From Dominion to Communion
by Gregory Thompson
In my last article, I noted that Christians are in the midst of a cultural moment that is tormented by a tension between two realities. On the one hand, that the Christian church is—always and everywhere—to devote itself to repairing the harm done by wickedness, greed, and violence in our midst. And yet on the other hand, that much of the Christian church in America is—and has long been—one of the greatest justifiers and perpetrators of these very things. This torment is now leading many Christians to ask ourselves a deeply important question: What should we do when we realize that the forms of Christianity we inherited are either insufficient for—or opposed to—the Christian mission to which we are called?
This, as I said, is not a new question. Indeed it is a perennial question for Christians across time and space who have found themselves holding a Christian inheritance that is insufficient for the reality of their Christian calling. And not only this, these have long proved to be the very moments in which some of the most creative and impactful theological, liturgical, and practical work has emerged. In the 20th century alone, we saw an extraordinary cloud of witnesses step forward to undertake exactly this sort of work. Howard Thurman writing in the face of white supremacy. Dietrich Bonhoeffer standing against Christian nationalism. Mother Teresa contending with greed by centering the poor. Oscar Romero preaching against government oppression. Martin Luther King, Jr. re-articulating the call of justice. Lesslie Newbigin contending with the “coming secular”. Willie James Jennings unmasking the perversity of the colonial imagination. Each of these—and so many others—not only took up the question above but devoted their lives to answering it with creativity and courage. Each of us is called to do the same.
As I have wrestled with this question over the past 20 years, I have come to believe that the church in America, if it is to truly be a people of repair, must deliberately undergo a number of shifts in both the substance and the structure of its life. In what follows—both in the paragraphs below and in the weeks to come—I seek to explore these shifts and their meaning for Christian faithfulness in our time.
From Dominion to Communion: A Shift in Purpose
The first shift I want to consider, the shift from Dominion to Communion, is a fundamental shift in how many of us understand the very purpose of our faith.
When I first embraced the Christian faith in the late 1980s, one of the first lessons I learned is that the purpose of my life is to transform my culture in the name of Christ. It was a welcome lesson, a lesson that brought significant meaning and motivation to a very ordinary life.
Over the years I learned that this transformational impulse went by a number of different names: the “creation mandate,” the “cultural mandate,” “covenantal obligation,” or, in more explicitly political contexts, “Christian Dominionism.” And I also learned that Christians not only described this purpose in different ways but actually conceived of it in different ways. Some understood the transformation of culture in largely political terms, seeking transformation through the grassroots energy and the powerful instrumentalities of the state. Others spoke largely in cultural terms, seeking transformation through the creation of art, literature, film, and music—what Andy Crouch helpfully refers to as Culture Making. Still others spoke in what might be called institutional terms, seeking cultural transformation through the deployment of institutional access and agency across a host of social domains. While these various visions often engaged critically with one another, each was animated by a shared conviction about the purpose of the Christian faith: to transform the world by exercising dominion in God’s name and by God’s power.
Looking back now, I see that this lesson was well learned. Over the years I have written articles, given lectures, shaped institutions, and made personal decisions in light of this early transformationalist conviction. Indeed, I do so—in various ways—to this day. This is because I continue to believe that the love of God and love of neighbor ought to take shape in the world in ways that are at once faithful and impactful.
That said, over the past several years, I have had a growing disquiet about the ways in which this transformationalist impulse has taken shape in my life and, more importantly, in the larger American church.
Part of this disquiet stems from the ways that this impulse indexes Christian faithfulness to “cultural impact” and the subtle ways that this indexing denigrates the faithfulness of those with comparatively slight vocational or institutional agency. Part of this disquiet stems from the breathless restlessness inherent in a constant desire for change, and the ways that this restlessness can obstruct the attainment of things like gratitude and contentment. But the largest part of this disquiet—by a large measure—stems from the ways in which the transformationalist impulse breeds something like an instinctive obsession not only for power but for the power to win over one’s cultural foes; a drive to impose one’s own will on the world and call it “redemptive.” Each of these is sadly, broadly, and readily observable among us, especially in ministries (and there is a host of them) devoted—through a variety of means—to “the transformation of culture.”
Over the past two decades, my observation of these disquieting tendencies led me to search for an alternative way of understanding the purpose of the Christian faith. In time, this search led me to the contemplative Christian tradition. This was not an obvious place to seek an alternative. After all, much of the daily life of the contemplative tradition—especially as it is expressed in monastic communities—is explicitly transformational; an effort to transform the minds, hearts, bodies, relationships, and hourly habits of the Christian life.
And yet, as I submerged myself in this tradition I began to understand that while the contemplative tradition values transformation—both personal and cultural—as an important element of the life of faith, it does not see it as the purpose of that life. That purpose is, rather, communion with God and neighbor. That is, for contemplative writers such as Augustine, Benedict, Julian of Norwich, Bernard, Aelred, Gueric, and Lawrence, the basic account of the purpose of the Christian life was mystical communion—the real and holy experience of intimacy with God and with others through the ordinary habits of life in the world.
This is not to say that these traditions disavowed the call to engage constructively with the realities of our life in the world. On the contrary, some of these communities deliberately created styles of architecture, structures of economy, practices of education, and habits of hospitality that were not only beneficial to their neighbors but also transformative for culture. Nor is it to say that the social impulses of the contemplative community were only exemplary in every regard. On the contrary, there are more than a few examples of contemplative communities laboring in support of religious war. It is to say, however, that at its best, this tradition provides the theological resources for us to engage with the world, not out of an anxious or angry impulse toward dominion, but out of a mystical expression of communion with God, and communion with those around us.
What might this mean? In my own case, this shift completely changed the very character of my life. This is because I began to see my life of faith not first as an expression of dominion, but as an occasion for communion, an occasion for dwelling with God and participating in His love for my neighbors in the world. My learning became a time of being quietly taught by God. My speaking became occasions for searching for his words. My hosting became moments of welcoming people in his name. My suffering became an occasion of participation in his own sorrow. My work became a participation in God’s love for the world and for all who dwell within it. My life, in other words, was fundamentally reoriented from an expression of dominion to an occasion for communion.
This reorientation has led me to the deep conviction that the only way for the contemporary church to escape some of the worst excesses of our ecclesial moment—our obsession with power, our idolization of impact, our addiction to cultural conflict—and to become the people of repair that we are called to be, is for us to reappraise the way the theology of dominion functions in our personal and corporate lives, and to recover the ancient conviction that the purpose of our faith is, in the end, not dominion but communion. For it is only as we pursue communion that we can fully enter into the world as a transformative presence; a community that labors not against our neighbors in war, but with God, for repair, in hopes that our neighbors might rejoice.
Thompson will explore more shifts needed to repair the world in the weeks to come.