The Quest for “Ubuntu”

It is an odd word, ubuntu, even difficult to pronounce.  It’s oddness, however, reveals more about our own perceptions and our need to continue to learn and grow, to overcome a propensity to lock down our souls.

What is the meaning and significance of ubuntu? It points to a quest of the human heart, to heal, to unify, to rediscover a larger whole that respects the dignity of every human being.  It’s a rich, non-Western word that my friend and writer, Brian McLaren defines as, “one-another-ness,” “interconnectedness,” “joined-in-the-common-good-ness,” and “profound commitment to the well being of all,” (see “A New Kind of Christianity,” p. 233).

The quest for ubuntu, I want to say, resonates deeply with the quest and vision of Jesus that I read in the Gospels.  And it is a timely quest as we consider the state of Christianity in the world today.  One can look out on the horizon and surmise by observing the actions and words of some who claim to follow the way of Jesus that there are other “quests,” at work – quests for survival, security, and ego-centered power.

It’s been a very fragile couple of weeks within the Anglican Communion, indications that a quest for ubuntu may be on very thin ice indeed.

What has dominated the Anglican blogosphere lately is the story of the pressure placed on our Presiding Bishop by the Archbishop of Canterbury’s office to provide documentation of her ordination status and to refrain from wearing the symbols of her office (mitre) while visiting Southwark Cathedral in the Church of England. This was unexpectedly described as standard “policy” for our Primate following her numerous similar visits (and those of her predecessors) with no such requirements. Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori was calm and even courteous about the whole silly episode now dubbed “Mitergate” (see Ruth Gledhill’s article at the Times Online here).  It’s difficult for me to believe that such a shift in policy represents the deeper hearts of those who have applied it in this case.

We all know that theological debates and provocative actions over the issues of human sexuality as well as issues of authority and provincial autonomy, have torn deeply into the fabric of our beloved Anglican Communion. I do not for one minute want to minimize the complexity of the issues, nor the importance of seeking common agreements by which we maintain mutual regard, consistency of practice, and common faith and order within our Communion. But I do wonder at times, if in our exhausting attempts to preserve our institutional structures, we are missing a critical opportunity to discover a new and more inclusive way of being the Church in the 21st Century.

We live in the movement from modernism to postmodernity (a term we will live with until we can look back and name what has really happened); it is a time of great uncertainty but also a time of great possibility. Anglican Christians today, and all Christians who have eyes to see, find themselves living in a border land, somewhere between what has been and what is yet to be. We face the delicate balancing act of holding on to the best parts of our traditions while seeking distance from those things that prevent us from being a positive and transformative voice in our culture today. The truth is that we need both to have integrity, and maybe that is what the quest for ubuntu is finally all about.

I pray we can find the courage to pursue that quest with less fear and more charity.

Brian McLaren on Catholicity and the Middle Way

The blogosphere is once again alive with the latest developments among provinces within the Anglican Communion.  It breaks my heart to see some of my faith heroes backed into defensive corners over institutional matters that I believe are not consonant with their deepest hearts (my humble opinion).  This morning I read an essay by Brian McLaren that holds up the historic Anglican instinct of avoiding extremes when any number of controversies might cause us to turn on each other, rather than turn with each other toward a world in great need.  Brian offers these helpful words:

In its aspiration to be one global community the Church will not find it easy to resist being divided by denominational and nationalist ties.  In cherishing the beauty of holiness, the Church will need to work hard to resist having its soul reduced to a list of correct doctrines.  To resist these constrictions and reductions, the Church must hold to another ancient value: catholicty.

There are two models of catholicity.  One is a colonial or imperial model: unity and universality are maintained by submission to one dominating will.  The other is the humble or charitable model: unity and universality are maintained by a generous spirit of inclusion.  The spirit of inclusion is, at its core, a refusal to practice elitism (from Ancient Faith, Future Mission, p. 15).

I continue to believe, somewhat naively I’m sure, that Anglican Christians (read all Christians) around the world can find a center that will hold.  That center, I believe, is not a doctrinal or ecclesiastical consensus, but a person, Jesus the Christ, and his call to love God with all our being and to love our neighbor as well as we love ourselves.

You Can Be Spiritual And Religious

This week, I came across an article by James Martin, a nationally known Jesuit priest, who spoke to the popular phrase “I’m spiritual, just not religious” and explained that this kind of thinking might be a way of saying that religion means, “abiding by arcane rules and hidebound dogmas, and being the tool of an oppressive institution that doesn’t allow you to think.”  Martin wonders if people who identify themselves as “spiritual but not religious” imply that faith is something solely between you and God. But is that really true? We cannot simply relate to God alone. That would mean there is no one to whom we are accountable with regard to our “spirituality,” or to suggest when we might be drifting into troubled territory.  Martin writes:

“We all tend to think that we’re correct about most things, and spirituality is no exception. Not belonging to a religious community means less of a chance of being challenged by a tradition of belief and experience, less chance to see when you are misguided, seeing only part of the picture, or just wrong.”

What happens when our “spirituality,” hits the wall?  What happens when life circumstances overwhelm us and we feel that no one understands our situation or would want to?  What happens when our faith gets knocked out of focus and what we thought was a solid spiritual world view no longer makes sense to us?  What then?

For those of us who are connected with a mainstream Christian community, we are frequently reminded that suffering and doubt are part of the life of even the most devout Christians we know. Without the wisdom of a faith tradition we miss the encouragement and tested practices of those who have walked similar roads in ages past.  No matter how intentional we might be about the spiritual dimension of our lives, we are human and make mistakes. And when we do, we can rely even more deeply on the wisdom and grace of a religious tradition. We may not fully understand or agree with all aspects of that religious tradition, but on the whole, the grace and stability it offers are invaluable. The irony is that we most often feel like giving up on the community of faith precisely when we need it most.

I commend Martin’s article to you – a helpful reminder for ourselves as well as a bit of wisdom to pass on when you engage with those who see little value in the mainline church today.  Turns out you can be “spiritual” and “religious” and nurturing that relationship appears to be the better part of wisdom.