This past January in Ecuador, in the middle of a conversation about Darwin and the Galapagos Islands, my taxi driver looked me in the eye and asked, “What religion are you?”
The first thing I wanted to answer this multitasking man was, “Do you mind keeping your eyes on the road? I’m not planning to meet my Maker quite yet.” The second was, “Could you slow down when you talk?” I was doing my best to keep up, but my Spanish-language skills were pretty elementary for the direction this conversation was heading.
What I said instead was, “Soy cristiana.” I am a Christian.
My response did not suffice for this inquisitive, thoughtful man. “Pero no es catolica?” “But you’re not Catholic?” he asked, with a mildly suspicious glance.
“No, I’m not Catholic, but I’m a Christian,” I insisted. I was not certain this was the time to go into detail about my Dutch West Michigan Reformed Church heritage. I wanted my driver to keep the car on the road.
“But what does that mean?” the man continued. “You don’t believe in the pope, right? But you do believe in Christ? The crucifixion? The resurrection? What else do you believe?”
As my brain searched for the words and the theology to answer, the philosopher behind the wheel began to list things so quickly that I could not keep up. I caught the name of Mary and then lost track before I stopped him to turn the tables.
“What do you believe?” I asked.
“I’m a Christian, but I’m not practicing,” he answered. “No me considero un catolico practicante.”
What this man meant was as mysterious to me as my claim of a true church without the pope was to him.
“YOU CAN GO TO CHURCH ANY TIME”
Regular church attendance is part of my faith practice even when I’m away from my own church and the traditions I’m accustomed to. Sometimes this has confused people. When I was in college, studying in Paris, my French Catholic host mother let me know what she thought of my attempting to attend church there.
“Sunday is the free day at all the museums. You can go to church any time. You won’t always be able to visit the Louvre.”
I travel to learn about the world beyond my own backyard, the vast world of God’s creation. So is it a contradiction, when on the road, to take time away from that exploration to attend church?
I don’t think so. Visiting churches different from my own has offered me opportunities to see how others in the Christian community make their faith real. It highlights what we have in common – the foundations of our shared Christianity – and it also points out important adiaphora, or nonfoundational elements of different faith expressions (more on that term in a moment).
PART OF A LARGER FAMILY
One Saturday evening my family was together on a rare treat, an anniversary celebration at a resort in Mexico. When I declared that I had talked with the concierge and found a church for us to attend the next morning – oh, the conversation that kicked off, the tension of spending a precious vacation morning hopping on a bus to attend a church service when the beach and pool beckoned.
“But Mom, we don’t speak Spanish.”
“But Mom, we’re not Catholic.”
The excuses for nonattendance multiplied quickly, as all of the children questioned my judgment. My husband raised his eyebrows but gamely supported my plans.
The church that Sunday morning was hot and steamy. Within minutes of our arrival, I could feel the sweat trickle down the small of my back. The traditions were not those we were accustomed to. From our entering the small sanctuary where some people sprinkled themselves with water (“What are they doing that for, Mom?” Anna had asked) to choosing a pew to sit in while others knelt and crossed themselves before entering the pew (“Should we do that too, Mom?”) to following the liturgy, which not only was in Spanish but had a different format than the order of worship we followed in our home church, things were different. We stumbled through the readings in Spanish and stumbled even more through the church traditions, trying to stand when everyone else stood, kneel when they knelt and sit when they sat.
No matter where I find myself, I can claim my identity as part of the Christian family.My family of six was crowded into a side aisle and surrounded by families with young children. Fathers bounced infants to keep them quiet – or somewhat quiet. Grandmothers handed candy to older children who sat drawing with crayons as the service proceeded. The young mother behind us struggled to entertain her hot, active, ornery toddler, and the older couple sitting to our left kept turning around to encourage her. We had been seated in the middle of an extended family. And finally, when the older woman beckoned to the child and smiled at us, we became part of that family as my husband turned around to receive the child from his mother’s arms and then to pass him down our pew, across each of us to the waiting arms of the smiling grandmother. The church had accepted us, had offered itself as our temporary home, had included us as part of its extended family. We might not have been comfortable from the start with the particulars of this church’s traditions, but we had found ourselves, in the end, part of a larger church family than we had dared hoped for.
That hot, sweaty morning represented the kind of experience I wish to find whenever I travel. It confirmed that no matter where I find myself, I can claim my identity as part of the Christian family. It reminded me, too, of something that’s obvious but easy to forget when my home church is the main place I worship: How much more expansive than Michigan is the family of God, how much diversity there is in the ways God is worshiped across the world.
HABIT OF FAITH
The first Sunday of the fall semester that I spent in Japan with my two youngest kids, Anna and David, the three of us headed to the big English-speaking church in Tokyo. This would be a different kind of church adventure, I realized, than the one I had cherished in Mexico. In Tokyo, I had not chosen to seek a Japanese-speaking church fellowship for our months away from home, but an English-speaking one. Nonetheless, I hoped to share with my children a number of things from our experience: a sense of consistency among Christians around the world, a realization that the basics of the Christian faith hold true across cultures. And, in contrast to that consistency, a curiosity about the different ways Christians around the world express their faith. Perhaps not least, the simple expression of habit in our faith, in this case, a demonstration that church attendance is part of our family’s habit wherever we find ourselves.
