Updated: Sep 6, 2019
The separation of church and world has many layers. My own journey of the last half decade has consisted of peeling back those layers one at a time.
On the outermost layer is the separation I mentioned before, the distancing of the church as a whole from the world outside its walls. On another layer, we have separated ourselves even from the concept of religion. I grew up with people who repeated to anybody who would listen that “Christianity is not a religion; it’s a relationship with God.” We didn’t want to be associated with human traditions and other forms of spirituality, so we acted like we were separate from them all. We wouldn’t put ourselves on the same level as Hinduism, Islam, or even Catholicism because that would take away from our sense of who we were. We were God’s children! By separating ourselves from religion as a wider idea, we felt an even stronger sense of specialness.
Going beyond that to a deeper layer, we separated ourselves from the rest of the Christian world. I was completely clueless about other denominations, theologies, and branches of Christianity outside my own. In fact, I was brought up to think that my Christianity was the Christianity; we had the original, pure form of the faith, and other forms were a distortion.
Like the rest, this just seemed obvious. The idea of denominations was repellent to us, and we wondered why everyone couldn’t just stop arguing and get back to real Christianity. I was unable then to see that my “real Christianity” was also just one idea among many. There was no context given about our faith’s place in history, of developing with the Roman Empire or how our Bible was put together or how our beliefs and traditions have shifted over the centuries.
All these layers were huge iron walls around our little home. We barred the windows, burned our bridges, and put the meanest bouncers at the door. People were always welcome to join us—as long as they conformed to our beliefs. No alien ideas or outside influence could infiltrate our cozy interior.
At the core of this separation of the church from the world is a denial of other stories. All stories that didn’t point back to us were either ignored or folded into our own; our story was the story. That’s not a healthy way to live. It makes us oblivious to everything but our own narrow slice of experience.
As the cracks in my faith began to show, I started to allow space for those other stories, and I found beauty, meaning, and truth in places I’d never thought to look. I began to see that my own story was just one among many and that my whole belief system was just a single brushstroke in a much larger painting.
I had it completely the wrong way around. The world is not peripheral to the church: The church is one small piece within the world.
I‘ve found that one of the hardest things is feeling a sense of belonging in the world. Sometimes it’s tough to feel like I fit in anywhere, to feel like it’s okay for me to spend time with a normal group of people or publish my creative work or take part in the larger conversation. After decades of being taught that I was an outsider, it’s almost impossible sometimes to believe that I belong here just as much as anybody else.
If I had one wish for religion, it would be for it to become a faith that is grounded in the world it lives in, a faith that doesn’t distance itself from reality and the very soil it grew out of, and a faith that no longer teaches people that they don’t belong here on some fundamental level.
We do not “come into” this world; we come out of it, as leaves from a tree. As the ocean “waves,” the “universe peoples.” Every individual is an expression of the whole realm of nature, a unique action of the total universe. - Alan Watts
You and I belong here, in the deepest and most fundamental way possible. We were always home.