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Breaking through Theological Agoraphobia

posted January 11, 2016

Written by The Rev. Mike Wernick

I grew up in a Reform Jewish family, attended Hebrew School, had a Bar Mitzvah, and was confirmed in synagogue. But during confirmation class, the Spirit opened me up to something else. Something more. I am not saying that Judaism is inadequate, but that I was simply aware of more beyond its boundaries. Five years later, I learned Transcendental Meditation (which for me was the experience of Ps. 46:10). After that I majored in comparative religion at the University of Florida, and later lived in Fairfield, IA for six years, working in the community and participating in corporate meditation.

And then, while driving on a highway in Florida, I invited Jesus to be present in my heart and in my life…

And then, while driving on a highway in Florida, I invited Jesus to be present in my heart and in my life, because the weight of the world was too heavy on my shoulders. I learned about Family Systems so that my former wife and I could raise our daughter with less multi-generational dysfunction (and when she was about two years old, we were both baptized on the same day).

A few months later I was confirmed in the Episcopal Church, and eight years after that, I came out as a gay man. I believe this helped me to hear God’s call to ordained ministry, and I attended Bexley Hall Seminary and for little more than four years, have served as the Rector of Church of the Holy Cross and Pastor of Ascension Lutheran Church, two churches that worship together with liturgy drawn from both the Book of Common Prayer and the Evangelical Lutheran Worship.

The Rev. Mike Wernick is the newly appointed Ecumenical and Interfaith Officer of the Diocese of Eastern Michigan.

The Rev. Mike Wernick is the newly appointed Ecumenical and Interfaith Officer of the Diocese of Eastern Michigan.

While I was growing up, however, everything that I knew about Christianity came from televangelists. I was formed by and believed that what they said represented all of Christendom, both in theology and practice. I heard their fire and brimstone threats, but little if anything about God’s forgiving love. And I now feel strongly that their emphasis on belief––which is sometimes incomprehensible––minimizes a developing trust in one’s relationship with God in Christ.

I’m inclined to think that my sixteen-year-old’s intuition has held true: that there is more beyond those boundaries too. And I’ve come to believe that fundamentalism suffers from theological agoraphobia. Agoraphobia is an irrational fear of open or public spaces. And I understand theological agoraphobia to be any irrational fear of a more open approach to religion that “makes my god right and your god wrong.” It’s this perspective that motivates religious exclusivity, Religious Freedom Restoration Acts, are responsible for much of the violence around the world, and perpetuate a sense of ancient tribalism.

I believe that my faith journey has helped me transcend the surface levels of denomination and faith to find increasing unity amidst diversity (for example, Muslims are called to prayer five times a day while we have the Daily Offices). That the saving grace found in the mind of Christ––to which we are called––has more to do with a style of functioning than with any orthodoxy, more with a unitive consciousness that comes from the heart, and more with being a follower of The Way than it does with functioning just out of our heads.

That the saving grace found in the mind of Christ––to which we are called––has more to do with a style of functioning than with any orthodoxy, more with a unitive consciousness that comes from the heart, and more with being a follower of The Way than it does with functioning just out of our heads.

Presiding Bishop Katharine has said that “For us Christians, Jesus is our doorway to God; but for us to think that God can’t possibly act in some other way, is for us humans to put God in a very small box.”

And in the Gospel of John (17:21-23) Jesus says: “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

This love affirms that the divisions between us are lies. In fact, one insightful commentator wrote that when Satan showed Jesus all the kingdoms of the world, what was really shown was how all the kingdoms of the world operate, which is by accusation and division (the word satan means “the accuser,” and the word diablos (devil) means “the divider”). Jesus’ rejected this because of the unity and oneness he experiences with God and the Holy Spirit.

Early in 2015, The Rt. Rev. Whayne Hougland, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Michigan, invited me to serve as the Ecumenical and Interfaith Officer for the diocese. I was honored to be asked and it’s my joy to serve in this role. I’ve become active in an interfaith clergy council, the Kaufman Institute’s Year of Interfaith Service, and the Lutheran Anglican and Roman Catholic Conference. And late last year, Bishop Ousley extended that invitation to me as well, and I will do what I can (from here in lake-effect-snow land) to report on some of these ongoing efforts and achievements as I’m able.

In God’s One Peace,

The Rev. Mike Wernick