The River of Faith
Contrary to the popular saying, I believe it is un familiarity, not familiarity, that breeds contempt. This occurs not only when we encounter different cultures and religious beliefs, but also when we discover differing understandings, traditions, and practices of our Christian faith. Confronted with these variations, many Christians tend to withdraw from fellow believers in a veiled, yet very real, form of bias toward those who do not share the same interpretation of the history and practice of Christianity.
This proves sadly ironic given the history of orthodox Christian faith, which reveals a full, rich, diverse, and awe-inspiring representation of Christian devotion through many unique expressions. In his book Streams of Living Water (HarperCollins, 1998), noted author and one-time APU faculty member Richard Foster outlines what he sees as six “streams” that form the “river” of Christian faith. To illustrate these streams, Foster provides a simple tree-chart tracking the history of Christianity over the past two millennia. We tend to forget that for the first thousand years after the resurrection of Christ, there existed primarily one main branch of Christian faith, expressed through the Catholic Church. It was not until 1054 CE, when the East-West Schism occurred and the Eastern Orthodox Church was established, that Christianity faced its first fork in the river of Christian religion. The second fork came in 1517 CE—commonly known as the Protestant Reformation, first led by Martin Luther and later developed by John Calvin. Thus, 16 centuries after the birth of the Church, we find three widely accepted, yet unique, streams of orthodox Christian faith at work in our world. APU traces its roots in this evolution of Christian understanding to the Protestant line of faith, where John Wesley, an Anglican, endeavored to reform the British expression of Christianity, which had attempted to find a “middle fork” between Protestant and Catholic streams of Christian life and faith.
Yet Foster reminds us that each of these tributaries springs from the same main body of water. The source of our faith carries a few consistent similarities in its tributaries. There exists a consistent affirmation of the supremacy of Christ, His birth, death, resurrection, and Lordship over all Creation through the establishment of the Kingdom of God and the development of Christ’s disciples. How Christ rules over this Kingdom, and how disciples are developed and for what specific purposes, remains a matter of debate and exploration within the differing Christian streams of thought and devotion.
Foster posits that these six streams represent the rich history and diverse tapestry of Christian life: Contemplative, Holiness, Charismatic, Social Justice, Evangelical, and Incarnational/Sacramental. In other words, these streams focus on either a life of meditation and prayer; living holy lives; spirit empowerment; justice, mercy, and compassion; sharing the Truth and Good News in the Gospel of Jesus Christ; or the discovery, celebration, and experience of the sacred and incarnational nature of life with God. Foster also argues that this diverse assortment of orthodox Christian expression is a great gift that allows us to celebrate and experience each stream as it flows into the mighty river of God’s Kingdom.
For instance, the Pentecostal/Charismatic stream of Christian faith, which emphasizes the necessity of engaging the Holy Spirit’s empowerment and guidance for all of life and living, does not mean only “card-carrying” Pentecostals are interested in the work of the Holy Spirit. In fact, many throughout the six streams are equally devoted to seeking the power and guidance of the Holy Spirit in their lives. Many Pentecostals are also very interested in the sacramental nature of their Christian worship, or intent on leading holy lives of obedience to the ways of Christ, or devoted to justice and compassion. The same should be said for those who come to their faith from the Evangelical traditions and have been deeply devoted to sharing the Gospel—we should not assume that celebrating, honoring, and sharing the Word of God excludes dedication to a life of prayer or devotion to justice and mercy.
Most of us first learn to swim by jumping into a single stream of faith. Once we travel down that waterway for a while, we begin to encounter others who have learned to navigate different waters that may be new to us, but which may have a degree of longevity and global reach far exceeding that of our own faith tradition. At this point of discovery, we can choose humble curiosity and the excitement of learning, or we can choose fear and withdrawal, or even contempt.
As a nondenominational university devoted to many streams of Christian tradition, APU extends generosity and hospitality in order to widen our banks from a single stream into a river of inclusive Christian grace, understanding, and maturity. There is no benefit to fostering competition between streams and nothing to gain from succumbing to our fears and engaging in the unseemly posturing of “better/best” arguments. Instead, in Christlike fashion, we can seize the opportunity and the blessing to recognize and celebrate the many unique, historical expressions and visions of Christian life and experience that surround us in our classes, on our athletic fields, in our departments, and in our relationships, while also honoring and sharing our own faith tradition. When we do, then we truly represent the best of what a “universal” Christian education promises. Such a university has the distinct opportunity to become the city on a hill that cannot be hidden. One that shines the light of God’s wisdom, love, devotion, peace, humility, and commitment to truth that our world so desperately longs to experience.
Posted: January 12, 2015