Dr. Gordon T. Smith is president of Ambrose University and Seminary in Calgary, and a professor of systematic and spiritual theology. He spoke with Karen Stiller about how we can best be the Church today.
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Faith Today: Gordon, your latest book has the subtitle “Leadership for the Church in a Secular Age” (Wisdom From Babylon, IVP, 2020). How would you describe what our secular age looks like?
Gordon T. Smith: I lean into the expertise of sociologists, historians and philosophers and in particular Charles Taylor [the Montreal philosopher] who coined the phrase "a secular age" to recognize fundamentally that something has shifted during our lifetimes. We need to be innovative and wise – discerning – in the way that we respond to that reality.
By secular age we mean an age in which the religious voice – and for those of us who are Christians it means the Christian voice – is now just one voice at the table, so to speak. It’s no longer the privileged voice. What is noteworthy about the secular voice, of course, is that it presumes there is no transcendent reality – that this is all that there is.
And so the civic square is a square in which the assumption is that there is no reality other than what you can taste, touch, feel and see. Those of us who believe there is another reality – a transcendent reality – are a minority voice at the table. Hopefully we’re a continuing voice at the table.
FT: Some people I think are more likely to say, "What are the opportunities here?" But sometimes the Church also gets a little defensive. What would you say to a Church that responds defensively to that new reality when we hear that we’re no longer a privileged voice?
GS: That’s actually quite common. We’re well aware of what’s been happening south of the border and how much of that is fuelled by a desire to keep – even if it means a theocracy, even if it means denying democracy – to sustain a Christian privileged voice. In the three big zones, the courts, the schools and the legislature (those tend to be the battlegrounds) to preserve Christian privilege.
Unfortunately, I think sometimes that means white privilege. Unfortunately, I think it means that it creates an adversarial posture to our culture, but I think it’s a losing cause. Secularity has been the driving force of Western society for more than a century. This is not a clock we’re going to turn back.
"Those of us who believe there is another reality – a transcendent reality – are a minority voice at the table. Hopefully we’re a continuing voice at the table."
And even if we were to have the argument about turning back the clock, Søren Kierkegaard would argue that it’s the wrong battle – that the greater battle is to sustain a distinctive Christian identity wherever we are located.
FT: You write about that distinctive Christian identity in ways that are so important and helpful. What does that distinctive Christian identity look like? What are the most important elements of it?
GS: Well, none of this is original to me. In this book I am curating a conversation. And I’m very impressed with a number of voices going back to perhaps Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Lesslie Newbigin in terms of how they talked about the Church. It is very much a corporate collective identity – that is we’re thinking of an ecclesial community. How can we cultivate a distinctive culture, a distinctive way of seeing, of thinking, that is an alternate community to the society in which we are a part?
And that does not mean that we are not fully embracing our world, but we embrace it as participants in an alternate society or an alternate community. And so we are living out the gospel as a faith community. And we have people like James K. A. Smith [the contemporary Canadian philosopher] who suggests that oftentimes the Church is secularized, rather than being the alternate community that is providing an alternate way of living and being in empowering people to be in the world.
So I have found it helpful to think of the Church as a liturgical community, that is we’re a worshipping community that sustains a vibrant sense of transcendence. We’re a teaching, learning community that is cultivating the Christian mind.
FT: You write in your book that "True worship cannot be one happy song after another," which I think was a brave thing to say, and true. That feels like you can show up as you are, how you are.
GS: There’s no doubt within my own religious subculture, as one pastor puts it, we’re just a happy-clappy bunch. And he was saying this in response to the propensity I think influenced by various movements of our day, to just sing happy songs because Jesus is alive.
We can sing happy songs. But what the Old Testament prophets tell us is that true joy is only found through the portal of lament. And without lament we will not know true joy. Mourning is the precursor to a resilient joy. So yes, lament is an in-dispensable part.
But I want to add though, it’s not just lament for our own experience. What I think needs to mark Sunday morning is that we feel the pain and fragmentation of our world. I think every Sunday needs to be praying for the deep pain and fragmentation of our world, aching with our American brothers and sisters for what happened on January 6, or within our own country, the pandemic that is running ramshod. And so we feel that lament.
Without lament we will not know true joy. Mourning is the precursor to a resilient joy.
