About a decade ago I recall sitting in the leader's training session one evening as a volunteer youth leader at my church. This was the time when the youth pastor and pastor would walk us volunteers through the lesson we were to lead the students through each night. The topic for that week was something about basics of the Christian faith, and we were to discuss with the kids what exactly theology was. The correct answer we were supposed to give was something about systematic theology using Wayne Grudem's system as the best example. Somewhat naively I asked, "so why don't we want the kids to know about all the other ways people do theology?" I was met with blank stares and was told that systematic theology is the only sort of theology there is. I responded, "but what about the Christians in other cultures who don't think in the same patterns as Westerners who prefer more narrative approaches to theology?" To which I was told, "That stuff isn't real theology; systematic theology is all that these students will ever need to know about."
While I might still have that conversation in various churches these days, I feel that something has begun to shift in the church since that time. Our globalized world has forced a new understanding of how we conceive of our emerging faith. It is harder to deliberately ignore the diversity of voices speaking into this thing we call Christianity. While some might still proclaim the other to be wrong simply for being other, it is impossible to deny that the other exists. This isn't about being open-minded or being politically correct; it is simply a necessary reaction to the nature of the world we live in. Other theologies, other voices, other ways of reading scripture exist (other always being relative to one's vantage point). We are too interconnected to ignore them or pretend they don't matter. They are simply part of the air we breathe as Christians which is becoming increasingly impossible to not acknowledge.
I am reminded of how my exasperated professor dealt with my rather obstinate historical research methods class in college. A few of the students had dismissed his attempts to teach them differing approaches to how people approach historical research as supportive of revisionist history (and therefore evil). They desperately wanted to cling to the notion that the "God Blessed America" version of history they believed was in fact the only true version of history -- any attempts to tell the stories from the margins of women or minorities were simply revisionist corruptions. So the professor had us read a study that detailed the various ways the history of Williamsburg has been presented to tourists over time. Depending on what was going on in the world at the time, the historical story as it was told by the reenactors varied tremendously over the years. Each version had an agenda and portrayed American colonialism in a way that shored up that agenda. It was difficult for the students who were insisting that the very hero-centric pro-God version taught under the influence of 1950's anti-communism was the real history to continue to bang that drum when the evidence of how history is manipulated by the teller was laid out so blatantly before their eyes.
The world has been blatantly thrust in front of our eyes, and even the church can no longer resist this emerging consciousness. What stories get told and whose theology gets privileged can no longer be determined out of ignorance. In our interconnected world, the voices of womanist and feminist theologians, the cries of the liberation and postcolonial theologies, and the narrative understandings of scripture that focus on exile, family, and oppression are accessible to even the average Christian. The church is far bigger than some of us might have once believed, we just had to be forced to open our eyes and see it. While this might seem a tad patronizing to those outside the American church system (I can see them rolling their eyes at our elation of our delayed "discovery" of the other), I for one am grateful for this emerging sensibility in the church (even if it is long overdue). Coming face to face with the diversity in our unity might not imply immediate acceptance or respect or understanding, but it pushes us outside of ourselves. Seeing a slightly clearer picture of the world as it is forces us to acknowledge and often wrestle with what we see.
Call it interconnectedness, or globalization, or simply awareness of our neighbor, the church is emerging or perhaps converging upon itself. What gives me hope when I consider what is emerging in the church is that the conversation pushes us into this converging community. And when we are in community, when we start to actually know our neighbors, is when we can start to live out the call to love our neighbors.
Julie Clawson is the author of Everyday Justice: The Global Impact of Our Daily Choices (IVP 2009). She blogs at julieclawson.com and emergingwomen.us. This entry is part of a Synchroblog on "What is Emerging?"