The Common Good
December 2012

The Ground is Shifting

by Glen H. Stassen | December 2012

Excerpt from A Thicker Jesus: Incarnational Discipleship in a Secular Age, by Glen H. Stassen

OURS IS AN age of interaction, mobility, and change. Unlike most of our grandparents, many of us have moved several times in our lifetimes and have seen our neighbors move in and out. We are more intensely aware, even in our own neighborhoods, that our kind of faith is not the only kind. We see how others have been shaped by very different histories than our own. It becomes clear to us that we, too, have been shaped—and continue to be shaped—by our own history.

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Fuller Theological Seminary, where I teach, is in California. Every now and then we feel the ground shifting. The chandelier in our dining room swings or the bed on which we are lying begins to rock. The whole world may not be experiencing little earthquakes as we are, but people are surely experiencing change and variety in faiths and ideologies. This change and diversity can rock a person’s faith. We ask, How do we validate the truth of what we perceive and what we believe? In our time of pluralistic encounter with multiple ideologies and religions and with rapid social, economic, and political change, people search for what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called solid ground to stand on.

Philip Clayton teaches at Claremont Theological Seminary in California. He attended the mainline Presbyterian church that had been his church home since elementary school, plus an evangelical Bible study group, a charismatic prayer meeting once a week in a Pentecostal church, the Assemblies of God church, and a community of “Jesus People.” He writes:

Most of us know friends, colleagues, or acquaintances who are Christian, Jewish, Muslim; Buddhist, Hindu, Taoist; atheist, agnostic, “doubting believers”; pantheist, panentheist, neo-pagan; Mormon, Jehovah’s Witness, Church of God; Baha’i, Zoroastrian, perennialist—the list goes on and on. Faced with such a confusing array of options, more and more Americans are choosing not to choose ... You have to admit, pretty much everything these days is up for grabs. We are in the midst of the most rapid social and technological change that our species has ever undergone.

Not all of us have had as diverse experiences as Philip. Ever since my own conversion experience and baptism at age 11, I have been a loyal Baptist—though six different kinds of Baptist. Yet all of us at least have religious diversity in our sphere of awareness. We can identify with Bonhoeffer when he asks, “have there ever been people in history who in their time, like us, had so little ground under their feet?” ...

Not only do we need a sense of having our feet on the ground, a clear sense of our own identity; we need to know how that identity helps us navigate the multiple shifting changes around us. It feels as if other cultures are changing our rapidly globalizing world, and we wish we understood them more thoughtfully. In A Thicker Jesus, I am asking two questions: 1) how to find a faithful and solid identity for faith and ethics; and 2) how that identity can be a compass in our rapidly changing and interactive age. Specifically, I seek orientation in relation to the secularizing forces in our age.

From A Thicker Jesus: Incarnational Discipleship in a Secular Age, by Glen H. Stassen, copyright 2012. Used with permission of Westminster John Knox Press (www.wjkbooks.com).

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