I thoroughly enjoyed the two-day symposium sponsored by the unfortunately named Fuller Institute of Theology and Northwest Culture this past weekend in Seattle. (I say “unfortunately named” because, of course, the region in question, Cascadia, is in Canada‘s southwest, not “northwest.”)
I have rarely experienced such a stimulating meeting of scholars, pastors, activists, and other leaders seeking with obvious earnestness to help each other and learn from each other how to understand and serve this region we clearly all love so much. Patricia O’Connell Killen, doyen of historians of the religion of this region, was there, as was James Wellman, whose studies of liberal and evangelical churches in this region illuminate both. Christian schools across the board were well represented, from Catholic Gonzaga to conservative evangelical Multnomah, and from mainstream evangelical Trinity Western University to several secular universities, including “YouDub” itself. Activists of various sorts also featured prominently, from A Rocha to advocates of enlightened urban living to defenders of aboriginal rights to voices on behalf of Asian immigrants to ministers among the downtown poor.
I disagreed with some of what I heard (as is my wont) but I agreed with far more. So here are some of the choice bits from my notebook:
• Convenor Matthew Kaemingk polled the room (of over 200 attendees) to ask, “Who was born in this region?” Eighty per cent testified that they had been born somewhere else.
• Patricia O’Connell Killen was quoted as reminding us that “the ‘none zone’ is not the ‘no zone'”: people here have wide and sometimes deep spiritual interests, even as only a minority connect with a Proper Noun Religion.
• Several speakers reminded us to look for where God is already working and to join in there, rather than to feel we have to start something all on our own. Sara Jane Roxburgh Walker encouraged us in particular to ask not only “church-questions” but also “God-questions” in this regard.
• Jim Wellman waxed enthusiastic, even revivalistic (he must have called on the audience for “amens” half-a-dozen times at least!), to celebrate the region as “the Abundant Zone,” a zone rich not only in natural beauty but in human ingenuity. Instead of simply resisting the nature mysticism of the region, why not, as Paul did on Mars Hill, declare who the “Unknown God” of all this beauty and human potential actually is?
• Several speakers pointed to the “emotional energy” both offered and unleashed by the popular churches of the region…as well as by the Seahawks. (The Canadians there were mostly unmoved by the latter reference until we translated it into “the Canucks.” And even then, our mood was tempered by sadness and worry…. But I digress.) This emotional energy was not naïvely praised, but it was recognized as a significant factor in attracting people to any public event, and deserves attention as a simple anthropological fact regarding the growth of certain congregations here.
• A consultation on Asian-American/Canadian churches brought into focus not only the tensions and disconnections between first- and second-generation Asians here, but also the many Asians who came as older children and adolescents who identify as “1.5” immigrants and therefore feel uncomfortable in churches or church services aimed at either “1.0” or “2.0.” Intergenerational tensions are present in every North American church, of course, but the layering on of linguistic differences, experiential differences (the experience of immigration itself is just sui generis), and cultural differences (Old Country vs. New) means that Asian churches have extraordinary challenges. And they will keep having them so long as immigration from China, Korea, Japan, and elsewhere continues.
• Mark Driscoll and his church surfaced from time to time, with speakers generally taking pains to say they were not taking potshots. But the travails he represents raised the crucial general question, What counts as success?
• A crucial tension that emerged was that between learning from and enjoying the culture of the region while also bringing the gospel to bear on it—a gospel that judges, adds to, condemns, and replaces elements of the culture even as it also fulfills and is wonderfully expressed by elements of the culture. A. J. Swoboda spoke of “edge species” that can live in two adjoining ecosystems as symbolic of the way many conferees feel about Cascadian culture and their local church.
• The conference skewed heavily toward what I would call “progressive” or “left-of-centre” evangelicals, orthodox-to-liberal mainline Protestants, and moderate-to-liberal Catholics. We all were aware of how very middle-class and mostly white the conference was, recognizing that many of the participants hailed from “Hipsterville.” Derek McNeil, himself one of the few African-Americans present, wisely cautioned us that to expand the scope and participation of such meetings would be all to the good, but would require a greater tolerance for diversity…and conflict, and confrontation, I expect he implied.
But all that can come in the next conference. This one started a crucial, rich, and congenial conversation. I was delighted by how well Regent College was represented, even as the College didn’t join in with the official sponsors, alas: half-a-dozen of the speakers, at least, were Regent grads and another handful were Regent professors or had taught in our summer programs, while a dozen attendees identified themselves to me as having attended Regent for at least a summer course.
Kudos, then, to Fuller and to the Murdoch Charitable Trust for initiating this conversation. The website, Christ and Cascadia, will keep featuring articles by the conference participants, as well as from many others. A volume of papers may emerge from this conference. And we hope that another conference will appear on the horizon soon.
Meanwhile, I wish the Seahawks well, even as I’m more interested in the Canucks’ preseason….