We don’t end there. The genius of the Psalms is that we can locate our lament. It leads us not to despair, but it leads us to renewed hope because every Sunday we are reminded that Christ sits on the throne of the universe. And because of that confidence we can lament, and we can repent of our own failures that have led to reasons for why we are lamenting.
FT: Some of us get caught in the idea that church is about us and what we get on Sunday morning, and what you’re describing sounds like a downer. How do you respond to that?
GS: Fair enough. I mean, there’s no doubt we live in a consumerist society and all too easily the Church buys into that agenda that we’re going to make you feel good. We’re going to make this to be a place you want to be. You can either go to Starbucks and have an experience there, or you can come here and have an experience here.
My prayer is that our faith communities can actually tap deeper into the deep, human predicament. The deep anger of the human soul and that we are not living on the surface, but are deeply aware of our fragmentation, deeply aware of our sin, deeply aware of our brokenness and our deep pathologies.
And it may be that we don’t show up on Sunday morning until we realize how desperate we are for an external intervention, for God’s intervention, and that we cannot self-construct our lives. And I know that many people don’t walk in the door of the church until they’ve come to the end of their rope. It’s a pity.
But when they do they’re going to start a pilgrimage with us. It’s going to be a journey towards healing and wholeness, and we are willing here to name the deep fragmentation of our society.
Ephesians chapter 2 is a scathing description of the human predicament. But it’s against the backdrop of the deep confidence we have in the gospel. We do not preach the gospel unless we do so against the backdrop of the depth and breadth of the human predicament. And we need to not be shy about that.
I’ve just come from meeting with my GP. I have my full medical. I do not need him to say nice, warm things about me, although I was glad when he said a couple of good things. But he’s only a true doctor if he will say, "Gordon, there’s a problem here."
We only serve others faithfully within the Church if we’re willing to name sin, fragmentation, disease and our brokenness, because that’s the only way ultimately to healing.
FT: Can you explain the role of hospitality and how it means more than the potluck?
GS: I chuckle at your reference to the potluck. I was a pastor in the late ’70s, early ’80s in Peterborough, Ont. Once a month we had an evening service. We would come early, and women mainly (and occasionally a man) would prepare lasagna, and as the pastor of course I had to taste a sample of each. That was part of the evening.
We started to realize that this was where people started to invite neighbours and friends to join us. And we made that service less of an awkward bridge, and I was more intentional in how I spoke, to what I thought people were longing for and aspiring to. We realized that a meal may be the most significant thing we were doing. It wasn’t just for us.
I started to go back to see how frequently Jesus was at a table with others. For me, the most moving example is Jesus with Peter in John 21 where He makes breakfast for him, to realize the power of hospitality. And this has been a recurring theme in the Church, again no surprise.
What does it mean when, in actual fact, Indigenous young people feel uncomfortable in my space, in my world, in the university that I lead?
We go back to the Early Church and realize the Benedictine tradition viewed hospitality as the fundamental way by which they engaged their culture and society. They were never so disengaged that they were in an adversarial relationship, but it was always one of hospitality.
And we realize hospitality is part of the liturgy, our worship to the people that are next to us. Hospitality is also essential to our teaching and learning as a community, and my hospitality to you [is essential] as a fellow learner. [Ultimately] hospitality is essential to our engagement with our world.
Dorothy Bass [the Texas theologian and historian] has been making this point for two decades. Our society at large needs to experience us and see us not as judges and critics in an adversarial posture, but as people with open hands that are eager to build bridges, who are the most vocal supporters of Canada as a nation who welcomes the immigrant – that is, we are eager to view this as something that the Church needs to be taking the lead on, not resisting, and that we are advocates for the immigrant, the homeless.
And within my own context to understand what does it mean that I’m on the traditional lands of the Blackfoot people? What does it mean when, in actual fact, Indigenous young people feel uncomfortable in my space, in my world, in the university that I lead?
Mark and Cheryl Buchanan [here at Ambrose] make the point that hospitality may mean not them coming to us, that we are willing to feed them our stuff, but that we’re willing to go into their communities, and sit down with them and receive their gifts, that hospitality is always two ways. And it’s not about being pragmatic, that we’re hospitable so they will buy our product. It is to allow God to do God’s work in God’s time.
FT: Thank you, Gordon.
Listen to our conversation with Gordon T. Smith at www.FaithToday.ca/Podcasts. Photo taken for Faith Today by Jose Soriano.