Re-wilding Christianity: An Emerging Model of Regeneration for a Domesticated Church of Empire

In the Beginning was the conversation
and the conversation was with God
and the conversation was God.
—John 1:1-3

Religion, and Christianity in particular, as a system within the larger system of human culture, is undergoing a massive death and regeneration story. While other sectors of society are experimenting with new, regenerative socio-economic and political models, Christianity has remained mostly static and unchanging. For several decades, media, census data, and church closings have warned that the church has been slowly dying in America, but few regenerative religious models have emerged that embrace the deeper shift happening in the rest of society. A tiny fringe, hardly noticed by the aging institutional church, is emerging from a thread of radicals calling from the wilderness throughout history who seemed to understand that the kingdom of heaven is a whole lot more like Joanna Macy’s Great Turning and John Fullerton’s Regenerative Civilization than the centuries of destructive disconnection with nature and ‘others’ promulgated by Empire-Christianity.

In tracing back how Christian philosophies and theologies have contributed to our current crises, it’s not hard to see that the radical conversion that Jesus modeled was reshaped by men with clear political agendas to domesticate its people and tame the message of a profound re-ordering of society. The church throughout history has so aligned itself with the values and worldview of Empire that it has become the very thing it was first birthed to resist. By the 4th century, when the nascent Christian groups, once oppressed, became the official church of the State, translations of sacred texts began twisting original intent, re-shaping their image of God, separating the masses from the powerful elite, and placing our spiritual home beyond this life, thereby disconnecting humans from one another and from the rest of the natural world.

One pivotal text proves to be dramatically important to the unfolding of a disconnected theology and points toward emerging models of transformation and conversion. John 1:1-4 built on a common Greek notion of logos as a “kind of intelligent life force that pervades the whole universe, a divine reason implicit in the cosmos, ordering it and giving it form and meaning,” a concept common to ancient Indian, Egyptian, Chinese and Persian philosophical systems.

The writer of the gospel of John, in re-framing the logos ideology of his time, expressed it in terms of relationship rather than reason and intimacy rather than order. The first Latin translators of the Johannine gospel understood this and translated logos as sermo which, in English, means something like an intimate conversation, a dynamic that holds together all things, a reciprocal relationship that evolves and connects. “In the beginning was the Conversation” produces an entirely different worldview where human beings value other voices in dialogue, whether of a different race, gender, or tribe, or a different species, and participates with the creative spirit alive in the Universe. Quantum biologists and evolutionary scientists use this precise language to describe the “deep conversation that holds our biosystems together.” Somehow the Johannine community intuited what scientists now understand but the Church continues to miss: the reality that we are all connected by a continuing Holy Conversation inside ourselves, between one another, with the cosmos, and with all non-human others.

By the 4th century, the sacred texts, themselves, were used by men fighting for control in a new church-state, pressing for a controllable God and a controllable populace distilled in convenient creeds. Sermo/conversation would no longer serve their agenda. Therefore, logos was translated to verbum instead, meaning one singular word, one static unchangeable authority, one entity, one noun. “In the beginning was the Word.” This ONE word, this ONE translation, has had unimaginable impact on the way people understand who God is, who we are in the universe, and how we live our lives and build our societies.

How different would our situation be today if the revolutionary “conversation that holds together all things” mindset guided how our societies developed? What implications does a God who is a Conversation between all things have for gathering as a church community?

New churches like those engaged in the Forest Church movement are beginning to experiment with an untamed, undomesticated church whose focus is disconnecting with the oppressive systems of empire and re-membering itself into the life-giving systems of nature where it is already interconnected. These churches meet in the wild, where most people experience God anyway. The praxis of this emergent model consist not of dogmas and platitudes, but of dogwoods and platypus. There was a time for the building of cathedrals of stone and cinderblock. The return, the regenerative movement, is toward cathedrals of trees and watersheds, where the Earth Worm preaches and the Blue Jays lead the call and response.

Wilderness as a context for spiritual formation is a practice that teaches respect for all of Earth’s members, where they enter the conversation as essential characters, among countless others, in the ongoing evolutionary story of healing and restoration of our souls and our watersheds in this time of profound crisis. A new and ancient story is being birthed and re-birthed: relationship with a God who is not just out there somewhere but right here, embedded in all things.