I can still remember the first lecture of the first class I ever took at Duke Divinity School. Dr. Geoffrey Wainwright, In a very proper and professorial British accent lectured on “the scandal of particularity.”
You might ask, “What is ‘the scandal of particularity?’”. . . go on. . . ask. . . please. . .
(sigh). . . no one ever asks.
Well, Dr. Wainwright and I would like you to know anyway. “The scandal of particularity” is all of the messy challenges that come about when followers of Jesus say that the God of all creation, “The Ground and Source of all Being,” was also somehow mysteriously embodied in a vulnerable baby who pooped his diapers.
Ok, it is a bit more complicated than this, but this is one of the most “scandalous” parts and this is the time of the year when followers of Jesus begin to tell this first story in the first chapter of The Scandal of Particularity.
There are some other good parts too. There are lots of parts where Jesus pisses off good church people by saying the people they thought were doomed to Hell were going to be first in heaven. There are parts where people who think they don’t matter and have very little power become center stage and examples of great love. There is a very sad part where Jesus, after pissing off too many politically powerful people, because of all of that stuff I just talked about, is executed as a violent revolutionary. Then, his inner circle of followers loses all hope and run for their lives. Until, in the midst of their fear he returns to them in a new kind of body in some new and mysterious way giving them the courage to risk their lives as the “scandal of particularity” somehow, mysteriously lives and continues in them.
Why am I telling you this? Because I am a part of this “scandal of particularity.” I am a follower of Jesus. I was baptized and raised in a United Methodist Church in South Mississippi. I have been loved and shaped by people from this tradition and those experiences have shaped me in profoundly positive and meaningful ways. None of these experiences or relationships are general. They are all particular. This is who I am, and I cannot talk about “faith” “meaning” “love” or “spirituality” without this particularity being a part of that conversation. Even if I do not explicitly say it, this particularity is there.
I believe that at the heart of all of the mysterious, yet very real, experience of spirituality is deep relationship. I also believe everyone is spiritual, whether or not they choose to use that language or not. To grow spiritually is to grow in relationship.
Growing in relationship is inherently a practice of vulnerability. I only have one honest self to offer you and, if it is an honest self, it is also a “particular” self. If you reject it I do not have another authentic self to offer you.
I also know that my particular tradition of faith is not perfect. Christians, including me, do not and have not always acted like Jesus. Worse yet, sometimes we have not even recognized and repented of it. Sadly, I and others in my faith tradition, have sometimes turned “the scandal of particularity” into “the scandal of exclusion”.
However, “The scandal of particularity,” is really about God’s inclusion of all people. It begins with a story of angels proclaiming Good News to “all people” and a story of Persian astrologers welcomed into the home of the holy family as some of their first guests. There is no indication that they ever changed their religion before or after returning home.
I deeply value my particular experience in the United Methodist Church. I believe God was and is at work in if for good in me and in the world. However, Jesus did not invite people to become “United Methodists” or even “Christians” he invited people to become beautifully human. The first followers of Jesus were simply called followers of “The Way.”
You and I each have our own “scandal of particularity”. We all come from and speak from a particular experience of faith. Maybe yours has a formal name, worldview, and rituals. Maybe it does not. Maybe you are still trying to figure out your own relationship with your religious tradition. Maybe you have no desire to be a part of a formal religious tradition. Maybe you do not believe in God.
Still you, like me, live by faith. You, like me, live as if some things are more true and more real than others. You, like me, are more than just the sum of your biological parts, and you, like me, cannot ultimately test or prove the kind of things that give life its ultimate meaning. We are all a part of the same mystery of being. However, we all live in this mystery in “particular” ways. While we may be able to talk about spirituality “in general,” we all live into our spirituality “in particular.”
I get very bored with conversations about spirituality in general. Of course, if I have to choose between religious strife and religious tolerance, I will choose tolerance every time. However, I believe most of us long for something much more meaningful.
In my own experience, the kinds of conversations that have most transformed me in life giving ways, are those in which someone has trusted me with their own “scandal of particularity” while also allowing me to share my own. These are always sacred conversations and I often leave such conversations with a deeper since of connection and care for that person.
As Director of Leadership and Spiritual Life, I want to foster such conversations. I also want to model this in my own conversations with others. This blog is one such conversation. Often I will be speaking from my own particular religious tradition. As I mentioned earlier, even if I do not specifically allude to it, I am sure it will be there. It is a fundamental part of what makes me who I am. I find this tradition rational, inspiring, and compelling. It is the best way I know to become the person I was created to be.
At the same time, I expect that anyone who has thoughtfully chosen another worldview or religious tradition, has also done so for similar reasons. So, we all have our own “scandal of particularity.” Because of this we often try to avoid the topic of religion. We may fear that the conversation will end in argument and division and, sometimes, it does. However, I have found that when there is trust and respect and the goal is understanding and not to “convert,” some of the most sacred conversations that I have ever had have happened when someone has trusted me with their own “scandal of particularity” and also given me the gift of understanding mine.
Your partner in hope and healing,