An Ancient-Modern Approach to Religious Life

I set a goal for myself this summer that is quite atypical for me. I decided to read every page of the Mueller Report. Before you stop reading this article because you assume that this is going to be an article on politics, let me assure you that I am no political junkie. I don’t watch Fox News or MSNBC and I rarely read online articles on politics. Yet, somehow I began to believe that reading the Mueller Report was my civic duty. With every turn of the page, I’ve been observing my reaction and wondering why I felt so compelled.

As I have been reading Mueller’s report, I’ve also been thinking back to the series of articles about polarization that the Congregational Consulting Group wrote last spring. We defined polarization as “the process by which more and more people in a society come to hold opinions at the more extreme ends of the spectrum, while the number of people in the moderate center dwindles.”

At the same time our series was published, my beloved United Methodist Church was imploding in the aftermath of General Conference 2019. Since then I have been asking: How do we lessen polarization, “re-thicken” the middle and reclaim a space where we can stand in unity with a set of core values and graciously live together in spite of our differences? Is it wise or even possible to reclaim this middle space? Is fracturing into a million pieces the only way for something new to be born out of the rubble?

Moravian Wisdom

This journey reminded me of some ancient words that seem very relevant for our time.

In 1722, a small group of Bohemian Christians who had been living in northern Moravia as an illegal, underground remnant arrived at the estate of Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf, a nobleman raised in the tradition of Lutheran Pietism. They were refugees fleeing danger and persecution for their beliefs. Out of his commitment to the poor and those in need, Zinzendorf agreed to allow this group to settle on his lands in present-day Saxony in eastern Germany.

These refugees established a new village they called Herrnhut. They grew steadily until major disagreements emerged. By 1727, the community had divided into factions. They worked hard to resolve their differences and as a result underwent a dramatic transformation (similar to the Holy Spirit breakthrough that occurred at Pentecost) when “they learned to love one another.” This led to a major movement of renewal and mission during the 18th century.

One hundred years earlier, in 1617, Marco Antonio de Dominis, Archbishop of Spalato, wrote an anti-papal piece where he used a Latin phrase commonly translated as “unity in necessary things; freedom in doubtful things; love in all things.”

If you haven’t guessed by now, I’m talking about the history of the Moravian Church and the origins of an ancient motto that the Moravians hold dear. Every modern day Moravian knows this motto by heart – In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, love. These aren’t just nice words for the Moravians. These words are deeply embedded in their culture and identity. This understanding of essentials directs their behavior and the quality of their fellowship with each other. Moravians aren’t perfect and have their conflicts too but their approach to resolving their differences is healthier, from my perspective, than in many other political, corporate, or religious groups we see today.

Lessons learned

I had the privilege of being the consultant for the Northern Province of the Moravian Church as they were making their formal decisions on the topic of homosexuality in 2014. The experience changed my life and strengthened my faith. Today as a district superintendent in the United Methodist Church, I wish my denomination had fully embraced this motto, which our founder, John Wesley, borrowed from the Moravians.

Here are some things that I have learned from the Moravians:

  1. We can reclaim a middle space when we get clear on the essentials. This is actually an old mediation technique. When we name the things that are ultimately most important and identify the needs that we each have that act can call forth our better selves. Every group has sacred values and needs that must be honored. Naming these things reminds us of how high the stakes are and how much could be damaged if we continue behaving badly. Recently, I was mediating a conflict in a church that had collapsed into warring factions. It turned out that the youth room was the most comfortable space for us to meet which was fortuitous. Before the mediation began and before we centered ourselves in prayer, I invited the participants to go over to a wall that was filled from floor to ceiling with dozens of photos of the kids in order to remind the participants of what would be lost if they couldn’t settle their issues.
  2. Much of what we fight about falls into the category of “non-essentials.” Something essential may be buried deep below the surface, but we tend to fight about the trivial stuff. When we can stick with conversations long enough, we can peel back layers of non-essentials to find what is actually important. Unfortunately, people in conflict are anxious and impatient and often do not devote the time needed to uncover the essentials.
  3. How do groups hold all things together in love? Rev. Dr. Betsy Miller, provincial president of the Moravian Church (Northern Province) once said to me, “This is not written down anywhere, but it is almost a sin for a Moravian to leave the table.” In other words, when conflict happens, Moravians don’t even think about breaking fellowship. They come to the table trusting one another, not with “a heart of war.” (The Anatomy of Peace by the Arbinger Institute). The bonds that have linked these believers together for over 500 years are so strong they don’t take their toys and go home when they don’t get their way. In fact, the Moravians are one of the few Protestant, religious groups to have never experienced a merger or a schism.

The Moravians, through thoughtful and careful periods of prayer and discernment, became clear in 2014 that the issue of homosexuality was a non-essential to their faith, and therefore they could extend to one another freedom to hold differing views. Some refer to this as the “local choice” option; several other mainline denominations have taken this route. However, the difference for the Moravians in the Northern Province is that there was very little negative fallout or backlash after this decision was made.

As the vote was counted at the Provincial Synod in 2014, the Moravians did what they do best. Not knowing what was going to be decided, they stood in a circle holding hands—praying and singing in four- or even eight-part harmony. I think this beautifully illustrates how the Moravians embody unity. They don’t try to sing—or live—in forced unison. Instead they listen carefully to the other voices as they seek to blend together in rich harmony.

In this highly polarized age we are struggling to find the middle space and to define our “essentials” as a nation. My greatest fear is that we are becoming immune and complacent to outrageous behavior and rhetoric at the extremes. Will this change us forever, for better or worse? Can we discover—or re-discover—the essentials of dignity, respect, trust and justice for all? I am always the optimist—in part because I have seen so many awful situations turn around with hope, forgiveness and respect. I will continue to do my civic duty, fulfill my responsibilities as a District Superintendent, and do all I can to embrace both “the essentials” and those with whom I disagree.

Susan Nienaber embraces an unwavering dedication to the health, vitality and mission of congregations and of the leaders and institutions that support them. She serves as District Superintendent in the Minnesota Conference of the United Methodist Church, and occasionally consults with congregations on issues of conflict, dialogue, crisis, personnel, professional misconduct, leadership, and interpersonal dynamics.