I packed a lot of goals into that morning.
The three of us wandered through the lobby, past some comfortable-looking couches and toward the sanctuary. A few greeters reached out to shake our hands, but the greetings seemed perfunctory. Most of the people in the lobby seemed locked into conversations with friends.
As we sat in the sanctuary waiting for the service to begin, I began to wonder if this had been such a good idea. Our chairs were way too close to each other for Western comfort. Every time Anna wiggled, her chair squeaked against the floor. David, bored but trying to sit still, asked to look through the bulletin that had been given to me as we entered the sanctuary.
We made it through the worship service, but the hour wasn’t memorable. I admired the beautiful blue stained glass windows stretching two stories up the front of the narrow sanctuary. I was tickled with the way a video of the children sitting on the floor at the front of the sanctuary was projected on the walls at the front of the church, so that we could watch as the kids wiggled and responded to the pastor’s words. I thought the blue border of the projection matched the stained glass in a tasteful and clever way.
I don’t remember anything about the sermon. I do remember that I didn’t feel any connection to the place, the words or the people.
At the end of the service, we were asked to stand up and introduce ourselves, a gesture that always leaves me uncomfortable. At the end of the service, I tried to talk with a family with young children Anna and David’s ages, but it was clear that this family had things to do, places to take their children and that we were slowing down their progress.
As we made our way out of the sanctuary, I changed gears.
“There’s a great tempura and noodle shop just down the road,” I whispered to David, appealing to his almost-constant hunger.
“And then we can go people-watch at Yoyogi Park,” I promised Anna, my little people-person.
We had made it through the service, but our attention was passing to other things. I was disappointed in my hopes to recreate the magic of our visit to church in Mexico.
POWER OF ADIAPHORA
Our connection to this new church community was far from immediate, but as time passed, it grew. The Sunday-school class after the worship service became a highlight of Anna’s week. There my very verbal daughter could relate in English rather than in elementary Japanese or pantomime, and there she could find a friend to invite home for the afternoon. This was a place where, after class, we could join in making onigiri – rice balls with small dried plums pressed into the centers – for lunch boxes that were delivered to homeless people in Tokyo.
As time went on, a group of young parents in the church became one of the greatest gifts of my being in Japan. These were the friends I could turn to if any crisis entered my single-mom life in Tokyo, the friends I was excited to introduce to my husband when he came to visit us there. This was the heterogeneous group of Christians with whom I found my roots in Japan – and with whom I was able to expand my root system. Each brought a different perspective on parenting, a different perspective on Christianity: There was no overriding consensus among this group.
The diversity of these young parents was representative of the church as a whole. On any given Sunday, I might be greeted by a woman from Africa in her formal ethnic dress or by a businessman from Korea. They both would have found the English language of this church to allow them to worship as Christians in Japan. The African-American young man from Atlanta came from a Baptist background, and the middle-aged British woman from an Anglican tradition, but here in Tokyo, they prayed together, sang together, read the Bible together, worshiped together.
My studies of early modern England had taught me a phrase that some Christians of that era used to deal with conflicting understandings of their faith: In the midst of enormous cultural pressure and religious persecution, they declared it unnecessary to argue about adiaphora – “things indifferent,” in its Church of England usage – things that weren’t intrinsic to the Christian faith. The word dated from classical Greece, and the medieval and early modern Christian community adapted it repeatedly. The concept offered a way to explain why Christians did not have to hunt down or imprison each other over differences. The word held real power.
I thought about adiaphora as I watched the many ways my church in Tokyo had, as a matter of course and without much to-do, seemed to overcome arguments that sometimes paralyzed my own church community. Music: Should it be traditional or contemporary, pipe organs, brass and bells or guitars and drum sets? Things indifferent! Let the music, all of it, rise to the heavens! Video projectors and screens: Will they enhance worshipers’ participation, or will they ruin the church’s aesthetics? Things indifferent! The members of my church in Tokyo had figured out the basics of the Christian faith they shared in common and how they could build a church based on those foundations. In one colorful, diverse community of faith, this church represents to me something that can serve as a blueprint for ecumenicity around the world.
I also thought about ways the concept of adiaphora can guide us in recognizing strengths inherent in different traditions. That is, once we identify what elements of our doctrine and practice are intrinsic to the Christian faith, we can think more fully about expressions of our faith that remain dear to our understanding of the church, even as they may remain indifferent to our concerns about salvation. In some ways, the very colorful coming-together in Tokyo of Christians from different traditions highlighted the diversity of language and habit and faith practices. Christians of different traditions need not try to ignore regional particularities nor whitewash the tensions that can arise from differences. Acknowledging what is adiaphora can allow us to respectfully identify faith practices that are particular strengths of others’ traditions without feeling threatened in our own practices.
Christianity is bigger than my little church in Michigan, I’ve often told my kids. And I feel my own understanding of God expand when I travel, when I worship with Christians around the world – and even when I visit Michigan churches with traditions different from my own.
Marla Lunderberg teaches English at Hope College, Holland, Michigan.
Photo: Cérémonie orthodoxe, Basilique du St Sépulcre, Jérusalem, Israël, by Etienne Valois/Flickr; used under Creative Commons License