Sara Wenger Shenk is a theologian, preacher and the author of six books. She served as president of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) for almost ten years, where her blog, “Practicing Reconciliation,” was lauded as a steady and deeply theological resource in anxious and polarized times. Shenk earned degrees from Eastern Mennonite University, Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia. For nine years, she and her husband, Gerald Shenk, served as students and teachers in the former Yugoslavia, and she has served on the faculty and administration of Eastern Mennonite Seminary.
It’s hard for me to talk about my faith. Risky. Vulnerable. Laden with worry. But from what I’ve observed, it’s even harder for most others I know.
My hesitancy to talk about faith arises out of all kinds of worries. Who am I to presume to say anything about God? With Job, I confess: “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. … therefore I despise myself, and repent …” (Job 42:3-6 ESV). Whether one ponders the earth’s age (over 4 billion years), the limitless expanding cosmos or the beauty of complex life forms, God in many respects is unfathomable. And because that’s how I feel, how does what I say about God not sound simply gullible and glib? How do the ways I describe a relationship with God differ from those whose piety parades in contrived Christianese and artificially constructed certainties? And how do I speak honestly without everyone — whether so-called conservatives, progressives or whoever — jumping on me for having said something that offended them, misrepresented the Bible, or oppressed people groups or the faith family I belong to? And how do I talk about faith when the Bible and Christian language have been used countless times to harm, colonize, oppress, destroy and slaughter? And how does what I say about faith stand up in the face of unbearable personal sorrow and alongside the massive suffering of genocide and desecration of our earth home? You get the idea.
“Tongue-Tied: Learning the Lost Art of Talking about Faith” begins this way: “For a lot of us, it’s awkward to talk about God. Or whether we believe in God, and if so, what kind of God we believe in. Many of us who call ourselves Christian talk effortlessly about sports, movies, politics, fashion, cool gadgets, pop music, our jobs and how we’re feeling. But when it comes to describing our faith or whether we relate to God in our daily lives, we clam up. We rarely talk with each other about whether we pray or engage in spiritual practices. We’re not very tuned in to how God may be active in our world and how we might watch for evidence of an animating force for good in our circles of connection.”
Because it’s hard for me to talk about faith — as it is for many people I know — “Tongue-Tied” is my invitation for us to fumble together toward finding language that is more authentic, candid and robust. I don’t have easy answers, but I believe we can begin by exploring together what it is that makes us reluctant to talk about faith — or our lack of faith. In that confessional space, we may discover how the gifts of curiosity and wonder provide oxygen for conversation. In the brave space we hold open for each other, we may discover that faith, at its core, is about a love attachment, not correct systems of belief or membership rules or who’s right or wrong. It’s a love story about the God who came near in Jesus Christ. In that oxygenated, safe space, we may dare to tell stories about where we have experienced God’s transforming spirit in our lives.
Rather than faith-talk being something that is only “done in private between consenting adults,” as sociologist Peter Berger put it, we can learn to talk about faith with each other in ways that are free and honest. We can name our fears, and vulnerably acknowledge the grief of disappointments, failures and heartbreak — and how these impact our faith. We can salt our talk with tears and astonishment. We can describe Scriptures that have moved us, and talk about prayer practices that ground us. We can give thanks for the ways scientists open windows into the intricate beauty and complexity of the world.
We can describe how our love attachment to Jesus that fires our justice and peacemaking work is the heart beat for service and mission.
When we vulnerably speak what we have come to believe about God from the wisdom of the faith tradition, and what we know from our own bodies, minds and spirits, we will provide children and grandchildren with anchoring language to resist manipulation by the superstitious, scaremongers of the world. We will give ourselves language with the gravitas needed to repent of family, community and earth-destroying patterns of living. We will regain moral resolve to help save the world for future generations. So we are no longer “tossed to and fro,” writes the apostle Paul, “and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming,” but instead, “speak the truth in love” to each other and so grow up in every way into “the full stature of Christ,” (Ephesians 4:13-15 NRSV).
The views and opinions expressed in this blog belong to the author and are not intended to represent the views of the MC USA Executive Board or staff.
Mennonite Church USA, Mennonite Church Canada and Herald Press are partnering to encourage every Mennonite to read carefully selected books to equip the church during this time. This fall, the CommonRead book is “Tongue-Tied: Learning the Lost Art of Talking About Faith” by Sara Wenger Shenk. Learn more here: https://www.mennomedia.org/commonread/.