Friday Forum: Big Words and Faith?
Usually I am not one to shy away from big words. I am, after all, an academic. But last week, my friend Aideen suggested that to evangelize or to sermonize really amounted to “existential colonisation.” The claim stopped me in my tracks and so I thought I would offer some of my thoughts around this concept as a Friday Forum. The conversation reached a point of suggesting -ize meant “a process that is inflicted on someone” when I got confused around the nature of evangelism (namely that -ism reflects a strong systematizing designed to produce adherents).
Then I reached a point where I said “Jesus did not come into the world as a conqueror, but as a participant.”
But the more I thought about the exchange, the more something just felt off. And I think in order to figure out where to start, we need to go back to the beginning with the big words, give them some definitions and move forward.
Existential means referring to our state of existence, our manner of being human. The concern for the existential can be in some circles solely concerned with the soul of a person or can be limited to the constructs of rational human thought (“I think therefore I am”). Additionally some wellness circles consider healthy existence of a person to be harmony between all of the requisite parts.
Colonization has a mixed history, working first from Latin where the word refers to inhabit, cultivate, frequent, practice, tend, guard and respect. Like many terms, the word took on new meaning in the imperialistic expansion of major Western countries. To imperialize means to invest with imperial authority, character, or style or to bring the form of an empire.
As a suffix -ize actually means “cause to be, conform to, or resemble.” (Yes I know, I tend to look words up. You can too; I don’t mind being fact-checked.) And “evangel” actually means “good news.” To complete the definitional circuit, “sermon” refers to “a speech on conduct or duty” whereas “preach” carries a definition of “to urge acceptance or abandonment of an idea or a course of action.” [NB: The last two pull from secondary definitions as they are connected at the first level of definition.] WHEW!
So the question for me becomes “What indeed to I want to conform to or resemble at the absolute deepest level of my existence?” especially in a world where commercialize and nationalize are common. But there is a deeper story here about how I think Christ works; namely Christ works by our invitation. Yet, as someone who strives to conform my image, likeness and will to Christ, I know that I extend some pretty intense invitations in prayer.
But I think our methods of sharing this good news ought to strive to conform to how Christ made Himself known originally. Whatever the Truth of the Good News is, it is certainly not me. While the Cross and the Resurrection changed everything we can experience, in no way do they change that Christ became Incarnate choosing to empty Himself so that He could take on our human flesh. Christ conquers through experience; even as I consider the Resurrection, I must consider that Christ tramples down death by death. His deep and lasting identification with human life shows us the way that we may live our lives with Him.
I do not think we follow Christ’s example when we think about sharing the Gospel with another person. We often seek to ask another person to identify with us rather than trying to identify with them. And I think that our orientation to the process can bring with it all of the negative associations of colonization during the imperial period. It is one thing to plant a flag, aim military might and demand adherence to your language and customs; it is another thing to arrive simply, live your life as authentically as possible and to get to know your new neighbors.
And if we are going to invite Christ to take over anyone’s existence, let’s start with asking Him to totally take over us ourselves.