit of God and the active love and intellect of God’s people.
This is a book about Christian unity (some say ‘ecumenism’). It is about how Christians live united with God, united with one another in God’s love, and united with all creation. The primary focus is a look at unity as seen from the perspective of Christian discipleship; but this cannot be separated from the fact that all people are children of God and all of creation is God’s as well. Christians need to discern together, bringing into the conversation their many perspectives on discipleship and the challenges of unity, because their actions will affect all ways in which they relate with God and God’s world.
My purpose in writing Perfecting Unity is to invite Christ followers (and everyone else who wishes to join) into conversation with each other. We are at a moment of decision (the meaning of the word ‘crisis’). The leadership of many churches is in the midst of a generational change. The previous fifty years, in terms of ecumenism, were shaped most strongly by the possibilities offered in the wake of the Roman Catholic Vatican Council II (1962-1965). In many ways, relations among Christians have changed dramatically since then; building upon the prior efforts at missionary co-operation, and the development of interdenominational councils of churches during the century before. The history of Christian unity is long and has had many seasons. The time covered by the 19th century to the present has been full of dramatic positive changes and shifts in attitude.
What does the world in this present moment need in terms of unity among Christians and all peoples — and in terms of humanity’s unity with God’s creation? This is the primary question upon which every chapter of this book is built.
I do not believe in theologies from on high. I believe the Spirit of God speaks to all people and no one receives the whole of what God imparts. This, I think, is one of the ways God unites us in mutual interdependence. We need each other in order to live faithfully together with God. Likewise, when we rely solely upon scholars or church leaders to tell us what to do, we are shirking responsibility as a whole Christian community. Church leaders and scholars have their role to play in the discernment and they have important voices to add to the conversation. But, their most important role is to empower and facilitate the whole people of God in living out their responsibility for prayer, reflection, questioning, and struggling together to live in accord with God’s leading in the present moment.
I, myself, am a teacher. This is something God has given me as a calling. And, as a teacher for whom the task of learning together is central to my teaching philosophy, it is, I hope, not a surprise that I turn the questions back to you. This is your moment of decision as well as mine.
It is a joyful thing to realize how much God thinks of us. It is an amazing thing to know that we have been made “little lower than heavenly beings” (Psalm 8:5, English Standard Version). God has not only made us; God invites us to shape this life we share in common. It is a great honor — and a great responsibility. I sense, however, that God would not place the task of living faithfully in unity with each other, creation, and the Divine partly in our hands if we did not have God’s confidence; indeed, the power from God to have the stamina to do all we need to do in order to discern our way forward with God in this time, place, and context.
This book, the humble tool I have prepared for you, is a book of questions. There are twenty-five of them. There could be fewer or more. The number is not comprehensive. It is a start. Each question is followed by my reflection. These questions and reflections are all short. Chapters are between 1,800 and 2,200 words in length. They are intended to get you into your own thoughts. I am not pushing a particular program or agenda (although I do have my own perspective that I share with you). I am not asking you to be persuaded or to like what I say. That is not the point. The point is that the questions and reflections are given to you as a catalyst for seeing clearly your own understanding (or finding it) and then giving you encouragement to articulate your views to others.
The chapters in Perfecting Unity were written to be read as a whole book or to be read separately. They need not be read in a particular order — with one exception: I recommend reading the question Perfecting Unity? first. It explains what the title of the book means and sets the tone for the other chapters. It is also important to be familiar with this Introduction. But, if you have read to this point, you already are.
I envision the chapters of Perfecting Unity as being like sparkling facets on the topic of Christian unity and broader concepts of unity. Each facet reveals an aspect; each points to the greater whole.
One of the things that will be interesting to me will be what other questions you may have — and what our reflections on those questions together might be.
We all live in a world that is in need of love — that is a reality that unites us. We live in a time of crisis. And it very much matters what we choose (or do not choose) to do. As a historian by training, I would point out, however, that generations are all given crises. The people of every moment, place, and context are given the task of deciding what will be given to those who follow. We have survived to the present moment. And the game is still on.
May God grant all of us courage, power, and wisdom — and, above all, may we learn to truly love as God loves and live as God lives.
Brooklyn, New York, USA
1 October 2015