Listen To Article
Leading up to the 2016 Brexit referendum to decide if the United Kingdom (UK) should leave or remain in the European Union (EU), Boris Johnson — the now exiting prime minister — wrote two letters. In one he argued that the UK should remain in the EU; in the other that it should leave.
He chose to advocate to leave and went on to become the face of the conservative establishment’s campaign. There is little doubt that his advocating to leave forged the path for him to become prime minister.
The letters Johnson wrote could be read as a genuine, rational debate in search of “the truth.” Don’t be deceived. Boris Johnson is much smarter than that. He understands how truth works. Truth is a narrative that holds you. It’s something you inhabit, like a culture or a language. His letters were crafting a narrative.
Johnson was cynically stitching together a winning narrative — a narrative that could capture and hold just enough voters for him to win. This narrative harped on deep grievances and prejudices among much of the British public. Those immigrants who pick your fruit have actually stolen your jobs. Those educated Brussels bureaucrats mock you as they look down their noses and steal from you. If you vote to leave, you can take control of your destiny again.
Johnson didn’t have to do much to compile this narrative. He was able to simply string together these latent sentiments and capitalize on them for his political ends.
What intrigues me most about Brexit, however, is not actually Johnson. Instead, it is the British who did not favor leaving the EU, and specifically how the Brexit outcome affected their sense of identity — that narrative truth that partly held them.
Some of what it had meant to be a citizen of the UK was caught up in the narrative that whatever Europe is — the audacious experiment that is the EU — they were a part of it. But now, the narrative that held them ruptured. A truth that generations of UK citizens had identified with, no longer applied. They were forced to embark on a new journey in search of a different narrative to inhabit.
Over the past few years, have the narratives of the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRCNA) and the Reformed Church in America (RCA) ruptured, too? Do you find yourself, like UK citizens, on a forced journey — dare I say a pilgrimage — to find a different narrative to inhabit?
I know many church leaders who, like Boris Johnson, are figuratively writing their own letters. Unlike the cynicism of Johnson, however, these leaders are genuinely debating remaining or leaving. Weekly, it feels as though I hear ministers, elders, deacons, or professors muttering about the struggles with their choice to stay or leave the CRCNA or the RCA.
And as for the invested congregant in these denominations, a slow-moving referendum of voting by one’s feet is afoot. From what I can see in the RCA, progressives, liberals, and even many moderate congregants are heading for the door. Some are “quiet quitting” — no longer being so active. Others shout righteously as they slam the door behind them. All this despite the reality that most of the radical conservatives in the RCA are also leaving for their new, trendy denominational homes, letting everyone else put out the fires they so zealously stoked for years.
I feel rather like those UK citizens — no longer held by the narrative I found in these institutions, and now in search of a different narrative in a distant place. Wherever beauty took truth and goodness. I’m on an unanticipated pilgrimage. Are you?
I’ll be transparent, I genuinely don’t know the specifics that will turn up on the journey ahead — the journey in search of a different narrative. But I’ll venture to say two things.
First, after a lovely conversation with a dear friend, one thing has become clear to me: it will all take time. Physical and temporal breathing room is a must, and frankly unavoidable. I’m hoping that, among others, James K.A. Smith’s new book, How to Inhabit Time: Understanding the Past, Facing the Future, Living Faithfully NOW, will help.
Second, I’ll leave you with one of my all-time favorite quotes from my all-time favorite theologian, Saint Bonaventure. At the end of his mystical instruction in his book Itinerarium Mentis in Deum or The Journey of the Soul into God, Bonaventure comes to the end of knowledge that can be communicated, and so he directs the reader to perilously leap into the darkness where God is found so that we might find loving union with Christ, saying:
If you wish to know how these things may come about, ask grace, not learning; desire, not intelligence; the groaning of prayer, not diligence in reading; the Bridegroom, not the teacher; God, not people; darkness, not clarity; not light, but the fire which completely enflames and which transfers one into God through its completeness—in anointing and its most burning affection—this fire is indeed God and His forge is in Jerusalem.
The Truth we seek to be held by is the God who already tells us we belong. Yet, we need to go on this pilgrimage to Jerusalem so we may be forged to live for such a time as this.
Friends on “the way” in search of a different narrative to hold and be held by, whether you remain or leave, take your time with the journey ahead, and know that what we seek is most likely in a darkness beyond mere knowledge; we will need to take a leap, so follow Bonaventure’s instruction.
I’m curious, so I’d invite you in the comments below to reflect on and share the contours of the narratives that once held you within the CRCNA or RCA. Historically Reformed? Ecumenical impulse? Analytical piety? Systemic thinking? Others?
Header photo: the steeples of Dimnent Memorial Chapel of Hope College & Mulder Chapel of Western Theological Seminary, Holland, Michigan.
Photo by Cameron Carley